Martin Luther was an unlikely revolutionary. When he posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 (as the story goes, although Luther himself never referred to it), he was 33 years old, had been a monk for 12 years and had published very little. Yet within two months, the theses were known all over Germany and read by both clergy and laity. Luther’s propositions challenged the Catholic Church on major theological beliefs and practices and questioned papal power. Whether they were attached to the church door or not, the theses sparked the Protestant Reformation and radically changed Christianity.
As we enter the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, Oxford historian Lyndal Roper explores the life and times of Luther in her absorbing and provocative Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. An authority on early modern Germany, Roper gives us a compelling and nuanced portrait of a person greatly influenced by his environment. Luther was courageous in stating his deeply held beliefs and well understood he would be labeled a heretic and likely become a martyr. He was a brilliant writer but also a vicious man and often a difficult friend, even to those close to him. Although an intellectual and scholar, he mistrusted “reason, the whore,” as he called it. His anti-Semitism was propagated by many of his supporters but went much further than many were prepared to go.
Why did Luther prevail when other reform leaders did not? Among the most important reasons was his ability to write well and communicate his thinking to the public. He also understood the critical importance of printing. For example, in 1518, by the time he was ordered to stop publication of his first work in German for a wide public audience, he ensured that it was already on sale. “His use of print was tactically brilliant,” Roper writes. “No one had previously used print to such devastating effect.” Perhaps above all, Luther was a realist. “Time and time again, though he might rail against them and insult them . . . Luther would in the end always align himself with the [civil] authorities.”
Roper’s great skill in interpreting Luther’s personal and public lives and explaining controversial theological subjects within their historical context makes this biography both enlightening and entertaining.