It was natural that Father Denifle, himself a "religious " and a Dominican at that, should have directed his attack with especial venom against Luther's whole relation to the monastic system. It was not merely that Luther had abandoned his monastic profession, broken his vows, and led multitudes of others to do the same. His chief offence was that he had misrepresented the sacred idea of the regular life. Luther's own utterances on the subject would lead us to believe that he had entered the monastery in order that he might secure deliverance from the sense of sin that was oppressing him. He had given it a fair trial. He had not been in the attitude of rebellion against the minuteness of the rule, which had marked the attitude of Erasmus, for example. On the contrary, he had conformed with scrupulous exactness to every requirement, in the vain hope that thus he might acquire the peace of mind he sought.
Failing to find this relief, he had passed through a stage bordering on despair, and out of this stage he had worked himself only through persistent study of the Bible and its interpretation in the light of the theology of Paul and Augustine. In other words, he had found through the process of personal experience his solution of the problem of personal sin and sinfulness. The method of conformity to a system of prescribed practices had failed. He had gone beyond and above all prescriptions to the personal and intimate relation of the sinful soul to the God who made it. Now this is what the dominant Church could not and cannot forgive. If the individual could thus leap over all the bounds of form and ceremony which it had established, then its occupation was gone, and it was quick to perceive this inevitable conclusion.
Denifle did not waste his time in dwelling overmuch on the wickedness of breaking vows and seeking the gratification of sensual desire under the excuse of religious scruple. These things he characterizes with vicious side-thrusts which leave no doubt as to his opinion. What he chiefly dwells upon is the false-heartedness of Luther in professing any such idea of the monastic life. Luther ought to have known that the profession of the monk was not primarily a process intended for the deliverance from sin. The whole notion of the monastic vow as a "second baptism," whereby a man was sacramentally renewed in spirit, he declares to be a complete misapprehension. Not as a guarantee of spiritual perfection but only as an aid toward this end, is the regular life truly to be interpreted. All this Luther ought to have known and probably did know; so that he is guilty, not only of an overwrought hysterical motive in entering the monastery, but of deliberate lying about it when it became necessary to defend his apostasy.
The answer to this particular charge of Denifle is admirably stated by Karl Benrath in his treatise on Luther in the Monastery. It is made clear that this is only one of the countless illustrations of Denifle's controversial method. He begins always with the point he desires to make, then seeks for words of Luther which by some perverse ingenuity can be twisted into a self-condemnation, then draws his foregone conclusion, and proceeds to build upon this the foundation for a new indictment. Benrath shows by a perfectly just historical method that Luther was fully justified in the year 1505 in thinking that the monastery life would be the surest way to secure him the peace which his boy's soul craved. It is not necessary to imagine that he expected any miraculous demonstration of such a deliverance. His surrender to the requirements of the house would indicate the contrary. What he probably did expect was that through this surrender he would find himself growing daily in what he would have called the Christian character. When he did not find this, he began the course of questioning and reaction which finally carried him outside the bounds of the monastic relation.
It is unnecessary to dwell upon the foul insinuations with which Denifle pursues his victim during the years of struggle with the monastic limitations. Enough that his only material here consists of a series of scattered utterances of Luther himself, largely in personal letters, never specific in their references, and always leaving large room for interpretation, but used here with true Dominican inquisitorial cleverness in the sense most unfavorable to the defendant. Reduced to their lowest terms, they all fall back to the one simple statement that Luther was made a man and not a monk and believed that he was not singular in this respect. His unpardonable offence was that he believed a man was something better than a monk and did not hesitate to say so.
This note of personal abuse is continued throughout the discussion of Luther's early years, and furnishes the foundation upon which the whole judgment of his later accomplishment is built. It has been the task of his Protestant defenders to show the falsity of the method and to illustrate this by reference to specific points. Denifle has then replied to his critics with sweeping accusations of a character quite in accordance with his assault upon Luther himself. The chief points in this rejoinder are found in the familiar charges of ignorance and falsehood. If we could accept this criticism, we should have to believe that all the vast output of German scholarship in the past two generations had been thrown away. These scholars, the most eminent in their field, are represented first as utterly incapable of understanding even the first principles of historical inquiry. Evidence means nothing to them, because they are constitutionally, or, if you please, confessionally disqualified to weigh and measure it. They cannot read the documents necessary to establish their opinion. They are ignorant of things that every Catholic child knows in its cradle. And then these ornaments of German scholarship, thus incapable of any worthy achievement, are united in a conspiracy to pervert the truth. They are worthy disciples of their master and involved in the same condemnation.
The following is from J.M. Reu's book, Thirty Five Years of Luther Research (New York: AMC Press, 1970 reprint) pertaining to the same details about Luther's entrance into the monastery.
Luther Enters the Monastery
Oergel has shed more light on the circumstances connected with Luther's entrance into the monastery, when he tells how during the year of 1505 the university was visited by quite a number of dire happenings. He tells how suddenly a classmate of Luther died of pleurisy; how just at this time the plague and spotted fever made many victims at Erfurt, so that during the summer a panic occurred among the students. All this helps to explain why just at this time the serious thoughts of death and judgment tormented the soul of Luther, even though the principal motive of his entrance into the monastery always remained the inner restlessness and desire for salvation, of which Hermelink excellently says that the western church always kept this restlessness and desire present, nurturing the same for pedagogical reasons and at the same time satisfying it. (p.40)
Since Denifle had cast so many aspersions on Luther's monastery life, it became necessary to study this period of the life of the Reformer more thoroughly. Outside of the brief answers made to Denifle by Kolde, Seeberg, Haussleiter, Brieger, Koehler, Harnack and Walther, we have here especially to consider Benrath, and even more so Braun. Because Denifle contends that since 1515, certainly since 1519, "the vow of chastity had proven itself irksome to Luther," and that the real motive for his defection from Rome is to be found in his weakness for carnal sins, Benrath takes into consideration the entire period from his entrance into the monastery up to his marriage. He discloses beyond contradiction the manipulations and distortions of facts exercised by Denifle, and permits us to see for ourselves how Luther during his monastery period outgrew the Mediaeval Church, and how the fundamentals were first laid in his own life. He shows that the position which Luther finally won over against the Roman Church can only be understood as the slowly matured result of religious development, a development, that had to pass through all stages of alleged certainty of gaining salvation and the bitter knowledge that external guarantees do not allay doubt until it found its way to the truly blessed certainty of God's paternity through Jesus Christ.
Braun visualizes the internal development of Luther up to 1521, wherefore we must return to his work later on. We must, however, in this connection, consider that Braun very definitely brings out that it was not weakness for carnal sins that contaminated Luther all these years, and brought about the end of his relation with Rome. On the contrary, it was his eminently tender conscience, the very opposite of the "Kautschuk-conscience" trained by the Church, his conscience which would not allow itself to be soothed either through the at that time customary reference to the "Monk's Baptism" (i. e., to the power of order to make up for sins) or through sacramental magic, but which would trouble itself before and after dispensation of grace because of the consciousness of inherent lusts, until the New Testament conception of grace, with its mercy of God, that reckons no sins to the faithful, came into its own, and through faith in it peace entered the heart. Braun says "the Luther personality that becomes apparent to us through his theological endeavors is none other than the one we already know from his mode of life. His unbending veracity that is never guilty of distortion of justice, that by the scholastic distinctions of sins of omission, of weaknesses, of excusable ignorance, the scholastic assertion of the validity of good intentions, and whatever the rest of softening phrases, may be called, does not allow its moral convictions to be confused, but abides by the dictum of the conscience and calls sin sin,—his excellent psychological understanding of the methods of divine pedagogy, finally the unconditional dependence on the grace of God, because of which, following in the steps of Paul and Augustine, he finds nothing of good in himself, but attributes all of holiness, all of virtue, all of good to the freely given mercy of God,—all of these constitute the spiritual seal which Luther's theology bears. They are the proof that God was with him." (pp. 42-44).