Life of Luther Is a Meditation on Modernity

A new biography of the great Christian reformer strips away the words and legends to reveal the real, historical man

By , Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press.

LUTHER: MAN BETWEEN GOD AND THE DEVIL by Heiko A. Oberman, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart,

New Haven: Yale University Press, 380 pp., $29.95

EVERY good book has a secret. The secret of Heiko Oberman's ``Luther'' takes us deep into the heart of time. What looks like a biography turns out to be a profound meditation on modernity.

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Was Martin Luther (1483-1546) modern or medieval? On the surface, it appears that Oberman has exhausted all the paradoxes of this question.

He shows how, as a promoter of ``ecumenical pluralism'' the great reformer looks modern, yet how Luther opposed the concept of history fashionable at the time. ``Very much counter to the temperament of his age - and of later, `modern' times,'' Oberman says, ``Luther took a vigorous stand against all efforts to wrest from God His timetable, and to force - with sword in hand - the coming kingdom of peace.'' Indeed, says Oberman, ``Luther was proclaiming the last days, not the modern age.''

Oberman also says that ``the fact that Luther cannot be classified either as medieval or modern may also explain his special gift of presenting anew the original Christian message of the imminent dawning of the kingdom, vivid and vital, real and realistic for people of his time.'' And not only of his time: Throughout this book, Luther seems to be addressing our modernity, or postmodernity. For Luther, reform does not mean upgrading but returning to something pristine; for Luther, reformation is God's ultimate intervention.

Unlike most biographers of Luther, Oberman shows that, with ``self-confident burghers as parents,'' Luther ``was born into a modern world.'' But his mother, who, Oberman shows, was from a prosperous, well-educated family, believed in the devil, as did her son.

Oberman says: ``Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcized the Devil, ... Consequently he, unlike any theologians before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches' sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man, and the world.'' Oberman's phrasing is packed with emotion: This biographical study shows Luther ``as he was'' just as Luther showed the devil ``for what he really was.''

Throughout this book, it's fascinating to see Oberman doing to Luther what Luther did to the Christian tradition: stripping away mere words and legends, getting back to the real, historical thing.

Oberman's own lifework has been explaining the provenance of this method by exploring the role of the Englishman William of Occam (who died in 1349 in exile in Munich) in early modern times. Luther's method of reform (one could almost say research) follows Occam in testing all speculation ``by means of experience and reality-based reason, regardless of what even the most respected authorities might say to the contrary.''

Occam's via moderna (modern way) was set against the via antiqua of the church. Thus when Luther translated the Bible into German, he learned Hebrew and Greek, the original languages, and felt free to dismiss centuries of ecclesiastical commentary. Luther's breakthrough came after he rejected the idea that monks like him were more spiritual, when he discovered that there was a direct ratio between Christ and the devil. The church is no sinecure. Nor can the church forgive the sins of those who contribute to the building of St. Peter's in Rome!

Luther's attack on ``indulgences,'' which led to his excommunication, was not an isolated protest, but sprang from his central insight that ``Christ's justice does not make a man righteous before God; it puts him in the position to become righteous.''

Oberman's portrait of Luther does not apologize for the man's excesses. Rejecting the path of militant protest, Luther also condemned violent revolt during the peasant's war, thus advocating brutal suppression of the rebels. The charge of antisemitism has also be leveled against Luther. Oberman shows that Luther ``did not advocate expulsion; he sought to preserve `tolerance,' tolerance only, of course, for the purpose of conversion.'' Luther's marriage to a runaway nun scandalized even some of his followers, but Oberman shows how it flowed naturally from his study of the scriptures and his concept of freedom.

Freedom is the great, transparent theme of this book. Toward the end, Oberman writes: ``Here was a highly sensitive human being afflicted by living in two eras at once, a disorder that physicians or psychologists might be able to ameliorate but cannot cure. Luther suffered through the conflict - unavoidable for medieval and modern alike - between the conscience and Evangelical reliance on God.''

The conflict got him involved in politics. The book opens with a superb analysis of the world politics of the time: Luther was a piece in a giant chess game that stretched from the land of the Turks to the New World. He was mistaken for a German nationalist, by friends and foes alike; he was protected from the Pope by his German sovereign.

With his critique of the church, Luther had threatened the ``unity of Church and empire in the Western Christian world.'' Luther's dramatic utterance at the Diet of Worms in 1521 - ``My conscience is captive to the Word of God'' - suggests a definition of man that has appeal today.

As Oberman shows, Luther was not talking about ``freedom of conscience.'' The conscience is the site of a struggle between God and the devil. This definition, in Luther's experience, was scriptural. ``What is new in Luther,'' argues Oberman, ``is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils.'' That is, ``Luther liberated the Christian conscience, liberated it from papal decree and canon law. But he also took it captive through the Word of God and imposed on it the responsibility to render service to the world. That is why in all realms of life, be they marriage and sexuality, civic duties or obedience to the temporal authorities, the Word of God must be heard anew; it must be applied with the standard of practical reason and directed at how life is to be lived.''

Elegantly composed, powerfully revisionist, Oberman's Luther has been beautifully produced. With over 70 illustrations, endpaper maps, a chronological outline, and two indexes, this book is designed for hard, questioning use. It will get it. Lutheran scholars will debate it; modern historians will too; all who read will wonder.

Modern or medieval, Luther offers something at a time when old ideologies are being cast off and nationalism is once again breaking up giant empires. History no longer holds the seeds of salvation. But Oberman's Luther is a match for any Marx.

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