- ISBN: 9780300166699
- Published By: Yale University Press
- Published: November 2015
Selecting a volume on the life of Martin Luther will become increasingly difficult over the months to come. As we approach 2017 and the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses criticizing the sale of indulgences we can expect numerous works on the Wittenberg reformer to show up at our doors. Some will see this as cause for celebration; others will rightly worry about the temptation to lionize Luther. In his recent biography, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Scott Hendrix offers something outstanding for both the jubilant and the apprehensive: a portrait of Luther both admiring and honest. Hendrix attends to historical and theological details without belaboring either, creating an intimate sketch of Luther’s self-understanding through stories that provide something new even for those who have spent many years with brother Martin.
The volume is divided into two parts, beginning with Luther’s path toward reform in the early stages of his life (1484-1521) and then exploring the development of the evangelical movement (1522-46) that was bound up with Luther’s existence. One of Hendrix’s goals is to reorient modern debates about dating Luther’s so-called evangelical breakthrough. When did Luther begin to reevaluate the meaning of faith and justification? While there are important historical questions here, Hendrix is less interested in fixing a date on the calendar between 1512 and 1518 than in exploring Luther’s understanding of himself in relationship to the church and its teaching. By Hendrix’s account the key to understanding Luther is to recognize how he gradually comes to see himself as possessing an identity and purpose given by God.
This is not Luther the isolated hero, a giant cut off from medieval Christianity and driven by an unyielding compulsion, but Luther the deeply religious and intellectual man indebted to his training and colleagues. Hendrix, especially in chapters 3 and 4, provides rich details about Luther’s connection to humanism and readily acknowledges that Erasmus and many others had voiced the same kinds of objections that Luther raised about the theology of indulgences, corruption within the church, and the need to renew the spiritual life of laity and clergy alike. Luther attacked those who tried to explain salvation as a human achievement apart from God’s grace, those Pelagian tendencies in theologians like Gabriel Biel and not necessarily scholastic theology writ large. Luther’s work as an expositor of sacred scriptures, in the classroom and at the pulpit, drew on the biblical commentary tradition. These important details will serve as a healthy corrective against more radical interpretations of Luther that highlight discontinuity and innovation.
Hendrix’s project is deeply rooted in his lifelong study of Luther, not merely the product of rising interest in the upcoming 500th anniversary of 1517. The volume is filled with personal details and telling anecdotes culled from Luther’s major works and his voluminous collection of letters to family, friends, and colleagues. What one might want at times is a deeper explanation of what problems Luther’s self-understanding created for his relationships and his theology. Hendrix is honest in his portrayal of a man deeply affected by “euphoria and dejection” (84) whose expectations of agreement and deference made close friendship something of a “precarious asset” (258). To what extent did Luther’s pursuit distort his vision, leading him to see danger and dissension as further evidence for devilish motives at work in colleagues near and far? Similarly, is the “spontaneity” that Luther sometimes expects (175, 233) a sign of idealistic hopefulness or a problematic approach to divine action?
Finally, there are lingering questions about what lessons Luther offers us today. Hendrix presents Luther as an important figure and a contemporary role model for those passionate about the message of divine forgiveness and Christian freedom. But there are moments when, casting Luther as one who strove to separate religion from “moralism” (233), Hendrix implies that keeping theology divided from ethics or politics should be an important task today (225, 228). There are issues with this approach, both as a description of Luther and a prescription for the present. While Luther’s frustrations about religious dissent and political distractions are legion, focusing on these comments misses Luther’s appreciation and awe for the ways in which God’s providential care is mediated through human vessels and earthly means. If Luther is recultivating the vineyard, to borrow Hendrix’s wonderful phrase, it is important to ask about the boundaries of this vineyard. How far did Luther’s work extend into economic and political soil, and how important was tilling this soil for his world and ours?
Hendrix’s volume is, by my lights, the best English-language biography of Martin Luther available today. Little details like simple tables at the front provide the unaccustomed reader with a helpful aid for keeping track of the cast of characters in Luther’s life. Anyone interested in learning more about Luther, whether for personal interest or in a college classroom setting, will find Hendrix’s thorough yet concise presentation both informative and enjoyable. Those who met Luther, it is said, could see either angelic light or devilish fanaticisms reflected in his piercing eyes. Hendrix’s own penetrating vision allows us to see Luther afresh.
Anthony Bateza is Instructor of Religion at St. Olaf College.Anthony BatezaDate Of Review:May 22, 2016