In a slightly different vein, there is possibly a need to address the misconception that Luther progressed from rebellion within the Augustinian Order to rebellion against the Church generally. He joined the Augustinians because he saw them as members of a reform movement whose primary aim was the service of God.
Luther became prominent in the Order for agitating for even stricter religious observance, and was even sent to Rome to support this cause, and returned to as a supporter of the Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. He later attested that while in the monastery he kept his vows diligently – even scrupulously. The word “reformation” was frequently used by Priors General in letters to the friars in Germany and internationally.
In 1517 Luther made a public protest against indulgences, but it was not until 1524 that he made a final break with the Church and the Order. He never subsequently denounced the Order, but spoke gratefully of his treatment in the Order and of his fellow friars who had tried to help him during his spiritual crises in the monastery.
The late Augustinian historian, Professor Rev Francis Xavier Martin O.S.A. (1922 – 2000) summarised Martin Luther and his legacy thus: “The paradoxical picture emerges of an Order with its members apparently divided between their traditional allegiance to Rome and on the other hand a strong attraction to Luther… What emerges… is a paradox, not a contradiction. The Catholic and Protestant reforms were both products of the same movement… Luther began something momentous but he is in turn the product, one might say the end product, of a much earlier religious process.”
Further light will be thrown on the theological and psychological mindset of Martin Luther once the medieval Augustinian Observant movement is more fully known and appreciated, for Luther was not only a member of an observant community but also became one of its leaders in Germany. (His visit to Rome as a young friar was undertaken so to advance in interests of this movement.)
This research, in turn, will probably tone down the somewhat too-convenient overemphasis upon any particular “Damascus moment” in Luther’s life as an exclusive moment of a “Reformation breakthrough.”
This will assist the understanding of how, for example, in 1521 Luther could still consider himself as an Augustinian (and he was, in fact, still so) while at the same time considering the institution of the papacy as the Antichrist; his vows were made to God, Mary, and the Augustinian Prior General, hence he could still be of a conviction that he was a loyal Augustinian who was faced with the Antichrist whom he believed was on the papal throne.
He was not all friar one day and all Reformer the next. As with Augustine’s conversion to baptism, the intellectual aspect of the process preceded and was more protracted than was the changing of intention, will and heart in the matter.
Luther, furthermore, has often been called a reluctant rebel. At one point Luther expressed thus his thoughts on the unforeseen chain of events that transpired after he posted his ninety-five theses: “No good work comes about by our own wisdom; it begins in dire necessity. I was forced into mine. But if I had known then what I know now, ten wild horses would not have drawn me into it.”
For further reading
Eric L. Saak: High Way to Heaven: The Augustinian Platform Between Reform and Reformation, 1292-1524, 886 pages. Published in 2002 by Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 90041 10992 and 9789004110991. 880 pages This volume reveals the political, religious, theological, institutional, and mythical ideals that formed the self-identity of the Augustinian Order from Giles of Rome to the emergence of Martin Luther. Based on detailed philological analysis, this interdisciplinary study not only transforms the understanding of Augustine's heritage in the later Middle Ages, but also that of Luther's relationship to his Order. The work offers a new interpretative model of late medieval religious culture that sheds new light on the relationship between late medieval Passion devotion, the increasing demonization of the Jews, and the rise of catechetical literature.