Martin Luther

What to think about Martin Luther? In an ecumenical age, Protestants and Cath-olics no longer automatically take opposite sides, casting him as hero or villain. Yet he has not thereby become less controversial. He can still be portrayed as a modern hero-standing alone before the emperor and assembled German nobility, insisting on his right to think and read the Bible for himself. Or one can paint Luther as a villain, urging the nobles to “smite, slay and stab, secretly and openly” their rebellious peasants, and advising his fellow Germans to raze Jewish houses and set fire to synagogues. We can even dismiss him as so far away from our own time-this man grew up in a Germany haunted by witches and poltergeists, and threw inkpots at the devil-that we simply cannot understand him at all.

Martin Luther belongs to the Penguin Lives series, which provides short biographies for a general audience of an odd range of historical figures, from Crazy Horse to George H. W. Bush, Proust to Brando, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to Elvis Presley. These are people who still fascinate, and for whom, I assume, the series’ editor can find an interesting biographer. For Luther, no choice could be better than Martin Marty, a gifted historian, a lifelong Lutheran, and the most widely read scholarly interpreter of religion in America today. (And the most prolific. The best-known Marty joke has someone calling him and being told that Marty can’t come to the phone because he has just started a new book. “That’s all right,” the caller says. “I’ll wait.” What’s amazing, however, isn’t that Marty can write books so quickly, but that he can write good books so quickly.)

This portrait doesn’t try to cover up the warts, but Marty finds more to admire than to despise in the troubled, difficult man he presents to us. He gives us a historian’s Luther, explicitly not “a modern person,” but shaped by assumptions and preoccupied with issues that may seem strange to most readers today. Politics, nationalism, and the printing press all play their role in the story but, Marty argues, Luther and those most influenced by him really cared about the theological issues. Debates about justification were not just a surreptitious way of fighting the battles of power politics.

The late medieval theology Luther learned as a student, in writers like Gabriel Biel, acknowledged that grace is necessary for salvation. God, however, gives grace not to just anybody, but to those who have done the best they could. The young Luther, fearful of damnation and desperate for security, threw himself into doing all that he could manage. He drove his poor confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, to distraction with four-hour confessions, determined to leave out nothing. Yet how could he be sure that he might not have done better?

Aquinas or any number of other theologians could have provided Luther with a richer notion of grace. Still, one can’t simply say that he was reading the wrong books, for the church of his time, particularly in Germany, did put into practice some implications of the worst of its theology. Even the idea of indulgences wasn’t necessarily a bad one: if people genuinely repented their sins, why not let them do their penance by contributing money to the needs of the church rather than going off on pilgrimage or saying lengthy prayers? Downplay the need for repentance and split the money between the pope and a wealthy cardinal, however, and the whole thing starts to look like buying your way out of sin, with grace nowhere in the picture.

Reading Paul, Luther found his answer: “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:17). If grace is truly grace-unmerited love-then one can neither buy it nor earn it, reasoned Luther, but must simply accept it in faith. “God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners,” he wrote. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Luther’s consequent attacks on the selling of indulgences appealed to economic self-interest and proto-German nationalism, but they also touched a chord among many of his contemporaries, like him desperately hungry for a path to salvation in which they could trust. Suddenly a monk in a backwater Saxon town was one of the most famous men in Germany.

Like many of those who start revolutions, Luther quickly became unnerved by the actions of many who claimed to be following him. For a long time, he kept hoping that the Catholic Church would reform along the lines he had proposed, with no division necessary. When the Anabaptists argued that debunking tradition and getting back to the New Testament ought to involve baptizing only adults, or when the peasants attacked secular authority with the same zeal with which Luther had advanced on church authority, he denounced and condemned them. Cynics will note that he needed the support of the German nobility and therefore had a vested interest in preserving the social status quo, but beyond that he was, in many odd ways, deeply conservative by instinct.

He was also, to the end of his life, afraid. The preeminent theologian of faith never freed himself from doubt. He threw himself onto God in trust, but he also believed that God was utterly free, unpredictable, mysterious, hidden from our sight-an abyss. Sometimes Luther seems, in one of Marty’s fine phrases, “to be making a very good case for a very bad God.” Those who like physiological explanations will note that Luther suffered from both kidney stones and depression. He provided his children’s tutor with good advice for depressives then and now: Never be alone too long. Play games. Drink a little too much. Go ahead and commit a small sin. Luther the doctor gave sensible advice that Luther the patient often found hard to follow. Still, a well-adjusted person would never have looked deeply enough into the abyss of sin to find that hope could lie only in grace.

Those who want to explore the connections of Luther with contemporary philosophy or to sort out how faithful contemporary Lutherans are to their founder will need to look elsewhere. This is a straightforward story of Luther’s life and thought with few explicit connections to today. As such, it is by far the best introductory account since Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, now more than fifty years old and rendered out-of-date by new research. It’s a fascinating story, the life of this brilliant, devout, troubled man, and Martin Marty is a wonderful storyteller

Published in the 2004-03-26 issue: 
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William C. Placher was the LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He died in November 2009.

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