RENEGADE AND PROPHET
Seeing that it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I thought I should learn more about its beginnings and the man who began it all, Martin Luther. You can’t do better than to read Lyndal Roper’s biography of Luther. Her research is thorough and impeccable, and she has written an absorbing account, not only of Luther’s life from childhood, but also of the historical events and social influences which led up to the posting of the 95 Theses on the 31st of October nailed to the door of a Wittenberg church.
Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany in 1483. The family moved to the mining town of Mansfeld where his father had a successful business. If Martin had followed the norms of his social class, he would have studied law. But, nothing was ordinary about Martin Luther. In the first rebellious act against his father, Martin chose to study for the priesthood and entered an Augustinian monastery.
Luther was brilliant with a strong and magnetic personality, and it wasn’t long before he chafed at the rules and authority he lived under. He attracted a large number of acolytes willing to challenge the precepts of the Catholic Church and criticize the materialistic practises that had grown up within the medieval church, such as the odious selling of indulgences and the opulent lifestyle of the Pope, cardinals and bishops of the church. He inspired great loyalty in other scholarly men.
There is such a wealth of material covered in this book, it is impossible to pick out the most important. Luther’s rise coincided with the rise of the printing press and the wider dissemination and affordability of books and pamphlets. Accounts of Luther’s speeches and writing was passed from hand to hand and before long his fame had spread throughout Germany and Europe. Luther’s collected works have survived and fill 130 volumes. He alone counted for 20% of all the writing printed in Germany between 1500 and 1530. His translation of the Bible into German was probably the greatest influence on common households. Another reason that Luther was so successful is that he had the backing of the princes and nobility, who saw that breaking with Rome and the Church, would give them greater autonomy in relations with the country and abroad. Luther’s assertion that only the Bible had doctrinal authority and faith alone was justification for one’s beliefs was very attractive to the ruling class.
After the Diet of Worms and Luther’s excommunication, his fame spread even further. In 1525 he married an ex-nun, Katharina von Bora. Luther was an earthy man who enjoyed a good laugh; he did not shy away from sexuality, and could be vulgar and cutting in his criticisms of others. He did not like to be contradicted and had a healthy ego. As he aged, his very bulk gave testament to his enjoyment of life, he was not an aesthetic. In short, he was very human with weaknesses as well as strengths.
Luther’s chief venom was aimed at the Pope and Jews. His writings directed toward the Jews are shocking, even given the context of the age in which he lived. His unfounded accusations and his desire to expel them from the country traces a direct line to Hitler’s Germany.
Luther was reluctant to delegate responsibility to his followers. After he broke with Catholicism he didn’t create a structure or hierarchy for his own church, and it was a task left to others after his death in 1546 at age 62.
I had the good fortune to travel in Saxony a few years ago. One cannot help but see signs of Luther’s legacy everywhere. The many beautiful Lutheran churches survived the many wars and the communist take-over of Eastern Germany after World War II. And, of course, the beautiful and inspiring church music composed by Bach is a delightful reminder of Luther’s powerful influence.
I highly recommend this book to all who wish to acquaint themselves with the beginnings of the Protestant faith and at the same time read the life of one of history’s most fascinating individuals.