What Are You Reading for the Reformation Anniversary?

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 are other books I considered:

Here is what I finally decided upon:

Luther RoperMartin 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?

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7 comments

  1. Last Fall I taught On the Freedom of a Christian in my Intro Theology class and will teach it again this Spring to our Masters students. I’ll admit to not being a big fan of Luther (though I admire the prose, much the way I admire Nietzsche’s), but I find OFC to be fairly palatable.

  2. I just finished reading the larger Scott Hendrix book you listed, Martin Luther: Radical Reformer. I appreciated the extensive coverage of his relationships and the detailed chronological narrative supported by quotations from the voluminous Luther correspondence.

    A colleague of mine has praised the Lyndal Roper book very highly. Maybe I should get a copy of that.

  3. George Williams’ The Radical Reformation. It’s been on my must read list for years; I could never pull the trigger on buying a $100.00 book, but now that it’s down to 90…80…70…60…this is the year. It goes a step beyond Luther (and Calvin and Zwingli). I’ve long been intrigued by Anabaptist theology and the heroic witness of its early adherents.

  4. Hacker, P. Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion
    Rao, J. Ed. Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society

  5. Published earlier this year, but seems not to be getting much attention in the US,
    Peter Stanford, Martin Luther-Catholic Dissident, (Hodder & Stoughton).
    A sympathetic portrayal by a leading English Catholic journalist.
    Carlos M. N. Eire, Reformations, The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale UP, 2016)
    Note his use of the the plural; his treatment of the pre-Reformation period enables one to see the events and ideas that influenced the major Reformation figures.
    Diarmaid McCulloch, All Things Made New, The Reformation and Its Legacy, (Oxford UP, 2016)
    Eamon Duffy, Reformation Divided, Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, (Bloomsbury, 2017)
    Both Duffy (Cambridge) and McCulloch (Oxford) are senior statesmen among historians of Christianity in the UK, and have made significant contributions to our understanding of the Reformation. Essay collections, both focus on events and personalities of their respective denominations, so offering a useful divergence of perspective. McCulloch is currently writing a biography of Thomas Cromwell, so complementing his prize winning biography of Thomas Cranmer.
    Currently on order:
    Alec Ryrie, Protestants, The Faith that Made the Modern World (Penguin Books, 2018 Pbk)
    The hardback was positively reviewed by leading scholars in the field.
    While 1517 saw Luther kickstart the Reformation, its roots are deep, both within the Church and the wider socio-historic context. Eire’s book is valuable in helping us see how the leading reformers worked with similar but sometimes very different agenda. Part 4 of his book, and quite a few of the essays in Duffy and MacCulloch enables us to see how the sucessors of the first generation of the reformers moved foward, possibly not always in directions that their predecessors may have been comfortable with, to create the Lutheran, Reformed and Presbyterian churches we have today. Not to mention the later Churches such as the Methodists, the Baptists, the Anabaptists and the historic “Peace Churches”.

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