Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet Lyndal Roper (2017)
Caution: Heavy lifting required! This academic biography is crammed full of data and has 88 pages of footnotes.
Historians have traditionally set the date for the launch of the Protestant Reformation in Europe as October 31, 1517, when the monk-professor Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Lyndal Roper’s biography of Martin Luther appears in time for the 500th anniversary of this event, in 2017. It’s unclear if Luther actually nailed a piece of paper to that church door, but he certainly sent his document, challenging certain practices of the Catholic Church, to his local bishop and to the powerful archbishop of Mainz. Luther’s “95 Theses” were statements intended to provoke debate in the university town of Wittenberg. Instead, they became early shots in theological and physical wars that went on for centuries.
The “95 Theses” mainly critiqued the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, by which people could purchase time out of Purgatory (punishment after death) for their souls or the souls of loved ones. But the seeds of other complaints about the Catholic Church were present in the arguments of the “95 Theses.” Over subsequent years, especially during the 1520s and 1530s, Luther further developed his positions against the Church’s monopoly in granting forgiveness of sins. He also attacked monasticism, pilgrimages, papal authority, the Catholic sacraments, scholastic philosophy, the celibacy of priests, and the cult of the saints, especially the role of the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with Christ in heaven. Luther departed from the medieval tradition of meditative, mystical faith to pursue a bold approach toward God. He shocked his contemporaries, both Catholic and reformist, with his frank views on sexuality, arguing that the pleasures of the flesh should be enjoyed (within certain limits) because all human actions are inherently sinful anyway.
In the early years of his theological campaign, Luther fully expected to be burned at the stake. He actually welcomed this grisly prospect, but as his support grew and martyrdom became less of a possibility, he became more haughty. He insisted that he alone could point out the true path to reforming the Catholic Church. I find this attitude contradictory, since Luther preached “the priesthood of all believers,” arguing that Christians could and should read the Bible for themselves. In another contradiction, he affixed his own interpretations to the beginning of each book in his monumental German translation of the Bible, although he repeatedly claimed that the Bible was simple to interpret.
Luther was a tech-savvy guy, taking full advantage of the new technology of printing to spread his voluminous writings across Germany and beyond. Consciously or not, he also exploited the nascent capitalism in the many German principalities of the sixteenth century by attacking the Catholic Church for its financial dealings and accrual of wealth. At least partially for this reason, he gained the protection of three successive Electors (princes) of his native Saxony, a large area in the east of Germany. Luther sided with the German princes against the farmers who rose up in protest over economic conditions in the Peasants’ War of 1524-25. He directed his followers to submit to the civil authorities who were placed over them by God. As Roper puts it, he created the “theological underpinnings of the accommodation many Lutherans would reach centuries later with the Nazi regime.” (311)
That brings us to Luther’s anti-Semitism, which was venomous. Luther believed that Christians were the “chosen people” of God and that Jews should no longer make that claim for themselves. With vile slanders and calls for destruction of Jewish properties, he went far beyond the standard anti-Semitic attacks of medieval theologians and poets.
Without passing judgement, Roper shows her readers repeatedly that Luther was an arrogant and unpleasant man who used the most foul scatological and sexual expletives and analogies in attacking his theological enemies. We’re not talking about an occasional outburst but rather Luther’s standard mode of operation, documented in thousands of his letters, sermons, pamphlets, and treatises. He did have some stalwart friends, like the mild-mannered Philipp Melanchthon, but he made lots of enemies. That’s how Luther rolled. Because Luther would never budge in his theological views, he refused to compromise or collaborate with most other Reformation theologians. This stance caused splits within the reformist camp and led to the multiplicity of Protestant denominations that still persist.
Still, Roper argues in her conclusion that Luther’s very intransigence and courage were necessary characteristics for someone taking on the enormously powerful Catholic Church. Luther was also extremely hard working and talented as a linguist. Intellectually, Luther was always able to “cut to the heart of an issue.” (411).
In tackling her subject, Roper wisely sets limits: “This book is not a general history of the Reformation, or even of the Reformation in Wittenberg; still less can it provide an overall interpretation of what became Lutheranism.” (xxviii) Instead, she says, “I want to understand Luther himself. . . . I want to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body.” (xxvii) Although I accept that Roper is concentrating on the mind of Luther, I was disappointed that Luther’s hymnody merits only one paragraph (403) and that his wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora, and his six children receive only passing mentions. A chronological chart would also have been helpful. In addition, I found Roper’s concluding sections on the influence of Luther particularly weak. These are small complaints about an excellent book.
Roper’s biography of Luther is overwhelming in its detail but fascinating for an ex-Lutheran like me. I kept plowing through it, seeing slices of my own twentieth-century religious training, even in some of the sixteenth-century anti-Catholic cartoons that Roper reproduces. In my Lutheran confirmation class, the seamier side of Luther’s polemical writing was, obviously, never presented. But every year on October 31 we celebrated Reformation Day, singing Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther went to war with the Catholic Church, and he saw God as the fortress that protected him in the battle.