Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Martin Luther's Reform of Marriage, Part 9

This is the final installation in a continuing series on Martin Luther and his marriage, exerpted from the forthcoming book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

The Impact of Luther on Marriage and the Home

Few marriages have had a greater impact upon the church and upon the culture than that of Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora. Luther himself marveled at the transformation he had witnessed in his lifetime:

When I was a boy, the wicked and impure practice of celibacy had made marriage so disreputable that I believed that I could not even think about the life of married people without sinning. Everybody was fully persuaded that anyone who intended to lead a holy life acceptable to God could not get married but had to live as a celibate and take the vow of celibacy. Thus many who had been husbands became either monks or priests after their wives had died. Therefore it was a work necessary and useful for the church when men saw to it that through the Word of God marriage again came to be respected and that it received the praises it deserved. As a result, by the grace of God now everyone declares that it is something good and holy to live with one’s wife in harmony and peace.[1]

It is not as though distortions of the marital institution disappeared because of the marriage of Martin Luther to Katherine von Bora. But they helped to lay a theological foundation and an exemplary model that would forever impact how we view marriage. Marital laws were changed[2] and the understanding of the Protestant family was transformed

In assessing Luther’s cultural impact with respect to marriage, Bainton writes:

The Luther who got married in order to testify to his faith actually founded a home and did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries.[3]

Thomas Miller comes to a similar conclusion:

Luther established marriage as a centerpiece of evangelical social organization in a remarkably brief time. The changes he introduced, however, altered permanently Western attitudes toward marriage. . . . [O]ur civilization has been shaped by the pattern of family life that he established.[4]

Luther preached passionately on marriage for years as a single man. And likely he would have left an impact on the state of marriage even if he had remained single. But the fact that he did enter into marriage made his teaching and preaching on these issues all the more significant. It enabled Luther not only to teach God’s Word on this subject, but to model it as well. We must therefore look to God and thank him for Martin Luther—but also for a young nun who had the grace and courage to follow her convictions, her conscience, and the authoritative word of Christ.

[1] LW 1:135.

[2] For a detailed study of the Lutheran reformers’ transformation of the Roman Catholic theology and law of marriage, see John Witte, Jr. “The Reformation of Marriage Law in Martin Luther’s Germany: Its Significance Then and Now,” The Journal of Law and Religion 4, no. 2 (1986): 293-351.

[3] Bainton, Here I Stand, 233.

[4] Thomas F. Miller, “Luther: Father of the Christian Home,” Christianity Today (October 21, 1983): 17.