Martin Luther:
The Christian Between God & Death

by Richard Marius,
ISBN: 0674550900

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Bulldozing a Strip-Mall of Sacraments
by Hugh Graham

Revolutionaries are simplifiers: they usually clear out the accumulated lumber of the past and replace it with something plainer. Old regimes, by contrast, are all superfluous complexity-their privilege, laxity, and greed justified by thickets of rules and regulations. So it was that the prophets of Israel took a scythe to the elaborate ritual of priestly decadence; that Genghis Khan ironed out a crumpled mess of fratricidal aristocrats into a regimented Mongolia; that the thirteen colonies scraped away a system encrusted with regulations and taxes; that Robespierre helped bulldoze a rats' warren of feudal regulations.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) had the same impatience to flush out, to clear away. By 1500, Papal Rome had made the house of God into a ramshackle edifice so crowded with negotiable rituals and sacramental hocus-pocus that there was no room for the original divine tenant. Luther's revolution was almost entirely spiritual and psychological: to scour the centuries' accumulation of theatrical offal from the human soul, restoring it to its original foundations in simple faith. So began the Reformation.

Revolutionary simplifiers, like Genghis Khan and Robespierre, are usually preceded by simplifying events: expropriation, famine, state bankruptcy, tax revolt. But Luther built upon the greatest simplifier of all: death. As Richard Marius tells us in his new biography, Luther, the Christian Between God and Death, the Black Plague, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century, precipitated not just a social revolution, but a psychological and cultural one as well. Christians threw up their hands and decided to live well because the worm and the skull were inevitable. Thus, the neo-pagan humanism of the Renaissance. Or, like Luther, they were driven to repent in the face of a new-found terror of death.

At the book's outset, the social background is expansive and gripping; it's a pity, then, that Marius fails to develop the panorama he promises. Luther's search for simple faith was anything but simple, and the author is frequently waylaid in the claggy bog of Luther's soul. Marius' attempts to penetrate his stark and trembling theology feel as obsessive as the labour he describes.

When he returns to the meaty stuff of Luther's personality, it comes as a relief. Luther was still enough of a Renaissance man to love beer, get drunk, make fart jokes, and give vent to a scatological metaphysics ("I will shit the universe out of my ass"). This was the same man who, inspired to dread in a thunderstorm, decided that he himself was nothing ("a turd") and God, everything.

Perhaps he needed the lustiness to make life bearable in the face of a bottomless problem that went something like this. The biggest obstacle to faith in a perfect God is the imperfection of His creation. But the terrifying power of death itself is evidence of His presence. And since He has absolute dominion, He must have created time as well, being in total control of what will happen and who will be saved. The saved are those who believe in God's good intentions. And the punishment for disbelief is not Hell but death. And death is the abject horror of the absence of God. Those snatched from the jaws of death will be few because few can believe as Christ commanded in scripture. But out of pure goodness, God has given us the tool of grace to help us believe that He exists. The true believer sometimes doubts the existence of God (and Luther's own doubts terrified him). But the product of doubt and grace is faith, a constant battle, a striving. And if we achieve that difficult faith, our good works here on earth are only its by-product, for it is faith alone that places us among the elect.

In this fretful and exhausting logic, one can't help but feel that something is missing, as if Luther, with Marius in tow, were playing solitaire over and over with fifty-one cards.

Much of this-especially grace, an unimprovable world, and predestination-derive from St. Augustine. And it was to Augustinian monasticism that Luther was driven in terror, after the thunderstorm. The experience led him to observe that Papal Rome had papered over the abyss at the heart of the struggle for faith with an easy lie, a thick sediment of sacraments, ritual, and, worst of all, indulgences: the purchase of days off purgatory with donations for the building of St. Peter's basilica, or a trip to a shrine to venerate one of the many skulls of John the Baptist. Here was Johann Tetzel, the Pope's local huckster in Germany, selling the snake-oil of automatic grace so that the rich man could mindlessly skip his way to heaven by tossing money to the poor or a fat load of cash to the papal legate. For a man like Luther who was earning his faith the hard way, it was an outrage. When he was sent on a delegation to Rome to assert, unsuccessfully, a little independence on the part of his order, he witnessed first hand the hedonism and corruption of the high Catholic clergy. Indeed, Rome itself would prove to be Luther's strongest argument against substitutes for inner struggle, even as he went to scripture in search of a precedent.

For precedents, revolutionary simplifiers turn to simple models in the past: the Judaic prophets to pre-mercantile agrarianism; the Jacobins to the Athenian polis; Russian anarchists to the peasant commune; Lenin to the simple force and symmetry of Jacobinism itself. For Luther, the lost foundation was primitive Christianity, the virgin soil that lay beneath Rome's strip-mall of sacramental penny arcades. His proof, he claimed, lay in the New Testament. Insisting, however, that scripture is simple, explicit, and incontrovertible, Luther tore his hair out to prove it and ended up choosing some parts of scripture over others. The synoptic gospels that emphasize love and good works are less important than the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul, which stress the mission of divine redemption. In the end, Luther's scripture is neither simple nor consistent: he too relied upon interpretation and this is where he fell to the ground-a point that Marius does not sufficiently emphasize.

Luther's reluctant, ironic opponent was Erasmus himself, a humanist intellectual who held openly that scripture was not self-evident. Erasmus was himself a reformer, but an apostle of "love and patience above all", while Luther was ready to go to doctrinal war with scatological invective, insult, and calumny.

I prefer Erasmus and so does Marius. After all, was it not because Luther was so terrified of lying to God that he lied to himself instead? So great was his will to believe and to reform that he stitched the scripture together in places it wouldn't join? Great enough for him to publicize ninety-five objections to the Papal doctrine in 1517. Great enough for him to refuse to recant to the legate at Augsburg in 1518. Great enough for him to question the absolute authority of the Pope in a sensational debate in 1519 with the theologian, Eck. Hell-bent enough for him to endure excommunication in 1521 and confrontation with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms the same year.

German politics saved him. A tangle of Teutonic princes and barons, however Christian, carried on the tradition of defying Rome that had endured since barbarian resistance to the Caesars. Luther's clever and sceptical supporter, Frederick the Wise of Wittenberg, became his protector. Meanwhile, the Pope's sword, Emperor Charles V, inherited the imperial humiliation: it was harder to enforce obedience at home in Germany than anywhere else. To pursue a quarry into the duchies and baronies was to enter a maze that turned into a shell-game. Against Luther, the Papacy was powerless.

Here is suspense, but it's always killed by Marius' repeated digression into exhaustive spiritual rumination. Theological exposition has its limits, especially in biography, and I would have much preferred Marius to tell me more about the extraordinary society and politics that protected Luther and that were also his undoing. The simplicity of the faith that he preached, and his protest of Rome's robbery of the German poor and faithful through indulgences, unleashed powerful democratic undercurrents. In time, his own apostles or confederates seceded to more extreme positions that Luther condemned: from right to left they were Karlstadt, who denied the Holy Presence in the Eucharist, and Zwingli and then Muntzer, both of whom had led peasant rebellions. During the penultimate uprising, Luther raged in vain that he had intended only spiritual, not social, revolution, at once lambasting the lords who abused the peasants and urging death upon the peasants who attacked their lords. Luther would finally die of natural causes-stress, in part from spiritual weightlifting.

The theological labyrinth that Marius wants us to experience might have been more effectively described in terms of the cul de sacs of its paradoxes. For example, Luther denied that Hell was everlasting suffering, implying that it was only death. Why, then, should we fear Hell or death if they're merely annihilation? Luther was silent on the matter, as he was ultimately silent on a perfect author of an imperfect world who will save us only if we believe He exists. Far more interesting is the world which nurtured, exalted, and fought such a mind-the world of which Marius never gives us quite enough. 

Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer.


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