The road to ‘true religion’…
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It’s nearly 500 years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation by criticising the practices of the Roman Catholic church and refusing to accept the Pope as the sole arbiter of the meaning of the Bible. What started as a fairly straightforward dispute over the sale of indulgences grew into a theological war that first split the church and then splintered the Reformers themselves into different factions, arguing over some pretty esoteric points of interpretation of the gospels.
Scott H. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History, Princeton Theological Seminary, and tells us in the preface that he struggled during his teaching years to find a full and well-researched but readable biography of Luther to recommend to his students, so decided to write one. Unusually, the problem for Luther biographers is one of too much, rather than too little, information, making the biographer’s task one of deciding what is true and relevant. Although this isn’t the chunkiest biography in the world, its 290 pages plus notes give a thorough account both of Luther’s personal life, at least as much as is known about it, and of the various steps that led him from monk to leader of the Reformation. He explains the main points of Luther’s theological insights clearly enough for this atheist to understand, including the finer points where differences of interpretation arose amongst the Reformers. Hendrix also gives enough information about the prevailing political situation in Germany and further afield to put the Reformation into its historical context, particularly in explaining the level of protection Luther and his colleagues gained from the need of the Emperor to keep the various reformed Princes onside.
The book is in a fairly straightforward linear style, starting with a quick run through of what little is known about Luther’s early years, and then going into more depth once he became associated with the Reformers. Hendrix makes it clear that, though Luther is the one whose name became best known both at the time and to later generations, he worked closely with colleagues at all stages, and that much of what is attributed to Luther, such as the translation of the Bible into German, was in part a collaborative effort involving various scholars and theologians, a fact that Luther himself emphasised. However, Luther became the figurehead of the movement, and to a large degree the arbiter of the direction the early Reformation would take.
I am in my usual position of not being able to speak to the accuracy of the facts or of Hendrix’s interpretation of them, but the book is clearly well researched and it’s obvious that Hendrix knows his subject inside out. He takes a fairly neutral stance on Luther – at least it feels that way – being willing to give both praise and criticism.
Luther comes over as a man who genuinely believed that he was doing the work of God and who worked hard all his life to bring people to ‘true religion’. Of course, like all these people who think they are God’s chosen, he appeared to become more arrogant and self-satisfied as time went on, and made it clear that he believed that anyone who took a different approach was being influenced by Satan, a figure that to him was as real and nearly as powerful as God himself. In fact, in his later years, Hendrix gives the impression that Luther felt that Satan was out to get him – either true, or a real sign that he was letting his opinion of his own importance get a little out of control.
Luther also appears to have been what could be described as either pragmatic or hypocritical, depending on one’s viewpoint, changing direction on occasion to fit the prevailing political situation. For example, although against bigamy, he would cheerfully make an exception and find ways to justify it theologically when one of his powerful backers decided two wives were better than one. Apparently he also felt that it would be better if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn bigamously rather than divorcing Katherine of Aragorn. (One wonders if he would have felt Henry should also marry Jane, Anne, Catherine and Katherine simultaneously – that would have made for some fun dinner parties.) Luther’s views on violence were subject to similar changes over the years depending on who wanted to be violent to whom. (One odd side effect of the book was that my opinion of John Knox improved when I compared the two – miserable old misogynist though he was, Knox seems to have stuck rigidly to his beliefs in the face of all opposition, even when it meant he made dangerous enemies of some powerful people. While rigidity of opinion isn’t always a trait I admire, there’s something to be said for not reinterpreting one’s spiritual beliefs every time the wind changes direction.)
Hendrix also discusses Luther’s anti-semitism, but puts it into the context of the times when anti-semitism was almost universal in Europe. Luther advocated the burning of synagogues, but Hendrix clarifies that he did not call for the killing of Jews. Hence, Hendrix dismisses the Nazis’ later adoption of Luther as some kind of justification for their actions in the Holocaust, but it seems this has left a lasting stain on Luther, possibly even more in modern Germany than elsewhere.
Hendrix writes clearly and well, making the book very accessible to the non-academic reader. He rarely left me in a position of needing to look elsewhere for explanation of terms or ideas and while there are the usual notes at the back of the book, I was happily able to ignore them – always my desire when reading history and biography. Hendrix made one decision that really grated on me and that I’m baffled to understand – he decided to anglicise all the names. Thus Johann and Johannes become John, he drops the ‘von’ from von Staupitz, etc. I can’t accept that these names are hard for any reader and see no benefit in me now having no idea of the real names of many of the major players. It seems to me a hideous example of ‘dumbing down’ and is the main reason why I can only rate the book as four stars. Otherwise, this is a very good biography that sheds a lot of light on Luther without engulfing the casual reader in unnecessary information overload.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.