Freedom Born in a Black Tower

The Black Cloister at the Augustinian Monastery in Wittenberg, Germany

My good friend Bryan Barrett recently put me on to a story I had never read: the Tower of the Black Cloister. In this tower, the history of the world turned a profound corner.

Most people view the Reformation as a theological phenomenon, and certainly it was that. But the Reformation had many effects beyond the theological. Prior to the Reformation, the world was uniformly poor. Western nations were divided socially (upper class vs. working class) and spiritually (church workers vs. secular workers). The Reformation had a leveling effect: millions were lifted out of poverty, a new middle class was created. In addition, a vision for universal education was born, as was a determination to give the common man access to the Scriptures in the vernacular.

The Reformation did not begin when a German monk nailed 95 theses (protesting unbiblical church practices such as the selling of indulgences) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Rather, it began with the rebirth of the monk himself: Martin Luther. His personal transformation led to the cultural transformation of Europe and the western world. That Reformation fire was born in Luther’s  heart in his study in the Tower of the Black Cloister of the Augustinian Monastery in Wittenberg.

As he read Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther’s eyes were opened to the meaning of “the righteousness of God.” God’s righteousness had always brought terror to his heart. Luther knew himself to be a sinner under the judgment of a righteous God. Then he read Romans 1:17:

“For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (emphasis added)

Paired with that was what he read in Romans 3:21-24:

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (emphasis added)

The words leaped off the page to Luther’s heart. The power brought the collapse of a mental stronghold–salvation by works—and replaced it with the truth of salvation by faith. Luther came to understand that salvation by the works of the law brings bondage. But salvation by grace through the finished work of Christ leads to freedom. That freedom, beginning in the heart, brought release and transformation to nation after nation.

Indeed, God can use one life to alter the course of history. Read in Luther’s own words, the story of the change that God brought in his life in his study in the Black Cloister of the Monastery in Wittenberg.

- Darrow Miller

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4 Responses to Freedom Born in a Black Tower

  1. Jim Byrne says:

    Martin Luther was born in a middle class home and had access to a university education. So his personal transformation did not create these conditions, it reflected them and possibly reinforced or accelerated them. One might argue, as Rodney Stark does, that Christianity, especially in the Augustinian tradition created these kinds of conditions, but in that case, while Luther may have been a milestone, he was not an obvious turning point, being born 15 centuries into the Christian era and 11 centuries into the Augustinian era. And in any event, the Lutheran movement was almost extinguished less than 2 years after the Reformer’s death, war continuing to disrupt his influence until the end of the 30 year conflict near the mid 17th century.

    Even theologically, Luther stands in much more continuity with his late medieval predecessors than is commonly recognized. See the work of Heiko Oberman and others.

    None of this is meant to diminish Luther’s role as the most significant of the multitude of protestant reformers, perhaps even as the last of the “Church Fathers,” born out of due time. I have a deep appreciation for his doctrine of justification and two kingdoms understanding of Christ’s rule.

    But consider Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, who brought Indian and Arabic mathematical insights into Roman Christianity a few centuries before Luther. In doing so, he provided a powerful tool to train bookkeepers. Such would seem to be evidence that Europe was well on a trajectory toward the development of a middle class and widespread education already in the 13th century. Luther, of course, flourished in the 16th.

    • Hi Jim

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. They are always welcome!

      I appreciate your point that what the world has called the “dark ages” had its Christians and pioneers who were in the process of shaping history and that “Europe was well on a trajectory toward the development of a middle class and widespread education already in the 13th century.”

      Your word “trajectory” is so helpful as it implies movement and progress. I have read Stark’s very powerful book The Victory of Reason that argues the Dark Ages were not all that dark. I have heard Stark’s argument from others as well (for instance I think of Jones’ and Wilson’s Angels In the Architecture) and find it fascinating. Not being an historian myself, I do not have the background to affirm or deny the veracity of their arguments. I assume that they are correct.

      My sense is that there is a progressive development of the impact of Christianity, from the early churches creating a “new man” made in the image of God, to the dignity of women, to the challenge of slavery, to the narrative of freedom, all leading to the overthrow of Rome. Progress in the arts, economics, math, and science continued in the so-called dark ages and then to the explosion of science, the arts, and profound social, economic, and political changes that followed the Reformation. I certainly am not arguing that history is not progressive. I would see nothing in conflict with what I have said here an Stark’s argument.

      Perhaps the way to say it is that the Reformation brought a revolution that had its genesis with Abraham hearing the Voice, leaving the animistic culture of Ur of the Chaldeas, dreaming of a world never before seen (Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews) through God’s creating a model nation in Israel (Wright’s commentary on Deuteronomy) continuing with Christ and the early church and continued through the “dark ages” and the Reformation … a revolution that is still bringing changes to societies today.

      So in short, I would not be denying the progress that occurred in the so-called Dark Ages. And I would not make a profound break between the Dark Ages and the rest of history. History is progressive. And this from a laymen, not a scholar of history.

      - Darrow Miller

  2. Jim Byrne says:

    Darrow,

    One of my objections to a lot of worldview-ism is that it commonly becomes so deductive that it fails to deal inductively with the specific cases that contradict it. The meta-narrative forms a Procrustean bed for the facts of the case. I’m sure that I have something like a world view, but part of my “world view” says that reality is messy and does not always fit into my neat categories. It is kind of like when you pack a suitcase with too many clothes, and some of them stick out of the cracks. My perspective is always finite and fallen, at least in a vestigial way.

    So let’s look at Luther. He wrote the 95 theses in 1517. But he himself, in the link you posted, says that his insight on imputed righteousness came in 1519. He now thinks that he sees it more clearly than Augustine did, but that is to say that Augustine also saw it, and so did Staupitz, Luther’s Augustinian mentor. So if I hear you correctly, Luther’s personal transformation (1519) took place after the Reformation (1517) and the indulgence controversy. Historians debate this all the time: Luther’s insight into justification has been dated to anytime from 1515 to 1535 by academics of various stripes.

    Now when I read Luther’s account, to which you supplied a link, I hear him exclaiming that he has found a gate to paradise. He’s died and gone to heaven, or in Pauline terms, been buried and raised with Christ. In Petrine terms, he’s rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory.

    However, the subtext of your post appears to be that this led to improved social and economic conditions. Whether or not that is true, one of the things that strikes me is that Luther does not make this connection at all. Of course, his pastoral writing has a great deal of wonderful things to say about how a good Christian is to live in the earthly kingdom as a productive citizen. But he wants to be justified by faith in Christ, not by the social and cultural good of his theology and personal transformation. In his Heidelberg Disputation, a year earlier, (1518 if I recall) he had contrasted a theology of the cross, with a theology of glory. In your account, you appear to take him, a self-conscious theologian of the cross, and make him a poster boy for a theology of glory — even if an unconscious one.

    That may be fine, and I may be wrong.
    Be blessed :D.

  3. Lynn Scrutton says:

    Thank you for the above comments, Jim and Darrow; I enjoy learning more of the history of Christianity. It makes me think beyond what I am reading in the Scriptures. What was written in the book of Romans is what most persuaded me towards Christianity many years ago, and continues to be a source of encouragement in difficult days.

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