Luther the Reformer

The Story of the Man and His Career, Second Edition

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James M. Kittelson, Hans H. Wiersma
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Augsburg Fortress
    , August
     2016.
     316 pages.
     $27.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781451488883.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Story of the Man and His Career, written and edited by Hans H. Wiersma, is the second edition of James M. Kittelson’s original biography, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, published in 1986. Wiersma nicely updates Kittelson’s already excellent biography of Martin Luther published thirty years ago by adding new outcomes of Wiersma’s own research, and making noticeable shifts with regard to the book’s overall emphasis. Whereas Kittelson, in the first edition, underscored Luther’s public “career,” which he believed transcended Luther’s own time Wiersma, in this second edition, attempts to highlight Luther “the man,” who was a tangible and understandable historical figure that lived in a particular historical context. The second edition not only includes Wiersma’s careful analysis of Luther’s numerous letters, table talks, and his sixteenth-century contemporaries’ descriptions of the reformer, and it also successfully provides a much more vivid picture of the whole man, both in his public career and in his private life. This second edition is still faithful to Kittelson’s original design: to offer an easy and accessible narrative of Luther to non-specialists in particular. This book succeeds in succinctly explaining complicating theological issues and various political situations with which Luther was deeply engaged during his career. The second edition, therefore, is not-so-much for ordinary readers as it is an excellent contribution for graduate students and professional scholars of the Reformation.

Both Kittelson’s first edition in 1986 and Wiersma’s second edition in 2016 share a common goal: to acknowledge that Luther lived one multifaceted life and to draw a multi-dimensional picture of Luther as a whole man. Wiersma agrees with Kittelson’s original conviction that many previous biographies of Luther failed to achieve this goal: purely doctrinal studies of Luther presented him as “a disembodied intellect” who lived in the realm of pure thought (x); psychoanalysis approaches treated Luther merely as “a bundle of social or psychic impulses” (xi); and older Marxist historians portrayed Luther primarily as having been overwhelmed by the historical change of the proletarian revolution. Kittelson and Wiersma seem to assume that many accounts offer incomplete and unbalanced depictions of Luther resulting from an excessive concern for “causality”: “What caused Luther?” (xvi). Therefore, Kittelson and Wiersma intentionally shift their focus from “What caused Luther?” to “What did Luther cause?” Without arbitrarily imposing a direct cause and effect scheme upon Luther’s multifaceted life, Kittelson and Wiersma attempt to draw a consistent picture of Luther by shedding a new light on his daily life, his relationships with friends as well as with foes, and his marriage and family life.

One of the book’s most noticeable strengths is its precise treatment of Luther’s later life. Observing that many biographies of Luther abruptly end around the years of 1521 or 1525 given their sole focus on theology, this book seeks to describe in detail Luther’s later works, particularly his various theological and political engagements after the Marburg colloquy in 1529. It is true that only one-third of this book is dedicated to explaining Luther’s later life. Kittelson and Wiersma, however, pay special attention in determining whether the elder Luther maintained a theological consistency when faced with changing circumstances as the Reformation proceeded. Particularly, this book addresses the crucially important question of whether Luther’s support of Elector John’s proposal of a visitation of all the churches in his territories in 1528 conflicted Luther’s own arguments against Andreas Karlstadt regarding Christian liberty in 1522. Based on the conviction that Luther’s theological consistency lies in his goal to teach true doctrine to ordinary people, Kittelson and Wiersma argue that Luther’s approval of the visitations, and his following publication of The Small Catechism in 1529, were “in many respects the culmination of everything he had done up to that point” (175). While Kittelson and Wiersma without doubt acknowledge Luther’s various responsibilities as professor, reformer, political counselor, and apologist, it is obvious that they present Luther first-and-foremost as “pastor.” Whereas this approach can provide a less conflicting picture of Luther, it is arguable that framing Luther primarily as pastor may succumb to the same danger of causality that they were attempting to avoid.

Kittelson’s and Wiersma’s effort to highlight Luther’s theological consistency also appear in their discussions of Luther’s reaction to the military alliance of the Protestant princes known as the Schmalkaldic League. From the authors’ viewpoint, Luther—in his life—consistently advocated “passive resistance” in light of his understanding of Scripture: lower authorities cannot initiate a military war against higher authorities instituted by God. Kittelson and Wiersma also demonstrate successfully that Luther never sanctioned a religiously-justifiable war (192). What is not manifested, however, is the authors’ own evaluation of whether Luther’s harsh condemnation of the Peasants War in 1525 was consistent with his reaction to the princes’ proposal of active resistance to the emperor in 1530. Did the changing political situations with which Luther was deeply engaged impact his theological shift? Or was Luther able to maintain theological continuity despite of varying circumstances? In light of their intention to avoid the simple causality argument as well as their emphasis on Luther’s consistency as pastor, Kittelson’s and Wiersma’s portrait of Luther offers an open discussion for the reader: in his “private” life, Luther is remarkably approachable and his religious anfechtung described in the book is understandable; in his “public” realm, on the other hand, Luther is an exceptional and extraordinary figure who was able to maintain theological consistency throughout his life and various careers.

This book provides an excellent analysis of Luther’s later works and associations—such as his life in Coburg, his engagement with the Augsburg Confession and the Peace of Nuremberg, and the mission of Vergerio in 1534—in which many previous accounts of Luther have paid relatively less attention. This book also discusses Luther’s last conflict which happened in 1546 in his birthplace, Mansfeld, and ends with an exceptionally well-written narrative of Luther’s death and funeral, situating him nicely as a husband and father of a family. This book is a welcome addition to Luther biographies, and I highly recommend it to non-specialists as well as to Luther and the Reformation scholars in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James M. Kittleson was Professor of church history and Director of the Lutheran Brotherhood Foundation Reformation Research Program at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He was author of several books, including Toward an Established Church: Strasbourg's Reformation from 1500 to the Dawn of the Seventeenth Century (2000), and he served as a senior editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (1996).

Hans H. Wiersma is Associate Professor of religion at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a widely respected teacher and the coauthor and contributor to the popular Crazy Book (2009) and Crazy Talk (2008) volumes, both from Fortress Press.

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