Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer
by scott h. hendrix
yale, 368 pages, $35
Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom
by carl r. trueman
crossway, 224 pages, $17.99
rom the European perspective, American history looks like a laboratory experiment on the impact of the Reformation. We see in the United States the manifold fruits of toleration, democracy, religious pluralism, individualism, and liberalism. According to scholars like Brad Gregory, all these stem from Martin Luther’s renewal program. In Latin America, by contrast, the overall Roman Catholic culture continued, dominating religious life until the twentieth century. During this time, the continent suffered from the political and economic ill effects of a repressive Catholic colonialism. The contrast is stark.
On the eve of the Reformation festivities of 2017 we need to ask, however, whether this picture of an individualistic Reformation and a holistic Catholicism represents anything more than a cultural prejudice. Do we have in Martin Luther’s biblical theology the beginnings of modern individualism and subjectivism? Does his renewal program contain the seeds that led later Protestants to establish a new kind of Western society in North America? Among the variety of new studies of Luther, two books should help the reader answer the question.
Portrayals of Martin Luther’s life abound in the English-speaking world. In addition to Roland Bainton’s and Heiko Oberman’s rhetorically vivid presentations, one can mention Martin Marty’s short but balanced and reliable treatment and Martin Brecht’s three-volume standard biography, a masterpiece of German thoroughness and love of detail.
n spite of these and some other admirable books, Scott Hendrix was motivated to make his new attempt by the observation that, when asked, he was unable to name “a good Luther biography.” In some sense, I agree. Marty is too short and Brecht too long. Bainton and Oberman have excellent style and good story-telling, but their research is either outdated or does not serve the ordinary purposes of an academic textbook. For instance, Oberman’s last book, The Two Reformations, contains a great number of enjoyable punch lines but lacks balance and comprehensive scope. Hendrix has now published a comprehensive textbook based on new research. While he is known as a via media scholar who builds bridges between European and American scholarship as well as between historians and theologians, his writing is not stuffily academic.
Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer is divided into two parts. The first, “Pathways to Reform,” begins with Luther’s birth in 1483 and ends with his excommunication and flight to Wartburg in 1521. The second, “Pursuit of a Vision,” starts with Luther’s return to Wittenberg in 1522 and concludes with his death in 1546. All chapter titles are quotations from Luther’s own writings, and the immediate context of each quote is printed as the motto of the chapter. With the help of this elegant procedure, Hendrix can draft chapters that have fresh titles and avoid anachronism. The first five chapter titles give a sense of the effect: “My Homeland,” “All that I Am and Have,” “Holy from Head to Toe,” “Not One of These,” “Quiet No Longer.”
Unlike many other biographers, Hendrix treats the different periods of Luther’s life with roughly equal length. For this reason, the chapters focusing on the Reformation discoveries (years 1516–1521) receive a shorter treatment than they do in most previous biographies. This also means that Luther’s later years (1522–1546) are seen not merely as a consolidation of previous reforms, but as innovative in their own right. This decision is the right one for a subject whose literary output and other activities remained so intensive through his whole career.
he big stylistic challenge in all biographies of Luther is to find the right balance between narrating external events and making sense of his enormous literary production. As Hendrix has a strictly chronological table of contents—each of his eighteen sequential chapters describing a period in the reformer’s life—he cannot group Luther’s texts into distinct thematic entities. An additional challenge of this procedure is the historical fact that Luther’s writings often respond to an earlier controversy or prepare a new one that will only take place in the future. In his literary life, Luther therefore employs a timeline different from that of his real life.
The eleventh chapter, “Rebellion Is Intolerable,” illustrates these challenges. It deals with the year 1525, in which Luther gets married. At the same time, he is occupied in his writing by the raging Peasants’ War and the emerging controversies over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The controversy with Erasmus on free will and academic lectures on the Old Testament also demand considerable literary activity. Hendrix describes all of these literary and real-life events in seventeen pages, jumping back and forth between history and theology.
It would have been much easier to bypass the eucharistic controversies and the battle with Erasmus, as Luther’s marriage and the Peasants’ War already provide an abundance of material. Hendrix admirably avoids this. Many other English-language historical treatments of the Reformation tend to leave theological matters somewhat aside. When Hendrix deals with theology and intellectual history, he often follows the German habit of writing church history with a strong focus on theological matters.
The format of biography, however, simply does not lend itself to lengthy theological undertakings. Hendrix is aware of this and does not attempt to offer an exhaustive treatment of free will or the Lord’s Supper. A reader who wants to be well informed of both Luther’s thinking and Reformation history must supplement his biographical reading with another work that focuses solely on theology. Hendrix’s brief descriptions can be complemented, for instance, with Bernhard Lohse’s Martin Luther’s Theology and Olli-Pekka Vainio’s Engaging Luther. While Lohse offers a solid overview, Vainio and his Finnish soulmates bring Luther’s thought into contact with the broader arenas of systematic theology.
Among Luther biographies of this size, Hendrix’s presentation is in many ways an optimal academic textbook. It is comprehensive but not tedious. It balances theology and history well. It pays proper attention to the most recent European and American scholarship. Those readers who like pointed rhetoric and exuberant style may still profit from Heiko Oberman’s works. For those who prefer classicism, Hendrix’s new biography is highly recommended.
arl R. Trueman is a Reformed theologian who has lectured and written on Martin Luther for decades. In Luther on Christian Life, Trueman focuses on the relationship between theology and life in Luther’s thinking. While his book is fairly general and addresses beginners, it actually deals with a hot topic that is discussed very thoroughly in contemporary academic scholarship. Among recent European books, Andreas Stegmann’s massive study Luthers Auffassung vom christlichen Leben covers much of the same ground as Trueman’s concise work.
In eight chapters, Trueman deals with the theology of proclamation, worship and the sacraments, the individual life of the faithful, Christian righteousness, vocation, marriage, and family. Trueman’s Presbyterian background is visible in his view that Luther represents “high sacramentalism” that is “the most alien and perhaps even most confusing area of his positive theological thought to modern evangelical Protestants.” A European reader like myself finds such statements strange, as we consider Luther the most typical Protestant thinker and do not perceive such high sacramentalism. At the same time, Trueman is respectful of Luther and often stresses the deep similarities between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. What he writes about Luther is well founded and manifests typical Lutheran convictions.
he most intriguing part of the book is its personal “Conclusion.” When asked whether he would take Luther or Calvin to accompany him on a desert island, Trueman answers that he would take Luther since he is so obviously human and so clearly loved life. Many Lutherans would no doubt give the same answer. After this, Trueman states that he is especially impressed by the objectivity of God’s revelation in Luther’s theology. While our contemporary world stresses the individual person’s problems, Luther underlines that we must let God be God and think about God’s objective reality. Trueman elucidates Luther’s objectivity as follows. We are not to look at our own inner state of being but at Christ. In our struggles with sin, we must flee to him. Similarly, the church service is not a response of sinners to God’s grace, but an example of that grace in action. The sacramental forms of word, water, wine, and bread are objective realities. The divine love is not responsive but creative. On the first look, this does not match Luther’s reputation for being human and loving life, but for Trueman, the objective ground of personal faith in Luther promotes genuine humanity and love of life.
Such conclusions make me think of those Roman Catholics who, like Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi, find Luther hopelessly subjectivist and individualist, a pre-Cartesian fideist who cannot admit that there is an objective reality of faith. How can it be that the same Luther is evaluated so differently by Catholics and Calvinists? An easy answer to this difficult issue would be to consider that both sides project something of their own identity onto Luther. Trueman benevolently thinks that Luther’s objectivism has something to say to Evangelical Protestants. Catholics, on the other hand, want to consolidate their own objective realism by drawing a distinction between themselves and all Protestants in this regard.
The more challenging answer has to do with defining the real position of Luther in this issue. Luther is probably a subjectivist in his humanity and love of life. He may not be as objectivist in his view of the sacraments as Trueman thinks, since he stresses so much the point that sacramental grace is “for you” or “for us.” On the other hand, Luther is clearly not as subjectivist as Pope Benedict thinks. The reformer definitely adopts a real-ontological view of the object of faith, Christ present in us. Different schools of Luther interpretation that aim at steering a right course through this issue can be helped by Trueman’s charitable readings of Luther. If one is to err in Luther interpretation, it should be in the direction of the real-ontological. It was the objectivity of grace, the sheer fact of God’s love in Christ, that inspired the man who launched the Reformation.
Risto Saarinen is professor of ecumenics at the University of Helsinki.