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The Making of Martin Luther
by richard rex
princeton, 296 pages, $27.95

Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation

by peter marshall
oxford, 278 pages, $24.95

A World Ablaze:
The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation

by craig harline
oxford, 312 pages, $27.95

Martin Luther:
Renegade and Prophet

by lyndal roper
random house, 576 pages, $40

I will never forget my first visit to St. Peter’s Square. The sheer aesthetic force of the architecture spoke of power and constancy amid a sea of change. The buildings embodied the confidence of a Church that had outlasted all rivals, political and ecclesiastical, with an almost casual indifference to their fate. It was enough to send a shudder down my Protestant spine.

Yet returning there a few weeks ago, my response was different. That first visit was in the immediate aftermath of the papacy of John Paul II, during the tenure of Benedict XVI. Now the bishop of Rome is Papa Francesco, and the conservative Catholic air is full of angst about the future. St. Peter’s Square seems somehow diminished, less like an immovable rock in the tempestuous seas of a liquid modernity and more like a magnificent museum piece of a bygone age. I suspect it is not Protestants but traditionalist Roman Catholics who feel the approach of Anfechtungen as they walk into the square today.

If Francis’s papacy has done anything, it has surely raised the question of church authority once again, and that in an acute form. Ultramontanism was a low-risk, even natural, strategy for traditional Roman Catholics under the last two popes. Now its risks are only too obvious. In such a context, it is inevitable that serious Roman Catholic thinkers will once again turn to the man who more than any other shaped the Reformation: Martin Luther. Two such scholars are the distinguished historians Richard Rex and Peter Marshall. In recent books, they have turned their attention to Luther and to the questions he raised, and the results are engaging indeed.

Rex’s brilliantly written biography of Luther goes from the cradle not to the grave but to the immediate aftermath of the Diet of Worms. The thread he sees as giving spiritual and intellectual unity to this period of Luther’s life is the quest for certainty. This, of course, is simply one specific form of the question of authority: “On what basis can I know for certain that these things are true and apply to me?” From his time as a novice Augustinian to his translating of the New Testament during his sojourn at the Wartburg, Luther was driven by the need to be sure of God’s grace, the existential need to know that God is gracious to him personally. As Rex puts it: “It was his new conception of faith, faith now modulated to the key of personal certainty of grace, that constituted Luther’s most important and most original contribution in the field of Christian theology.”

Of course, this existential quest had profound political and ecclesiastical consequences. Thus, as Rex develops this narrative, he offers one of the finest concise accounts of the theology of indulgences and demonstrates how Luther’s questioning of the practice benefited, at least in the initial stages, from being connected in the popular mind with the broader reforming campaigns of the great men of letters of the age, such as Johannes Reuchlin and Desiderius Erasmus. Ultimately, however, Luther’s vision of reformation could not be contained within the Erasmian paradigm precisely because of the personal, existential urgency of Luther’s need to be sure of God’s grace. It depended upon knowing who God was, and thus demanded a vigorous and elaborate doctrinal faith—a faith that could not tolerate a papacy whose vacillations and contradictions drove Luther first (and briefly) to look toward some kind of conciliar solution to the problem and then ultimately to his articulation of the notion of Scripture as the perspicuous norm for the Church’s doctrinal declarations. Considering Rex’s own passionate Roman Catholicism, this is a remarkably sympathetic portrait of the Reformer, and it is possibly the best concise study of Luther’s early reforming career that I have read.

Marshall’s approach is different. He uses 1517 and the subsequent centenaries as chronological markers not so much in a quest for the historical Luther, but as a way to explore how Luther’s reputation and significance have changed over time. The result is a book which is both an account of Luther and an account of European cultural and political history over five centuries. Marshall makes a good case for believing that in the aftermath of 1517, “it was Luther’s opponents who pushed him down a road of radicalization.”

There is a nuance here that has to be noted. Luther’s other, less famous theses of 1517—those against scholastic theology—indicate that his methodological and thus theological radicalism existed somewhat independently of the indulgence crisis. This earlier disputation stands in direct continuity with Luther’s 1518 theses, presented in Heidelberg, where Luther laid the groundwork for his distinction between law and gospel, and made his important distinction between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. The opposition to his theses on indulgences did not so much radicalize him as launch him onto the public stage, forcing him to reflect upon the implications of what he already believed.

Marshall’s main concern is not to offer a thoroughgoing account of Luther’s intellectual development but to show how one specific incident, the posting of the Ninety-five Theses, was received and transformed in later tradition. Marshall himself (like Rex) seems persuaded by Erwin Iserloh’s argument that the posting never happened. For much of the book, Marshall downplays the significance of the event’s historicity. What he focuses on is the way in which the (non-?) event became mythologized in later centuries. What would have been no more controversial an act than advertising a university debate on the parish noticeboard became over the years a lone, heroic gesture, driving a symbolic stake through the heart of a corrupt Church. Ultimately, how Luther issued the theses does matter for how we understand the origins and original intention of his Reformation. If he did post the theses on the castle door, he was indeed initiating a somewhat confrontational public debate on indulgences; if he merely sent them to the local archbishop, he was attempting something much more gentle and tentative, less Hollywood but more pastoral. Alas, we shall never know.

Craig Harline’s A World Ablaze is not detained by such disputes. It offers an entertaining and semi-novelized account of Luther up until his return to Wittenberg from the Wartburg Castle in 1522. Starting with the entertaining story of two prospective students encountering a “Hebrew-reading knight” at the Black Bear Inn in 1522 (Luther traveling incognito) and then offering a delightful account of Luther’s life up to that point, this is an entertaining and worthwhile biography that may well supplant Roland Bainton’s classic Here I Stand as the best introduction to Luther’s life.

What Rex, Marshall, and Harline have in common is their focus on Luther’s early reforming career. And there is good reason for this: The years leading up to the clash with Erasmus in 1525 and the collapse of the loose coalition of pro-Luther groups in the Peasants’ War undoubtedly encompass Luther’s most constructive and significant work. Yet for understanding contemporary ecclesiastical issues, his later career is more important.

What Luther did in the years 1517–1522 was unleash theological forces which fundamentally remade the expectations and the content of the Christian life, transforming the role of the Church and the priesthood. In doing so, he created new questions and problems that he was at first scarcely able to address: personal assurance, authority in scriptural interpretation, and the role of the sacraments. By the late 1520s, the failure of the new gospel to transform lives demanded deeper thinking on pastoral techniques. The parish visitations of 1526–1528 revealed that the preaching of the gospel had not led to any significant rise in biblical literacy in many towns and villages. As Luther complained in the preface to his Small Catechism, many people—even clergy!—did not know the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer and lived, in his memorable phrase, “like . . . irrational swine.”

And the conflict with Zwingli over the little phrase “This is my body” raised Christological and hermeneutical questions which pressed hard against Luther’s earlier confidence that one could simply replace the teaching magisterium of the Church with the text of Scripture. These are the questions with which Luther wrestled and which continue to face the Church today. Whether his answers were adequate or not is beyond the scope of this review, but a study of how he approached the problems, from authority to pastoral care, can only help those who seek to address such issues today. Love him or hate him, Luther asked important questions, and as with the work of all great theologians, we can learn as much from his mistakes and missteps as from his insights.

A knowledge of Luther’s whole career, and not just the remarkable years from 1517 to 1525, is important for contemporary Christians. Of all the recent Luther biographies, I consider Lyndal Roper’s to be the best. Roper, a historian of witchcraft, offers an account of Luther’s life that is both appropriately critical and, at points, surprisingly sympathetic. Thus, instead of making the typical critique which can come from either Roman Catholics or feminists—that Luther domesticated female piety and made Katie, the housewife, the normative Protestant woman—Roper sees him as remarkably progressive and liberating in some of his views of the opposite sex. For example, contrary to the received wisdom of his day, Luther believed sex was intended for the pleasure of both men and women, and, as Roper argues, even some of his apparently misogynistic and patriarchal comments need to be understood in context if we are to see their true radicalism. Of his notorious comment that women should “bear children to death,” often cited to show his callous chauvinism, she remarks:

He was insisting that the pains of childbirth were natural and pleasing to God, and he was arguing against a widespread belief that a woman giving birth was under the sway of the Devil, and that if she were to die before being churched, she could not be buried in the churchyard.

In addition, Roper brings out the very human dimensions of the 1530s and ’40s, as Luther was largely eclipsed by Melanchthon as the real leader of the evangelical movement, becoming little more than a revered figurehead. Illness and old age took their toll, too, pushing Luther more frequently into the bouts of depression to which he was always inclined. And Roper also teases out the practical issues created by the problems which his earlier theology generated, particularly those connected to authority and the interpretation and application of Scripture.

Indeed, at the center of the Luther problem is the fact that the years immediately following 1517 were shaped by an imminent expectation of Christ’s return. This not only explains Luther’s relatively positive approach to the Jews in 1523 but also the (in retrospect) cavalier way he was able to present Scripture, pure and simple, as the answer to the Church’s problem of authority. As the problems pile up—the Peasants’ War, Zwingli, the refusal of the emperor to subscribe to the Augsburg Confession—it becomes clear that Jesus is not about to come back, and deeper reflection on authority and institutional structure is needed. The Luther of On the Councils and the Church (1539) is as different in a sense from the Luther of On the Freedom of a Christian (1520) as the Luther of On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) is from the Luther who wrote That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew (1523). The early Reformation disappointed him, delivering neither the return of Christ nor a Church unified by doctrinal agreement. And thus the questions with which Luther started his road to Reformation, above all those of authority and of the existential certainty of God’s grace, returned to haunt him in old age as he was forced to reflect upon both the fracturing of Protestantism under the weight of theological differences and the nature and role of the Church in settling them.

To this Protestant, current events in Rome seem to be reviving the old questions of the Reformation. As I confirmed to myself the other week, yes, the Vatican is still there, just off St. Peter’s Square, but its present incumbent is raising all sorts of concerns which belie the outward confidence and dominating presence of its magnificent architecture. Many Roman Catholics think Francis an authoritarian pope who seems intent on using his position to undermine traditional dogma. In a sense, this current situation is akin to that faced by Luther, where the papacy seemed to him to be fatally undermining the Christianity it purported to protect and maintain. Pervasive interpretive pluralism—something for which Catholics lambast Protestantism, and which Luther himself lamented—has found a bed even within the Roman communion. Debating the meaning of papal decrees is now a cottage industry among canon lawyers, theologians, and thoughtful Roman Catholics concerned about what the current pontiff might really be teaching. The Protestant problem is no longer a Protestant monopoly.

With Luther having appeared on a Vatican postage stamp, it would seem the current papacy wishes to domesticate the man from Wittenberg. But that is surely a fool’s errand. Nobody pointed more starkly to the problems that occur when the Church as institution betrays the Church as witness to the gospel. Perhaps reflection on Luther and the world he untethered from its specious certainties might prove a fruitful exercise not just for those churches that followed his lead, but for the very one that refused to do so. None of us can escape Luther’s challenge. 

Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.