A Calamitous Man

Patrick Collinson

  • Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death by Richard Marius
    Harvard, 542 pp, £19.95, March 1999, ISBN 0 674 55090 0

Imagine a dream in which you are climbing a church tower in the dark. Stumbling, you reach out for something to hang on to and find that you are pulling at a bell rope, that the bell is waking up the entire town, and soon other towns far beyond. Within weeks you, the inadvertent bell-ringer, are both famous and infamous, and famous not for a few minutes but for ever. Three centuries later, Thomas Carlyle will write that but for you there would have been no French Revolution, no America.

This is what happened not in a dream but metaphorically to Martin Luther, a hitherto obscure monk and professor of theology in an undistinguished university recently founded in Wittenberg, a small town built on a sandbank in middle Germany. The first historian of what came to be known as the Reformation, Johann Sleidan, thought it remarkable that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, could lay claim to be another Charles the Great because of what this insignificant man had done in a hole in a corner of his wide dominions. Luther became the incarnate legend of God’s strength made perfect in human weakness: the Bible story of Gideon, or of the shepherd boy David. For it was the religious anxieties and unanswered questions of this insignificant monk, not the great powers of the world against which elaborate diplomatic, legal and military defences had been erected, which brought ruin to the Pope, to the Church as it had been, and to Western Christendom. Luther was a ‘wonder man’, ‘incombustible Luther’, who not only escaped in person the fires the Church stoked for heretics but whose engraved portrait was again and again, in succeeding generations, found miraculously unharmed, the only object to have survived when fire destroyed a house or a church.

Nobody now writes the history of the Reformation, or indeed of anything else, in those terms. There are no wonder men in history, only myths of wonder men. The Protestant Reformation had a cast of thousands and a multiplicity of causes and forms, political and social as well as religious and theological. ‘The’ Reformation may be the greatest myth of all. Although ‘it’ was described, as recently as 1996, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, as a ‘world-historical event’, there turn out to have been all sorts of events, reformations in lower case, as the glaciers of historical revisionism grind away at what was once a mountainous watershed separating the Middle Ages from modernity. The idea of such a watershed now seems unhelpful, and we stress the many continuities (such as stories about a thaumaturgic Luther image) which connected the medieval mental world with what came next. It is almost a hundred years since Ernst Troeltsch argued that Luther’s Reformation had very little to do with progress towards the modern world.

And yet Martin Luther remains irresistible, love him or hate him. A remark of mine, made on a TV programme, that Luther was to religion what J.S. Bach was to music, brought the retort from Melvyn Bragg that Sir Thomas Beecham found that he could manage very well without Bach. Luther himself, and his followers, ensured that there would always be plenty to talk and argue about, so that hundreds of books and articles have been devoted to the subject in a single year. Luther himself wrote something like a book a fortnight for thirty years. His casual mealtime conversation alone, at once scatological, outrageously chauvinistic and sexist, and profoundly religious, fills six of more than ninety volumes of his collected works in a definitive edition which took the best part of a century to complete. We know more about Luther, certainly from his own mouth and pen, than about anyone who had lived before him.

The Weimar edition was a Post-Modern adventure playground for historical theologians long before Post-Modernism was invented. For Luther was a complexio oppositorum who wrote always to the occasion, as circumstances demanded, and whose currency, like that of the New Testament, was hyperbole and paradox. It was not only impossible to agree on an answer to the question, What was Luther saying, what did he mean? The question itself was badly put, if it expected a single, simple answer. It was no more possible to say what God meant when he made himself incarnate as a baby in a manger, hung on a cross and fed himself to men in the humble forms of bread and wine. Luther believed in these things, but the last thing he expected, or even wanted, was to understand them rationally.

So Luther has been reinvented in many different forms, from the half-devil fathered by Satan himself on a bath-house whore invented by Catholic polemicists, to the sturdy ‘Here I Stand’ figure at Worms only partly invented by Protestants, and on to the suitable case for treatment which Erik Erikson discovered in his neo-Freudian Young Man Luther. Heiko Oberman, in the best of recent studies in English, called Luther Man between God and the Devil. Richard Marius will have had Oberman’s title in mind when he chose to call his own Luther book The Christian between God and Death.

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