Luther and the Weight of History | Netherhall House

It is often said that more has been written about Martin Luther than anyone other than Jesus of Nazareth, so the inevitable question for any new book about the infamous Wittenbergian friar is whether or not it has anything new to say. This was the task set before Richard Rex, a Professor of Reformation History at Queen’s College, Cambridge, who delivered a talk earlier this week at Netherhall House based on his recently published ‘The Making of Martin Luther’.

As was clear from the event, Prof Rex’s contribution to the debate on Luther is above all marked by clarity of thought and a careful reading of the textual evidence, both of which help him to provide a distinctive account of the chronology of Luther’s theological development. For Prof Rex, Luther was first and foremost a mystic who came to develop original views on justification in response to his early internal spiritual struggles, particularly regarding scrupulosity. On this view, it was only after seeing the irreconcilability of his sola fide conclusions with the established Magisterium that Luther began to develop his well-known critique of the hierarchical Church’s abuse of temporal authority.

In order to paint this picture, Prof Rex was clear to highlight Luther’s own account of a dramatic conversion experience that took place during a thunder storm that left the young law student fearing for his life, even while writers such as Craig Harline have increasingly downplayed the story for fear that it is a case of self-hagiography. And rather than emphasise Luther’s famous ‘Ninety-five Theses’ on indulgences, as is typical, Prof Rex instead points to Luther’s earlier writings on justification, such as the ‘Disputation Against Scholastic Theology’, as the real origin of his theological radicalism.

This certainly allows the variety and contradictoriness of Luther’s thought to cohere into a portrait of a man of great intellect and spiritual vigour who chiefly sought to excise human uncertainty and fallibility from the search for salvation in God. This attempt to remove the human element from Christianity’s dialectical relationship between the two poles of the Incarnation has, of course, been noted about Luther before, but since the rise of the Radical Orthodoxy movement this has increasingly been neatly explained away as a logical outcome of Luther’s Ockhamist nominalism, which in turn is said to be rooted in Duns Scotus’ 13th Century account of the univocity of being.

For Prof Rex, this clearly does not do justice to the originality and dynamism of Luther’s thought. And, indeed, for all the intellectual sophistication with which historians such as Brad Gregory have gone about tracing an ideological thread all the way from medieval metaphysics, to Protestant antinomianism and up to the capitalist structures of today’s secular liberal West, one cannot help but feel that such metanarratives suppress as much history as they reveal. The reality is even those who critique the supersessionist historicism modernity inherits from Hegel and Marx still often uncritically assume the passivity of the human agent upon which those accounts were based. Therefore, in stark contrast to common arguments for the historical inevitability of the Reformation, Prof Rex tries to demonstrate how the history of Western civilization really did pivot radically upon the interior life of one man, even if a whole nexus of social and historical conditions were necessary to allow Luther’s ideas to take root in early modern Europe. Such a conclusion would strike many today as absurd given the sheer weight of history which it leaves to rest on Luther’s shoulders, but perhaps it is the best explanation we have for why Luther is the second most discussed figure of all time and, indeed, why the Galilean preacher with which Luther himself was so transfixed remains the first.

by Thomas Caddick