A noted Lutheran historian turns to the founder of his faith, delivering a thoughtful portrait of a complex, controversial figure.
“I will begin with Luther’s birth and end his story at his death, largely leaving to others the accounts of his posthumous influence and its global consequences,” writes Marty (Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, 2000, etc.). So he does, and if he goes lightly on the revolutions and wars that Luther (1483–1546) touched off with his radical reshaping of the church, Marty gives a careful accounting of the man. One constant in Luther’s life seems to have been a rather dark view of humankind, and perhaps even of God: his parents were harsh disciplinarians; his schoolteachers assured him and his classmates that “Jesus the Son of God would judge them after their death,” and “in school Luther lived in terror of the ‘wolf,’ the classmate charged to tattle weekly on the children and finger them as candidates for physical punishment”; the young Catholic monk Luther and his mentor, Vicar General Johannes von Staupitz, “inhabited a universe in which they thought a threatening God kept a suspicious eye on every human act.” Whence, perhaps, Luther’s keen interest in hellfire and damnation, and with the problem of Everyman’s working out his own salvation—and without the vehicle of priestly indulgence, which allowed the well-off to “become complacent about their situation before God. They would feel that they could sin and not fear purgatorial punishment.” Marty portrays Luther as both conservative and radical, as torn by doubts and pained by illness—yet resolute in his devotion to ecclesiastical reform and his belief that the personal search for salvation was far more important than the “papal and imperial threats” he faced over most of his theological career. Throughout, Marty does not shy from unpleasant questions, notably Luther’s anti-Semitism; nor does he fail to point out inconsistencies and paradoxes in the Lutheran legacy.
“Sin boldly,” Luther proclaimed. The only flaw in this bold interpretation, and one by design, is that it is too short. A fine brief on a world-changing figure.