Luther: A Life
by John M. Todd


Martin Luther was a professor at the Saxon University of Wittenberg. An Augustinian friar, Visitor of the group of friaries in the region, often preaching in the town church, at the age of thirty-two he was the successful local man, He had just published his first little book, a translation into German of the seven penitential psalms. Students flocked to his lectures, townsfolk flocked to his sermons. All were drawn by the flow of his quietly spoken but fiery words, full intelligence and of feeling. The friars admired the persistence with which he kept the Rule. A solid career lay ahead, perhaps brilliant. But so far he had published no academic work, and seemed not specially to wish to do so. Wittenberg was a backwater, and no one had heard of him outside his circle.

Five years later, Luther was excommunicated and under the ban of the Empire, and people were reading his books and pamphlets all over Europe. Against all precedent he remained at his old posts with the support of colleagues, the populace and the local ruler. At the age of forty-one he married, settled with his wife in the old Friary which he had never left, and brought up his family there. He became an institution in Wittenberg, the most famous man and the originator of great changes in much of northern and central Europe.

Luther suffered from chronic and intense depression. During the years between his late twenties and early thirties he found a partial solution of the worst of it. Connected with the solution was a fresh grasp of the ‘Myth’ which underlay European culture and percolated all the operations of society. The realisation of this solution released a flow of writings and actions. Luther found himself pitted against the most powerful organisation in Europe, the Church. A member of it, like everyone else, he wanted to change it, to reform it. But the authorities would not have it. Normally they would have triumphed and Luther would have been burnt or permanently disgraced. But he voiced a message and a complaint which found an immediate and extraordinary response at every level of society, from that of the deepest spiritual experience to that of the most practical economic and political realities.

From the age of forty his story was that of a man of achievement. The prophet and priest had to turn politician and administrator. He had planned none of it, speaking only what he saw to be true. His is a story above all of success without really trying. It meant improvisation. From forty to sixty-two he did his best to continue to expound his message, to battle against the apparently irreformable old institution and to encourage new styles. And there was the battle against enemies within — the usual battles of a revolutionary against his supporters who want it done another way.

A major part of the phenomenon of Luther is the extraordinary corpus of writings, over one hundred volumes in the Weimar edition. In most big libraries, books by and about Luther occupy more shelf room than those concerned with any other human being except Jesus of Nazareth. He translated the Bible and set a style for the German language. He has something more than a minor place in the history of music. More than 2500 of his letters have survived. Together with the Table Talk they provide a lively picture of his life. But the heart of it all is religious and theological.

This religious content has boxed Luther off from a wide range of readers, not least because his friends and enemies in the subsequent centuries have made professional and technical capital out of his work. Religion, along with highlighted excerpts from the more ribald parts of the Table Talk, have tended to make a caricature of Luther, as though he might be some kind of a foul-mouthed Billy Graham. Certainly, it is not possible to avoid the technical content of his thought, any more than it is possible to understand the lives of Cromwell, Napoleon or Churchill without learning about military, naval and political matters; there has to be some theology. But in Luther it is lit with imagination, perception and humour. The power of the European Myth comes through. And Luther recognised his own penchant both for exaggeration and for somewhat earthly language, often caricaturing himself.

I use the general word ‘myth’ from time to time, rather than ‘religion’, to describe the basic assumptions which permeated the whole of society, because ‘religion’ can sometimes suggest something apart from the rest of life. But Christianity affected everything. The Myth was all. And ‘myth’ seemed a useful general term, because Christianity is indeed anchored firmly to a story. However, it is also clear at this point that the usefulness of ‘myth’ is limited. The essence of Christianity is that it claims to be a religion to end ‘religions’, a Myth to end all myths. It is based not just on one story among others, but on a story which its followers held to be a description of something that happened historically, not just true in a ‘symbolical’ sense. So it is a special Myth. Its uniqueness is sharply illustrated by the sign which it used, at first that of a cross, and then of a man dying crucified on the cross, sometimes transformed, reigning triumphant from it, sometimes shown dying an agonised death.

So when I use ‘myth’ I do so to indicate precisely the living and universal nature of religion, the sense in which ‘Christianity’, ‘Gospel’, ‘Christ’ or ‘The New Testament’ meant something unique, something different in kind from what they sometimes mean today, when these terms can conjure up a vision of the superannuated part of European culture. Already, in Luther’s time Christianity was often decadent. But equally it was often vibrant. It was that vibrancy which gave power to Luther and his reforming colleagues. In any case it was all-embracing.

The ‘story’ was presented to everyone, including the people of Wittenberg, in the churches by the priests. Excerpts from ‘the books’, the Bible, were read out. Psalms, hymns and prayers were sung or read. The visual element was strong in a society in which many less than half the people could read or write. Wall paintings, painted windows, sculptures depicted particular stories and drew morals. The Church had the complete management of the Myth as the religious authority, run essentially by the Pope and the bishops. But life was univocal — all things were both secular and religious. There was a dual government of society by the State and the Church which were at the same time colleagues and competitors of one another in the exercise of power. They were assisted by the lawyers, the university men, the bankers, occasionally by organised representation from the rest of society, and by the military men. Behind it all was ‘God’ and his favour as preached and, more important, as dispensed by the Church.

The power which had come to the Church in this atmosphere of universal acceptance had led to massive economic involvement on the one hand and an ‘adaptation’ of the ideals of the Gospel on the other, an adaptation which also included residual superstition and paganism from pre-Christian times. The priests had begun to look and act rather like the very priests of the old Jewish Law or even of paganism which Jesus of Nazareth had, according to the story, come to displace for all time. And the story itself was severely misrepresented, so Luther, and then great numbers of his followers, concluded.

Biographies of ‘great men’ can be misleading in their selectivity. The history of any time must include a record of the lives of the millions of ordinary people. In the twentieth century, study of local archives, agricultural history, industrial archaeology, sociology and many other disciplines has sometimes given a quite different emphasis, even a totally new meaning to the small number of public events which used to occupy the history books, political events, wars, the lives of great men and women. History is not the story of an elite. In some sense the ‘great’ men and women of history were only the enablers of what would certainly have occurred in some form. And this certainly includes the Reformation. Yet the fact remains that they did set their own personal seal on events, and on institutions which then survived for centuries. As persons, and makers of events and institutions they remain perennially fascinating.

Not many people have read the story of Luther outside the ranks of theologians and historians. Yet he changed the face of Europe as radically as Napoleon. And while Cromwell put English history into a new gear, Luther ushered in a whole new way of life in Europe which had been struggling to birth for a century and more. Both Cromwell and Luther are difficult in that not only were they convinced of divine commission, but expressed that conviction. In Luther’s case this has tended to make him seem some kind of fanatic. One cannot evade the truth lying at the heart of such a suspicion; and he is sometimes touched with what maybe called the psychopathology of genius. Yet, in many ways he was an ordinary man. The portrait at forty-two shows a notably human face. The letters and Table Talk reveal a man with ordinary family problems, a normal concern with sex, expressed with that half innocent openness so typically German. He had, too, a typical German attitude to those in authority, realistic and conscientious.

I have tried to give a picture of this man of gigantic accomplishment, a man, however, who was rather less than the hero and rather more than the mere villain of some older biographies. I attempted a previous picture in Martin Luther, a Biographical Study, written primarily for specialists in history and theology. One paragraph and the Appendix on Indulgences are reproduced in this book. The present study is an attempt to present the man more fully. Theology is indeed the inner stuff of the revolution he worked. But I start from the man, and in particular from his letters.