Many decades ago, in my twenties, this quiet Catholic school girl found a hero in the brash and courageous monk named Martin Luther. When I could not find myself in the world in which I lived, he showed me a way out to a place where honest inquiry and Biblical truth combined to proclaim freedom to the captives, like me.
When I heard a few years ago that Eric Metaxas, of Bonhoeffer fame, was going to write a biography of Martin Luther in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I mentally set aside the fall of 2017 to read it. Metaxas has that felicitous combination of intellectual rigor and irrepressible humor that is unfortunately rare in serious Christians. Bringing those qualities to bear on a study of a figure like Luther, who was brilliant and articulate, but also shockingly vulgar and outspoken, has produced a work of profound insight that is sometimes pure fun.
Metaxas begins by debunking the many myths surrounding Luther, such as that he was from a poor family, or that he nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle door, thunderously announcing a new church. Rather, he quietly attached them to the door, which was like the neighborhood bulletin board, asking for a debate. As Metaxas has said on talk shows, picture him putting them up next to a poster of a lost cat. We imagine the hefty, confident man of his later years, but at that point, Luther was a skinny, sickly, and terrified monk who was just beginning to understand that all his fasting and confessing could not save him from hell. Rather, his faith in a loving God would. He had to let everyone else know about the grace that he had found.
The subtitle of this book is The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, which seems at first presumptuous. How could God be rediscovered? Had He been lost in the back of a closet? By painting a picture of the state of the church in Luther’s time, and of the entanglements between the ecclesiastical powers and the civil authorities, Metaxas proposes that yes, to a large extent, the knowledge of God had been hidden away from the vast majority of the common people, who had never seen a Bible in their lives and were completely dependent for their understanding of God on whatever they were told by the priests. As a matter of fact, Luther, a student of theology, had never owned a Bible until he was given one in order to teach scripture at the university. It is no wonder that so many reformers in past years had tried to translate the Bible into the language of the common people, only to die for their efforts. Luther’s success is due in no small part to the invention of the printing press not long before his birth, since it seems that everything he said and did was printed and distributed broadly, creating a groundswell of support for him that was already uncontrollable before the authorities knew of its existence.
Because of his own faith, Metaxas is able to understand and dissect the important details of doctrine that seem so obvious to us today, but were seen as heresy and therefore punishable by death in the 16th century. His story of the moment when Luther truly understood the message of faith in the book of Romans is the most riotous and R-rated presentation of the Gospel that I have ever seen or heard. It is certainly memorable. As the man of faith was freed from his fear of God, his troubles with earthly authorities began, and he endured years of challenges, maturing in his understanding of faith and slowly becoming the larger-than-life figure who has marched his way through our history books. In his early forties, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and became an unexpectedly tender and loving husband and father. Surprisingly, he extended far more rights and respect to women than was usual in his very male-dominated world.
Metaxas does not spare his criticism for Luther’s failures, and he did have very public failures, indeed. Luther did not foresee some of the consequences of allowing freedom of thought, and when other reformers went too far, or when the people began to rise up against their rulers, he always referred to Romans 13, which admonishes believers to submit to the governing authorities. Luther even went so far as to write to the rulers, advising them to quell the uprising with violence. His harsh statements against the Jews that he made late in his life are similarly shocking, especially since they contradict his positive writings about the Jewish people that he had made when he was younger. In a humorous passage that shows how powerful men who are quite sure of their opinions can often drive even their supporters to wish that they would just stop talking, Metaxas writes of Luther’s friend:
Melanchthon was upset at what he perceived as the harshness of Luther’s tone toward Karlstadt, but, alas, very much of what Luther would write in the years hence would read like a modern-day late-night tweet storm. (p. 325)
No one in Europe had succeeded in speaking truth to power before Martin Luther. His teaching and his writings had spread to Switzerland, England, and other parts of the continent before his death, and would continue to spread across the Atlantic to the New World in the years to come. We enjoy freedom of religion in this country because of his influence, and yet the church itself is splintered into innumerable squabbling groups for the same reason. Metaxas has written an account of this remarkable man that is scholarly yet readable, absorbing, and even, at times, rollicking. For good and for ill, Martin Luther changed the world forever, and whether you are a Christian or not, you may be surprised at the impact he has had on your life.
Very highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.