Book Review: “Martin Luther” by Eric Metaxas

Who is Martin Luther?

Before reading Eric Metaxas’s recent biography of Luther, I didn’t realize how little I knew about him. My view of the man, in keeping with our Anabaptist tendencies, was a bit long on commentary, long on hear-say, and short on history.

“Martin Luther. He’s the guy that nailed those theses thingies on the church doors. Didn’t he persecute our great-great-grandparents and teach that we don’t need good works?”

Enter Eric Metaxas, biographer. I picked up Martin Luther because I’d read another book by Metaxas and particularly liked it. His biographies are fairly long, but so well-researched and well-written that the average reader can tackle them without dying of old age midway through. I’m not sure if Metaxas is a comedian who happens to love history or a historian who manages to get away with being funny. Either way, his wit and wordplay are a welcome oasis to a genre generally known for its dry sand. Not to worry though – the steady stream of quotes, anecdotes, and footnotes leave no doubt that Metaxas did his research.

The Man Who Changed the World

As it turns out, there is about as much fiction surrounding Luther’s life as there is reality. One of Metaxas’s primary reasons for writing the book is to help debunk these dogged myths. For instance, the image we have of Luther boldly hammering his dissenting theses onto the Castle Church doors probably didn’t even happen. Certainly it didn’t happen as we imagine it. Rather, the theses – which were written in Latin and invited fellow scholars to a debate that no one attended – may have been quietly pasted on the church doors, along with other mundane community announcements, by the church custodian. Had the Reformation hung solely upon that iconic moment, it would not have happened.

But the greater reason for this book is to help us understand just how far-reaching an effect Luther has upon us. “[Luther] so altered the landscape of the modern world that much of what we now take for granted may be traced directly to him” (1). To consider Luther one of the most influential men who ever lived is, according to Metaxas, no exaggeration. At first I thought it might be. But Metaxas carefully shows that not only our understanding of God, but also our notions of individualism, of freedom and personal responsibility, of objective truth and self-government and the free market of ideas came bursting out of the rock once Luther struck it.

The Real Luther

Like so many historically significant figures, Luther looms larger than life. Perhaps one of the best things Metaxas has given us in the 450 pages of this biography is a glimpse of the real man. Yes, Luther changed the world, but he did not set out to do so. He was a German; the son of a miner. His intelligence and education pointed solidly toward a wealthy future. Yet driven by his overwhelming depression, he became a poor monk in search of inner peace.

Luther did not mean to rebel against the Catholic Church. Instead, he “would endeavor with all of his considerable might to achieve salvation . . . and he would fail” (34). Ultimately, it was the failure of this religious system that drove him to seek out answers in the Bible – where few bothered to look – away from the twisted philosophies and lifeless commentaries of the scholars. There alone he found peace for his soul.

It’s impossible to summarize in 900 words what takes Metaxas half a ream of paper. I’ll settle for three tidbits I found most interesting:

1.) In 1517, the coming Reformation was anything but a sure thing. In fact, had it not been for a chain of seemingly coincidental (but certainly providential) circumstances the whole thing might have fizzled out before it started.

2.) Luther suffered semi-regularly with extreme constipation, which he referred to as “a relic of the cross.” He also loved wordplay and could hardly finish a paragraph without some double meaning tucked inside (or a particularly colorful insult, if the individual in reference had irritated him).

3.) Luther believed in the sanctity of everyday experience. Holiness was not just for priests, but for sex and work and music and ordinary life. One application of this ordinary holiness was the reintroduction of congregational singing in the church service which, before Luther initiated it, had not been done for a nearly a thousand years.

To Read or Not to Read. . .

Though from a Protestant background, Metaxas keeps his own opinion at a respectful distance from the facts. Clearly he admires Luther a great deal, but he does not make excuses for Luther’s weaknesses or closet his inconsistencies. Metaxas shows us Luther, the monk who defied popes and emperors and their dead religion. But he also shows us other sides of Luther, such as his obstinacy and severity toward those who dared disagree. The mix of which leaves us with Luther the regular man, flawed and imperfect as anyone, but used by God to shine the light of the Gospel into the darkness.

Metaxas has written a biography that will go the distance. He writes with rare balance: light enough to be approachable, yet sufficiently detailed to be useful. His, of course, is only one perspective, but it’s a fair one. As an evangelical, Metaxas views Luther in a better light than we Anabaptists tend to. Nevertheless, this book will stir us to know our Reformation history better. And perhaps, though clear-eyed about his shortcomings, we can tip our hats in appreciation to the Luther who changed history.

 

Bryce Bryce Wenger lives and works on a small farm near Dalton, Ohio. He has a love for music, literature, and learning. His free time is usually spent backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying nature. He is passionate about knowing God’s Word and living life to the fullest.

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