Martin Luther: Visionary reformer
Scott H. Hendrix
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
PICKING up a new Luther biography by Scott Hendrix, I thought I knew what to expect. Hendrix, who recently retired from Princeton, is as thoughtful and insightful a scholar of Luther’s theology as you will find in the world today. He would be the obvious person to write an intellectual history, laying out the main themes of Luther’s thought and their development during the course of a life whose framework is very well-known. Hendrix could have written such a book in his sleep.
But he has done something more interesting: he has given us a Luther who is not only an extraordinary theologian, but is also a firm friend, a demanding colleague, an energetic administrator, a mediocre politician, and a loving, if sometimes heavy-handed, husband and father.
Luther’s life story is pretty well known, and Hendrix has no dramatic new discoveries for us, although he is an adroit guide to controverted issues such as Luther’s uncertain birth-date and the tall tales that he later told about how he first became a monk. Hendrix sensibly refuses to be drawn into the endless debates over precisely dating Luther’s theological breakthrough, observing that “he was unable to tweet its time and location.”
What Hendrix brings to the story is context. The Ninety-Five Theses posted by the (probably) 33-year-old Luther in 1517 look a little different when we realise that between 1516 and 1521 Luther prepared 20 sets of theses on different subjects, and that he had already been preaching against papal indulgences for several months.
Hendrix also, in the book’s most significant scholarly contribution, emphasises how far “Lutheranism” was a collective project of Wittenberg University, not the work of a lone genius. These were ideas thrashed out together by a group of friends, on whom Luther leaned heavily all his life. Even the German “Luther Bible” was very much a collective project. When the friends began to scatter across Germany to lead “Lutheran” churches, he was bereft.
More importantly, perhaps, the book captures the feel of Luther’s daily life. Hendrix has a vivid sense of place, knowing how, in a small town, monastery and university were physically entangled. We follow Luther on his travels, feeling each jolt of the wagon’s wheels on unsurfaced roads. And he travelled a great deal: far from being the unknown monk of legend, he was from 1515 to 1518 one of the most senior administrators of the Augustinian order in Germany, and indeed it was this work that first brought him up against the indulgence trade.
In the latter part of the book, where the biographer is tempted to separate Luther’s life out into thematic strands, Hendrix instead uses a fairly strict chronology to give a vivid impression of how Luther’s life was actually lived. The timeless theological tracts emerged amid political crises, the administrative headaches of church and university life, and the joys, griefs, and consuming worries of family life —and all this against the background of his own shaky health. We can sympathise with his ultimatum to God during a never-ending bout of flu in 1541: “Either it stops or I stop!”
The overwhelming busyness of Luther’s life, as all these matters pressed themselves on his attention, can be as bewildering to read about as it was to live through. What keeps it together is Hendrix’s sharp insights, his easy style and his unfailing eye for telling facts or quotations, often from the most obscure sources. The quincentenary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 2017 means we have a procession of Luther books on the way. They now have a hard act to follow.
Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.