Of all the Martin Luther biographies spilling from the presses, Lyndal Roper’s makes a decent thud, her deep research, particularly in German texts, obvious from the detail and consideration. Roper’s biography is unusually detailed about the Luther (Luder) family’s mining interests, and how the stories around working underground and being beset by perceived demonic forces in these nether-realms may have influenced Luther’s theology. She is also particularly perceptive, in an aside, about Albrecht Durer’s famous self-portrait, and argues that rather than it being vain, it is theologically in line with medieval piety which suggested that one must imitate Christ as much as possible, which is why Durer seems to position himself as a Christ-like figure.
Roper has a certain admiration for Luther, mixed with disgust over his anti-Semitism, which always brings up issues of how much we judge figures outside of their milieu. Roper is, on the other hand, quick to remind us that Luther was a man of his time and that things that may cause us to double-take now, such as his scatological frankness, must be put into societal context. Roper in fact returns often to Luther’s earthy crudeness, which manifested negatively in his invective against opponents but also manifested positively in his attitude to the material. For Luther, denying the body was a mistake. His opponents charged that Luther denied himself little as he aged, proof that he had succumbed to a demonic hedonism, but Roper has admiration for his elevation of the everyday life (in contrast of course to the monastic life which he increasingly viewed as a twisted form of living), of sexuality, eating and drinking. In fact, it is not that he particularly thought those things holy, but that he viewed daily life as tainted by sin throughout and so, Roper argues, no sin was particularly worse than others. I am not sure Luther would have agreed that murder was no worse than theft, but he certainly argued against the futility of trying to be holy by escaping everyday life. Paradoxically, his insistence that human endeavour was corrupt and only redeemable through God’s grace gave him freedom to take a more casual attitude to everyday living, in contrast to, say, his colleague Karlstadt who clung to the monastic mistrust of the material.
Luther’s refusal to separate the spiritual from the material leads to what Roper thinks is the heart of his theology, the Eucharist, an area where, she says, many moderns find it hard to relate to Luther. Where other reformers were taking a symbolic view of Holy Communion, in line with their rejection of magical elements in the Church, Luther continued to accept real presence, while acknowledging it as unexplainable, as part of a theology of God working through the everyday elements, as spirituality not being divorced from the material, a theological thread that eventually pops up in places such as the work of Terry Eagleton, amongst others. Luther’s attitude to imagery in churches, and his advice against iconoclasm, was also consistent here.
In similar fashion, Roper argues that Luther’s insistence, against Erasmus particularly, that free will is illusory, may seem contrary to much current popular thinking about individuality and choice, but is psychologically insightful, and coincides with modern deterministic philosophy. There is a mix within Luther of the medieval and the modern (and of the pragmatic and the explosive) which is why he remains an object of fascination and, even for non-Lutherans, begrudging admiration.