On this final episode of season one of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss Martin Luther’s “monkery,” sacred stairs, and a biography R.C. Sproul read over and over again.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: It’s nice to see you again, Dr. Sproul. Today, you’ve pulled a little paperback off of your shelf. It’s a classic biography of Martin Luther called Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton.
R.C. SPROUL: I’ve probably owned ten different copies of this, at least. I keep passing them out. And I’ve read the book again and again and again. I have a particular love for and interest in Luther, and I’ve read probably ten different biographies of Luther, at least. Yet I keep coming back to Bainton’s, because it is the real deal.
NICHOLS: We’ve talked about this before. In 2017, we saw a slew of biographies coming out with the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. I read most of them, though not quite all of them. They just don’t hold a candle to Bainton. There’s just something about Bainton—what he does and how he approaches Luther.
SPROUL: First of all, Bainton is an outstanding, world-class historian. He’s careful with the facts.
NICHOLS: He knows what he’s doing.
SPROUL: He knows what he’s talking about. This biography gets in Luther’s skin.
NICHOLS: It sort of brings him to life?
SPROUL: It’s not hagiography. He notices Luther’s warts and all, but at the same time—I don’t want to sound trite and use the old cliché—but he makes Luther come alive. Luther’s not just some dusty memorial in the past. When you read this, you feel the weight of oppression and anxiety that Luther went through and the real rigors and torture of the monastery. Luther said, “If any monk would ever get to heaven through monkery, it would be me.” Luther would only get to the place of utter frustration with the law of God. He was a brilliant student of jurisprudence. I’ve written about the insanity of Luther, but it is important to remember that he was so deeply disturbed by his understanding of God. On one occasion, he said, “I love God. Sometimes I hate him.” The early Luther would have agreed with Johannes Agricola’s sentiment, “To the gallows with Moses.” He had so much distress and unrelenting guilt. There was no relief, and add to that his assault from Satan, the Anfectung, the unbridled assault of the devil that Luther really experienced in his life.
NICHOLS: Yes. Bainton captures this.
SPROUL: He does capture it. All the drama of going to the Diet of Worms. All of his friends saying, “Don’t do this,” after the previous disputations at Leipzig and Augsburg. A summit meeting was called by the emperor and the princes of the church to meet in Worms in Germany. As you know, the emperor gave him safe conduct to go to that meeting, assuring him with his imperial decree that he would not be captured, punished, imprisoned, or killed. All of Luther’s friends said: “Don’t believe it; don’t even think about going there. This whole thing is nothing but devils.” You know what he replied? “If there are as many devils as there are red tiles on the roofs of those buildings,” he said, “I am going to go.”
NICHOLS: There’s a lot of red tiles.
SPROUL: If you have ever been over there, you see every house was made with red tiles on the roof. We are talking about millions of red tiles. So, he went. His prayer the night before he gave his answer to the council, when he was faltering and dispirited—that whole dimension and the historical background is so rich with all of the strands that converged to produce Luther, the man, and the Reformation, the movement. Luther didn’t set out to start a reformation. It was almost by accident. We don’t like to use that language, but . . .
NICHOLS: We have it on record now. R.C. Sproul said, “It was by accident.”
SPROUL: I said, “Almost.” Karl Barth observed that when Luther tacked up the Ninety-Five Theses, he was like a blind man who lost his balance in the bell tower. He reached out for something to grab hold of, and he happened to grab the church bell, and it woke up the whole world. The historical value of this book is incredible.
NICHOLS: You were in Rome recently, and you were at the Scala Sancta. We actually captured some of this on video—people going up and down the stairs on their knees.
SPROUL: The first time I went to St. John Lateran Basilica, where they have the Scala Sancta, I wanted to see them. Our tour guide asked us where we wanted to go in Rome, and the number one place I wanted to go was St. John Lateran Basilica because of what Luther’s experience at the sacred stairs meant to him. When Luther had his crisis in 1510, when he went to Rome, he went up the stairs on his knees saying the Our Father, and when he got to the top of the stairs and stood up, he said, “Who knows if it is true?” He had a real crisis of faith. So I wanted to see that place. The very first time I walked into that building, the first thing that struck me was the big signs on both sides of the staircase. There was a wide staircase, a very wide staircase. In fact, they even have a second staircase that goes around it in case people can’t get up past the people on the Scala Sancta.
NICHOLS: That’s right.
SPROUL: The first thing I saw was this sign telling of the value of the indulgences to the pilgrim.
NICHOLS: Nothing has changed.
SPROUL: We’re not talking about the sixteenth century here.
NICHOLS: That’s right. We’re talking about the value of indulgences in the twenty-first century.
SPROUL: I looked at the stairs, and I wanted to walk up them on my knees, but I couldn’t get anywhere near them. There was no square inch of that staircase that was free of pilgrims on their knees—little old ladies and old men.
NICHOLS: It’s so tragic.
SPROUL: Crippled people—it was tragic.
NICHOLS: When Luther stood there in the sixteenth century, he was utterly disillusioned. The thing about it is, Bainton brings these kinds of moments in Luther’s life out.
SPROUL: He captures them all.
NICHOLS: He is a great writer, and it’s a great story.
NICHOLS: You were talking about Luther’s struggles while he was at Erfurt. I was thinking of this too. Erfurt’s a charming town. This beautiful little river runs through it, and there are cobblestone streets. Luther probably just wanted to wipe that decade out of his life if he could, the years he spent in Erfurt.
SPROUL: You know, of course, the story of Jan Hus?
SPROUL: Hus’ name was . . .
NICHOLS: “The goose.”
SPROUL: In Czech, it means “goose.” He was condemned at the Council of Constance and was burned at the stake. He said: “You may cook this goose, but there will come a swan someday. You are not going to be able to silence him.” Hus was martyred. Today, you can go over there and see that they have all these symbols of Luther, and they have him symbolized as the swan.
NICHOLS: A swan?
NICHOLS: That is probably the least likely animal he would be.
SPROUL: Exactly. The supreme irony is that the bishop who had pronounced the verdict on Hus at Constance is buried directly under the altar where Luther was ordained in Erfurt.
SPROUL: Can you believe that? God has a sense of humor. The bishop’s last words in response to Hus were “Yeah? over my dead body.” It was over his dead body.
NICHOLS: Maybe he didn’t say that.
SPROUL: I like to make it up anyway.
NICHOLS: Let’s just say he did. Well, this has been a great time to visit with you, Dr. Sproul. You are right, Bainton’s Here I Stand, you just need to get it. You need to read it. Pass it on. Glad you still have this copy in your library. I’m sure you look at it.
NICHOLS: Thanks for your time.
SPROUL: You’re welcome. Thank you, Stephen.