I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran. That meant that, when I was 12 and 13, I spent every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from 4 to 5 p.m. during the school year in Pastor Nelson’s office with 10 to 15 other students my age, being taught from the Small Catechism of Martin Luther. The point of all of those classes was our confirmation, which happened during Sunday worship services in late May of our second year in catechism.
Part of confirmation was being quizzed by the pastor – in front of the entire church. It was always helpful to have a large confirmation class, because then you would get only one question at most. Mine was the smallest they’d ever had, before or since – four of us, and I was the only boy. That was a great relief to the three girls because they knew Pastor Nelson would ask me the hard questions, including the one every person in every class dreaded because the answer was so long – explaining the “Jesus section” of the Apostles Creed. They were right to be relieved. That was one of my questions. Somehow, I was confirmed in spite of my answers.
What I didn’t know then was that what I learned those two years in catechism became my theological framework. While I might change somewhat or adapt or add or subtract over the years, what I learned from Luther’s Small Catechism is still inside my head more than half a century later.
So it was with some curiosity and then considerable delight that I began to read Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas. I knew some of the basics about Luther (circa 1483-1546), and had even visited Erfurt in Germany, where he attended seminary. But the Luther I found on the pages of Metaxas’s book was not the myth but the living, breathing reality. In fact, I knew I was in good hands when the first thing Metaxas did was to enumerate and sweep away the myths that have grown up about Luther over the centuries.
No, he didn’t come from a family of peasants. No, he didn’t have a hardscrabble upbringing. No, there was no literal bolt of lightning that led him to become a monk (although there was a thunderstorm involved). No, his trip to Rome did not convince him of the need for a reformation. No, he didn’t literally hurl a pot of ink at the devil. No, the nun who eventually became his wife didn’t escape the convent hidden in an empty herring barrel. And no, he most likely did not nail his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. That probably happened two weeks later. What he did do on Oct. 31 was to send a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, and it was that letter that officially began the process we came to know as the Reformation.
Perhaps the most critical thing Metaxas tells us about Luther is that he was a passionate reader of the Bible – and he was in a tiny minority, because most people, nobles, priests, archbishops, cardinals, and popes did not read the Bible. And it was his understanding of Scripture that framed the Reformation. The church’s practice of selling indulgences (allowing people to pay for time off in purgatory, for themselves and departed family members) was the flashpoint, but it was Luther’s knowledge of Scripture that propelled what could only be called the most significant revolution in human understanding and development of the last 500 years. And perhaps longer.
The church had become comfortable with the teachings of Aristotle. Luther, who also knew his Augustine, saw the inherent contradictions the church had either missed or glossed over.
The church taught that only the priests could drink the wine in communion. Luther made the startling claim, based on the Bible, that all people were equal in God’s eyes, and all people should partake of both the bread and the wine. That shocking idea of the equality of all people would find political expression more than 250 years later in a document called the Declaration of Independence.
Luther articulated the ideas of each person being free, subject to none, and each person being a servant, subject to all. He understood that anyone could understand Scripture – it wasn’t only church officials who could read and interpret. And to that point, as he stayed hidden in the castle of Wartburg while church and state looked high and low for him, he translated the New Testament into German. He did it in 11 weeks, and it was such a good translation, Metaxas says, that it is still used as the basis for new German translations today.
Metaxas tells this story of Luther extraordinarily well; the man has a gift for storytelling. Never would I have imagined that I would become fascinated with the account of the theological debate between Luther and Johannes Eck at Leipzig in 1519, but I was – and that’s due entirely to how well the author tells the story.
Metaxas is the author of four New York Times bestsellers and the host of the Eric Metaxas radio show, broadcast daily to more than 120 cities. A Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Large for the King’s College in New York City, he is the author of numerous books, including Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (2007); Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2011); Miracles: What They Are, How They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (2015); 7 Men and Their Secrets of Greatness (2016); 7 Women and Their Secret of Greatness (2016); and If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (2016).
Martin Luther is not only an outstanding biography. It is an incredible reminder of what one man accomplished, often in the face of great personal and professional peril. And it is a reminder that the Reformation was only something that happened 500 years ago, but something that is still happening, and needs to continue to happen, especially in our own hearts.
Top photograph: Memorial statue Martin Luther, Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg in Germany, via Wikimedia Commons.