Martin Luther

Rebel in an Age of Upheaval

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Heinz Schilling
Rona Johnston Gordon
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     640 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Entering a world saturated with Luther biographies following celebrations of the anniversary of the 95 theses, Heinz Schilling’s Martin Luther has done far more than merely hold its own. This tome is an exceptional piece of scholarship produced by a brilliant scholar. It is a translation of Martin Luther: Rebell in einer Zeit des Umbruchs, originally published in 2012, and contains a twenty-four-page bibliography of German scholarly writings that is not included in the study being reviewed. A hefty 613 pages, including maps, this new translation is potentially daunting. Some may feel it is too large to be consumed by the general public, but I would vigorously disagree. It seems to me that anyone who is interested in history and willing to peruse large books should have no qualms about picking up this one. It is a complete pleasure to read. Lovely turns of phrase appear throughout—a quality which would be considerably harder to recognize were it not for the exceptional work of the translator, Rona Johnston Gordon. It is said that a good translator must be a master of the language into which she is translating. In this case, the epithet is surely applicable. Both the style and (from my admittedly curt perusal of the German edition) the accuracy of Gordon’s translation are excellent.

This is a historically-oriented biography. It avoids the psychological explorations found, for instance, in Lyndal Roper’s recent biography of Luther (Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet: Random House, 2016). It also refrains from prolonged discussion of the late-medieval theological context, such as one finds in Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devil (English edition: Yale University Press, 1989). As a historian, Schilling excels. This work is replete with detailed consideration of medieval and early modern German and European history. While this could, with a lesser mind, result in a dry and flat final product, Schilling does an exceptional job of reflecting on Luther’s remarkable life. His examination traverses late-15th and early-16th-century German life and culture with supreme confidence, producing observations on Luther and the period that sparkle with incisive clarity. 

To say it is historical in orientation does not, however, indicate that the work possesses no ideological depth. On the contrary, such depth runs through the entire volume, though ordinarily running underneath the surface and only making occasional cameos. For instance, Schilling reflects on the relationship between Luther and the modern age in a brief (twenty-four-page) epilogue. In doing so, Schilling is touching on a theme with which he has played throughout the biography. Schilling produces an analysis that finds Luther to be both a man of his own time and rather out of sync with his era. Luther’s upbringing witnessed nothing unusual. Schilling explores the character of Mansfeld, where Luther spent much of his youth, and looks carefully at the mining industry that characterized the city. He invests the same care in examining Luther’s family, education, entrance into the monastery, and subsequent events. In all of this, Schilling finds a man who could in innumerable ways be considered indistinguishable from his contemporaries. At the same time, Schilling demonstrates changes that begin to be witnessed in Luther that mark him out as extraordinary. One simple but elegant way Schilling does this is by referring to him primarily by his family name, Luder. Schilling continues this habit, interspersing Luder and Luther but primarily employing the former, until page 139, within the chapter “Eleutherios—the Birth of a Free Man.” There, Schilling identifies the profound transformation Martin experienced, which manifested itself in an alteration in how he signed his name. In letters to Johannes Lang and Philip Melanchthon between November 1517 and January 1519, Luther adopted a Greek form of his name (Eleutherios) as a sign indicating an awareness on his part of his new birth. Given that this Greek pseudonym would have been incomprehensible to many in his day, he subsequently altered it again, keeping only the “th.”

Schilling does a fine job of addressing both the major and less well-known episodes in Luther’s life. Even familiar episodes are handled in a manner that gives them a kind of novelty. Schilling’s penchant for setting the record straight on various myths surrounding Luther’s life might, I suspect, annoy a few readers. Schilling handles these myths quite well, in my judgment, but in so doing he does not withhold criticism. So, for instance, he addresses the dating by historians of the decisive moment when the Reformation began. In a gentle but opinionated manner, he takes a friendly swipe at Protestants who celebrate October 31st as Reformation Day. To do this, Schilling contends, is “to use an external event rather than the internal logic of emerging Lutheran theology as a benchmark” (121). Following this, Schilling takes another jab at Protestant historians of theology who attempt, through analysis of Luther’s early writings, to find an early date for Luther’s decisive turn. Schilling urges caution regarding the tendency of some to jump to conclusions over such delicate and complex matters. 

Schilling discusses the varied complexities associated with Luther, including his attitude towards Jews. Here, again, Schilling’s combination of brilliance and interest in historical perspective makes his treatment a joy to peruse. He opens with a plea that we understand Luther within his own context. While refusing to cloak or tone down the intensity of Luther’s hatred for the Jews, Schilling asserts clearly and repeatedly that any perceived link between the German reformer and National Socialism must be eschewed. Schilling recounts carefully the differences between Luther and the Nazis and, in the process, elucidates what drove Luther’s antipathy towards Jews and, incidentally, towards Muslims as well.

In an era that was full of men and women who believed themselves to be prophets, Luther would not be outdone. The third (and final) section of this biography is dedicated to that reality. Schilling makes it profoundly clear that Luther believed he himself alone had been gifted by God to speak as God’s mouthpiece. In discussing such issues, Schilling provides us with a way to understand Luther’s belligerence, as well as his constant tussles with the devil. Schilling weaves these peculiar qualities, among others, throughout his superb biography. On every page, the reader feels she is meeting Martin Luther. Schilling’s knowledge of Luther’s corpus and his times is comprehensive—the result being a biography truly worthy of celebration. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Balserak is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Religion at the University of Bristol.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heinz Schilling was Professor of Early Modern History at the Humboldt University, Berlin until his retirement in 2010. His main areas of research are in early modern European history, including studies in religion, politics, migration studies, foreign policy, and social and cultural history.

Rona Johnston Gordon is Lecturer in English at Yale University.


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