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by Kenneth L. Woodward

Martin Marty's Martin Luther

A masterful life of the Reformer.

Martin Marty's biography of Martin Luther is the latest volume in Penguin Lives, a series edited by James Atlas with the aim of matching name writers with name subjects, and published for a general audience as a library of biographical essays of no more than 200 pages each. This format, which places a premium on interpretation, has produced an interesting if uneven series of marriages; some work, some don't. Garry Wills on Augustine was the first and probably the best marriage of minds since Augustine has long been not only Wills' special passion but also his favorite font for footnotes, regardless of what he is writing about. Peter Gay on Mozart was a happy combination, but Francine du Plessix Gray proved to be a cranky choice for the nearly inscrutable Simone Weil. Thomas Cahill used his assigned subject, Pope John XXIII, to pout about the papacy of John Paul II, and Karen Armstrong demonstrated that the Buddha is yet another subject about which she has nothing new or even interesting to say.

Marty shares more than a first name with his subject. As an ordained Lutheran pastor, he surely must have come to terms with Luther long before he became a preeminent historian of American religion. Still, no two personalities could be less alike, and Marty does not hide his ambivalence toward the man who—also ambivalently—gave his name to one family of Christians in what is now a denominational division of labor. I think I am right in saying that this is Marty's first biography, though the list of his publications is as long as the Mississippi and therefore error on this biographical point should be forgivable. But on the Reformation he is, if academic balkanization is to be respected, a highly skilled and informed auditor, which is why, perhaps, he agreed to take on Luther—and why, in any case, one wants to read Martin on Martin.

Like other scholars, Marty sees Luther as a man of the late Middle Ages whose religious doubts and despair influenced the development of early modernity, notably the exercise of free conscience. His biographical intent, he explains, is to connect "the story of Luther's inner experiences with that of his relations to external surroundings" without using, as Erik Erikson did in Young Man Luther, elaborate psychosocial categories. Spiritual struggle and its consequences are quite enough. As Marty rightly sees, 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, beginning with his own." Marty also supposes that "perhaps most contemporaries cannot identify with Luther's sense of guilt and dread in the face of an angry God, yet what he made of his struggles is integral to the story of modern Europe—indeed the modern world."

For readers like myself—not to mention those who have never read a biography of Luther—the lack of a brief, separate chronology of important dates is a real drawback. But there are none in any of the Penguin Lives, a publishing decision that suggests a mandate to authors to keep the story moving and make it fast. This isn't easy when assaying a man whose collected works run to 55 volumes in the American edition. But Marty is a master of the quick stroke, as evidenced by the following passage, which conveys not only what the landscape of Luther's childhood was like but also how it impacted the inhabitants' imaginations:

Eisleben, where the family lived for only a few months after the child's birth, straddled the edge of the Harz mountains and the Thuringian forests. Haunting the dark heights above the town, many believed, were witches and poltergeists. In the town churches, peasants and villagers took refuge against both threatening supernatural beings and natural hazards. The Luthers, among these other Saxons, needed such refuge.

As this excerpt suggests, Marty's strategy is to locate Luther in the relevant "settings"—home, monastery, church, university, empire—where his wrestling with God took place. But he does not always take Luther at his word. To wit:

[Luther] came to admire his teachers at Eisenach, so that the Latin schools cannot have been the purgatories and hells as a scornful Luther later deemed them. So neither was his chosen university at Erfurt in Thuringia simply the whorehouse and beerhouse he would one day recall.

Of all of Luther's settings that Marty explores, the university is the one that, for this reader at least, provides the freshest angle on his character. No question that Luther was disputatious—and no wonder, since disputation was both the method and the structure for pursuing truth in theology or any other intellectual discipline in medieval universities. As Marty points out, Luther's posting of his famous 95 theses—literally by post to the Bishop of Mainz and perhaps also by nailing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg—was as much an academic reflex as it was a polemical challenge to the Catholic church. In Rome's eyes, not to mention the eyes of his students, he was not Father Martin but Doctor Luther.

"Agonistic"—as in given to "contestation" but also in the sense of "agony" or suffering under combat—is another "mot" that seems "juste" when Luther is the subject, though it is not a word that Marty uses. Surely Luther the monk suffered in his contestations with God, convinced as he was of his own unworthiness of salvation and obsessive as he also was in seeking certainty of his own salvation. But, as Marty observes, Luther's theological resolution of his spiritual agon was not enough to dispel his lifelong bouts of Anfechtungen, a word which Marty translates as "the spiritual assaults that he said kept people from finding certainty in a loving God," assaults that for Luther were "rooted in profound doubt" as regarding his own standing before God. Luther came to think of Anfechtungen as leading sinners to "delicious despair" because, as Marty puts it, "These assaults robbed them of all certainty, until they found no place to go except to the God of mercy and grace."

Here Marty is wading into deep waters, as anyone must who would explain Luther to a general and contemporary audience—especially anyone, like myself, who is sunny enough in disposition or graced enough in life not to suffer from such spiritual torment. Although Luther came to rely on the promises of God, he could not say to himself, as the late Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, "I trust the God who made me what I am to do with me what He will." To demand certainty from a lover, be it God or one's spouse, puts a strain on any intimate relationship, which may be why, as Marty notes, Luther never rested long in the heaven that he called certainty, even after he found blessed assurance in his interpretation of certain Scriptures. How could he, believing as he did that grace justifies the sinner but does not change his sinful nature?

If the format of the Penguin Lives allowed for indexes, the reader could verify by count just how rarely Marty employs the key theological term "justification"—the one Smalcald Article Luther said that Christians of the Augsberg Confession should not allow to be "given up, even if heaven and earth or whatever is transitory passed away." As good a theologian as he is historian, Marty nonetheless recognizes that his job as biographer is to show what justification meant to Luther. One thing it meant, writes Marty, is "Let God Be God"; in turn, this meant that in the mystery of God his dark and "hostile" side was always present alongside the bright and comforting side. Along with a very real Devil, this God kept Luther always on edge. Having dismissed Purgatory in the next life, he endured many of them in this one.

"It is tempting to see [Luther] as a solitary genius or uniquely troubled soul," Marty observes. Indeed it is. But the question then becomes why this exquisitely though hardly unique tortured soul "attracted such a large following within less than a decade."

Marty's answer is straightforward: "Had Luther not eventually come to display and preach confidence in the promises of God, not many of the thousands who shared his pilgrimage of faith or who were cheered and guided by his message and programs would have followed. He would have been lost to history, one more forgotten, distraught soul." No doubt. But I would have liked to see the whys of this synergy spelled out rather than briefly summarized. Surely Joahann Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages was partially right in supposing that the old Catholic culture system, with its superintending saints and the rest, had brought the supernatural too close to people's lives when what they yearned for was rather more distance from the divine.

But Marty here has to move on to his fifth setting, "empire," sketching in deftly selected detail the ecclesiastical, political—indeed the geopolitical—ramifications of Luther's inner struggles. Though he finds much to admire in Luther, Marty doesn't shirk from showing us the negative: his ugly but not unusual anti-Semitism, his willingness to counsel others to sin, his tweaking of Bible translations to make them fit his theology—all the contradictions that make Luther a towering figure worthy of study but not always of emulation.

Luther, as we realize now better than in the past, lived in expectation of the endtimes. Hence his eagerness to purify the church before the end. Hence, too, his relative unconcern for the ecclesial chaos his ambitious program caused. He could not, of course, have foreseen that the Church of Rome would some four centuries later, at Vatican Council II, adopt many of the reforms that he championed. Had that happened in his lifetime, though, I still doubt that for Luther, at least, it would have made much difference. Marty tells us why in a brief authoritative biography that deserves the kind of wide readership enjoyed by Roland H. Bainton's less judicious Here I Stand.

Kenneth L. Woodward, the longtime religion writer for Newsweek, is the author most recently of The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (Simon & Schuster).

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