David Crane

The man who changed the world

The Protestant Reformation was profoundly shaped by Luther’s character — and his genius for fighting dirty

The man who changed the world
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Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

Lyndal Roper

The Bodley Head, pp. 562, £

On 31 October 1517, as every child once knew, an obscure German monk nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s castle church and so began the Reformation. It would seem that there is no firm evidence that this ever actually happened as myth would have it, but whether Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door or glued them or merely posted them to Germany’s leading churchmen, the Christian world would never be the same again.

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet is an exploration of a man’s interior life and development and not, as Lyndal Roper insists, either a general history of the Reformation or even of the Lutheran revolution in Wittenberg. She is only too aware of the reductive dangers of shrinking great historical events and theological arguments to the emotional and psychological struggles of an individual. And yet if any man, as her compelling and above all deeply honest biography shows, can shoulder this kind of emphasis — any man, moreover, whose theology seems so direct an emanation of character — it is the charismatic, bruising, paradoxical and appalling Augustinian monk turned renegade, Martin Luther.

Luther — Luder — was born in Eisleben in northern Germany in 1483, and grew up under the shadow of the Counts of Mansfeld’s castles in the small mining town of the same name. In later life he would always insist on his impeccable peasant origins, but his father was a mining inspector and prominent smelting master and it was in a smoky, slagheap-filled town on the edge of the civilised world that the young Martin grew up.

The wider context of the adult Luther’s rebellion — the growing anti-clericalism of the late 14th century, the extravagance and exactions of the Renaissance papacy, absenteeism, the shameful ignorance of so many clergy, the scandal of indulgences, the simmering hostility between Rome and Germany — is familiar enough territory, but for Roper it is impossible to understand Luther without understanding this Mansfeld world from which he came. There is a natural tendency in Reformation studies to concentrate on the independent imperial cities of the south, but the ugly, precarious and divided world that helped shape Luther’s passionate, authoritarian, unforgiving, coarsely physical nature was closer to a 15th-century German Deadwood than it was to the humanist culture and civic traditions of Nuremberg.

Even though Luther remained loyal to his childhood home, there can have been little about it that gave him a very elevated sense of man’s goodness, and nothing that can have inoculated him against the less lovely aspects of St Augustine’s theology when he defied his father to become an Augustinian monk. It might seem odd in retrospect that a man who spent so much of his time railing against monasticism should have joined so austere an order, and yet for whatever reason — and Roper is right to give no pat answer — there was a streak of guilt and self-loathing in Luther that found some perverse balm in the ascetic disciplines and baleful theology of the Observant Augustinians.

In Augustine’s teaching of the utter depravity of man and a strict reading of Paul we have all the ingredients needed for Protestantism; but it is hard not to feel that the Reformation took the direction it did because of Luther’s personality. It was perfectly possible in the early 16th century to square a moderate Augustinian theology with Catholic orthodoxy, but moderation was never part of Luther’s character, and thesis by thesis, crisis by crisis, prayer by prayer, revelation by revelation — it was in the privy tower, on the cloaca, he famously claimed, that the idea of justification by faith alone ‘struck him like a thunderbolt’ — the reformer and the theologian in him came into alignment to produce the Catholic church’s most implacable enemy.

It was this combination of doctrine and character that gave Luther’s assault on the papacy its momentum and destructive power. There was nothing in his attacks on relics or indulgences that was not common enough currency across Europe at the time; but if man could be saved by faith alone and all good works were intrinsically sinful, then the whole penitential edifice of the medieval church — the sale of indulgences, the intercession to Mary and the saints, the cult of relics, the authority of the Pope, the distinct existence of a priestly caste to mediate between man and God — were all so much rubble.

Given Luther’s temperament, the story was never likely to end there, and perhaps the saddest thing about this book is just how much space it necessarily devotes to his battles with other reformers. There was at least a grim logic to his break with Rome; but could anyone but Luther have found sufficient ground for disagreement with allies, friends and disciples as various as Erasmus, Karlstadt, Bucer and Zwingli to have endangered the very existence of the Reformation in the way he did?

While there were genuine theological differences with his fellow reformers, particularly over the doctrine of the real presence, the harsher truth seems to be that like Alexander Pope’s Atticus he could ‘bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne’. He talked of conscience when what he meant was his conscience. He preached the transparent truth of scripture and again what he meant was Luther’s interpretation of scripture. Intellectual independence, however sincere, however marginal, was disloyalty; disagreement was betrayal.

And his polemical skills, his un-rivalled gifts for fighting dirty, his genius — aided and abetted by the ghastly Lucas Cranach — for exploiting the possibilities of the printing press meant that these battles would be fought with an acrimony and violence that would poison denominational debate for another 400 years. Nor was that Luther’s only grim legacy. ‘The Jews,’ he could write, ‘kiss, eat, drink and worship’ the Devil’s excrement. ‘He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.’

This was, as Roper insists, no mere relic of Catholic anti-Semitism, but integral to Protestant identity and a Protestant sense of election — and in that lies the problem of writing about Luther. She leaves no room to doubt his towering stature in Reformation history, but only hagiography could leave it at that. In her introduction she says that she is not out to produce a consistent Luther; and she is as good as her word. His life and character were a mass of contradictions, and she ducks none of them. Her Luther is at once the theologian who gave Germany its vernacular Bible and the man whose philosophy of political deference would have dark implications for those living under Nazi rule. Her Luther is the child of Mansfeld who proclaimed the priesthood of all believers, and yet seemed incapable of embracing the social and civic implications of Protestantism.

He was also the charismatic preacher who proclaimed the liberating power of the gospel and turned on the peasants who took him at his word; the hollow-eyed, celibate ascetic in search of martyrdom who died, fat and married, in his bed; a kind of inverted antinomian, whose conviction of man’s utter sinfulness gave him so curiously relaxed an attitude to human sexuality; the godfather of modern secularism who struggled with the Devil, the university teacher for whom reason was a ‘whore’, the Saxon provincial who changed the world…

Not, as Lyndal Roper mildly notes, an easy hero.