Monday, May 19, 2008
Luther Mythology & Hagiography
Do Protestants have an accepted "mythology,” of Martin Luther? Some Roman Catholics probably think Luther's many commendable attributes are thoroughly put forth in hundreds of Protestant biographies (some may even posit these volumes are best described as "hagiographies"), while his darker side, sins, and faults aren't mentioned. Is it up to Catholics to present the "whole truth" about Luther?
There are probably thousands of non-Catholic books on Luther, and I do admit, I don't have them all. But guess what? If you go into your big-chain-bookstore, you will find books by Protestants that describe exactly who Luther was, warts and all.
By and large, the majority of Luther research has come from Protestants. There is a large amount of research put forth by Protestants documenting less than admirable periods in Luther’s life like Mark U. Edwards: Luther's Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-1546 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983). This book isn't that hard to track down. In it, you'll find lengthy discussions of Luther's extreme rhetoric against his enemies. Here you'll read about Luther's attacks against the Jews and the Papacy, his harsh language, his illness, his mental health, and you can also view the propaganda woodcut drawings that were included in his book, Against the Papacy at Rome Founded By the Devil. Edwards has also done an excellent volume documenting Luther's interaction with the Anabaptists and peasants entitled, Luther and the False Brethren (California: Stanford University Press, 1975). Far from covering up the Peasants Revolt, Edwards goes right to the heart of the matter.
One of the most interesting books I've ever read is Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero by Robert Kolb (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999). In this book you can read how some of the early Lutherans ascribed infallibility to Luther, and also read discussions on Luther considering himself a "prophet" or an "apostle"at times.
Even the more Luther-friendly books cover Luther's darker side. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand addresses the "bigamy of Phillip of Hesse" incident, and Luther's anger towards the Jews. Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil [New Haven: Yale University, 1989]likewise addresses many of Luther's faults.
The popular magazine Christian History did a two issue series dedicated to Luther. They include an article called "The Unrefined Reformer" which addresses "Why was Luther sometimes bull-headed, coarse-tongued, and intemperate?" [Issue 39 (vol XII, No. 3). But perhaps most telling is the current English edition of Luther’s Works. It contains some of Luther’s worst and most troubling writings, like On The Jews and Their Lies.
It is simply erroneous to think that there has been some sort of unified conscious effort by Protestants to present a whitewashed Luther of mythological proportions, especially now in 2008.If by some chance, you come across a Roman Catholic arguing that only Catholics can present the "real Luther," you'll be getting a smoke-and-mirror show. The real "myth" being put forth is that only a Roman Catholic can tell you who the "real" Luther was. I am by no means saying that one should not read books on Luther by Catholics. I can recommend more than few that I've enjoyed and learned from. I am simply warning you to recognize sophistry in popular Catholic apologetics.