The Making of Martin Luther

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Richard Rex
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $27.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691155159.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Richard Rex’s The Making of Martin Luther treats the development of Martin Luther’s theology and role as a reformer in the key years from 1517 to 1523. Though Rex may contribute little new content to Luther studies in this book, he compiles and nuances current understandings of Luther’s context, activity, and thought from that period, and distills it into a book that is readable, free of jargon, and entertaining. More importantly, this is a book that teaches. Its value lies in presenting briefly and pointedly what is distinctive about Luther’s theological development rather than repeating the partisan caricatures of his thought and role produced by later generations of both his detractors and his followers.

In chapters 1 through 8, Rex examines the development of Luther’s theology in his work as a professor and reformer, each chapter highlighting a specific context for this development. Rex reveals the picture of a slow and reluctant shift from a scholar obedient to institution and tradition to a critic inveighing against both institution and tradition. He further reveals the important role of Luther’s critics who spurred the greater elaboration of Luther’s theological positions (as well as his well-known colorful ad hominem invective). This attention to Luther’s critics is a welcome alternative to the usual lack of interest in what they had to say.

In his last chapter, Rex offers us his assessment of what the Luther of 1517 to 1523 means for later history. Rex emphasizes that Luther’s thought is absolutely rooted in Western medieval Christianity: Luther’s focus on Christ, the Bible, the salvation of souls (rather than of the world), sin, and guilt is thoroughly medieval. In contrast, what is distinctly novel in Luther’s thought is limited and easily summarized: “Luther’s problems were medieval problems, but his solutions were new solutions. The big novelties in his thought were the invisible church, the ineradicable persistence of sin in this life, and the certainty of grace (through justification by faith alone)” (223).

As Rex unpacks these novelties, he offers us new insights indeed: that the key elements of Luther’s theology actually contradicted Augustine of Hippo, Luther’s favorite theologian; that we miss the point when we focus on the derivative “justification by faith alone” rather than attending to Luther’s emphasis on “certainty of grace”; and that Luther’s work led later generations to conclusions he did not intend. As Rex explains, “ultimately, although nothing could have been further from his mind, Luther’s theological synthesis was a triumph of individualism… this tended theologically to put the individual’s ‘relationship with God’ (as it came to be called much, much later), rather than the church, at the heart of the Christian religion…” (226).

If the book has a flaw it might be found in the earlier chapters, where Rex is at risk of short-changing a full description of Luther’s life and influences. For example, Rex identifies Luther’s philosophy as nominalist without further qualification or any mention of the debate around identifying Luther’s thought with one or another of the philosophical or educational approaches of his time. However, this is hardly a drawback for a book that is so vividly, and at times quite humorously, written, and so well-suited to a wide readership. The book will be useful and engaging in an upper division undergraduate course, an introductory graduate course, or a challenging adult education course in the local church or ecumenical setting. The Making of Martin Luther will also appeal to the armchair historian of Luther or the Reformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley A. Peterson is Instructor of History and Theology at the Episcopal School for Deacons, Berkeley, California.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queens’ College. His books include Tudors: The Illustrated History and Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He lives in Cambridge.

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