A brief, brilliant biography of a father of Protestantism

On Books

February 08, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

One of the most imaginative and effective developments in American book publishing in recent years has been the remarkable enterprise in which Kenneth Lipper, a financier and former deputy mayor of New York, has sponsored brief biographies or biographical essays through Viking Penguin. Beginning in 1999, the enterprise commissioned distinguished writers to produce popularly accessible lives of famous figures in 200 pages or less.

The latest is Martin Luther: A Penguin Life by Martin Marty (Lipper / Viking, $19.95). It is concise, of course, at 199 pages, and well written. Strangely, though Martin Luther unquestionably was one of the premier figures of influence in the second millennium, there are few biographies of him in print today. This fills a major gap,

Marty is a distinguished retired professor at the University of Chicago, where he taught religious history for more than 35 years. He holds an astonishing 67 honorary doctorates, but is free of the prolixity that often makes academic writing impenetrable. He is an ordained minister and has written more than 50 books. His Righteous Empire won the National Book Award, which seldom is bestowed on virtually unreadable volumes, however worthy.

Nonetheless, his new book is not casual beach reading. Its subject is, above all else, the mystery of faith -- humankind's exploration of the idea of divinity and of fealty to what is taken to be divine. It is a core history of the origins of Protestantism.

Whether you formally practice a faith or hold all religious doctrines to be false, the story of Martin Luther is an important, and fascinating, one. He and those who joined with him in the early 16th century commenced an evangelical movement, seeking divorce from the hierarchy and rejecting some of defining theological articles of faith of the Rome-centered Catholic Church. But in a far broader sense, this is a story of the evolution of the essence of human liberty and of establishing accountability over the powerful. It was the end of the medieval period and the dawn of the modern era.

Luther, son of a solid middle-class Saxon family, was a brilliant student leaning toward theology, which led him to a disciplined monastic order and then, at 24, he became a priest. He was given a doctorate at the extraordinarily early age of 27. What obsessively drove him, Professor Marty makes persuasively clear, was a need to make coherent and reciprocal the love between God and mankind -- which in both theory and practice he increasingly felt the Church was failing to do.

In Luther's time, the papacy and its bishops were often arbitrary, exploitative and repressive. Indulgences -- licenses to reduce periods of purgatory -- and spurious holy relics yielded enormous profits. Blasphemers -- which often meant those who questioned Church authority -- were commonly publicly burned to death. Many priests and bishops, and not a few popes, though doctrinally celibate, had mistresses and children.

The power of priests and bishops was vast -- since excommunication, often almost arbitrary, was widely accepted as being a ticket to eternity in hell. Yet the excesses of cynicism and materialism by clergy were driving common people from the faith. In geopolitical terms, the secular forces and holdings of the Roman hierarchy were vulnerable both militarily and economically.

It is essential to remember that Luther was intensely pious, a scholar of philosophy and theology. But his critical writings and his sermons -- hugely prolific throughout his life and amplified by the newly accessible printing press -- were circulated in books and tracts throughout the Christian world.

Martin Luther, priest and scholar, nailed his "95 Theses" -- his first, and now historic, challenge to the theological authority of the pope -- to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, when he was 34 years old. Those theological "arguing points" were to grow into the backbone of what in that era was the evangelical movement. One of many radical contentions was that the priesthood did not hold the keys to heaven. He declared that all baptized adults were, in effect, priests.

Pious and prayerful as Luther was, he was capable of rage. In 1520, Marty writes, "He charged that everyone in Rome had become 'mad, foolish, raging, insane, fools, sticks, stones, hell and evil.' So he spit out: 'Farewell, unhappy, hopeless, blasphemous Rome!' and continued, 'The wrath of God come upon you, as you deserve.' He went on to recall that he and his colleagues had cared for the Babylon that was Rome, but she was not healed. So they must leave her to become 'the habitation of dragons, specters and witches and true to the name of Babel, an everlasting confusion, a new pantheon of wickedness.' " He could be a very angry man.

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