Friday, September 30, 2011

Luther for Dummies

Originally posted on the aomin blog, 9/14/07

Whenever I go to the local bookstore, there seems to be a new volume in the "For Dummies" series. I have yet to see a "Luther For Dummies" volume, but there is The Complete Idiot's Guide To The Reformation and Protestantism. The question of good Luther books has been asked of me often, and it is not answered simply.There isn't one simple book like "Luther For Dummies" or "The Idiot's Guide To Martin Luther."

I consider myself a student of the Reformation rather than an expert. Recently, one of the guys from Triablogue asked me for my Luther recommendations, so in the spirit of friendly blog etiquette, and considering who was asking me, I figured I'd finally oblige the question. As a student, I can only point to those resources that have helped me (that is, until I get down to business and write my own book on Luther!).

Recently I was reading a book from 1959 that stated there were over 3000 biographies and studies on Luther. Now in 2007, I would probably be in error if I said the number is double. It is probably much more than that. I have lost count of how many Luther and Reformation books are in my own collection. I point this out because it is no easy task to navigate through the multitudes of books written on Luther. Why are there so many books on Luther? Besides the fact of his impact on church history and western civilization, Luther's actual written corpus is immense. It can sometimes seem as if everything he actually said was written down. This keeps biographers and theologians very busy.

With these considerations in mind, I'd like to offer my recommendations. Note, I have laymen in mind (If you're a scholar, you don't need my recommendations!). This is only a partial list, and a simple list. It is intended to give people a few reliable texts to begin learning about Luther and the Reformation.

Of course, the best thing to do is actually read Luther. This is much easier than it used to be. You can actually purchase Luther's Works on CD-ROM. The CD contains the 55-volume American edition. The price for the CD has been going down over the years as well. For those of you who want just a taste of Luther's writings, there is a good anthology edited by Timothy Lull, Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. Lull does an excellent job of collecting key texts, and presenting key snippets from Luther's Works. There is also an older anthology edited by John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings.

One of the most fascinating and helpful resources is What Luther Says by Ewald Plass. The book contains 1700 pages of quotes by Martin Luther arranged topically. This book is a masterful topical arrangement of Luther's opinion on a myriad of subjects: everything from practical matters to in-depth theological issues. There are 5,100 quotations on more than 200 subjects. A thorough index links to hundreds of other subjects. This book isn't cheap, but it is well worth it. Also this book makes a great gift for your pastor. There is a smaller volume similar in nature called A Compend Of Luther's Theology by Hugh Kerr. It is out-of-print, but easy to track down, and inexpensive.
Though these anthologies are great introductions, I always recommend people begin by reading some of Luther's Sermons. Recently, Baker books republished seven volumes of these entitled The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther. The set is inexpensive. I recommend this as a starting point because it gives one a feel for the pastoral heart and care of Luther. His sermons are much easier to read than his theological treatises, and will challenge and inspire you.

As to basic historical biographies of Luther, I recommend two books that compliment each other. The first is Roland Bainton's Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. The book is straightforward, and though criticized for being too lenient on Luther, it is a highly reliable historical work. The second is Heiko Oberman's Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. This biography is more daring. It presents more of a "Luther, warts and all". As with Bainton's book, the historical and biographical information is set forth accurately.

Here are some interesting historical treatments. Robert Kolb's Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero traces Luther's impact on Lutheranism, and explores the way Lutherans have understood who Luther was. Some early Lutherans went as far as calling him a Prophet. Martin- God's Court Jester by Eric Gritsch tackles some of the controversial subjects surrounding Luther, like the folly of using psycho-history to interpret Luther's life. Richard Stauffer has an interesting little book called Luther As Seen By Catholics, tracing the way Catholics have understood Luther for the past few hundred years. Similarly, if you can track it down, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Reevaluation by W.H.T. Dau gets into debunking the slanderous accusations Catholics have leveled against Luther.
But most people never move beyond the biographical with Luther. Luther was a theologian, and had distinctive theological paradigms. For the simplest overview of his theology, Steve Paulson has written Luther For Armchair Theologians, with the layman in mind. The book is by far the easiest text available on Luther's theology. For an advanced detailed treatment, The Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus is, in my opinion, the definitive overview of Luther's theology. It is an in-depth analysis of Luther's thought, fully indexed, and documented with citations from primary sources. But the book that really takes Luther's theology and makes it practical is Gerhard O. Forde's, On Being A Theologian Of The Cross: Reflections On Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. This book endeared me to Luther, and really challenged the way I do "theology." Forde clearly puts forth what Luther meant by the theology of the cross. Out of all the books listed above, this would be my favorite, and the one I would promote as required reading.
Again, these are only a few texts I have found helpful. I should really do a follow-up entry on books you shouldn't read on Luther. I can mention one immediately: The Facts About Luther by Father Patrick O'Hare. This book is quite popular with Catholic laymen. It is poorly researched, and filled with distortion. I have spent a lot of time with this book, and can prove my case.

Addendum 09/30/11

Here's a few more.

For the most in-depth treatment of Luther, Martin Brecht's massive volumes are really the standard in terms of bibliography. They are now available for purchase by Google E-books for a meager price (here's an example).

For one of the best overviews I've ever come across on the different interpretations of Luther throughout history, Roman Catholic scholar John P. Dolan's History of the Reformation, A Conciliatory Assessment of Opposite Views (New York: Desclee Company, 1964) is extremely useful. Dolan is the author of the Luther entry in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, an entry far different than that in the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

If you've followed my blog entries, you've noticed how smitten I was by another Roman Catholic scholar's book: Franz Posset, The Real Luther. This was probably the most interesting Luther book I've read in years.

One my picks above, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, appears to have gotten a bit more expensive.

These are only a few books among many. Keep in mind as well, Concordia has been releasing one new volume of Luther's Works each year. They've put out two so far, both were volumes of sermons. Both books are well worth the investment. The newest volume should be out soon.

1 comment:

Brigitte said...

I started with the Commentary on Galatians and then went on to the Plass Anthology, and then some sermons. When I took a Luther course we had to read the Lull Anthology of theological writings. After that eventually I got around to the the Bondage of the Will.

To get started I would say: 1. The Small Catechism and the Large Catechism. 2. Plass.

James is probably right, though, about suggesting sermons.