Book Review

Reformation 500 Legacy: New Luther Biographies

Adam S. Francisco
Friday, September 1st 2017
Sep/Oct 2017

Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer
By Scott H. Hendrix
Yale University Press, 2017
368 pages (paperback), $22.00

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
By Lyndal Roper
Random House, 2017
576 pages (hardback), $40.00

October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World
By Martin Marty
Paraclete Press, 2016
128 pages (hardback), $19.99

When Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, he had hoped only to start a local academic debate over the practice of selling indulgences. He got more than he bargained for, though. When papal authorities received and read the theses, they sensed he wasn’t just questioning an approved practice of the church but was ultimately presenting a challenge to the authority of the church. So they began to investigate his most basic theological convictions in an ecclesiastical trial of sorts that would conclude at the Diet of Worms. It was here that Luther made his last stand, refusing to recant and announcing his intention to stand firm in his theological convictions. The result was what Luther described as the beginning of a “reformation according to Holy Scripture.”

This story continues to fascinate historians and theologians, clergy and laity, and for good reason. The Reformation, as Martin Marty’s October 31, 1517 suggests, changed the world, and given the quincentenary of its opening salvo, a number of books on the subject have been and will continue to be written. The curious thing about Marty’s new work is that it has very little to do with its subtitle, Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World. It is more the reflections of a Lutheran ecumenist, using the Ninety-Five Theses as a pretext, with a call for Christian unity despite the doctrinal divisions that surfaced (and remain) in the wake of 1517.

There are, nevertheless, some superb books on Martin Luther and the early Protestant Reformation. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (1950) and James Kittelson’s Luther the Reformer (1986) are veritable classics. Both are reliable and lucidly written, and they make great first reads on the life and ideas of the Reformer. Alongside these, there is the work of Heiko Oberman. His Luther: Man between God and the Devil (1992) is distinct. Less concerned about the controversies and events of the Reformation—presuming his readers would be familiar with these—Oberman focused primarily on the Reformer’s theological and apocalyptic worldview as it took shape during the course of his life. [Editorial note: For more information on these books by Bainton and Oberman, see the Classic Luther Biographies section of this book review.]

More could and perhaps should be mentioned—for example, the massive three- volume, fifteen-hundred-page work by Martin Brecht. The point here is that there is a well-worn path of Luther scholarship. Most of what can be known about his life and theology already is. Few historical figures have received as much attention as he has. So it is hard to imagine the work of Bainton, Kittelson, and Oberman being outdone. But then there is the new, outstanding work of two leading early modern historians—Scott Hendrix and Lyndal Roper.

Hendrix’s book, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, is the culmination of decades of research and writing. Although short for a scholarly work, it is still dense in the details of Luther’s life and thought. Some details, such as the uncertainty of the year of his birth (Luther and Melanchthon even argued about his age on one occasion), are of little consequence, but it is the stuff any history aficionado would find interesting. Others, such as his descriptions of Luther’s piety in Erfurt’s Augustinian monastery and the later polemics of works with delightful titles, such as Against the Roman Papacy Instituted by the Devil, are essential to the Reformer’s story.

Hendrix’s prose is clear and complete, and in the end he accomplishes what he set out to do: to describe Luther as accurately and objectively as possible (he was “a human being with both merits and faults”) in light of the complicated context of sixteenth-century Germany. Roper, on the other hand, is quite different. She takes the controversial approach of psychohistory. Focusing on “Luther’s inner development,” Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet “charts the emotional transformations wrought by the religious changes Luther set in motion.”

This approach to biography was first applied to the Reformer in Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958). Rather than explain Luther theologically, Hendrix summarizes that Erikson “proposed that resentment of both parents and ambivalence towards the father predisposed his adult son to rebel against the pope in place of the father he could not safely defy” (16).

As one might imagine, psychohistory has not escaped significant criticism. There is a long history of it found in literature reviews of Luther biographies going back to Roland Bainton’s essay “Psychiatry and History: An Examination of Erickson’s ‘Young Man Luther’” (Religion in Life 40 [1971]: 463). (Hendrix’s brief critique can be found at the beginning of chapter 2 of his book.) Roper is certainly well aware of these, and she is cautious to avoid the shortcomings of Erikson’s approach. “Luther’s relationship to his father was fundamental to his personality,” she maintains. However, this is “only part of what shaped him” (xxvi). He must also be understood in light of the social and cultural forces of the sixteenth century.

Katie and Martin Luther

In one of the great adventure stories of the Reformation, Katharina von Bora escaped her Cistercian convent in 1523 and fled to Wittenberg. She and Martin Luther were married on June 13, 1525, and had a blessed and rich life together. Katie continues to be a fascinating woman of the Reformation in her own right.

Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation:
The Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora
By Ruth A. Tucker
Zondervan, 2017
A biography from former professor of church history.

Katharina and Martin Luther:
The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk
By Michelle DeRusha
Baker Books, 2017
The story of Luther and Katie narrated by a broadly evangelical author.

Roper is quite compelling in her description of Luther’s attitudes, emotions, and worldview. “I want to understand Luther himself,” she explains in the introduction, “to know how a sixteenth-century individual perceived the world around him, and why he viewed it in this way” (xxvii). She does just this in a masterful way—not by merely describing but also by carefully explaining the nuances of the ideas he expressed in a world different from our own.

Luther was very much a premodern thinker. His world was filled with demonic forces and apocalyptic manifestations, but he wasn’t quite medieval. The movement he set in motion can be credited, in part, “with starting the process of secularization in the West” (xviii). Even so, he was conservative, he respected tradition, and he had a high view of authority (rightly conceived), but he could also be described as an independent thinker (bound only to the word of God) and a “maverick.” He was certainly “no killjoy” and could, in contradistinction to most of medieval Christian thought, be “remarkably positive about the body and physical experience” (410).

These almost paradoxical aspects of Luther’s personality are wonderfully illustrated throughout the book. They are also complemented by eloquent descriptions of the details of his life’s work against the social and cultural backdrop of the Reformation. Like Hendrix, but in quite a different way, Roper’s work is an elegant and fascinating biography of Luther that strikes just the right balance between describing his prejudices and inflexibility alongside his most attractive features, his “extraordinary openness, his honest willingness to put everything on the line, and his capacity to accept God’s grace as a gift he did not merit” (410).

Both biographies are sure to become classic resources for those want to learn about or brush up on their knowledge of the man who paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. They complement each other nicely. Hendrix’s volume tends to follow the traditional approach by focusing especially on the landmarks of Luther’s story, but it brings the reader up to date on all the research since Bainton and Kittelson published their lives of Luther. Roper’s is state of the art, too, but it focuses much more on Luther’s worldview and psychology. She is a wordsmith, more eloquent than Oberman, and carefully avoids falling into the reductionist and historiographical errors of Erikson. Both are sophisticated yet accessible, comprehensive yet manageable.

So which one should you read? It depends what you are looking for. The student of theology and church history will probably find Hendrix more beneficial. The student of the humanities—who is especially interested in the way we are shaped by the people and culture of our world and how we in turn shape the world we live in—will find Roper’s work both captivating and inspiring. The student of history and biography, however, should read both. They are exemplary biographies about a remarkable and significant man.

Adam S. Francisco is professor of history and chair of the History and Political Thought Department at Concordia University Irvine in California.

Friday, September 1st 2017

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

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