Martin Luther

Article excerpt

Martin Luther. By Martin Marty. Penguin Lives Series. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004. xv + 199 pp. $19.95 (paper).

It is no surprise that the biography series Penguin Lives devotes a volume to Martin Luther. It is surprising, however, that such a small volume could be so deftly composed. The task of writing a brief account of the Wittenberg reformer's life and work is gargantuan; rarely has more been written about any other person, and seldom have more divergent versions of a person's life been argued. Nonetheless, Marty negotiates the dense forest of Reformation history, theology, politics, and ecclesiology, providing an accessible and eminently readable short biography of Martin Luther.

The book contains only four chapters. Wisely, Marty focuses each chapter on a chronological period of Luther's life and an overarching theme that binds it together. In the preface, Marty argues that Luther "makes most sense as a wrestler with God, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety." Throughout the book, Marty's argument is consistent with this claim. The first chapter, "The Hunger For Certainty, 1483-1519," introduces Luther as this Jacob-like wrestler against many Anfectungen, spiritual assaults that kept him from finding certainty in a loving God. Marty traces the way in which Luther's hunger for certainty led him to doubt the efficacy of several late medieval practices and beliefs and rely on the Word in Holy Scripture, especially the letters of Paul. The second chapter, "Defining the Life of the Faith, 1520-1525," gives a succinct account of the development and maturation of Luther's life and thought during the tumult of the early evangelical movement. In this period, the locus of Luther's "wrestling" is more the practical problems of church and governance, and less a wrestling of interior discernment. The third chapter, "Living the Faith, 1525-1530," elaborates Luther's domestic life and his leadership in the evangelical church, including his marriage and family life; church reform through sacrament, governance, catechisms, education programs, and church visitations; and also Luther's debates with Erasmus, Zwingli, the Roman see, and the Anabaptists. …