‘Martin Luther’: Review of a new biography by Eric Metaxas
COLORADO SPRINGS, Col., December 17, 2017: Can anything more be said about the great religious reformer Martin Luther? Fortunately for the reader the answer is “Yes.” Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World – new biography of Luther by Eric Metaxas – provides a fresh perspective on this central religious figure. The book attempts as well to put right some commonly held errors concerning Luther’s life and his profoundly held beliefs.
Like all good biographers, Metaxas not only describes the life of Martin Luther. He also places him firmly in the context of his time. It is clear in reading Metaxas’ book that he is well-read in other works about Luther, both in English and German, and he refers to several of them along the way. Clearly, this volume is not some run-of-the-mill, slap-dash effort to meet the artificial deadline – namely, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It is instead the result of a well-researched, eminently readable long-term research project.
Who was Martin Luther?
Most Christians today know at least a few facts about the German monk who changed the Christian world. They are perhaps most familiar with Luther’s most famous act: his defiant nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. But beyond this act, they will have little idea why Luther needed 95 statements to denounce the practice of selling indulgences.
Christian readers may also know about Luther’s defiance at the Imperial Diet of Worms. But they may not know what he actually said there, or the profound consequences of his statements for the future of Western civilization. In the same vein, they may know, in a general way, that Luther made it possible for the common man to read the Bible without the intervention and interpretation of the Roman Catholic church hierarchy; that he translated the Bible into German; and that the recent invention of the printing press during his time made not only the Bible but also Luther’s numerous tracts widely available to the public.
But these individual snippets form merely the broadest outline of Martin Luther’s life. Metaxas weaves these and many other less familiar events into a comprehensive story that gives meaning not only to the whole of Luther’s life but also places him in the context of his own time as well as ours.
Why, for example, was Luther not simply burned at the stake for heresy, as Savonarola and Jan Hus before him? Indeed, others were burned at the stake after him. Why did the Reformation proceed, instead of being stamped out by the combined forces of church and state? After Worms, Luther was branded a heretic by the Vatican and declared outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Man Who Rediscovered God
The first theme of Luther’s life, as Metaxas tell it, is his re-discovery of the roots of his Christian faith. As the story goes, while in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, he made a vow to St. Anne that he would dedicate his life to God if his life were spared. He did survive. Much to his father’s chagrin he promptly abandoned his studies to become a lawyer and instead became an Augustinian monk.
In Luther’s day, there was a huge gulf between the Roman Catholic clergy and the Christian laity. The former led celibate, regimented, cloistered lives of prayer and study. They also officiated at mass. The laity were not much more than spectators.
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Perhaps surprisingly, what most clergy didn’t do was study the Bible. They learned Greek and Latin. They read Aristotle and Christian theologians like Aquinas and Augustine. But did not extensively read the Bible itself.
Martin Luther was what we might today call an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. He aimed to perform his duties completely and perfectly. Every mistake or omission was a sin to be confessed.
The church taught that salvation came from confession and absolution of one’s sins. Luther wanted to make sure that no sin went unforgiven. But in the end, Luther found that he could never be sure about that. He was certain that he had, unknowingly perhaps, forgotten some sin and would, therefore, fall short of his divine goal.
Because he was a brilliant student—and perhaps to relieve his confessor—Luther was sent to study the Bible and become a professor of theology. Finally able to read and understand the message of the Gospel for himself, Luther rediscovered what for him was a key truth: that through his own efforts, he could never reach God; but that Christ, through grace, reached out to us instead and gave us the salvation that we could never achieve through our own efforts. This was Luther’s rediscovery of the meaning of the Gospel, and the key to the Protestant Reformation.
The Man Who Changed the World
This stunning “news” was not welcomed by the Church in Rome. Pope Leo X was busy raising money to continue building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther’s untimely preaching against the Church’s literal selling of indulgences to raise funds attacked not only that practice but also the questionable theology behind it.
The oft-cited date October 31, 1517 is likely not the exact day Luther may or may not have nailed his theses to the church door. But it is the day he mailed a copy of them to the Archbishop of Mainz, his church superior. Instead of being receptive to Luther’s ideas, however, the archbishop became a life-long enemy.
This point in history is where Metaxas’ biography differentiates itself. He makes the claim that Luther and the Reformation he set in motion mark no less than the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity in the West.
Whereas before Luther’s rebellious acts there was a sharp demarcation line between clergy and the laity, his rediscovery of the Gospel truth erased it. Luther held that the laity could even choose their own parish priests, now called pastors. Further, instead of blindly following what the established church told them the Bible said, the laity would be free to read and understand scripture for themselves.
Metaxas says this major change has had profound implications down to our own troubled times. Luther’s break with the Vatican was the seed that bore the fruit not only of religious liberty. It was a clean break from the power structure of the medieval Roman Church, and arguably lead to the eventual end of absolutism in the political realm as well.
Political and religious power would no longer be held by the same hands. In time, a new political and religious order blossomed in the New World, based on the conscience and dignity of the individual. This was something unthinkable before Luther.
Eric Metaxas seems uniquely qualified to produce a biography like this one. He is a Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Large for the King’s College in New York City and has also authored a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both books eventually became New York Times best sellers. Like Luther himself, Metaxas remains a prolific writer and speaker. Unlike Luther, however, Metaxas hosts a nationally syndicated radio program.
Even if you’ve already read other biographies of Martin Luther, read this one. You’re certain to learn something new.
Metaxas, Eric. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. October 2017, Penguin Publishing Group.