Heiko Oberman, 1982
“This book has been written with the double assumption that, first, the Reformer can only be understood as a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon; and, second, that the relevancy so sought after is not found by purging the record and hence submitting to post-Enlightenment standards of modernity, but rather by challenging our condescending sense of having outgrown the dark myths of the past” (Preface to the English Edition).
More than most of the books we’ve read, Oberman’s seems to call for some sort of prefatory analysis of his biases, presumed opponents, and religious position in order to make the rest of the book comprehensible. Most of what I’m about to lay out is incredibly obvious and is less for our sake now than for my sake two years from now when I’m rereading these notes for my exams. That being said:
Oberman is obviously Protestant, and a Lutheran. I know absolutely nothing about Oberman, besides the fact that he(?) is German. I also know that in Germany one doesn’t study religion, not really. One studies theology, and only Catholic or Lutheran (Evangelisch) at that. So it seems safe to say that this book is written in conversation with a number of German scholars who identify openly as Protestant or Catholic in their scholarship. The tone, I think, can be largely explained by reference to this scholarly climate, which strikes me, at least, as extremely alien. Oberman has an ambivalent relationship with Catholic scholars, I think. He clearly sees himself as in opposition to the crude, defamatory attacks on Luther that I take constitute(d) one wing of Catholic scholarship on Luther. However, he does cite some Catholic scholarship approvingly - though one suspects with a similar tone in which anti-Semites of the Third Reich spoke of “their good Jews.”
Oberman is also very clearly arguing against Young Man Luther, by Erik Erikson. Erikson published an extremely well-known “psychohistory” of Luther in 1970, basically trying to analyze Luther based on his writings and the records we have of him. It has been years and years since I’ve read it, but I think Erikson drew a number of fairly crude Freudian conclusions about Luther being depressed and caught in the anal stage of development. He devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to the significance of Luther’s bowel movements. Oberman, I suspect, objects to this book, in part because of the intellectual commitments he lays out in the beginning of the book - i.e., he thinks that scholarship should not be an effort to analyze the past in modern categories, but, rather, some sort of effort to return to the past “as it was.” More than that, though, I think it’s pretty clear in this book that, despite his protests to the contrary, Oberman adores Luther. I suspect Erikson’s book was too iconoclastic for Oberman, and at least part of his reaction against it stems from visceral disgust at seeing his idol debased.
Here’s my last intervention into this format: I’m keeping the material grouped by chapters (so my summary corresponds to the content of each chapter), but I think the layout of this book is absolutely idiotic, so, at least regarding background, I’m going to shuffle the order of the chapters.
Part One: The Longed for Reformation
Chapter III: An Elemental Event
Luther was born in 1483 (he claimed 1484) in Eisleben, a town of about 4000 people, located in the northwest corner of present-day Germany. His father, Hans Luder, was the child of a Thuringian farmer, forced to find work outside of the family because of a custom that gave the entirety of the family land to the youngest son. Consequently, Hans Luder entered the mining business, eventually working his way up to Hüttenmeister, or leseee of one of the mining pits. He owed his success largely to his advantageous marriage to Margaret Lindemann, the daughter of a relatively well-to-do burgher family in Eisenach. It was his wife’s family connections that gave him access to the credit he needed to run his business; it was the tradition in his wife’s family of educating the sons that spurred the family to find the funds to send Luther to school; finally, it was the presence of his wife’s family that prompted the Luthers to move to Eisleben.
This narrative is contrasted to the traditional one that apparently circulates in Luther scholarship, where Hans Luther is portrayed as a hard, self-made man, married to a basically uninteresting and insignificant drudge (uninteresting, that is, except when Luther detractors accuse her of sleeping with Satan to conceive Luther. I get the peculiar feeling Oberman feels a need to refute that charge). Oberman, in contrast, reasserts the significance of Luther’s mother, and basically portrays Luther’s parents as well-meaning, though sometimes strict; pious, but not terribly religious. He wants, in short, for Luther’s upbringing to be absolutely, utterly unremarkable. He also wants to give Luther some sort of authority when he discusses the abuses of the peasants by aristocracy.
Luther’s education was fairly unremarkable, it seems. He probably started school at six or seven, learning by grammar, rhetoric, and logic through harsh discipline. From this experience, presumably, Luther developed his own educational career, which advocated letting children learn playfully, joyfully, and for only half-days at a time. (Sounds sweet, right?) In 1497. Luther went to study at Magdeburg, staying at a hostel run by the “Brethren of the Common Life,” a lay branch of the Devotio Moderna, a 15th century Dutch reform movement. The brethren aimed to subordinate education to piety. Unlike many of the scholastic trends of the day, though, they eschewed “the seductive stylishness of scholastic subtleties” in favor of more engaged scholarship, directed more at the lay people than the theologians. The Dominicans tried to dray the Brethren to a heresy trial during the Council of Constance (1414-18), but were ultimately defeated when Johannes Gerson, Chancellor of the university of Paris, intervened. Like the Brethren, who depicted Gerson as a doctor of the church, Luther greatly admired Gerson, seeing him as primarily a pastoral theologian who had the correct emphasis on care of the soul.
Luther’s time with the Brethren was short and Oberman argues that, despite scholarly claims to the contrary, it was likely of little significance. The Brethren, in essence, are interesting to Luther’s story only insofar as they were an earlier reform movement that also advocated “returning to the sources,” albeit a very select, limited anthology. Something like the spirit of the Brethren would resurface during the pietist movement, Oberman argues, but so far as the 16th century was concerned, the scholarly ideal linked learning to wisdom, not piety. Hence, the rise of humanism, which we will turn to shortly.
After his brief episode the the Brethren, Luther spent the last four years prior to university in Eisenach, staying with a family friend, Heinrich Schalbe. These years seems basically happy but insignificant, except insofar as Luther began to develop one of his first close friendships, with Johannes Braun, vicar of the church. This mostly seems of anecdotal interest.
The real rupture in all of this came with Luther’s decision to enter a monastary. Famously, on July 2 1505, Luther, then a law student, was riding back to Erfurt after a visit to his parents and was caught in a lightning storm. Near Stotternheim he was caught in a terrible lightning storm and called out to St. Anne (Mary’s mother, patron saint of lightning storms), “help me St. Anne; I will become a monk!” The move disappointed his parents, who had been hoping to produce a lawyer, but Oberman ultimately argues it was a normal move, given the atmosphere of the times. He also makes a great point of comparing Luther’s decision to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. In later years, after Luther had discarded the doctrine of the saints, he claimed that his decision to enter the monastery had been a bad one, given that it was made to keep a promise to false saint and in defiance of his father’s will.
At this point, Oberman turns to the legacy of his parental home, the most important being Luther’s belief in the devil. Oberman belabors this point in the book - in fact, Luther’s belief in the devil is the main point of the book - so for simplicity, I’m going to sum everything he says about it here:
The Devil and End of times
Luther believed in the devil as an active, malevolent force, like most people of his time. Accompanying this was a belief in witchcraft. God is omnipotent, yes, but he has left the world to the devil until the end of human history. The devil is not a metaphor, not a figment of the imagination, not some sort of abstraction less important, less real, or less influential than God. No one can escape the devil; he is everywhere, including the wilderness, including the monasteries. “To make light of the devil is to distort faith.” The devil is most present where he senses the work of Christ being done. In arguing this, Luther breaks from many of his predecessors, who thought the devil was drawn to the presence of sin. This interpretation of the devil is meant to serve as reassurance for the faithful and to prepare the future generations of the faithful for the battle that Luther thinks will inevitably accompany the spreading of the Gospel.
In talking to the devil, Luther used filthy language and constant reference to excrement. Oberman, here in contrast to Erikson, tries to explain this as a deliberate methodological choice. The devil slanders and, as Luther wrote when young, “When the slanderer whispers: Look how he as shit on himself, the best answer is: You go eat it.” Oberman then argues, “Precisely in all its repulsiveness and perversion it verbalizes the unspeakable: the diabolical profanation of God and man.” I, frankly, found this entire section unconvincing and a little confused.
A Medieval Event
As we’re on the subject of the influence of medieval thought on Luther, this seems the proper moment to turn to the medieval influences on the Church at the moment Luther entered the monastery.
“Reformations” were incredibly popular, if somewhat ill-defined, during the period preceding Luther. Generally, and obviously, reformations were the site of rebellion or admonition of the Church. Generally, reform movements understood themselves as leading the Church back to the teachings of Christ, not as progressive movements intended to lead into a new, better future. As Oberman puts it, “The opposite of ‘reformation‘ was not ‘restoration,‘ but ‘deformation’” (50). There were a series of reformations that moved across Europe in waves; in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries Italy and Southern France was moved by the ideal of “apostolic poverty,” offering critiques of the wealthy Church, which had become the largest landholder in Europe.
Church Attack on Poverty:
The Church’s authority threatened, Pope John XXII condemned the idea of radical poverty in 1320, claiming that it had no basis in scripture. This was an edict directed largely at the left-wing Franciscan order (an interesting turn of phrase, no?), but it served to disillusion a large number of Christians. The issue at stake was not simply that it seemed to prove the Church hopelessly corrupt and forsaken by God; rather, the problem was that the medieval faith held a more or less hierarchical view of Christianity. While the layman was obliged to follow the 10 commandments, monks were bound to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was believed that these individuals, by living a more exacting Christian standard, could intercede on the part of the laymen. The perceived spiritual perfection of the monks had an important social, and theological role, then. The Franciscans managed to make some sort of compromise on this front; the canon lawyers declared that the Franciscans possessed the right to use their monasteries, but were legally poor because they owned nothing; the Church, instead, owned their effects.
This solution was viewed as mostly unsatisfactory and gave rise to the Observant Movement, a reform movement among monastics, that wanted to return to the original rules of their denominations. The Observant Movement went on to gain increasing power, uniting and eventually receiving the right to its own representatives. This becomes important for our story, because the monastery Luther went on to join was part of this movement, an Observant Augustinian branch, part of a mendicant order that had been founded in 1256. The relative autonomy that the Observant movement had gained by the 16th century also goes a ways toward explaining how Luther’s protest got as far as it did.
Hus and Wyclif: Predecessors:
While the Observant movement had managed to subdue the poverty dispute in Germany and Italy, in England and Bohemia problems remained, leading to two of the most prominent pre-Lutheran reformers: John Wyclif (1384, England) and Jan Hus (1415, Prague). Both men took as their major themes the contradiction between the Church of Faith, which serves the world, and the political Church, which desired only temporal power. Wyclif, who devoted himself to thinking through the edict of 1323, argued in De Dominio Divini that, as only the true Church of Christ is entitled to worldly property, the current, corrupt Church deserved to have all of its property seized by the State. Scholars often attributed the 181 English Peasant Revolt to Wyclif’s ideas, but Oberman argues there hadn’t been enough time for the them to disseminate. Nonetheless, Wyclif became an important force in England as his followers, the Lollards, advocated the rejection of celibacy, reading the Bible in the vernacular, and attacking the doctrine of transubstantiation. Still, his most lasting influence came because of a political marriage. When, in 1382, Anne, sister of the King of Germany and Bohemia, married King Richard the II of England, a number of Bohemians followed, later bringing Wyclif’s doctrines to the continent when they returned home.
Wyclif’s most important follower on the continent was Jan Hus. However, Hus added the doctrine of predestination, lifting it from our old friend Augustine. (Augy? He needs a nickname). From this, Hus argued it was not obedience to Rome but rather obedience to God that counted and the Roman Church, though its desire for temporal welath, had forfeited all claim to recognition.
Obviously Hus was burned as a heretic; I’m more confused as to why Wyclif was not. Offering Hus a safe-conduct pass to come and justify his views, the Emperor Sigismund lured Hus to Constance to justify his positions. He was arrested and burned at the stake on July 6,, 1415. Luther very firmly rejected the verdict of heresy from the Council of Constance, actually believing that Hus, who had claimed that a 100 years after his death, and even greater Reformer would arise, had predicted the rise of Luther.
Still, Luther claimed differences with Hus, namely that while Hus attacked the lifestyle of the Church, Luther’s quarrel was with its doctrine. Most importantly - and here Oberman sees him as unique - Luther did not believe the primary purpose of the Reformation was to reform the morals of the Church. Rather, the Reformation was to gather the faithful to wait for the final Judgment.
Here is one of the more useful themes in the book. Luther, Oberman argues, cannot be understood apart from the millennial movements of the middle ages. At the center of this was the Cistercian abbot Joachim of Fiore (1220’s?) had offered an interpretation of the book of Revelation that claimed history ran in a Trinitarian scheme. The age of the Father was the Old Testament; the age of the Son and the clerical church began with the birth of Christ; finally, the age of the Spirit and spiritual Church, which would be the age of the monks, devoted to meditation, peace, and spirituality.
This movement was in its own way a radical attack on the hierarchy of the Church, which placed monks just above the laity, but below the clergy. To claim the site of spirituality was to be found in the monasteries, rather than the clergy was a political claim, as much as anything. One can understand the argument about poverty as a result of this claim; certain sectors of the movements, namely Petrus Johannes Olivi (1298), one of the most important Franciscan biblical scholars, claimed that the third age had been ushered in by Francis. In 1326 his “loaded” commentary on Revelation was condemned and so thoroughly obscured that it didn’t reemerge until the 20th century.
Olivi was associated with what can be understood as part of “chiliasm.” Chiliasm, from chilia eté, or “a thousand years,” was the idea that the thousand year reign of the spirit had arrived, but was being thwarted by the papacy, which desired to remain in power. Consequently, revolt and struggle was needed. Hus and Wyclif both gained their greatest support when alied with chiliasm - which was a major strand of criticism of the church in the middle ages - and while Luther was initially accepted by the chiliasts, Oberman goes on to argue that his worldview was fundamentally alien to them. While they believed in an upcoming, worldly period of peace, Luther was essentially an apocalyptic thinker.
“Luther rejected all endeavors to establish a kingdom of God on earth” (62). Luther’s political stance was deeply passive. He opposed all efforts to try and force God to bring about the kingdom of peace through violence or reform. This explains why Luther opposed the peasant revolts, and also explains some of the major differences between Luther and his contemporaries, such as Zwingli. Biblically, Luther drew this stance from Christ’s response to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight.” In addition, Luther also drew support from Augustine’s City of God, which had argued at the fall of the Roman empire that the true Church of God was among the faithful; not among empires.
In addition to Augustine, Luther was also influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux (1143). While the Chiliasts followed Olivi’s division of history into the Father, Son, and Spirit, Luther believed in Bernard’s division of history into a different three: the Holy fathers and Martyrs, when the Church had been persecuted; that of the age of heretics; and finally the third epoch, that of the Anti-Christ and the end of days. Luther believed the world to be in the end of days, and the sale of indulgences to be proof of how far the Church had fallen. Christians were under attack, but could still gain some protection by the true teachings of the Gospel. Nonetheless, not only was the Church endangered; the entire world was being threatened by the devil, who wanted to rule it with the forces of evil.
Part Two: The Unexpected Reformation
There are four basic points to be drawn from this section: Luther’s relation to nominalism; the indulgences controversy; the political acceleration of that controversy; and the backlash. If you gentlemen will forgive me, I’m going to dispense with chapter and explain it in those terms.
Nominalism, Scholasticism, and Humanism
At Luther’s time, there were two major schools: the via antiqua and the via moderna. The via antiqua included followers of Aquinas and Duns Scotus (of the infamous citation techniques), and was basically a form of realism. i.e., the followers believed that “universal concepts are more than just tools to inventory the extramaterial world, but are the expressions of reality itself, indeed that final, higher reality behind all individuality. Men as individuals can exist only because ‘mankind’ exists as a universal reality” (117). (I’m bracketing the adequacy of this definition; as we saw from Aquinas, this might be a suspect interpretation of his thought).
In contrast, the via moderna stood for nominalism, the thought that all concepts are intangible abstractions, and that reality exists in the concrete, individual. (There is a very good book called Passage to Modernity by Louis Dupres that makes the argument that nominalism is the actual origin of the modern world as we know it, not any later innovations). In the realm of religion, the nominalist separated human reason very clearly from revelation. All that could be known about God was given in revelation, whereas human reason could only direct itself toward the world. Human reason does not shape our understanding of the word of God; rather, it follows and confirms the word of God. The nominalists were derided as skeptics but in time gave birth to modern science, at leats under Oberman’s reading.
Finally, there were the humanists, who sought a return to knowledge of ancient languages and something approximating scholarly rigor. Luther was trained as a nominalist, but was sympathetic to trends in humanism, attempting to learn Greek and Hebrew to better interpret the Bible. Yet he thought neither the via moderna nor the via antiqua allowed their doctrines to be sufficiently dictated by the word of god.
His time in the monastery, in addition to exposing him to nominalism and Augustine, also introduced him to Johannes von Staupitz. Luther, upon entering the Church, was filled with an incredible, agonizing fear of his own sinfulness. One possible result from this could have been the gradual paralysis in a web of endless self-analysis, or, alternately, mysticism. Oberman credits Johannes von Staupitz, vicar general of the German Augustinian Observants, with saving Luther from at least the first fate. Von Staupitz was scholastically trained and, like Luther, had later been inspired by Augustine. It was Staupitz who encouraged Luther to get his PhD; von Staupitz who broke from rigid formalism in his style in a way presumably inspirational to Luther; Staupitz who finally consoled Luther when he was overcome with anxiety about the possibility he was not among the elect. In all of this, we see the roots of Lutheran theology.
On to Indulgences:
In 1518 Cardinal Cajetan, with Emperor Maximillian’s acceptance, introduced an indulgence tax. The indulgences are not necessarily what comes to mind today when we hear the word. In Catholicism, going to confession sufficed to absolve one of the time in hell that accompanied one’s sin. However, there were still acts of penance to be done on earth (prayer, etc, etc). An indulgence was generally supposed to buy one’s way out of doing the earthly signs of penance, provided one had convinced the priest that one had sincerely, internally repented. The real problem arose when the indulgences began being advertised as substitutions for penitence; possession of an indulgence was supposed to be proof in itself of one’s remorse. Moreover, indulgence began to be sold as ways to save relatives from sufferings in hell. Oberman tells the story that in his first trip to Rome, Luther crawled up the stairs of the Vatican on his knees, saying a prayer at each step, in order to remit the sins of a relative, only to be struck at the very top with the thought, “what’s the use?”
Luther’s objection to indulgences are fairly well known at this point. First, he thought they were useless and that it was blasphemous to think one could earn grace through good works, rather than through the grace of God. Additionally, he thought that it was unethical of the Church to be exploiting peasants and guilting them into using money they needed to support their families to buy indulgences for the deceased.
Luther gained popular support for his protest very rapidly, despite the fact that at that point monks were slandered as useless, gluttonous, overly concerned with pointless scholastic debates, and latte drinking, arugula eating communists. They quickly circulated in German and received the support of numerous Germans, who felt exploited by Rome and imposed upon to pay for their wars and their renovations of the Vatican.
Which leads to:
Luther was fortunate enough to live under a monarch who thought his duties to his subjects involved looking after their spiritual well-being, as well as their temporal. Thus, Frederick of Saxony refused to hand Luther over without a hearing. This was also a practical move: Luther found support for his protest because a substantial portion of Germany was disenchanted by indulgences, in part because Germany felt exploited by Roman taxes. Thus, Luther was interrogated by Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518. Or rather, the cardinal kept trying to get him to recant. Though he was still invested at this point in maintaing ties with the pope, Luther refused. Under the protection of Frederick of Saxony, he was able to return safely. Excommunication followed.
In 1521, he was called to Worms to be interrogated to see, in effect, if he would be excommunicated by the empire and expelled from its borders. Here, he was interrogated by Johannes Eck. It went incredibly poorly, with Luther losing his temper and the council ultimately deciding to excommunicate him. It was here, though, that Luther made his most famous statement, “My conscience is captive to the word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other, here I stand, God help me. Amen.”
Luther was excommunicated a total of three times, but at least in the beginning still considered himself loyal to the church and a good catholic. By the time the third ban rolled around, Luther and students were burning books in bonfires, including the ecclesiastical law and the papal bull threatening excommunication. Here Oberman is most concerned with emphasizing that Luther’s break from the Church was slow and painful, and was not finalized for quite a while after the 95 theses.
After the Diet of Worms, Luther escaped and went to spend a year in the Wartburg castle, translating the bible, as we all know. But to understand how he escaped, one needs to understand the politics of the situation. Initially, it was scene in rome as a petty, local German affair, of no particular significance. Yet around the time this was all playing out, Emperor Maximilian I died (1519). The German electors in this gap before a new emperor was chosen, gained a great deal more importance than they had previously enjoyed. There were two major candidates to be emperor: Francis the I, a French king, and Charles, the grandson of Maximilian. It was clear a tremendous amount of bribery went into the election, but out of all the German Electors, Frederick alone remained unbribed, preferring to keep his vote open. For whatever reason, Charles was tremendously invested in a unanimous election, so Frederick’s decision to hold out enormously increased his importance, working to Luther’s advantage. It is largely to Frederick’s increased importance that Luther owed the gap between his interrogation at Augsburg and his trial at Worms; the diet of Worms only came once Frederick had voted for Charles and was no longer of political significance.
In many ways, the result of Charles’s election was questionable. Charles was invested in a universal Holy Roman Empire, and thus consistently opposed any action that would allow for division. For example, when the third Diet of Nuremburg decided in 1524 to convene a national council to settle the Luther question - which had grown enormously and gained much popular support - Charles forbid it, likely foreseeing that it could have led to a national German Church, similar to the situation in England.
Backlash: (Chapter VI: The Reformer Attacked)
The consequences for Luther weren’t merely political and temporal. As Oberman stresses, Luther’s trial and break from the Church also expanded his understanding of the ways in which the devil worked. Satan fills believers (i.e. Luther) with doubt, makes subtle theological arguments, reproaches him for the hubris of thinking he alone after so many centuries has discovered the true Gospel. (Frankly, I’m with Satan on this one).
Part Three: The Reformation in Peril
Finally, we close in on the point that’s both the most representative of Oberman’s argument and the most repetitive. I frankly find this entire section of the book weak and polemical; thus, my summary will be fairly speedy.
Chapter VII: Life Between God and the Devil
Here, Oberman argues that Luther saw himself as driven by divine will to fulfill a task he neither particularly desired, nor felt capable of fulfilling. While it may be tempting for critics to claim “Providence” was simply a projection of Luther’s wishes, Oberman rejects that reading, preferring to believe Luther acted in good faith. If anything, Oberman argues, we’re projecting our own modern theories and prejudices on Luther by claiming the intermingling of the scholarly and subjective might undermine the validity of his work. In reality, it was more likely that Luther started from the scriptures and was led to recognize echoes in ordinary life. Either way, Luther thought of his own work as primarily pastoral and wouldn’t have been interested in producing “objective” scholarship.
From this brief discussion of Luther’s hermeneutics, Oberman then turns to his conflict with Erasmus over the question of free will. In 1524 Erasmus wrote a book addressing Luther’s doctrine of the :unfree will,” something that had been openly preached. The Bible clearly could be read in multiple ways regarding the subject, Erasmus argued, and since a belief in determinism could lead to a sort of quietism and moral irresponsibility among the uneducated, Erasmus claimed it was irresponsible to preach it in public. Instead, man should admit the impossibility of ever grasping more than a part of God’s will, practice scholarly skepticism, and be content with that.
Luther took Erasmus to be preaching an unknowable, transcendent God, from which it was only a short step to atheism. Oberman claims Luther was being unfair; whether or not that assessment was accurate, Luther was being remarkably prescient in that anxiety. Thus, Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will, attacking Erasmus. Despite that hostility, though, Oberman hastens to reassure us that Luther was actually quite the good humanist, learning Greek and Hebrew in his efforts to get closer tot he original meaning of the Bible.
The break with Erasmus was important for political reasons. While, early on, the Reformation and Humanism had been allied as part of a general protest against oppressive Church authority and repression of the conscience, with the advent of this feud it became clear that the two were actually different movements. As is his wont, Oberman explains this split again in terms of Luther’s orientation toward the end of days. While humanism was essentially an enlightened, progressive movement, which claimed the lot of man could be improved through education, Luther depicted man as profoundly impotent.
Chapter VIII: Discord in the Reformation
This chapter deals with two major theological disputes. First,
Baptism: starting in the 1520s, Luther found himself opposed to anabaptists, or those who believed in adult baptism. Initially, this dispute seems odd. The anabaptists were simply arguing that baptism should wait until an adult’s rational capabilities are developed enough to endow the act with significance, not that baptism should never take place. However, the essence of this argument was that baptism was simply an outward sign, marking the internal state of faith. For Luther, this understanding of baptism took too much away from the power and grace of God. The point was not that man believed or was at some point capable of acting as a Christian; that was simply another version of good works. Rather, the significance of baptism lay in it as marking man, even as an infant, as marked out by God’s grace. Baptism was a point that marked man throughout his life; by penitence, he could return to that state. While sometimes derided as a mystical understanding of sacraments, Luther’s stance toward baptism is perfectly consistent with the rest of his theology. We believe because God’s grace marks us; we don’t assume the the sign of God’s grace to display our belief.
The second issue was the Eucharist, of which there were three basic stances:
Luther: good old fashion catholic transubstantiation, or the belief that bread literally becomes the body of Christ, as affirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).
Andreas Carlstadt (a colleague of Luther): “This is my body,” is merely symbolic and means one should remember Christ in the institution of the Church.
Zwingli (Zurich reformer, proposing a more popular version of Carlstadt): “This is my body,” means “This bread signifies my body.” Communion refers the believer back to the Crucifixion.
Oberman explains the difference between Zwingli and Luther as relating to their different stances toward politics. For Zwingli, Scripture was in service of the common good. Thus, the euchraist was primarily a symbol of unity, a way of uniting the true believers in faith. By contrast, Luther saw the Eucharist, and the scriptures more generally, were ways for the individual, embattled Christian to keep faith and gain strength in the battle against the devil. Scriptures and the Eucharist weren’t about society or the common good; rather, they were ways of keeping faith.
The debate concerning the Eucharist spiked between 1525-28, ending in the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, when all of the major Protestant leaders in Europe gathered to presumably hammer out some sort of compromise. The debate went nowhere, but hilariously so, if either of you ever have the free time to read the transcripts. Lots of Luther temper tantrums and petty theatrics. (At a dramatic moment, he rips away the table cloth, to reveal........lines of the scripture written in chalk on the table. All a bit Punch and Judy).
Anyway, this had important political consequences. Philip I had been hoping for a Protestant union in order to stand against the Hapsburgs, but the debate made this impossible. Nonetheless, two years later, in 1531, the Schmalkaldic league was formed, a union of Protestan nations that made it possible to negotiate the Peace of Nuremburg in 1532, a temporary truce between the princes and the emperor. In this peace, Protestantism spread, sweeping Scandinavia, Denmark, and England. Shortly thereafter, the elector of Saxony introduced the confession of Augsburg at Luther’s insistence, basically strong-arming other protestants into accepting his interpretation of the Eucharist. Still, Obermn argues the Eucharistic controversy was a political and religious disaster, preventing the Protestants from uniting around a single doctrine, weakening them politically, and making it almost impossible to conduct inter-denominational dialogue. It’s a funny ideal of pan-Protestantism Oberman harbors. No less than Catholics, one suspects he regrets the fragmentation and decentralization of Christianity.
Chapter IX: Christianity Between God and the Devil
Oberman begins this chapter by arguing, in effect, that one misreads Luther if one thinks of his Church of the faithful as an ideal, never to be realized in history. Rather, he was intensely concerned with bringing the true Church into this world. Honestly, this seems a largely pointless reiteration of other themes. Luther thought the world a battleground between god and the devil; one of the greatest dangers was that of complacency; the Reformation signaled the beginning of the end; the Gospels and sacraments are the riches that a Christian finds solace in, in this corrupt world.
Chapter X: Wedded Bliss and World Peace
In contrast to his Zeitgeist, Luther took the stance that God made man for procreation and for sex. While very few were made for celibacy, the large part of humanity was not. Consequently, Luther spent a fair amount of time urging former monks and nuns to marry, though not without warning them to think realistically of a trade. Eventually, Luther turned to marry a runaway nun, Catherine. Sadly, we never learn anything about her background; rather, we learn that Luther married her from convenience, grew to love her, and appreciate her skills with finances, and did not have any three headed children with her. Oberman argues that Luther was less of a misogynist than most of his contemporaries, believing women were more than baby machines or whores, but not quite as rational as men, of course.
Luther’s decision to marry caused a tremendous amount of consternation among his followers, who thought - and the Catholics agreed - that Luther substantially weakened his resistance to the Church by making it seem as if it were driven by lust. To make this point, Oberman cites one of Luther’s friends, who was apparently “witness at the bridal bed,” and, “did not enjoy the experience.” Truly, this section seems neither particularly interesting or important; we learn that Luther didn’t believe in divorce, but nonetheless sanction bigamy on behalf of Philip of Hesse, thinking a second wife was better than a series of concubines. I just want to say that the image of someone witnessing Luther having sex has been haunting me for a week. I keep imagining these medieval pornographic woodcuts.......
Oberman then moves to Luther’s anti-semitism. Prior to 1536, Luther had a reputation of being a friend to the Jews, mostly for declaring that Christ had been a Jew, making Jews in-laws to Christians. Consequently, when Luther’s protector, Frederick of Saxony, decided to expel all Jews from his territory, the de facto spokesmen for the Jewish people throughout the empire, Joel Rosheim, turned to Luther for help, hoping he would at least convince Frederick of Saxony to allow Jewish merchants to pass through the territory. Luther refused, and Oberman dates the intense anti-Semitic strain in his writings - which would at times call for pogroms - to this period.
However, Oberman also goes on to clarify and explain Luther’s response. Luther, he argues, had always related to the Jews as a people to be converted. In his younger days, he had advocated tolerance, claiming this would make Jews more liable to convert. But as time drew on and Luther became increasingly convinced that the end of times were near, the time for tolerance passed. Thus, his anti-semitic invective was the natural flowering of end of days theology, combined with the more typical medieval bigotry.
Chapter XI: The Man and his Deeds
Oberman is either scraping in the last third of this book, or my patience is running out. Regardless, in a paragraph, here is my summary of the end of the book. Luther was something of a jackass as a person, but had a gift for addressing real existential issues of faith. While some of his character flaws, such as his temper, can be explained and excused given his embattled condition, that nonetheless does not excuse his increasing habit in later years to take all people who disagreed with him to be heretics or agents of the devil.
His translation of the bible was masterful and painstaking, made with an ear to common language that would make it accessible to all readers. It was also something of a communal effort; though Luther presumably did the bulk, he would regularly call together his friends and respected scholars to proofread and offer their input regarding his translation. The Luther bible, for Oberman, is a piece of folk art.
And don’t forget Satan.