Martin Luther in Context

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David M. Whitford
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     510 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Whereas Luther in Context (Baker Academic, 1995) was a compilation of ten essays by David Steinmetz, this new volume, Martin Luther in Context, contains forty-seven essays by forty-eight contributors. The volume begins with a short, four-page introduction by editor David Whitford that sets the stage for the kind of Luther that follows. This book contains seven sections: (1) Life and Education (five essays); (2) Religious and Intellectual context (eight essays); (3) Social and Cultural Context (ten essays); (4) People (six essays); (5) Themes in Luther’s thought (six essays); (6) Works (seven essays); and (7) Reception (five essays). Instead of trying to give a general overview of all of the essays, this review will focus on two of the book’s strengths: its suggested reading, and its approach to Luther as more-than-Luther.

Given that most of the information contained in the essays can be found elsewhere and in more in-depth treatment, one of the best features of the book is the way it introduces not Luther per se, but modern scholarship on Luther. Therefore, I did a little analysis of the suggested reading to provide an anecdotal window into the “canon” of Luther scholarship. There are 454 suggested resources for further reading. Five books receive three separate recommendations: Thomas Brady, German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 2009) [126, 134, 415]; Charles Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1995) [57, 107, 298]; Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (Image Books, 1992) [13, 134, 416]; Robert Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Cambridge University Press, 1981) [115, 203, 416]; and Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin Press, 2015) [115, 256, 399]. Twenty-five scholars receive three or more recommendations: 9x Robert Kolb; 7x Volker Leppin and Heiko Oberman; 6x Thomas Brady; 5x David Whitford and Andrew Pettegree; 4x Berndt Hamm, Scott Hendrix, Helmar Junghans, Bob Scribner, James Stayer, Timothy Wengert, and George Huston Williams; 3x Karl Brandi, Scott Dixon, Eamon Duffy, Mark Edward, James Estes, Susan Karant-Nunn, Thomas Kaufman, Stefan Michel, Charles Nauert, Steven Ozment, Ronald K. Rittgers, and Eike Wolgast. If you want to work in Luther studies, or the history of the European Reformations, familiarize yourself with these five books and twenty-five scholars.

It is also worth noting that out of the twenty-five authors who receive three or more suggestions, Karant-Nunn is the only female scholar to make the cut. Kirsi Stjerna (21, 256) and Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (126, 134) receive two; Lyndal Roper (169) and Ulinka Rublack (169) receive one; Natalie Zemon Davis, Bridget Heal, Susan Schreiner, Lorri Ann Ferrel, Joan Kelly-Gadol, and Christine Helmer, for instance, escape notice. Therefore, despite the fact that the volume has eleven female contributors (23%), the overall presence of females in the “canon” of Luther studies—at least based on the anecdotal evidence of this book—is maybe 5%. To point this out is not to critique the work as phallogocentric; it is simply to point out the obvious.

The second notable feature of the book is its approach to Luther as more-than-Luther. As Whitford states in the Introduction “the image of the solitary Luther in his study ruminating on Paul and Augustine disappears when one better understands the context out of which Luther emerged” (3). The trend in Reformation scholarship, since Oberman, has been to read the cultural movements of the 16th century Reformations within the context of the longue durée of the European Middle Ages. While scholars like Wengert and Kolb have situated Luther within a coterie of like-minded figures, others like Edwards have demonstrated how key tenants of the Reformation agenda emerged in response to opposition. Now, inspired by the material turn in the humanities, new scholars are turning past models of intellectual history upside-down, and looking more seriously at the cultural production and dissemination of ideas. Thus, this Luther comes thoroughly mediated; not only mediated through a host of modern voices (forty-eight contributors and 454 additional resources), but also mediated through early modern technological and cultural mechanisms like the printing press (108-16) and visual artists (187-203). Likewise, sections on 16th century German editions of Luther’s writings (358-66), and Luther in English print (366-72) pay attention to the representation of Luther in his various collected works; while Luther’s cultural impact is analyzed in terms of the material objects of the various editions of the Luther Bible (350-57).

As far as criticism goes, there are several features of Martin Luther in Context that could have used a closer eye. Why is “Erasmus” (290-98), in part 5 “Themes in Luther’s Thought,” and not in part 6 “People”? There are typos throughout the essays and in the suggested reading (83-84, for instance, has four items listed incorrectly). There is not a page of Abbreviations. The WA citations (WA, WA BR, WA DB, WA TR) are not that hard to figure out; but, it is only the specialist who will probably know that Leppin’s reference to AWA refers to the recent Archives of the Wiemar Ausgabe. Also, part 7 “Reception” leaves one a bit disappointed due to its emphasis on thematic analysis. R. Ward Holder’s essay on “John Calvin and Calvinism,” for instance, does not address which printed works of Luther were available to Calvin, and where, and in what languages. This volume would also have benefited from a section, or at least an essay, on Luther biographies from the 16th century to the present, especially considering the new companion volume to the American Edition of Luther’s Works, the 16th Century Biographies of Martin Luther (Concordia Publishing House, 2018).



About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel J. Dubbelman is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
October 10, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David M. Whitford is Professor of Reformation Studies at Baylor University, Texas. He is the author of A Reformation Life (2015), The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justification for Slavery (2009), and Luther: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010). He is an editor of The Sixteenth Century Journal.


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