“Luther may have been kicking the scholastics in the teeth, but he was standing on their shoulders to do it.”
WHAT: “A major new account of the most intensely creative years of Luther’s career The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel.
Focusing on the most intensely important years of Luther’s career, Rex teases out the threads of his often paradoxical and counterintuitive ideas from the tangled thickets of his writings, explaining their significance, their interconnections, and the astonishing appeal they so rapidly developed. Yet Rex also sets these ideas firmly in the context of Luther’s personal life, the cultural landscape that shaped him, and the traditions of medieval Catholic thought from which his ideas burst forth. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers.”
WHO: Richard Rex is a historian. He is the Professor of Reformation History at the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge. He is also the Polkinghorne Fellow in Theology and Religious Studies at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he is Director of Studies in Theological and Religious Studies, Tutor for graduate students, and Deputy Senior Tutor. Although not a frequent performer in the travelling circus of modern academia, he nevertheless makes occasional guest appearances at the Academia Moriae, Amaurote, as well as at universities and schools closer to home.
Richard’s other titles include: ‘The Theology of John Fisher’ (1991); ‘Henry VIII and the English Reformation’ (1993); ‘The Lollards’ (2002); Lady Margaret Beaufort and her Professors of Divinity at Cambridge 1502-1649′ (2003); ‘A Reformation rhetoric Thomas Swynnerton’s The tropes and figures of scripture’ (2004); ‘The Tudors’ (2006); as well as ‘The Making of Martin Luther’ (2017).
Why Martin Luther?
The world-historical significance of Martin Luther simply cannot be gainsaid. The Reformation, that shattering of the Latin Christendom of centuries in two or three decades, was not all about Martin Luther. But Luther himself saw truly enough that the throng of other ‘reformers’ who followed after him all poured through the breach he had made in the walls. They would have known nothing, he said, if he had not written first. So no Luther, no Reformation. That’s ‘why Martin Luther’.
Yours is the story of a mind and world view developing and maturing yet we tend to think of Luther as a fixed figure in the intellectual firmament. So as well as WHY Martin Luther, WHEN was Martin Luther?
Martin Luther ‘happened’ in 1518. It was in 1518 that the ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ (originally dated 31 October 1517) actually burst onto the public stage and made him famous in weeks. And it was in 1518, probably in Lent (and certainly by Easter), that he first attained his most fundamental and revolutionary theological insight, namely that the true Christian should believe with absolute certainty that he or she definitely enjoyed the grace of God and was therefore forgiven their sins. This mental state of certainty, summed up as ‘justification by faith alone’, was a new demand, or perhaps better a new offer, in Christian theology, and it was the principle from which all else in his thinking stemmed. In the seven years that followed, Luther worked out the full implications of his insight. His notorious appearance before the Reichstag at Worms in April 1521 marked his definitive break with the Roman Catholic Church. And his outspoken polemic, ‘The Slave Will’ (1525), written against Erasmus’s ‘Free Will’ (1524), marked the final stage in the evolution of his views. His last two decades were characterised by consolidation rather than by the fierce creativity of those seven years. But it began in 1518.
Luther ended his life believing that the Papacy was THE enemy. Did he ever suggest that the Papacy could be defeated by the forces of Reformation? What did he imagine victory might look like?
Luther’s theology was deeply sceptical of the value of human effort. Nobody could do anything to save themselves or to merit their own salvation. He certainly did not expect the papacy to be overthrown by any human power, because he saw it as the temporal embodiment, almost literally the incarnation, of ‘Antichrist’. Even more than most zealous Christians, he seriously felt that he was living in the last days. To reverse the modern cliché, it was the end of the world – if not that minute or that year, then within a century or so. It was precisely his perception of the papacy as the Antichrist enthroned in the temple that convinced him that the end was nigh. So it would not be ‘the forces of Reformation’, but the second coming of the Lord that would settle accounts with the papacy. The only ‘victory’ he expected was the vindication of the elect on the last day.
Keynes described Newton as the last of the magicians rather than the first of the scientists. Was Luther’s a medieval or a modern mind?
The dichotomy is of course too simplistic, and must at some level be resisted. Yet it is structured into our thought, and we cannot resist collaborating with it. The analogy with the Keynesian diagnosis of Newton is strangely apt. One might say, in imitation, that Luther was the ‘last of the scholastics’. Certainly, Erasmus, the stand-out humanist of that generation, thought Luther had more in common with the scholastics than with the more flexible and dialogical approach cultivated by himself and his followers. And Luther’s theology is almost unimaginable without the backdrop of the medieval scholasticism he was confronting. Luther may have been kicking the scholastics in the teeth, but he was standing on their shoulders to do it. The answers he gave were often radically new, and he developed a new vocabulary in which to give them, but the questions that he asked were either traditional scholastic questions or at least near variants upon them. Thus, the question of whether a Christian could be certain (without a special direct revelation from God) that they were in a ‘state of grace’ had been asked for centuries. Luther was simply the first theologian to answer ‘yes’.
Luther had a lot to say about Jews and Judaism. Is there any evidence that he ever actually talked with Jewish scholars or experts?
Not as such. He probably had tuition in Hebrew from Matthias Adrian, a converted Jew who taught the language for a while at Wittenberg. And he had some acquaintance with the tradition of rabbinical exegesis, and very occasional written contact with Jews. But there was no Jewish community at Wittenberg in his time, nor at Erfurt (where he had himself been to university), so he had little opportunity. And his profound hostility towards Jews would not have inclined him to take up any such opportunity had it been presented to him.
How did Luther square his bibliocentric vision with his intense belief in the relatively non-canonical antichrist?
Luther’s unquestioning acceptance of the ‘Antichrist’ myth is one of the most ‘medieval’ aspects of his mindset. Another, of course, was his acceptance of the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. Though he was capable of acidic and acerbic scepticism at times, he was not by nature a doubter. Doubt was not his default position. Nor was doubt a methodology for him, as it was to be for Descartes. ‘Antichrist’ was too familiar a figure, and played too central a role in his theology, for him to bring to that myth the mindset he brought to indulgences, purgatory, or the sacraments. He did not need to square any circles here, because he saw no difficulty in accepting the biblical foundation of ‘the Antichrist’ – even though he did, characteristically, reshape the doctrine of Antichrist to fit better into his doctrinal perspective.
How did one be (not become) a famous author in the time of Luther? Did he receive income from his writings? Were there book launches, appearances and signings?
The modern rigmarole of authorial book-peddling was undreamt of in Luther’s time. There were no liturgical assemblies of devotees in bookshops or literary festivals to celebrate the cult of the author with handshakes, selfies, and signed copies. For most authors, the tangible rewards from publishing were indirect rather than direct. Publishing a book which sold well brought an author reputation, and this could be traded into lucrative office in church or state. One of Luther’s busiest opponents, Johannes Cochlaeus, was as tireless an author as he, but far less popular – and far less gifted! He often had to pay printers to produce his books, and they were far harder to sell than Luther’s, and far less often reprinted. But the judicious distribution of free copies, or better still of dedication copies, to powerful patrons could pay handsome dividends in cash or office. Duke George of Saxony eventually made Cochlaeus his secretary, and various church authorities bestowed benefices upon him in recognition of his efforts. Another German opponent of Luther’s, Dr Johann Eck, dedicated his widely read refutation of Luther to Henry VIII and came to England to present a copy in person: he left with £25 in his purse – equivalent today to a whole year’s salary, and a very good salary at that.
The direct profits in the publishing industry went to printers, not to authors, and printers throughout Germany rapidly cottoned onto Luther’s commercial value. Yet although Luther’s sales were in the millions, which would have made him a wealthy man today, even he made nothing directly from them. He owed his financial security to the Electors of Saxony – whose university in Wittenberg he had singlehandedly made one of the most famous in Europe. The students who flooded in brought wealth to the city, as did the huge output of his books from its burgeoning printing industry, which he had in effect created. As Andrew Pettegree has shown in his Brand Luther, Wittenberg developed a cutting-edge printing industry on the back of Luther, producing vast numbers of his works in high-quality editions that were distinctively authorised with the ‘Luther seal’ that he devised.
In return, his prince granted him the Augustinian friary as his family home, along with a good salary as the leading professor of theology in the university itself.
Could Luther ever have been neutered or muted with promotion to high ecclesiastical office?
No. He was on the fast track to leadership in his own religious order anyway when he began to develop his new approach to Christianity, and he was not in the least deterred by the obvious damage he was doing to his career prospects. And while he might have risen to be ‘Provincial’ (head of a province), or even perhaps more, in the Order of the Hermits of St Augustine, it is unlikely that his abrasive character would have equipped him for high office in the wider world, so that at a deeper level the question does not arise. Nobody could ever have seen him as, administratively, a ‘safe pair of hands’. The practical details of organising everyday life in the emerging Evangelical Churches of the German Princes were sorted out not by Luther but by his acolytes – Johannes Brenz, Johannes Bugenhagen, and the rest.
Luther was never in any sense ‘an organisation man’. While he was undoubtedly a ‘charismatic leader’, and the experience of being the focus of a personality cult was evidently one he relished, he was not driven by any of the obvious kinds of ambition or careerism. Making him a bishop would simply have given him a bigger pulpit, literally and metaphorically, from which to preach.
You describe how a personal cult began to burgeon around Luther in his own lifetime. Had his worldview admitted of sainthood, and were you the curator of his leading pilgrimage site, what would be the top relics you would want to possess?
History answers that question. For his worldview, and that of his followers, did not manage to exclude the trappings of sainthood quite as cleanly as might be imagined from the theological emphasis on Christ as the unique mediator and on the immediate experience of ‘justification by faith alone’. In a world in which literacy was slowly but steadily increasing, and in which, perhaps thanks to print, respect for books and writing was higher than ever before, later Lutherans particularly valued things he had written – actual letters, ‘autographs’ (in our sense – examples of his actual signature), books he had published (especially early copies of his translation of the Bible) and, in particular, copies of books in which he had personally written.
So if I were running a Luther shrine, I would want it to focus on things he had physically written. There are interesting parallels here, by the way, with the early miracles reported of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. The miracles credited to Ignatius are often associated with examples of his autograph signature. But buildings with which Luther had been associated also came to be highly prized in later Lutheran tradition, in particular two houses in Eisleben: the one in which he had been born, and the other, in which he had died. It would be fanciful to detect here an echo of the Holy House of Loreto, the shrine in northern Italy believed by some to have been the actual Nazareth home of Jesus, miraculously transported to its new location by angels. Yet while Luther’s houses had stronger historical claims, there is a common factor: both traditions embodied in their own ways a new sense of the centrality of the ‘nuclear’ family in western Christianity.
What are you currently working on?
An edition of an exchange of letters between Luther and Henry VIII in 1525-26, an episode hardly ever noticed in biographies of either man. Accompanied by an introduction setting this storm in a teacup within the broader perspective of their interactions over some twenty-five years, this edition will be published by Boydell and Brewer. And a Short History of the Tudors for Bloomsbury Continuum. Maybe one day I’ll get to write a ‘big book’.