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Here I Stand

Patrick Claffey

Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, by Scott H Hendrix, Yale University Press, 368 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-030016699

I have a vague memory, dating back to my student days at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in the 1970s, of sitting in Loftus Hall while the late Patrick Corish, professor of ecclesiastical history, strode restlessly leonine, back and forward, tossing the chalk from hand to hand, as he often did, and repeating ponderously: “Martin Luther, heretic or saint?” I can’t remember what his view was but, in any case, by that time the great reformer was well on the way to rehabilitation in the Catholic church. Some years earlier, in July 1970, the 5th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation had gathered in Évian in France with the theme Sent by the World, bringing together some two hundred and forty Protestant preachers. Following the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) or Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, to give it its more complete Latin title, there had been a profound change in the relationship with both the other Christian denominations, and also with the non-Christian religions, as we entered into a new era of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. It was therefore not altogether surprising, in those years of ecumenical enthusiasm, to find that one of the most significant addresses at the Lutheran assembly was delivered by the liberal Dutch cardinal Jan Willebrands (1909-2006), then president of the secretariat of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

In his address, Willebrands spoke of Luther in terms that Catholics usually reserved for St Thomas Aquinas, referring to him reverentially “our common master”. While, in the name of “truth”, noting the “torments he inflicted upon the Catholic Church and the Holy See”, the cardinal recognised Luther as “a profoundly religious personality who sought the message of the Gospel honestly and with abnegation”. He also noted how Vatican II had “approved demands that had been formulated by Martin Luther”, thus enriching Catholic theology with a deeper understanding. (Jan Willebrands, Lecture to the 5th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, on July 15th, 1970, La Documentation Catholique, September 6th, 1970, p 766)

Going back to the reformer’s own time, many had drawn parallels with St Paul in terms of his significance for the theological development of Christianity. Luther’s former professor and fellow Augustinian John Nathin was so impressed by his conversion that he lauded him as “a second Paul”. Luther’s own deep admiration for St Paul was always obvious, as witnessed in a short note from the Table Talk of Martin Luther::

Christ rightly says of St. Paul, he shall be a chosen instrument and vessel unto me; therefore, he was made a doctor, and therefore he spake so certainly of the cause. Whoso reads Paul may, with a safe conscience, build upon his words, for my part I never read more serious writings.

It seems probable that Luther saw himself in these terms, as he understood his mission as bringing a “true Christianity” to the world, to be lived by “true Christians”. It was a Christianity that questioned and often refuted most of what had come before it both in terms of its theology and its practice. The author of this excellent biography, Scott H Hendrix, sees his subject in these terms. Hendrix is professor emeritus of Reformation history and theology at Princeton theological seminary and an authority on Luther studies as chair of the Continuation Committee of the International Congress for Luther Research. Among his many publications are Luther (2009) and Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction (2010).

In his view Luther was far more than an ecclesiastical reformer, tinkering with the institution to make it function better. He was not simply a professional theologian but rather a radical religious thinker who went to the roots of the religion and its theology, systematically deconstructing it, while seeking a completely new understanding and a complete rupture with the past. He illustrates this convincingly citing from Luther’s Works:

In theology we have to rise higher [than in philosophy] with the word “doing” so that it becomes altogether new ... In theology doing is always understood as doing with faith, so that faith is a separate sphere, a new realm so to speak, one that is different from moral doing. When we theologians speak about doing, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith. In theology we have no right reason and good will except through faith ... because without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

Given the breadth of Luther’s vision, it is perhaps not surprising that, as Hendrix suggests, “he envisioned ... more than he accomplished”. His vision, however, was radical and it had a very significant influence on the way Christianity later developed across what came to be a wide the denominational spectrum.

Cardinal Ratzinger, when prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an interview entitled “Luther and the Unity of the Churches” (Communio 11, 3, 1984) noted: “The identification of the positions of his time with those of St. Paul (we may see in it a certain identification of himself and his mission with St. Paul) are fundamental aspects of his life.” Ratzinger, like Willebrands, suggests that many of Luther’s theological demands have now been worked into Catholic theology, notably at the Second Vatican Council. Willebrands states that “these aspects of the Christian faith and life [are] better expressed today than in the past” and this is due in great part to Luther who, it can be said, had forced open the theological doors and shaken monolithic Catholicism to its foundations. Ratzinger, ever the conservative German theologian, with his horror of rupture, and ready to throw cold water on ecumenical enthusiasms, is more grudging in his acknowledgement of the reformer’s theological achievements when he suggests:

that Luther’s questioning is no longer valid: neither Luther’s consciousness of his sinfulness and his fear of hell, nor the terror he felt vis-a-vis divine Majesty and his cry for mercy. His views on the freedom of the will which had already roused the opposition of Erasmus of Rotterdam are also hard to understand now. Conversely, the justification decree of Trent had already emphasized the pre-eminence of grace so strongly that Harnack [Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) German Lutheran theologian and prominent church historian] believed that, if its text had been available, the Reformation would have had to take a different course. (Ratzinger interview, Communio 217)

This seems to ignore the broader historical facts. In his still authoritative book on the Reformation, Geoffrey Elton wrote elegantly: “It will not do to treat the radical reformers as though only their theology mattered; neither the spread of their ideas nor the reaction of others can possibly be understood unless the secular discontent to which they give tongue is kept in mind.” (GR Elton, Europe from Renaissance to Reformation, 1958) The fact is that the Reformation did happen and it did not happen simply because of the theological musings of an obscure German Augustinian friar. While it might well have happened without Martin Luther, he was ultimately its single most important figure and became one of the major figures in the history of world Christianity, pushing it in a radically different direction.

Visiting the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh several years ago, I came across a painting very different from Luther’s contemporary, admirer and close friend Lucas Cranach’s (1472-1553) representations of the troublesome academic monk turned sturdy burgher/reformer. The painting Dawn: Luther at Erfurt (1861) by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901), is an “elaborate composition [which] was influenced by Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (Tate, London). It depicts Luther, after passing through a crisis of faith and questioning, arriving at the doctrine of justification by faith, just as the morning light floods in at the monastery window. The Agony of Christ in the Garden, depicted on the lectern, echoes Luther's own uncertainties, whilst the roundel portrait of the Pope, hung so as to obscure a mural of the crucified Christ, hints at the corrupt practices of the Church against which the Reformer was rebelling.” Paton’s portrait shows a Luther quite different from the one we encounter in Hendrix’s book who, while he no doubt went through questioning and, perhaps, something of a crisis of faith, does not appear as tortured or suffering from excessive self-doubt, although he is much exercised by the state of the church and as a result the state of the world he knew, which was Christendom.

Hendrix largely eschews a psychological approach to his subject, noting that “Nothing, not even the strict discipline, implies that Martin’s childhood was abnormal or that he was reared in a dysfunctional family.” Neither is he convinced, however, that the Luthers were an entirely happy family, although he concludes that they were “comfortable, stable, and religious in the customary manner”. It is perhaps fair to conclude that they were an average bourgeois family of their time. His mother, Margaret, is presented as a strict sixteenth century Hausfrau, following, no doubt, St Paul’s injunction (Col 3:18) and subject to her husband in all important matters. However, while her husband, Hans Luder (1449-1530), got on with the business of making the family’s fortune, she was very much in charge of its practical affairs, an early example, perhaps, of the Protestant work ethic later celebrated by Max Weber, believing as she did in thrift and hard work.

It is clear, however, that his upwardly mobile father, Hans, a budding burgher capitalist, having hoped that his intelligent son would have taken the more obvious bourgeois route to wealth, success and worldly influence ‑ the law ‑ was strongly opposed to his entering religious life as an Augustinian friar. This resistance, even anger, continued up to the day of Martin’s ordination, when they had a bitter exchange that deeply marked the newly ordained priest. When he eventually renounced his vows and abandoned religious life, he came back to look back on his early vocation with regret, though accepting that it was part of God’s plan for him in order to give him “a new identity and purpose”. Hendrix argues that “Luther’s life as an Augustinian friar had begun under the cloud of his father’s disappointment; this had left Luther with regret and perhaps guilt over upsetting his father’s plans for a good marriage and a judicial career.” He suggests that, in Luther’s biblical understanding, he had disobeyed the fourth commandment and sinned against his father. However, in Hendrix’s account, where the father failed, “God stepped in, liberated him, and made out of Luther a new creature, ‘not of the pope but of Christ’”.

While there may be little evidence of any great warmth or joy in his family life, the fact that Luther remained deeply attached to music all his life indicates there was at least that pleasure. The family was musical and, as a boy he joined a  choir and learned to play the flute well. He remained deeply attached to music. “Next to the word of God,” he wrote, “the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!” His attachment to music was to become a central part of the Lutheran tradition and led Martin to write many hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. His first hymnal was published in 1524. It has been suggested that “Bach is Luther put to music” and any theological analysis of Bach will inevitably lead back to Luther, as it is widely accepted that he is the “source and as ultimate authority for the theological ideas supposedly expressed in Bach's music”.’ (Rebecca Lloyd, “Bach: Luther's musical prophet?” Current Musicology, March 22nd, 2007) Listening to Bach’s Lutheran Masses while writing this article, it is not difficult to see why.

The influential sociologist of religion Peter Berger has argued in The Sacred Canopy that, in terms of secularisation, Christianity has been “its own gravedigger”. The Reformation was definitely a significant point in the process of Entzauberung or disenchantment identified by Max Weber (1864-1920) as the beginning of the “erosion of the supernatural” (see Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults), which, at least in the view of many sociologists, is the beginning of the end of religion. However, while several of the early reformers were indeed radically iconoclastic and involved in a radical “stripping of the altars”, Luther’s religious world was still very much “enchanted”. While the Reformation led to a deep questioning of the sacred, Luther’s Weltanschauung can be said to have had much in common with the religious imaginary of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Luther was a mediaeval man, porous to all kinds of interventions from the nether world, while, ironically, and surely unwittingly, also being the single most important figure in ushering in a new era which was completely different and where this imaginary would be radically challenged by reason, modernity and its apparently inevitable corollary, secularisation.

Virginia Pitts Rembert writes: “Luther too shared his time’s belief in universal satanic instrumentality and he conceived the Devil to be the general enemy of mankind ‑ operating through a plurality of demons. These, he believed, were actual creatures that inhabited dark swampy woods and did harm to the passer-by – or they lived in storm clouds, stirring them to poison the atmosphere and the earth with winds and floods.” He often saw the devil at work in the world and also in the Church. Pitts Rembert notes that Luther’s works are filled with the word Teufel (the devil) and such sentences as: “This thing I will do in spite of all who may oppose, be it duke, emperor, priest, bishop, cardinal, pope or Devil. Most of these he saw as the Devil’s servitors against him, and the Devil himself, as his personal enemy.” Hendrix’s book follows the hardening of Luther’s position and a sharpening of the polemical tone over time, which confirms Pitts Rembert’s assertion that in the end “he believed the papacy to be one of the great human agencies through which Satan operated and that the evil being was fighting his own movement so strenuously because it threatened to destroy that vast edifice the likes of which Satan would never again be able to erect on earth”’ (Virginia Pitt Rembert, Hieronymus Bosch, 2012). This goes a long way to explaining the virulence of the polemic, which still has the power to cause some offence. Cardinal Ratzinger in his Communio interview illustrates this point when he suggests that his rejection of everything Catholic was absolute and expressed in the most virulent terms. A striking example: “ ... we should take him ‑ the pope, the cardinals, and whatever riffraff belongs to His Idolatrous and Papal Holiness ‑ and (as blasphemers) tear out their tongues from the back, and nail them on the gallows ... Then one could allow them to hold a council, or as many as they wanted, on the gallows, or in hell among all the devils.” The language is of its time no doubt and as such understandable, but the fact remains that it has much in common with the language of all kinds of fanaticism across the religious spectrum in all ages down to our day.

Whatever doubts Luther may have had as he worked out his new theology were soon overcome as he threw himself into his project with what can only be described as Pauline zeal; teaching, preaching, thinking, writing, travelling. He summarised his reforming agenda in one simple sentence and it was Pauline in tone and spirit: “I teach that people should put their trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone, not in their prayers, merits, other their own good deeds.” That he was above all a pastor of souls is often very obvious. His concern was to banish fear and relieve ordinary people of what he saw as the pharisaic burdens imposed upon them by the corrupt clerical elite he had come to despise. Preaching a sermon in Wittenberg in February 1517, he concluded with a not untypical anticlerical outburst:

Alas, the dangers of our time! Oh, you snoring priests! Oh darkness worse than the Egyptian! How secure we are in the midst of the worst of all evils!

 In the Table Talk we find, on the other hand, the following expression of his feeling for “sorrowful, troubled, and perplexed hearts”:

The book of Job is admirable; it is not written only touching himself, but also for the comfort and consolation of all sorrowful, troubled, and perplexed hearts, who resist the devil. When he conceived that God began to be angry with him, he became impatient, and was much offended; it vexed him and grieved him that the ungodly prospered so well. Therefore, it should be a comfort to poor Christians that are persecuted and forced to suffer, that in the life to come, God will give unto them exceeding great and glorious benefits, and everlasting wealth and honour.

It is hard not to be impressed by Luther’s enormous energy and what we might now call his “work ethic”. In his entire work, however, the thing that stands as his greatest and most significant achievement, not just in terms of the work itself but its enormous consequences, must be the translation of the Bible into German. Luther translated Erasmus’s Greek New Testament alone, in only eleven weeks, while secreted away in the castle at Wartburg, following the Diet of Worms in 1521. His translation was published as Das Newe Testament Deutzsch in September 1522. It has been acclaimed, not unsurprisingly, as a typographical masterpiece as it included woodcuts from his close friend Lucas Cranach’s workshop, as well as selections from Albrecht Durer’s famous Apocalypse series. It became known as the September Bibel and sold an estimated five thousand copies in the first two months alone – a phenomenal sales rate for its time. Philip Schaff wrote: “The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race ... There are more accurate versions for scholars (as those of De Wette and Weizsäcker), but none that can rival Luther’s for popular authority and use. (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church).

While the work on the New Testament was entirely his own, the translation of the Old Testament was very much a co-operative venture. In the Table Talk he writes: “Translators must never work by themselves. When one is alone, the best and most suitable words do not always occur to him.” So he formed his Collegium Biblieum, which apparently he dubbed his “Sanhedrin”, bringing together a select group of scholars, including his oldest, most loyal and closest follower, the brilliant Greek scholar Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560), as well as Bugenhagen (Pommer), Cruciger, Justus Jonas, and Aurogallus, to make up a completely dedicated coterie, which met once a week in the afternoon before supper. They worked in the belief that a good translation requires “a truly devout, faithful, diligent, Christian, learned, experienced, and practiced heart” and Luther believed that this remarkable group of men met all the requirements.

The American edition of Luther’s Works, comprising his exposition and commentary on Scripture as well as his sermons, theological writings, and other materials, comes to an impressive fifty-five volumes, while there still remains a substantial body of material to be translated from the Weimar Ausgabe, the critical edition in their original language (Latin and Old German.) While the volume of work is impressive, what is perhaps even more significant in historical terms is the breadth of circulation the work received. One of the lasting popular images of Luther is that of him hammering the now celebrated The Ninety-five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. While this is a colourful story, Hendrix is not convinced that it is exactly what happened. It seems more likely that they were sent to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, while printed copies were also circulated and perhaps also pinned to church doors by supporters and followers who had received them.

Much more important in this, however, is the movable type press invented only some sixty years earlier by Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) in around 1440. This can be said to have been the IT revolution of its time and its importance cannot be overstated. It was to be the start of a knowledge-based economy and the spread of popular learning among the masses, which would have a profound impact European society at all levels, leading, it can be argued, directly to the propagation and success of the Enlightenment. The intellectual genie was out of the institutional bottle, both religious and academic, and the consequence was modernity. Both Luther and Erasmus were among the first religious specialists to exploit it and to see the possibilities it held for the wide circulation of all kinds of ideas, religious and theological ideas but also social and political ones. This in turn led to widespread debate, especially in the growing university cities that were at the centre of the Reformation. Luther, as we have seen, had a deep desire to touch ordinary people and so produced a large volume of material aimed at that market, including the Small Catechism, which he described as “brief, plain, and simple”, concentrating, as it did, on Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments. The Large Catechism was addressed to an emerging Lutheran clergy who “because of their great and lofty learning, [or] because of sheer laziness and gluttony, behave in this matter as if they were pastors or preachers for their bellies’ sake and had nothing to do but live off the fat of the land all their days, as they used to do under the papacy”. (Preface to the Large Catechism). It can be said to have been the beginning of the era of the pamphlet, that style of publication that was to become so influential over the following centuries. This was made possible by the ability to reproduce thousands of copies at very little cost. These were distributed cheaply and widely and very quickly found their way not only into universities and other elite institutes of learning but also into the coffee houses, which played an even more important role in the debate and propagation of the ideas that were beginning to flood public space.

The German translation played a vital role in establishing what was to be become Hochdeutsch, a mixture of Middle German and High German that is now standard. This was later followed in English with the King James Bible (started in 1604 and completed in 1611), establishing a new standard in the language that still holds its own over four hundred years later – even if the translation itself has been questioned. The significance of this translation and its consequences moved far beyond Germany as it became the model for vernacular translations all over the world in a long Protestant missionary tradition dating from the nineteenth century. In doing this work Luther can be said to have shown not just the “translatability” of the scriptures but of Christianity itself in different ways across the cultural boundaries. It can be said to have contributed enormously to the emergence of what we know today as “world Christianity”. (See Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2005)

Although the Lutheran church worldwide remains a relatively small body with approximately seventy-two million members (in comparison with 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, 260 million Orthodox Christians, more than 280 million Pentecostals, 85 million Anglicans, 80 million Methodists), Luther’s influence has spread well beyond his own community. He contributed, of course, to the wider field of academic theology as it has developed over the past five centuries, as Cardinals Willebrands and Ratzinger each acknowledge in their own way. However, his most significant contribution may have been in the fact that he was the catalyst for the theological and socio-political movement that went on to make the Reformation the fissiparous religious phenomenon it became and continues to be today as a new world Christianity takes shape notably in the global south (See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity, 2002). Depending on one’s view, he was the man who brought about the demise of Christendom as it had existed up to his time and changed forever the religious demography of Europe or the man who through his vernacular translation of the Bible he freed the Word of God and the Christian narrative from the domination of what he saw as an irredeemably corrupt ecclesial institution, allowing it to take form in other ways. In this logic, the demise of a strictly defined Christendom led eventually to the emergence of a much more varied world Christianity, or, perhaps more exactly today, world Christianities.

Theologians of all denominations have become increasingly responsive to what have become known as the “signs of the times” and increasingly wary of what they see as a kind of “groves of academe” theology, a theology from above that, it might be said, begins and ends with itself and pays scant attention to what is going on in the world. And yet there is so much that actually requires their attention. While the need for theology is unquestionable it is the kind of theology that must be questioned and the challenges are enormous.

First among these is the seismic social change that had been going on in Europe since the Reformation, and what it can be argued was one of its consequences, intended or not, the Enlightenment. This has led inevitably, it would seem, to the retreat of “the sea of religious faith”, or at least to sea-change in its content and form, as it has become much more individual, personalised and, to a great extent, privatised. The conversation with modernity and its “secular discontents” has really only started and, in an increasingly complex world continuously throwing up new issues; it is still not easy. At the same time one sees the emergence of postmodern quasi-religious movements and institutionally detached spiritualities of various origins as the religious quest remains unquenched. The responding market is still there responding to the fundamental market principle of supply and demand – whatever the provenance of the product!

More recently, over the past forty years, there has been another shift in the centre of gravity of world Christianity. As the African scholar John Mbiti expresses it: “the centres of the church’s universality are no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.” (John Mbiti, “Theological impotence and the universality of the Church”, Lutheran World, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1974) This is well illustrated by the fact that in 1900 Europe was home to 66 per cent of the world’s Christians, while today this has fallen to less than 25 per cent and by 2025 it will be below 20 per cent. The African theologian Kwame Bediako has concluded that Christianity is now a non-western religion. Allan Anderson suggests, somewhat naively in my view, that what is happening in Africa is in fact an African Reformation, equivalent in many ways to what happened in Europe five centuries ago (Allan Anderson, African Reformation: African Initiated Christianity in the 20th Century, Africa World Press, 2001). Philip Jenkins also argues that this shift to the south will have an impact on the same lines the Reformation had and that Christianity will have a profound impact on the development of the world’s belief and ideological systems. He also argues that as “Christianity moves south, the religion will be comparably changed by immersion in the prevailing cultures of those host societies”. (Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom). Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: This is probably the major challenge facing the Christian churches into the future. How can Christianity remain a coherent message in this world and how can it find a language to express this? Paul Gifford throws cold water on much of the optimism and seriously questions the direction Christianity is taking in Africa. (Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa, 2015.) This Christianity itself would undoubtedly be questioned by Luther as it has fallen into many of the traps the Reformation identified, not least the perennial relationship between religion and lucre, God and Mammon, from which none of the great religions appear to be immune.

The strains are obvious in all the major denominations. For historical and ecclesiological reasons, notably the absence of an authoritatively dominant centre, this has been the case in Protestant churches for some time. However, with an Argentinian pope in the Vatican, who has very different worldview from his predecessors, the fissures in Roman Catholicism are becoming increasingly obvious as he struggles against the forces of reaction and embedded interest groups at the heart of the institution. The questions may no longer centre on indulgences, as they did early in the Reformation, but they are still often about control, power and money at least as much as they are about theology. In a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, the veteran Rome columnist Robert Mickens suggests that the pontificate of Pope Francis, despite the best of intentions, “might be stuck in the mud”. Given the evidence, it is difficult to argue with this. To paraphrase the words of a NYPD cop on seeing John Paul II working the crowds on his first visit to the U.S.A., we may need a pope who knows how to pope a bit more if there is to be real change; to move more boldly forward rather than pull back and dig in against very necessary and radical reform. Tinkering or incremental change is simply not enough. The alternative, as Mickens correctly points it, is the implosion of the institution.

The longer oneis involved with the institution, the more dysfunctional one sees it to be at all levels, with an almost pathological inability to address the issues in an open and transparent way. With the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation on the horizon, one wonders whether another seismic shift of that order is not inevitable and all it requires is the charismatic figure to be the catalyst. Francis is trying, but the dead weight of the institution and its inbuilt and often corrupt power is just too much. The challenge for Roman Catholicism is, of course, all the greater given the sheer weight of numbers with 1.2 billion members spread right across the world and with the great majority now in the south, where the secular discontents are clearly so different.

The forces are, it would seem, centrifugal, thus putting pressure on the centre, wherever that centre might be, in conservative Rome, Lambeth, Erfurt or in the European, liberal academic, theological establishment. There are several discontents to be heard here – many secular but also several theological and spiritual ‑ and they all need to be considered. The temptation is no doubt to become the slave of various ideological agendas: liberal/conservative, traditional/modernist, north/south and whatever else we can come up with in terms of binary oppositions. Of course to many listening to the debates in other cultural contexts this makes no sense at all and is simply seen, to coin a term, as ‘Euroeccentricity’.

In evaluating Luther, Ratzinger drew attention to two important points when he noted:

with his catechism, his songs and his liturgical directives Luther created a tradition of ecclesiastical life in the light of which we can both refer to him as the “father” of such an ecclesiastical life and interpret his work with evangelical churchliness in mind. On the other hand, Luther also created a theological and polemical opus of revolutionary radicality which he by no means retracted in his political dealings with the princes and in his stand against the leftists within the Reformation. Thus one can also comprehend Luther on the basis of his revolutionary break with tradition ‑ and one will, on such a reading, then arrive at quite a different overall view. It would be desirable to keep in mind Luther's piety when reading his polemical works and the revolutionary background when dealing with issues concerning the Church.

The words of the Lutheran-Catholic Common Declaration on Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 seek to put a definitive end to what was a deeply troubled period in the history of Christianity:

The true unity of the church can only exist as unity in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The fact that the struggle for this truth in the sixteenth century led to the loss of unity in Western Christendom belongs to the dark pages of church history. In 2017, we must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church. This commemorative year presents us with two challenges: the purification and healing of memories, and the restoration of Christian unity in accordance with the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph 4:4–6). (From Conflict to Communion Lutheran-Catholic Common: Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt GmbH • Leipzig and Bonifatius GmbH Druck – Buch – Verlag Paderborn, 2013)

Hendrix clearly admires his subject and writes of him with warmth and understanding. In his reading, Martin Luther “was neither an unblemished saint nor a single-minded religious zealot”. He presents him, rather, as a man of his time: a genuine scholar, religious thinker and teacher as well as a gifted yet flawed human being. One has little doubt that Luther would agree with this evaluation as he sought sanctity not canonisation. Hendrix sees Luther as “driven by an optimistic yet ultimately unrealized vision of ‘true religion’”, something he may have had in common with St Paul but, it has to be said, also, as we know to our cost, also with the most destructive of religious fanatics. The book spreads itself well over Luther's entire life, his personal relationships and political motivations, rather than concentrating on his theology alone. Luther emerges from Hendrix’s portrait with his warts still showing but, at the same time, as an extraordinary man in whom one finds light and darker shadows, and certainly no plaster saint. In the Table Talk he writes:

True, much offence proceeds out of my doctrines; but I comfort myself, as St. Paul did Titus: whereas his doctrine is revealed for the sake of God’s chosen, for whose sake we also preach, we mean it earnestly. For the sake of others, I would not drop a single word.

The coming five hundredth anniversary will bring Luther’s voice into focus again and it will be worth listening to. Hendrix’s book will be one among many to be published in the course of the year. It is an elegant general study of one of the great figures of the history of world Christianity.

1/6/2016

Patrick Claffey is Wallace Adjunct associate professor in the department of religions and theology at Trinity College Dublin.

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