Resilient Reformer

The Life and Thought of Martin Luther

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Timothy F. Lull, Derek R. Nelson
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , July
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Any author who approaches the daunting task of a life of Luther will inevitably be faced with the question, “Do we need another biography of Martin Luther?” After all, even Jesus was limited to four gospels. Timothy F. Lull and Derek Nelson—who adopted the project following Lull’s unexpected passing—are aware of the criticism such a book may face, and this self-awareness guides their writing. This is not just any biography, they assert, it is a theological narrative shaped by the conviction that the whole Luther—good, bad, and ugly—serves to testify to the resilience of a man possessed by the demands of gospel freedom.

It is a daunting task, indeed. Luther remains as polarizing a figure as ever, and a present-day biographer of Luther is forced to navigate between the Scylla of post-modern skepticism and historical counter-narrative and the Charybdis of hagiography to find a truthful, measured account. In this regard, Lull and Nelson clearly present a sympathetic likeness—the work is, after all, Resilient Reformer—while, for the most part, avoiding any oversimplified rendering of a steadfast saint waging war against the oppressive Latin Church. Nor do they offer up Luther the egomaniac, depraved, demonized, and cocksure to the point of insanity. The authors’ precision in their process is due, in part, to their commitment to treat Luther theologically and historically, rather than (primarily) politically or psychologically. Aiding this approach, Lull and Nelson unfold Luther’s theology contextually rather than systematically—that is, they allow Luther’s theology to come out through the outlining of his writings and their respective occasions, rather than dealing in fully formulated principles of Lutheran theology. Attending to the narrative through a theological framework does, of course, come at a price. Lull and Nelson emphasize certain relationships and events at the expense of others. For instance, the reader will be grateful for the sustained attention given to Andreas Carlstadt, Philipp Melanchthon, and Thomas Müntzer in all their relational and theological complexity, but may also be left wanting in the realm of Luther’s ministry to the commoners of Wittenberg, his home life, and the specific shape of his relationship with Katherine von Bora.

Lull and Nelson’s conception of Luther is, more or less, traditional; any reader seeking a subversive or alternative analysis of Luther will come away disappointed. This is not to say that the story is stale or passé. A reader who approaches this work will find in its pages a dramatic and compelling narrative. The work is large enough to be thorough, yet written in a way that is personable and exciting, sure to both inform and entertain. Chapters three through eight (totaling 221 pages) provide the center of the book, wherein the pace slows such that each chapter represents one or two years in the critical events following the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. These chapters paint a moving portrait of a man swept up in the moment, on trial at Worms, hopefully determined and at times overwhelmed in the Wartburg Castle, and utterly dependent upon his friends and colleagues as a source of strength and inspiration. The final three chapters lay out the immediate fruit of Luther’s most productive period, including events that threatened to tarnish his legacy: Luther’s misappropriation of the Peasants’ War—a decisive turning point in the book, the marital scandal of Philip of Hesse, as well as Luther’s contemptible outlook on European Jews.

Resilient Reformer furnishes a helpful prism for considering the man and his work. Some of the individual elements of this prism are more obvious than others, but should not be overlooked: Luther as pastor, for instance. His self-understanding as a shepherd of the church plays a preeminent role throughout his life as Lull and Nelson argue, and the development of German spirituality, a result of his labor for the common Christian, is felt to this day. By contrast, an intriguing formative conviction of Luther’s brought out by the authors is his apocalypticism. He operated under the belief that time was short and the days evil. This contributed helpfully in many ways to his work, making the man a perpetual force in publishing and sharpening the edge in his theological framework. It also played a part in his more polemical and invective side, as can be seen in some of his more bizarre and unfortunate writings late in life.

In short, the authors of Resilient Reformer provide perhaps one of the more accessible single-volume biographies of Luther since James M. Kittelson’s Luther the Reformer (Fordham University Press, 1986). Resilient Reformer is well notated and contains an index of “The Forty-Six Players in the Lutheran Reformation,” a welcome surprise for anyone disarmed by the barrage of names and dates associated with Luther. It would also serve as an invaluable companion for a collection such as Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull and William R. Russell (Fordham University Press, 2012), as nearly all of the works selected by Lull and Russell appear as critical works in Lull’s Resilient Reformer. This book is a worthy addition to either the classroom or the personal library, and will serve as a trustworthy and inspiring introduction to Luther for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob R. Randolph is a student of Church History and New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy F. Lull was president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, and professor of systematic theology there before his death in 2003.

Derek R. Nelson is associate professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He is the author of Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed (2011) and What"s Wrong with Sin: Sin in Individual and Social Perspective from Schleiermacher to Theologies of Liberation (2009) and coauthor or editor of six other books.


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