A mighty fortress

July 4, 2005

WARTBURG CASTLE STANDS HIGH ON A ROCKY MOUNTAIN, close to the former Iron Curtain in Eastern Germany. Our bus slowly climbed its way up the tree-covered access road towards the collection of stone towers and half-timber buildings comprising the castle. We could look back towards the Fulda Gap, the low rolling landscape considered the most likely corridor of any possible surprise Warsaw Pact attack towards Frankfurt, a mere hundred kilometres away.

Today a concrete lookout tower marks Point Alpha where American forces kept constant watch during the Cold War. The abandoned border crossing buildings we had passed on the autobahn a few minutes earlier silently witnessed that yet another ideology had been tried by history and found wanting.

Overnight we had lodged in Fulda township, on the western side of Point Alpha, after spending the first four days of our Share the Heritage tour in Holland. There, visits to various historical sites had included Dokkum, where Boniface, the apostle to the Germans, had been murdered in 754, attempting to evangelise the Friesians. We had roughly followed the trail his body had taken en route for burial in his beloved Fulda. There he had founded the monastery from which he laboured among the Germanic peoples, and around which the town eventually grew.

“Everything that later has grown in the political, ecclesiastical and spiritual fields of Germany,” wrote the non-Catholic German historian, Heinrich Leo, “is based on the foundation laid by Boniface whose tomb in Fulda ought to be for us holier a ground than the graves of the patriarchs were for the Jews, for he is the spiritual father of our people. Boniface has given to us and to our grandchildren more than any of our great emperors and kings ever was able to bring us.”

In a sense then, the story of Wartburg Castle, and its most famous lodger, Martin Luther, begins at Fulda. We ‘Protestants’ tend to ignore what the God the Holy Spirit was up to from the time of Paul until to Luther’s day, as pagan people group after pagan people group across Europe embraced the Christian story brought by messengers like Boniface. This in turn had laid foundations for a European civilisation based on Christian ideas.

By Luther’s day, however, another 750 years after Fulda’s founding, Boniface’s Church was in desperate need of reform. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk from Wittenberg, called for such reform by nailing 95 theses of protest on the door of the Castle Church, on the eve of All Saint’s Day, 1517. At first Luther expected the pope to thank him for pointing out contradictions and abuses in the practice of the sales of indulgences. Instead he was threatened with excommunication.

Later in 1521 he was summoned to the Imperial Diet of Worms and asked to recant. That he was prepared to do, he told his inquisitors, and even to throw all his books in the fire – if one could show him his error on the basis of the Scriptures. “I cannot and will not recant anything,” he concluded, “for to go against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me! Amen!”

Pandemonium immediately broke out in the hall of the bishop’s palace, and Spanish officials present shouted “Al fuego!” (Into the fire with him!) Luther’s friends managed to bustle him safely out of the hall, and eventually out of the town. On the long trip back to Wittenberg, he was kidnapped and carted up this same mountain to Wartburg Castle – where he was relieved to discover his kidnappers were under orders from his protector, Friedrich the Wise, out of concern for the rebel monk’s safety. Here he stayed in secret for ten months, disguised in beard and long hair as Junker J√∂rg (Squire George).

Secluded and cut off from the raging debate he himself had catalysed, Luther battled with more than just solitude and sickness. To one side of the Luther Chamber in the castle is the legendary, frequently touched-up ink spot, where he supposedly threw his ink-pot at the devil. This scenario derives from Luther’s statement, “I drove back the devil with ink.” And that he certainly did – by translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German in eleven weeks, without access to libraries and commentaries. This New Testament would give direct access to Biblical truth for all who could read, adding fuel to the budding Reformation.

He later completed the whole Bible, thus giving to the German peoples God’s Word in their own language. As the spiritual father of the High German language, he shaped their thought, language and culture immeasurably.

Luther also influenced the world of music in ways he would never know about. For as we descended from the castle’s mountain, we drove through the town of Eisenach, where he himself had studied in his youth and where 175 years later, Johann Sebastian Bach attended the same school. Bach’s 16th century forefather, Vitus Bach, had been forced out of Hungary because of his Lutheran convictions. Vitus was a baker and played his lute while the grain was being ground. Johan Sebastian’s whole family, many of whom were outstanding professional musicians, was greatly influenced by Luther’s life, faith and work.

Luther’s linguistic skills in both Bible translation and hymn composition provided a rich source of texts for Bach’s vocal compositions. His personal copy of Luther’s Bible is full of notes and markings made as the musician pored over the texts to gain inspiration. One third of the composer’s theological books were by Luther or about the reformer. The musician’s deep personal piety is expressed in the three letters which sign off many of Bach’s manuscripts: ‘SDG’, Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory). Many also start with the signature ‘JJ’: Jesu juva (Jesus help).

Wittenberg, our next stop, was a good two hours’ drive to the north-east. Large bold letters on the Castle Church tower caught our eye as we neared the old town centre: EIN FESTE BURG IST UNSER GOTT. Having just visited Wartburg, there was no doubt in our minds what Luther had in mind as he penned those words of his famous hymn, A mighty fortress is our God. Not only had the castle been a personal place of refuge; it had also been a strategic bastion, whence he could launch his attack on the kingdom of darkness:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

The many little words of the 95 theses that triggered the Reformation were now set in bronze on the doors of the Castle Church. Wittenberg’s most famous sons, Luther and Melanchthon, also stood in bronze in the town square where each year the marriage of Luther and Katharina von Bora is re-enacted and joyfully celebrated. The precedent of a former priest wedding a former nun, underscored by Luther’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage and sexuality had enormous impact on the family life of the Germanic peoples.

Our day ended in Leipzig, a further hour’s drive to the south, where in the summer of 1519 Luther debated his arch-opponent Johannes Eck. Luther’s favourable reference to the Bohemian reformer John Hus evoked a curse from Duke George, owner of the castle in which the debate took place. The duke later demanded all writings of Luther to be turned in to be burned. But of the 3000 New Testaments printed in the city, only four were retreived. Perhaps Luther’s Wartburg pseudenom was his own little joke on the duke. Luther is said to have secretly revisited Leipzig in 1521 where he ate at an inn again disguised as Junker J√∂rg.

Here the famous son set in bronze was Johann Sebastian Bach. For 27 years, until his death in 1750, Bach was Cantor of the Thomaskirche (where Luther had once preached to overflowing crowds), and often released new compositions in the larger Nicolaikirche. Today, in countless homes,
cars, churches and concert halls, millions of music-lovers listen to music
first heard in these church
buildings, conveying timeless Biblical truths often couched in phrases crafted by Luther.

One further association with these churches took us back to the vanished Iron Curtain where we started our day. In 1989, Nicolaikirche became a centre for prayers-for-peace. Despite police harassment, more and more people began gathering in the church for prayer every Monday until there was standing room only in the 2000-seat auditorium. Many of these were Stasi personnel spying on those praying. On the 9th of October, two days after the 40th anniversary of the GDR when hundreds of civilians had been arrested and taken away, one thousand government personnel had been ordered to fill places in the Nicolaikirche to deny others entry. There they heard the gospel and a call for non-violence, and as they filed out of the church they were met by ten thousand onlookers waiting with lighted candles. Troops, police and Stasi were all drawn into the peaceful demonstration and engaged in conversation before being ordered to withdraw. While the potential was explosive over these weeks, the spirit of non-violence prevailed. One communist official admitted that they had been prepared for everything … except candles and prayers. Within a month, the Wall had come down.

In Wittenberg earlier, we had watched a video which depicted a peace manifestation held in the town in 1983 where swords were symbolically beaten into ploughshares, a clear reference to Micah 4:3,4. My ears pricked up as I watched this video. The familiar refrain being sung in the background as blacksmiths hammered the red-hot metal: ‘… and into ploughshares beat their swords…’ was written by Merla Watson and introduced to Europe by the Shekinah Company of singers, dancers and musicians I managed back in 1974!

As in Luther’s day, the Bible had once more been the inspiration for protest against tyranny.

Truly it would be hard to imagine the history of Germany without the pervasive Biblical influence brought over the centuries through Boniface, Luther and Bach. Later we would visit Dachau, just north of Munich, and be reminded of what can happen when a nation strays from God’s Word and returns to old pagan ideas.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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