Martin Luther

Theological Roots and Moral Fruits of Reformation

Review - Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography

Image of Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography
by Herman Selderhuis
Crossway 2017
Hardcover 352

Quite rightly, in view of the historical and spiritual importance of the Reformation, there have been a spate of books about Martin Luther; this year, and indeed last week, being the five hundredth anniversary of the event that sparked the movement into flame — the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses onto the church door at Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517.

The author of the present book, Herman Selderhuis, has distinguished himself with his work on John Calvin, including a study of Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms and The Calvin Handbook. He has also written a similar biography to this on John Calvin.

The first thing I want to say about this biography of Luther is that it is very well written. Selderhuis has a plain, pithy and subtly tongue-in-cheek style that really makes the material flow. The second thing I would say is that this is not biography lurching into hagiography. The book presents the Reformer as a very flawed but endlessly fascinating individual. Luther was, for example, proud (179) and stubborn (181).

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Reasons for the Reformation

First page of the 1517 Basel printing of the Theses as a pamphlet

There was nothing remarkable about that day in October, 1517, when a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther fastened his now famous ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, Germany. He certainly did not expect to ignite a religious revolution. As a loyal son of the established church, Luther merely wished to engage his university town in theological discussion about certain church doctrines that troubled him. His goal was to try to rein in some of the most grievous abuses of the Church by discussing them openly.

Little did he know that his theses would be copied, printed, and distributed across Europe within days. In the providence of God, Luther’s modest debate propositions ignited a fire that is still burning today. On this five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it is fitting to remember how it all began, and more importantly, why.

There are some today who question the validity of this great schism with Rome. They believe that the Reformation, though probably warranted in its day, is no longer necessary. They assure us that the abuses of Luther’s day have been addressed, and it’s time to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and join hands as fellow members of Christ’s body.

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Theology Thursday - Luther Meets Cardinal Cajetan

After Luther published his 95 theses, inviting debate on the abuse of indulgences, things began to move rapidly in Wittenberg. Phillip Schaff, the grand church historian, sums up the course of events during the following year:1

Pope Leo X. was disposed to ignore the Wittenberg movement as a contemptible monkish quarrel; but when it threatened to become dangerous, he tried to make the German monk harmless by the exercise of his power. He is reported to have said first, “Brother Martin is a man of fine genius, and this outbreak is a mere squabble of envious monks;” but afterwards, “It is a drunken German who wrote the Theses; when sober he will change his mind.”

Three months after the appearance of the Theses, he directed the vicar-general of the Augustinian Order to quiet down the restless monk. In March, 1518, he found it necessary to appoint a commission of inquiry under the direction of the learned Dominican Silvester Mazzolini, called from his birthplace Prierio or Prierias (also Prieras), who was master of the sacred palace and professor of theology.

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Theology Thursday - Luther On Pigs, Beasts & the Abuse of Liberty

Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism after making visits to various parishes in Saxony, in the Fall of 1528. He was apparently astonished and disgusted with what he found. This is evident from the tone of the preface, which is reproduced here:1

Grace, mercy, and peace in Jesus Christ, our Lord, from Martin Luther to all faithful, godly pastors and preachers.

The deplorable conditions which I recently encountered when I was a visitor constrained me to prepare this brief and simple catechism or statement of Christian teaching. Good God, what wretchedness I beheld! The common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.

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