Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas

The book is Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas. Originally published in 2017. I read the 2018 paperback edition. 

I read this book because I want to learn more about Christian Church history and Luther’s big double-chinned face kept staring at me from the cover every time I walked past it at Barnes & Noble. I’m going to miss buying books at Barnes & Noble when they finally close for good. I have a feeling it’s only a matter of time. 

There were a few questions I had going into this book. Why did it take until the 16th century for the Protestant Reformation to happen? Did no one in the Catholic church ever study the bible and find inconsistencies with the church? I’m happy to say that these questions were answered but thankfully the answers led to more questions for me to investigate. 

For further study, I’ll need to read about Jan Hus, a predecessor of Luther’s who was burned at the stake for challenging the Catholic church in many the same ways Luther did. And before Hus there was John Wycliffe and his Lollards who are also seen as precursors to the Reformation. So why didn’t the Protestant Reformation truly start with Wycliffe or Hus? Why did Luther succeed where others before him failed? Besides the answer of God’s timing and the mysteries of his will working out in his way, the answer primarily is the printing press. Wycliffe died in 1384 and Hus died in 1415. Johannes Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press until 1440. Luther wrote his 95 thesis in 1517. So basically Luther had the power of mass media on this side. His writings were able to spread far and wide before authorities even caught wind of what was going on. Due to advancements in technology, Luther was able to go viral. That’s why the Reformation took off with Luther’s writings, and Luther wrote a LOT. 

The only complaint is a small one. Metaxas focuses a lot on Luther as a champion of the little people speaking truth to power in a pro-democracy sort of way. He links Luther’s challenge to the tyrannical Roman Empire as a precursor ideology that led ultimately to the American Revolution. While he’s not wrong and the throughline follows logically, it’s a weird angle to focus on in a biography of Luther. I wish he stayed more on track in the realm of Church history. 

That being said, Metaxas does an excellent job of making an otherwise dense subject matter easily accessible to the read. He explains his points well and clearly. 

I’d recommend this to anyone wanting to know more about Church history and the Protestant Reformation. 

Notable quotables;

“When an impossibly close blast of lightning struck, Luther collapsed to the wet ground in abject terror and cried out to Saint Anne, ‘Hilf du, Sankt Anna!’ he shouted…’Ich will ein Monch werden!’ he shouted, ‘I will become a monk!’” (p.31)

“Once, Luther actually continued confessing for six consecutive hours,” (p.47)

“Luther’s sentence can better be translated as ‘If our Lord God in this life–in this shit house–has given us such noble gifts, what will happen in that eternal life, where everything will be perfect and delightful?’” (p.98)

“Luther also sent the [95] theses to his friend Johannes Lang in Erfurt and some others. These were academic allies and friends he respected, and Luther doubtless thought sending the theses to them would help stir a debate and would lead toward dealing with the issues at hand more generally. The Nuremberg Humanist and printer Christopher Scheurl was impressed with what he read and thought that the theses should be reprinted and without any fuss legality of needing to obtain copyright permissions, he simply printed them himself, right there in his own town of Nuremberg, instantly ensuring that they would have a dramatically wider reading. In this way, the horse snuck out of the barn, because once the theses were circulating, the whole controversy would take on a life of its own…It was as though a hastily written email to a friend were inadvertently forwarded to a major news organization or as though an ill-considered thought were captured on a ‘hot mic’ and thenceforth broadcast to the world.” (p.124-125)

“The more he stared at what was in front of him, so clear and so awful, the more he became convinced that the church had for four hundred years been in a kind of Babylonian captivity, just as Israel had been.” (p.169)

“As Luther’s sense of his own danger increased, so did his boldness. He thought, what do I have to lose? I am speaking the truth and therefore my life is in danger, so I might as well say what I can while I still have breath in me. His willingness to go further and further, wherever he felt the truth led him, became breathtaking.” (p.180)

“As the 1520s rolled to their conclusion, the only reason Luther was still alive and the Reformation had been able to spread as it had was that the emperor had been too busy to enforce the paper tiger known as the Edict of Worms. In Fact since the Diet of Worms in 1521, Charles had not been in Germany at all. He had been busy fighting the French.” (p.390)

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