Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
By Lyndal Roper
540 pages, $40
This fall marks the 500th anniversary of the day an Augustinian monk at a backwater university in today’s east-central Germany hung his 95 theses on a door peg at the Wittenberg Castle Church and provided the spark that would ignite a firestorm of religious reformation throughout Western Europe.
Martin Luther was not the first religious reformer of his day, nor was he anything like the most radical reformer of his era, but through a confluence of political, social and personal factors, he became the leading voice of the movement that would alter irreversibly Western Christianity.
His theological ideas and the tenacity with which he defended them would rend in two the fabric of Western Christianity, while the intransigence of his personality would all but ensure that the German reformation would splinter into dozens, if not hundreds, of sects in his wake.
As Oxford historian Lyndal Roper observes near the end of her major new biography of Luther: The man is “a difficult hero,” yet his influence on the lives of millions of men and women across five centuries is undeniable.
Roper’s biography is refreshing in that it details Luther’s life and works in clear prose and with a historian’s exactitude, minus the saccharine aura that so often dominates the biographies of religious figures.
Her vision of that brief moment in history, when Western Europe north of the Alps balanced on the cusp between Medieval and Renaissance, is clear and illuminating. And her 10 years of research into the life of the man at the center of the religious and political upheaval that dominated the age is unerring.
Roper is neither champion nor reprover of the man or his cause. She is more the highly informed observer of this sweeping phenomenon.
Roper’s “Martin Luder” is the son of a successful copper and silver smelter-master in the mining town of Mansfeld, who sent his brightest son to Latin school and then university to study the law. This is hardly the son of German peasants, as Luther liked to characterize himself in later life.
Luther rebelled against authority from the start. He rebelled against his father, abandoning civil law and a future lucrative position in the mining industry in favor of religion and monastic life. He would say later he was fulfilling a promise made to God at the height of a tremendous storm.
He rebelled against his Augustinian superior when he led the Wittenberg monks to disregard the rules of their religious order. He rebelled against civil authority when he pitted the small Wittenberg University against the teachings of the established institutions of higher learning at Nuremberg and Augsburg.
He rebelled against the bishop of Rome over the undisputed papal authority over Western Christianity and its teachings. And he rebelled against society when, by then an ex-communicated priest, he wed a runaway nun.
The story is much more complex than we dare to explain here. But for starters, at this time, religious and civil authority were one in the same.
Germany as the nation we know today did not exist, but what we know as the German-speaking countries were the center of a loose confederation, the Holy Roman Empire, which historians agree by Luther’s time was not Roman and certainly not holy.
The Western Christian church we call the Roman Catholic Church today was by all reports at a low point in its history.
The Vatican States, ruled by popes who were members of Italian aristocratic families, were at constant war and were bankrolled largely by the Vatican treasury, which relied heavily on indulgences being sold as forgiveness certificates, the sale of relics, and by the franchising of monasteries to raise money through private prayer and private Masses for the release of souls from the dread of purgatory.
Luther, like many of his Northern colleagues, saw Rome as “a center of business, sucking Germany dry of money.”
Ethnic nationalism was emerging along with the humanism of the Renaissance. The pope on the receiving end of Luther’s most virulent attacks was Leo X, who by most accounts was a religious moderate and decent man. He was a prince of the ruling Medici banking family of Florence, a spendthrift, a builder and an art collector, but a distinct improvement over the popes of the Borgia family who preceded him.
To Luther, Leo allowed to continue, and did not condemn, the practices of his predecessors. He did not clean up the monastic system which was seen in the North as a papal tax. And worse, Pope Leo – Giovanni di Lorenzo de’Medici – was an Italian exerting authority over the rising German states.
Luther likely would have been burned as a heretic except that he aligned himself with the Holy Roman elector Friedrich III of Saxony, himself a rebel, and later with his son, Johann Friedrich “the Magnanimous,” who became head of the Protestant Confederacy.
Roman Catholicism would survive and flourish, following an internal counter-reformation many say was inspired by Luther’s writings and actions. And Protestantism in all its reiterations would become a major component of Western Christianity.
But what explains Luther’s indisputable success as a theologian?
By all accounts, he was brilliant, immensely charismatic, a masterful linguist and debater, a ruthless proponent for his cause, a German nationalist before the term was invented, and a master manipulator of the new media.
The new media of his day was movable type – the printing press – which was new to Europe, introduced 43 years before Luther’s birth. With printing came the ability to publish sermons, debates and theses within days in an era when information crawled across the continent at a snail’s pace. He could answer an opponent’s argument before most had even heard of the argument.
Luther was a populist, translating his theological thoughts from Latin into German, then preaching in German, and then translating the Bible into a German that was understandable and inspirational to the growing number of people who could read.
For prospective, during Luther’s most productive period, Henry VIII was proclaiming himself head of the church in far-off England, John Calvin was heading a reformation movement in France, Erasmus in Holland, Zwingli in Switzerland, along with numerous others. Luther was born nine years before Columbus sailed to the New World.
Luther’s personal life was problematic. He was relieved of his perpetual vows as a monk, his priestly duties were suspended when he was adjudged a heretic, he married a nun from the Cistercian convent, and he mercilessly mocked his fellow theologians if they would not come around to his way of thinking.
In his writings and speech, he used numerous scatological references (that’s a fancy way of saying he had a potty mouth) to attack the pope and opposing reformation theologians. And his sermons and writings were filled with anti-Semitic tropes, even beyond the norms commonly accepted in the German states of his day.
Luther was a complex man who history has judged was more often right than wrong. He was torn between the medieval world where devils ran about town nicking souls for Satan, and the intellectual Renaissance world where scholars argued the merits of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.
Roper’s biography can be challenging when dealing with the theological questions of the era. Yet the challenges are far offset by her graphic depiction of Martin Luther, as a man of human frailties and contradictions who nonetheless changed the world.
And what a world it must have been. It was an age of excitement and awakening, a world of exploration, a world caught for a moment in the crack between the keys: No longer medieval and not yet modern.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.