Richard Marius of Harvard University has given us a fascinating and infuriating biography of one of most complex figures of human history, Martin Luther. It is a fascinating biography – when Marius is telling the story of Luther. It is an infuriating biography – when Marius serves up some of the most grandiose and startlingly simplistic ideas ever to be written about the man.
I knew I was in for a treat when Marius stated on the second page of the Preface that Luther “represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization” and that “whatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him.” Over 485 pages later, Marius starts wrapping things up with this dandy: “Instead for more than a century after Luther’s death, Europe was strewn with the slaughtered corpses of people who would have lived normal lives if Luther had never lived at all…” (p.485).
Imagine that. Europe could have continued in a state of blissful normalcy if Luther had not (apparently) been the major impetus for pretty much every war that took place for the next century on European soil. Also, Marius tells us, Erasmus would possibly have been able to bring about a “benign kind of reform” if Luther had not come along and stirred things up. To this thought, Marius asks, “But who can tell?” (p.485)
Perhaps Martin Luther could tell. Perhaps Luther was correct that the risk of bloodshed was worth taking in order to free the masses from the delusions of a bankrupt church and the abusive swindling inflicted by a corrupt ecclesiastical hierarchy upon the “normal” masses.
Marius wishes that Luther could have been silenced shortly after the Leipzig debate. I wish that Marius could have been silenced shortly after the Preface.
This book does have good points (and when Marius is good, he’s brilliant), but one must wade through numerous bemoanings of Luther’s “viciousness”, more than a few backhanded shots at modern-day “fundamentalists”, and more than enough politically correct posturing and condescension to find it.
I am no Luther apologist. Marius’s concerns about Luther’s writings against the Jews, bitter and vitriolic spirit and unbending personality are certainly true. But methinks Marius protests too much. Luther cannot be held responsible for the wars that plagued Europe for more than half a century. On the other hand, along with all of his faults, it is just possible that Luther brought a reform and freedom to the otherwise “normal” people of the 16th century that many were willing to give their lives for, and that many then and now thank God for.