There are times, often, in his 2004 biography Martin Luther when Martin Marty seems more than a bit exasperated with his subject.
Luther, he writes, was a man of paradoxes, a man of ambiguities. And, over and over, Marty apologies — or, maybe, it’s that he grumbles — that he is constantly writing “at the same time.”
For instance, Luther, the former monk, did more than anyone to break the stranglehold of a single religious system (the Catholic Church) and make it possible for people to think in terms of making their own spiritual choices based on their own consciences.
And, yet, at the same time, he so hated chaos that he stressed obedience to authority and urged princes to crack down on the Peasants Revolt.
He contended that all of the followers of Jesus should be members of “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church” as a single flock.
And, yet, at the same time, he was the catalyst for the Big Bang of religion in the Christian West, the fragmentation of the flocks into myriad sects, denominations, cults, confessions, churches and factions.
He recognized that Jews were more devoted to the Scripture than most Catholics.
And, yet, at the same time, he was angry and vicious toward them when the Jews refused to accept the Hebrew Bible as simply the Old Testament, a prefiguring of Jesus, and refused to convert to Christianity.
“His own worst self”
Indeed, Luther wrote that, if Jews wouldn’t see the light and become Christians, they should be driven out like mad dogs.
Which was too much for his wife Katherine, a former nun, who, Marty writes, was “offended by incitement to persecution” and “stood up to him, quoting Scripture in Latin, to which he made feeble reply.”
Luther spent a lifetime searching for certainty and could never quite grasp it. He saw that nothing is secure, nothing is under our control, and the only hope is faith — the leap of belief.
This made it possible for him to get through the day, but the flipside was that he could become too certain, become arrogant in his faith. Marty writes:
The once uncertain monk in these kinds of cases had become so comfortable with his certitude that it took on the character of the very self-centered security, the intellectual and moral self-assurance, against which he always warned.
The apostle of Christian freedom was not here free of his own the3ological prejudices. The biblical scholar and spiritual struggler who preached that, like Jacob, he had prevailed over God and man, in this display showed that he had not conquered his own worst self.
And, yet. And, yet, I didn’t come away from this biography with revulsion toward Luther.
I came away from Martin Luther with an even sharper sense of a very human man. A man who, for all his fears of chaos and doubt, was willing to stand naked before the deepest questions of life and grapple with them. So much of his energy, all this life, went into that battle that he left consistency behind. He was emotionally and intellectually unguarded, one of the most unguarded major historical figure this world has ever known.
He was unguarded the way saints are unguarded — like St. Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, St. Therese of Lisieux, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.
Three of those are official Catholic saints. Who will argue that Day, Gandhi and King weren’t saintly?
Readable and dense
Marty, a major American Lutheran scholar, spells out in his preface that he is not attempting a psychological analysis of Luther, although his psychic makeup is part of the story Marty tells. Nor is his main purpose an examination of Luther as a world-changer, although he changed the world.
Marty notes that there are only a handful of biographies of Luther in English, and says the scope of this Penguin Lives work won’t add much.
But he’s wrong, especially when it comes to non-experts.
The author recognizes that most modern people have a difficult time understanding the religious preoccupations of Luther and his age, such as guilt and dread, and he goes out of his way to explain, throughout the 199-page book, how various words and concepts were understood in the early 16th century. And what the import and impact of Luther’s ideas had on his age. And, by extension, ours.
In contrast to many other Penguin Lives biographies, Martin Luther doesn’t skimp on the details of intellectual debate. Marty condenses a great deal into this book. While it is readable, it is also dense with Luther’s thoughts and insights and Marty’s analysis.
“A wrestler with God”
Why was Luther important? What did he mean for his age and for ours?
Marty’s answer is this:
He makes sense as a wrestler with God, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own.
Those who bring passion to what is a universal search for meaning in life may well identify with such a search, though of course by no means all will find Luther’s resolution attractive or even accessible, because it appears in a Christian framework.
People of other faiths or of no explicit religious commitment may find his specific solutions alien, but they can grasp what he was about by analogy to approaches that they already find familiar from other studies of literature and history or from their own experiences.
In other words, like you, like me, Luther was a seeker. We all wrestle with the unanswerable questions of existence.
For us, Luther is a model. With all his blindnesses, warts, biases, false steps, he is still a model. After all, who of us hasn’t misstepped?
And a saint? Yes.
I strongly recommend Martin Marty’s Martin Luther.
In addition, here are some other good books about Luther:
• Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton (1950)
• Luther by John Osborne (1961)
• White Robe, Black Robe: Pope Leo X, Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation by Charles L. Mee Jr. (1972)
• Luther: Man Between God and the Devil by Heiko A. Oberman (1990)
Patrick T. Reardon