Evil Days

V.G. Kiernan

Lord Rosebery described Luther, with Victorian blandness, as ‘the German apostle of light and freedom’. Professor Oberman is another admirer, but a judiciously critical one, not a hagiographer. He begins by summing him up as ‘a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon’. Further on, he modifies this by saying that Luther was ‘no longer medieval, but neither had he become modern’. We may indeed see him in his later years of corpulent dogmatism as a whale washed up on the beach, stranded between two tides. He saw himself as a soldier fighting in a desperate if shadowy conflict between heaven and hell. He had no doubt, Oberman reminds us, of the reality of witchcraft, even of its power to kill by casting a spell. In the record of his table-talk, where we see or overhear Luther at his most spontaneous, he abounds in tales of sorcery as grotesque as the fables he accused Papists of swallowing, and has no doubt that witches must be burned. After his marriage he occupied the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg where he had lived as a monk – a symbol of his only partial, imperfect emancipation from the past.

Luther, the Table Talk reveals also, was what would later be called a ‘deteriorationist’, convinced that a steady worsening of things would be arrested only by the imminent end of the world. He is disqualified as a guide to modern times by his ‘proclamation of man’s total impotence on the eve of man’s greatest scientific discoveries and enduring cultural achievement’. He pined for martyrdom, and held, somewhat masochistically, that the Church was never spiritually secure except when it was being persecuted. Oberman underlines the enigma all this presents. ‘If his reformation was indeed so unrelated to the concerns or needs of the present world, how was it that his message could break out of the monastic cell?’ To this complicated question the book ventures no very definite answer. It is a biography, concentrated on a single personality – though it has a great deal of light to shed on some fields closely related to Luther’s passage through life.

When Luther began to raise his voice he was handicapped by the fact that Europe had reached a point where ‘monks competed with university professors for the lowest ranking in public esteem.’ Luther was both. On the other hand, he had a gift for writing and preaching in sturdy colloquial German, as well as in academic Latin. This found its finest expression in his translation of the Bible. He was not blindly ‘scholastic’, Oberman emphasises: he appreciated the importance for his task of Hebrew, which he tried to learn, and Greek, and at every step enlisted the aid of experts. He did not live to hear Nietzsche’s joke about how odd it was that God learned Greek when he had a new message for mankind, and learned it so badly. If Luther improved the German language as much as we are told, those of us who have tried and failed to learn it must be allowed to wonder what it would have been like without him. The English of Oberman’s translator is easy, conversational, a trifle slipshod.

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