Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, has been the subject of an enormous literature, either as the exclusive subject of biographies or as a central figure in general studies of the Reformation. It has been estimated that more books have been written about the Doctor of Wittenberg than any other figure with the exception of Jesus Christ, especially in very recent times. Indeed, British historian Gordon Rupp contended over twenty years ago that more books had appeared in Britain alone on Luther since the end of World War II than in the four centuries before. This does not even include the renaissance in Luther studies that has taken place in Germany and the United States. Luther’s popularity as a biographical subject is certainly understandable. He was, himself, the most prolific writer Germany has ever produced, and long before he died, he contributed to his own legendary stature by his writings and by his observations on every conceivable topic to his disciples, who dutifully transcribed them and collected them into what became the now-famous Table Talks. His popularity as the subject of historical analysis, especially since World War II, is closely related to the conviction held by some that Luther played a paramount role in the development of the peculiar collective German psyche that was receptive to the extremist tenets of National Socialism. Luther’s idiosyncracies, health problems, and penchant for making controversial statements also led to the production of the first attempt at psychohistory, Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958), and a moderately popular play and film, John Osborne’s Luther.
With this knowledge, then, the reader initially questions the need for still another biography of Doctor Martin. H. G. Haile, the author of Luther: An Experiment in Biography, however, quickly overcomes this skepticism by immediately noting the incompleteness and inadequacy of earlier Luther studies. Virtually all earlier biographies of Luther, Haile asserts, have concentrated upon Luther’s life before 1530, the year of the production of the traditional Lutheran confession of faith, the Augsburg Confession, by Luther’s lieutenant Philipp Melanchthon while Luther remained in hiding as an outlaw. These biographies have emphasized the topics that have now become part of the Luther legend, and many of them have come to form the corpus of a Luther hagiography. The high points of the traditional Luther biography are summarized in Haile’s opening paragraph: the excessively strict upbringing as a child by hardworking parents; the thunderstorm crisis when a lightning bolt led to Luther’s terrified vow to become a monk; the unhappy, questioning years in the Augustinian monastery when Luther sought assurance of his salvation; the turning point when Luther discovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone; the nailing of the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg; and the appearance before the Diet of Worms and Luther’s affirmation of his convictions in the face of overwhelming opposition. Haile questions the veracity of some or all these events, noting that none can be proved or disproved by contemporary documents. They are in fact the boasts of Luther in his later years. They represent Luther’s creation of his own heroic legend and are thus suspect.
Haile is also concerned by the “rigid denominationalism” that has long dominated Reformation and Luther historiography. Only a brief summary of these approaches confirms Haile’s concern. Early students of the Reformation had to content themselves with the bitterly critical biography of Luther by John Cochlaeus and the excessively laudatory appraisal by Melanchthon. This partisan tradition has continued into the present century with the polemical biography of Heinrich Denifle, O.P., which was criticized by Protestants and Catholics alike for its negative excessiveness. Recent Protestant biographies have been more evenhanded than that of Melanchthon, but they have almost without exception restated the elements of the legend Luther worked to create. During the nineteenth century another ingredient was also added: the economic-materialist interpretation of history which was stimulated by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, by the industrial revolution, and by the spread of materialism. Engels in his The Peasant War in Germany and Karl Kautsky in his Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, by identifying economic and material motives for individual and group identification with the Protestant cause, led historians to deemphasize the religious and spiritual features which were of much greater importance in the sixteenth than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Haile contends that the rigidity of these three schools of historical writing—Catholic, Protestant, and economic-materialist—has failed to produce the total picture of Luther, and as a result has distorted the contemporary image of the man and his age. His objective is to produce a new type of biography, “an experiment in biography,” that concentrates not...
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