Interview with the church historian Volker Leppin from Tübingen

Section from "The Last Judgement" by Hieronymus Bosch
Section from "The Last Judgement" by Hieronymus Bosch (Foto: Wikimedia Commons)


Martin Luther was born into the world of the late Middle Ages – this is undoubtedly true, but it does not tell us a lot. For "the Middle Ages" have never really existed. This is the opinion of Volker Leppin, professor for church history at department for Evangelical Lutheran theology at the University of Tübingen and member of the scientific advisory board of the Luther Decade. He explains, how much Martin Luther was rooted in the intellectual climate of his time, and at which point he created something entirely new – a theology, which had the strength to laugh at death and the devil, and out of which, consequently, a new church emerged.

Luther2017: What kind of world was that of the late Middle Ages?

Volker Leppin: It was incredibly full of tensions, and much more multifaceted then we think. There existed convinced, faithful followers of the Pope, as well as others, who only relied to their princes or on the council of their city, and for whom the Pope was far away. For example, some city churches employed predicants, who preached in the language of the people and not in the official Latin of the church. There were those who bought themselves out of their sins by means of letters of indulgence, and there were others, for whom such a promise was unthinkable. All in all, there existed a relatively broad range of partly contradictory faith doctrines and positions. Martin Luther, however, was born during this time into a family constellation through which he learned rather a lot of what we today connect with "Dark Ages".

For example?

Leppin:  His father was an important figure for him. Through him, he learned about a punitive, superior God, in front of whom it was impossible to hold one's own. He suffered very much from this.

Can the faith doctrine of that time be pinpointed at all? What kind of piety was characteristic for the late Middle Ages, and how does it differ from ours?

Leppin: A central difference was certainly the fact that religion was present in all aspects of society. The Middle Ages did not know distance from religion, as we do today. The ruler, too, had to do with religion. Therefore the medieval people always perceived themselves as being placed before God. But that did not mean the same for everybody. Some lived in deep fear of the Last Judgement, others felt their own sinfulness within, independent from these notions of judgement, but they also experienced a deep closeness to God.

Why was something like the selling of indulgences so successful during the Middle Ages?

Leppin:  Because indulgence gave a wonderful security and fulfilled a strong need. The great sorrow and uncertainty of many medieval people had to do with the question: what will happen after death? Here, indulgence presented a solution. With the money one gave to the church, one was not only able to shorten one's own time in purgatory, but also that of one's ancestors, who had already died. This was a very special opportunity, and the church promoted it heavily. But there also existed harsh criticism of that practice, as early as since the mid-15th century.

Could this criticism be uttered publicly?

Leppin:  As long as it did not touch questions of offices within the church, this was possible, and the debate was held openly. From the perspective of Luther's adversaries, there was the additional difficulty that his theses against indulgences contained at the same time critical allusions to the Pope himself and the papal leadership of the church. Also, Luther had to do with especially ambitious followers of the Pope, for example the Dominican monk Silvester Prierias, who, from spring 1518 onwards, was commissioned to produce the theological expert evidence for the lawsuit against Luther.

Did something like frustration about the church exist at all during the Middle Ages?

Leppin:  Not so much frustration about the institution itself, but about individual office holders. As it is customary today to complain about politics at the regulars' table, it was normal during the 14th and 15th century to get agitated about clerics. They were considered to be sexually tainted, greedy for money, corrupt. Therefore there existed a broad movement of anti-clericalism, which is exemplified in many writings of that time.

Did the church leadership try to rectify this deplorable state of affairs?

Leppin:  There were some isolated attempts to achieve reformation, but the fundamental problem was that these offences were also committed by the churches top leadership. The whole papacy of the Renaissance ages verifies this. An especially colourful character was Pope Alexander VI., who held this office until 1503, shortly before the Reformation. He was a politician who valued power above all else, making sure that his own children got good positions in the hierarchy of the church and that one of his sons became Cardinal.

Which traditions could Martin Luther relate to with his theology? Where does it have its roots?

Leppin: During his student years, Luther grew up with late scholastic theology. But by and by he turned away from it, because it was strongly influenced by the philosophy of antiquity, especially that of Aristotle. The reactions he made use of came from humanism and its reconnection to the sources, which means the Bible. He got a lot of impulses from his confessor Johann Staupitz, who promoted a theology of piety, which meant to open up faith life to the people in such a way that the can understand it. Through Staupitz and others, Luther also got to know mysticism, which influenced him a lot. This is how he understood better that God is not encountered through the clerical mediation of the church, but directly. 

Can it be pinpointed when Luther leaves these lines of tradition and creates something new?

Leppin: Basically, it is his way to do theology. Luther once said that he was looking for the "core of the nut" of theology. This core becomes at first tangible in 1518/19. This was when Luther go to the heart of his justification teachings, according to which we receive salvation only due to God's grace. This it not one sentence amidst many others, but the fundamental from which Luther was able to unfold everything else. Such a centred theology has not appeared ever before. From here, he can also design conclusions for the instruction in activities in church politics. For example, when the general priesthood is justified on the basis of the doctrine of justification. Thus, everyone, including princes and city councils, were able, and felt able, to give shape to the church. And suddenly there is a pivotal point where a reformatory movement emerges out of a new theology.

With his picturesque language, Luther laughed at, and mocked, death and the devil and thus depicted what kind of freedom comes from justification out of pure grace. Was it this experience, as well as the joyfulness connected with it, that has made his theology so attractive for the people during his time?

Leppin:  Certainly. This is well reflected in the flysheets of that time, which were something like the daily newspapers today. They are documents of what moved the people in that age. And the people were truly moved by this message: God makes you free. This was debated in the pubs and on the streets of the free cities. People were profoundly relieved and stirred.

Your conclusion: Is the reformation at home in the Middle Ages, or is it the beginning of a completely new age?

Leppin:  I always say that it grows out of the Middle Ages. The Reformation has its deep roots in the Middle Ages, but then it unfolds in a way that points far beyond medieval times towards a new form of the church and a variety of denominations. After the Reformation, we have a totally different kind of Christianity than before. This has definitely not been a rupture that happened during just a few days or weeks, but an organic process of change.


Volker Leppin
Volker Leppin (Foto: epd-bild/Gerhard Schindler)

Prof. Dr. Volker Leppin is Professor for church history at the department for Evangelical Lutheran theology of the University of Tübingen and member of the scientific advisory committee of the Luther Decade. He researches about the history of the Reformation and the biography of Martin Luther.