Martin Luther As He Lived and Breathed

Recollections of the Reformer

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Robert Kolb
Cascade Companions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , October
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Robert Kolb is one of the most trusted voices in Luther and German Reformation research so when he writes in Martin Luther as He Lived and Breathed that the “real Luther” has yet to be fully presented by historians or theologians, it behooves one to listen. Moreover, Kolb wanted to highlight Luther’s impact on the world around himself by presenting both the heated rhetoric of people who disliked or disagreed with his thinking and the sometimes hagiographic writings of his admirers. Primary evidence features heavily, but the non-scholarly audience should not be put off, as Kolb uses it in an imaginative way.

First, he includes some aspects of Luther’s life—his time as a monk or his appearance at Augsburg for instance—which provides an adequate overview of the event. Second, he presents various accounts of the events in the form of interviews—that is, asking a question of Luther or some other contemporary and reformulating direct quotations as answers. In this way, he sets up interesting little dialogues. Because the people who made the original observations were not historians, not unbiased researchers or reporters, we are treated to unvarnished judgements (some very much exaggerated): Luther in context, warts and all. These fictionalized interviews are all very thought-provoking and quite appealing for the young, amateur, or non-historian, but I am not entirely sure they work in the way Kolb hoped they would do (or at least to the extent he desired).

Having said that, setting Luther in context and extracting quotes about him as illustration of his influence on others is all well and good. The problem is that often we need more contextual information (more secondary source materials than provided). Kolb does end each chapter with a further reading recommendations section, but one has to wonder how valuable this is to non-professional, non-student readers.

By way of example, in the very first chapter (on Luther’s formative years), Kolb rightly notes that Europe was in the midst of a serious spiritual malaise, using this to explain why penance and good works were much more obsessively observed than in previous periods. More information was needed on the sources of the malaise so that the non-expert can better understand it, and why this might have been more prevalent in late-medieval Germany than elsewhere. There is also the problem of assumption or “must have” statements. Kolb crafts contextual information well: the section on what town life was like around Luther is compelling, but we can only ever really guess how much Luther interacted with it.

These issues (“problems” may be too harsh a word) fade into the background as Kolb deals with the maturing Luther—the famous scholar, teacher, and preacher. At this point, however, the text would appeal more to the professional than the amateur due to the experience necessary to understand Kolb’s image of Luther as theologian or Luther dealing with controversy. There is so much to cover and too little book to do it justice. Augustinian salvation theology versus Lutheran imputed righteousness, biblical humanism and ad fontes (back to the sources) teaching, the separation of “law” and “gospel,” the two kingdoms theology and theology of the cross, relations and disputes with Erasmus and Luther’s friendship and cooperation with Melanchthon, etc. This is a short list of possible matters that needed much more explanation (presumably these sections were meant as tasters to foster further research), and these few are all crammed in chapter 2!

Throughout the short book, Kolb does correct a few historical misunderstandings which have crept into the wider literature. This is where the book really comes into its own. The crisis of 1517 is explained very well in chapter 4, and Kolb presents it in terms of both theological dispute and university versus church rivalry. Similarly, in chapter 6 is a useful overview of Luther’s reputed journey from champion of the peasants to champion of the aristocracy. His increasing rivalry with Andreas Karlstadt is an important aspect of that reputed change of attitude, but this is given very short shrift. I suppose this could be put down to constraints on word count.

This is a book for anyone interested in Luther and the German Reformation, but it is a starting point only, not a definitive account—nor was it meant to be. The overall narrative (the story of Luther) is at times amusing, at times serious, but always treated with the professionalism and aplomb one would expect of Kolb. It succeeds as a means of presenting Luther as a man of his time—even slightly ahead of his time—and it is certainly a creative effort.

If there is a problem, it seems to me that the book is caught between two worlds in trying to appeal to both non-professional and professional historians alike. The reader may find that the material aimed at the other side is problematic. I would still highly recommend this work because Kolb is an excellent writer and researcher and is attempting something creative here which works well enough. Even more, the picture that emerges of Luther and his world is compelling and does provoke questions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew A Chibi is director of the Distance Learning Association, Sheffield, UK.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Kolb is Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis.



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