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Martin Luther Leaps Tall Buildings in a Single Bound…Well Almost



Michael Root - published on 08/12/15

What it lacks in theology it tries to make up for in TV-style entertainment value

As the year 1521 began, the Protestant Reformation came to a “do or die” moment. Until then, the Reformation was inseparable from the “Luther case,” the Roman investigation of Luther that began in late 1517 when Luther’s bishop complained to the Vatican about Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

After various hesitations, false starts, and missed opportunities, Rome spoke in July 1520. Luther must recant his errors or face excommunication. Five months later Luther responded by publicly burning the papal pronouncement. In January 1521, Luther was excommunicated. Church procedures had reached their end.

But what now? The public order had no room for recalcitrant heretics. Everyone on all sides agreed that heresy could not be tolerated. Removing heresy was among the highest duties of secular authority. Luther, however, was not just a professor with odd opinions. He was, by 1521, the most published author in Europe. Some of his adherents pledged to take up the sword to defend him. Hard choices would need to be made.

In April 1521, Luther appeared before the Emperor and assembled princes of the Holy Roman Empire and refused to budge. Even if it now appears that he did not say “Here I stand. I can do no other,” that is what he meant. In late May, the assembly declared Luther an outlaw. He was to be arrested and executed. The Empire had no police force of its own, however. It depended on its members, the various states and free cities, to enforce the decision.

Luther’s immediate ruler, Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony, decided to buy some time. Luther left the assembly before the final decision. Frederick had Luther kidnapped on the way home and taken into hiding at one of his castles, the Wartburg, on a mountaintop outside the town of Eisenach. He remained in hiding for over nine months.

Luther did not sit on his hands during this time. He translated the New Testament. He wrote important theological works. He sent letters to colleagues as they sought to lead the cause he had set in motion. They needed advice―students and prophets who said God spoke to them directly wanted to take the Reformation in a more radical direction. Mobs broke stained glass windows and destroyed statues. Some of Luther’s closest associates wavered. 

Finally, in March 1522, Luther came down from the mountain, without Frederick’s permission, returned to Wittenberg and again took command of his Reformation, rejecting calls for immediate radical change. In many ways, the pattern for the decades to come was set. Luther would remain in Wittenberg, under the protection of his prince, and lead a movement that sought a path between the Catholic authorities on one side and those calling for revolution of various sorts on the other.

A dramatic book could be written about this decisive year. Not only were the public events suspenseful, but Luther himself was tormented during his time in hiding by physical ailments and spiritual troubles, the ‘trials’ that he would experience throughout his life.

Luther’s Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege by James Reston, Jr., is an attempt at such a book, but not a success. Reston is a prolific writer of popular histories, though more in the mode of a made-for-television mini-series (think The Tudors) than a PBS documentary. His writing matches the genre—the action moves along, central characters are sharply etched, and the demand on the reader is not too high. He can tell a good story. The big events are accurately presented (although the quantity of small factual errors is worrisome). Luther is presented warts and all. 

Nevertheless, the book suffers from a crippling defect. Reston doesn’t seem very interested in Luther as a theologian. The Reformation was a complex event, with political, social, and economic dimensions. But for Luther, the Reformation was all about theology, about the right understanding of the Christian message. The pope was not the Antichrist because he lived a luxurious life and bilked the poor. He was the Antichrist because he falsified the gospel.

Reston devotes only a few pages to Luther’s understanding of his cause. And he rightly sees that cause as centering on justification by faith. But when he explains what justification by faith means, it is little more than a focus “on the inner spiritual life of the believer” rather than on “the exterior trappings of Roman Catholicism.” What was needed was “Something deeper, more spiritual, more mystical” than such peripheral works. Justification by faith meant “a personal, vibrant, immediate relation between the believer and the Almighty.” 

Luther’s teaching is almost reduced to a platitude― “spiritual, but not religious”―although a platitude attractive to the contemporary outlook. Luther’s cutting edge becomes merely a fierce opposition to any hierarchical religious authority, which Reston finds in Luther. Lost is Luther’s innovative understanding of justification as a turn away from inwardness toward a radical dependence on Christ and his righteousness.

Because Reston fails to understand Luther’s theology, he can’t bring the conflicts he portrays into focus. The conflict with the Catholic authorities boils down to a flawed, but authentic man against venal oppressors who were not willing to give up their fine food and ill-gotten gains. For Reston, Luther’s Catholic opponents are without exception bad people, comic-book villains who oppose Luther simply because they are bad.

The conflict with radicals is left even more undefined. Reston sees the argument as simply about the pace of reform. For Luther, far more was at stake, as he himself saw. Luther was committed to the external Word that brings Christ through preaching and sacrament, just what the radicals were ready to compromise, and like the radicals, Reston can see only inconsistency in Luther’s commitment to infant baptism.

The Acknowledgements to the book imply that Reston didn’t seem to think understanding Luther’ theology was all that important. There is something odd here. Could one imagine a historian working on Einstein who lacked an understanding of physics and failed to consult physicists? Or someone writing on the Great Depression who fails to understand economics and did not consult economists? 

My guess is that Reston, like many contemporary Americans, even religious Americans, doesn’t think that theology is all that important to a living religion. Perhaps the story of some religious figures can be told on that basis, but not the story of Martin Luther.    

Michael Root teaches systematic theology at The Catholic University of America. Before being received into the Roman Catholic Church in 2010, he was a member of the national and international Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, research professor and director at the Institute for Ecumenical Research (Strasbourg, France), and taught theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary (Columbus, Ohio) and at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (Columbia, South Carolina). 

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