Review by Justin Pickup
“Your project must make an original contribution to the field of research.” Reading those words dramatically altered my plans during my first year of doctoral studies, and I had a moment of panic. The source of this panic was a search in a database of all of the dissertations and thesis papers written on the subject that I had wanted to study: Martin Luther. When you add together volume of literature produced by and about Luther, the idea of making “an original contribution” seems impossible! I gave up after scrolling past the three hundredth research thesis I found on Luther. Despite his humble beginnings, people are still interested in, writing about, and researching the life of a previous Augustinian Monk from the 16th Century.
As someone who has read several biographies on Luther, I wondered what merits Meet Martin Luther: A Sketch of the Reformer’s Life by Anthony T. Selvaggio could contribute to the already large volume of works written about Luther. However, I quickly realized as I was read that this book was not written to impress academia, but rather to edify the Church. Selvaggio gives a brief but informative sketch helps us see Luther as he was, warts and all, but also kindles an interest in learning more about him.
Overview of the Contents
Selvaggio brings us a sketch of Luther in ten fast-paced chapters. These chapters outline the momentous events in Luther’s life in broad brushstrokes, dropping in on certain spots of his life feel in the portrait being portrayed. Selvaggio portrays Luther in a laudatory manner, without resorting to hagiography. These broad brushstrokes could be summarized in four scenes: Luther’s early life, Luther’s conflict with Rome, Luther’s role as a leader, pastor, and husband, and Luther’s final years.
Chapters one through three provide the standard biographical information of the early years of Luther. Those familiar with Luther’s life will find mention of the seminal events in his life from his upbringing in Mansfeld, his crisis moment in the thunderstorm that caused him to become a monk, and his mental and spiritual struggles with God while serving as a monk. Selvaggio leaves none of these details untouched. Particular significance is given to Luther’s journey to Rome which left him disillusioned, as well as Luther’s mentor Johann von Staupitz’s role in helping Luther become a professor in Wittenberg, teaching the Bible. The Scripture’s served as the fuel that ignited the fire in Luther.
Concluding chapter three, the reader is introduced to the indulgences controversy and Johann Tetzel. This controversy leads to Luther’s famous gesture of nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Chapters four through six then provide the details of Luther’s dispute with Rome, played out in scenes that include intense debates, threats from Rome, the Diet of Worms, Luther’s excommunication, and the climactic “kidnapping” of Luther to the Wartburg Castle Tower. Despite the small size of this biography, Selvaggio provides several lengthy and informative quotes from the original sources, providing a further level of insight into the drama of dispute with Rome.
After Luther returns from Wartburg to Wittenberg, chapters seven through nine provide the details of Luther’s development as a leader of a new church, a pastor, and a husband having married Katharina von Bora in 1525. Selvaggio shows how Luther had to mature into his new role. No longer could he be just the maverick monk fighting the Pope. He now had to lead, manage, and develop this new body of believers. On top of these responsibilities, Luther had to interact with other Reformers like Zwingli who were not completely in line with his views. Luther of course makes significant progress. Particular attention is paid to Luther’s development of the liturgy that would come to characterize the Lutheran Church. Luther’s handling of the Peasant’s War receives criticism as well as some of his more crass attacks on his opponents. For example, while Luther’s Bondage of the Will is characterized as one of Luther’s most significant works, his harsh insults against Erasmus do not receive praise in this biography.
Luther’s life ends on a rather complex note in chapter ten. Selvaggio draws attention to Luther’s declining health in these latter years. As Luther’s health declines, some of his errors become more manifest. This biography points out that Luther’s later critique of the Papacy was marked with very harsh, insulting language that was unbecoming of Christian Conduct. Further, Luther’s troubling comments and writings about the Jews give the reader some pause when considering they were used later by such groups as the Nazis. Finally, Luther’s compromise in allowing the bigamous relationships of Philo of Hesse receives criticism. The reader is forced to see Luther, warts and all.
Selvaggio concludes the biography with an assessment of Luther’s life. Despite the clear flaws of Luther, the general laudatory nature of Luther as a reformer who led a recovery of the biblical Gospel is held up for all to see. Luther’s courage in the face of adversity is credited with his confidence in the guiding hand of God as the book concludes with Luther’s Hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Helpful for the Church
Evaluating the merit of this biography must be done from a pastoral perspective. It is true that if one has studied Luther for any length of time, there will probably not be anything in this work that you previously did not know. The author himself acknowledges as much by showing that this is a sketch and not an in depth study. However, given the sad nature of general biblical and historical ignorance of our time, this book has a tremendous benefit to the Church. It’s unintimidating size and fast paced narrative makes it accessible for all to read. As we near the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, it would do many a lay member good to have this little book in their hands, and could be used very easily by many pastors as a quick refresher or as a small group study. Luther is still shaking things up, even five hundred years later.
Justin K. Pickup is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Stewartsville, MO. and a PhD Student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Meet Martin Luther: A Sketch of the Reformer’s Life