Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege
- ISBN: 9780465063932
- Published By: Basic Books
- Published: May 2015
A gifted narrator, James Reston Jr. tells the story of Martin Luther’s life between the years 1517 and 1522. It was a dramatic and tumultuous period. After posting his 95 Theses criticizing the sale of indulgences to reduce the penalties of purgatory, Luther was embroiled in debates about papal authority, the sacraments, and ultimately the meaning of faith and the foundations of salvation. By 1522 Luther found himself a heretic in the church and an outlaw in the Holy Roman Empire, hidden away in the Wartburg Castle by his sympathetic ruler, Duke Frederick of Saxony. Choosing this time for his biography serves Reston well insofar as it allows him to present a lively, well-written story filled with tension and intrigue. He breathes life into Luther’s encounters with political and religious officials and captures the passion behind Luther’s work of biblical translation. In Reston’s telling it is clear that Luther is driven by a deep commitment to the German people and producing a German Bible that will bear fruit for everyday Christians.
Unfortunately, this enthralling story suffers from a lack of attention to Luther’s historical context and a questionable grasp of his theology. The problems with Reston’s account stem, in part, from its focus on such a narrow period. Luther’s childhood and training are quickly covered in the first chapter, and the major developments spanning the bulk of his career from 1522 to1546 are briefly summarized in an epilogue. The issue here is not simply that one might want more details, but that the inattention to these details colors the narrative as a whole. This is particularly noticeable in Reston’s treatment of the medieval Church.
The Roman Church is described anachronistically and negatively throughout Luther’s Fortress, a bias that calls to mind Protestant polemics from decades past. The Church is described as “all-powerful,” a claim that is hardly borne out by the facts but that furthers the stark contrast between Luther, the trembling provincial monk, and the tyrannical Roman pontiff (16). The Dominicans are summarily dismissed using the old pejorative pun “the hounds of God” (11). Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz and critic of Luther, is condemned for his collection of relics while there is no mention of the massive collection of relics held by Luther’s patron Duke Frederick. Indulgences are presented as fundraising innovations without a description of their theological connection to penitential practices or to particular approaches to faith, charity, and sin.
Because Luther glows as the hero others must play the role of villains in the shadows. The Wittenberg theologian and reformer Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt is nothing more than a rival and usurper (25, 103). This ignores complexities of Karlstadt’s thought and the role played by the Wittenberg town council and others during fierce conflicts over worship and sacred images in 1521 and 1522. While discussing Luther’s disagreements with Karlstadt’s biblical interpretation and issues surrounding human sexuality, Reston oddly demurs that we should be thankful the question of homosexuality was not up for discussion, saying that Luther would “evince no open-mindedness” on this subject (107). The reader is left to wonder what point this comment serves in the narrative—that is, what, exactly, should we be thankful for?
While there are some minor historical errors in details about Luther’s life, these are less concerning than the misleading presentation of Luther’s theological positions. Reston suggests that Luther’s complaints about transubstantiation and the mass as sacrifice arise from “personal reasons” as he is excluded and marginalized from the church (78). Luther’s conception of faith is reduced to an individual’s subjective beliefs (15). This leads Reston to view Luther’s defense of infant baptism as “a weak point” of his theology that was “inconsistent with the core principle of justification by faith alone” (175). Entirely missing in Reston’s discussion is the primacy Luther gives to the promises of God made in and through Christ.
Reston is an excellent storyteller. The prose is clean and the plot is captivating. These strengths will make this book appealing to those looking for a quick refresher on this brief period in Luther’s life. But ultimately Luther’s theology is itself sequestered, cutting Luther off from the ideas and context that make his story uniquely his. Those interested in greater breadth and accuracy would be well served by James Kittleson’s Luther the Reformer (Fortress Press, 2003) or the superb Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott Hendrix (Yale University Press, 2015).
Anthony Bateza is Instructor of Religion at St. Olaf College.Anthony BatezaDate Of Review:July 29, 2016