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).