MARTIN LUTHER: A Late Medieval Life. By Volker Leppin. Foreword by Timothy J. Wengert. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017. Xvii + 135 pages.
As a historical theologian by training, I am always looking for books dealing with theology and church history that are both scholarly and accessible to recommend to those who would like to know more about the church and its history. With the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation having arrived, and interest in Martin Luther and other Reformers of the sixteenth century peaking, all manner of biographies of the father of the Reformation have appeared. Knowing I could read them all, I chose to request review copy of Volker Leppin’s biography of Luther. Even though I didn’t know the author of the biography, it is written by a church historian, I knew of the author of the foreword, and it is brief. I’m glad I chose to order this biography, as it has proven to be the kind of read I look for when I’m thinking accessibility and reliability.
This thought provoking biography of Luther, is based on a much larger biography that has yet to be translated from German into English. While more experienced Luther scholars may hope for it to come into English, for the non-Luther scholar this biography is more than adequate. In fact, I almost am willing to say it is must reading, at least for anyone seeking to understand the origins of the Protestant Reformation. Hopefully that includes a lot of Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic. The essence of the book is summed up in the subtitle, which alerts us to the fact that Luther was a man of his times. He was, in fact, a product of the late medieval world. To understand Luther, one must understand the late medieval world. The movement that Luther helped launch might lead to the modern age, but he was not in any way modern person. He may have been influenced by the emerging humanism of the age, a movement that provided him with a Greek New Testament from which he could translate the Bible into German. Nonetheless there was much about him that is rooted in the medieval vision of reality.
Luther was the son of a miner named Hans Luder. His father hoped to advance the family fortune by providing Martin with a good education, with the hope that he would choose a profession like law, which would benefit the family as it moved up in society. What the father did not envision was that his son would have a religious experience that would lead him to become a monk. There was nothing upwardly mobile about such a choice, and it put father and son at odds. Nonetheless, Martin Luder, would enter an Augustinian monastery in search of a sense of peace. His religious vision was truly medieval. God was one to fear. The demonic was ever present. Martin was unsure about his worthiness to stand before God. He hoped being a monk would salve his conscience, but it didn’t. At the same time, Martin devoted himself to his calling. He became a leader among his peers and a teacher of scripture and theology. In time, he would become a reformer who would launch a movement called Protestantism (for good or for ill).
Leppin lays out the biography in a straightforward manner. Each of the eleven chapters highlights an aspect of Luther's life, moving forward through time. Thus, we start with his birth and early education, prior to his decision to become a monk. We learn about that his family name was Luder, a name that Martin would change around 1517, reflecting his embrace of Humanist vision, as was true for others of his time, including his colleague Philip Melanchthon. Luther looked more Greek than Luder. We learn about his religious upbringing amid a world filled with demons. Leppin doesn’t play up the psychological factors of Luther's early life. Instead, he focuses on environmental ones. We follow him as he moves from being simply a monk to being a professor of bible, at which time the early inklings of reform appear. Leppin suggests that we take with caution Luther's later reflections about monastic life, for earlier reflections suggest he embraced it fully. At the same time, he notes that the monastic life did not fully resolve his questions or provide the spiritual security that he had been looking for.
We follow the young Luther as he takes up his responsibilities as a professor, teaching the Bible, as well as preaching at the castle church. Throughout all of this he was being guided by his spiritual mentor Johannes Staupitz. With his mentor's assistance he sought to deal with his own struggles, including self-doubt, and self-obsession, which led to his concern for his own sense of unrighteousness before God. Staupitz also introduced him to the writings of the mystical theologian Johannes Tauler, who would be influential on his development. From Tauler, Luther discovered that repentance should be define the Christian life. Leppin notes that with the emphasis on Tauler, Luther's reforming impulses were rooted in late medieval piety and mysticism, as well as the emergent humanism that brought to his attention Erasmus' Greek New Testament. Indeed, it was his encounter with humanism that drew him to the Bible and to the early church fathers, especially Augustine and Augustine's writings against Pelagius. For Luther the Bible and Augustine became formative, it also led to a rejection of Aristotle and scholasticism.
From Luther the professor we move to Luther the publicist, which features his theses published against indulgences on October 31, 1517. Theses that were printed and sent out to the public, including the archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, among others. From there the were copied and printed, and within a brief period he was famous (whether they were originally nailed to the door). With that Luther began to write and publish feverishly, pushing his newly emerging theological vision. Luther the publicist/writer soon became a prophet. When the pope threatened him with excommunication in 1520, Luther responded by accusing the pope of being an enemy of Christ—a mutual excommunication. With that the gloves were off, and there was no going back. When he appeared before the emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521, he refused to recant of his teachings. He would not recant. He may not have stated as boldly as later reported "here I am, I can do nothing else," but in effect that was the message. That event, however, led to Luther's new status as outlaw, protected only by his own prince who "kidnapped" him and hid him in Wartburg Castle, where he continued literary output. It's important to note that even then, he had yet to give up his monastic vows, and he would continue living as a monk until 1525. It was also during this period that he translated the New Testament into German, an event that helped standardize the German language.
As the Reformation progressed, and Luther left the safety of Wartburg, he became a preacher and de facto bishop. Wittenberg became the center of reform and he was its center. It was during this period in 1521-1522 that Luther broke with Karlstadt, who sought to push the reform in a more radical direction—one of the reasons Luther returned to Wittenberg. The one who resisted emperor and pope, now became the one who worked to bring order to the emerging Reformation.
Leppin calls 1525 the "year of climax." Things were coming to head politically and theologically. The Reformation fires including the message about Christian freedom lit other fires, including revolts by peasants, a move Luther rejected. It was also a year in which Luther faced the more radical views of Thomas Müntzer. All of which led Luther to develop a vision of church and state that gave the princes increasing power. At the same time, Luther found himself serving as matchmaker for former nuns, who had fled the nunnery. It was also the time at which he himself would marry—to Katharina von Bora. Leppin introduces us to their marriage, but does not explore it in depth. The move from monk to husband, however, was momentous. 1525 was also a year in which Luther would confront a different force—that would be Zwingli, whose own movement for reform differed in large measure from that of Luther. Zwingli might have cheered him on at first, but in time they became theological rivals.
As the story continues we encounter an aging Luther who is increasingly marginalized. His great strengths as prophet and teacher of scripture and theology did not prepare him well for the next stage of the reformation, which required the diplomat's touch. Luther and Zwingli would face off in 1529 at Marburg, where their differing views of the Eucharist were put on display. But when the Diet of Augsburg gathered in 1530, Luther would be absent and Melanchthon, who had more deft touch was the key negotiator. Finding a way forward was difficult because the differences of view on the eucharist, with Luther and Zwingli offering differing views. Luther had to watch the proceedings at Augsburg from afar, even as the essence of what became Lutheranism was laid by Melanchthon. While Luther was concerned about theology, the Protestant leaders were seeking alliance and Luther was not helpful in that. Then as time passed Luther became more focused on internal matters—teaching and serving as de facto bishop among churches that were aligned with his vision.
By the 1540s, he was even more on the margins, with others taking the lead in formulating a theological vision. Unfortunately, as he neared the end of his life, he engaged in writing some of his most unfortunate tracts, especially those directed toward the Jews. He was always a supersessionist, but at the end he wrote angry and despicable pieces, which are difficult to account for, and which have had unfortunate consequences for the Jewish people.
In death Luther became a Protestant hero. While he was enshrined as its leader, and though he sought to provide for Katie, his wife, she did not share in his glory, but instead died tragically in poverty. Leppin concludes that Luther’s followers created a vision of him as "messenger of salvation" who "ushered in a new turning point in history that could never be undone" (p. 135). Ironically, much of what become Lutheranism was more the product of others, but he was the fountain from which the movement emerged. What Leppin wishes to do is release Luther from his bondage to a historiography that enshrines Luther in myth and in categories that obscure rather than reveal his true identity. He was, first, Martin Luder, the son of a German miner, who was born into a medieval age that was framed by the Catholic Church. While his actions would initiate a new age, he was not in control of it.
What we have here is a very human Luther, a Luther who is released from legend (and psycho-analysis). Luther scholars will debate his frame of mind, but in Leppin's view, it seems, Luther is not consumed by angst. If Luther is wracked by guilt and fear, it's not necessarily from within, but is part of his late medieval context.
This biography is not encumbered with notes and scholarly apparatus. It's brief, but expansive. The translation by Rhys Bezzant and Karen Roe is impeccable, and done in conversation with the author. Leppin writes that the translators “have provided a careful reading of my text so that I feel myself very well understood by this eminently readable English translation” (p. xvii). My sense is that upon finishing the book a reader will have a new appreciation for Luther the human being in all his complexity, a man who burned brightly for a moment and then began to fade with time, only to be lionized in death. Luther was very complex person, and Leppin captures well that complexity. Thus, this is a book to be recommended for all readers.