Luther: Man Between God and the Devil // Heiko A. Oberman (trans. by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart)

We are beggars before God!

Martin Luther

Martin Luther: Who was this man?

He was, by all accounts, one of the most influential figures of Christian history — perhaps of world history. He is attributed to be the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation — something he failed to see the fruition of. Even at his deathbed, Luther was on trial: Will he stand by what he wrote and taught since 1517? “Yes,” Luther replied. He was just as clear as he was bold at the end of Diet of Worms: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other, here I stand, God help me. Amen.” These are words thick with revolutionary power, but a revolution was the last thing Luther wanted. Instead, Luther wanted true repentance and reconciliation through reformation within the Catholic Church — not excommunication from them. Indeed, he was caught between the Pope, the Crown, and the Intellectual elites. Or, from Luther’s perspective, he was caught between God and the devil.

One of Luther’s core convictions is that everyone is a beggar before God. All that we are and hope to be depend on God, and on our own, we are nothing. But God is lavishly generous. We might be beggars before God, but God is most certainly gracious towards us.

Calling the pope, or anyone, the Anti-Christ or Devil’s bastard is not proper etiquette. Luther’s language was vulgar and virulent. When he attacked, he attacked fiercely, sometimes too far and too wrong, especially his anti-semitic rhetoric towards the end of his life. His volatile language and behavior have had some scholars diagnosis Luther with psychosis and schizophrenia. And Oberman goes to great length to undo this caricature. Luther was not psychotic, but he was certainly expressive and zealous. Luther’s colorful German, however, was also a gift: he painstakingly translated the inaccessible Latin Bible — the Vulgate — into vernacular German.

Luther was astoundingly prolific. Luther’s Works is a massive 55-volume set, with the index being 462 pages long! Approaching this towering figure can be — should be — intimidating. But thank God for Heiko A. Oberman and translator Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. The translation is just fantastic: not only was this biography accessible but also captivating. Oberman’s biography of Luther is superb, though I wish for more of Luther’s theological development.

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