This biography of Martin Luther is unlike most. Study of Luther usually endeavors to understand his doctrine and its development; this biography is not uninformed about doctrine, but does not center on this important aspect of Luther’s life. As a result, it provides valuable information we do not usually get. Reading almost like a novel, Roper’s book displays a wider picture, including, specially, relations and psychology.
We get, for example, more about Karlstadt’s sartorial peculiarities, which are clues to his character. We also get a better sense of how the conflicts which shaped Luther’s thinking were perceived at the time, through detail found in correspondence. Roper has soaked in the records. The Leipzig debate brought insights and a breakthrough in Luther’s thinking, but she shows it ended with a sense of defeat at the time. We get a better understanding of Luther’s personality, specially a better view of his ego. The man did heroic things, and was not unaware of this. When the moment for his heroic deeds was past, he was also not unaware that he was being eclipsed. This is not flattering, but it is persuasive: it helps account for some of the things he did at the end of his life.
What is the value of knowing what is not flattering? Reflect on one of her conclusions: “Adulating Luther, the movement also saddled itself with a model of preacherly authority that encouraged each local pastor to counter anything he considered a deviation in doctrine as though it would open the door to the Devil—a recipe for acerbic, public argument.” (399) Mistakes are only valuable if we put them to use by learning from them.
Of all the insights Roper has, to me the best was her explanation of Luther’s attitude toward the human body. He was very earnest in his monastic career about the macerations, vigils, and the penance required of him. She argues that this contributed to his unusually positive attitude toward the body and physical pleasure when he realized that none of these privations really availed against his sin. He did not confuse, as many in the Church through the ages had, Paul’s ‘flesh’ with his body. Not only does this help us understand his unusually positive attitude toward eating, drinking, and even overindulgence in matrimony, but also his irrational insistence on the physical presence of Christ in the sacrament. I cannot condense Roper’s carefully marshalled persuasions, which run through the book in many threads and strands, without going to more trouble than it is worth here, but if you seek them, you shall find them.
Roper is decidedly an above-average historian (regius professor of history at Oxford!), and her 416 page biography is documented with another nearly 100 pages of notes. Above all, she is a good writer, without the awkward prose, the clichés and jargon that too often make reading history tedious. Roper reminds me of Perry Miller, though without as much of the glee. She is deft in using detail and circumstance to explore what for historians is often unacknowledged: temperament, feeling, failings, and attitudes. There are also explanations sympathetic to Luther that one does not expect. One is reminded of what John Lukacs says, not only when he dismisses objectivity and subjectivity as illusions, but when he positively affirms that our knowledge is personal and participatory. Here is a view of Luther in which can be so characterized.