Sunday, August 09, 2015

A great Reformation scholar died prematurely. He left an unfinished Luther biography. Then this happened.

A new portrait of Luther by acclaimed painter Brad Holland
Although much has been written about the "resilient reformer" and great man of history, it is still difficult to recommend one definitive biography of Martin Luther in English. In part, this is because Luther is distant enough from us historically as to be strange when presented in all his idiosyncrasy. Until the arrival of Timothy Lull and Derek Nelson's new biography, my go-to recommendation was typically Heiko Obermann's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Obermann's biography stands out and succeeds as a biography by making Luther distant from our own time and place, especially our peculiar forms of heroism, and is sufficient to allow Luther to stand on his own terms.

The great danger of Luther biographies is the Erik Erikson problem. Erikson attempted to use "young man Luther" as a foil for his developmental psychology and psychoanalytic thought. The result has been an unfortunate cottage industry of biographies and monographs all attempting to explain Luther's life, theology, and culture in light of his psychological makeup. In part, this new biography is a successful attempt to dig out of the morass of this psychologizing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lull's analysis of Luther's end of life. Luther was not well for approximately the last quarter of his, having suffered from kidney stones, among other ailments. Much of Luther's preaching and theological output of this period is read in light of the supposed effects of this illness.

So Lull begins the biography with a story from the end. Luther left Wittenberg briefly about six months before his death, and wrote a letter to his wife, Katharina von Bora, promising never to return. This behavior could have been explained away in terms of psychology. But Lull reads it differently. First, he notices that Luther preached a sermon during this trip that was clearly still fresh and humorous and theologically rich. Clearly not the product of a declining mind. Furthermore, Luther is finishing up his major work on Genesis through this period, a portion of Luther's authorship that has become, over time, one of the lodestones for understanding his reading of Scripture.

After this opening end of life chapter, Lull and Nelson proceed chronologically through Luther's life, with an intense focus on Luther as public theologian and Wittenberg pastor. For those who have read other Luther biographies, or seen Luther movies, or are familiar with the significant touchstones for Luther's significant life, this book will not disappoint. It covers familiar territory, but frequently with a refreshing spin.

A couple of examples. First, early in the book Lull notes that perhaps Luther's commitment to his promise--to become a monk if he survived a terrible thunder storm that caught him on his way home to Erfurt--is not unlike his own understanding theologically of God as one who makes and keeps promises. It's a simple insight, but profound. Promise is a leitmotif both in Luther's vocational call and in his theological worldview.

Or consider this quote on Luther's experience of Anfechtungen:
Luther continued to have these attacks all his life with irregular frequency and intensity. His 'breakthrough' on justification by faith did not mean an end to Anfechtungen. Rather, it meant that he had something, or rather someone--the person of Christ--to hold over against these shattering and life-dissolving experiences. And because many in his time had experienced a measure of the doubts and fears that Luther experienced, he was soon regarded as a great soul doctor, a spiritual director to a generation that had trouble believing the formal church teaching on the grace of God, given their own doubts and the church's far from grace-centered practiced (38).
There is a particular poignancy to this biography even beyond its subject matter. The first author, Timothy Lull, beloved seminary president and Luther scholar, died tragically and prematurely in 2003, leaving behind him many unfinished projects. One of those, this Luther biography, has now been taken up and completed by the very able Derek Nelson. Lull assembled a number of popular works on Luther, including the incredibly popular Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings.

The team of Reformers in Wittenberg, among them Melanchthon, Bugenhagen (whose sermons have also recently been published by Augsburg Fortress), George Major, Amsdorf, Jonas, and many others, regularly had each other's backs, assisted one another in their work. In this sense, Derek Nelson is continuing a pattern he and Lull and many of us have learned from the Reformers--to lean on one another and continue each other's projects.

Finally, a longer quote from the close of the book, that gives a sense of Lull and Nelson's approach to Luther as a whole.
As Luther's heart grew cold about Wittenberg and all that the small city represented to hm, the achievements and failures of his years there weighed heavily on his mind. Morals were low; morale was lower. And yet Luther found the means to work through this crisis as well. Because he was unusually silent about his thoughts, we cannot piece together his sources of resilience. As this book has argued, however, the likeliest place to turn is not Luther's psychology, but his theology. His doctrine of sin led him to low expectations for communities. In this respect, he was the furthest thing from naive. And yet his doctrine of grace led him to high hopes for what God might do through such imperfect people. These were the binoculars through which Luther saw the world, and resolving the two lenses into one image was difficult. Or, to alter the metaphor slightly, perhaps just before his death Luther's view of the world came through a kaleidoscope, which, when just a quarter turn off, shows a mess. With a slight adjustment, beauty comes through again. As a reformer, Luther was a man without a plan. As a theologian, Luther trusted in God's plan, no matter the detours and apparent dead-ends.  
A thesis of this book has been that the best way to understand Luther is by grasping his resilience. Luther's genius comes from the fact that, rather than seeing crises that came upon him as interruptions distracting him from his real calling, he saw these crises--imprisonments, facing death, the lose of Magdalena, and so on--as opportunities. Luther used those very setbacks as occasions for revising his work. Each of these very negative experiences motivated him to a high level of achievement, especially given that he feared he had little time left to work. In each case, these staggering interruptions were the inspiration for some of his most remarkable work rather than a distraction from brilliant work already underway.
There is a reason scholars pay as much attention to Luther's life as Luther's thought. As much as any person of any time, his teaching (his sermons, his lectures, his letters) are of apiece with his life. Who he is is what he says, and what he says is who he is, to a remarkable degree. We will always needs new Luther biographies. For the time-being, this is the the biography to read. And it is more than enough.
Let me add one more thing. An infamous aspect of Luther's authorship are his screeds against his opponents, most notably against the Jews, for which Lutherans work to apologize, but also against the Pope and church leaders, some of which were appropriate if overly inflammatory by today's academic standards.

One thing I encourage readers to do if they ever pick up Luther is to attempt to insert in place of "the pope" whatever thing is in power that needs addressing in our current system. In today's world, when we read Luther, perhaps what we should do is insert "white supremacy and fragility" in place of "the pope." That or "the market." These are two targets that need more of Luther's style of humorous and pointed deflation.

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