Martin Luther

A Late Medieval Life

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Volker Leppin
Translator(s): 
Rhys Bezzant
Karen Roe
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , October
     2017.
     160 pages.
     $22.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780801098215.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation last year was preceded by an abundance of focused studies on Martin Luther and his impact from a variety of angles, ranging from criticism, music, prayer, history, sacraments, biblical translation, and catechism, to his relationship with Jews and Muslims. Established writers such as Martin MartyTimothy WengertRobert Kolb, and Gregory Miller produced works on these subjects. For those seeking a comprehensive take on the anniversary, Heinz Schilling and Eric Metaxes produced excellent, detailed biographies of 640 and 416 pages, respectively. For those seeking a briefer sketch of the Reformer, Volker Leppin’s analysis would be highly recommended to everyone from life-long Lutherans to those who googled Martin Luther King, Jr. in search of more information about his namesake.

In 135 pages (a third of his 427-page 2006 German-only biography), Leppin uses a “Seven Ages of Man” approach, with chapters entitled “The Son,” “The Monk,” “The Publicist,” “The Prophet,” “The Preacher-Bishop,” and “The Outsider.” Leppin details some of the familiar events of Luther’s life and theology, lightly debunking some of the legends along the way. For example, while Leppin believes that Luther cried out to Saint Anna during that fateful storm, vowing to end his study of law and become a monk, he posited that the vow was more of an excuse to get out from under the thumb of his overbearing father (9). Leppin points out that Luther’s vaunted tower experience, in which the words of Romans 1:16 created in him a feeling of entering the very gates of paradise itself, did not take place in a cell high in a castle tower, but in a Scheißhaus (water closet, 34). Leppin’s scholarship also revealed that Luther’s hopeful quotation—“If the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today”—was created from post-WWII Protestants looking for an encouraging word, though he said it did reflect Luther’s tireless output despite his terror of what he believed to be the imminent eschaton (41). 

Additionally, two of Luther’s major outputs—the posting of the 95 Theses and the penning of his Small Catechism—were both the result of disastrous road trips. The former came when he travelled to Rome and first saw the sale of indulgences and the shoddy treatment of the sacrament (16), and the latter came on a six-month visitation tour, resulting in  his “dedication” of the catechism in his preface to “the deplorable, wretched deprivation” of the German populace, which was in large part due to “completely unskilled and incompetent teachers” (96-97). The gem of this book, however, is revealed in the following: “Grace is received by faith alone, but Luther himself never worked alone as an independent operator of the Reformation” (91-92). While it is no surprise to anyone vaguely familiar with the Reformation that Luther was not solely responsible for the creation of a branch of Christianity, the long list of Luther’s peers who had a significant impacton him and his theology—both positive and negative—will be a surprise. 

Naturally, Pope Leo (whom Luther referred to more as the anti-Christ than by his proper name), Thomas Müntzer (executed leader of the Peasant’s Revolt), Philip Melanchton (“frenemy” and life-long collaborator), Johann Tetzel (seller of indulgences), Katharina von Bora (former nun, wife, and head of house), Johannes von Staupitz (his father-confessor, but more like a real father than confessor) and his father Hans (see previous parenthetical statement) all had major and identifiable impacts on Luther’s life and legacy. In fact, according to Leppin, Lutherans probably should worship at Saint Mark’s Staupitzian Church if his monastic mentor was given his proper due (17, 27). 

But many Lutherans are less familiar with the influence of the mystic Johannes Tauler, whose teaching on the need for a Christian to repent was the subject of Luther’s first publication, a tract called German Theology, which led to the central role of justification in Luther’s theology (24-25). Iconoclasts Andreas Karlstadt and the Prophets of Zwickau took Luther’s concept of priesthood for all the baptized to its fullest extent, saying that they did not need a church; rather, their direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit was the only requirement to lead God’s people in worship (68). In asking Luther to visit the local parishes, Duke Elector Johann Friedrich cajoled Luther into serving as a de factobishop (69). The politician and diplomat Philipp of Hesse, in an attempt to keep the first-generation Reformers from endlessly splitting, convened a colloquy at Marburg in 1529 (where Luther infamously carved “This is my body” into the table to emphasize the concept of real presence). And perhaps the person most responsible for modern Lutheran pastors preaching the law and gospel owe a thanks to Johann Agricola, who refused to preach the law in his sermons against both Luther and Melanchton’s well-established position (123-24).

Amidst this cast of characters, Luther stands atop the shoulders of many others—Eck, Erasmus, Augustine, Aristotle, Zwingli—as chief of many reformers. But it was he alone who posted those 95 Theses, who stood alone at the Diet of Worms, and who alone on December 10th burned the papal bull Exsurge Domine of excommunication. From that act, according to Leppin, the schism—and perhaps the true date of the Reformation—began.

Leppin closes his book with Lutheranism’s worst-kept secret, namely his writings against the Jews, calling them supporting documents for German Christians and the Third Reich (130). Setting aside the justification that these are the writings of a grumpy old man, Leppin does not excuse, but explains Luther’s deep anti-Semitism buried in his life and theology.

This slim volume finds that sweet spot between scholarship and accessibility and can be used in churches, if not classrooms, as an introduction to “the son of a miner, monk, professor, enemy of the pope, preacher of the end times, husband, father, Martin Luther” (135).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy Ihssen is a doctoral candidate in Interfaith Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David, Lampeter.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Volker Leppin is Professor of Church History at the University of Tübingen and is widely regarded as the leading German historian of the late medieval period. He has served as scientific director of the Ecumenical Working Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians since 2008 and as a member of the executive board of the Protestant Federation Württemberg since 2012. Leppin received the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg Foundation Prize, the Hanns-Lilje Prize of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen, and the Gerhard Hess Prize from the German Research Foundation.

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