October 31, 1517 is the day that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses the door of the castle chapel in Wittenberg (or maybe didn’t). The 500th anniversary of the momentous beginning of the Reformation falls this year. Unsurprisingly there is a wealth of books on the great Reformer now in print.
I resolved to read one good, big book on Luther in honor of the Reformation anniversary. I spent a fair bit of time checking out the numerous possibilities:
- There is Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction by Scott H. Hendrix (Oxford University Press, 2010, 144 pages). VSO is a wonderful series subsidized substantially by St. John’s Abbey via the purchases of AWR. I’m sure this is a great book but I wanted something a big more comprehensive.
- Another short introduction is by Martin Marty, foreword by James Martin SJ: October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World (Paraclete Press, 2016, 128 pages). Everything by Martin Marty is a gem and I’m sure this is no exception.
A classic is this:
- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, a 2016 reprint of the 1950 classic by Roland H. Bainton (Abingdon Press, 2013, 464 pages).
Here are other books I considered:
- Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott H. Hendrix (Yale University Press, 2017, 368 pages).
- Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas (Viking, 2017, 496 pages).
- The Legacy of Luther by R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2016, 308 pages).
Here is what I finally decided upon:
Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet Lyndal Roper (Random House, 2017, 576 pages). Lyndal Roper is the first woman to hold the prestigious Regius Chair at Oxford University.
What hooked me on this book was the author’s approach to her topic. She looks above all at Luther the person, at what passions drove him and what in his life experience affected him. She sifted through lots of materials not always used by church historians – to name just one example, the intracies of the economics of the mining Luther’s father did for a living, to understand better what was at stake in fundraising via the sale of indulgences.
Let me allow the author to speak for herself. From the introduction:
This book charts the emotional transformations wrought by the religious changes Luther set in motion. For Luther’s personality had huge historical effects – for good and ill. It was his remarkable courage and sense of purpose that created the Reformation, and it was his stubbornness and capacity to demonize his opponents that nearly destroyed it. …
The wealth of material that has survived is so great that we probably know more about his inner life than about that of any other sixteenth-century individual, allowing us to trace his relationships with his friends and colleagues through his correspondence and even to examine his dreams. … I want to understand Luther himself.
Luther’s theology becomes more alive as we connect it to his psychological conflicts, expressed in his letters, sermons, treatises, conversations, and biblical exegesis. Such a rereading of the original sources, which sets aside the accretions of denominational scholarship, will show us why seemingly remote and abstruse theological questions mattered so deeply to him and his contemporaries, and in what ways they may still be important to us today.
What are you reading for the Reformation anniversary?