Making Luther Great Again?

by Benn Sheridan

Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident

Peter Stanford, Hodder & Staunton, 2017 Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

Lyndal Roper, Bodley Head, 2016


Plagued by impotence and an irritating wife, in 1976 Kingsley Amis wrote ‘The Alteration’, a startling foray into fantasy fiction. Amis’ fantasy was that on the cusp of his break from the Church Martin Luther had been reconciled to the Vatican and elevated to the papacy. The Reformation never happened; the advance of modern secularism was halted. The events of the novel play out in a 20th century shaped by this new history – a Europe ruled over by the Roman Catholic curia. It’s a dark rewriting: amongst the recognisable historical figures populating Amis’s new 1970s are Monsignors Henricius and Laurentius, who head up the Holy Office (reimagined as the Church’s secret police). Behind this Latinised nomenclature it’s not difficult to make out the thinly veiled figures of Heinrich Himmler (of Gestapo infamy), and the the Russian Secret Police’s Lavrentiy Beria.


Into this sequence fall Luther and other ‘heroes’ of the Reformation, recast as historical (Catholic) footnotes: Luther became ‘Pope Germanian I’, the instigator of reform of a different kind – far-reaching doctrinal misogyny. Thomas More succeeded him as pontiff, and secured England’s place within Christendom. Meanwhile, Thomas Cranmer led a band of exiled ‘renegades’ to found New England, and ‘Cranmeria’. The historical allusions are crass, but the book raises some important questions (aside from ‘What was Amis smoking that day?’). First, had the young Augustinian friar not nailed his theses to Wittenberg Cathedral’s door, would the Reformation even have happened, and second, why should that single action matter so much?


For it is on Martin Luther that both Roper and Stanford have decided to focus, and their books are very different beasts. Roper’s has been ten years in the making (she has remarked that she only intended for the project to last at most five years), and the fact that it is out in time for the centenary seems nothing short of a happy accident. During its writing she has held a variety of academic posts (she is the first female Regius Professor of History at Oxford). Much like Luther and his writings her book came into being against a backdrop of years of academic debate (she convenes the Luther Special Subject for Oxford History undergraduates). Her conception of Luther is best understood in this academic context: in Oedipus and the Devil (1994), her seminal work on witchcraft and religion, she describes her modus operandi as being the pursuit of ‘individual subjectivities’ – instead of examining a personality in the context of a uniform 16th century mindset, she attempts to explain them within the frame of their personal narrative. Stanford is a journalist by trade and inclination – the kind of psychoanalytical historical approach Roper has pioneered holds very little appeal. His reasons for writing are nowhere near as abstract as ‘Luther’s inner development’. Instead, as journalists tend to do, he has chosen to focus his talents on something timely: his book is couched ‘in the particular setting of a 500th anniversary that will see Catholics and Lutherans edging closer than ever before to putting past disagreements behind them’.


By all accounts, Luther was fairly prone to academic disagreements, but he was equally difficult to live with, suffering such violent bouts of Anfechtungen (depressive episodes coupled with migraines) that he could be bedridden for days. At his best, though, he could be garrulous, eloquent and fearsomely sharp. It is no surprise that his followers titled their collected rememberings of his conversations Tabletalk, for it was at the dinner table and amidst his family and friends (his house was always full of lodgers: even Karlstadt, the repentant radical of Luther’s reformation, moved in with wife and children in tow...and stayed for ten years) that Luther thrived. By then not a small man, the pater familias of the Reformation would regale visitors between courses with tales of his youthful exploits. Most biographers, including our two, are quick to point out that nowhere amongst these recollections, nor even in his voluminous correspondence, does the ‘Nailing- some-theses-to-a-church’ episode take place.


The notion that 1517 was the most transformative moment in the Catholic Church’s second millennium therefore seems a little out of place. Yet, both Lyndal Roper and Peter Stanford stick by it, at least as far as publishing their books go. Both have bought into the wide array of ‘Luther kitsch’ which can now be purchased not only in Wittenberg (though it is Wittenberg and Wittenberg alone which houses a full 500 commemorative metre- high plastic Luthers, perhaps marking the excess of the genre), but across Germany. Stanford’s personal encounter with Luther is guided by a Playmobil figurine – ‘the best selling Playmobil action figure in Germany’, he reminds us, somewhat portentously (though 34,000 sold in the first 72 hours is no mean feat). Like a kind of relic, it sits in his back pocket as he leads us on a whistle-stop tour of Luther’s greatest hits. Roper is more subtle. She has spent ten years sifting through Luther’s correspondence, which she has systematically collated and analysed. The image she creates is astonishingly detailed. Everything gets a thorough airing, from his musings as a troubled young student, to his anger and frustration at feeling (as he perceived it) sidelined at the formative, if unsuccessful, Diet of Augsburg, the final meeting with the Catholic princes. The German title of Roper’s work, ‘Der Mensch Martin Luther’ (The Man Martin Luther), matches this kind of biography: it is suitably – rightly – humanising. It is also far less provocative than her chosen title of ‘Renegade and Prophet’ – and she admits she tried desperately to get the German edition to match. In this context, her decision is a little peculiar: whilst professing to want to show us ‘the real Martin Luther’, she seems just as caught up in the ‘Luther myth’ as the next person. It would be difficult to argue, admittedly, that Luther was a bit-part player in the Reformation, but it is frustrating to see him heroised so blatantly. Amidst a whole panoply of reformers, this plain spoken monk from the mining district of Germany may have shouted the loudest, but he did not do it alone.


To borrow from Diarmird MacCulloch, ‘western civilisation groans under the burden of Luther biographies’: writing about Luther is the academic equivalent of hagiography – the particulars of the narrative may change slightly, but no one doubts that it is a very worthy subject. A lot of this is to do with the sheer quantity of contemporary materials available about him: his collected works run into hundreds of thousands more words than those of his closest rival, Erasmus. Yet, it is to Erasmus and others of his ilk that Luther is indebted. This ilk was humanism: the intellectual movement de jour which rejected the traditional approach to religious thinking, scholasticism, in favour of something much more pared back. Erasmus called it ad fontes, or back ‘to the source’. Humanism encouraged a return to scriptures in their original language, supplemented by the array of classical works which would help inform how those scriptures ought to be interpreted. In 1500 Erasmus had published The Adages, a work which quickly rose to the top of the Early Modern equivalent of Amazon’s bestsellers list. He took classical idioms, and used them to explore what it meant to be a Christian. In one, he writes:


[This is] the difference between the follower of the world and the follower of Christ: the first admires and chases after the worthless things which strike the eye at once, while the second strives only for the things which are least obvious at a glance, and furthest from the physical world – and the rest he passes over altogether, or holds them lightly, judging everything by its inner value.

We know that Luther was very familiar with Erasmus’ works, and even if their correspondence didn’t show it (it does), it is easy to see just how marked an influence Erasmian ideas were for the young Augustinian Friar. The parallels between Erasmus’ rejection of ‘worthless things which strike the eye at once’, and Luther’s fierce critique of indulgences – the act that got him noticed in the first place – are abundant. Like Luther, Erasmus loathed the late medieval Church’s excess. Unlike Luther, Erasmus never made the leap to full blown heresy, but Luther was by no means the first to do so. A century or so before Luther’s own small act of defiance, another ‘renegade’, Jan Hus, a Bohemian and, like Luther, an academic (at the Charles University in Prague) was executed in 1415 for defying the Church’s teaching on Communion in both kinds. Heresy was not a rare occurrence – it’s worth remembering that the same Holy Office Amis reimagines so ruthlessly was established (as the Inquisition) in Spain as early as 1478. So, before Martin Luther is singled out, as he is by both authors here, it’s worth remembering that he did not stand alone against the Church. Giving credit where credit is due, both Stanford and Roper take pains to document those precise moments where the Reformation was removed from Luther’s control – but these are only moments, and, these being biographies, the scope of the Reformation as a European-wide movement is necessarily blinkered.


I’d like to challenge the historical value of biographies like this at all: I can accept Roper’s motivation – for Luther is unsurpassed in complexity of character – but hearing Stanford wax lyrical about Luther’s relevance to the modern Catholic is a little grating. He points to changes within the Church over the ‘Doctrine of Justification’, such as the 1999 joint declaration by the Catholic and Lutheran churches: coming into the 21st century, church leaders seemed say that the minute differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism were less important than just trusting in Christ. This is helpful, and Stanford tells us far more about what Luther believed than Roper does (as far as the nitty gritty of Lutheran belief is concerned), but it is unhelpful – and profoundly unhistorical – to build him up as the sole bulwark against a self-serving and un-Christian church. Just as many if not more movements to reform came from within.


The most neglected character in both biographies is Luther’s wife, Katharine ‘Katie’ von Bora, escaped nun and mistress of the Luthers' household. When Luther was bed- bound by crippling migraines, she would nurse him, manage the many houseguests, and look after their children (none of whom, incidentally, followed their father into the ‘reforming’ profession. The sons became each a lawyer, a theologian, and a physician. The daughter married a minor nobleman). When Luther died, Katie was left to manage the household, too, and faced a world where Luther’s battle was in no way clearly won. Her death, in 1552, is remarkable for its lack of fanfare: she was penniless, had been booted out of the palatial ex-monastery Luther family home, and had seen the great leaders of Luther’s reformation defeated in battle (in 1547 at the Battle of Mühlberg). What lived on, and what sustains the 70 million Lutherans in Germany, Scandinavia and America today, is not Lutheran faith as Luther would have liked – one guided by his interpretation of scripture – but a Church sustained by the power of its message. This message is found as much in Jan Hus, in Erasmus, and even the Bishops at Vatican II, as it is in poor Martin: the ‘inner value’ of the laity, a priesthood of all believers which places Luther on the same footing as everyone else. And yes, Luther said it well, and said it loudly, but given that everyone else was saying it too, he doesn’t really seem that remarkable at all.


BENN SHERIDAN reads History at Magdalen. Reluctantly.

Somerville College
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