The Protestant Reformation is without a doubt one of the most significant events in history. Even non-Christian scholars can agree that the Reformation had a profound political and philosophical impact on the Western world. For Christians the import of this event is most squarely set around the theological and ecclesiastical revolutions which took place and are perhaps best exemplified in the five solas.
Yet often obscured behind the theological and societal watershed that was the Reformation is another reformation almost as widespread and long-reaching in its impact. This was Luther’s – albeit unintentional – reformation of marriage.
‘Unintentional reformation’ could perhaps be the the theme of Martin Luther‘s life.
Luther didn’t intend to start a theological reformation. The 95 Theses – for instance – were in no way a shot across the bow. They came before Luther’s breakthrough on justification and in them he didn’t say the church was wrong. In the Theses Luther was less questioning doctrines or authority and more questioning abuses in the system, acting out his responsibilities as a pastor and echoing the concerns of others such as Erasmus or the 5th Lateran Council.
To understand just how drastic Luther’s marital reformation was it is necessary to understand the environment prior to him. Ever since Augustine envisioned sex as the ultimate temptation there was a general commending of celibacy as a higher level of piety. Others such as Jerome went even further than Augustine.
In his Letter XXII to Eustachia Jerome laid out his views on virginity and marriage, specifically of virginity being the higher state than marriage. The letter is written to praise and encourage Eustachia in taking the veil of a virgin. The letter illuminates some of the views circulating in the early church:
“the reward of virginity is hundredfold; of widowhood, sixtyfold, and of married life, thirtyfold… Eve was a virgin in Paradise; marriage only came after the coats of skins. Your homeland is paradise. Keep, therefore, your birthright and say, ‘Return unto your rest, O my soul!’ For you to know that virginity is natural to man while marriage is a result of the fall, consider that marriage produces virgins, returning in the fruit what it had lost in the root…
And so I praise marriage, because it brings forth virgins. Thus do I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.”
Jerome sets out a clear hierarchy of states: the virgin is the most hallowed, then the widow, and least of all marriage (which for Jerome is largely only honored insofar as it produces virgins). Marriage is the result of the fall, not the ideal. This is of course a terrible reading of the first chapters of Genesis, not lest since the command to be fruitful and multiply is given before the fall; it’s unclear how Jerome expected Adam and Eve to fulfill this command without a loss of virginity.
The influence of Jerome and those like him can be clearly seen in the monastic and convent movements which sprung up throughout the medieval period. Vows of celibacy were a standard part of joining a monastery or becoming a nun. Indeed, celibacy was a standard requirement for all offices in the church, to include priests, bishops and popes. One part of the logic of these requirements was clear: celibacy was a higher level of spirituality than marriage, thus those in monastic orders or church office necessarily needed to be celibate.
For a thousand years before Luther the single celibate life had been upheld as the Christian ideal. Luther’s true break with Rome didn’t come in 1517 with the 95 Theses, but around 1520, with his publishing of three works: The Address to Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of the Christian.
The first of these marked Luther’s thorough rejection of clerical celibacy. This move did not happen in isolation but rather went along with Luther’s breakthrough on the priesthood of all believers. Here Luther had realized that there should be no fundamental difference between clergy and laity, that there was no spiritual hierarchy.
Through this Luther lifts up marriage and family life from the degraded state where it had existed for a thousand years, driving the point home that you can be spiritual and married at the same time.
Luther’s Own Marriage
While Luther uplifted and advocated marriage for others he was largely uninterested in getting married himself. Around 1522 he wrote a book on monastic vows that happened to be read by a group of nine nuns at Nimbschen, a Cistercian nunnery near Leipzig. One of these nuns was a young woman named Katharine (Katie) von Bora.
Luther’s book transformed the perspectives of the nuns and a number decided that they no longer believed in the teachings of Rome and wanted out to escape the nunnery and their vows. At first they appealed to their families to get them but were refused. Finally they turned to Luther himself who – as legend has it – colluded with a local herring delivery man to free the women, hiding the nuns in empty fish barrels and smuggling them out.
With the nuns freed Luther took it upon himself to help the women find work and marriage. Eight of these he quickly found husbands for, all except Katie. Twice he had husbands lined up but the first (a friend of Luther’s named Hieronymus Baumgärtner, who she desperately liked) was dissuaded by his family, and she didn’t care the second (Kaspar Glatz); she informed Luther’s friend Nicolaus von Amsdorf that she would marry him or Luther, but not Kasper.
Thus on June 13th of 1525 Luther was married to the Katherine von Bora. This was despite the advice of Philip Melanchton who thought it would hurt the movement (for hundreds of years Catholics thought the reformation was just a desire to get married). As Luther reflected early on this marriage was not one of a genuine desire to be married or attraction but one of duty and pity, yet he soon developed a deep and passionate love for his wife and they had an excellent marriage such that he could say “I would not exchange Katie for France or for Venice, because God has given her to me…” Luther had once summarized his reasons for getting married as being to please his father, to rile the pope and to spite the Devil, and to seal his witness before martyrdom, noting that “I have made the angels laugh and the devils weep.”
He had six children and was the type of father who could hold a theology book open while kids are playing at his feet. In this regard Luther stood out amongst theologians – such as Jonathan Edwards – who too often allowed their work to crowd out their relationships.
As Roland Bainton summarized Luther’s marriage, “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.”
June 13th is therefore a significant date in the history of marriage. Luther not only affected a theological reformation but a revolution in family life and was a major force in an overhaul of the concept of marriage. After Luther the Christian can be married and spiritual at the same time, a sociological revolution which was almost as transformational as his theological one.
One caveat is important here. For a thousand years before Luther marriage was seen as hindrance to true spirituality. Now for five-hundred years after Luther we’ve moved to the opposite extreme. Nowadays marriage is by-and-large seen as a key step on the path toward maturity and even as an unspoken requirement for ministry.
Rather than having arrived at a more balanced understanding we have swung the pendulum to the other side, raising up marriage as the ideal and seeing singleness as something to be remedied. Singles have been pushed to the margins. Churches have little idea what to do with single adults in their church apart from tell them not to have sex and put them into groups to try and get them married so that they can become ‘normal’.
We should praise Luther for casting off the yoke of celibacy, but we should be wary of simply replacing the medieval idealization of celibacy with the contemporary idealization of marriage. This is the task of our current generation, of reclaiming the glory of singleness without impinging the glory of marriage, of exploring the equality of these states and figuring out how to fully integrate all those within the church, not just the married and not just the single. The latter is the Catholic error, the former is the Protestant one; both are to be avoided. Here’s to hoping we can recapture the honor and normality of singleness without losing that of marriage.
[Christena Cleveland’s article Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Unmarried Adults is a great start on this topic.]
A member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society. Ordained PCA. MDiv.
May or may not be a Time Lord.