Luther, Conflict, and Christendom

Reformation Europe and Christianity in the West

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Christopher Ocker
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , August
     528 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Martin Luther’s portrait dons the dust jacket of this book, and his name is in the title. Yet Christopher Ocker’s Luther, Conflict, and Christendom has, in relative terms, very little to say about the reformer’s life or ideas. Few of Luther’s words or actions make appearances in its pages, but this is not mentioned as a criticism; in fact, those absences are entirely in fitting with Ocker’s purpose in this impressive study. Ocker aims not to give us another biography of Luther, nor another standard account of the Reformation—even calling this an “antibiography.” Rather, this text studies the controversy about Luther; a controversy that Ocker reminds us has never concluded. As such, this book is a veritable feast of the contextual history of that controversy. The grand total of events, persons, writings, places, and ideas that Ocker surveys is astounding. And yet, amidst the copious details and the range of materials, the book does not leave one bewildered. Ocker manages to narrate a compelling and readable account of the controversy about Luther from Wittenberg in the early 16th century to South America in the 21st.

In the opening chapters, Ocker navigates through the very familiar beginning of the Reformation, from the indulgence controversy to the excommunication of Luther and his hearing at the Diet of Worms, to the iconoclast clashes, “cloister-rage,” and the Peasants War—or at least its first decade. But the emphasis is not like so many other histories, which concentrate on Luther as the agent of change, but rather on how the 16th century world received, appropriated, welcomed, followed, or vilified him. Reading these chapters, the contextual world, in all its complexities, comes alive. One can almost feel the controversy growing amidst the seemingly endless stream of allies and detractors, each with their own axes to grind against the emperor, the pope, the princes, the priests, or the peasants; each with their own allegiances to what the true worship of God ought to be. These first few chapters are a masterful account of how the controversy about Luther became entrenched in various social, political, and ecclesial territories, and were never resolved.

Ocker’s third chapter, “The Political Anatomy of the Luther Affair,” is perhaps the most compelling in that it combines several contextual “dimensions” to account for the persistence and influence of the Luther controversy. In Ocker’s rich account, politics of the papacy and church councils, imperial affairs and property rights are brought together in order to demonstrate how complex and oftentimes inextricably connected they were in making the Luther affair irresolvable, and also showing how that same affair influenced change in these spheres of influence. Hence, Ocker can conclude that there was a “genuine symbiosis” between opposing religious parties of the age; “it would be impossible,” he writes, “to describe the growth of Catholic ecclesiastical regulation anywhere in sixteenth-century Europe without considering the Luther affair, and vice-versa” (146). In careful detail, he reminds the reader how Protestantism grew as a resistance to papal decree, and the papacy reinforced the polarization of Protestant and Catholic confessions; yet the imperial and property dimensions ensured that papal power was limited in affecting them, and that these confessional divides would become entrenched. 

The book’s focus does not end with the death of Luther, or the Peace of Augsburg. Ocker guides us through the controversy about Luther during the Thirty Years War, the Enlightenment, 19th century Prussia, the Third Reich, and 20th century American revivalism. The facility with which Ocker handles these disparate sources are a pleasure to read. His concluding chapter, “Many Martins,” gives a tour of the fascinating ways in which the 16th century controversy about Luther has metamorphosed into seven distinct Luthers: the prophet, the demonic heretic, the father of Protestantism, the cultural icon, the liberal Protestant, the German nationalist, and even the Catholic reformer. Such astonishing diversity of opinion about the Wittenberg professor commends Ocker’s choice to write an anti-biography, for these many Martins are not simply the product of Luther’s words, actions, or intentions. They are also the result of centuries of unresolved controversy about Luther, and what his words, actions, and intentions signified for different people through the centuries.

Luther, Conflict, and Christendom is a book for scholars and amateurs who have interests in the Reformation and its consequences. For scholars, it is brimming with detailed footnotes about its sources without precluding it from being readable. It is not a standard account of 16th century reform; to paraphrase one of Ocker’s concluding sections on Luther’s divergent appropriations, it is a far more interesting story and—it should be added—one not as frequently or as ably told.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jarrett A. Carty is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Concordia University, Montréal.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Ocker is Professor of History at the San Francisco Theological Seminary and Chair of the Department of Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.



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