Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 2004
Elegant investigation gives an understanding of Luther
Martin Luther, by Martin Marty. Viking/Penguin Books: New York, NY. 2004. Hardcover. 199 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.
- Martin Luther to Philip Melanchton
"Sin boldly!" That rather misunderstood, yet delicious line surfaces in a personal letter, dated Aug. 1, 1521. It was written by Luther to fellow-academic and chief theological advisor Melanchton. Together, over many difficult and eventful years, these two defined and defended the formative elements of a rediscovered biblical faith. That faith has evolved through almost five centuries into modern, diverse Protestant Christianity.
"I cannot do otherwise, here I stand!" This resolute defence of his life and work he made but a few months earlier in the German city of Worms. Seemingly intrepid, he uttered this famous line at a Vatican-sponsored court hearing called to deal with what Rome considered Luther's heretical beliefs and writings.
Brave statements. From a paradoxical man who nevertheless proved that ideas emanating from an individual's private spiritual struggle and serious search for the truth can, in fact, be transformed into social understandings that change the course of human history.
With the appearance of Martin Luther, a new Penguin Lives biography, Martin Marty masterfully introduces to 21st century readers the most famous Church reformer of the 16th century. Prolific author Marty, himself a Lutheran pastor and feted professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, here paints a gripping literary portrait of The Reformer.
This elegant investigation stands as one of the best short Luther biographies in English. It is neither hagiography nor "a hanging judge" assessment. The book, rich in detail but lucid in presentation, charts the spiritual evolution of a late medieval man whose formidable witness extends all the way to modernity.
"He makes most sense as a wrestler with God," says Marty, "indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own."
Luther could upset and frustrate friend and foe alike. For all his good qualities, it would appear that he could also be quite an unseemly fellow.
He carried within him a discordant bundle of psychological complexes. His seemingly indomitable faith was frequently invaded by a chronic and troubled clutch of insecurities. Often his own severest critic, Luther described this as dreadful encounters with the devil himself. To describe these experiences he used the German term "Canfechtungen" (visitations of despair and uncertainty). Because of his experience with depression, he was inclined to focus unduly on the dark side of human nature.
Luther was a man of conservative outlook with respect to much Church life, but also a person of radical expression who took extreme positions. His followers tended to compromise in reaction to these extremes. Lutherans, generally speaking, choose a safe, middle course between the ambiguous, even contradictory, options he made available to them in his legacy.
Marty is as honest in recounting Luther's flaws as he is about acknowledging his greatness. "Sinning boldly but also believing and rejoicing in Christ even more boldly" has proven to be a mixed blessing.
(Wayne Holst is a parish educator at St. David's United Church, Calgary. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)
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