Beyond sunny stories of how good we are
25 books about Luther and the Reformation
Full access isn’t far.
We can’t release more of our sound journalism and commentary without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.
Get into news that is grounded in facts and Biblical truth for as low as $3.99 per month.LET'S GO
Already a member? Sign in.
With the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation coming up on Oct. 31, the hour just before midnight has been my time to read books on Martin Luther and what he accomplished. That timing seemed appropriate because Luther came to understand that Europe, facing internal demoralization and external assault from Islam, faced a very dark night unless beliefs and culture changed.
That time and ours are both different and similar. A powerful and corrupt church no longer dominates Europe. A powerful and corrupt European Union does. Muslim armies are no longer at the gates of Vienna, as they were in 1529. Now, terrorists are within the gates. Most European children no longer die before the age of 5 years. Many die in the womb before the gestational age of 5 months.
My goal here is twofold. First, which biography of Martin Luther, from among the many published since January 2015, will give you a sense of the whole person and his key ideas? Second, which books will help you go deeper than the specific flashpoint of “indulgences” that pushed Martin Luther to publish his 95 Theses? This main story highlights 12 biographies, and I’ll explore quickly in sidebars a baker’s dozen of dives into Reformation history and its relevance today.
One of my three favorites among new biographies is Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (Yale, 2015), which shows how “separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation.” Moralistic religion meant designating holy ground, building temples as places to make sacrifices, creating ceremonies, and going through procedures that, when checked off, would guarantee eternal rewards. But Luther said, “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there.”
Hendrix shows that Luther did not want us to feel holy through extra-Biblical ritual. In 1530 he listed 94 practices and customs in a “pretended” church, and particularly criticized feast and fasting days celebrated with special masses, processions, abstentions from food or other activities, and the wearing of ornate vestments. Hendrix shows how Luther’s marriage to former nun Katharina von Bora was a great blessing to both, but did not guarantee happiness for their children: Martin Luther Jr. studied theology but apparently became an alcoholic, boozed with his buddies, and died at age 34.
Hendrix sometimes gets abstract, but Luther’s earthiness does not let him stay above ground level for long. Once, to a friend marrying a woman also named Katharina, Luther wrote, “When you have embraced your Katharina in bed with the sweetest kisses, think also to yourself: ‘My Christ has given me this person, this very best creature of my God; to him be praise and glory.’ I will predict the day on which you receive this letter, and that night in the same way I will love my Katharina in memory of you.”
Another good biography, Heinz Schilling’s Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval (Oxford, 2017), spotlights the importance of a change in Luther’s name. After November 1517 he began signing letters to close friends “Eleutherior,” which means “the free one”—one who had been liberated and would liberate. Like Saul becoming Paul, Martin Luder (the family name) became Martin Luther.
Schilling explains Luther’s most famous two words, “Sin boldly.” Essentially, the more sin, the more trouble and “the sooner one will be ready to place all hopes in Christ alone. … Without awareness of sin there can be no salvation, for without awareness of sin there is no knowledge of grace.” Schilling also makes Luther human: In 1521, as he arrived in Worms and faced the most crucial debate of his life, Luther informed friends back in Wittenberg, “The Lord has afflicted me with painful constipation. The elimination is so hard that I am forced to press with all my strength, even to the point of perspiration, and the longer I delay the worse it gets.”
Schilling’s one flaw is a tendency to mind-read. Regarding Luther in 1517: “The idea that he might be taking on the authority of the pope would not even have crossed his mind.” Regarding Archbishop Albrecht of Brandenburg: “It would never have crossed Albrecht’s mind to respond to the theological content.” Later, “The thought of leading a popular movement … would not have crossed Luther’s mind.” Maybe yes, maybe no, but historians are not mind readers.
Eric Metaxas has just come out with the third of my favorites, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017). It also suffers from mind reading in regard to both Luther and modern readers—“It’s impossible to think that Luther didn’t wonder” or “we can hardly doubt”—but more than makes up for that with delightfully rollicking sentences: “a series of six popes at once so comically bungling and tragically scandalous that it was almost as though this sextet had deliberately placed their collective corruptions in a paper-mache monster, hung it from a tree, and begged an Augustinian monk to take a dozen or so good whacks at it.”
Metaxas also employs metaphors that summarize well the position of Luther’s opponents: They were “unmoored from the rock of the Scriptures … blithely floating down the river toward a great cataract and didn’t seem to notice that they had ever moved. Luther sincerely hoped that somehow he might waken them from their reveries and get them to see their danger so they might paddle to shore before it was too late.” Metaxas is the best storyteller among the Luther biographers.
For those who want a quick introduction, Thomas Kaufmann’s A Short Life of Martin Luther (Eerdmans, 2016) offers truth in titling: Its 146 pages, translated from the German by Peter Krey and James Bratt, belie the rumor that German theology professors always write stuffy tomes. Kaufmann shows the importance of Luther’s writing style: “The pre-Reformation translations of the Bible into German typically imitated Latinate styles, [but Luther said,] ‘We do not have to inquire of Latin letters how we are to speak German. … We must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.’”
Three other new biographies have more flaws. Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Random House, 2017) has the vivid and earthy writing Luther himself prized. (Her last sentence provides an example: “He was a man who retained a healthy mistrust of Reason, ‘the whore.’”) Roper emphasizes that Luther “was no killjoy” and “his religiosity had nothing saccharine about it,” but she uses him as a weapon against fundamentalists (as she sees them). Still, I suspect Luther would have enjoyed having her as a dinner guest, preferably roasted.
Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks (HarperOne, 2017) shows how Luther’s own experience “led him to believe that human beings can’t be the agents of their own moral improvement.” Gregory, though, assumes that Reformation distrust of our own reasoning makes it “hard to see where any persuasive answers about morality and meaning, purpose and priorities can come from.” Actually, it’s not hard to see, and Gregory himself offhandedly offers the answer in three words: The key is to live by what’s “revealed by God.” Modernism emphasized reason, postmodernism is anti-reason, and Christianity offers revelation. Luther knew that we should accept no substitutes.
Craig Harline’s A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation (Oxford, 2017) has some lively writing but sometimes seems off theologically. For example, Harline writes that Luther was sure “from his own reading of Paul that your nature never changed at all, even after you were justified by God’s grace.” That oversimplifies both Paul and Luther. The Reformer compared justification to receiving a certain remedy for a fatal illness: At that point the Holy Spirit begins to work in us a slow rehabilitation process called sanctification, which leaves us more and more able to resist sin (but never completely, in this life).
Two worthwhile books concentrate on segments of Luther’s legacy. Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther (Penguin, 2015) looks at how Luther reformed publishing: “In an age that valued prolonged and detailed exposition, complexity, and repetition, it was astonishing that Luther should have instinctively discerned the value of brevity. Luther in effect invented a new form of theological writing: short, clear, and direct.” Statistics display the explosion. From 1502 to 1516 Wittenberg printers published only eight books a year, all in Latin, most very small. From 1517 to 1546 they published 91 per year, most of them written by Luther or his colleagues and followers.
Richard Rex’s The Making of Martin Luther (Princeton, 2017) focuses on the few years surrounding Luther’s excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521. At a time when other intellectuals, like Erasmus, were growing more confident about their ability to perceive reality accurately, Luther warred on “arrogant self-reliance” within which a person might think his will is fallen but his intellect was not.
I’ve concentrated on new publications, but two older ones are particularly helpful and one is not. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon, 1950) is vivid, accurate, and still in print many decades after initial publication. Robert Kolb’s Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (Oxford, 2009) is concise and accurate: Its 256 pages show how Luther abandoned the standard allegorical method of Scripture exegesis and replaced it with a “literal-prophetic” approach. Kolb explains well the connections of law and gospel, passive and active righteousness, and Luther’s theology of the cross. Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (Norton, 1962) arrogantly puts Luther on a psychoanalytic Procrustean couch that reduces the Reformation giant to pygmy length.
Up close and personal
After some heavy theological reading, readers wanting a change of pace will enjoy Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina & Martin Luther (Baker, 2017), which takes us into Luther’s marriage. Luther was realistic: “Only one in one thousand could truly and joyfully live a celibate life.” Later, he changed that estimate to 1 in 100,000. In his 1520 treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Luther argued that a pope should “not have the power to prohibit [sex] just as he does not have the power to prohibit eating, drinking, natural secretion or becoming fat.”
Two years later Luther wrote, “Nature does not cease to do its work when there is involuntary chastity. The flesh goes on creating seed just as God created it to do. … Unless there is terrific hunger or immense labor or the supreme grace, the body cannot take it.” So at age 42 Luther married former nun Katharina, 26, and said sex was fine as long as a person “does not make a manure-heap and a sow-bath out of it.” He also helped other nuns to escape from their cloisters, even though abetting the escape of nuns was a capital offense. (German authorities in 1524 beheaded a man for this crime.)
The Luthers’ marriage was complementarian: He wrote and talked while she washed clothes on the banks of the Elbe River and cooked everything from scratch, using almost every part of animals, including the pancreas and thymus glands for sweetbreads. One lunch favorite was “morels,” made by boiling a calf’s lung, dicing it into chunks, and deep-frying in lard.
Luther suffered from many maladies, including kidney stones, chronic ear infections, asthma, dizziness, shortness of breath, and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation. Katharina nursed him with medieval cures: Ointment of pigeon dung and honey applied warm to painful areas when Luther had kidney stones, but he complained in one letter in 1537, “Your skill doesn’t help me, even with the dung.”
Katharina also handled the household finances, and Luther once wrote, “In domestic affairs I defer to Katie, otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.” He had an enormous flow of visitors, and Katharina was in charge of making them feel at home. DeRusha’s summary: “For the 21 years she was married to Martin Luther, Katharina worked 17 hours a day.” As did he. —M.O.
Ten more Reformation books
Here are quick mentions of 10 more books, starting with Reformation 500, edited by Ray Van Neste and J. Michael Garrett (B&H, 2017). Its fine essays include John Wilsey’s “Rembrandt van Rijn: Painter of the Reformation” and Hunter Baker’s “Martin Luther and the Question of Political Quietism.”
Martin Luther in His Own Words, edited by Jack Kilcrease and Erwin Lutzer (Baker, 2017), shows Luther’s anti-ritualism, as in his 1520 work, On Christian Liberty: “It will not profit the body if it is adorned with sacred vestments, or dwells in holy places, or is occupied in sacred offices or prays, fasts, and abstains from certain meats.” Penguin Classics has just come out with a handy Martin Luther: The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings, translated and edited by William Russell.
I wonder about the starting point of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy (Oxford, 2016). He claims, “The old Western Church was not in the terrible state of decay which has formed the foundation of traditional Protestant narratives of the Reformation. … It satisfied most people.” MacCulloch does not provide solid evidence for that statement, nor does he deal with the decay exemplified in Pope Leo X himself. (Luther noted “how openly and shamelessly the pope and the cardinals in Rome practice sodomy.”) For an overall look, Erwin Lutzer’s Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation (Baker, 2016) is much better.
Essays in The Legacy of Luther, edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols (Reformation Trust, 2016), analyze the Reformer’s strengths and weaknesses. Nichols points out Luther’s understanding that our problem is sin, not “sins in the plural. … If sin is quantified, then we look to merits or graces as the remedy.” Steven Lawson shows how Luther’s 1525 tirade Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants was even worse than sticks and stones: At the Battle of Frankenhausen soldiers of nobles allied with Luther slew 5,000 peasants, 300 of them by beheading. David Calhoun rightly bemoans the aged Luther’s “extreme language” in several polemics, including one that reversed young Luther’s welcoming attitude toward Jews: Nazis made murderous use of his late work.
The biggest Luther book of 2017 looks to be the Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation—941 large pages edited by Mark Lamport (Rowman & Littlefield). At $250 for the two volumes, its main buyers are likely to be university libraries and large Lutheran churches, with scholars and pastors finding it useful particularly for its biographies of Luther’s colleagues and contemporaries: Some WORLD readers can identify the Reformational roles of Martin Bucer and Heinrich Bullinger, but who among us knows about another half-dozen B’s—Beckman, Berquin, Blarer, Brenz, Budny, and Bugenhagen?
Lots of older books are worthwhile. Carl Trueman’s Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Christian Focus, 2000) shows that Reformers emphasized “the identity and action of God,” while “one of the elements which most marks contemporary evangelical piety is the obsession not so much with God as with self.” Testimonies are helpful as long as they emphasize “what God has done for sinners in Christ,” and “Bible studies which never rise beyond the question of what a particular passage means to me or how it has affected my life” are shallow.
I’d also be remiss not to mention a concise book with great writing published in 2010, Michael Reeves’ The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (B&H). For an excellent defense of the key Reformation insight of sola scriptura, the Bible alone, turn to Matthew Barrett’s God’s Word Alone (Zondervan, 2016). And—apologies to the authors whose books I’ve missed. —M.O.
Theologians of the cross vs. theologians of glory
Carl Trueman’s Luther on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015) depicts Luther as “bombastic, bull-headed, and brilliant,” and emphasizes Luther’s distinction between two kinds of theologians: “The theologian of glory will ultimately not be able to make any sense of this world, for this world ultimately ends for each of us in physical decline, weakness, and death. … The theologian of the cross knows that … life leads inexorably to the grave; … pain and mortality have ironically become the means of strength and power. … The greatest evil that can be inflicted on the body—death—is simply the pathway to resurrection.”
Prosperity gospel preachers are among our contemporary theologians of glory, and Trueman rightly says, “The theologian of glory is always doomed in the end to despair because death is unavoidable and deep down inside he knows that.” So are legalists: Trueman shows how a little Biblical knowledge can be dangerous if it pushes “people to more and greater acts of self-righteousness, as exemplified by the religious orders of Luther’s day. Yet all this activity can ultimately lead only to deeper and deeper despair [until] Christ comes into view and declares forgiveness and freedom.”
Luther also understood the secret of good preaching and counseling when he explained why the Reformation took root: “I did nothing. The Word did everything.” Trueman writes how “the woman whose marriage is falling apart might well think that she needs to go to a church where the sermon series is on ‘putting your marriage back together.’ Luther would disagree. … The most important thing one can hear on a Sunday is not some pep talk on how to have a good marriage. … The most important thing is to understand what God has done in Christ.”
Another book that helps us apply Luther to today is Michael Reeves and Tim Chester’s Why the Reformation Still Matters (Crossway, 2016). They explain that no one tried harder than Luther to earn his own salvation, but he had to learn that “you do not know God because you were cleverer than other people or have greater spiritual insight or spend more time in contemplation. You know God because he has graciously revealed himself to you in the message of the cross. It is an act of grace. … Sunny stories of how basically good we are, so attractive in their cheeriness, are actually terrible, enslaving lies.”
Reeves and Chester point out that in Catholicism “our natural knowledge is supplemented by grace. In modern thought grace is not required. Natural reason alone is sufficient. But the theology of the cross takes sin seriously. Sin has corrupted our reason. We are still rational beings. We are still capable of discovery and invention. But our reason is captive to our sinful desires. … Reason leads us astray because the God revealed in the cross is contrary to human expectations.”
They stress, “Knowledge of God is not found through human wisdom, human powers, or human achievements. It is found in the foolishness of the cross. … Sometimes God assaults us in order to break us. In this light suffering can be seen as a gracious divine gift.” If we try to shelter ourselves or hide from pressures, we have less opportunity to “sin boldly” and less opportunity to learn about our desperate need for God’s grace. —M.O.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.