Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
Heiko A. Oberman
Yale University Press (1989)
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If you want to read a biography of Martin Luther, it is probably wise to start with one that outlines his life and times in fairly standard terms. I would recommend Roland Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Those who are interested in a more comprehensive study should check out Martin Brecht’s three volume set, which gives the most detailed description of Luther’s life and work available in an English language biography.
But if you want to be exposed to a groundbreaking perspective that will create an indelible impression of Martin Luther as a medieval religious man, caught up in what he considered to be a profound battle between the forces of God and the Devil in the End Times, then I recommend you consider the best book I’ve read this year: Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.
Oberman’s thesis, vividly drawn and defended, is summarized in his prologue:
Luther’s measure of time was calibrated with yardsticks other than those of modernity and enlightenment, progress and tolerance. Knowing that the renewal of the Church could be expected to come only from God and only at the end of time, he would have had no trouble enduring curbs on the Evangelical movement. According to Luther’s prediction, the Devil would not “tolerate” the rediscovery of the Gospel; he would rebel with all his might, and muster all his forces against it. God’s Reformation would be preceded by a counterreformation, and the Devil’s progress would mark the Last Days. For where God is at work — in man and in human history — the Devil, the spirit of negation, is never far away.
To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective. It is history “sub specie aeternitatis,” in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity.”
Oberman introduces us to the apocalyptic Luther.
It was in the summer of 1514 that Martin Luther first raised his voice against practices regarding indulgences in the Church. Heiko Oberman tells us that the young theologian had an eschatological framework informing his concerns. Luther’s views were shaped in this regard primarily by Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard had developed Augustine’s views of the Last Days, devising a scheme of three epochs, marked by the Devil’s attacks against the Church:
- The epoch of the Holy Fathers and Martyrs, when the Church suffered bloody persecutions;
- The epoch of the heretics, when attacks on Christian doctrine threatened the Church;
- The epoch of the last days, when the Church will be corrupted from within and Antichrist will arise to seduce believers. Only Christ himself can finally overcome him, at his return.
As Oberman says, “From the very start it was clear to Luther that Jesus’ prophecy of the Last Days fully applied to the situation of the Church in his time. With Bernard’s warnings in mind he concluded already in 1514: ‘The way I see it, the Gospel of St. Matthew counts such perversions as the sale of indulgences among the signs of the Last Days.’”
This casts an entirely different light on the Reformation. How did Luther view his reforming efforts? What were they intended to achieve? What did he hope would be their outcome?
First, he never expected that the Reformation would defeat the Adversary. Rather, he understood what was happening as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that the true Gospel would be preached in the Last Days. While this would certainly benefit the Church, it would also lead to an intensification of attacks on God’s people leading to Christ’s return.
Second, for Luther the “Counter-Reformation” had come first, and the “Reformation” was God’s work to maintain a faithful witness in the world and give solace to his suffering Church. The Devil had struck the blow and Antichrist was rising to power. Only Christ himself would be able to bring about his ultimate defeat. Luther saw his work as equipping the church to persevere and proclaim the true gospel until God’s intervention at the end.
Third, the Devil had also attacked the world’s institutions, so Luther worked for the “betterment” (rather than reformation) of secular rights and political order. Despite his apocalyptic perspective, Luther did not promote abandoning the world, God’s creation, to chaos. He supported its leaders and encouraged the development of its temporal institutions, such as education, in an effort to combat the Devil’s attacks and ensure the world’s survival.
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Heiko Oberman’s insights remind us that Martin Luther was, indeed, a medieval man who worked out of a conceptual world much different than modern thinkers. Spiritual, eschatological, and apocalyptic realities were as vivid and alive to him as the world of sense and experience.
…Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one can evade involvement in this sturggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge — neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape. The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.
There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ — and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time.
It appears that Advent is an appropriate, perhaps the most appropriate season for considering the life and work of Martin Luther. For, in his view, it was under the dark, foreboding clouds of the great apostasy and the rise of Antichrist in the Last Days that the Reformer raised up the gospel and sought to strengthen the Church against Satan’s onslaughts.
Clinging firmly to that gospel, between God and the Devil he stood, until Christ would bring the true and ultimate Reformation.