October 31, 2017 is the five-hundredth anniversary of the day the Reverend Father Martin Luther posted to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, “The Ninety-Five Theses”. It was an act, history tells us, that lit the blue touchpaper and sparked the Protestant Reformation, changing Europe, and the world, forever.
If you’re anything like me, those two sentences will pretty much cover your complete knowledge of those events. And if so, Dyron Daughrity’s book will fill in a lot of blanks, and help you understand the extraordinary years, at the closing end of the medieval period, and approaching the peak of the Renaissance, in which Luther played a pivotal role.
The first thing I learned is that the Ninety-Five Theses were neither a declaration of war, nor a declaration of independence. The official title attests to this: “Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences”. Martin Luther was concerned about the abuse of indulgences – the practice of the Catholic Church offering “remission of sins” in exchange for a Christian’s financial offering – effectively giving believers the opportunity to purchase a fast track ticket to Heaven for themselves or their deceased loved ones. He saw corruption in the church and wanted open debate on the matter. Perhaps he believed he could effect change from within and restore the purity of Christ’s bride. As we know, that wasn’t to be.
Daughrity describes well the context of Luther’s life – the changes in academic and theological thinking that were taking place, as well as the political and religious turmoil in Europe as the Holy Roman Empire struggled to push back against the advances of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. Into this cultural melting pot Luther was born, and Daughrity tells as much as we know about his early years, education and religious training – a pursuit that was not encouraged by his father.
We see the formation and continuing development of Luther’s key theological insights throughout his life. We see how this theology is built largely on his understanding of the Pauline epistles, and influenced by the works of his other Christian “hero” St. Augustine. We see how his commitment to the Roman Catholic church weakened until it eventually became his enemy, and the Pope became in Luther’s eyes the “antichrist.”
We see a major turning point in Luther’s life at the Diet of Worms and in its aftermath. This was where he faced the real danger of suffering a heretic’s punishment, but survived unscathed thanks to the intervention of his friend Frederick the Wise. This undoubtedly strengthened his standing, while the pamphlets he published from hiding powerfully articulated his theology and his anti-papal arguments. His famous German translation of the New Testament was also completed at this time. After this we see the rapid spread of Protestantism, in its various flavours, and the losing battle Luther waged to keep control of the reforms.
We read of Luther’s key relationships, including his close friendship with Philip Melanchthon, and his marriage to Katherine von Bora. We read of his physical and mental ailments, with depression casting a dark shadow over periods of his life. We read of his outstanding ability to communicate to the common man in his own language, and to win almost any debate – if not at the time then in writing afterwards! And we read of his weaknesses of character, his obstinacy, his infamous anti-semitic writings.
All of Luther’s intricate and interweaving influences are presented in a sympathetic and well formed narrative. Daughrity includes copious notes and quotes from various academic sources, while doing his best to keep this a “biography for the people.” While it is ultimately a biographical work, Daughrity also explains the theological differences – and similarities – between Luther and the Catholic church, as well as the way Protestantism almost inevitably fragmented as soon as Luther’s ideas took root. So it is at the same time a fascinating history book for anyone interested in these crucial years in the life of the church.
It is well worth spending some time with this book.
Thanks to NetGalley and Abilene Christian University Press for providing this book for review.