A fiery faith that heated up the world

MARTIN LUTHER: THE CHRISTIAN BETWEEN GOD AND DEATH By Richard Marius Belknap Press/Harvard U. Press 542 pp., $35 Martin Luther's latest biographer, Richard Marius, begins by offering the rather startling opinion that "Luther represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization."

"This is not to say," he adds, "that the catastrophe was all his fault. All sides have a share of the blame for the boiling hatreds and carnage that consumed Europe for well over a century after Luther died. But in my view, whatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him."

A distinguished historian, well-known for his biography of Sir Thomas More, Marius admits he finds the urbane personalities of men like More and the Dutch humanist Erasmus a good deal more congenial than the fiercely passionate Martin Luther. Yet Marius's searching and thoughtful biography of the German monk largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation is a marvelously engrossing, in some ways surprisingly empathic, attempt to fathom the mind and heart of this remarkable man.

The central question Marius asks is what was it that so powerfully motivated Luther to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? Where did his intense brand of belief come from?

Historians and polemicists through the ages have suggested all kinds of motives for Luther's actions, including the notion that the lonely monk's longing for a wife was his real reason for challenging a church that forced its clergy to be celibate!

In Marius's opinion, what drove Luther was his profound terror of death. What Luther feared was not the torments of hell that haunted the imaginations of many other religious people. No, what Marius finds in Luther's writings is a genuine horror at the grim prospect of nonbeing. For Luther, the antidote to this fear was faith in Christ and the resurrection, and he championed his faith with all-consuming intensity.

While many historians have maintained that the flood of classical pagan texts unleashed by the Renaissance did not weaken Christian belief, Marius disputes this view. He argues, quite persuasively, that rationalism and skepticism had a far greater impact than can be gleaned from the published writings of 16th century Europeans.

The possibility that Christianity might not be true, that God might not exist, and, worst of all, from Luther's viewpoint, that there would be no resurrection, only a return of dust unto dust, this was what terrified Luther and drove him to his radical affirmation of salvation by faith.

Marius sees Luther as a man whose life was dominated by the question, "How do we keep reason at bay and God with us?" His Luther is in many ways a very modern man, more troubled by the prospect of a godless universe than by the demons and punishments that terrified many of his contemporaries.

Marius's thesis can - and, doubtless, will - be disputed. But there can be no doubt that this book is destined to become a classic. It is an exemplary work of scholarship written with the kind of verve that will appeal to the ordinary reader. Marius has a gift for explaining things along the way, clarifying the meanings of recondite theological concepts like "predestination" or "justification by faith," filling us in on the personalities of the major figures in Luther's life and the political contours of his world. Pithy, urbane, even witty, this is one of those extraordinary biographies that really brings its subject to life.

Marius's negative view of the impact of the Protestant Reformation does not prevent him from painting a poignant and sympathetic picture of the man who started it. Marius contrasts his negative view with the optimistic belief that the casualties and suffering incurred in such a struggle were outweighed by the importance of humanity's ongoing journey from darkness into light.

Many believe that our notions of individualism and democracy owe much to Protestant reliance on the individual and distrust of established hierarchy. Perhaps Marius is too hard on the legacy of the man he has portrayed so brilliantly.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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