Most people don't realize the book, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death by Richard Marius is very similar in title to Heiko Oberman's book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. The books are easy to confuse for those not paying attention. In the past, I've had people quote things to me from Oberman's book, only to go look it up, and find they meant the book by Marius!
Heiko Oberman evaluated Luther as a religious man with a deep belief in God, and in a daily battle with the Devil. Richard Marius though argues Luther was not the heroic God believer in a cosmic spiritual battle. Luther was a man who questioned whether or not God even exists, and was terrified of death. Below is from the preface of Marius' book, in which he clearly lays out his understanding of Luther:
Insofar as possible in writing about a man whose complications and contradictions were numerous and often baffling, I have tried to write a narrative history about both events and ideas. Others are writing now about the German and broader European societies that either accepted or rejected Luther's doctrines. But my interest remains fixed on the man himself, his acts, his character, and his temperament. The temperament is all-important.
Everyone who knows anything about Luther knows that he had doubts all his life. The traditional understanding is that he doubted that God could save a sinner such as himself. This reading long ago appeared simplistic to me, even when I found it eloquently stated in Roland H. Bainton's seminars at Yale and in his great biography. Here I Stand, the most popular book about Luther in the English-speaking world.
My own view is that Luther's doubts were far deeper, swept along by one
of the great recurring waves of skepticism in human history, doubts that God exists at all and that he can or will raise the dead. Luther was situated in the Renaissance, where chaos and order, justice and injustice, appearance and reality, darkness and light contended with each other to an uncertain end. For him faith and the most radical kind of doubt dwelt entwined together until the end of his days. His tragic meaning for Western civilization is that to him radical doubt was akin to blasphemy, a sin to be purged from the human heart by vehement assertion and hateful insult.
Why did he not face the difficulties of scripture squarely and arrive at the irenic balance between faith and skepticism that characterized Erasmus? The ultimate answer, of course, is temperament, the mysterious and perplexing force that makes all of us unique and gives us our own niche in history. As Luther confessed time and again, his was a temperament driven by fear and by the need to conquer it so he could live day by day. His greatest terror, one that came on him periodically as a horror of darkness, was the fear of death—death in itself, not the terror of a burning and eternal hell awaiting the sinner in an afterlife. It is startling to see how seldom he speaks of hell as a place of eternal torment, and indeed he finally rejected the notion of hell as any sort of place. When he spoke of inferno in Latin or Holle in German, he usually meant the Hebrew sheol, which he correctly said meant simply the grave. When locked in combat with an especially galling foe, Luther could consign such a person to everlasting flames, but the more reflective Luther scarcely mentions hell. His ultimate question was this: Can I believe that God has the power to raise us from the dead? The corollary to this unanswerable, existential puzzle is another question: How does the Christian deal with the terror that death evokes while reaching for a faith that the triumph over death is possible? It seems to me that Luther's theology arose from these two elemental queries. He would shake the world to its foundations so he could believe in the resurrection of the dead.
Luther, who hated skepticism, was a skeptic in spite of himself, and his titanic wrestling with the dilemma of the desire for faith and the omnipresence of doubt and fear became an augury for the development of the religious consciousness of the West in modern times. Although few scholars seem to have contemplated the idea or studied Luther's works with that possibility in mind, this thesis, I believe, brings Luther closer to us, makes him more human, and explains if it does not excuse some of the more terrible words and deeds in his career.
It is interesting Marius stops his book at the year 1527 (but really ending around 1525), while Oberman's book looks at Luther's entire life until his death in 1546. This fact alone should make one question if the Luther put forth by Marius can support his presuppositions. I say it cannot.
Marius says his underlying presuppositions to his study on Luther is “essentially non-religious.” From this perspective, he begins with the notion that “Luther represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization.” And, “…[W]hatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him” (p. xii) (Marius also lays part of the blame on the Catholic Church as well). Because the Reformation led to wars between Catholics and Protestants, the loss of life was a grave calamity of the Reformation. Humanists are always concerned with preserving humanity, for humanity’s sake. Try applying Marius’s reasoning to Moses: The Jews would have been better off if they stayed in Egypt because they almost all died in the desert wilderness. The Jews that went into the Promised Land exterminated a large number of people. Moses should have been like Erasmus and sought to negotiate more conservatively with Pharaoh. Hence, whatever good Moses did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him… Or consider the early church: instead of giving their lives for their beliefs, they should have negotiated with the Roman government. They should have said, “we’ll bow to Caesar as god, but we don’t really mean it.” Countless lives could have been saved. Thus, whatever good the early church caused by not cooperating with the Roman government is not matched by the calamities they caused.