Luther: The Flawed Reformer

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet 
Lyndal Roper
The Bodley Head 592pp £16.99

Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer 
Scott H. Hendrix
Yale University Press 368pp £14.99

Lyndal Roper’s superb new biography of Martin Luther sums her subject up beautifully: Luther is, she notes, a ‘difficult hero’. The German monk who rebelled against both pope and Holy Roman emperor; the theologian who brought the message of salvation by faith alone; and the communicator who harnessed the power of the new-fangled printing press to create the world’s first media storm, is the man who today more than 60 million Lutherans worldwide call the father of their movement. Yet, for others, Luther’s opinions on the Jews spring more readily to mind, considered harsh even by his own contemporaries’ broadly antisemitic standards, and disconcertingly prophetic of what would happen 400 years later under Nazism. If Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies of 1543 is an undeniably chilling read, his views on women (‘Let them bear children to death’) also regularly raise modern eyebrows, as does the venom with which Luther attacked the ‘robbing and murdering hordes’ of peasants who rebelled in 1525 in his name. October 31st, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in the Saxon city of Wittenberg, as his first real public protest against the Church. One wonders just how the numerous commemorative events planned will ever do justice to such an important yet complex life.

It is, therefore, particularly welcome to have two new biographies of Luther appear at a time when that legacy will be under fresh scrutiny: Scott H. Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer and Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Both are by scholarly heavyweights. Hendrix is Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, having produced numerous works on Luther and the Reformation over the course of his career. The Australian historian Lyndal Roper is Regius Professor of History at Oxford and has written paradigm-shifting studies on aspects of the social, gender and religious history of early modern Europe.

As one might expect from two biographies of the same man, there are clear areas of similarity. Both scholars faced the delicious horror quickly discovered by anyone who tries to work on Luther: the sheer weight of source material he left behind, including 120 volumes of his collected works. Little wonder that Roper notes that her biography of Luther was ten years in the making. Both scholars have produced biographies that do, ostensibly, what all biographies should do, which is to take the reader in an engaging and informative way through the entirety of Luther’s life, from his upbringing in Mansfeld, Saxony, as the eldest son of a leading figure in the local mining industry, through to a rejection at the age of 22 of a career in law for a life in a closed Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. Both then chart the development of Luther’s career as a Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg before the period of high drama in Luther’s life, from his first statement against the abuse of indulgences in 1517 to his excommunication and obstinacy before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he told the young ruler that ‘my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant’.

Both Hendrix and Roper also act as able guides through Luther’s numerous writings, the seemingly endless controversies in which he later became embr-
oiled and his evidently happy family life after his marriage to the former nun Katharina von Bora in 1525.

Where Hendrix and Roper’s biographies of Luther differ, however, is in their approach to this life. Hendrix takes the arguably more traditional approach, basing his study on three secure, if unsurprising, ‘touchstones’: that Luther was ‘neither a hero nor a villain’; that he was not a ‘reformer in isolation’; and that none of what happens in Luther’s life should be judged by modern criteria. 

Roper, by contrast, does the exact opposite, drawing on the modern psychological approaches that have served her well in previous work to delve beneath what is already known of the externals of Luther’s life to explore his complex personality. Roper is careful not to overplay her hand here: she, more than anyone else, is well aware of the potential problems of such an approach, but quite rightly notes, that of all figures in the 16th century, Luther is one of very few historical actors about whose personality and inner life we do know a great deal, even down to his dreams and his bouts of crippling spiritual torment and doubt. We also know that Luther’s personality had a major impact on the course of the Lutheran Reformation and Roper makes a persuasive case that links the vicissitudes of Luther’s relationship with authority figures in his life to his reaction to events and to the content of his theology itself. The result is a challenging and deeply stimulating study of a major historical figure about whom many hold an opinion, but have often struggled to fully understand. Together, Roper’s work, along with Hendrix’s fine if more conventional biography, offer impressive contributions to Martin Luther’s ongoing legacy.

Elaine Fulton is Head of History at the University of Birmingham and works on religious belief and practice in early modern Europe.

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