Five hundred and two years ago today Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, inadvertently sparking the Protestant Reformation. I’m not a Lutheran, but I admire his steadfast adherence to the plain sense of Scripture and insistence that “the just shall live by faith”:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures and clear reason, for I do not trust in the Pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me. – Martin Luther
(For any pedants out there: yes, I am aware that the exact date and manner of the posting of 95 Theses and wording of the above quote are somewhat debated, but I’m going with the traditional version here)
Oh, and happy Halloween as well!
Five hundred years ago today is the traditional date for Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparking the Protestant Reformation. There are plenty of areas where I would disagree with Luther, and people in my denomination (Baptist) like to argue about whether we actually came out of the Protestant Reformation at all (it’s complicated), but I still see this as a day to celebrate. The movement unintentionally launched by Martin Luther 500 years ago ended up bringing back to the Christian consciousness at large 5 essential truths.
Scripture Alone is the basis of Christian faith and practice (II Timothy 3:16) which teaches that true righteousness comes from Faith Alone (Romans 1:17) which is a completely undeserved gift of God’s Grace Alone (Ephesians 2:8-10) resulting in good works, not produced by good works because it is made available through the death and resurrection of Christ Alone (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) with all Glory to God Alone (2 Peter 3:17-18).
Happy Reformation Day! (If you haven’t had enough of my preaching, here’s a link to a sermon I preached a couple weeks ago on the life of Martin Luther).
Title: Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World
Author: Eric Metaxas
Rating: 4 of 5
The introduction to this book boldly claims that “much of what the world has come to ‘know’ about [Martin Luther] is fiction” and “sloppy glosses on the actual facts.” So does this volume illuminate for us the One True Luther as he has never been revealed before? Well…it is certainly a good biography that provides a lot of historical detail, but I don’t think it is anything groundbreaking. Like any biography, it has its strengths and weaknesses.
Metaxas’ strength is in describing the historical events. When it comes to the timing of occurrences, the words that were spoken/written, the people who were involved, the settings, etc. there are no “sloppy glosses” here. He usually shows sound historical research to back up his descriptions. However, he does occasionally indulge in speculation in what seems to be an unnecessary effort to suck the grandeur out of the best-known events (e.g. Maybe the 95 Theses was posted a couple weeks after October 31 by the church custodian and Maybe it was stuck up with paste instead of nails and Maybe Luther’s “Tower/Cloaca conversion experience” took place while he was sh*tting on the toilet…and, yes, he did use that word repeatedly).
The discussion of the theological and political issues involved was a little more hit-and-miss. Metaxas’ main takeaway throughout is that Luther unintentionally opened up the way for the modern pluralist understanding that people should be allowed to investigate spiritual truth themselves and draw their own conclusions and beliefs (whether right or wrong) without coercion.
He does discuss Luther’s developing theology on justification by faith alone, the sacraments, the relationship between church and state, etc., but it is largely subsumed into his freedom of conscience (or priesthood of the believer) emphasis and is not discussed with the level of detail you can find elsewhere (e.g. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton which I reviewed here). I found this a bit disappointing and possibly a bit misleading. Luther took great strides in acknowledging the Bible as the only authority for Christian faith and practice, but he did not advocate religious freedom or separation of church and state as we know it today (e.g. he agreed to the execution of peaceful Anabaptists who preached something different than the state church…which this book completely omits).
Overall, this is well worth reading for the rich historical detail even if the strong emphasis on pluralism and freedom of religion does feel a bit forced and Americanized.
Title: Here I stand:
A Life of Martin Luther
Author: Roland H. Bainton
Genre: Biography / Theology
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Five hundred years ago (on October 31) a monk named Martin Luther changed the course of history. His public posting of objections to some of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is usually seen as the spark that truly ignited the Protestant Reformation. While I am not a Lutheran (in fact, my beliefs probably put me in a category of people Luther said should be executed), I greatly admire this man’s stand for his faith and the influence that it has had down through the centuries. Luther pointed people back to the Bible as the final and only perfect authority on Christian faith and practice. His speech before the Imperial Diet at Worms (a speech that got him outlawed and contributed to his excommunication) sums up the Protestant position of Sola Scriptura:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” (some sources add, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”)
This book provides a solid overview of Luther’s life, theology, and influence. The author interacts with other Luther biographies and occasionally disagrees with them on minor issues, but does not radically reinterpret any of the widely accepted facts of Luther’s life. He is fairly evenhanded in his treatment of Luther’s Roman Catholic opponents in the theological and political controversies that arise from Luther working out the implications of his realization that “The just shall live by faith.” Though the author’s sympathies clearly lie with Luther, he does not stoop to straw man argumentation or presenting the opponents as mustache-twirling villains. Along the way he does not omit Luther’s personal struggles with depression and a vicious temper, but occasionally seems a bit too eager to explain away some of his more caustic, violent, and/or antisemitic rantings as “not really that bad.”
Overall, this is well worth a read if you are interested in Luther and/or the development of Lutheran theology. I plan to read the brand new Luther biography by Eric Metaxas and am looking forward to comparing them since it is being presented as “everything you know about Luther is wrong”…we’ll see.