When an emissary of Pope Leo X traveled to Germany in 1521, he found a land in turmoil. A young, inexperienced ruler, Emperor Charles V, struggled to assert his authority over a wily and unruly nobility. That, at least, was not unusual; what was new was the fact that all of this played out at the center of a media storm. The papal legate could hardly step out on the streets without being accosted by angry, agitated citizens. The name on everyone’s lips was that of an obscure Augustinian friar, Martin Luther. Four years earlier, Luther was an unknown professor at the new university in Wittenberg, a small town tucked away on Germany’s distant northeastern fringes. In 1517, Luther made a bold protest against the selling of indulgences, which offered penitent Christians the assurance of salvation in return for pious donations. To this point he had published virtually nothing. Yet by 1521, after a fury of controversial writing, Luther was the most-published author in the history of printing. When he died 25 years later, he would leave a church permanently and irrevocably divided, with consequences we still live with today.
This year’s 500th anniversary commemoration has unleashed a similar media storm, with a shoal of new studies of Luther and his movement. These two contrasting works make their own distinctive contributions.
Eric Metaxas is a renowned radio host and an experienced biographer, best known for his studies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World,” he offers a meticulously researched and detailed account of Luther’s life and times. This is not a self-consciously psychological study — indeed, he has some fun with historians who put Luther in the psychiatrist’s chair — but it is nevertheless a very human portrait. Metaxas takes us through all the twists and turns of this almost impossibly dramatic life: the bold defiance of hierarchy, the gradual repudiation of the church that had made him. Then comes the confrontation with Charles V, the climactic end of the events that shaped Luther’s journey to exclusion and outlaw.
Luther was now a man with a movement, which brought new responsibilities and challenges, not least the growing body of acolytes in Wittenberg. He had to cope with ominous signs of disorder as newly empowered citizens sought the authority of the Gospel in their hope for a better life — and, more parochially, the arrival in Wittenberg of a cartload of runaway nuns. One of these stowaways would become Luther’s wife. This ultimately happy union came in an impossibly challenging year, as Luther fended off criticism from Erasmus, dealt with the death of his protector Frederick the Wise and faced down a revolt that threatened to destroy his young movement. As peasant armies roamed the German countryside, claiming Luther’s Gospel message as their inspiration, portraits of the reformer in this year show Luther as a man on the verge of collapse. Yet he weathered the storm, decisively throwing in his lot with the state authorities. The course of the Reformation was set.
Metaxas is a scrupulous chronicler with an eye for a good story. The result is full, instructive and pacey, but unusually discursive. When Luther makes his trip to Rome, we spend several pages with Pope Leo X and his elephant and, on the way home, a fraudulent holy woman. There is some florid phrase-making. Indulgences, apparently, “were like milkweed seeds borne aloft by the wind,” a description possibly more redolent in Iowa than in Manhattan; but then Iowa might have scratched its head at the “pre-Zapf dingbats” that apparently characterized the dispute between the theologian Prierias and Luther.
What does all this amount to? Metaxas is not unusual in seeing in Luther’s bold defiance of the papacy the birth of modern society. It is true that Luther was the first to harness the power of print to create a popular movement. The Reformation was, in its first manifestation, a media event, deploying a powerful new invention to speak over the heads of the clergy. It flattered the wider public by declaring their capacity to join the conversation. In his later years, when the fires of controversy dimmed, Luther was a visionary advocate of the power of education, insisting on schools for girls and boys as a means of creating an informed Christian public. But in other respects Luther was a profoundly conservative figure, deeply respectful of established social and gender hierarchies, impatient of dissent.