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That would be an ecumenical matter

With his gift for telling a good story, Peter Stanford’s biography of Martin Luther is an engrossing read

18 March, 2017 — By Piers Plowright

Martin Luther in 1529 by Lucas Cranach the Elder

HOW and what did you learn at school about Martin Luther? I remember a green-covered two volume history of Europe with a chapter on “Martin Luther and the German Reformation” and there was a picture of a plumpish unsmiling bloke, eyes swivelling to the right so he’s not quite looking at you, curly black hair sprawling under a squashed Basque beret, and a high-collared black robe tight against his double-chin.

I somehow got the impression that he was – in the language of 1066 And All That – “A Bad Thing”. But I do remember two things about him that impressed me: his hammering to the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, a list of complaints about the Catholic Church [95 Theses] and his defiant cry at the oddly named “Diet of Worms” in front of the young Emperor Charles V, clerics and princes, refusing to recant his opinions: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

And now it turns out in West Hampstead author Peter Stanford’s engrossing and fast-moving new biography that it’s unlikely either of these things happened.

What is true is that almost 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Luther, a young (34-year-old) Augustinian friar and Professor of Biblical Studies at Wittenberg University upset the Roman Catholic apple-cart with a letter written in Latin to his Archbishop complaining about the growing habit of selling “indulgences” – taking money for the remission of sins both of the living and the dead.

Luther discovering the doctrine of sola fide at Erfurt. Painting by Joseph Noel Paton, 1861

Attached to this quite moderate letter were 95 no-punches-pulled criticisms [theses] intended to provoke a debate with Johann Tetzel the leading Indulgences salesman.

And it’s also true that three-and-a-half years later, after being excommunicated by Pope Leo X, this same young cleric, now at the centre of a theological storm, refused to recant any of his opinions before the Emperor. Very unlikely though that he said anything as stirring as “Here I stand”.

Whatever he said, the Protestant Revolution had found its leader.

Peter Stanford has a gift for taking theological complexity and running with it. An excellent storyteller with a grasp of the oddities of human judgement, he has shown in books like his biography of the Devil, his travel guide to Heaven and his reassessment of Judas Iscariot, how exciting the intersection of history, culture, and theology can be. And he does it with a lightness of touch that makes difficult things clear.

In seeing Martin Luther as a Catholic dissident who might in fairer times have reached a cleansing understanding with the Church hierarchy and spared Christendom a lot of trouble, Stanford puts his finger on a great and still-lingering tragedy.

It’s taken the Roman church 450 years to judge this turbulent priest less harshly – things started to get better with the Second Vatican Council of 1962 –and though the Great Schism between Catholics and Protestants is not yet healed, the Churches are listening to each other as never before and many of the reforms that Luther was calling for are being implemented by the present remarkable Pope.

Martin Luther, Stanford leaves you in no doubt, was a hero – a flawed one, certainly: there’s no getting away from his anti-semitism and the frequent coarseness of his language and behaviour, but a brave man who was prepared to die – he very nearly did – for his beliefs.

So it’s not surprising that in 1934 a black American pastor called Michael King, attending a gathering of Baptist ministers in Berlin and hearing Martin Luther’s story, was moved to change his first name and that of his later-to-be-famous son to Martin Luther. Both men had found their hero and a voice. Selma 1965 is not so far from Wittenberg 1517.

Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident. By Peter Stanford, Hodder and Stoughton, £20

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