Martin Luther’s Revolt: A Psychological Examination

Several of the key moves in Luther’s life were made as a rebellious answer to the authority he encountered at the time, including entering the monastery and founding his own church.


This coming year will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses onto the door of the collegiate church of Wittenberg, traditionally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

It has been a cause of some concern and consternation for many Catholics to have learned that there will be Catholic (even papal) participation in various events connected to this anniversary. What could be celebrated? The break-up of Catholic unity? The demise of Christendom? The impetus for rationalism and secularism? To commemorate, perhaps, but surely not to celebrate. Even many serious Protestant clergy and theologians have insisted that one must not celebrate something that brought on such dire (and probably undesired, unforeseen) consequences. To commemorate would necessarily mean studying the causes and the unfolding of events – learning from the errors and repenting of the sins of any and all that rent the seamless garment of Christ. This is no more and no less than what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council urged and what St. John Paul II often referred to as “the healing of memories.” Which means genuine honesty. That honesty was carried on in spades at the Council of Trent and in the Counter-Reformation, both of which admitted that true problems had crept into the Church and needed correction.

Since Luther is such a pivotal character in the drama of the sixteenth century, it behooves all to put him under the microscope for closer observation. To be sure, Luther was a brilliant theologian. He was also deeply imbued with the understanding of the absolute holiness of God, the centrality of Christ in the work of our salvation, and the concomitant need for the Church to be the spotless Bride of the Redeemer which St. Paul calls her.

All that said, Luther was also a vicious anti-Semite; one given to exaggeration and extremes, taking no prisoners; a crude man whose language would be constantly “bleeped” even on modern television. The ex-nun whom he took as a wife he treated with arrogance and disdain. His apparent inability to be faithful to his vow of chastity drove him to near-despair. To say that he was a conflicted individual is to succumb to understatement (as late as 1521, he was still willing to admit the necessity of the Petrine office in the Church). Even the most ardent supporter of the Reformation would never accuse Luther of being a model of Christian holiness.

So much of the negative side of the ledger must be attributed to “personality” difficulties of the leader of the revolt against ecclesiastical authority. As a seminarian over four decades ago, in March 1971, I wrote a paper on Luther’s psychological incapacity to accept the papacy. It discusses Luther’s relationship with the papacy and attempts to understand his negative reaction to papal authority in the light of his psychological deficiencies, stemming from early childhood and youth. After considerations of youthful fear, depression and despair we shall see how these events led up to the break with Rome and indeed, that the break was inevitable.

A harsh childhood

It is no deep secret or information privy to the most proficient psychologist that the first world experienced by the newborn infant is the most important world in which he will ever live since this microcosm of society symbolizes all of society to him. The family life into which young Martin was born was none too happy. Old Hans Luther was a hard-working miner and expected the same attitudes and values in his children. The normal parental disappointment when established goals for children are not attained went beyond normal proportions since Martin could remember serious disagreements leading to weeks of non-communication. Severe beatings were daily fare for Martin at the hands of both father and mother.

Young Martin had an acute memory and later in life commented, “My father once whipped me so severely that I fled from him and it was hard for him to win me back…. My mother once beat me until the blood flowed for having stolen a miserable nut. It was this strict discipline which finally forced me into the monastery.”1 From this single statement we can gain several insights. A great deal of harshness and pettiness is revealed in this “microcosm” previously mentioned. The incipient stages of resentment, fear and anxiety in the face of authority are evident here as well.

Since we attribute the role of fatherhood to the First Person of the Trinity, Luther found himself incapable of approaching the Father. In addition to this problem, “God the Father and Jesus were represented to him as stern, nay, cruel judges, to appease whose wrath the intercession of the saints must be secured.” We now see the transfer of the poor “father image” to God Himself, which would have serious theological repercussions throughout Luther’s life.

In school he was struck by the brutality of the teachers with their frequent floggings. He stubbornly refused to converse in Latin and incurred the wrath of his professors. He compared his Latin examination to a “trial for murder.”2 Therefore, the final authority faced by any child also affected him adversely. Erikson makes a rather salient point in asserting that “the disciplinary climate of home and school and the religious climate of the community and Church were more oppressive [to him] than inspiring.”3

Luther’s later youth was greatly plagued by that “tristitia” which followed him for life. Despite an apparent inability for father and son to get along, Martin never ceased to try to please his father – so much so that he intended to study law for his father’s sake. Nevertheless, the “Saul episode” in his life on the way to Erfurt made him vow himself to monasticism if he survived. He kept his promise and entered the Augustinian monks, a very educated, dedicated community at that time. When Martin announced his decision, “Old Hans Luther was bitterly opposed to his son’s step, which he believed destroyed all chance of a successful career.”4 Once again, the father-son tensions were aroused.

Luther the monk

In the monastery, Luther began by performing the most menial of tasks but soon his talents were discovered by Staupitz, the Prior, who offered him several opportunities to exercise his intellectual abilities. His earliest influences were the Bible, Augustine and Occam. The influence of Occam is especially important for he was one of the sharpest critics of the medieval Church, and his frankness doubtlessly eased the burden on Luther when he followed in his footsteps.

Although he sought spiritual comfort in the monastery, he confesses: “. . . I was often terrified at the name of Jesus. The sight of a crucifix was like lightning to me and when his name was spoken I would rather have heard that of the devil…. I had lost my faith and could not suppose that God was other than angry.”5 His constant attempts at absolute perfection and daily confessions (even more frequently on occasions) all give evidence of a very unbalanced spirituality which led him to doubt and even despair of his faith and ultimate salvation. His First Mass also was tainted with torment and dread as he haltingly uttered the words of Consecration. His father, though consenting to come, did his damage with his comment after Mass by reminding Martin of the saying used to arouse the sensibilities of the clergy, “Panis es et panis manebis!” (“Bread thou art, and bread thou shalt remain!). Martin related later in life that at that moment he felt like murdering his father.

Despite his apparent problems of faith, he rose to great prominence in his Order and in the academic world. His preaching became the object of adulation for the simple and educated alike and “in both sermons and lectures many a trenchant word against spiritual wickedness in high places remind one that the monk was already a reformer.”6

Sent on a journey to Rome, the young monk went through all the motions of a faithful pilgrim to the “Eternal City,” yet doubting their efficacy all the while. Shock at the highly immoral life of the Italian priests, their hurried Masses, legalism and double standards makes him comment as he reminisces on the trip, “No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus, they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there be a hell, Rome is built over it; ‘ it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.”7

On his return to Germany, the scandal of Rome fresh in his mind, he opposed the infamous peddler of indulgences, Tetzel. He openly challenged the theory of indulgences and especially the way in which they were being preached. Interestingly enough, Todd notes that he appealed to authority to back his protestations, asserting that he criticized “in obedience to my duty and the burden resting on me . . . moreover, by virtue of papal authority I hold a public teaching office. Accordingly, it is one of my official duties to strike out against all the wrong of which I become aware, even if the wrong is done by persons in high position.”8 Here we see Luther vacillating between attacking authority and relying on authority for his power to do so, which is again a throw-back to his “cat and mouse” games with his father.

Unrest and rebellion

As the issue progressed and the debates continued, Luther further developed his concepts along the lines of “personal faith, personal humiliation, salvation and justification.”9 The emphasis was, of course, on “personal” — a word which became an obsession with the man who had to do everything for himself. In this context it is easy to see his stress on “sola Scriptura” for he espoused a personal interpretation of Scripture. Another strong emphasis was placed on the acceptance of Jesus as personal Savior. A gross insecurity becomes evident.

At the outset of his rebellion, Luther had genuine misgivings about his right to challenge established norms and doctrine. In his struggle, “Martin Luther repeatedly affirmed the frequency of the temptation… . Satan often said to me: What if your dogma is false whereby you thus overthrow the Pope, the Mass and the monks? And thus, he often took me by surprise that the sweat poured out of me…. He once troubled me with Paul to Timothy and simply strangled me so that my heart felt like melting in the body….”10 It is well to note how he so sought to reassure himself of the righteousness of his cause that he says Satan tempted him to maintain traditional doctrine. Todd asserts that “there was a big element of physical tension — also of spiritual horror as he moved further away from the established traditions”11 and, in fact, so grave were his doubts during this period that he confesses he was almost driven to suicide on occasion.

As already mentioned, Luther disdained any source of authority, save Scripture, but O’Hare suggests one exception: “He would have none of them (the Fathers) or their teachings, except when some fellow-rebel against Divine authority was in collision with him or when he had to appeal to some authority beyond himself, to refute an adversary.”12 At no stage were his concepts clearly crystallized, and it would seem that O’Hare’s observations are well-founded: “Ever vacillating, ambiguous, contradictory, he was utterly incapable of formulating a clear, well-defined, unhesitating system of belief to replace that of the old divinely established Church.”13 From previous discussion of Luther’s personality and psychological state, these inconsistencies should not be surprising for he was a man struggling between revolting against authority and setting himself up as an authority, a Gottgeistig (a spiritual or intellectual god). This period in Luther’s life and the one immediately subsequent to it were characterized by manic productivity and severe breakdown and hence we see why “Reiter considers the years … when Luther was 22-30 as one long Krankheitsphase, one drawn-out state of nervous disease, which extended to the thirty-sixth year.”14

Hostility toward Church authority

As the lines of demarcation became more formally fixed and solidified and entrenched, Luther became more open in his hostility to the Pope and the authority and power which he wielded. “With almost every step that Rome or other ecclesiastical authority took, in an attempt to silence, condemn or compromise with Luther, Luther took another step in the development of his theological critique, proposing even more drastic modifications of the ecclesiastical institutions.”15 The truth of this statement becomes obvious when for hundreds of years the theory was “ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” (where Peter is, there is the Church) and then Luther says, “Where the Word of God is preached and believed, there is the Church.” Smith gives Luther’s position on Rome as follows: “The assertion that the Roman Church is superior to all other Churches is proved only by weak papal decrees of the last 400 years against which militate the accredited history of 1100 years, the Bible and the decrees of the Nicean Council, the holiest of all councils.”16 Certain questions can be raised here: Why are the papal decrees referred to as “weak”? How is the primacy of Rome definitively contradicted by Scripture? Why is Nicea to be regarded as “the holiest of all councils”? The answer would seem to lie in the fact that Luther thought in that way and for him it had to be true for, while professing to be open to theological debate, he “anathematized everyone whose belief differed from his own.”17

Finally, after refusing to appear in Rome to plead his case, he agreed to receive and discuss his position with Cajetan, the papal legate who proved to be an unfortunate choice for several reasons. Cajetan was an Italian, and Luther was extremely nationalistic and vehemently anti-Italian. Cajetan was a cardinal, and this position smacked of the establishment which Luther wished to dissolve. He was the Cardinal Protector of the Dominicans, and one need only recall that the entire incident began with the Dominican Tetzel. Cajetan was a confirmed Thomist which gave them little common ground — even philosophically speaking, prescinding from theological positions. Most of all, he was the representative of the Pope, the “Holy Father,” again reminding Luther of his earthly father whom he hated and his heavenly Father whom he feared exceedingly.

Perhaps the most ill-chosen words Cajetan ever uttered were those which promised Luther a “fatherly hearing.” “The psychological implications of the meeting are important. Insofar as Luther did have a ‘thing’ about his father, and then about God and found himself often both revolting against and trying to appease authority, then his clash with the Roman Curia was likely to provide a concrete occasion for him to fight back, with a feeling of justification at authority. The meeting with Cajetan would be symbolical…. It does not seem very fanciful to see that Luther found here a father figure in reverse, a figure whom he found good reason to oppose.”18

In the discussion which lasted hours, Luther’s main points against the papacy may be summarized thus:

• the Church does not need a Pope;
• a visible head is inconsistent with the nature of the Church;
• a definite place (Rome) is inconsistent with the character of a spiritual kingdom;
•the power of the keys has been given to all Christians;
• the Pope has no jurisdiction over matters of sin, grace and indulgences.

In all these arguments a fear of the necessity of a mediator (e.g., the Church, the Pope) is apparent and the need for him to work out his own salvation independent of the Church is obvious. Salvation, for him, was a matter of the individual and Jesus, with no need for the community of the Church — only personal faith. Here, more acutely than elsewhere, can be sensed Luther’s great urgency to attack the papacy at its very roots. Questioning the genuine interest of the Pope, fearing his wrath and despising his power were brought on by the transfer of image: from father (earthly authority) to God (divine authority and justice) to the Pope (the combination of both).


Eventually, the threat of excommunication came in the bull, “Exsurge, Domine,” which Luther promptly burned along with the books of Canon Law. “Chagrined and wounded in his vanity, he grew litigious, vengeful and abusive,”19 as witnessed by his statement: “…know that I, with all who worship Christ, consider the See of Rome to be occupied by Satan and to be the throne of Anti-Christ, and that I will no longer obey nor remain united to him, the chief and deadly enemy of Christ.”20

His most searing attacks on the papacy came in his work, “Wider das Papstum in Rom von Teufel gestftet” in which “Le Pape y est dénommé non ‘très saint’ suivant l’usage, mais ‘très infernal.’ La papauté s’est toujours montrée assoiffée de sang. Le livre est directement adressé à ‘l’âne pontifical.’” (“The Pope is there spoken of not as ‘very holy’ according to common usage, but as ‘very infernal.’ The papacy is always shown dripping in blood. The book is directly addressed to “the pontifical ass.”).21 In this book were also found the crudest sketches and maxims on the papacy and one must agree with O’Hare that “for one who claimed that his mouth was the mouth of Jesus Christ,’ we are astonished at the vocabulary of insult and rancorous hate.”22

The die had been cast. The Diet, final excommunication, the formal establishment of Lutheranism and his marriage all follow from the events discussed and are a matter of historical fact, not psychological speculation.

As indicated at the start, the goal of this essay was to demonstrate how Luther, as a result of various psychological influences, revolted from papal authority. The bulk of the blame has been placed on the shoulders of his father, for “a most pathological relationship”23 is evident here. Several of the key moves in Luther’s life were made as a rebellious answer to the authority he encountered at the time, the most notable being his decisions to enter the monastery over paternal objection and to found his own church over the protestations and threats of recognized ecclesiastical authority and Tradition.

At the end of his life, we see Luther as an unhappy, broken man and Erickson’s theory deserves some consideration: “It is not surprising that the period of deepest despair emerged when he becomes so much of what his father wanted him to be.”24 From a most radical, rebellious youth, in old age a sign of passive resignation leaves the foreground and sinks into the background espousing a philosophy of patient acceptance which, if practiced earlier in life, would have completely altered the course of history for Western Christendom: “Il faut que j´aie de la patience avec le pape, avec mes disciples, avec mes domestiques, avec mes femmes, toute ma vie n´est que patience” (“I must be patient with the Pope, with my followers, with my household, with my women; my whole life is nothing but patience.”).25

And so, the severity encountered by the young Martin in the person of his father had such far-reaching effects that it made him sickly and anxious as a boy, sad as a youth, scrupulous to a fault in the monastery, resentful of authority in his prime and beset with doubts, depression and despair in the dusk of life. Perhaps most indicative of the man’s agonizing search for absolute truth and yet lack of certainty is what is often given as his closing statement at the Diet of Worms: “Hier ich stehe. Ich kann nicht anders.” (“Here I stand. I can do no other.”) But he quickly adds, “Gott helf mich.” (“God help me.”).


1Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (New York: Houghton and Mifflin Co., 1911), 3.


3Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 1962), 78.

4Smith, 9.

5Ronald H. Bainton, The Age of Reformation (New York: Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1956), 94.

6Smith, 28.

7“Against the Roman Papacy – An Institution of the Devil,” the last written work of Luther.

8John M. Todd, Martin Luther (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1964), 96.

9Todd, 161.

10Frederick J. Zwierlein, Reformation Studies (Rochester: Art Print Shop, 1938), 43-44.

11Todd, 161.

12Patrick O’Hare, The Facts about Luther (New York: Frederick Pustet, 1916), 141.

13O’Hare, 146.

14Erickson, 27.

15Todd, 161.

16Smith, 59.

17Hugh P. Smyth, The Reformation (Chicago: Extension Press, 1919), 39.

18Todd, 153.

19O’Hare, 144.

20Todd, 168.

21Franz Funck-Brentano, Luther (Paris: Éditions Bernard Grosset, 1934), 338.

22O’Hare, 157.

23Erickson, 29.

24Erickson, 243.

25Funck-Brentano, 505.

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 21 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.