August 21, 2014

IM Book Review: An Apocalyptic Luther

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
Heiko A. Oberman
Yale University Press (1989)

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Comments

  1. “…in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity.” ”

    Ultimate concerns. And a bulldog for them.

    All the while not ignoring penultimate concerns. But not mixing the two.

    Sounds like a great book.

  2. David Cornwell says:

    “…Martin Luther was, indeed, a medieval man who worked out of a conceptual world much different than modern thinkers.”

    This is an important statement, at least to me. In order to understand anyone, whether it be Luther in his day, or Jefferson in his, we must attempt to know something about the era in which a person lives. Otherwise we will judge that person entirely on the basis of our place in knowledge, culture, and history. It’s best to leave that judgement to God. I’ve often wondered just how we, our hedonistic culture, understanding of capitalism, and the mess we have left in the Church will be viewed by those who follow us in 200 or more years.

    Beyond that, how do we apply what Luther taught us? How do we take his understandings and struggles and translate them into a way to deal with our most bloody world? On one hand we attempt to deny death, and on the other we are busy in the killing fields, whether at home or abroad. How does understanding Luther help us? What does “thy Kingdom come on earth” mean to us in the Church today. What does Luther say to us?

    Our world teeters precariously on the edge of a chaos far worse than that of the “fiscal cliff.” But we know the King will return, don’t we?

    • I sympathize greatly with leaving judgments of historical figures to God, and yet, there are some judgments we need to make in order to speak clearly to our world today. In particular, we cannot give the antisemitism of the latter Luther a pass.

      • Craig, this is a good example of why I think this book is important. Technically, Luther was not antisemitic but anti-Jewish. He did not say the despicable things he said because of racial hatred, but rather because the Jews had rejected Christ and continued to do so. But why did he say those things? I think it was an overly-apocalyptic theology that led him to do so. He was so convinced that the end of the world was at hand that he ran out of patience and gave up on the Jews, consigning them to judgment.

        This, to me, is a great lesson of the dangers of apocalyptic fervor.

        • Sold! Thanks.

        • I understand that an ill-considered apocalyptic fervor could have fed into Luther’s animus against the Jews and others (anabaptists), but I think the primary problem is that Luther was vain enough to believe that his was the only accurate account of the Gospel, and so considered any repeated public refusal to accept it (he left some room for totally private disagreement, something neither Jews nor anabaptists could pull-off) as an affront to God. The thing that led to anti-Judaism was his hubris in considering any affront to his version of the Gospel an affront to God.

          • The truth is always more complex than one explanation, so I’m sure you may have something there. I’m not sure it was mere hubris, either however. For example, he had great pastoral concern for those whom he felt God had entrusted to his care and had a strong urge to protect them. There was also the whole mixture of church and state concerns in his mind that are so foreign to our way of thinking.

          • I don’t mean to deny that Luther was a brilliant (and of course historically gigantic) man with an often quite generous, pastoral heart and many profound insights into the Gospel. But he was a man of his times, who did not have the propensity to rise above a medieval conception of the relationship of state and church. In fact, it was the anabaptists (who at times could be equally or more apocalyptic), and not the magisterial reformers, who were able to step out of the prison-house of that medieval conception of church and state due to their credo-baptismal theology, which severed the link that had existed throughout the middle-ages between baptism and citizenship. That theology would inevitably, though fitfully, lead to a historical outcome that required a more-or-less generous toleration of plural confessions of Christian faith. I don’t think apocalyptic fervor was the central obstacle to the development of that toleration.

          • I think of Luther’s apocalyptic mindset as an overall framework that energized his passion for the gospel, rather than a central element that was at the forefront of his teaching. As for the Zwinglians, anabaptists, and enthusiasts, his main concern was their inadequate Christology and their subjectivizing of the Gospel and rejection of a means of grace theology. At one point he said he would much rather go to mass with the papists, for at least Christ was present there.

          • As for the anabaptists, having worshiped with Mennonites on numerous occasions, including at Holy Communion, I can say that Christ is present there. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name….” he said. And I can say that Mennonites don’t subjectivize the gospel; rather, they view obedient discipleship as the mode of Christ’s sacramental presence to the church. As far as I know, and according to their statement of faith, the Mennonite Church USA holds to the classical Trinitarian and Christological orthodox formulations and affirmations of the Patristic church and the catholic creeds.

    • I think we can learn many positive things from Luther the medieval man, but there are negatives as well. I’m inclined to think that at least some of Luther’s dogmatism and harsh polemical style sprang from his apocalyptic views. Those who think the issues they’re involved in are leading to the end of the world tend to be impatient with those who disagree with them.

      • Those who think the issues they’re involved in are leading to the end of the world tend to be impatient with those who disagree with them.

        +1

      • David Cornwell says:

        ” Those who think the issues they’re involved in are leading to the end of the world tend to be impatient “…

        How do we arrive at a proper and balanced view? Since I was a child, and the coming of the atomic bomb, I’ve heard dire predictions about these being the last days. Just a couple of days ago Marge, after reading the news, said something to the effect that these “must be the last days.”

        To me, at least a partial answer, is our observance of the seasons of worship. In Advent we look with expectancy and hope. We need to be delivered from doom and gloom.

      • “apocalyptic mindset as an overall framework that energized his passion for the gospel, rather than a central element that was at the forefront of his teaching. As for the Zwinglians, anabaptists, and enthusiasts, his main concern was their inadequate Christology and their subjectivizing of the Gospel and rejection of a means of grace theology. At one point he said he would much rather go to mass with the papists, for at least Christ was present there.”

        Well, having been raised Mennonite, now I’m curious. What exactly was his beef with anabaptists, what did he say about Menno Simons, if anything, etc?

      • I would encourage everyone to read the rhetoric of the times, and judge Luther in that context. Calvin, for example, consistently states outright that his opponents are stupid, brutish, etc. Thomas Muntzer, one of my all time favorite anabaptists (for perverse reasons), was fond of referring to Catholics and Lutherans with terms like “scrotum”, “diarrhea maker”, “donkey cunt”, and other insults I would rather not mention :-)
        The point being, conversation wasn’t exactly civil back then, and I think that had as much to do with Luther’s strident tone as any apocalyptic presuppositions.

  3. If this turns into a Lutheran blog you may lose a lot of readers….

  4. It’s strange how wrong even the most brilliant among us can be. I’m sure there are a few Lutherans who hold that B16 is the Anti-Christ, but I think we can all agree that the 1600′s weren’t the end of days.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Dude, there are so many Antichrists getting fingered out there somebody needs to start a take-a-number system.

  5. What is the difference between an “epoch” and a “dispensation”?

    • I don’t think Bernard was using the word “epoch” in any peculiarly theological sense, but just referring to a period of time. Dispensation can have the same general meaning. Within dispensational theology, though, it has had a specific reference to a divinely ordered period of time consisting of certain characteristics.

  6. So Luther was like the Joseph Smith, or Charles Taze Russell, of his day.

    • Well, I wouldn’t say that. Luther was grounded in the gospel, focused on Christ, and pastoral in the midst of his community. And I guess if I were under a death sentence most of my life, I might tend to be a little apocalyptic in my perspective too.

    • Steve Newell says:

      Luther did not seek to start a new church by to reform the Roman Church. It was the Roman Church that did not want to reform and excommunicated Luther.

  7. All our heroes have feet of clay. Every last one of them, living or dead. You don’t become famous / historically important/ hugely influential by being a ‘balanced person.’ It is left to us to gain the wisdom to benefit from the good and be instructed by the bad in any person we may look up to.

    • Good point Patrick. I think it is important to let others know that we disagree with bad ideas (like Luther’s anti-Jewish propaganda), but at the same time it seems our quickness to do so is sometimes a reaction against the man-worship that has plagued evangelicalism for decades. Thank the God who saves sinners!

  8. Was able to pick this up @ half priced books last night for $9 and tax. Thanks for the timely book review, I look forward to reading this and sending it on to my younger (RCC turned Lutheran) sister. Thanks.