This is an important book, with much to offer, but it is also disappointing. Its importance lies in three converging factors. The first and most obvious is the subject. Martin Luther is a person of almost mythic proportions in the history of the West. By his prophetic stance, he almost single-handedly created what has become perhaps the most characteristic Western virtue, the courage to defy the status quo and decry its corruption.
The second factor is the author, Martin Marty, perhaps the best known and most widely respected scholar in North America writing on religion today.
The third factor is the distinguished Penguin Lives series in which this book is appearing: short and engaging introductions to important figures. And for Luther, the series is especially important. Despite all the writing about him, there are in print in English only a few biographies, none as concise and handy as this one.
Marty is a Lutheran. While his home base in scholarship is American Protestantism, he has a firm understanding of his own tradition’s history and fundamental theological groundings. That is the background he brings to the book, and it accounts for many of the book’s merits. This is Luther from the inside, viewed sympathetically yet critically. Marty is correct, I believe, when he says Luther “makes most sense as a wrestler with God, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance.” He presents him, thus, as a religious figure and as a Christian theologian, and he rightly does not try to make him sound modern or to translate his message into secular terms.
Marty admires Luther. But the book is noteworthy in its straightforward presentation of the crudity, inconsistencies and sometimes downright “revolting” (p. xi) aspects of Luther’s personality and career. Luther is the hero of the book, but he is not a person without serious flaws and problematic behavior, as in his notorious attack on the peasants and his vitriol against the Jews. His relationships with the other Reformers come through in these pages with all their ambivalences intact.
Marty’s sensitive depictions of Luther as husband and father soften the usual picture of him as the fierce and defiant reformer. But the strength of the book lies in Marty’s grasp of Luther’s theology, which he presents lucidly and as the framework of continuity in a thinker who often changed his mind on important issues and thereby got himself and many others into lots of trouble. Marty ends his book with a brief “Afterword: Luther in the New Millennium,” which is a masterful summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the man and of the sometimes ambiguous heritage he bequeathed us.
What, then, is the problem? The problem is that Marty has a very unsure grasp of the 16th-century context and, more specifically, of the Catholic context. He states in the opening sentence of the book that he is writing the “story of Martin Luther, not a history of the Protestant Reformation,” but he goes on to say that he will tell the story in the “settings of monastery, home, church, university, and empire.” It is in those settings (except “home”) that the book falters. And Luther’s story, of all stories, makes no sense apart from such settings, for they so much determined Luther’s course. Luther’s story is essentially a story of conflict with much of the world in which he lived. The results of those conflicts, moreover, sometimes had an almost cataclysmic impact on society. It is crucial, then, to get the “settings” of that world straight.
There is a difference between a simple factual error and errors that betray a larger miscomprehension. The meeting between Luther and Cardinal Cajetan at the Diet of Augsburg in 1518 is famous, for instance, and crucially important for the turn Luther’s life would take. To describe Cajetan, perhaps the most distinguished theologian of his day and one of the greatest commentators ever on Aquinas, simply as “the foremost Dominican moralist” suggests ignorance of the theological reality beyond the world of Wittenberg.
Cajetan, we are told, set out to “ensnare” Luther. Hardly. What I found disturbing was the consistent portrayal of the Catholic scene as devious or utterly venal, as the term implies. Pages 27 to 31, about the character of late-medieval religion and a “money-grubbing” church, could have been lifted from a Protestant textbook of 100 years ago. They make Luther’s story all too simple and ignore the scholarship that has corrected such a caricature.
Aside from Luther and his immediate circle, other figures in the story, even important ones, tend to be generic, e.g., “the pope.” This is true even of Emperor Charles V, Luther’s most formidable enemy. Charles was raised not in Spain, as Marty asserts, but in Burgundy—not an irrelevant detail, given the impact of that ambiance on his personality and character.
To see the momentous election of Charles as emperor in 1519 as a triumph of persons “north of the Alps” over papal power is a novel and strikingly aberrant reading of the whole affair. Marty seems unaware, moreover, that Luther’s protector, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, was the preferred papal candidate in that election. His reporting of what happened in 1534-35 with the Anabaptists at Münster is also a curious reading of those dreadful events. One could go on.
For the uninitiated, Martin Luther provides a good introduction to its subject and his theology. But for putting Luther’s story in its larger context, the book leaves much to be desired. And I wish I did not have to say that.