Book Review: Martin Luther, Renegade and Prophet
by Lyndal Roper
Random House, 2017
Since 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the event that kick-started the Protestant Reformation, new biographies are inevitable of the man behind that event, the obscure German monk Martin Luther who presented his Ninety-five Theses to the world in 1517. And such biographies have always encountered the same problem that’s endemic to the excavation of all religious movements: when you get all the way back to the person who started the movement, you invariably find either a fraud or a myth. The miracle-working Jesus was just such a myth, and although Muhammad was very likely flesh and blood, he was a flesh-and-blood monster. Joseph Smith was not only an obvious con artist but a convicted obvious con artist. It’s even possible that Mary Baker Eddy occasionally cussed at the hired help.
And Luther – God help us all. A slovenly, foul-mouthed, thoroughly bigoted lunkhead who decided to wreck a thousand-year-old belief system because it frowned on his incessant eating and drinking, a thoroughgoing hypocrite and manipulator who tried to hide an overweening solipsism behind the guise of clerical reform, a slavering attention-hound who’d say or do anything at all to be in the world’s spotlight, somebody who was so misogynistic and anti-Semitic that even the standard-bearers of misogyny and anti-Semitism in his own day considered his excesses embarrassing. When it comes to a serious, objective study of the birth of Protestantism, a hagiography of its founding father would seem to be impossible.
And yet just such hagiographies have been so common in the last five centuries that new modern-era studies of Luther tend to advertise themselves as restorative works, portraits designed to strip away the veneer of veneration and present the real flesh-and-blood man. This was the guiding determination of Roland Bainton’s classic Luther biography Here I Stand way back in 1950, and it’s the guiding determination of a big new book by Oxford Regius Professor of history Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, a wonderfully-written and deeply-researched life that seeks to understand Luther the man. Roper sifts through Luther’s extremely voluminous literary remains in order to compile a portrait of his inner self, not just what he believed but why he believed it. Roper is well aware of the risks involved in such an approach. “It may seem foolhardy to attempt a psychoanalytically influenced biography of the very man whose biography has become a byword for the worst kinds of reductionist history,” she writes. “Such an approach, it could be contended, risks overestimating the role of individual agency in much the same way that sixteenth-century Lutheran hagiography did.”
But there’s no danger of that here. Roper obviously finds Luther personally fascinating, but she seems every bit as interested in his many flaws as she is in his tiny, very isolated redeeming qualities. She engagingly narrates her subject’s early life (she finds in his relatively uncultured mining-town early years a relevance to his later life that will spark some interesting discussions in Luther-studies), and she’s unfailingly interesting on the crucial issue of Luther’s rise to prominence, his railing against the Church’s widespread practice of selling indulgences:
It is not difficult to understand why the Ninety-five Theses caused such uproar. The indulgences question was linked with the assault on scholasticism and was part of a general impatience with old ways of doing things. Humanists could see in them an attack on the established authorities, who clung to their philosophy instead of returning to the sources and reading texts anew and critically. The theses also reflected a lay devotional piety that sought true repentance and aimed at mystical union with Christ: Indulgences were anathema to this spiritual sensibility.
But the most involving part of Roper’s book arises from her reading of Luther’s voluminous letters. The Reformation was a boom-time for personal (and semi-public) correspondence, and no matter what else might be said about him, Luther was a master of this now-vanished writing form. Roper reads his letters with a fresher eye than any biographer has ever brought to them, and finds in their varying rhythms a more intimate Luther than has yet appeared in any English-language life of the man. Like many of his contemporaries, Luther corresponded not as a luxury but as an essential act of living, writing every day at length to friends, acquaintances, and enemies, and Roper views this range as key. “It was Luther’s vivid friendships and enmities that convinced me that he had to be understood through his relationships,” she writes, “and not as the lone hero of the Reformation myth.” And certainly her descriptions of the man’s correspondence will prompt readers to hope she someday finds the time to edit a full collection:
This breezy indifference to formalities is one of Luther’s most appealing characteristics. A brilliant, engaging personal correspondent, he had a sure sense of what would make his recipient laugh. He inquired about illness with genuine interest, but he also knew exactly how to cut to the chase, confronting a correspondent’s anguish with directness. More than anything else, the letters give us a sense of the charisma he must have radiated, and the sheer delight his correspondents must have experienced in being his friends.
Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet is an outstanding one-volume biography of its perennially controversial subject, and it stands above every such book since Bainton’s in its generous background-work, giving readers a Luther set firmly in his own times even as he was doing more than anybody this side of England’s King Henry VIII to change them. Of the many Martin Luther studies appearing during the Reformation’s big anniversary, this is the best.