Title: Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval
Author: Heinz Schilling, translated by Rona Johnston
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York, NY
Date published: 2017
Number of pages: 578
Reviewed by Dale E. Luffman for the Association for Mormon Letters.
Oxford University Press has established a reputation of publishing both timely and quality works in the field of religious thought. This volume is no exception. Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval is a timely volume given the attention being currently given to the 500th Anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517. This 578 page volume presents Martin Luther and his thoughts and actions as well as the thoughts and actions of those who were contemporary with him in a manner that is truly engaging. Schilling’s masterful work becomes, in many ways, a testament to a world that is no longer the world in which we abide, but a world into which we are invited to inhabit. The work forces the reader to confront something entirely different than what is often generally assumed about Martin Luther, his contemporaries, and his times.
Heinz Schilling has used Martin Luther’s own words extensively throughout his text, offering the reader a much less contaminated engagement with the man and his times — an attribute worthy of celebration. There is a brutal, refreshing honesty demonstrated by the author in this biography. Martin Luther is presented as a reformer who lived in an age ruled by faith, a time that was also a world of contradictions. The reader is presented with a well-researched, influential, comprehensive and balanced text — a foundational, critical work of merit. Presenting Martin Luther as a reformer, a prophet, and as a man of his own age is a monumental task. Navigating the contours of this often difficult and contradictory character, a man of immense will, is for any biographer a formidable task. This author, however, has risen to the occasion, providing the reader with an instructive and very desirable work.
Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval is a well presented and carefully organized text. The Contents Page in the forepart of the volume presents the reader with a helpful guide, revealing the eras of Luther’s influence. The work is presented in three parts or sections: Childhood, Education, and First Years as a Monk, 1483 – 1511; Wittenberg and the Beginnings of the Reformation, 1511 – 1525; and, Prophetic Confidence, But Temporal Failure, 1525 – 1546. A concise, informative Epilogue concludes the text. Complementing the organization of the volume are 49 illustrative figures. These are complementary of the narrative and are well placed in the volume. Two illustrative maps are also embedded in the text. This careful presentation and organization faithfully lead the reader into an encounter with a comprehensive and extremely balanced account of Martin Luther, his world, and his times, contributing significantly to an enhanced understanding of this critical life.
As I engaged Schilling’s biography I was struck by many of the astute observations made by the author regarding Luther, and shared with the reader throughout the text. Among those observations was that Martin Luther was not only a reformer; he was also a prophet. Further, that not only does the Reformation owe a great debt to this man, but so does the Roman Catholic Church. The author suggests that people of faith are not served by a simple cult of remembrance. Rather, a biography should communicate Luther’s thoughts and actions candidly, not romanticized, but as the thoughts and actions of Luther’s contemporaries as a witness to a world in many ways lost to us – – a world that is no longer ours. Schilling’s splendid biography forces us to confront something different than what we might have come to expect. The author suggests that this biography is about a Luther who was different, who abided in a very different historical horizon, and whose views were very different from the interests and views of later generations. The author invites the reader to rediscover Luther inasmuch as Luther’s world is not our world (page 3)!
That Martin Luther made a significant contribution to the religious world is without question. Defining his contribution in the secularizing tendencies in Germany and Europe in the sixteenth century has not always received the attention this phenomenon deserves. Schilling endeavors to correct this tendency, informing the reader that the new age of the Reformation was shaped by, and shaped Luther and his contemporaries, with deep roots reaching back into the late medieval period. The attention given the scope of Luther’s world is one of the strengths of Schilling’s volume.
It is the case that Schilling makes for the prophetic authority of Luther as the rebel that forced his age to act in the manner that history attests that will be of interest to the LDS community. Fundamental questions of faith, questions regarding authority, and questions of practice emerge throughout the author’s depiction of the great reformer. As a prophet, Luther the reformer opposed the great and the powerful of his time in the name of the One he felt called. He would declare: Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. Schilling offers attestation throughout the work to Luther’s prophetic character.
This volume will take its place as one of the best biographies of Martin Luther, and will be a lasting testament to the reformer and prophet. A wonderful contribution to the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s posting of his historic 95 Theses! A must read!