Luther’s legacy today

A new work analysing the work of Martin Luther

The Church of England - - REVIEWS / SUNDAY - Martin Luther Scott H Hen­drix Yale, hb, £25.00 Paul Richard­son

Next year sees the 500th an­niver­sary of the event that is re­garded as mark­ing the start of the Re­for­ma­tion: Martin Luther nail­ing his 95 the­ses on the doors of churches in Wit­ten­berg. Ec­u­meni­cal cel­e­bra­tions in Ger­many and around the world are to com­mem­o­rate the event. Ac­tu­ally, al­though there is no doubt that Luther did write his fa­mous 95 the­ses, it is pos­si­ble that he only mailed them to Arch­bishop Al­bert of Mainz and did not nail them to any church door.

Scott Hen­drix con­sid­ers the mat­ter in his new bi­og­ra­phy of Luther and al­though he comes to no def­i­nite con­clu­sion he quotes a hand­writ­ten note by Luther’s sec­re­tary that was only dis­cov­ered in 2007 that says that Luther did post the the­ses on doors in Wit­ten­berg on 31 Oc­to­ber, 1517.

What­ever the truth about the the­ses there is no doubt about Luther’s sig­nif­i­cance in Ger­man and Euro­pean his­tory as well as in the his­tory of Chris­tian­ity and this new bi­og­ra­phy de­serves a very wide read­er­ship.

In just un­der 300 pages Hen­drix cov­ers Luther’s life, out­lines his thought and as­sesses his the­ol­ogy. Cru­cially the­ol­ogy is not al­lowed to dom­i­nate and we see Luther’s ideas against the back­ground of his life and his per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

Liv­ing as we do through a com­mu­ni­ca­tions rev­o­lu­tion in which the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia have trans­formed our lives it is easy to ap­pre­ci­ate how an ear­lier rev­o­lu­tion, the in­ven­tion of print­ing, trans­formed life in the pe­riod in which Luther lived. Luther was well equipped to take ad­van­tage of the rev­o­lu­tion. He rarely left Wit­ten­berg where he en­joyed the pro­tec­tion of the lo­cal ruler but his books and pam­phlets writ­ten in Ger­man were widely read.

His small cat­e­chism dom­i­nated the mar­ket and spread evan­gel­i­cal be­liefs far and wide. He trans­lated the scriptures into Ger­man and was firm in his be­lief that ‘bril­liant and pompous’ preach­ers were not cho­sen to spread God’s word. “I thank God that I hear and find my God in the Ger­man tongue,” he wrote.

But as well as writ­ing pop­u­lar the­ol­ogy Luther also un­der­stood the im­por­tance of mu­sic in fur­ther­ing his re­li­gious be­liefs. He ranked mu­sic sec­ond to the­ol­ogy among God’s pre­cious gifts. Hen­drix es­ti­mates that by the time he died the num­ber of peo­ple who sang Luther’s hymns would have far out­num­bered those who read his pam­phlets or heard his ser­mons. In 1620 a Je­suit claimed the Re­former’s hymns had led more souls astray than all his ser­mons and other writ­ings.

One of the won­ders of Luther’s life is that he man­aged to sur­vive and to die of nat­u­ral causes. He was pro­tected by Elec­tor John of Sax­ony and by his son who suc­ceeded him and, as Hen­drix makes clear, the Turk­ish threat meant the Em­peror could not af­ford to alien­ate Protes­tants whose sup­port he needed. Af­ter the Em­peror failed to nip Lutheranism in the bud, the Turks gave it breath­ing space and in 1526 the im­pe­rial diet al­lowed each city and ter­ri­tory to tem­po­rar­ily im­ple­ment its own re­li­gious pol­icy.

Two stains on Luther’s rep­u­ta­tion are his writ­ings on the Peas­ants’ Re­volt and on the Jews. Luther con­demned the re­bel­lion of 1525 and al­though he urged the rulers to show mercy he did con­done the ex­e­cu­tion of rebels. Hen­drix does his best to de­fend Luther and says that his words were quoted out of con­text. Com­mu­nist his­to­ri­ans es­pe­cially have tried to make Thomas Muntzer the hero of the Peas­ants’ Re­volt and Luther the vil­lain.

Luther him­self wrote that God’s word de­clared both divine wrath and divine mercy and it was hard to talk of mercy when peas­ants were mur­der­ing and plun­der­ing.

It is less easy to de­fend Luther against charges of an­tiSemitism. Hen­drix speaks of the ‘harsh and con­temptible polemics’ di­rected against Jews in Luther’s last years and ad­mits that he was ‘a pris­oner of his age and its prej­u­dices’. Luther’s writ­ings on the Jews were quoted by the Nazis and do not read well in the light of the Holo­caust.

On one ques­tion Luther was un­doubt­edly well ahead of his age. In his fi­nal will of 1542 he cir­cum­vented pro­vi­sions of Saxon law de­signed to en­sure that a man’s estate went to his chil­dren and trans­ferred all his prop­erty to Kather­ine, his wife. He did not want his wife to be de­pen­dent on their chil­dren and was con­fi­dent she would look af­ter the chil­dren even if she re­mar­ried.

One of the is­sues that will be dis­cussed dur­ing the 500th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions is the im­pact of mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Paul on Luther’s doc­trine of Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by Faith. Luther him­self be­lieved that Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by Faith was taught not only by St Paul but by St Au­gus­tine as well. Was this doc­trine the cause of the Re­for­ma­tion? Hen­drix an­swers yes and no.

The way in­dul­gences were mar­keted to gain money for the church was of­fen­sive in it­self and even if Luther got Paul wrong he was surely right to ar­gue ‘that God was benef­i­cent rather than puni­tive and that Chris­tian­ity was about trust­ing God and lov­ing oth­ers in­stead of earn­ing a ticket to heaven’.

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