My goal here is twofold. First, which biography of Martin Luther, from among the many published since January 2015, will give you a sense of the whole person and his key ideas? Second, which books will help you go deeper than the specific flashpoint of “indulgences” that pushed Martin Luther to publish his 95 Theses? This main story highlights 12 biographies, and I’ll explore quickly in sidebars a baker’s dozen of dives into Reformation history and its relevance today.
One of my three favorites among new biographies is Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (Yale, 2015), which shows how “separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation.” Moralistic religion meant designating holy ground, building temples as places to make sacrifices, creating ceremonies, and going through procedures that, when checked off, would guarantee eternal rewards. But Luther said, “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there.”
Hendrix shows that Luther did not want us to feel holy through extra-Biblical ritual. In 1530 he listed 94 practices and customs in a “pretended” church, and particularly criticized feast and fasting days celebrated with special masses, processions, abstentions from food or other activities, and the wearing of ornate vestments. Hendrix shows how Luther’s marriage to former nun Katharina von Bora was a great blessing to both, but did not guarantee happiness for their children: Martin Luther Jr. studied theology but apparently became an alcoholic, boozed with his buddies, and died at age 34.
Hendrix sometimes gets abstract, but Luther’s earthiness does not let him stay above ground level for long. Once, to a friend marrying a woman also named Katharina, Luther wrote, “When you have embraced your Katharina in bed with the sweetest kisses, think also to yourself: ‘My Christ has given me this person, this very best creature of my God; to him be praise and glory.’ I will predict the day on which you receive this letter, and that night in the same way I will love my Katharina in memory of you.”
Another good biography, Heinz Schilling’s Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval (Oxford, 2017), spotlights the importance of a change in Luther’s name. After November 1517 he began signing letters to close friends “Eleutherior,” which means “the free one”—one who had been liberated and would liberate. Like Saul becoming Paul, Martin Luder (the family name) became Martin Luther.