Friday, April 3, 2009

Book Review: Luther the Reformer

The late James Kittelson’s objective in Martin Luther The Reformer is to “tell the story of Martin Luther to readers who are not specialists in the field of Luther studies and have no desire to become ensnared in the arguments of the specialists.” There is also a probing not only of Luther’s formal theology but of the theological, educational, and religious traditions in which he was trained. This biography stands out because it treats Luther’s entire career, from his childhood in Mansfield to his death at his birthplace in Eisleben, in which the famous scrap was found, “this is true we are all beggars.” I consider this book an excellent overall topical treatment of Luther. Studying the great reformer involves an extraordinary amount of research and Kittelson has certainly done it, shown by his succinct highlighting of particularly important points in the life of Luther. His research is dominated by primary sources which he presents in the biography to support his interpretation of the reformer and the events surrounding him. Therefore this biography just not simply highlight the historical facts of Luther but brings us into his theology, and ultimately his love for Christ and His Holy Gospel.

Kittelson highlights the reality that Luther was more than a reformer or highly influential theologian. The reformation was radical and earthshaking. He writes, “Luther had turned late medieval theology and religious practice on its head.”[1] The theology of Luther and the Reformers violently ripped open the old ways of thinking about theology and salvation and reigned in a new. That righteousness is freely imputed to the sinner by pure grace for Christ’s sake is radically reformational, overthrowing an entire world view that rested on good works and appeasing God. Kittelson summarizes Luther’s theology, “everything depended on believing only in the truth of Christ’s promise.”[2] Needless to say, late medieval religion had to fall with its pilgrimages, masses for the dead, relics, images, and stored up merits.

I am grateful that a couple pages were devoted to Luther’s suffering under the heading “physical and spiritual testing.”[3] More than anything thing, spiritual terror, deathly fear and affliction were incredibly formative in the development of Luther’s theology and his perseverance in the events of the reformation. Facing Satan himself, the sweeping and deadly plague, excommunication and execution, the very weight of the world itself are terrors that are incomprehensible to the modern mind. The effects of immense suffering can be seen throughout his theological writings, hymns, and prayers. Kittelson observes, “In the midst of these trials, Luther’s trust in a gracious God endured. His assurance did not depend on his outward well-being.” Spiritual doubt and affliction are also highlighted in Luther’s early years, in which Kittelson acknowledges a common experience not merely unique to Luther alone, “the searching out of every failing was an integral part of monastic life. This process and the feelings that arose from it were so common that monks all over Europe had slang terms for it. They called the feeling of regret being ‘in cloaca,’ literally ‘in the toilet’ or ‘in the dumps”[4] The experience of tentatio in religious orders Kittelson rightly links to the practice of confession. I have not thus far considered the spiritual affliction from the medieval practice of confession to be felt and endured by the many. Luther’s personal narrative has usually captured my imagination in such a way that I have partitioned him off from the common experience of the many, based upon medieval piety.

If I were to come up with one criticism of Kittelson’s excellent biography it may be that he spent little time with Luther’s liturgical music and rites. He mentions Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” in passing but does not deal with the incredible richness and quantity of Luther’s sacred music. Luther’s understanding of music is that it was next to theology as the “queen of the arts.” Music and theology were intricately intertwined in such a way that one could not proceed without the other – that it drives away the devil and is an essential reaction to the Gospel.[5] We know that Luther was always in song, a family man who catechized with the singing of psalms and spiritual songs with his lute or whatever instruments were nearby. I think it is impossible to overemphasize the role of hymnody and liturgical music in the shaping of Luther, his understanding of the gospel, and his evangelical approach. The praying of the daily office and Luther’s memorization of the psalms is not given any special attention. Luther’s very first lectures as Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg were dedicated to explicating the psalms, with a highly developed Christology. The reformation insight of justification by faith alone is supported by the psalms more than any other book in the Augustana. It is a curious fact that Luther’s later criticism of the “babbling of the canonical hours” is a critique of the very means by which he may have acquired his genius and revolutionary hermeneutical breakthroughs.

The theology and dedication of Luther to his breakthrough of justification apart from works of the law is central throughout the movement of the biography. Kittelson writes, “Luther found his entire theology in the Scriptures. Here was what he meant when he said at Worms that he would stand by the Scriptures and evident reason. For him the Bible was not first and foremost a book of doctrines or collection of laws with respect to what one must believe in orders to be saved. Rather, it proclaimed Christ and him crucified, that is, the back-and-forth of law and gospel which repeatedly condemned and saved sinners.”[6] Here, Kittleson captures an important characteristic about Luther, that he was not first and foremost a systematician who saw a collection of various doctrines in the bible, but rather one doctrine – that of Christ crucified, in which God justifies the ungodly. In turn, church practice proceeds from this singular doctrine that God forgives sin and reconciles sinners. The primacy then lies in the living voice of the Gospel which comes and says, “Christ is your own with his life, teaching, works, death, resurrection, all that has, does, and can do.”

A great achievement with this biography is that the subject, Luther and the Reformation is treated very seriously. Where others biographies become entrapped by psychological analysis of Luther or political movements surrounding him, Kittleson presents the incredibly brilliant and pastoral theologian who comprehends his role in world history.[7] The reformer is shown to rise to the incredible challenges that presented themselves through his career, “By means of his catechisms, hymns, and new liturgy – as well as by his other actions – Luther was taking responsibility for the future of the Evangelical movement.”[8] On reflection of the Sacramentarian Controversy, Kittleson also observes that Luther had “become even more of a public figure than before. He was no longer simply a celebrity and the leader of a loose band of reformers. Now he was taking responsibility for a clearly defined, public movement in support of the gospel as he understood it.”[9] A great deal of the text deals with Luther’s disputations, negotiations, church councils, and engagement with Rome and the false brothers of the reformed tradition likely to show his dedication, longsuffering patience, and understanding of his personal call and duty to carry out the work that had been unleashed upon him.

Kittelson periodically throughout the biography returns to the fundamental truth of Luther and his work – that of Pastor and caretaker of the soul, “For Luther, nothing was more important that this struggle for faith. The first thing a Christian had to do was always to look at Christ, who was both Savior and cosufferer.”[10] Luther’s concerns for the conscience and guarding against the assaults of the devil are treated throughout the text. Kittelson notes that Luther’s life exhibits “amazing consistency” in his sense of mission, work, and defense of the Gospel, “The words and deeds of the older Luther reflected his most deeply grounded convictions just as surely as did those of the young man. Building and defending a church – and doing so in the teeth of false bretheren, ignorant peasants, grasping politicians, and bitter enemies – was just as perilous an undertaking as defying pope and emperor. Whether rightly or wrongly, Luther kept to it. Is is therefore not possible to speak well of the young man and cringe at the old man. Luther was a whole man.”[11] We may surely hold that Luther held rightly to the chief article, that of Christ and justification by faith alone. What lies behind Kittelson’s final reflection of Luther is that he is a “whole man,” not perfect or infallible, but a faithful Pastor who confessed the gospel with courage, facing extraordinary circumstances. Kittelson therefore does a masterful job of presenting Luther the earth shaking monk theologian alongside the faithful servant whose “ordinariness” makes him accessible as a fellow confessor of the true Christian faith.

[1] Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1986, 96
[2] 114.
[3] 210-211.
[4] 56.
[5] LW 49:428.
[6] 177.
[7] I have in mind Erikson, Erik H. Young Man Luther; A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Norton, 1958.
[8] 220.
[9] 228.
[10] 285.
[11] 300.

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