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Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography Hardcover – October 31, 2017
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“Herman Selderhuis gives a well-organized, source-based short account of Luther’s life, putting him into his context. Written by one of the most respected international scholars in Reformation history, this book may be fruitfully used as an introduction to Luther’s life.”
—Volker Leppin, theologian and professor of church history, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen; president, Interdisciplinary Medieval Association
“With a keen eye for the details that make Luther come alive for twenty-first-century readers, and with an ear for those often-false rumors spread by other scholars about the man, Selderhuis guides us through the life of the Wittenberg professor, depicting his genius and his temperament within the context of his time and its challenges. This well-balanced journey at the reformer’s side provides readers with insights into the development of his thought and his path toward prominence and influence that shaped the last quarter century of his life. The often-slighted later years, in which his writings and personality created a sphere of influence equaled by few in any age, are here given due attention, with helpful explanations of the setting in which Luther’s reform movement matured.”
—Robert Kolb, international research emeritus professor, Institute for Mission Studies, Concordia Seminary; author, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith; coauthor, The Genius of Luther’s Theology
“The complexity of Luther is staggering, but Herman Selderhuis has given us a detailed portrait of the reformer that captures both his blemishes and the beauty of his faith in Christ. This book is a fascinating read about one of the most significant figures of history. Both students of Christian history and admirers of Reformation theology will find it helpful.”
—Joel R. Beeke, President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary; Pastor, Heritage Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, Michigan
“There have been more books written about Martin Luther than any other figure in the last millennium of church history. With such a Luther-glutted market, what more could possibly be said about him? Well, this latest volume from the hand of the gifted Reformation scholar Herman Selderhuis does indeed give us a fresh perspective on the German reformer. With his own translations of Luther’s writings and his comprehensive knowledge of Luther’s world, both theological and social, this new biography is both deeply instructive about the things that mattered most to Luther and a delight to read. This is how biography should be written!”
—Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Among the many new biographies of Martin Luther, this one stands out for its fresh engagement with Luther’s own assessment of his life and work. Well researched and engagingly presented.”
—Timothy George, Founding Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; General Editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture
“What makes this Luther biography distinct is its explicit attention to Martin Luther’s spiritual journey as a sixteenth-century person haunted by his demons and driven by his passions, and the way it presents Luther’s own voice and reflection throughout, paired with a restrained but poignant analysis that invites the reader to dig deeper. Luther is introduced as a ‘problem’ in his church context with evolving roles in which he is shaped by his relationships. He is assessed as a ‘unique phenomenon’ on the one hand, while as a flesh-and-blood human being with a temperament, strong emotions, and tragic ailments on the other. Selderhuis’s clearly written and immediately engaging narrative, with wit, offers an abundance of detail and apparatus for the reader to understand one of the most fascinating personalities in Christian history and the complexities of his Reformation hermeneutics.”
—Kirsi Stjerna, First Lutheran, Los Angeles / Southwest Synod Professor of Lutheran History and Theology, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary; author, Women and the Reformation
“This richly illustrated and succinctly written book, based on anything but superficial knowledge, is very much a life of Luther for everyone. While announcing itself as a ‘spiritual biography,’ it actually presents Luther in body and soul in his day-to-day contexts. Selderhuis catches very well Luther as a reformer stumbling daily from one unconcealed existential crisis to another, often beset with spiritual, mental, religious, family, political, physical, and personality problems. Here we have the real Luther—potent prophet of God, astonishing theologian, prolific writer, and phenomenal communicator indeed, but also a flawed genius whose attributes included buffoonery, vulgarity, vindictiveness, and downright rudeness. While many have viewed the reformer as a Hercules of the faith and the thirteenth apostle, this book reminds us that Luther was also no saint and that he had no pretensions to be one.”
—W. Ian P. Hazlett, honorary professorial research fellow, University of Glasgow; editor in chief, Reformation and Renaissance Review; author, The Reformation in Britain and Ireland; coauthor, A Useable Past
“At this half-millennium anniversary of the birth of the Protestant faith, there is scarcely a better place to (re)discover Martin Luther than in this fresh biography by internationally recognized Reformation scholar Herman Selderhuis. Here is where to start your investigation of an amazing man whose remarkable courage, controversial ministry, and persuasive writings changed the world—for good and for ill. Don’t miss reading this fascinating, fun, and poignant foray into the spiritual life and tumultuous times of the one who, as Calvin described, ‘gave the Gospel back to us.’”
—Peter Lillback, president and professor of historical theology and church history, Westminster Theological Seminary
“Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography offers a new and fascinating approach to Luther’s life. In this book, political and theological contexts are paid attention to, but priority is given to the story of Luther’s religious life, from childhood to old age. The account is based on an extensive use of primary sources—not least Luther’s letters and Table Talk—and the reformer’s own words are frequently quoted. At the same time, the interpretation of Luther’s texts is closely related to specific places and concrete situations in his life. In this way, the reader is brought closer to Luther’s person than what is often the case in other biographies.”
—Tarald Rasmussen, professor of general church history and research director, University of Oslo; editor, Teologisk Tidsskrift
“Herman Selderhuis is a fine scholar but also a churchman and a teacher. Thus, he writes with an enviable, conversational ease, which makes his teaching accessible to the nonspecialist audience. In this brief biography of Martin Luther, he brings the reformer alive, from his birth in humble circumstances to his death as the most (in)famous man in Europe. Those who have never encountered the narrative of Luther’s life before will find this an accessible and satisfying introduction that wears its learning lightly and points to the deep truths to which Luther’s life and thought testified.”
—Carl R. Trueman, William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life, Princeton University
About the Author
Herman Selderhuis is professor of church history at the Theological University Apeldoorn in the Netherlands and director of Refo500, the international platform focused on raising awareness for projects related to the legacy of the Reformation. He also serves as the director of the Reformation Research Consortium, president of the International Calvin Congress, and curator of research at the John à Lasco Library in Emden, Germany. He is the author or editor of several books, including John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life.
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However, Luther was problematic to those people in different ways — good and bad — which complicates his legacy.
On October 31, 2017, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, Luther published his 95 Theses challenging “the power and efficacy of indulgences.” Today, November 10, is Luther’s birthday. (He was born in 1483.) These dates give us a suitable occasion to assess Luther’s legacy and learn what lessons we can from it.
Let us begin with the positive. No less an authority than Calvin said that Luther “gave the Gospel back to us.” By this, he meant the doctrine of justification by faith. Christ alone (solus Christus) saves sinners by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).
“This article of faith cannot be compromised,” wrote Luther about justification by faith in The Smalkald Articles of 1537. “Nothing can be taken away from it, even if the earth or heaven or whatever should fall.” Why? Because “if this article remains standing, the church remains standing, but if this article falls, the church also falls.”
Luther came to believe this gospel based on his close reading of Paul, especially the apostle’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians. Romans 1:17 says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The just will live by faith.’”
And that brings us to a second positive aspect of Luther’s legacy: the authority of Scripture. Luther was a professor of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg, able to read Scripture in its original languages, Hebrew and Greek. It was his close reading of Scripture that led him to begin to question the penitential practices of the late medieval Catholic church.
These questions first became public in the 95 Theses. When Catholic authorities pushed back on Luther’s questions, they drove him deeper into Scripture. The more he read, the more he questioned, until he concluded that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christian faith and practice — not papal authority, church tradition or even the decisions of church councils.
When called upon to recant his beliefs at the 1521 Diet of Worms, standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, German princes, church leaders and a representative of the pope himself, Luther refused:
"If, then, I am not convinced by testimonies of Scripture or by clear rational arguments — for I do not believe in the pope or in the councils alone, since it has been established that they have often erred and contradicted each other — I am bound by the Bible texts that I have quoted. And as long as my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot nor do I want to retract anything when things become doubtful. Salvation will be threatened if you go against your conscience. May God help me. Amen."
The famous words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” were evidently added at a later time, but they capture the spirit of Luther’s refusal.
Later theologians called sola fide the material principle of the Reformation and sola Scriptura its formal principle. The principles answer humanity’s two most basic questions: How can I be saved? And how do I know? Luther’s rediscovery of them is the core of his positive legacy, in my opinion. Certainly they created problems for both the pope and the emperor, but they were necessary problems, essential reforms to a corrupt medieval church, and good news in every age.
As Selderhuis noted, however, Luther created other problems for his fellow reformers that can be neither overlooked nor excused. No doubt a man who takes a stand against the religious and political powers of his day must have a spine of steel. Unfortunately, Luther could be stiff-necked and abusive toward his fellow reformers on issues where compromise and gentle language were necessary.
Luther’s closest colleague, Philip Melanchthon, bore the brunt of that abuse. Luther’s temper was so well-known that Melanchthon usually served as a buffer between him and other Protestant reformers. Two years after Luther’s death, Melanchthon offered this blunt assessment: “I had to bear an almost degrading bondage because Luther was led by his militant temperament and exhibited a cocky self-righteousness, rather than that he would pay attention to his deferential position and the common good.”
But Luther’s cantankerousness toward allies pales in comparison to the worst aspects of his legacy: his violent rhetoric. Two examples should suffice. In 1524–25, German peasants rose in revolt against the aristocracy. Many had been inspired by Luther’s words and personal example, and Luther himself was initially sympathetic to their complaints.
But by 1525, Luther felt the peasants had gone too far, and encouraged authorities to deal harshly with them:
"whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog, so, if you do not fight the rebels, they will fight you, and the whole country with you."
Then there’s what Luther said about Jews. Early in his career, Luther had hoped Jews would convert to Christianity once they heard the proclamation of the true gospel. Later in life, though, his attitude took a much darker turn. In Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1542), he advocated authorities take specific measures against Jews. Let me quote Selderhuis at length.
"First of all, synagogues should be burned because that is where the blasphemy takes place. For the same reason, Jews’ homes should be destroyed. Their prayer books and their Talmuds should be confiscated. Since their money had been stolen from Christians, Luther thought [a false but common belief in the middle ages], their money and jewelry should be seized. That money must be used for the support of Jews who had become Christians. Jews who did not qualify would have to earn their money by means of forced labor."
These are hard words for anyone to read after the Holocaust, especially when we know that Nazis used Luther’s remarks in their anti-Semitic propaganda. They certainly tarnish the Protestant celebration of Luther’s positive legacy.
So, what do we make of Luther today? After narrating Luther’s life honestly, warts and all, Selderhuis concludes: “Luther needed the grace that he himself had proclaimed. Throughout his life he remained a good example of his view that a Christian remains a sinner all his life and remains justified at the same time.”
Simul iustus et peccator is how Luther expressed that view in Latin.
On Luther’s birthday and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, simul iustus et peccator summarizes Luther’s legacy, both the good and the bad. Herman Selderhuis should be thanked for writing a biography that so skillfully narrates the life of Martin Luther and helps us interpret its complicated meaning.
The author covered where Luther went, what he experienced, his family life, and his health issues. But mainly he focused on what Luther's beliefs were, why he believed these things, and how these beliefs changed over his lifetime. Initially, this was handled by explaining what types of debates Luther was dealing with, what he said, and who influenced his thinking. Near the end, this became more topical--for example, what did Luther say about Jews (or Muslims, death, etc.), how did that change, and why did it change?
I found this book very interesting and informative. I felt like the author explained the various theological concepts clearly so I could easily understand the points being made. Overall, I'd highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in Martin Luther or the Reformation.
I received an ebook review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
Now the author makes his contribution to a growing list of books with Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Selderhuis’s work is a fitting tribute to Luther and the many men and women who made a contribution in the sixteenth century.
Selderhuis examines ten movements in Luther’s life including Child, Student, Monk, Exegete, Theologian, Architect, Reformer, Father, Professor, and Prophet. Each movement is an opportunity for the author to present historical details and relay the massive contribution that Luther made.
The author carefully traces the spiritual history of Luther – from an unconverted monk who struggled with God and even hated him to a man who passionately embraced the doctrines of grace. Selderhuis does not gloss over the negative details of Luther’s life. Luther’s brashness and vulgarity are explored as well as some of Luther’s racist proclivities.
Luther: A Spiritual Biography is an illuminating look at a man whose influence continues to captivate and inspire people around the world. It beautifully complements classic works such as Bainton’s, Here I Stand and should receive a wide reading.
I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.