Martin Luther can be a polarizing figure. One either champions the cause for which he stood or condemns him as a heretic. One could also be like many people in the modern world and not know who he was. If the question was asked in a survey, “Who was Martin Luther?” most people would say “a civil rights leader,” mistaking him for the man named after him Martin Luther King Jr. Both of which were great men. However, Martin Luther the Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century has great impact on our modern world and many do not even realize it. In her 2017 biography of the reformer, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, Lyndall Roper sets out to shed his life in a new light that helps the reader discover what drove Martin Luther to upend the largest religious system in his day.
The book begins, as do most biographies, with Luther’s early life. Born in the small town of Eisleben, he grew up in the mining town of Mansfeld where his father operated several copper mines and smelters. He was raised as a Roman Catholic because that was the state religion in fifteenth century Saxony. However, his family was not particularly pious except for keeping their religious duties by attending Mass, etc. As the oldest son, his father wanted to send him to law school in an effort to help the family business by having a lawyer in the family who had its interest at heart. Yet, that all changed one afternoon when Martin was caught in a thunderstorm storm. Gripped with fear Luther prayed to Saint Ann, the patron saint of miners, for protection and vowed to become a monk if he survived. As a man of his word he entered wholeheartedly in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, much to the chagrin of his father. This decision would prove to be the pivotal point not only in the life of Marting Luther but also the Western world.
Martin Luther was a man who, once he committed to something, pursued it with all his heart. This is evident in his decision to enter the monastery. He was also a man who was highly sensitive to the weight of sin in his life, which caused him to struggle with depression (anfechtung). As he threw himself into monastic life, he often spent hours in the confessional trying to rid himself of guilt. During this period of his life, he often thought that God was vindictive, content with the suffering of his creatures. It was not until Luther was given the opportunity to study Scripture at the University of Wittenberg that he began to find relief. While reading the book of Romans in his doctoral studies he was enlightened to the truth of God’s grace through faith in the work of Jesus. This truth radically changed his life and set him on a different trajectory. It was during this period that he began to question the teachings and practices of indulgences, which ultimately led him to write the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. The theses were meant to provoke a discussion among the students and faculty in Wittenberg. However, they found their way to the pope and ultimately a showdown between Luther and Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. The fact that Luther, who was condemned as a heretic, survived an emperial diet of this magnitude is evidence of his relationship with his Elector, Frederick the Wise. Much credit must be given to Frederick, who allowed Luther to continue teaching, writing, and preaching in Wittenberg under the pressure of Rome to have him executed. The Reformation could not have survived to have the impact that it did without him.
Roper does an excellent job of avoiding the temptation to write about Luther the lens of rose colored glasses. For many evangelicals he is a great champion of the faith and he is held in high esteem as a saint-like figure. Do not get me wrong, Luther should be given credit for his accomplishments in preserving the precious truths of the five solas. However, like all human beings, he too struggled with sin. Specifically, later in life he did not to hide his bigotry toward Jews. Unfortunately some of his writings were used to fuel the flame of the Third Reich. Reading biographies of heroes in the faith that show the triumphs along with the failures do good for those who would emulate them. In studying the life of Martin Luther, the student would do well to resist the temptation of revise history to fit their theological viewpoint. This goes to show that no matter what a person accomplishes in the Kingdom of God, they are still a sinner saved by and desperately in need of grace.
I would highly reccomend Martin Luther: Renagage and Prophet to anyone who desires to study the Reformation in Germany through the life of Martin Luther. Although there were many reformations that made up the larger Reformation as a whole, Luther truly was the central figure of the movement. His life and teachings are widely studied today within the Reformed tradition and the Christian community as a whole. Roper’s biography is a great addition to the scholarship of this period in Church and World History. The sixteenth century Protestant Reformation is a pivotal point in history and the Church would do well to look back in careful study of this period, which has significance even today.