Five hundred years (and four weeks) ago, Martin Luther did the equivalent of tweet his accusation that the Roman Catholic system of Indulgences was a shame on the Gospel.
Poor fellow, he lacked the Internet at the time (and social media in general), so he was confined to posting his accusation on the door of his local church, which served as a community bulletin board for his town where people posted notices to reveal their thoughts.
Luther’s accusation was intended as an appeal to his ecclesiastical and academic colleagues that they should all debate the Indulgence issue he had just raised.
His argument included ninety-five logical points—every one of them longer than 140 characters.
As you read today’s post, it has been half a millennium (and—as you’ve heard—four weeks) since Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
This act initiated the colossal cultural change which has been termed the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation changed the western world, taking it from its medieval structure of hierarchy and social stasis to its modern freedom of personal flexibility and willful intent (albeit bringing forward freedom’s inherent dangers and sins).
My wife Channa and I came to Christ as Baptists, but we are Lutherans now—and glad of it.
I am especially glad today to be a Lutheran, since last week I finished reading Eric Metaxas’ brilliant new biography, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.
In honor of what was to be the up-coming quincentenary of the Ninety-Five Theses, I have undertaken to read three Luther biographies during the past fifteen months.
First, I read Andrew Pettegree’s 2015 volume, with its wonderful subtitle, Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.
Whew! Excellent book. Do not neglect it.
Next, I began to re-read Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand, which was originally published in 1950, and which I first read, happily, back in my seminary days.
Bainton’s 400-page book is an effective biography, well researched, excellently tuned as to the pace of its story-telling, and presented to the reader with literarily stylish writing. The edition I have is also attractive because of its lavish black-and-white illustrations of sixteenth century life, which are informative and sometimes humorous.
When I was about 200 pages into Bainton, my birthday occurred. My birthday is October 30. Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31…1517.
I’ve always felt emotionally close to Luther because of the coincidence of important days for each of us.
As a birthday gift, my son Sam gave me Metaxas’ new book.
I’d known about the coming of Metaxas’ book during most of 2017. The publication plan was to bring it out in early October in order to coincide with the Reformation anniversary. Some of you know that Metaxas and I did four national radio interviews earlier this year—discussing my recent memoir—and he described his new project to me during breaks between tapings of the interview.
Here was Eric Mataxas, author of those wonderful, big biographies about William Wilberforce (Amazing Grace) and also about Bonhoeffer, and he was doing a book on Luther--I couldn’t wait!
So, on October 30 when Sam gave me the book, I put Bainton down (yet shortly now to be picked back up again), and I took up Metaxas.
In the way of this master crafter of Christian biography and generally of the weft and warp of western and Christian history, Metaxas’ Luther is readable, intriguing, detailed, personable, admirable, witty, and moving.
Metaxas is able to make the intricate inner battle within the soul of Luther, that is between the forces of God and Satan, lucid—and particularly so for readers in the twenty-first century.
On a regular basis, Metaxas addresses today’s readers directly. He says it is important for our full awareness of the struggle Luther experienced that we stand aside from our commonplace, contemporary understanding of theology as well as of sixteenth century life in general, and to expand our awareness.
With a few succinct sentences, he helps us to do just exactly that, and then he takes us back to the moment at hand in Luther’s on-going story.
Each character in Luther’s story is fully fleshed, with Luther of course at the center of it all. Each moment in the confrontation between Luther, accompanied by his intellectual and theological followers, and the Pope and his supporters within the Catholic Church, each moment is detailed with precision and is made vivid by well-chosen quotations from letters, sermons, tracts, and speeches.
At the same time, Metaxas lets the oddities of the story remain. He lets them remain as oddities (after all, he is the author of an excellent book called Miracles.) Just to take one example, it is almost unbelievable that Frederich III, Elector of Saxony and a lifelong Roman Catholic, who singlehandedly protected Luther from the worst consequences of his revolutionary statements and behavior, for more than a decade, and who resided close by, never in his life met Luther. Yet it is so. It is so in the way that oddities occur regularly in human life—to be wrestled down into logical submission or no.
I adored each page of Metaxas’ biography; I recommend the book strenuously to you. My most intimate comment is that as a reader I got to know Luther.
Not just the theologian Luther, not just the “Here I stand” Luther, not just the translator of the New Testament from Greek to German in the Wartburg Castle Luther, not just the man horrified at the viciousness of the Peasant’s Revolt, inflamed by its use of his own name Luther.
No. The just plain human Luther.
Here is the Luther who, as a young and strenuously pious man, almost confessed himself to death (and exhausted his confessor) while nearly starving himself in his urgency to work his way into God’s grace. Here is the Luther who so reviled the selling of indulgences by the papacy that he scarcely considered the medieval political implications of throwing his fury at this behavior up onto his church’s door—thinking that Pope Leo X would be pleased to be straightened out!
Here is the corporeal Luther, suffering from depression, the Luther whose stomach and digestion gave him such trouble he almost died sometimes. Here is the Luther who suffered so deeply at the death of his almost teenage daughter that he could hardly understand that such parental love as his was possible. Here is the Luther who delighted in sex with his wife so much that he wrote to a friend that they should organize their martial intercourse with their wives to correspond in time, to produce all the more imaginative joy.
Here is the Luther who—during the worst of the Peasant’s Revolt, when friends and followers of his own theology were arrested and burned at the stake for their agreement with him—agonized deeply that he himself had not been found by God to be sufficiently strong in his theology as to be allowed by God to become a martyr, a reward which his fortunate friends had been granted.
When you hold Metaxas’ biography in your hand, its heftiness will impress you and perhaps even make you wonder whether its 450 pages are really for you.
After all, you already know about the Protestant Reformation; really, aren’t you okay enough on Luther and all that?
Shy away from that dismissiveness. That’s that my advice.
Read Chapter One.
The rest will take care of itself.