Martin Luther's Rise from Small-town Theologian to Bold and Defiant Heretic

by Brett Miller

13 October 2017

A World Ablaze is an edifying treat for any general reader looking to get acquainted with the towering but very human figure of Martin Luther.
 
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A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation

Craig Harline

(Oxford University Press)
US: Oct 2017

Like so many groundbreaking historical figures, Luther too has a well-known—if not fully factual—story: the nailing of the Ninety-five Theses onto the door of the Wittenberg church. While the details of the story are hazy, there’s no doubting the significance of the act and the cataclysmic events it would set in motion. It was Martin Luther who would stand up to the powerful Catholic church, brazenly impugn some of its most fundamental teachings, and impress into the path of Western religious thought ideas which are still very much with us today.

It speaks to the titanic personality of Luther and his restless mind that he could set in motion such earth-shattering events: indeed, the Reformation itself. This month marks 500 years since Luther posted those academically-minded theses (disputing church indulgences), and sparked something greater than he ever could have imagined. As Craig Harline coyly points out in the introduction to A World Ablaze, more has been written about the revolutionary Luther than perhaps any other person, with the exception of Jesus. True or not, the number of books and articles written on Luther over the centuries is truly staggering. From scholarly works dissecting his theology, to popular tales of the Augustinian friar, to full-blown laudations of the man, there’s an endless amount of reading to be found on the 16th-century Martin Luther.   

But with such an enormous body of literature it can be difficult to sift through it all, even just those works which introduce and highlight the pivotal moments of Luther’s life. With a figure as immensely popular as Luther there’s the added complication that many stories—or at least aspects of them—have come down through the years that are questionable in their veracity. It’s far from certain, for example, that Luther ever uttered the very famous words “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Aside from these issues, the profound influence of the Reformation can sometimes blur how we understand Luther’s story; that is, by looking back from a distanced perspective in which we know how things will turn out.   
 
Luther himself, however, certainly didn’t know how things would unfold, and that’s true even for the trajectory of his own thought. He was continually developing and elaborating his theological views. Things were also uncertain in the world around him: the intertwining of church and state within the context of the Holy Roman Empire made every religious and political maneuver fraught with myriad implications. 

All of these factors can make Luther’s story a difficult one to grasp. It’s of great help, then, that historian Harline has composed this clear, concise, and entertaining book intended for the general reader curious about Luther and how he sparked the Reformation. A World Ablaze gives us Martin Luther in the “flesh-and-blood”, in his own world, and in the span of a few critical years of his life, roughly 1517 - 1522.

One of the things Harline does so superbly is convey the multiplicity of factors that led to Luther’s rapid rise to notoriety. The Ninety-five Theses, though strongly worded in places, was not meant to incite a feud with the pope or even to discount the value of indulgences outright; rather, it was meant to facilitate a discussion among other theologians about the issue. The posting of the theses to the church door was standard practice and nothing out of the ordinary.

But there was much going on in Luther’s 16th-century European world that would, in a very short time, make the Ninety-five Theses and other of Luther’s works—like A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace—carry explosive and far-reaching implications. 

Harline, by combining lively storytelling with a careful presentation of the history, helps situate the reader into much of this background. It was Pope Leo X and his desire to rebuild a worn-down St. Peter’s Basilica that gave way to a new plenary indulgence—one that would ultimately compel Luther to question just how much scriptural support indulgences actually had. But more immediately, Luther questioned the way such indulgences were carried out. Men like Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, breezily sold and presented them as if they could actually forgive people of their sins (and not just take time off of purgatory). Luther found this misguided attitude toward indulgences deeply troubling. And so, as he would come to do persistently throughout his life, he took up his pen and composed the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences—more commonly known as the Ninety-five Theses.

By questioning indulgences, however, Luther was also (unavoidably) questioning the pope’s authority. Harline says of the theological milieu of the time that “writing against indulgences automatically meant writing against the pope.” In Luther’s case this was even more true because Pope Leo X was “personally and directly” behind this new indulgence. As a result, Luther quickly found himself the target of an increasing number of attacks. 

In spite of the onslaught, Luther came to be increasingly vigorous, productive, and intent on articulating and spreading his evolving views. He was greatly aided in this by the use of the printing press—an innovation which Luther had a knack for fully exploiting. In fact, the printing of Luther’s works was simply unparalleled. “By the end of 1520,” writes Harline, “he’d authored more works (around 60) and had more editions printed of those works than anybody else in the history of the empire.” 

This was a bold, strategic move by Luther considering that not terribly long after his Ninety-five Thesis began to circulate it was made increasingly clear that he should quit spouting his heretical views. But despite some worries over this, and despite some bouts of Anfechtungen—feelings of severe religious despair and torment (ones which would haunt Luther throughout most of his life)—he continued to say what he had to say.     

So how was it, then, that despite such growing condemnation—including, in 1520, a papal bull which threatened excommunication and likened Luther to a wild boar trampling through the Church—that Luther was still speaking his mind, let alone alive and (relatively) free? This is a question which many who are new to Luther will rightly wonder: and indeed it is one of the most interesting—and bewildering—parts of Luther’s story. Harline uses it as the main narrative thrust of the book and does so with excellent effect. With his typical style of lively and sharp prose, he illuminates the many forces at play within Luther’s tightly-knit, but also fragmented world. As we travel alongside Luther to scholarly disputations and heated imperial diets, we see how financial debts, school rivalries, political motivations, and a growing German resentment towards the pope and Rome all combined to create an explosive scenario. How Luther came not only to survive it all but in the process change the course of Christendom forever is something the reader will eagerly turn the pages to find out.

Harline’s A World Ablaze is a terrific book and succeeds wonderfully in its aims. It will serve as an edifying treat for any general reader looking to get acquainted with the towering but very human figure of Martin Luther. 

A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation

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