The big celebrations of the beginnings of the Reformation may have come and gone. October 31, 1517 has been chosen as the starting point for the Protestant Reformation. This means that on October 31, 2017 many marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or more specifically the date on which Martin Luther allegedly nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Whether this is historical fact is a matter of debate, and probably irrelevant. The point that needs to be made is that when Luther published this broadside, he set in motion a movement that soon spiraled out of his control (if it ever was in his control). What is important to note is that Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church set in motion events that continue to impact the world today.
As is often true at the time of anniversaries of momentous events, a spate of books was published in 2017. These include a number of new biographies and monographs dealing with the life and legacy of Martin Luther. Some are better than others, and thus we must be discerning in our reading choices. Brad Gregory has written an intriguing book that starts with Luther but doesn’t end there. In fact, only one chapter is focused directly on Luther, though he will appear in other chapters, but not necessarily as the focus. Luther is the catalyst but not the controller of a movement that quickly fragmented. Why did it fragment? Well, when scripture is made the only authority for doctrine and practices, human beings will quickly come up with differing interpretations. Such is the case here.
The author of this book serves as professor of European History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written other books on martyrdom and religion and secularization. In other words, he is first and foremost a historian seeking to tell a story. If Reformation is the starting point, the end point seems to be the growing secularization of society. It may not have been Luther’s intention, but the movement he unleashed led to an upheaval in Europe that secularization was a natural by-product.
Luther lit the match that launched the Reformation, but it’s doubtful that in 1517 he was engaging in something so monumental. He was, after all, an Augustinian monk and teacher of the Bible. He was scandalized by things occurring in the church, but he originally assumed he was participating in reforming the only church he had ever known. The time, however, was ripe for change and even revolution. In many ways, as time passed Luther would prove to be a cautious and even conservative reformer. Not long after Luther got started other reform efforts emerged, such as in Zurich where Zwingli held forth. Zwingli figures in this book as well, along with those who found him too conservative/traditional. On we move toward the present moment.
Rebel in the Ranks is part biography, but it is more an exploration of the movement Luther launched, but which quickly took on a life of its own and has implications for the world to this day. You might call this book—The Road from Luther to Trump!
Only the first chapter, "A Reluctant Rebel" focuses specifically on Luther. Gregory offers a breezy but informative introduction to Luther and his move from "busy and burdened friar" to reformer. We're introduced to the main events that Luther undertook in his effort to challenge the status quo, and the writings that he used to advance his cause. We see a man who pushed the boundaries of the religious world, and then pulled back a bit when he saw how others, like his colleague Andreas von Karlstadt, took the reforms much further than he was comfortable with. Gregory does a nice job laying out the context of his efforts, including the discomfort among many in Germany with things going on in Rome. The issue of the indulgences is rooted in the feeling that funds were being diverted from Germany to build monuments in Rome. There is also the political dynamics of the Holy Roman Empire, which had come under the leadership of the young Charles V. Gregory notes that Luther may have launched the Reformation, but he never controlled it. By taking his stand on sola scriptura and the Holy Spirit made sure that no one could control it. "The Reformation will be uncoupled from the dramatic odyssey of the deeply religious man and will become the story of a no less dramatic and deeply contested movement."
The chapter on Luther takes up nearly a third of the book, with the remaining three chapters dividing the remainder of the pages. From this introduction to Luther we move in chapter two to the "Fractious Movement." We encounter Karlstadt, Zwingli, the revolutionary nature of the Peasants War, the Anabaptists, some of whom emerged from Luther's work and others from Zwingli, or on their own, but taking a very different tack. We see Luther appear again in conflict with Erasmus over free will, and with Zwingli over the Eucharist. Of course, there must be a conversation about Munster.
By the time we move to chapter three, titled "A Troubled Era," Luther has passed from the scene and new forces emerge. There will be developments within Lutheranism as it spread into Scandinavia and people like Philip Melanchthon sought to develop further Luther's legacy. We meet with Calvin and the Radical Reformation that emerged after Munster. We can't forget the Catholic Reformation and the wars that broke out in the Holy Roman Empire, France, England, the Low Countries. As we take this journey we see reform taking multiple forms, with competition everywhere for control. We see an assertive Reformed Christianity taking form and expanding rapidly, often emerging out of Geneva. Again, we cover a lot of ground in a short amount of space. Not everything gets its due, but that's not the point.
Finally, in chapter four Gregory takes us from the seventeenth century to the present. He wants to show us how the Reformation principles morphed into something else, including a drive toward secularization. We begin in Holland where religious differences are tolerated but also controlled, with the payoff being economic growth. That vision would later pass on to England and then to the United States. Freedom is a primary there here, but as Gregory notes, it’s not without its draw backs. Indeed, Gregory writes here about the process of secularization that began to unfold in the seventeenth century as the religious wars began to die down and other issues, like trade began to move to the fore. Regarding Christianity in the United States, Gregory helps us understand how economics became the dominant force in American religious life. While we might equate the “prosperity gospel” with certain Pentecostal preachers, in fact it has deep roots in American life. Americans early on embraced the desire to experience the good life, and preachers took hold of that message. By the 1780s, Americans had embraced a gospel that connected faith to economic prosperity and freedom, along with a vision of prosperity. He writes “none of this would have been possible without individual religious freedom, the New World solution to the Old World problem of religion, inherited from the Reformation era” (p. 250). This secularized vision of religion has led in a more pluralistic world, to a consumerist vision of religion. This wasn’t Luther’s intent, but he unleashed forces beyond his control or that of other reformers such as Zwingli, Calvin, or Menno Simons.
Brad Gregory has written an accessible and readable and interesting account of the Reformation (both Protestant and Catholic) and its legacy (including secularization of society). While Luther plays a significant role in the book, this is not strictly speaking a biography of Luther. Thus, the last clause of the subtitle catches the essence of the book. That is, this is a book about the "conflicts that continue to shape our world." If you're looking for a good, brief biography of Luther this is probably not your book. It has a broader vision than that. So, with regard to a strict biography of Luther I recommend Volker Leppin's Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life, (Baker, 2017). But, if you want to take a broader look at things, then this is your book.