Monday, June 11, 2012

"Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought": A Review

In sheer terror, he made a vow to his patron saint. In disillusionment, he questioned the practices of the church to which he gave his very life. In firm resolve, he nailed his list of protest to the church door. In utter joy, he grasped the liberating idea that the righteousness of God is given, not earned. And in the face of intense spiritual battle, he cried out to God, his "mighty fortress," his "bulwark never failing," These are the defining moments of Martin Luther's life. Most, if not all, Christians know these defining moments. Most also know that with every mallet swing on the church door at Wittenberg, Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation. But much more, these events also serve to shape our lives, as well, for they embody the Reformation and form the foundation of Protestantism. one historian has even remarked that any vestige of Christianity in Western culture is entirely owing to this man, Martin Luther. (13)

That is the introductory paragraph of Stephen J. Nichols wonderful book Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. I have read a lot of books on the German Reformer. Some are strict biographies, others trace his theological convictions, some are a little bit of a combination. Nichols' book is one of the best I have read so far.

The book is broken down into three sections.  The first is section looks at the biography of Luther. Though it is only a survey, Nichols manages to deal with Luther's story completely. It is a rare feet of an author to summarize Luther's life in just two chapters totally just 45 pages and yet at the same time not short change the reader. Many biographers focus almost entirely on the ten years following the posting of the 95 theses (see Marius as one example) while others offer so much detail that they miss the broader story. Nichols summarizes the main events in Luther's life but still manages to tell the whole story. For one wanting an introduction into his biography, this is a great resource.

Nichols then looks at Luther's theology through the lens of his writings and events. Luther did not write a systematic theology and many historians and theologians have attempted to write one for Luther dividing his writings and theology into typical systematic theology sections (Theology Proper, Bibliology, Anthropology, etc.). Nichols highlights certain and crucial aspects of Luther's theology beginning with his theology of the cross & theology of glory dichotomy. I am one that believes that to understand what Luther means by this is to understand Luther's theology. I would also add that I don't think anyone has improved on Luther's Theology of the Cross in history.

Nichols also highlights Luther's Three Treatises and the impact they had in his world and his theology. He also spends some time, understandably, on Luther's Bondage of the Will. His discussion and comparison of Erasmus's book Freedom of the Will with Pelagius is fascinating and worth exploring more. It appears as if the Catholic Church, which I have argued for years, is turning away from Augustine (probably thanks in much part to Calvin and Luther) and towards Pelagius. He also highlights Luther's view of communion and his ethics.

The third section is labeled Luther, the Pastor which is slightly misleading. Here he discusses Luther's Table Talk (with plenty of examples that will make you laugh), the priority of preaching in church (some surprising insights here such as Luther's view that preachers shouldn't preach long sermons and keep services to about an hour long), the Small Catechism, his love for music and his hymns, and other areas of Luther's life.

Overall, this is a really great book. It serves as an introduction to Luther's life and thought, as the title suggests, and yet even those familiar with Luther will find this helpful. The book fails to document all of its quotes and references, which is surprising coming from Nichols, but its goal is not to necessarily be academic, but introductory. If you want to begin diving into the life, ministry, and theology of Martin Luther this is an excellent resource well worth your time. Its reads easily and Nichols is one of my favorite church historians and this book shows why.

Books on Luther:
Reviews -Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death
Reviews - Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
Blogizomai - "The Wit of Martin Luther": A Review
Blogizomai - "The Trial of Luther": A Review
Reviews - "Five Leadeing Reformers"
Reviews - Reviews in Brief - Martin Luther and the Reformation
Reviews - The Theology of the Reformers  
Reviews - The Unquenchable Flame 
Reviews - Christianity's Dangerous Idea

Posts on Luther:
Blogizomai - We Are Not Professionals: Martin Luther's Warning To Ministers
Theology - Luther:  Right Doctrine and Righteous Living Go Hand-in-Hand - A Message the Church Needs to Recover  
Blogizomai - The Story of Martin Luther: An Interview With Michael Haykin
Blogizomai- Martin Luther (1483-1546)  
Blogizomai - The 95 Theses, 490 Years Later
Blogizomai - For Reformation Day:  An Insightful Documentary  
Blogizomai - The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 1
Blogizomai - The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 2
Blogizomai - The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 3
Blogizomai - The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 4
Blogizomai - The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 5
Blogizomai - The Real Divide:  Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 6
Blogizomai - Martin Luther's "Here I Stand"
GBC -Martin Luther: Mediating on the Cross
Theology -The Mount Rushmore of Preachers and Pastor
Blogizomai - "Dear Christian, Let Us Now Rejoice": A Hymn on Justification by Martin Luther
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