Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God And Changed The World, by Eric Metaxas
I think this book is better as a discussion of the context of Luther’s life and action than it is as a biography, but it’s still a good book. For a variety of reasons, some of them related to the five hundred year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a great deal of attention has been given to Martin Luther of late . This book certainly establishes a niche for itself in discussing the various myths about Luther’s life and putting his life on a firm basis. That is not to say that the author manages to avoid hagiography, because this book exaggerates the similarity between Luther’s own theological approach and the nature of biblical Christianity, but Luther’s seminal importance as the first successful Hellenistic rebel against the Catholic hierarchy, even if it was an unintentional rebellion more due to bungling than due to desire to be an arch-heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church certainly is worthy of a great deal of attention and this book is a worthwhile (if large) one to get a sense of why Luther’s life and writings matters for contemporary Christians.
Bookended by an introduction and epilogue that frame Luther’s life and its complex consequences, this work as a whole is about 450 pages long and divided into 23 chapters that work in a chronological fashion. The author begins with an examination of Luther’s youth beyond the myths (1) and the lightning strike that set him into the monastery (2). A few chapters examine Luther’s time as an Augustinian monk, including his study of the Bible (3), his time in Wittenberg (4), and an insight he gained in a tower (5). Pretty soon we see the posting of the theses and what was significant about them (6) and the following diet at Augsburg (7) before an inconclusive debate at Leipzig (8), a papal bull against Luther (9), and the Diet of Worms (10). After some delay, Luther is declared an enemy of the Holy Roman Empire (11) and spends months pretending to be “Junker George” in a remote castle (12). At this point, Luther deals with peasant revolutions (13), the return of Luther from hiding (14), and adventures involving monsters, nuns, and martyrs (15). Luther struggles against fanaticism and violence (16), is marriage (17), and deals with Erasmus and other controversy (18). By this time we are near the end of the end of Luther’s life and we see the return of the plague and his struggle with depression (19), the disagreements between various reformers (20), and Luther confronting death (21) as well as his own somewhat sudden death while traveling (22), after which Metaxas praises him for creating the future (23).
This book has some interesting quirks. The author introduces events that happen at various ages in Luther’s life with the word aetatis, and any book that teaches me a new word deserves at least some credit. In general, though, we get a sense of Luther as being deeply cranky and having that crankiness create problems because some of it was hostile to the Jews late in life, and some of it hostile to peasant mobs, all of which would later have political consequences. While Luther sought to free conscience from coercive authority, it appears that Lutheranism became too enmeshed with the state, and the division of Christendom influenced the rise of nationalism of various kinds. Perhaps the most poignant moment in a book that has a surprising amount of them, though, aside from the death of the Luthers’ daughters, is the moment when Luther realizes that he was a Hussite and that to defend the Bible as an authority was all it took to make one a heretic in his time. That is a tough takeaway from a book like this one, as the same thing can make one a heretic in any time, something the author seems unaware of.
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