Book Review

Reformation 500 Legacy: Classic Luther Biographies

R. Scott Clark
Roland H. Bainton
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
By Roland H. Bainton
Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950

Luther: Man between God and the Devil
By Heiko Oberman
Yale University Press, 1989

One of the first books I remember reading as a young Christian was Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950). It has been the entry point to Luther’s biography and theology for many English-language readers and a fine one it is. Bainton (1894–1984) was a Congregational minister and faculty member of the Yale Divinity School for forty-two years. At his retirement in 1962, he was the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History. According to the New York Times obituary by Walter H. Waggoner, Here I Stand sold a staggering 1.2 million copies.

The influence of this volume on English-speaking readers is as deserved as it is hard to calculate. Bainton was a brilliant scholar who wrote in fluid and eminently readable English. The volume has no footnotes, but the evidence of scholarship is everywhere in the text. Though one might be tempted to avoid it because of its 1950 publication date, this would be a mistake. He got things right that more recent scholarship has not. For example, he avoided the mistake of the Luther Renaissance, which wanted to date Luther’s Protestant turn much earlier than the facts will allow (which then created a significant mischaracterization of what constitutes essential Protestant theology). If Bainton may be dated in other ways—e.g., the title of the volume rests on words that Luther most likely never actually said—even so, his Luther is still a fellow worth meeting.

The just successor to Bainton’s Luther is Heiko Oberman (1930–2001), whose death, like Bainton’s, also received notice in the New York Times, which was an indicator of his cultural status. In his time, Oberman was the preeminent scholar of Late Medieval Scholasticism and Reformation theology. Born in Utrecht and educated there, as well as in Indonesia and Oxford, Oberman began his academic career at Harvard Divinity School. He also taught at Tübingen and finished his career at the University of Arizona. His work (and method) has been foundational for scholars of both the Reformation and post-Reformation periods for decades.

Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devil is brilliant from beginning to end. His Luther is the baseline to which other writers add. My only significant dissent is from his account of Luther’s view of Scripture. He could not resist the temptation to recast Luther as one who anticipated Karl Barth (lest Luther seem too conservative or a fundamentalist). Still, few volumes draw one into Luther’s world as thoroughly and successfully as Oberman’s, who perhaps better than any prior account, put Luther in his late medieval context. No one can read Oberman’s Luther and think of him as a “modern” man. No other writer has done better at dealing with the complexities in Luther’s relationship to and rhetoric about the Jews. In this Luther Year, the reader will do well to meet Oberman’s Luther.

R. Scott Clark is professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

Friday, September 1st 2017

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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