Luther in Books

As part of this special Standard Bearer issue on Martin Luther, I was asked to submit an article featuring some of the classic works on Luther as well as some of the new works being produced in connection with next year’s 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses.

It is not difficult to feature books on Luther. The difficulty is in knowing where to end the list. There is, indeed, a plethora of good ones. But we can and will highlight a few of the best for you here, so that you can begin or continue to do some reading on this mighty Reformer and renew your knowledge of and thankfulness for the great Reformation of the sixteenth century.

We begin with a few general works on Luther and the Reformation.

And allow me first of all to reference and recommend a new, general work on the Reformation. It is The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation edited by Peter Marshall (2015, 303 pp.). This is a beautifully illustrated book covering all the major branches of the Reformation (chapter titles are “Late Medieval Christianity,” “Martin Luther,” “Calvinism and the Reform of the Reformation,” “The Radical Reformation,” “Catholic Reformation and Renewal,” “Britain’s Reformations,” and “Reformation Legacies”), well deserving of a place in your home library and of your browsing and perusal.

Another more general Reformation work but one specifically on Luther that may be mentioned at this point is The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (there is also one on John Calvin), edited by Donald K. McKim and published by Cambridge University Press (2003, 320 pp.). This work divides Luther and the Reformation into four parts: Luther’s life and context; Luther’s work; after Luther; and Luther today. Though perhaps not for general reading, this is a valuable reference work for understanding Luther’s place in church history and in the history of doctrine.

As far as biographies of Luther are concerned, there is probably no better place to begin than the classic work by Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther (1950). Many editions are available, but Hendrickson Publishers has a fine new reprint (2009, hardcover; 441 pp.) in its “Hendrickson Classic Biographies” series. This book by a premier Reformation scholar is a “must” in every Protestant’s library and ought to be read and re-read.

In addition, let me mention a couple of newer biographical books on Luther that are worth your reading: Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought by Stephen J. Nichols (P&R, 2002; 240 pp.) is a fine survey of Luther’s life and work; and The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther by Steven J. Lawson (Reformation Trust, 2013; 145 pp.) is a wonderful look at Luther’s commitment to and preaching of the Scriptures.

Newer yet are these titles: Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (Yale University Press, 2015; 341 pp.) by Scott H. Hendrix (emeritus professor of Reformation history, Princeton Seminary), concerning which the publisher writes,

This bold and insightful account of the life of Martin Luther provides a new perspective on one of the most important religious figures in history, focusing on Luther’s entire life, his personal relationships, and political motivations, rather than on his theology alone. Drawing on the latest research and quoting extensively from Luther’s correspondence, Hendrix paints a richly detailed portrait of an extraordinary man who, while devout and courageous, also had a dark side. No recent biography in English explores as fully the life and work of Martin Luther long before and far beyond the controversial posting of his 95 Theses in 1517….

And along with that one, Resilient Reformer: The Life and Thought of Martin Luther by Timothy F. Lull and Derek R. Nelson (Fortress Press, 2015; 411 pp.), a major new study of the Reformer in which Luther is presented as “an energetic, resilient actor, driven by very human strengths and failings, always wishing to do right by his understanding of God and the witness of the Scriptures. At times humorous, always realistic, and appropriately critical when necessary, Lull and Nelson tell the story of an amazing, unforgettable life” (back cover).

While these last two books contain viewpoints and con tent with which this Reformed reader differs (and probably most of you readers), as I believe that Luther was driven by the grace of God, however imperfect the man was, and that he had at the center of his life and work the gospel of pure grace in Jesus Christ, it is good to be aware of the current trends in Luther scholarship, especially in this time of special remembrance of God’s work in Luther and in the church in the 1600s.

Among the new books being published on Luther are some studies on special periods of his life and special aspects of his work. I mention five here:

October 31 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World by Martin E. Marty (Paraclete Press, 2016, 114 pp.). In this work the famed American Lutheran minister and scholar gives a brief overview of Luther’s 95 theses, placing them in and applying them to our modern context. While Marty’s ecumenical interpretation of the theses will be judged critically by true Protestants, his is a voice to be heard.

Luther’s Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege by James Reston, Jr. (Basic Books, 2015; 260 pp.). This fascinating study looks at the eleven-month period of Luther’s life (April 1521- March 1522) when he was sheltered in the Wartburg Castle following the Diet of Worms and the edict of Charles V that Luther “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic.” As the inside cover points out,

instead of cowering in fear, Luther spent his time at Wartburg strengthening his movement and refining his theology in ways that would guarantee the survival of Protestantism. He devoted himself to biblical study and spiritual contemplation; he fought both his papal critics and his own inner demons (and, legend has it, the devil himself); and he held together his fractious and increasingly radicalized reform movement from afar. During this time Luther also crystallized some of his most significant ideas about Christianity and translated the New Testament into German—an accomplishment that, perhaps more than any other, solidified his legacy and spread his bold new religious philosophy across Europe.

Luther Refracted: The Reformer’s Ecumenical Legacy, edited by Piotr J. Malysz and Derek R. Nelson (Fortress Press, 2015; 337 pp.). Another modern study of Luther, this book features a broad spectrum of interactions with and interpretations of Luther—Roman Catholic, Baptist. Episcopal, Reformed, Evangelical—with contemporary Lutheran responses. Perhaps limited in interest for our readers, nevertheless, this title too is a good window into contemporary understanding of the great Reformer.

Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation, by Andrew Pettegree (Penguin Press, 2015; 383 pp.). This unique study focuses on how Luther used printing to advance the cause of the Protestant Reformation. “Pettegree illustrates Luther’s great gifts not simply as a theologian, but as a communicator, indeed, as the world’s first mass-media figure, its first brand. He recognized in printing the power of pamphlets, written in the colloquial German of everyday people, to win the battle of ideas” (inside jacket). If you need further encouragement to “take up and read” this important book, Prof. David Engelsma published a more extensive—and favorable—review of it in the April 2016 issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal (which you may find online through the PRCA website (prca.org).

Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and Its Scripture-Centered Proclamation, by noted Lutheran theologian Robert Kolb (Baker Academic, November 2016; 512 pp.). The publisher informs us that in this work “Kolb examines the entire school of interpretation launched by Luther, showing how Luther’s students continued the study and spread God’s Word in subsequent generations. Filled with fresh insights and cutting-edge research, this major statement provides historical grounding for contemporary debates about the Bible.”

It is not out of order also to call your attention to another book that involves Luther—and his beloved “Katy,” his wife. While some of you may be familiar with an older work on Katherine Luther by E. Jane Mall titled Kitty, My Rib (Concordia, 1959), there is a “newer” work out on her, in English for the first time. The Mother of the Reformation: The Amazing Story of Katherine Luther (Concordia, 2013; 275 pp.) is a translation of the 1906 work Katharina von Bora by Ernst Kroker (Mark E. DeGarmeaux, translator). According to the publisher,

Kroker paints an intimate picture of Katie and of family life in the Black Cloister during the formative years of the Reformation, showing how Katie’s marriage to Martin Luther was a multifaceted vocation, with such tasks as household brew mistress, cloister landlady, property overseer, gardener, cow- and pig-herder, and fishwife. Indeed, Katie oversaw their home much like a “lord” in her kingdom, yet in the midst of it all stood the man to whom her work, concern, and duty were directed.

I believe our female readers will especially benefit from this new book.

As we close this look at Luther in books, it is perhaps in order to include a few quotes from Luther himself on the world of books, including his own writings—and God’s.

There never yet have been, nor are there now, too many good books.

If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.

The Bible is the proper book for men. There the truth is distinguished from error far more clearly than anywhere else, and one finds something new in it every day. For twenty-eight years, since I became a doctor, I have now constantly read and preached the Bible; and yet I have not exhausted it but find something new in it every day.