Over on the CARM boards and lengthy discussion on Luther and "authority" has been going on for a while. I've dabbled in the discussion every so often (time allowing), but for the most part I've watched from the sidelines. Here's a recent snippet (directed toward me) from a Roman Catholic:
Luther DID have doubts about what he had done as related by James M. Kittleson, a distinguished Professor of Church History and Director of the Lutheran Brotherhood Foundation Reformation Research Program at Luther Seminary. His academic credentials far exceed those of anyone here and given that he is ACTUALLY A LUTHERAN, he should have a better understanding of Luther than do those who are NOT.
“In this work (On the Misuse of the Mass) he (Luther) confessed that he had often asked himself, “Are you alone wise” Can it be that everyone else is in error and has been in error for so long? What if you are wrong and lead into error so many people who might then be eternally damned?” James M. Kittelson, “Luther the Reformer, the Story of the Man and His Career.”, pg 170, Augsburg Publishing House, 1986
Barring the inevitable charges of this quote being taken out of context and the personal attacks on me for my “bias” and my lack of various “stuff”, it is pretty clear that Luther DID doubt Himself “often”, and therefore it would be STUPID of us to PRESUME that he was “right” and that he did NOT “lead into error so many people who might then be eternally damned?”
Well, immediately, it does not logically follow that because Luther had "doubts" as to his Reforming endeavours against the majority he therefore was wrong in attempting to reform the church, or that his theological opinions were wrong. This Catholic has committed the errors that a consensus of opinion equals absolute truth, and second, that a person must have absolute certainty of his actions in order to be a leader or reformer. That Luther had a particular level of fear or doubt as he progressed against a majority, and that he admitted it... is... well, very human.
Interestingly, Luther actually gives an antidote to his doubts, found in the very next line, that the "Word" took away his doubt and fear:
"Are you the only wise man? Can it be that all the others are in error and have erred for so long a time? What if you are mistaken and lead so many people into error who might all be eternally damned? Finally, Christ with his clear, unmistakable Word strengthened and confirmed me, so that my heart no longer quails, but resists the arguments of the papists, as a stony shore resists the waves, and laughs at their threats and storms!"
This particular Roman Catholic also dislikes that I actually check the sources and quotes he uses- and more often than not, the sources he puts forth are being misused, or the quotes say something quite different in context than what is being alleged. Let's take a look then at James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, the Story of the Man and His Career, pg 170. That page can be found here. Kittelson explains the context is in regard to changes in the Mass, not Luther's entire reforming endeavour:
[Luther] knew that far-reaching changes in the Mass would be deeply unsettling to people who had been taught to find their salvation in it. He also knew that those who made the changes could suffer from grave doubts about what they were doing. In this work he confessed that he had often asked himself, “Are you alone wise” Can it be that everyone else is in error and has been in error for so long? What if you are wrong and lead into error so many people who might then be eternally damned?”
Kittleson goes on to explain that Luther wrote On the Misuse of the Mass (from which the Luther quote in question comes from) for this very purpose. It was to give his colleagues "solid arguments so that they might be confident in their actions." That is, Luther considered that those who attempted to institute changes in the Mass would likewise feel the weight of peer and public pressure as to the validity of their actions. That is, the statement, "Are you alone wise... Can it be that everyone else is in error and has been in error for so long? What if you are wrong and lead into error so many people who might then be eternally damned?" ...has to do primarily with changes in the Mass.
The editors of Luther's Works explain that Luther was "strongly opposed to the withholding of the cup from the laity, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the idea of sacrifice in the mass." "If the idea of a sacrifice is removed from the mass, so that the mass is no longer a good work which avails for the reconciliation of the sinner with God, then the private mass, said without the presence of a worshiper, is a veritable abomination." They then go on to give a brief outline of Luther's argumentation:
The treatise is divided into three parts. The first part points out that the false conception of the mass is built on a false conception of the priesthood. According to the New Testament every Christian is a priest; and the priestly office is one of preaching, not of making sacrifice. The second part discusses the mass itself. The Words of Institution, examined individually and collectively, forbid any interpretation of the mass as a sacrifice; they speak rather of a promise given by God, to be received in faith by men. In refuting the arguments of his opponents Luther expresses himself plainly on the subjects of the canon of the mass, saints, purgatory, and spirits of the dead. The wholly polemic third part contrasts the papal priesthood with the priesthood of Christ. The former, with its laws, has extinguished the gospel, and actually perverted each of the Ten Commandments to mean exactly the opposite of what God intended. An avowedly allegorical comparison of church and synagogue is made, not to buttress, but pointedly to illumine the argument.
With this background in mind, here is the quote in context, which comes from the introduction to the Misuse of the Mass (1521) from LW 36:133-137 :
To my dear brethren, the Augustinians at Wittenberg, I, Martin, wish the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have been informed both orally and in writing, my dear brethren, that you are the very first to have taken steps to do away with the abuse of the mass in your assembly. Although it has pleased me greatly, because I regard it as evidence that the word of Christ is at work in you and that you have not received it in vain, nevertheless, out of Christian love, which leaves nothing undone, I am deeply concerned that not all of you have taken such a great and noteworthy step with equal steadfastness and good conscience. I will not mention how the bishops and priests of Baal daily terrify the consciences of those who are weak in faith, now with papal bulls, now with indulgences, now with brotherhoods; one arrests the married priests; one does this and the other that miracle, and everyone does the most terrible things he can.
But what will happen when throughout the world you suffer all kinds of derision, insults, viciousness, and dishonor from everyone, even from the pious, clever, holy, and wise; and are regarded as blasphemers because you alone, and so few of you at that, have dared to change the whole spiritual and human order contrary to all human reason? It is indeed an extremely great undertaking to resist such a long-established custom and the opinion of all men, to suffer patiently their accusation, judgment, and condemnation, and to stand immovable in the face of such a storm of winds and waves. I know well that if you are built on the rock no violence of water and wind can harm you, but if you stand upon the sand a great and speedy fall will overtake you [Matt. 7:24-27].
I myself experience daily how extremely difficult it is to lay aside a conscience of long standing, one that has been fenced in by man-made ordinances. O with how much greater effort and labor, even on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, have I been barely able to justify my own conscience; so that I, one man alone, have dared to come forward against the pope, brand him as the Antichrist, the bishops as his apostles, and the universities as his brothels! How often did my heart quail, punish me, and reproach me with its single strongest argument: Are you the only wise man? Can it be that all the others are in error and have erred for so long a time? What if you are mistaken and lead so many people into error who might all be eternally damned? Finally, Christ with his clear, unmistakable Word strengthened and confirmed me, so that my heart no longer quails, but resists the arguments of the papists, as a stony shore resists the waves, and laughs at their threats and storms!
Because I felt and considered these things within me, I wanted to write this letter to you for the comfort and strengthening of the weak, those who cannot bear the storm and violence of the opponent and of their own despairing consciences. For such consciences must be treated with faith and trust, so that we not only look upon the judgment of the whole world as straw and chaff, but also that in death we may be adept in lighting against the devil and all his might, even against the judgment of God, and with Jacob prevail against God [Gen. 32:28] through such a strong faith. The weak in faith may indeed disregard the derision and ridicule of the world and pretend not to hear it; but who can so protect himself against the devil and the stern judgment of God that he does not feel them? The world can do no more than denounce us as heretics and unbelievers; it cannot make us heretics. Our consciences will make us sinners before God in many ways and damn us eternally unless they are well guarded and protected at every point by the holy, mighty, and true Word of God-that is, built on the only rock [Matt. 7:24-25]. Whoever does that is sure of his cause and cannot fail, nor waver, nor be betrayed. Such a sure, impregnable fortress we seek and desire.
For these reasons I will prepare a special little book on the mass which should be useful to everyone who wishes it. For I can well see that the books which I have written on the subject so far4 have not yet made a sufficient impact because the bishops oppose them; so that as often as the word of truth is renewed, exalted, and repeated, so often the paperhangers condemn and suppress it. We ought also to pray the Lord to send out laborers into his harvest [Matt. 9:38], and his angels to gather out of the kingdom of God all causes of sin [Matt. 13:41], which are now very many. This one great cause of sin is now at hand; if we could remove it, then we should have removed not only one, but all, because this is the foundation and fountainhead of all the rest. May the Lord Jesus strengthen and keep your hearts and minds [Phil. 4:7] in a true, right, unsimulated faith and divine love, amen. From my wilderness, on St. Catherine’s Day [November 25], 1521.
I stipulate publicly that I wish neither to hear nor to see the foolish senseless persons who will cry out, saying that I write and teach against the ordinances of the church, against the doctrines of the fathers, against old and proven traditions and the long-standing customs, usages, and practices of the church. Likewise I despise all human teaching and the precepts of the Parisian Sodom, which, as Peter says, are none other than destructive heresies [II Pet. 2:1]. If only the lunacy would cease to plague them for one hour, they would themselves recognize (since they prove their whole case without the Word of God) that they are not depending upon divine sayings, but only upon human ones.
Thus it is contrary to human reason, not to mention the divine Scriptures, to found and build an article of faith on human fancies, for the holy sacraments and articles of faith rightly demand that they be founded and preserved only through the divine Scriptures, as Moses abundantly testifies in Deuteronomy. Why then do they think that they can alienate me from the divine Word with their own fancies, that is, human laws and teachings; as if they did not know that the saints had often sinned during their lifetime and erred in their writings? They are even so foolish as to set up and accept the words and deeds of the saints as a sure, unfailing rule of faith. In addition, their own law, which is really no law at all, makes such human sayings suspect when it says: "Whoever is once found to be wrong will always be regarded and considered to be wrong."
Since the fathers have often erred, as you yourself confess, who will make us certain as to wherein they have not erred, assuming their reputation is sufficient and should not be weighed and judged according to the divine Scriptures? They have (you say) also interpreted the Scriptures. What if they erred in their interpretation, as well as in their life and writings? In that way you make gods of all that is human in us, and of men themselves; and the word of men you make equal to the Word of God.
For these reasons the stupid sophists, the unlearned bishops, monks and priests, and the pope with all his Gomorrah8 should know that we are not baptized in the name of Augustine, Bernard, Gregory, Peter or Paul [I Cor. 1:13] nor yet in the name of the Parisians, but in the name of Jesus Christ, him alone. Only the crucified one and none other do we acknowledge as our master. Paul does not wish that we believe him or an angel, unless Christ lives and speaks in him [Gal. 1:8, 12]. We know indeed what the fathers, the decrees, the customs, and the folly of the people include and contain. What need have we in addition for the masters of Paris to write and say: "Such an article is an abomination. This one is contrary to the faculty of Paris, that one is contrary to their established articles," and more of the like-a boast that only female children and rude blockheads can make?
We will not listen to this: "Bernard lived and wrote thus"; but only to this: "He was supposed to live and write according to the Scriptures." We are not asking how the saints lived and wrote. They were all preserved through this prayer: "Forgive us our debts" [Matt. 6:12]; as Ps. 31[:6] says: "For this shall every saint pray at the opportune time." We refuse to concede as true and just, that the saints were forgiven by means of a prayer which was itself sinful and in error; which is what the papists are doing when, as Ps. 60  says, they support themselves upon a leaning and tottering wall [Ps. 62:3], whereas God alone should be a support, as the same Psalm testifies so often [Ps. 62:1-2, 5-7].
I have stated, that one does not ask how the saints have lived and written, but how the Scriptures indicate that we ought to live. The question is not about what has been done, but about how it is supposed to be done. The saints could err in their writings and sin in their lives, but the Scriptures cannot err, and whoever believes them cannot sin in his life. We accept indeed those saints whose praise comes not from men but from God [Rom. 2:29]; not those whom the pope raises up, but those whom God raises up, Whose oxen and birds they are, killed and made ready for the marriage feast of Christ, his son [Matt. 22:2-4]; that is, those whose life and teaching the divine Scriptures praise, such as the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. Them alone and no others can we surely believe and cling to, and thus be preserved.