There are so many events planned to mark the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary that sometimes it’s hard to keep track. Fresh conversations have been sparked in churches, the press, and seminar rooms. Wittenberg and other Reformation sites in Germany have been beautifully restored, even Disneyfied. Exhibitions, conferences, and lectures abound, as do articles in newspapers and magazines.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves in the midst of an avalanche of publishing, both popular and scholarly, as biographies of Luther appear with head-spinning regularity, accompanied by general accounts of the Reformation and studies of other key figures and their writings.

Not surprisingly, some of these books are de rigueur anniversary items that, like those heavily advertised tours to Wittenberg, revisit old ground and retell familiar stories. But there are plenty of new things to notice and get excited about, not least a growing commitment among authors and scholars to address new and changed audiences. No longer can one take for granted that students, clergy, laity, or the wider public understand the significance of the Reformation—how it convulsed the 16th century, and how it decisively shapes contemporary Christianity and the modern world.

The Reformation anniversary, then, comes as a gift for historians and theologians. It’s an opportunity not only to freshly appraise the seminal religious event of the 16th century, but also to show its relevance to matters of faith and culture in our own time. Among the current wave of Reformation publishing are innovative books that pull readers out of their modern assumptions into the radically different world of Luther and his fellow Reformers.

The Difficult Hero

It’s doubtful that Martin Luther literally took hammer and nail in hand to post his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517. But it’s a great story, an iconic image of a rebel overturning the tables of the medieval church, exposing its venality, deep-rooted corruption, and spiritual malaise to restore the heart and soul of the Christian faith. With the benefit of hindsight and more careful study into the period, we now understand that the medieval church from which Luther broke was far from a cesspool of iniquity. For all its institutional flaws, popular and religious devotion flourished on the eve of the Reformation. The problem with indulgences, as Luther knew, was not that they were resented but that they were wildly popular.

Luther loved drama and wove robust, earthy tales of pricking the nose of the pope or defecating on the devil. His Table Talk, recorded by friends and students, offers the Wittenberg professor as a charismatic raconteur, prophet, husband, and father—and a compassionate pastor. Such is the Luther captured in Lyndal Roper’s brilliant Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Roper, history professor at Oxford University, identifies the reformer as a “difficult hero,” an assessment embraced by most of his recent biographers.

The book dives into a treatment of Luther’s psyche, a theme made infamous in 1958’s Young Man Luther by American psychologist Erik Erikson. Roper’s approach, however, could not be further from Erikson’s heavy-handed assessment of the reformer’s troubled relationship with his father. Nevertheless, Roper finds in Luther’s search for a paternal authority a profound desire for a firm hand to guide him through the churning waters of his mind and spirit. She helps us see how Luther conceived of justification by faith as a divine Father’s gracious gift, offering spiritual and emotional satisfaction no human could provide.

October
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Reading the Reformation in 2017