Arts & Books

Book review: Luther – the tender side of a ferocious polemicist

Martin Luther lived in this building in Wittenberg for most of his adult life

Martin Luther
by Scott Hendrix
Yale, £25

Did you know that Martin Luther spent the last week of his life trying to sort out a dispute over copper mining? That the future scourge of Rome was baptised in a church named after saints Peter and Paul? That he prepared his own edition of Aesop’s Fables? Or that, right to the end, the enemy of traditional religion dated his letters according to the nearest saint’s festival?

Five hundred years on, the amount that can be known about what Martin Luther thought, said and did is enormous. Of his letters alone, about 2,600 survive. Even so, Scott Hendrix, Luther’s latest biographer, wistfully admits: “I wish I knew the man and people in his life better. The past can be studied but not relived. That is the attraction and the frustration of history.”

Hendrix holds his subject in high regard. From the outset, he is eager to debunk unfavourable notions about Luther, such as the idea that he was a kind of theological lone wolf. He works hard to explain, without justifying, Luther’s attacks on the Jews. He closes his book on a glowing (if laboured) comparison between the reformer and Martin Luther King.
What Hendrix calls a “flair for bluntness and drama” meant that Luther could throw himself into the extravagant satires and fantastical calumnies that were the order of the day. No words were minced. Celibacy is “hell”. The world is “utterly perverted”. The Church is “the abominable kingdom of the Roman Antichrist”.

This was a man, in his own words, “determined to fear nothing and to scorn everything.” On hearing of the campaign to raise money for the new St Peter’s Basilica through the sale of indulgences, his response, “I will put a hole in that drum”, typified his fierce determination and caustic wit.

All this fighting talk is balanced, however, by Luther’s tender side – seen, for instance, in his relations with his mentor John Staupitz who, in the end, did not abandon Rome. Luther’s theology was full of gratitude for God’s love and forgiveness. He could convey his deepest religious feelings and ideas with unerring simplicity.

And the road to the Reformation was not completely straight. It comes as a shock to read words written by Luther to the Pope several months after the publication of his famous Ninety-Five Theses: “Whatever you decide, I will treat your voice as the voice of Christ speaking and presiding in you.”

There were times when he nearly buckled under the load of illness and responsibility: “I’ve had enough. I’m worn out. I am nothing any longer.”

Perhaps the true point of no return was the bonfire Luther held in Wittenberg in December 1520. On to the flames went the papal bull threatening him with excommunication, canon law decrees, guides for hearing confessions and more. “The truth of God has sounded forth from Wittenberg,” declared his friend Justus Jonas.

Erasmus wrote sympathetically to Jonas when he heard that he had fallen in with Luther, while making the case for restraint. But successive popes, seeing only a dangerous rebel monk and heretic, seemed not to grasp the full power of Luther’s assault on unthinking piety and moralism, and his appeal to freedom and simplicity. Hendrix pounces repeatedly on the more abysmal failings in thought, word and deed of the medieval Church. As Eamon Duffy once put it, “all good men recognised that something would have to be done about the popes”. Or, in the words of Cardinal Pole, “heretics are not heretics in everything”.

There are moments, though, when Hendrix seems to give Luther a free pass. For instance, he claims that Luther had no way of foreseeing that going to church might eventually seem superfluous to some. Really? Luther is the man who said “Christ is my bishop, abbot, prior, lord, father, and teacher. I accept no other.” Could he really not have imagined that others might strike out alone, clutching their Bibles, rejecting all previous authorities and guides? Or did he think it would simply stop with him? Perhaps he did.

As ever, it is impossible to read about this period without shuddering at the insults and violence meted out in Christ’s name. The problem seems to be not so much belief in God, but fervent belief in the Devil and his ubiquity. Luther himself saw signs of Satan’s work in more or less everything that deviated from the course of events he wished for.

As Hendrix notes, religious conflicts in 16th-century Europe were so bitter, and reconciliation so rare, because, for most people involved, everything was at stake.

Hendrix has written a scholarly but vivid portrait of a man who, in a spiritual crisis, peered deep into St Paul’s words about the righteous living by faith, and thought he had found there a new purpose for himself, his friends, his country and all true Christians.

Towards the end, Luther had to face the reality that reformed Wittenberg was home to no more true Christians than anywhere else. But by then he had, as even Chesterton half-acknowledged, begun the modern world.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (30/10/15)

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