(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One of the most incisive and readable of the many books triggered by the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of German Reformation leader Martin Luther is Heiko A. Oberman’sLuther: Man Between God and the Devil. Unusual in both organization and approach, this book provides new insight into both Luther the man and the Reformation that he sparked.

More of a series of connected essays than a typical biography, Oberman’s study focuses on the origins of the German Reformation and the shaping of young Luther’s thought. Yet Oberman covers in considerable detail the major episodes of Luther’s life from his birth in 1483 to his death in 1546. Sensitive to faith and values—in the tradition of Roland A. Bainton, to whom the book is dedicated—Oberman provides a penetrating view of Luther’s spiritual struggles. Oberman sensed that “Luther learned to draw life from the struggle against the Devil. For the just shall live by faith, and ‘life’ does not begin in Heaven.” In contrast to the prevailing medieval concept that in the midst of life human beings are surrounded by death, Oberman claims that “Luther’s faith enabled him to vigorously turn this on its head: ‘In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.’”

Long known for his view that Luther and the Reformation have been distorted in many rationalistic studies, Oberman finds the key to understanding Luther in his existential struggle with personified evil. The Devil was very real to Luther; that much has been widely recognized. Oberman insists, however, that this fact has not been fully understood or adequately analyzed in previous studies. The underlying current of Oberman’s analysis is that Luther’s view of the Devil was at once generically medieval and distinctively his own.

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. 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 say that Luther never overcame the typical medieval belief in the Devil, according to Oberman, is not to say too much, but too little. Luther, he argues “even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency.”

The first of the three major sections of Oberman’s biography deals with “The Longed-For Reformation.” This section begins with an account of Luther’s death in February, 1546, permitting Oberman to set the tone of the book in terms of Luther’s personality traits and the images of his life. He alludes to a funeral oration by Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s perennial colleague and interpreter of the Lutheran Reformation. Delivered in Latin in the name of the University of Wittenberg, where both had taught, Melanchthon’s eulogy was candid in recognizing Luther’s flaws of temper and speech but described him as a “strict healer,” who was “God’s instrument for renewing the Church.” This struck Oberman as a misleading characterization that contributed to a distorted image of Luther. Luther was indeed “strict”—that was a trait Melanchthon had experienced at firsthand—but he was not a “healer.” Luther saw himself as “God’s instrument” but “‘renewal of the Church’ was something he did not envisage,” Oberman claims.

What, then, was Luther’s role in the Reformation, and how did he perceive himself within it? To understand these issues, insists Oberman, one must study the life of Luther “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.” Thus, Oberman begins his first concentrated essay on the situation that produced the Reformation.

The second major section of the book deals with “The Unexpected Reformation,” in which Oberman analyzes the young Luther’s intellectual and spiritual development from 1505 (when he decided to become a monk) to 1521 (the year of the Diet of Worms before Charles V). By then the German Reformation had become a cause of concern to the young emperor. Posting the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 led quickly to confrontation with the papacy and Catholic leaders in Germany. In 1519 Luther was drawn into a debate at Leipzig with Johannes Eck, who skillfully maneuvered him into supporting the heretical views of John Hus. Two years later Charles V, who dreamed like Charlemagne of a vast, unified Christian realm, tried to force Luther to recant at Worms. Luther was too committed to the theology of “salvation by faith alone,” however, to be deterred.

The last section focuses on “The Reformation in Peril,” beginning in the 1520’s and continuing to where the book began, with Luther’s death in early 1546. Here Oberman is at his best in showing the Luther who constantly had to deal with problems: illness, political resistance, division in his own movement. Throughout his ordeals Luther remained a man of faith, not only in terms of theological affirmation, but also living by faith in the midst of problems aggravated by bouts of illness and depression.

By several measures, Oberman is a revisionist. He maintains throughout that the principal driving force of Luther in the Reformation was his unenviable but paradigmatic position between the Devil and God. This is not to say that Oberman...

(The entire section is 2267 words.)