Brilliant, tormented, passionate, scatological, superstitious, devious, loyal, bitter—pick an adjective, good or bad, and it invariably applies to the German reformer Martin Luther at one time or another in his turbulent life. “I was born to wage war against sects and devils,” Luther said, “and that is why my books are so stormy and combative. … I am the great woodcutter who has to forge a path and therefore I have to destroy so much.”
The towering figure who changed the course of Western civilization also had feet of clay. That is one reason why, 500 years later, we continue to find Luther captivating. There is a historical footnote that illustrates Luther’s ongoing impact. In 1934, Rev. Michael King Sr., pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, attended the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin. So taken with the story of the German monk, Rev. Michael King changed his name to Martin Luther King Sr. and then changed the name of his five-year-old son from Michael King Jr. to Martin Luther King Jr. Such was the enduring legacy that inspired an African American pastor to name his son after a German monk.
As a Reformation scholar, I too find myself returning again and again to Luther, both for amusement and insight. I am not sure my ego could have survived the scathing rebukes he dished out to some of his closest friends. The truth is many of his friends learned to bite their tongues, or else they became his enemies. It was indeed difficult to stand in the presence of what his closest ally, Philip Melanchthon, described as a “militant temperament” and a “cocky self-righteousness.” Luther was a raging fire.
Herman Selderhuis has managed to write a biography that captures Luther and all of the contradictory adjectives that describe him. Selderhuis, professor of church history at Apeldoorn in the Netherlands and founder of the Refo500 commemoration currently celebrating the Reformation around the world, is one of the leading Reformation scholars today. Few scholars are able to make history come alive. It is a special gift for someone of Selderhuis’s stature to successfully reveal the flesh-and-blood Luther, warts and all.
One of the outstanding features of Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography is that it gives insight into Luther before he was Luther the Reformer. Selderhuis reminds us that young Luther remained a product of the medieval mindset, one suffused with demons and devils behind every death and disaster. In 1533, during one of his famous “table talks” with students, Luther regaled his dinner companions with gripping stories of a childhood neighbor who was a witch. The episode was recorded as follows:
This woman punished a preacher without ever even mentioning his name and cast a spell on him so that he had to die. He couldn’t be helped with any medicine. She had taken dirt from the ground where he had walked, threw it in the water, and bewitched him, because without the earth he could not become better again.
As this anecdote makes clear, Luther cannot be understood apart from the medieval context. The late Heiko Oberman described Luther, in the subtitle of his 1992 biography, as existing in a spiritual state “between God and the Devil.”
A second insight we find is that the Reformation was not merely a reformation in theology. Luther’s insights had socio-political implications, and he learned how to function within those strictures of the day. As Selderhuis makes clear, Luther’s reformation was very German. That is to say, there had long been German grievances against the Italian dominance of the papal throne. While Luther did not launch the Reformation as a political act, he soon benefited from, and indeed exploited, the longstanding German hostility toward Italy. In 1520, Luther wrote to his friend Georg Spalatin, advisor to Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony: “Germany is oppressed, not by her own but by the Italian crudeness. …” He refers to supporters of the papacy as “Italian murderers.” One cannot escape the reality that the German theologian recognized and capitalized on the pre-existing cultural tensions to further the Reformation movement.
A third insight concerns the protection Luther received from Frederick the Wise. Scholars have long pondered why Prince Frederick supported him against the papacy and amid ominous threats to his Saxony throne. This question is all the more intriguing given a lack of evidence that Frederick ever embraced Luther’s teaching. The reasons for Frederick’s dramatic support for Luther are multi-layered. But Selderhuis makes clear that part of the rationale was due to his anti-Italian sentiments. Like other German leaders, Frederick resented ever-increasing papal taxes levied on the Germans.
On the personal level, Selderhuis also notes that the pope had refused permission for Frederick to marry Margaretha, daughter of Emperor Maximillian—not once, but twice. As it turns out, the Reformation was propelled forward at a crucial point because of Frederick’s personal resentment toward the pope. The Reformation did not take place in a vacuum.
A final insight touches Luther’s family life. One of the most dramatic stories in Luther’s life was his marriage to Katharina (or “Katie”) von Bora. It also proved to be a revolutionary act. Luther met his wife in a most unusual way. She was a nun that he had aided in escaping the Cistercian monastery near Nimbschen. Katie and several of the other nuns landed on Luther’s doorstep in April 1523. Acting as a matchmaker, he quickly found husbands for all but one—Katie von Bora. He did not especially like Katie and described her as a “zesty lady” who was “proud and snooty.” He added, “I would not know what devil would want her.” Luther tried to marry her off to two available men, but alas, no match was made. Then Katie took the initiative. She said she would marry Luther or Nicholas von Amsdorf, one of Luther’s associates—and Amsdorf declined the offer.
Katie’s offer got Luther to thinking about marriage. Up to this point, he felt that marriage was out of the question because he expected to die a martyr. In the final analysis, Luther decided to marry Katie “to please his father, to rile the pope, to make the angels laugh and the devils weep.” He did not marry for love. In fact, he stated before his marriage: “I do not love my wife, but I do appreciate her.”
Cultural conventions prescribed that a dowry and social status determined a marriage match. But neither Luther nor Katie had neither. He was a declared heretic, and she was a runaway nun. But a remarkable thing happened after his marriage. Luther actually fell in love with Katie, and this had a massive cultural impact. Luther was quite open about his affection for Katie. He wore his heart on his sleeve. “I love my Katie, yes indeed. I love her more dearly than myself.” Because of his status as a reformer, his marriage became the new Protestant paradigm. As Harvard historian Steven Ozment has written, “No institutional change brought about by the Reformation was more visible, responsive to the late medieval plea for reform and conducive to new social attitudes than the marriage of Protestant clergy.”
Beyond these signal events in Luther’s life, Selderhuis provides a number of bubble-bursting clarifications that will surprise a general audience. First, he argues, the 95 Theses were not all that revolutionary. In essence, Luther protested the abuse of the sale of indulgences, not indulgences themselves. Further, there is nothing in the 95 Theses about justification by faith alone, and Luther even declares his obedience to the pope.
Second, Selderhuis claims that Luther did not himself nail the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Of course, he wrote out the 95 Theses for the purpose of instigating an academic debate among the theological faculty at the University of Wittenberg. (This is why they were written in Latin.) They would have been posted not by a professor but by the beadle of the university. Another bubble is burst with the realization that Luther probably did not utter the iconic words “Here I stand, I can do no other.” It turns out this language was attributed to Luther only in a later publication.
As a historical theologian, I am attracted to theological subtleties. I would have enjoyed more detail on Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone, a wrestling with the nuances of his paradoxical theology of the Cross, and his Anfechtungen (the overwhelming terror that God was going to condemn him). But I have to give ground on this because Selderhuis did not set out to provide a detailed analysis of Luther’s theology. This is first and foremost a spiritual biography. The emphasis is on those events and spiritual workings that shaped Luther at the deepest level and gave rise to his theology.
As a teacher of church history, I have often warned my students that an honest engagement with the so-called heroes of the faith can be spiritually disconcerting. After all, these individuals were sinners with faults, often very serious faults. Luther was no different. But there is a spiritual benefit to recognizing the frailties of our heroes. In order to keep our spiritual balance, we must remember that God works through sinners. Isn’t this the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Paul? And if God can work through such sinners as these, surely he can work through us too.
Frank A. James III is the president and professor of historical theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of Church History: Pre-Reformation to the Present, vol. 2 (Zondervan) and author of Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination: The Augustinian Inheritance of an Italian Reformer(Oxford University Press).