The Unreformed Martin Luther - A Review

There is no time like the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to read up on Martin Luther’s life and legacy. In the midst of the plurality of celebrations and denigrations of Luther, there are dozens of myths, incubated over the past five centuries, that portray the man as much greater or much worse than he actually was. Some of them have even found their way into discussions of Church History through reputable sources.

Andreas Malessa’s book, The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths, is an honest attempt to bust some of the myths that have helped make Luther’s legacy larger than life. Some of them are confirmed while others (some of the most fun ones) must be consigned to the dust heap.

Among the many topics covered in the twenty-five chapters of this volume are Luther’s famous quote about planting an apple tree, even if he knew the end of the world was coming. (Not true.) Or, that Luther was consistently a heavy drinker by his culture’s standards. (Also not true.) Similarly, Malessa takes up the idea that Luther’s best theological thinking came while he was relieving himself. Alas, this, too, must be set aside as a myth that is just true enough to be believable.

The common theme of many of the myths is that they are usually not too far from the truth. Luther did drink beer and sometimes joke about getting drunk. However, in a world where the water was of questionable purity, beer was probably a safer bet. Luther was certainly constipated and wrote to his friends of the miseries caused by a diet with too little fiber, but the idea that his theologizing was tied to his bathroom habits was fomented by his foes to discredit his work.

Malessa also takes on some of the other basic historical misconceptions around Luther. He never wanted to start a new denomination. He did, sadly, fall into putrid anti-Semitism in his later years, though not in quite the way it is sometimes portrayed. He actually wasn’t the first to translate any of the Bible into German. The brief volume does good historical work in setting some of these myths to rights, too.

Christians should be known as people of truth, which makes The Unreformed Martin Luther a welcome addition to the host of volumes on the Reformation. It will certainly not appeal to everyone in every local church, but it has a place in the library of seminaries, Christian schools, and those interested in Church History.

A book like this would make an interesting auxiliary volume in a course focused on the Reformers. It also is an entertaining read for those who enjoy a bit of Church History after a hard day’s work. The chapters are concise, the prose is lucid, and the subject matter is entertaining. Reading this book is a fun way to spend a few hours.

NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Martin Luther - A Children's Biography

October 2017 will mark 500 years since Luther published his famous 95 Theses, which are often said to have kicked off the Protestant Reformation. A recent children’s biography on Luther by Simonetta Carr provides a delightful way to introduce the early German Reformer to children.

This volume is the latest edition in the series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers, which is published by Reformation Heritage Books. It is a beautifully illustrated, full color volume, that is likely to delight the reader even as it instructs.

Often children’s biography falls into the trap of hero worship. Obviously, a publisher like Reformation Heritage views the Protestant Reformation in a positive light. Thus it stands to reason they would celebrate Luther’s life and contribution to Church History. Carr, however, manages to avoid the pitfall of hagiography by presenting Luther’s story with its good and bad points.

This book critiques Luther for his coarse language and diatribes against the Jews later in his life, but it does not let those real, yet unfortunate failings diminish the impressive and exciting story of the monk turned Reformer. Roman Catholics or others who view the Protestant Reformation as a tragedy, and thus see Luther mainly negatively, will likely balk at the generally positive view Carr presents of his life and work. However, for most Protestant Christians, this volume strikes the proper note.

In recounting the life of Luther, Carr celebrates the recovery of the gospel from the twisted medieval traditionalism espoused by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Unlike many histories, this volume rightly argues that indulgences were the presenting problem, but the deeper issue was the loss of the gospel in the regular teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. That is why Luther’s ministry was so important; he was not dividing the universal church, he was seeking to preserve the gospel and was subsequently attacked by the traditionalists who elected to remain in error.

Some biographies work best if told as a story. Because of Luther’s wide range of activities and overall significance, Carr chose to tell his story in roughly chronological, but mostly topical chunks. There are seven chapters with 4-7 pages each. The chapters discuss his early life, clerical training, desire for reform, alienation from Roman Catholicism, attempts at Reform, marriage and family life, and broader ministry. The volume also includes a timeline, a collection of interesting facts about Luther, and a selection from Luther’s Short Catechism. Even young readers will walk away with a sense of the importance of Luther and an understanding of his life and work.

Much like other biographies in this series, Carr’s book about Luther is full-color throughout. Carr combines new illustrations from Troy Howell with historical engravings and paintings, along with photographs of some of the sites as they appear now. This breaks up the text and makes the book as a whole a feast for young eyes. (Older eyes will appreciate it, too, and may have to be reminded this book is for the kids.)

Whether you are looking for a gift for a child, seeking a volume for homeschool history, or simply building your library, this volume is worth purchasing. It is historically accurate, delightfully illustrated, with an appropriately critical tone. It represents both a celebration of the recovery of the gospel with a recognition of the pervasiveness of human sin, even among our heroes. Reformation Heritage Books should be applauded for continuing the series and publishing excellent children’s volumes like this one.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews with no expectation of a positive review.