Books: Protestant Despondency Was the Reformation a Calamity for Europe, and Its Maker? Karen Armstro Ng on a Flawed Hero

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Martin Luther: the Christian between God and death

by Richard Marius

Harvard University Press, pounds 19.95, 542pp A generation brought up on Roland Bainton's influential biography of Luther sees him as a noble precursor of the modern spirit. Summoned to the Diet of Worms to appear before the Emperor in April 1521, Luther was asked if he was prepared to submit to the ruling of the Church. He refused, concluding: "Here I stand; I can do no other." In this symbolic scene, Luther's brave defiance has been seen as an epochal affirmation of the individual's right to think as he chooses, and to express his views. In this view, the Reformation was a progressive movement which cast aside centuries of superstition and corruption. The reality is more complex, and Richard Marius's scholarly and thoughtful biography is an important contribution that should help to redress an imbalance. In many ways, the Reformation was a disaster. It plunged Europe into a cycle of war, bloodshed and persecution. Thousands of people who might have had a peaceful existence had Luther never lived died brutal, pointless deaths. Certainly, the Church needed reform, but it is possible that Luther's intemperate, belligerent campaign actually brought the cause of reformation into disrepute. Marius presents Luther as a complex, tortured figure, driven more by a desire to escape his personal demons than by a disinterested quest for truth. Throughout his life, he suffered bouts of paralysing depression. This took the form of a terror of death and extinction. Marius's careful analysis of Luther's sermons and letters showed that he was not much concerned with Hell. God expressed his towering wrath not so much by plunging the damned into everlasting fire, but by subjecting human beings to the annihilation of death. Luther's fear of death was so intense that he was unable, as a young man, to read Psalm 90, which describes the evanescence of human life, burned up by God's anger. His theology of justification by faith was a desperate attempt to find a solution. It was only by experiencing their utter helplessness before God's wrath that Christians could be saved; they would thus realise at a level deeper than the cerebral that righteousness came from God, not from any good deeds. This led to conflict with Rome. In Luther's view, the practice of selling indulgences encouraged the faithful to think that they could buy salvation, and to develop a faith that was little more than magic. When Luther found these superstitions sanctioned by the Pope, he set out to destroy the papacy. He was convinced that once Christians heard the clear teaching of scripture, as he understood it, they would follow him. Luther also sought to liberate the German people from Roman tyranny and unite them under an emperor who lived according to the gospel. But, as Marius shows, none of this happened. Europeans became locked in fruitless doctrinal disputes about insoluble matters. The unity of Western Christendom was shattered forever, and Europe subjected to over a century of vicious religious strife. Luther's theology seems not only to have failed the people of Wittenberg who followed him in rebellion against Rome, but brought Luther himself neither peace of mind nor spiritual relief. …