Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Reformer's Life

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Reformer's Life

Article excerpt

Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer BY SCOTT H. HENDRIX YALE, 368 PAGES, $35

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom BY CARI R. TRUEMAN CROSSWAY, 224 PAGES, $17.99

From the European perspective, American history looks like a laboratory experiment on the impact of the Reformation. We see in the United States the manifold fruits of toleration, democracy, religious pluralism, individualism, and liberalism. According to scholars like Brad Gregory, all these stem from Martin I uther's renewal program. In Latin America, by contrast, the overall Roman Catholic culture continued, dominating religious life until the twentieth century. During this time, the continent suffered from the political and economic ill effects of a repressive Catholic colonialism. The contrast is stark.

On the eve of the Reformation festivities of 2017 we need to ask, however, whether this picture of an individualistic Reformation and a holistic Catholicism represents anything more than a cultural prejudice. Do we have in Martin Luther's biblical theology the beginnings of modern individualism and subjectivism? Does his renewal program contain the seeds that led later Protestants to establish a new kind of Western society in North America? Among the variety of new studies of I uther, two books should help the reader answer the question.

Portrayals of Martin Luther's life abound in the English-speaking world. In addition to Roland Bainton's and Heiko Oberman's rhetorically vivid presentations, one can mention Martin Marty's short but balanced and reliable treatment and Martin Brecht's three-volume standard biography, a masterpiece of German thoroughness and love of detail.

In spite of these and some other admirable books, Scott Hendrix was motivated to make his new attempt by the observation that, when asked, he was unable to name "a good Luther biography." In some sense, I agree. Marty is too short and Brecht too long. Bainton and Oberman have excellent style and good story-telling, but their research is either outdated or does not serve the ordinary purposes of an academic textbook. For instance, Oberman's last book, The Two Reformations, contains a great number of enjoyable punch lines but lacks balance and comprehensive scope. Hendrix has now published a comprehensive textbook based on new research. While he is known as a via media scholar who builds bridges between European and American scholarship as well as between historians and theologians, his writing is not stuffily academic.

Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer is divided into two parts. The first, "Pathways to Reform," begins with Luther's birth in 1483 and ends with his excommunication and flight to Wartburg in 1521. The second, "Pursuit of a Vision," starts with Luther's return to Wittenberg in 1522 and concludes with his death in 1546. All chapter titles are quotations from Luther's own writings, and the immediate context of each quote is printed as the motto of the chapter. With the help of this elegant procedure, Hendrix can draft chapters that have fresh titles and avoid anachronism. The first five chapter titles give a sense of the effect: "My Homeland," "All that I Am and Have," "Holy from Head to Toe," "Not One of These," "Quiet No Longer."

Unlike many other biographers, Hendrix treats the different periods of Luther's life with roughly equal length. For this reason, the chapters focusing on the Reformation discoveries (years 1516-1521) receive a shorter treatment than they do in most previous biographies. This also means that Luther's later years (1522-1546) are seen not merely as a consolidation of previous reforms, but as innovative in their own right. This decision is the right one for a subject whose literary output and other activities remained so intensive through his whole career.

The big stylistic challenge in all biographies of Luther is to find the right balance between narrating external events and making sense of his enormous literary production. …

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