Vintage, 2017, 577pp
"Never meet your heroes" says the old adage. The Martin Luther we 'meet' through the pages of Lyndal Roper's biography is not the heroic figure of popular Protestant folklore. At least, while he was capable of great heroism, Dr. Luther could also be something of a villain. At the heart of the Reformer's teaching was the idea that the believer is at one and the same time 'justified and yet a sinner'. Luther was certainly both right with God and terribly wrong in many ways. As are we all.
His was not a 'theology of glory' based on human effort to merit God's favour, but a 'theology of the cross' that looked to God alone in Christ for salvation. This was Luther's decisive breakthrough. He came to understand that the 'righteousness of God' by which the 'just shall live by faith' (Romans 1:16-17) is not the righteousness that God is, or demands of us, but the gift of saving righteousness received by faith in Christ. This shaped Luther's reading of the Bible and informed his critique of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. If we are justified by faith, we have no need of popes, the priestly sacrifice of the Mass, indulgences, and so on.
Germans seem to have a knack of coming up with a single phrase that says what it would take several words to express in another language. Schadenfreude is one - a malicious glee in the suffering of others. Luther's 'say a lot of stuff in one word' thing was, Anfechtungen. It could mean a sense of terror the sinner experiences in the presence of a holy God, or the trials the believer suffers in this life. The devil may be the immediate cause of many Anfechtungen, but behind the devil is God putting his servants to the test. Let's just say Luther was not an early advocate of prosperity theology.
Lyndal Roper sets Luther life against the backdrop of his times. She provides a richly detailed picture of the commercial, religious, academic, political and cultural aspects Luther's Germany. There's a wealth of information here. Roper draws on the Freudian Oedipus complex theory as key to understanding Luther's personality. According to the Greek tragic tale, poor old Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother. On discovering his monstrous error he then poked his own eyes out. Roper detects Oedipal tendencies in Luther's rejection of his father's plan that he should become a lawyer, when he jacked in his legal training to become a monk. But I wonder whether that course of action had more to do with Luther's sense of himself as a sinner before a just God. It was the thunderstorm event that drew out of him the vow, 'Help me St Anne and I will become a monk'. It was only when Luther discovered justification by faith that he understood that the just God is also a gracious Father.
In the film Darkest Hour, Clemmie encourages Winston to 'just be yourself' when he accepted the role of Prime Minister. Churchill responded, 'Which self shall I be today?' For he was a multi-faceted man. Something similar could be said of Luther. You could almost say there were three of him. The God-terrified monk, the bold 'Here I stand' Reformer of the Diet of Worms, and the somewhat grouchy and paranoid Luther of his mature years. We sympathise with Luther I, admire Luther II, but find Luther III a bit more difficult to like.
Luther III is a complex figure. He could be imperious in asserting his leadership of the German Reformation and a temporiser, slowing the pace of reform to keep the Elector of Saxony on side. He could be welcoming and magnanimous, a warm friend, and excluding and vengeful, an implacable enemy. Luther in turns coddled and bullied Philip Melanchthon. They remained 'best friends for ever'. He fell out catastrophically with Andreas Karlstadt, goaded him into making his private criticisms public, and then treated him as the worst of foes.
I would have liked to have seen more attention given to Luther as a pastor and preacher. Would have made for a more rounded portrait of his life. The focus here is more on Luther as Reformation leader. In that role he had strengths and weaknesses. His courage, conviction and clarity of vision were massive strengths. But Luther's weaknesses were also glaring. His intransigence stopped him being a unifying figure among the Reformed. His view of the Lord's Supper, for example, just had to prevail over and against 'Sacramentarians' such as Zwingli, Bucer and the later Calvinists. Baptists, let's not even go there.
Perhaps a better key to understanding Luther is not Oedipal tendencies, but 'Founder's Syndrome'. This malady presents itself when the powerful founder of an organisation surrounds themselves with 'yes men and yes women'. The over-mighty founder brooks no rivals and accept no accountability. Their will must prevail at all costs. Think of Camila Batmanghelidjh of the Kids Company. Luther often reminded those who had the temerity to argue with him that he was the one who stood alone at the Diet of Worms. The Reformation was his. Any threat to it, whether from Karlstadt's hastily implemented reforms at Wittenberg, or the peasants taking his message of freedom as inspiration for revolution had to be stamped out.
Roper comes down hard on Luther for his antisemitism. Some have tried to suggest that what he was against was Judaism, because as a religion it taught salvation by works, rather than grace. But the statements quoted by Roper from all periods of the Reformer's life reveal a disturbing prejudice against Jewish people. Luther can sometimes be intemperate and potty mouthed when engaging with theological opponents. 'Speaking the truth in love'? Not always. But I question whether Roper is being entirely fair in suggesting he was quite so fueled by hatred and anger. Even in his 'Luther III' Grumpy Old Man phase.
As I say, Luther was a justified sinner, a flawed characher whom God used to accomplish tremendous things. Among them: the reassertion of the authority of Scripture over and against the church, the translation of the Bible into German, the rediscovery of justification by faith alone, steps towards reforming the church as a priesthood of all believers, marriage and family life as an honourable estate for pastors and people. Luther's ideas had a transformative effect on German politics, culture and national identity. The Reformation he started needed to be taken further. Much further, but it was Luther who ignited the flame of Protestant reform that would engulf first Europe, and then the world. There is no denying he was a great man. But we cannot deny that he also had great faults. 2 Corinthans 4:7.