Note from CM: We get back to some posts about the Reformation, which were interrupted by tributes to Eugene Peterson last week. Today, Michael Spencer reminds us of one of contemporary evangelicalism’s genuine flaws — its inability to grasp accurate and complex views of history. Case in point: their simplistic view of Martin Luther.
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Monday with Michael Spencer
In which he explains how evangelicals don’t really get Luther
[C]ompared to most Protestants, Luther was highly Catholic, right down to his view of Mary. Take a Southern Baptist to any traditional Lutheran service and ask what’s different in this service and the mass down the street. Though the differences are substantial to the informed observer, to the unaware, a Lutheran service appears very much a version of a Roman Catholic mass. (I would assume a lot of evangelicals would say the Lutherans know little about Luther and have gone back to Rome.)
Luther’s very catholic theology of the sacraments would be offensive to most evangelicals, and his historic opposition (and endorsed violence) to the Anabaptists would surprise many who cite him as the defender of the great Protestant principles. How many who wear Luther t-shirts understand Luther’s view of infant faith, baptism and the real presence?
Luther’s connection to the broad Roman Catholic tradition was for stronger than his connection to the Biblical radicalism of the radical reformers. Similarly, many who cite Luther seem completely unaware of his rejection of the Calvinistic reformation’s view of the sacraments and the resulting split between Calvin, Zwingli and Luther. A staunch Lutheran will bristle at the notion that Luther is part of the “Reformed” movement or that today’s evangelicals are using the name of the Augsburg Evangelicalism. And they should bristle at this abduction of the “parts” of Luther that evangelicals want to use.
What we see is Luther used, not understood. Parts of the Luther story are bought, repainted and utilized for the purposes of the evangelical. Luther’s boldness and courage are attributes that evangelical theologians want to import into their own ministries, so they do so while ignoring much of the Luther legacy that goes in an entirely different direction. The real Luther is too complex for most of those who use him as an icon.
I applaud the endorsement of reading historical biography among contemporary evangelicals, but I would suggest that many of the biographies point to highly altered versions of the personality being examined. In many instances, these selective biographies would be found highly distorted by scholars.
A fair biography will place a personality in his/her time, will use all the information available to draw an accurate picture, and then relate the person to the contemporary situation without turning them into a representative of any movement. In other words, Luther can be seen as a significant person in Christianity, but his disapproval of most of what goes on in contemporary churches won’t be lost. (Sorry Baptists, but he’d probably have you killed.)
A good example of this kind of biography is Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George Marsden. Edwards’ psychological quirks and failures of maturity and pastoral competence are all there, but Edwards survives as a person we can admire. What won’t survive is the use of Edwards as an endorser of everything going on among today’s Calvinists.
Before closing this post, let me suggest two very different books on Luther. Richard Marius has written Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. It is a rip-roaring good read that diagnoses Luther as the distorted personality at the root of everything wrong with western civilization, particular in its ideas about God, hell and truth. Marius’s Luther is the ruination of a reasonable, tolerant classical world. He will say things virtually no evangelical could possibly say, but that need to be said. I recommend the book.
On the other end of the scale is a very reasonable, modest, moderate, dependable biography: Martin Luther: A Life, by Martin Marty. When all the biographies are sorted out, Marty has his hand on the most likely picture of Luther: flawed, great, spiritual, troubled, trapped in his world, still influencing ours.