Unintended consequences

Rebel in the Ranks, Brad Gregory, Harper One.

The Reformation might be sometimes thought of as, yes, creating the proliferation of churches we see today, but otherwise as concerning religious matters that have little relevance for the majority of society outside the churches where believers still cling to dogmatic nitpicking.

But for Brad Gregory, the Reformation is still with us, as it ultimately created the individualistic society with pluralist views that often cannot be reconciled and that flare up in so-called culture wars. In this, Rebel in the Ranks is a distillation for popular audiences of his large and important The Unintended Reformation. This latest book is one of the many publications to ride on the coattails of the Reformation anniversary and tell Luther’s story, but its point of difference is Gregory’s insistence on and elaboration of what the Reformation means for the world today, beyond the life of the church and the state of the soul.

Unlike current, often atheist, champions of the Enlightenment who think the modern world began then and everything before was impenetrable dark ages, Gregory traces modern pluralism and freedom back to Luther’s questioning of the Catholic Church’s authority (triggered by his deduction that indulgences simply had to be money-making charlatanism), and its replacement with the individual’s right to interpret Scripture. Luther would not have put it that way exactly, and the word ‘unintended’ recurs in Gregory’s narrative because Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers would throw up their hands and ask ‘how was it come to this?’ if they surveyed the modern separation of church and state, the decline of public Christianity, the compartmentalisation of spirituality and the freedom to even reject religion altogether. Instead of the spiritual penetrating deeper into the everyday (as it arguably did for a few years), the opposite has occurred.

It had to, in some respects, because the affirmation of the right to believe what you liked was, ironically, the only way to hold society together, after the horrific wars of religion that accompanied the Reformation. And, although this history is complex, Gregory suggests that overall as religion gradually became a private matter it was not Enlightenment values that took the driver’s seat, but consumerism, led by the Dutch Golden Age. Religion, Gregory decides, lost out to money.


Happy to be hitched

Mrs Luther and Her sisters: Women in the Reformation, Derek Wilson, Lion

We don’t have a huge amount of historical material on Katie Luther, even though Martin Luther is one of history’s most documented figures. So Katie becomes, for Derek Wilson, a point of entry into the world of Reformation women, and what changes in society they drove and encountered. And in compilation there is a surprising amount of material. In both quantity and quality, women contributed, and, unsurprisingly, received both praise and blame for doing so.

The first significant change to the life of women occurred with the dismantling in the north of Europe of the monastic system. For some, this was a loss, as women who previously found stability and community in the cloister were now forced out into the world where women where dependent on men and destitution loomed.

For other women, being forced into the convent was the problem, and escape brought new freedoms. Not only this, but Luther insisted that the work of childrearing, the education of children, and the ups and down of marital life were all part of God’s plan, holy in his sight, and not a lesser activity compared to the supplications and midnight masses of nuns and monks sequestered away from the corrupted world of the everyday. So nuns embraced with gusto tis new life, and were happy to be hitched, often to former monks, in fairly arbitrary fashion. (Katie Luther was one of the more recalcitrantly choosy ones.)

This is one of the Reformation’s most enduring legacies, beyond arguments over free will and God’s grace which now mystify many in the modern world. It remains in our attitudes to both the individual and the family, within the church epitomised by the phrase ‘the priesthood of all believers’, though there will always remain within the church a tendency to view ordination as something conferring a more exalted status.  Beyond the church, there remains an emphasis on the sanctity of the family, and the ability of the individual of any rank to make meaningful contributions to society.

As many have pointed out, and as Andrew Petegree does at length in his Brand Luther, the new printing presses were indispensable for the promulgation of the new Lutheran faith, and ironically, nuns picked up the new teachings, first by being educated and literate, and secondly by getting their hands on the newly printed material. In the wider community, literate women, encouraged by the Reformers, read and attempted to understand the Bible for themselves. An incredulous European visitor commented on the tendency of English women to take notes during sermons and then discuss theology afterwards.

Some even dared to teach men. Luther was magnanimous in praise of his wife’s business acumen, and probably well aware of his own propensity to destitution were it not for the management of his wife. But his praise ended at the edge of the realms of philosophical discussion, and he thought women’s attempts at teaching and preaching ‘foolishness’. As is often noted, Luther was a radical spiritually, and a conservative socially. Actually, this may not be quite right. Luther simply was concerned about the breakdown of society, led, as he well knew, by his break from Rome, and he was at pains to suppress revolutionary ideas. In the radical wing of the Reformation they weren’t so reticent, and there was a perceived logic between equality of the sexes regarding salvation and equality of the sexes regarding spreading the Gospel by print and mouth.

Threatened men, even among the radicals, argued from the Bible that women should not teach men. The women countered by arguing this did not apply to widows, or by quoting scripture that the Gospel must be preached wherever possible and that they must obey God, not men. Then, as now, the place of women in churches was debated fiercely. Unlike today, martyrdom was often the result. To adapt a phrase from the French Revolution, it was the liberty to preach the Gospel or death.

Overworked printing presses

Martin Luther was already one of the most written about figures in history even before this year’s 500th anniversary. Now we are flooded with new biographies and histories of the Reformation, perhaps in emulation of the overworked printing presses of Luther’s day, but this is a blessing, as historians are still enriching our picture of these events.

One positive of all this new writing is that it draws our attention to the fact that it wasn’t simply Luther’s Reformation. Carlos Eire, in his massive yet engaging history of the two hundred years surrounding Luther (Reformations, Yale Uni Press), argues not only that it is better to speak of Reformations plural but that they were ‘a long time coming’. Luther lit the bonfire others had compiled. Eire puts Luther into the wider context of an old world giving way to a new one, with the discovery of the Americas, a rise in literacy and piety, the new technology of moveable type for printing, and a rise in the power of the city state, all of which, except for America’s discovery, directly accelerated the Reformation.

Andrew Pettegrew prioritises the new printing presses in his book Brand Luther (Penguin) for their part in the success of the Reformation, as they allowed for the brisk dissemination of Luther’s ideas. Luther brought in a new era of writing for the masses, and while Heinz Schilling writes in his biography of Luther (see below) that opponents in Rome were not as slow to catch on as is often said, Luther’s books, written increasingly in the language of the day, sold by the cartloads.

The people were so receptive to the message because, at one level, humanism was creating scepticism of some of the superstitions and traditions of the Church, while refocussing on the Bible itself. At another level, reaction to the noticeable corruption, extravagance and spiritual ignorance of both the Church’s hierarchy and many of its clergy was already leading to grassroots reform and renewal.

Peter Stanford

Peter Stanford, in his very accessible biography from a Catholic but sympathetic angle (Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, Hodder), suggests also that although the Council of Trent was supposedly anti-Lutheran, its Counter-Reformation agenda of education for clergy and removal of excesses ended up channelling Luther anyway. Eventually, Vatican II would endorse the worth of the laity as the ‘people of God’, mirroring Luther’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Stanford further suggests that Catholics should be thankful for Luther, and notes that Pope Benedict stated Luther’s idea of grace alone for salvation was essentially correct.

One of the first off the ranks with his biography (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Yale), Scott Hendrix, as do other biographers, points out the context of Luther’s colleagues, friends and family, and how a man painted as a lone visionary was challenged, moderated and supported by this network. Hendrix also questions Luther’s later view of the life-changing thunderstorm, arguing, not without plausibility, that while the parallels to Saint Paul’s conversion made for a good story, Luther was likely at least contemplating the monastery when he made his vow.

Lyndal Roper

Luther’s personality has been the subject of plenty of hagiography, to be contrasted with the hostile psychoanalytical treatments that were trendy in the later twentieth century. Nowadays there is more balance, sympathy, and overall much admiration. In Lyndall Roper’s biography (Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Random House) and in German historian Heinz Schilling’s comprehensive biography (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, Oxford), at the pinnacle of the recent biographical heap, is careful consideration of Luther’s upbringing and education, and how the perilousness and superstitions of the Harz region’s mining industry, as well as the general medieval mindset of an ‘enchanted’ world, contributed to Luther’s feelings of being continuously spiritually beset.

These days there is also more awareness of the multidimensionality of Luther’s personality. Stanford argues against the caricature of Luther as ‘depressive, punitive, pious, unbending’. Hendrix notes that contemporaries praised Luther’s patience and listening skills, though he could also be impulsive. Luther had an earthy humour, and was practical and moderate, evidenced in his approving attitude to church images and music. Though when it came to food and beer, perhaps Luther was not moderate enough.

This stands in contrast to the Swiss Reformers, who (even though they also can be unfairly caricatured) tried to create the perfect society on Earth. Luther instead emphasised freedom, which is where he was perhaps at his most radical, even beyond those in the Radical Reformation camp. Luther was realistic about our deficiencies and thought grace, and not more rules, was the answer. Eire notes, however, that it is the Swiss tradition that has ultimately had more influence globally, considering the USA’s history. Eire suggests cheekily that Calvin is responsible for much of the Enlightenment, and atheism and our secular society, because of his emphasis on reason. (Luther was happier to live with paradox and contradiction.)

The legacy of the Reformers, and the history of Protestantism, where, strangely, people of such widely differing beliefs still identify themselves against Catholicism, is explored by Alec Ryrie (Protestants, Collins). He argues that it is the passion of the individual’s relationship with God, without the mediation of human authority, that is the centre of this movement and that its ideas, and, interestingly, its patterns of migration, have created our modern world.

Plenty more books on the Reformation tackle specific areas, including yet more reappraisals of Luther’s theology. In 1517 (Oxford) Peter Marshall explores the reception of the 95 Theses. Unlike, say, the US Declaration of Independence, Luther never intended them to be a revolutionary document. Marshall concludes that the actual nailing was a myth, but contemplates how important they have been in history and legend.

Prominent English Reformation scholar Eamon Duffy’s Reformation Divided (Bloomsbury) reminds us that the Reformation was not confined to the continent, and that in the UK it forged its own distinctive path, both complementary and often conflicting with that of the European Reformation, and that the whole was never straight-forward and predictable.

The era of belief, not just belonging

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Carlos Eire, Yale University Press

You don’t want to drop this massive book on your foot, but you might like to lug it back home from the bookshop, as it is a history of the period that is wide-ranging and careful. It seems ridiculous to say this about a 700-plus page book, but its author, Carlos Eire, also has a knack for summary, enlivened by anecdotes and well-chosen woodcut illustrations, meaning the narrative never gets bogged down.

Eire speaks of reformations plural because, as scholar Eamon Duffy says in his recent book on the English Reformation, the progress of reform was anything but linear. There were many conflicting movements happening at once, pushing and pulling.

Additionally, historians no longer point to Luther’s 95 Theses as the start of the Reformation. Luther merely lit the bonfire compiled by others. Eire’s book is so large partly because – to switch metaphors – he carefully points out all of the features of the medieval edifice as it stood before the Reformation knocked it down.

There were cracks in the structure as a result of Renaissance humanism, which promoted a ‘return to the sources’, a more scholarly analysis of scripture (and other texts) in the original languages. Though the Church was often enthusiastic about this, it did undermine claims for the inerrancy of the Latin Vulgate, not to mention various non-biblical doctrines and practices that had built up over centuries.

Although it is hard to judge the extent of belief in the period because religion was so intertwined with society as to make it almost meaningless to speak of religion as a separate entity, there was an enthusiasm amongst laity for spiritual revival (as is evident from the case of Savoranola), coupled with rising literacy and a distaste for the excesses of the Church’s hierarchy. What is also clear is that a renewal of piety and theological controversy ushered in an era of belief, not merely belonging.

Eire eventually narrows down to monastic practice, and Luther’s eventual rejection of the elitism of monastic practice. He shows how mysticism, Augustine, the Renaissance, faith over reason and conciliarism (the movement within the Catholic Church that questioned the centralisation of power in the figure of the pope) all contributed to Luther’s particular brand of dissent. Eire deals with Luther in only a couple of chapters, moving briskly on to how Luther’s Reformation quickly ran away from him. He battled left and right, both the intransigence of the Pope and a host of radicals, from hair-splitting theologians to violent peasants who, Luther said, misinterpreted him.

Fragmentation seems, in hindsight, to be inevitable once Luther and his fellow Reformers were understood to be advocating for the freedom to interpret Scripture in the light of conscience. Except that people weren’t free – Protestants persecuted heretics as much as Catholics. It could be argued the Reformed branch was the most zealous. Luther emphasised the spiritual, and contrary to his fiery image, was reasonably relaxed about everyday life. The Reformation of Zwingli, Calvin and the like was all-encompassing, and, says Eire, considering the US, probably more influential globally than Luther.

On the Catholic side, there were much-needed reforms, especially in education, and also a renewal of practices Calvin and company deemed superstitious. Calvin, much more than Luther, dismantled the world famously described by Max Weber as ‘enchanted’, and Peter Brown as ‘porous’. Ironically, considering his puritanical reputation, here Calvin sowed not only the seeds of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ but also the seeds of modern doubt.

We can see how the focus on the individual and a splintering of views made room for those who doubted or who were openly hostile. This situation, says Eire, led to the need for new modes of unifying peoples, leading in turn to our secular society and the marginalisation of religion as merely one aspect of life, and a private one at that.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church)

Scatalogical frankness


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.

Reminiscence and legend

Timothy Lull

‘Tis the season for Martin Luther biographies. With the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses this year, the floodgates have opened. Timothy Lull’s is an early entry,  from last year, a standard, comprehensive, readable ‘life’ that places Luther within the context of his circle of friends, colleagues and patrons, without whom he may have met a quick, smoky end. Unfortunately it is not helped by Fortress Press’s rather lacklustre printing job, which looks like a bad photocopy.

In contrast, Yale have done a nice job on Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. Diarmaid MacCulloch recently asked rhetorically whether we need more books on Luther. His answer was ‘yes’. He notes recent scholarship that suggests Luther’s status as a friar, rather than a monk secluded away from society, might have contributed to his attitude towards the common people and the worthiness of their everyday pursuits. Hendrix offers the example of glosses in Luther’s handwriting in humanist books discovered as recently as 2013. Hendrix revisits the argument that Luther may have been contemplating the entry into monasticism, and the thunderstorm might have merely been the catalyst. Hendrix also places Luther into a network of supporters, against the image of him as a lone hero. Additionally, he traces a gradual theological development, rather than the thunderbolts of inspiration that go with the Luther of later reminiscence and of legend.


Did it happen?

Martin E Marty

Some historians question whether the nailing of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses actually happened. (The story seems to be somewhat apocryphal, even if it is likely.) Whether it did or not (the theses’ content is more important than the means of their being brought to the public’s attention), the celebrations for next year’s (2017) 500 year Reformation anniversary centre on this event. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty (above) hones in on this date in his appropriately titled October 31, 1517 (Paraclete Press).

The book is a short summary, something like the style of Yale’s Little History series, of Luther’s grievances and in it Marty writes, surprisingly, that the main theme of the Reformation was repentance – rather than grace, freedom, sola scriptura, papal corruption, heresy or whatever else we might imagine. And rather than searching through Luther’s voluminous works, he suggests an easy way to understand Luther’s theology, and that is to study the seal Luther chose for himself, the Luther Rose. Against the image of Lutheranism as self-berating (‘miserable sinners’ and all that), the Rose demonstrates the overall positive nature of Lutheran theology. Although repentance is somewhat out of fashion generally, Marty notes that it is, appropriately for the anniversary, a celebratory response to whatever God has done for us, rather than what we have done for ourselves. It is realistic about human beings’ tendency to mess up relationships, but tuned to the future, as God has liberated us, once and for all. And there is possibly the hint of, from Luther the Augustinian, a recognition that God makes complete what we are incapable of completing ourselves.

Marty also argues that there is nothing in Luther’s emphasis on grace over sin that is contradictory to (uncorrupted) Catholic theology. In that vein, the book then (again, surprisingly) takes us down a side track to argue for the benefits of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and the significance of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (which perhaps explains why it was published by the good people at Paraclete Press, a Benedictine organisation that undertakes ecumenical publishing).