A Life in Letters

Martin Lutherby Scott H. Hendrix

Yale University Press. 368p $35

Scott Hendrix, emeritus professor at Princeton University and beyond doubt one of the leading experts in this country on Martin Luther, is a brave person. Just when the market for new Luther biographies appears to be saturated, he adds his to the mix. It takes its place alongside Martin Brecht’s more comprehensive one, Heiko Oberman’s more provocative one, Martin Marty’s more accessible one and many more.

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Moreover, Hendrix narrates the story in an entirely standard way (Note: If you are annoyed by book reviews that summarize, skip down to the next paragraph). He divides Luther’s life into 18 chapters, moving from a description of the geographical-social-political-religious world into which he was born (Chapter 1) to Luther’s physical decline and death (Chapter 18). In between, Hendrix gives us chapters on Luther’s childhood and adolescence; the university student and his entrance into religious life; the young lecturer and preacher; his intellectual growth; the dawning of his critical consciousness; the escalation of his critique; the programmatic reform writings of 1520; his attempts to rein in more extreme proponents of reform; Luther’s efforts in reshaping the liturgy and popular piety; his marriage and his response to the peasants’ revolt; his disappointment over the laity’s stubborn indifference to his agenda; his handling of controversy among his followers; reconciling the new movement with political authority; his unrelenting preoccupation with Bible translation; his attempts to suppress apocalyptic currents; his supervision of doctoral candidates in theology; lashing out at the Roman church, the Jews, the “Enthusiasts,” etc.; old age with its accompanying sickness, pain, fear, impatience, anger and so forth; fending off new attacks from outsiders and dealing with infighting among his followers; and, finally, his personal demise.

Scanning through this sequence of topics, we can easily see that the structural form of Hendrix’s account is decidedly conventional. And yet I do not hesitate to say that this book is outstanding. What makes it so is that the material is colored in distinctively new hues. Let me list a few of them.

Almost every Luther biography is enlivened by references to Luther’s “Table Talk.” This one is too. But it goes further, in my opinion, by mining Luther’s correspondence in a new, more thorough way. Luther was a great letter writer: some 2,600 are extant. This pales, of course, next to St. Ignatius Loyola, who, as manager of a multinational corporate enterprise, wrote around 7,000. But Luther’s are, I daresay, less given to bureaucratic instruction and more marked by light-hearted banter, amusing anecdotes, friendly teasing, angry outbursts, comments on the quality of food and beer, trivia about travel difficulties and so forth.

Some are addressed to kings, popes, even an emperor; others are written to peasants, to his wife, to his four-year-old son, etc. Some are extended discussions of his innermost spiritual difficulties, some are jokes from beginning to end, some are laundry lists of everything that’s wrong with the world, some contain gossip about this or that person’s failures or obnoxious proclivities. Obviously then, Luther’s correspondence can be mined by the biographer to illustrate a theological point, to make an abstract discussion concrete, to give a sense of the human Luther and so forth. Hendrix, as a true expert, does this extremely well: it is one of the things I enjoyed most about the book.

Another refreshing difference in Hendrix’s book is his sidestepping of old, hoary, overworked controversies. Almost every biography I know of, for instance, rehashes ad nauseam the exact content and precise moment of Luther’s “reformation discovery,” his “tower experience.” Hendrix understands that his extra-Lutheran readership is bored to tears by this. Rather, he locates Luther’s decisive turning-point in 1522, when he began to understand himself as a “reformer” called to lead a movement that would go beyond piecemeal criticisms and remake medieval Christianity. Even for a reader who is a seasoned Luther scholar, this is an interesting and persuasively argued thesis.

The best biographers know that in narrating a life, it is not enough to recount the course of events, the successes and failures, the traumatic and the trivial, the influential and the ignored, the wounds suffered or self-inflicted and the like. Alongside that narrative belongs another one, perhaps more enigmatic but indispensable for understanding who the subject really was. And this is the course of the person’s inner development, what many today would call the person’s “spirituality.” And in no way does Hendrix neglect the latter. Thus we get parallel tracks, a narrative of the external events and an account of how Luther’s inner spiritual/emotional life evolved alongside it.

Perhaps it is precisely here that Hendrix is at his best. In fact, to a great extent he allows Luther to tell us in his own words about the growth of his inner self. Looking back on his starting point as a young Augustinian friar, he described himself as “holy from head to toe.” Some 30 years later, facing his mortality, his self-designation was “a prodigious and hardened sinner.” That in a nutshell was the trajectory of Luther’s spiritual development. Christ, he said, “is not a savior of fictitious or petty sinners but of genuine ones....” If you are a “phony sinner,” your Christ is a “phony savior.” The paradox is that growth in holiness means a deepening sense of one’s own sinfulness, that we not only fall a little short but that we are utterly undeserving. And ultimately what that means is that all is gift.

Let me conclude on a personal note. As of 2016 I will have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness of Luther scholarship. Where, I’ve often wondered, is the Promised Land? This isn’t it. But we’re getting close!

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