All About Luther

By Cynthia Eller

When Reading Religion first began ramping up in January 2016, we noticed that there were an awful lot of books rolling in on Martin Luther. “What’s up with that?” we asked one another. We even discussed writing a feature noting this peculiar and abrupt rise of new works on the famed Reformer. Obviously, we were very, very slow on the uptake (perhaps just as obviously, none of us were scholars of Christianity), but eventually we were enlightened: October 31, 2017 would be the 500th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the Archbishop of Mainz and, it is thought, posted these theses on the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Publishers and authors were simply preparing to capitalize on this anniversary.

Now that day is upon us.

Just when the Protestant Reformation began is a matter of some dispute among scholars. Trouble was brewing for the Catholic Church in many places and for various reasons in the 15th and 16th centuries, and going back over the history of the Western church from its inception, Martin Luther was hardly the first to proclaim a new, non-Catholic Christian church. But as dates go, the posting of the ninety-five theses makes for wonderful storytelling: it is full of narrative vigor, includes a broadside in church Latin (for fans of material religion), and relies on a dynamic hero (or antihero, depending on your convictions). So we at Reading Religion will follow the Martin Luther trend rather than try to set our own, and share with you the story of his Reformation and its legacy via over fifty recently published books.

But before diving into these resources, it may be worthwhile to point out that according to Reformation historian Peter Marshall of the University of Warwick, the event that is memorialized in this quincentenary quite likely did not occur. Volunteer to review his book 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation by clicking here.


To begin with, the man: Martin Luther himself is a source of nearly endless fascination. Key religious figures don’t all share the same personality, Max Weber’s theories notwithstanding. But if you are looking for a textbook case of charisma, you need look no farther than Luther. Princeton University, Yale University, and Oxford University Presses, Basic Books, Fortress Press, and Zondervan have all brought us new biographies of Luther, and Augsburg Fortress Press has published a revised second edition of the classic Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, by James M. Kittelson and Hans H. Wiersma. Luther the Reformer has been a standard text for beginning students of the Reformation since its initial publication in 1986. (Perhaps it even served as your introduction to Luther, unless you arrived in seminary or graduate school before the mid 1980s, in which case that honor would probably have gone to Here I Stand by Roland Bainton.) Luther the Reformer aims to be comprehensive, capturing all facets of Luther’s life and theology. Inseo Song of Fuller Theological Seminary, who reviewed this title for Reading Religion, tells us, however, that this biography of Luther tends to privilege his pastoral role.

With such a standout biography still in press, Fortress has nevertheless risen to the challenge of publishing another biography of Luther: Resilient Reformer: The Life and Thought of Martin Luther. Started by Timothy F. Lull and completed by Derek R. Nelson after Lull’s death, Resilient Reformer gives more attention than most to Luther’s collaborators, showing that Luther was a leader, but by no means acting or thinking alone. Student reviewer Jacob R. Randolph of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary describes the book as “dramatic and compelling,” steering an admirable middle course between an “oversimplified rendering of a steadfast saint waging war against the oppressive Latin Church” and offering up Luther as “egomaniac, depraved, demonized, and cocksure to the point of insanity.”

A deeply personal biography of Luther comes to us from Yale University Press: Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, by Scott H. Hendrix. According to reviewer Anthony Bateza of St. Olaf College, Hendrix’s biography is “the best English-language biography of Martin Luther available today” (though Bateza does hedge his bets, noting that there will likely be several new biographies arriving on the scene shortly). Hendrix makes extended use of Luther’s correspondence as well as personal anecdotes about his life, highlighting both the beautiful and the unbeautiful in Luther as befits a man characterized by, in Hendrix’s words, “euphoria and dejection.”

Luther’s Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege, by James Reston Jr., covers only a sliver of Luther’s life, from his ninety-five theses in 1517 through 1522 when, charged as a heretic, he went into hiding in the Wartburg Castle under the protection of Duke Frederick of Saxony. Reviewer Anthony Bateza is considerably less fond of Reston’s biography than of Hendrix’s. Though he praises Reston as “an excellent storyteller” who has produced an “enthralling story,” he believes the book “suffers from a lack of attention to Luther’s historical context and a questionable grasp of his theology.” Read the full review here.

Bradley Peterson of the Episcopal School for Deacons is currently preparing a review of The Making of Martin Luther by Richard Rex, published by Princeton University Press; this book is described as a biography that focuses on Luther’s most creative years.

Lest you are worrying that there are no Luther biographies left for you to review, take heart! There are two more biographies still available for review: Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval by Heinz Schilling, Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History at Humboldt University in Berlin. This volume, published in translation by Oxford University Press, promises to emphasize the social and political context and impact of Luther’s life. Oxford University Press has also published A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation by Craig Harline, Professor of History at Brigham Young University. Harline’s biography stresses Luther’s famous struggles for salvation, his lengthy “dark night of the soul” that eventually led him to theological views that would change the face of the Christian church over a large swath of Europe and eventually the globe.

Did I mention “the unbeautiful in Luther”? This was on flagrant display in Luther’s scathing, repeated diatribes against the Jews. Thomas Kaufmann, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Göttingen, details Luther’s anti-Semitism in Luther’s Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism. Originally published in German in 2014, this book is now available in English from Oxford University Press and is available for review on Reading Religion. Another investigation into Luther’s anti-Semitism has a more pointed agenda. Richard S. Harvey, author of Luther and the Jews: Putting Right the Lies, argues that Messianic Jews have a special role to play in bringing forward Luther’s anti-Semitism, helping Lutherans to repent of their connection to this hatred, bringing Protestants and Catholics together, and reconciling Christians and Jews. If you’d like to review this title, click here.

And if, like me, you’ve always wondered just who was the German Catholic nun, cloistered from the age of five, who gave up her vows to marry Luther, bear six of his children, and successfully run a large farm and brewery, then you must volunteer to review Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation: The Unconventional Life of Katharina Von Bora by Ruth A. Tucker.

Historical Reception

Martin Luther’s life had a great impact—hence, his biographies are worth reading—but if it’s his legacy that interests you most, you may want to take a look at these new volumes on the historical reception of Luther’s thought. With the straightforward title October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World,Martin E. Marty’s slim volume sounds like an introduction to the German Reformation for novices. Instead, as reviewer Jakob Karl Rinderknecht of the Pastoral Institute at the University of the Incarnate Word tells us, the book is in reality an extended meditation on the first of Luther’s ninety-five theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance.” Marty is interested particularly in how Christians have and should repent of the “scandal of division” among Christians—a scandal created, for Marty, by the Protestant Reformation itself.

Reformation Observances: 1517-2017, by Philip D. W. Krey, places our current quincentennial remembrance of Luther and the Protestant Reformation onto a timeline of previous centennial celebrations by churches from the major strands of Christianity that either weathered or were born in Europe in the early 16th century: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Roman Catholic. This book is being reviewed by Donald K. McKim, a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a much-published author of devotional and theological works in the Reformed tradition.

Other books discuss Luther’s ongoing impact on Christians both close to and far separated from him in time. One edited volume, Luther and Calvinism: Image and Reception of Martin Luther in the History and Theology of Calvinism (edited by Herman J. Sledrhuis and J. Marius Lange van Ravenswaay), turns, after a series of chapters on “Luther in Calvinist Tradition,” towards various regions of Europe and particular thinkers from Erasmus to Karl Barth in order to assess Luther’s influence. Some chapters are in English, others are in German, and we are counting on reviewer Eundeuk Kim, a doctoral candidate at Calvin Theological Seminary, to help us sift through Luther and Calvinism for its most significant contributions.

Scholars are also unveiling Luther’s influence on later theologians, as for example in Michael P. DeJonge’s book, Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther. As reviewer Jordan J. Bailor of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty tells us, this book follows on DeJonge’s earlier analysis of Bonhoeffer’s theology, but here looks specifically at how Bonhoeffer engaged with Luther’s thought, particularly in terms of his Christology and the doctrine of the two kingdoms.

Additional Lutheran activists—beyond Bonhoeffer—are the subject of Radical Lutherans/Lutheran Radicalsedited by Jason A. Mahn. Asking the questions “Can a Lutheran be sociopolitically radical? Can a radical be theologically and faithfully Lutheran?” the contributors answer with the lives of Luther himself and with Bonhoeffer, but also examine Søren Kierkegaard and Dorothee Soelle, among others. Matthew K. Jones, an independent scholar who studied at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, is reviewing this book for Reading Religion.

Contemporary Reception

Luther’s influence is still strongly felt among both lay Christians and Christian theologians today. Some authors even make the counter-intuitive case that Luther’s theology opened the door to secularism, atheism, and even the so-called “rise of the nones” in the contemporary United States. Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World begins as a biography of Luther portrayed as an inadvertent revolutionary, but carries through to a final chapter titled “Separated and Diminished Religion, Secularized and Divided Society” that bemoans Luther’s (unintended) legacy. The book is under review by James C. Ungureanu of the University of Queensland in Australia.

A similar argument proposing a role for Luther in contemporary secularism and atheism is presented in very different form by Marius Timmann Mjaaland in his book, The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology. Mjaaland is primarily interested in Luther’s role as an originator and transmitter of philosophy, arguing that although Luther belonged to the late medieval world, he gestured toward a world to come, deconstructing metaphysics and renewing apocalyptic thought in a way that is still manifest today. Armand J. Boehme, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Northfield, Minnesota—the heartland of American Lutheranism—has reviewed this book for Reading Religion.

Two reflections on particular aspects of Luther’s theology are still available for review: Passionate Embrace: Luther on Love, Body, and Sensual Presence, by Elisabeth Gerie, Professor of Ethics at Lund University in Sweden, and Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisalby Mark C. Mattes, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Grand View University. Passionate Embrace reminds its readers that one of the things Luther rejected in medieval Christianity was a negative view of the body, and by extension—at least for European men of the era—women. Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty examines Luther’s interest in music and art for the Christian church, and the implications of his doctrine of justification by faith for a Christian aesthetics.

Other voices seek to relate Luther to newer Christian movements initiated long after he was laid in his grave. Walter Altmann asks how Luther can be read in the context of Latin America in his book Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective. This volume is being reviewed by Raimundo Barreto of Princeton Theological Seminary. Alberto L. García and John A. Nunes ask how global Christianity engages Luther’s theology—in particular the theme of sola fide—in Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimaging the Reformation at the Margins, now under review by Armand Boehme.

Finally, in What Has Wittenberg to do with Azusa: Luther’s Theology of the Cross and Pentecostal Triumphalism,author David J. Courey, Canadian theologian and Pentecostal minister, argues that Luther’s theology of the cross can solve a problem he perceives in North American Pentecostalism: namely, triumphalism (the belief that Christians can reliably avoid suffering and/or achieve perfection through faith in Christ). As student reviewer Brendon Norton of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary explains, “Courey’s application of Luther’s theologia crucis is to remind Pentecostals that suffering and descent precede resurrection and victory thus creating the space to admit human frailty into the Pentecostal discussion.”

The Lutheran Church

Luther is of interest to all sorts of Christians, but for Lutherans there is a more direct line from the German Reformer to their religious lives. Encounters with Luther: New Directions for Critical Studies is an anthology edited by leading scholars of Lutheranism Kirsi I. Stjerna and Brooks Schramm. Its essays were presented at the Luther Colloquy at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and previously published in the seminary’s faculty journal. The topics covered in this volume are many and various, from prayer to marriage to the devil. According to reviewer Inseo Song, while the volume “discusses some traditional topics, it also includes unexpected and provocative claims on Luther’s theology.”

On Secular Governance: Lutheran Perspectives on Contemporary Legal Issuesedited by Donald W. Duty and Marie A. Failinger, tackles all manner of contemporary legal questions—immigration, human trafficking, church-state relations, environmentalism—from an explicitly Lutheran viewpoint. If you would like to review it, click here.

From the Lutheran World Federation comes the fourth edition of From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017From Conflict to Communion is the outgrowth of a Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission that has, in the years leading up to the quincentenary of Luther’s ninety-five theses, been working toward a jointly affirming, ecumenical celebration of the occasion (which was not the case in all previous centennial celebrations). This is part of a longer and potentially more significant dialogue between the Lutheran Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, who, particularly with the leadership of Pope Francis, are moving toward greater reconciliation. A short treatise, From Conflict to Communion is available for review.

With no particular tie to this year’s 500th anniversary, Mark Granquist recently offered a study of the Lutheran experience in the United States, titled Lutherans in America: A New HistoryJon Pahl of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia has reviewed the book and concludes that it “delivers the best overview of US Lutheran history currently in print.”

Reference Works on Luther

After many of these biographies, histories, and theologies regarding Luther have been shuttled to the library annex, we may anticipate that several new reference works will remain. Two encyclopedias devoted to Martin Luther have 2017 publication dates, one from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (2 volumes), and the other from Oxford University Press (3 volumes). Edited by Mark A. Lamport, Rowman and Littlefield’s Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation aims to be “a comprehensive global study of the life and work of Martin Luther and the movements that followed him.” It is being reviewed for Reading Religion by Samuel Dubbelman, a doctoral student at Boston University. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Lutheredited by Derek R. Nelson and Paul R. Hinlicky, includes 125 entries that cross disciplinary lines to answer traditional questions but also to provide information on questions pertinent to today’s religious studies discourse, such as Luther’s attitudes towards Islam and Judaism. Bradley Penner, adjunct professor of theology at Biercrest College and Seminary, is reviewing this encyclopedia for Reading Religion.

Let us pause for just a moment, and consider the wisdom of Samuel Dubbelman and Bradley Penner. These encyclopedias are 978 and 2240 pages long, respectively, costing $250 for the 2-volume set and $595 for the 3-volume set. Do you long to have such books on your own bookshelf? Subscribe to the Reading Religionnewsletter, which will arrive in your email inbox every two weeks with lists of new books received. Volunteer to review the reference book of your choice when it first becomes available, and voilà! For the price of as little as four hundred words of prose, these books are yours!

A single-volume Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions comes to us from Baker Academic, edited by Timothy J. Wengert. Covering the global Lutheran movement as well as Luther’s life, times, and thought, the dictionary has nearly six hundred entries. It is being reviewed by Timothy J. Orr of Simpson University.

In addition to its above-mentioned encyclopedia of Martin Luther, Oxford University Press has also released The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomir Batka. Reviewer David Fink of Furman University commends this volume for the “significant generational and geographic diversity among the contributors” and its engagement with both primary sources and secondary scholarship.

Primary Sources

So far we have learned that a whole lot of people want to talk about Luther and Lutheranism from vantage points as various as theology and history to law and philosophy. But Luther spoke for himself…a lot. In the run up to the 500th anniversary, Fortress Press has been releasing the six volumes of their series, The Annotated Luther. The first two, Volume 1: The Roots of Reform (edited by Timothy J. Wengert) and Volume 2: Word and Faith (edited by Kirsi I. Stjerna) have been reviewed on Reading Religion by Terra Rowe of Marist College, giving us a sense of the contents of these individual volumes and also the value of the series. The series includes seventy-five of Luther’s “most essential writings,” with extensive commentary by scholars and the addition of visual aids including maps, timelines, illustrations, art, and photos.

The general public is no doubt under the impression that Luther was, more than anything else, the firebrand that took down the Roman Catholic Church and invented Protestantism. While he may have done this—intentionally or not, with a lot of help from historical coincidences or through the passionate force of his will—what is often missed is Luther’s remaining Catholicity. This is remedied by The Catholic Luther: His Early Writings, a set of Luther’s texts collected by Philip D. W. Krey and Peter D. S. Krey to illustrate Luther’s continued reverence for strongly Catholic themes even after his official break with the church. Terry L. Christian, a doctoral student at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is reviewing this title for Reading Religion.

The Greater Protestant Reformation

This piece is titled “All Things Luther,” and I’ve tried to stay within the defrocked monk’s life, thought, and legacy. But there has also been a bumper crop of books on the Reformation more generally that are worth mentioning. So if your interest in the Reformation is not yet exhausted, here are some titles still available for review, from the carefully historical to the ardently polemical:

And here are similar titles either already reviewed or currently under review:

Lesser Known Facets of the Lutheran Reformation

And now it is time for dessert! Sometimes the most interesting books are those not easily categorized. Here we have two intriguing volumes that bring to light the music and art of Luther’s Germany.

The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg is the work of musicologist Robin A. Leaver, formerly of Westminster Choir College in the UK. It is reviewed by David R. Bains of Samford University. Examining a German hymnal dating to 1526 and relying on an earlier study of German hymnology (written by Johann Christoph Olearius and published for the 200th anniversary of the Reformation in 1717), Leaver traces developments in German vernacular song and Luther’s interest in adapting tunes to the German language to argue that congregational singing—as opposed to singing by choirs—was a very early part of Lutheran worship.

Meanwhile, Katerina Horníčková and Michael Šronėk have edited a volume titled From Hus to Luther: Visual Culture in the Bohemian Reformation (1380-1620), published by Brepols Publishers in Belgium, that provides a glimpse into artwork associated with the Lutheran Reformation. Though Bohemia is fairly far afield from Luther’s Wittenberg, especially by late medieval standards, it provides an interesting window onto religious art in a more ethnically and linguistically diverse area. Bohemia was dominated by non-Catholic Christianities in the 15th and 16th centuries, only one of which was Lutheranism. This book is still available for review. Volunteer to review it here.

There you have it! All things Luther at Reading Religion, up to the very date of the quincentenary. However, as all academics know, deadlines—even ones as firm as a 500th anniversary—can be squiggly things. Stay tuned to the Reading Religion newsletter, as we will undoubtedly be receiving even more books on Luther over the coming months.