There is a good case to be made that the most important figure in Christian history since the time of the apostles is Martin Luther. Of course not everybody would agree with this and others might wish to argue the case for a range of other figures (such as Augustine). It is equally true that quite a few Christians have mixed feelings about Luther. But, love him or loathe him, Luther cannot be ignored – not least because next year marks the 500th anniversary of his nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church (although in fact, as this book points out, Luther may have, at most, glued them to the door or maybe not affixed them at all, but rather sent them to his bishop).Luther
This important new biography by Lyndal Roper is impressive in its range of historical research and in its evenhandedness and fairness in assessing Luther and his legacy. Roper, who is an Australian by birth and now a Professor of history at Oxford, has mainly written in the past on witchcraft. She extensively analyses Luther’s character, personality and “internal life”. In particular this stresses that there was nothing “inevitable” about the Reformation but rather that it was a combination of luck (or we might prefer to call it Providence), missed opportunities by the ruling elite in the church, and above all Martin Luther’s unusual mix of intellectual brilliance and driven personality.
Roper begins with Martin Luther’s (he was born Luder) distinctive background and upbringing. His father was a successful entrepreneur in the mining business. He was aghast when his eldest son, instead of following him in the family business or at the least becoming a lawyer, decided instead to become a monk. Luther’s relationship with his father was very complex and to the end of his life he was at least in part traumatised by his father’s strong criticism of his decision not to pursue a secular career (which was even expressed to his son as he celebrated his first mass as a priest). Roper points out that Luther was a highly unlikely revolutionary. He had been a monk for 12 years, worked his way up through the Augustinian order and become a professor in a new and highly obscure university. He had published almost nothing and was completely unknown to the wider German public, let alone in Europe as a whole.
Luther’s life was almost exclusively spent in a very constricted area around the town of Wittenberg_SchlosskircheWittenberg in what is now the east of Germany. He only once left Germany, to visit Rome. His criticism is supposed to have begun with indulgences, although the first of the 95 theses is actually to do with penance. Roper points out that Luther was in fact striking at the entire edifice of the medieval church and in particular at the authority of the papacy. An elaborate system of financial and theological structures had been created with one aim, to finance the church. Indulgences became particularly popular in Germany from the side of the clergy because many of the bishops had to pay the Vatican a large amount of money to secure their position. They were also popular with many of the laity as “they did not want to desist from adultery, usury, unjust goods and other sins and evil”.
Roper skilfully weighs up Luther’s character. His defining characteristic was, she argues, his “breathtaking courage”. Above all this was shown at the famous (not least as the source of endless schoolboy jokes down the centuries in English) “Diet of Worms”. Here, Luther almost single-handedly stood against the combined religious and secular authorities, the latter led by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Luther’s courage is exemplified by the fact that he could have easily ended up being burnt at the stake along with his books. His willingness to die for what he thought electrified German opinion. Luther’s views were therefore refracted and amplified through what he did.
Roper makes some interesting points about Luther’s theology. We tend to think of him as the advocate of “salvation by grace alone” and “Sola scriptura”, but, she argues, just as important to the man himself was his insistence on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. “Many modern Protestants … find this alien. Yet this question dominated Luther’s later years… and split the reformation.” It is certainly striking how unwilling Martin Luther was to make any accommodation with his allies in the Reformation on this point, even single-handedly 300px-Marburger-Religionsgesprächtorpedoing various attempts to broker a reconciliation and rejoicing over the death of his arch-enemy on this topic, Huldrych Zwingli. Roper points out how this strong belief in the real presence of Christ was linked to Luther’s deeply anti-ascetic thinking which was most untypical of theological thought at the time. Luther constantly undermined the distinction between flesh and spirit; he loved food and sex and beer and – argues Roper- this is why his theology has to be understood in relation to Luther the man. This is also important in understanding how his ideas spread. Far from being a “one man band” Luther was the centre of a densely-woven network of reformers throughout Europe, with a particular focus on Germany and German-speaking Switzerland. Roper argues that his energy and conviction and brilliant use of what we would now call public relations, rather than his intellectual superiority per se, explains why he became the leading figure in the Reformation. Luther was absolutely superb at utilising “modern technology”. His ability to keep producing quickly easy-to-read and right up-to-date publications ran rings around his ponderous opponents. He was also supremely gifted at boiling complex theology down to memorable “soundbites”. Luther summed up Augustine, for example, as follows “Man is unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God and does not want God to be God.”
Roper does not shy away from pointing out her subject’s weaknesses. I have already mentioned his inability to compromise. She is also forthright in her analysis of what in my view is by far Luther’s least attractive feature — his deep and virulent anti-Semitism. Some historians have tried to excuse this by saying that this was typical of all Germans at this time, but in fact Luther’s hatred of the Jews was very extreme even by the standards of the age and shocked many of his fellow reformers. Later in life, affected by ill health and deserted by some of his followers, Luther became increasingly irascible and his spleen was more and more directed at the Jews. Of course, this was to set in train over the centuries a deeply anti-Semitic strain in German popular culture. However, to argue, as some reviewers of the book have done, that Luther made Protestantism in general anti-Semitic is factually incorrect. Within a short time, a strong current of philo-Semitism emerged, especially among Puritans in English-speaking countries. For example, the famous English theologian John Owen predicted that “The Jews shall be gathered from all parts of the earth where they are scattered, and brought home into their homeland”.
Where I feel that the book is particularly impressive is in its ability to weave together all the different strands of its subject’s highly complex and, indeed, contradictory character, at the same time placing him firmly in the historical context of his life and times. Yes, he was a man like all of us with many faults and weaknesses, but he was also ultimately able to effect a luther95tremendous change (in my view firmly for the better – other views are available)! An interesting question is whether or not a more reasonable reply to Luther’s initial criticism from the church authorities might have led to reform within the church. At the time, many other thinkers were saying similar things to Luther, but perhaps lacked the courage of their convictions to push their thinking to its logical conclusion. Whatever your view of Luther, we simply cannot understand the last 500 years of the Christian church without understanding the man and something at least of his theology. This book in my opinion is the definitive place to start. It is impressively researched and beautifully written and likely to be widely read for many years to come.
What then shall we say of the significance of Luther for today? Firstly and most obviously that the Reformation still matters. There are historians who have argued that the Reformation was imposed from above for reasons of nationalism and politics and indeed, in the case of England, there is some basis for this argument. But the origins of the Reformation are not ultimately in England but in Germany and here it was firmly a Reformation from below. The ideas of the reformers – perhaps above all the idea that authority derives from the Bible and not from tradition or church hierarchy – remain in my view just as important today as five 500 years ago. (One thing though we must certainly do differently when discussing the Reformation with our Roman Catholic friends is to avoid the intemperate and even at times obscene and scatological language which characterised both sides of the debate)
Next, we can certainly learn from Luther’s courage in being willing to defend his ideas even in the face of the very real risk of being burnt alive. It is also striking that Luther, when he started, was not at all an important person — in fact he was rather obscure — but he was Luther%202someone who was willing to stand up and be counted. Finally theologians and pastors may like to reflect on Luther’s ability to harness the latest technology to advance their ideas. Yes, of course people were more interested in religious ideas 500 years ago than now, sadly, but if we really want to advance the claims of the gospel we must not be afraid of using the latest means of spreading the good word. Luther created a market for a new set of theological ideas and reached a vast number of people who were not theologians or clergy. He wrote popularly, simply, directly and above all personally to his readers using easy to understand language and also harnessing what we might call “other media” (especially art painted by friends such as Lucas Cranach). Christian ideas can be spread, shows Luther, even in apparently unpromising circumstances and in the face of fierce opposition and persecution. No doubt there are many more things which could be said for our current age, so I suggest you purchase the book and draw your own conclusions!
LTS Board member