October 30, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” considered by historians as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was not the first to challenge the authority of the Medieval Church. Peter Waldo, Savonarola, and Jan Hus are but three of those numbered among the so-called precursors, or forerunners, of the Reformation. Historians, however, like to pick a particular event to mark the beginning or ending of historical periods. Hence, they generally agree that Martin Luther’s bold act of nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the ever of All Saints in 1517 was one of the most significant events in Western, if not world, history.
Not surprising, the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses provides an opportunity for book publishers to release a new batch of books on Martin Luther and/or the Reformation. It is hard to imagine how, after 500 years, anything new can be revealed. The field of historical data on Martin Luther and the Reformation has been plowed over and harvested so often that the most today’s reader can hope for is a new interpretation. Should the author of a new book be a master wordsmith able to write a narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages; well that is icing on the cake.
Professor Lyndal Roper’s MARTIN LUTHER: RENEGADE AND PROPHET is all that the reader could desire of a new Luther biography. It is a scholarly book, in that it is well-researched and documented. Nearly one hundred pages of notes that should not be ignored but read along with the text, and an extensive bibliography testify to the book’s integrity. Professor Roper’s credentials are impressive. She studied at the University of Melbourne, the University of Tübingen, King’s College London, and was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford in 2011. Having some familiarity with the Luther historiography, my expectations were heightened by reading in Roper’s introductory chapter that she studied under the noted Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman. Oberman’s MARTIN LUTHER-MAN BETWEEN GOD AND THE DEVIL (translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwartzbart [London: Harper Collins, 1993]) is a must read for anyone seeking an in depth understanding of Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
Most Luther biographies focus on Luther the bigger than life figure whose troubled spirit led him to a courageous stand against the corruption in the Medieval Church. So troubled was Luther’s spirit by his inability to understand how he, a sinner, could be loved by God that he risked martyrdom to find the answer and then openly testify to it: Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, alone! That simple doctrine, so simple that even a small child could understand it, struck at the very heart of not only the Church’s authority, but the very fabric of medieval society. Neither the Church nor the secular authorities could allow it to go unanswered.
Martin Luther was more than just a heroic figure. He was a human being with strengths and weaknesses like any other person. He was a person of his time. Although well educated, his understanding of the world in which he lived was pre-modern, pre-scientific. For example, there is a passage in LUTHER’S TABLE TALK where he appears to make reference to Copernicus’ assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth. Luther dismissed the Copernicus’ theory boldly affirming the geocentric theory of an earth centered universe, because he believed it is clearly taught in Holy Scripture (Joshua 10:10-15).
To understand Marti n Luther one must see him as a complete, three-dimensional person. But more than that, one must understand the social, economic, political, and intellectual world in which he lived. Any attempt to apply a twenty-first century worldview to Martin Luther is bound to fail.
Professor Roper’s Luther is a complex person who exhibits all the prejudices of his time. His personality and actions were shaped in part by the fact that he did not come from the cultivated elite, and the fact that apart from a trip to Rome while still an Augustinian monk, he never ventured beyond the area where he enjoyed the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise. With a price on his head after the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther had to allow his close followers (e.g., Philip Melanchthon) to represent him and defend his teachings at key moments, such as the Diet of Augsburg (1530). Being sidelined by those he felt not his equal caused Luther much frustration and contributed to his chronic physical ailments.
Luther might be considered a reluctant revolutionary. He began by seeking a debate among university colleagues concerning the abuse of the doctrine indulgences. That simple desire for debate among a few university professors ended in the fragmentation of Christianity. His insistence on the Bible as the final authority on matters of faith and practice left every individual able to interpret for him or herself what was true biblical teaching. The teaching authority of the Church vanished. Anarchy followed. Luther’s questions began the process of the secularization of Western Civilization.
Although Luther rejected the authority of the Medieval Church, he defended the political, social, and economic structure of Medieval Europe. He abhorred rebellion in every form, except his own religious rebellion. When the Peasants tried to derive conclusions about social and economic justice from Luther’s teaching, Luther called upon the princes to suppress the peasants with brutal force. They did! The only recourse Luther offered the peasants was quiet suffering and prayer.
Professor Roper does not shy away from discussing one of the most disturbing and difficult to understand aspects of Martin Luther’s role in Western history, that is, his strident Anti-Semitism. Luther devoted two major treatises to the topic of the Jews. The first, “That Jesus Was Born a Jew” (1523), was sympathetic to them, even generous in its language. The later treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543), is altogether different, and surpassed, if that is possible, the hateful, vindictive tone of “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1525). By 1543, Luther had obviously given up all hope of the Jews converting to Christianity. So, he was prepared to assign them, along with the papacy, to the eternal flames.
I hesitate to refer to MARTIN LUTHER: RENEGADE AND PROPHET as a “psychohistory,” since Erik Erikson’s psychoanalytical study of Luther, YOUNG MAN LUTHER (1958), is one of the most misleading books on Martin Luther. How can anyone, however informed, ever understand what motivates another person’s thoughts and actions? But isn’t that what makes history so interesting? What happened? When did it happen? Those are easy questions. The mystery lies in the “why?” Why did Luther pursue his cause with such passion in the face of almost certain martyrdom? Professor Roper demonstrates that the proper application of psychological and psychoanalytical insights can help us “to understand Luther himself . . . to know how a sixteenth-century individual perceived the world around him, and why he viewed it in this way . . . to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body.”
There are numerous books on Martin Luther. Many more will be written in the future. The reader who desires just a brief introduction to Luther may wish to begin with my own contribution, MARTIN LUTHER: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS (2005). It includes an “Annotated Chronology of Luther’s Reformation Writings.” Roland Bainton’s HERE I STAND: A LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER first published in 1950 remains the unchallenged classic biography of this great historical figure. That being said, I believe that given its scholarship and readability, Lyndal Roper’s MARTIN LUTHER: RENEGADE AND PROPHET will quickly establish an enduring presence among the “must read” books on Martin Luther.
Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy.