Bondage and Freedom in Luther

David Fink on some recent biographies of the reformer

To make the way smoother for the non-specialist—for only them do I serve—I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the biographer:

A biographer is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A biographer is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together, they would serve our purpose beautifully. But do they? We expect that a biography—a critical biography, that is—should be free from the constraints of confessional polemic and ideological determinism, free to render its subject in all his (we are speaking of Luther) complexity, angularity, and otherness. But we also expect that a biography—perhaps more so than any other scholarly genre—should serve the needs of its readers, offering an accessible bridge between the world of its intended audience and one particular vantage point on the distant past. Most biographies lean to one task or the other; few scholars have the rare combination of gifts to serve both purposes equally.

Writing a biography of Martin Luther is a uniquely daunting task. For one thing, there’s the sheer mass of primary materials, making Luther one of the most prolific authors in German history. In the most complete critical edition of Luther’s writings (begun in 1883 on the 400-year anniversary of Luther’s birth and completed only in 2009), we have fifty-seven volumes (excluding the indices) of his published writings (sermons, commentaries, disputations, lectures, treatises, pamphlets, catechetical materials, etc.), eleven volumes of correspondence, twelve volumes of materials associated with his translation of the Bible into German, and six volumes of his so-called “table talk.” This last set of materials illustrates one of the uniquely challenging aspects of approaching Luther’s life—his garrulousness. In contrast with his younger contemporary John Calvin, who according to a modern biographer let drop no more than five autobiographical remarks across a corpus of writing nearly as large as Luther’s, the German reformer was all too happy to regale audiences with reminiscences of his earlier battles against the world, the pope, and the devil. Many of these accounts are irresistible for their charm and earthy humor, but some are also difficult to square with Luther’s own earlier writings and with chronologies established from external sources. Luther may have been a legend in his own time, but that legend was already undergoing significant evolution even before his death.

The force of Luther’s personality is almost irresistible in these writings, but this presents another, more subtle difficulty for the critical biographer, beyond the immediate task of piecing together a consistent account. Luther was a master communicator, with a remarkable ability to reframe complex issues in simple, memorable terms accessible to a wide readership. As Andrew Pettegree demonstrates in Brand Luther, key to the reformer’s success was the care he took in “branding” himself and his movement by means of a coordinated media campaign. In a flood of pamphlets, sermons, devotional writings, and a groundbreaking translation of the Bible into German, Luther took his message directly to the literate public in a way that utterly transformed both public discourse and academic theology. But dazzling as Luther’s rhetoric may be—particularly when paired with Lucas Cranach’s woodcut illustrations—for the historian it can obscure as much as it reveals. As the literary critic Terry Eagleton has observed, “all propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly deconstructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place; and if the simple can be an adequate medium of such complexity, then it cannot after all be as simple as all that.” Luther’s way of framing theological debates could be devastatingly deconstructive, which only makes the historian’s task of reconstructing the pieces that much more challenging.

A third difficulty has to do with Luther’s many contested legacies. Even within his own lifetime, Luther was celebrated as a brilliant theologian, a champion of Renaissance humanism, a prophet inspired by God to restore the church, a “German Hercules” resisting foreign exploitation, and a harbinger of eschatological judgment. He was also derided as an obscure monk, an opportunistic climber, a lecherous gourmand, an arch-heretic, and a seven-headed Devil-spawn. In the modern era, historians have cast Luther as a champion of individual freedom, the father of German nationalism, a traitor to the proletarian revolution, a half-educated neophyte who hadn’t read Aquinas carefully enough, an earnest reformer of abuses who overshouted himself into heresy, a proto-fundamentalist, a proto-Nazi, a proto-feminist, etc., etc., etc. Making sense of Luther for contemporary readers thus involves clearing through as densely tangled a thicket of lore and legend as any figure in human history, aside perhaps from Jesus of Nazareth.

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Until recently, the English-speaking world has lacked an up-to-date critical biography that could navigate these difficulties gracefully in the space of a single volume. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand has remained in print continuously since its initial publication in 1950 and is justly regarded as a classic introduction to Luther’s life and thought, but many aspects of his treatment are now out of date. Since then, two generations of Luther research have brought to light new texts and illuminated the reformer’s contexts in ways that forced revisions of many aspects of Bainton’s story. Most significantly, scholars now tend to view Luther less as a historical singularity inaugurating the modern era, and more as a figure firmly embedded in the social, intellectual, and religious assumptions of the late medieval world. No one did more to bring about this reorientation of our view of Luther than the late Heiko A. Oberman, a Dutch historian whose career led him from Harvard to Tübingen, and finally to the University of Arizona. Oberman’s iconoclastic Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (German: 1982, English: 1989) is a brilliant study which took aim at the most cherished totems of twentieth-century Luther scholarship in Germany, but many of these polemics will be lost on contemporary American readers, for whom neither Luther’s eschatology nor his scatology are likely to give much offense. Martin Brecht’s three-volume biography (German: 1987, English: 1993) set a new standard for exhaustive detail, but at 1,500 pages of text and notes, it tends to be consulted as a reference work rather than read straight through. At the other end of the spectrum, a host of shorter biographies continue to flow from the popular press. Many of these are written from a devotional perspective and shed little light on the historical Luther, but two short biographies by German scholars are worth noting here in passing: Volker Leppin’s book provoked heated controversy in Germany when it was published in 2006 for its attempt to reconstruct the early stages of Luther’s intellectual development independently of the reformer’s later self-recollections, dramatically revising in the process some longstanding assumptions regarding the origins of Luther’s revolutionary outlook; the book’s third edition came out in an English translation this fall. Readers looking for an even shorter précis of Luther’s life and thought would do well to consider Thomas Kaufmann’s Short Life of Martin Luther.

Last year’s 500-year anniversary of Luther’s ninety-five theses summoned the efforts of a new generation of senior scholars, and the results are impressive. Of the full-scale, critical biographies recently published in English, three in particular stand out, each framing the life of the reformer in a different angle of vision. Lyndal Roper focuses her narrative most tightly, presenting a highly textured portrait of the man himself and exploring the connections between Luther’s psychology and his theology. Scott Hendrix zooms his lens out to a somewhat wider angle, centering Luther’s vision for reform within the dense network of his relationships with friends and foes. Heinz Schilling takes the widest view of all, setting Luther’s career against the backdrop of macro-historical processes, such as secularization and early modern state formation, which have shaped the world we inhabit today.

Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, New York, Random House, 2017, 576 pp., $20

The guild of Luther specialists has long been wary of psychoanalytic biography, owing to the tendency of certain previous attempts to press the historical data into the mold of abstract theory. One thinks, for example, of Erik Erikson’s ascription of Luther’s defiance of papal authority to an overdeveloped Oedipal complex, or his speculation on the relationship between Luther’s lifelong digestive difficulties and his theological breakthrough “on the toilet.” Lyndal Roper is more circumspect, but she argues that there’s simply too much at stake in what Luther wrought to ignore the wealth of primary material illuminating his inner development. Roper is the Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, the first woman and the first Australian to hold that position. A social and cultural historian, she includes in her earlier work important studies on the role of women and the family in Reformation Germany and on witchcraft in early modern Europe more broadly. In Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Roper turns her attention to Luther’s inner life, charting “the emotional transformations wrought by the religious changes Luther set in motion.” Her aim is not to reduce theology to psychology, but rather to mine Luther’s writings—especially his letters and table talk—for insight into why his distinctive theology developed the way it did and the impact it had on those around him.

Consider, for example, the way in which Roper deals with Luther’s tempestuous relationship to his father. Some of his earliest biographers observed how Luther’s early rebellion against his father’s authority when he entered the monastery may have presaged his later rebellion against the church, an easy plum to pick. But Roper perceptively notes that the relationship was more complex than this, enacting a pattern of rebellion and restoration on which Luther would consciously model important aspects of his theology:

His relentless sense of the drama of his relationship with his own father led him to the most profound understanding of God. In his theology, Luther contrasts God’s absolute power with human beings’ childlike inability to do anything to earn salvation—as well as the believer’s frustration at his or her childlike helplessness. Luther’s theology made God’s paternal relationship to the Christian the pattern of theological truth. . . . It is the distance, rather than the personal closeness, of God, that lies at the centre of Luther’s theology. Luther would not boast of a direct line to Jesus. Ever mistrustful of those who claimed that God talked to them, he spoke instead of his conversations with the Devil.

This strikes me as exactly right: Luther’s theology is neither the symptom of his psychological development, nor can it be understood apart from it. The two emerged simultaneously in a dialectic of experience and reflection that proved transformative, but by no means unique.

The same can be said for Luther’s attitudes to women and to sex, which Roper elucidates with real insight. On the one hand, Luther was very much a man of his time, and it is easy to find cringe-inducing evidence of his chauvinism scattered throughout his writings. Going well beyond even the patriarchy of the Old Testament writings, to which he routinely appealed as a model for marriage and family life, Luther often spoke of women as intellectually inferior, lacking in self-control, and good only for pumping out babies. And yet, as Roper demonstrates, the experience of courtship and marriage seems to have changed him in important ways. Shortly before his marriage to Katharina von Bora in 1525, Luther wrote to a friend that he had been “woven into my girl’s plaits,” a strikingly tender sentiment which Roper rightly judges to have “nothing of the usual masculine bravado about possessing a woman.” Moreover, Luther was remarkably uninhibited when it came to sexuality, even remarking that “pious Christ himself” may have messed around a bit with women on occasion. Generations of Catholic polemicists have trotted out this juicy bit of table talk to discredit Luther as a wanton, but Roper is surely correct in interpreting it as a joke—even so, it is a joke one cannot imagine coming from the likes of Zwingli or Calvin. Luther’s anti-asceticism was more thoroughgoing than that of his co-belligerents because it was rooted in his own experience, over many years, attempting to retrain his own will through ascetic discipline. His failure in this endeavor, combined with his radicalization of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, led to an unexpected conclusion: “If we never can do anything good, as all human acts are sinful, then sexual acts are no different or worse in kind than other types of sin.” Given the ongoing struggles many Christian churches have had over human sexuality in the last decades, it should not be surprising that a contemporary biographer finds this to be one of Luther’s most compelling insights; what is surprising is that more of them don’t.

Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2017, 368 pp., $22

Of the authors under consideration here, only Scott Hendrix is what one might properly call a “Luther specialist.” Recently retired from a long career as a church historian at Princeton Theological Seminary, Hendrix is the author of dozens of publications on the life and legacy of Luther, including a book that remains the best blow-by-blow account of Luther’s conflict with the papal curia, Luther and the Papacy. A student of Oberman at the University of Tübingen, Hendrix’s biography is more traditional in form than that of his mentor, though he shares the same suspicion of “Luther lore,” the pious legends and unverified assumptions that turn biography into hagiography. Hendrix’s book is the most compact of the three under review here, but it packs a great deal of information into a very readable narrative. Like Roper, Hendrix makes extensive use of Luther’s correspondence and somewhat more guarded use of his table talk, but here the focus is less on sketching a psychological profile and more on tracing the development of Luther’s vocation as a prophet and the distinctive vision for Christian renewal he inspired.

Hendrix advances a rather novel thesis concerning Luther’s development, locating the decisive turning point not with a “tower experience” as he pored over St. Paul, nor with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses or his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms. Rather, “it happened at the Wartburg, where Luther adopted a new identity and a new purpose that he believed to have come from God.” In other words, it was in exile that Luther picked up the mantel of a prophet. As evidence for this claim, Hendrix quotes from the dedicatory letter to his father which Luther appended to his treatise, A Judgment on Monastic Vows, dated November 21, 1521: “I am sending you this book, so that you can see by what signs and wonders Christ absolved me of the monastic vow and granted me so much liberty that, although he has made me the servant of all, I am subject to no one but him alone. He is my immediate bishop, abbot, prior, lord, father, and teacher. I accept no other.” Hendrix is quite right in pointing out that it was only after the Diet of Worms that Luther turned his energies from attacking indulgences and the papal curia to actually reforming the practice and institutions of the churches in Germany, yet this seems like an odd moment to single out as the decisive shift. For one thing, several of the key phrases in this passage have an oddly familiar ring: when Luther talks of being a “servant of all,” he is echoing the opening thesis of his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), and when he declares himself “subject to no one but [God] alone,” surely he had already said as much in his much-celebrated riposte to the emperor at Worms. What changed in the intervening months to transform Luther from a critic into a reformer? The answer is that it was his colleagues in Wittenberg who answered his call for reform and began making it a reality in his absence. Despite his high estimate of his own prophetic vocation, Luther was never a one-man show, and Hendrix’s biography demonstrates with admirable skill the ways in which the success of Luther’s movement depended on a wider cast of friends, colleagues, rivals, and even enemies.

Heinz Schilling, Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, trans. Rona Johnston Gordon, New York, Oxford University Press, 2017, 576 pp., $40

Though not well known to English-speaking readers outside academic circles, Heinz Schilling is one of the most productive and influential historians in Germany, having retired from his position as chair of early modern European history at the Humboldt University of Berlin in 2010. His 2012 biography of Luther, first published in German to widespread acclaim and released last year in an English translation by Rona Johnston Gordon, gives perhaps the widest-angle field of vision on the reformer and his significance. Schilling made his mark as a social historian, focusing on the development of rival confessional cultures in the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In Schilling’s previous work, he argued that it was the powerful symbiosis between church and state in the process of “confessionalization,” rather than any immediate changes brought about by the Reformation itself, which was ultimately decisive for the emergence of modernity in the Western world. In this process, the theological imperatives and the religious experiences of figures like Luther played an important early role in cracking open the religious hegemony of the late medieval church and in the formation of distinctive confessional cultures, but these impulses were later coopted and eventually displaced by the political demands of increasingly powerful states. Some critics have argued that this downplayed the significance of religion in an age when many were still willing to kill or be killed for their faith, but Schilling himself was always careful to keep the causal sequence clear: “the late Middle Ages were the boarding, the Reformation was the runway, and confessionalization was the takeoff of European modernization.”

In his biography Schilling turns his attention to the critical early phases of the flight, as Martin Luther taxied into position and accelerated down the runway. Though he provides short, serviceable accounts of key aspects of Luther’s thought as it developed, this is not an analysis of Luther’s theology, nor does Schilling spend much time speculating on Luther’s psychology or inner life. Two features set this biography apart from others. The first is the panoramic swirl of social, political, and economic development—not a static backdrop, but a swiftly-moving landscape—against which Schilling sets his narrative. The second is the way in which he sketches a view from the outside, drawing as heavily on the insights and experiences of Luther’s contemporaries as on the writings of the reformer himself to tell his story.

The results are often striking. One of the more memorable comparisons Schilling draws throughout the book is between Luther and Charles V, the young Habsburg emperor, who met face-to-face at the Diet of Worms in 1521. This encounter has often been read as a confrontation between a prophet of modernity and the intransigent forces of a dying medieval order, but Schilling argues that in that moment, Luther and Charles had more in common than meets the eye: “‘Here I stand, I cannot act otherwise. God help me’—those defiant and existential words could have been assigned just as well to Charles as to Luther.” Not only was Charles fighting for deeply-held theological beliefs, but he was operating from the conviction that “Christendom would need to be securely bound together by Catholicism if Charles was to realize his political plans.” The young emperor was convinced that in order for this to happen, the church must be renewed from within, glimmers of which he had already seen in movements such as humanism and the “modern devotion.” But for this reason, he was unwilling simply to accept the dictum Roma locuta, cause finite—“Rome has spoken, the matter is at an end”—and consign Luther immediately to the flames. In fact, Schilling goes so far as to suggest that there may have even been “a secret or tacit agreement” between Charles and Frederick of Saxony not to enforce the imperial ban against Luther, which was never actually published in the elector’s territory.

In the end, however, neither Luther nor Charles got what he wanted. Charles’s ambition to reestablish the political primacy of the Holy Roman Empire in a revivified Christendom foundered on the rocks of confessional particularism, while Luther never succeeded in making his own particular theological vision universal. Still, Schilling judges Luther to have been the winner in this exchange:

In 1521 Luther had stood before the leading figures of church and world to defend his teachings as a lone monk without influence, power, or symbolic capital. With that picture as our starting point, whatever the limits of his achievement, we have good reason to think Luther victorious. He helped establish the terms of the debate over a new order for Latin Christendom, or Europe as it would soon be called, a change in terminology that recounts a secular reframing of the continent and its culture to which his courageous rebellion contributed.

I’m not sure Luther would have been satisfied with this reckoning. The “secular reframing” to which Schilling alludes was always for Luther a tactical maneuver, never a strategic aim. When Luther suggested that the German princes might act as “emergency bishops” in 1520, he had no intention of permanently subjecting the church to princely control. Yet this is ultimately what happened by the middle of the century, as the network of “Lutheran” churches he had helped to establish became imbricated in the architecture of the territorial German states. Luther never lived to see the settlement at Augsburg which established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the region, his the religion”), but long before his death he had come to realize that his earlier hopes of a renewed Christendom united around his understanding of the Gospel were not to be realized:

The world is the world. If I had to start over with the gospel, I would do it differently. I would let the vulgar crowd stay under the pope and privately give relief to those who are anxious and full of despair. It behooves a preacher to know the world better than I did when I was a monk. Back then I thought the world was so upright that people would rush forward as soon as they heard the gospel. What happened, however, was the contrary.

Judged in terms of his own early expectation that unleashing the Gospel would lead to a renewal of the church universal, Luther’s movement must clearly be judged a failure. Such is the bondage of the biographer. It is one of the most endearing features of his character that Luther could admit such hard truths to himself and to others, but should Luther be given the last word on his own success or failure? One alternative is to identify peripheral or “unintended consequences” of Luther’s reformation—e.g., a more positive attitude to sex and the body, or the “secular reframing of the continent”—and chalk these up as wins for the modern world. Such is the freedom of the biographer. But can these two theses be found to fit together? One might observe that even though Luther failed in his universal aspirations, the particularities of his vision for Christian faith have proven remarkably powerful and resilient for millions of people through the centuries. Though he never succeeded in reforming the church “in head and members,” Luther breathed new life into a tradition that for many—I do not say “all,” or even “most”—had become stultifying, corrupting, or wearisome. That he did so at the price of tremendous upheaval and the shattering of the Latin church’s institutional unity must also be part of the reckoning, but Luther made religious faith viable once more for many early modern Christians who might otherwise have lived in alienation and despair. This may be a theological judgment as much as a historical one, but as such it might serve both purposes “beautifully.”

David C. Fink is Associate Professor of Religion at Furman University.

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