Richard Rex on The Making of Martin Luther

Rex

The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. Read on to learn more about this key figure of the Protestant Reformation.

Why The Making of Martin Luther?
Martin Luther was very much a self-made man, though he would not have appreciated the compliment. From his point of view, he was made by God—not only in the basic sense soon to be inculcated by the catechism, but in the special sense that God had raised him up as an apostolic and almost apocalyptic figure to renew the preaching of the Gospel on earth. My book sets out the process by which Luther came to a new understanding of the relationship between the individual Christian and God, a process which integrally involved coming to a new understanding of himself.

Apostolic?
A vital word. Luther’s professional focus on the epistles of Paul—generally known at that time simply as ‘the Apostle’—in the 1510s was the crucible in which both his new account of the Christian faith and his new understanding of himself were forged. Luther modeled himself increasingly on Paul and came to see himself in apostolic guise.

Apocalyptic?
Definitely. Luther cannot be properly understood if due account is not taken of his sense of the imminence of the end times. Like most of his Christian contemporaries, he did not expect the world to last that much longer, but his own sense of the end of days was much more urgent, largely because of his conviction that the Papacy, which was swift to condemn him and his teachings, must be the Antichrist. The medieval myth of the Antichrist, which Luther adopted and adapted, saw this terrible figure as the herald of the final act of human history. If the Antichrist was in action, then the end really could not be far off.

Is your book a full biography?
The Making of Martin Luther is biographical, but not a biography, still less a full biography. Its unrelenting focus is on the development of Luther’s thinking, of his theology. If it was not for Luther’s ideas, we would never have heard of him. Chronologically, it is concerned with the first half of his career, the period of radical innovation, rather than with his last twenty years, the years of consolidation. It’s about how Luther brought down one establishment, not how he built up another.

One of your chapters is entitled ‘The Catholic Luther.’ Why?
Luther, like all the first generation Protestant Reformers, started out as a Catholic, and neither he nor the others can be understood without reference to their shared Catholic background. Luther only developed his ideas because he was a theologian. And he was only a theologian because of a very ‘Catholic’ event in his life: his ‘conversion’ to the professional religious life in fulfillment of a vow made to a saint in a thunderstorm. And Luther’s new ideas, though radical, reflected central concerns of late medieval Catholic theology, such as sin and grace, and the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. For example, Luther’s consuming sense of the superabundant sufficiency of Christ’s Passion for the redemption of sin was, paradoxically, a version of the same idea that lay beneath the Catholic doctrine and practice of indulgences, against which he notoriously protested.

There are lots of books about Luther, even lots of new books. Why read this one?
The story of Luther is still bedeviled by misunderstandings—about what his key ideas were and when they emerged, about what was really different in his ideas, and about the Catholic ideas from which he increasingly stood apart. Some misunderstandings can be traced back to Luther himself, whose vast and diverse output requires very careful and contextual interpretation. Others are canonized in the long tradition of Luther studies, passing like viruses from one biography to another. Historians can struggle with the theology, and theologians can stumble over the history and chronology. I’m not the best historian, and I’m not the best theologian. But few historians of this period can match my grasp of the theological issues, and few theologians can match my capacity to interrogate sources historically. This book has sought to put the story together again from square one, on the basis of a critical and unsentimental engagement with the sources. It strips away the rust of tradition to reveal an entirely fresh image of Luther in the crucial phase of his life.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queens’ College. His books include Tudors: The Illustrated History and Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He lives in Cambridge.