Luther: A Life
Martin Luther: An Illustrated Biography
On only two things about Martin Luther is there general agreement. He was a man of immense personal force and great magnetism whose work was a necessary condition of the Reformation schism; and his translation of the Bible and the great chorales and hymns that he wrote are constituents of modern German culture. He has been the subject of much Protestant hagiography. “Here I stand, I can do no other” (something, Peter Manns tells us, he never said) is as famous as Galileo’s “But it does move” and Archbishop Cranmer’s reported gesture of putting first into the flames the hand that had signed the recantation.
There are, it is true, many Luthers in the portrait gallery. There is the tormented Augustinian friar and dedicated professor of Scripture who lectured on Romans and Galatians and, out of his experience of religious dread and of deliverance from this dread, drew his characteristic doctrines: the sola fide and the simul justus et peccator: justification is by faith alone and he to whom justice is imputed remains, nevertheless, a sinner. There is the defender of social order and princely authority who exhorted the armies of the princes to treat the rebellious peasants as though they were wild beasts and kill them without mercy. There is the Luther who in 1523 wrote a pamphlet, “Jesus Christ was born a Jew,” in which he denounced hatred and ill-treatment of the Jews. “We are but gentiles,” he wrote, “while the Jews… are blood relatives, cousins and brothers of our Lord.” Twenty years later he attacked the Jews as ritual murderers, usurers, and parasites, and called for the suppression of their synagogues.
There is the Luther whose devotion to Christ crucified still lives for us in the religious music of the Lutheran tradition, most of all, perhaps, in the St.Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach. There is the domestic Luther of the Table Talk, solid and earthy, the indubitably married man—“grand rough old Martin Luther,” as Browning put it—though it would have seemed odd to the Victorians, had they allowed themselves to advert to it, that he should have risen from the table to write a polemic in which shitting, pissing, and farting are the favored forms of obloquy. To this Luther conceived as a spiritual Falstaff we may counterpose the Luther of the first years of the Reformation, still very much a monk, who, when so many of his fellows are putting off the habit and taking wives, affirms the possibility and usefulness of the celibate life. And so one might continue.
It is hard for modern men to admire Luther. We find it easier to sympathize with More and Erasmus, Colet and Fisher, with Melanchthon (surely the archetype of all ecumenical fixers), even with Thomas Müntzer, than with Luther. Luther is a hero of the kind admired by Carlyle and Froude, a man who knows only what the next step is, not what the grand design is, who moves through his …
Luther and Calvin April 28, 1983