Thursday, October 06, 2016

Roper on Luther (and other Luther biographies)

It being almost 2017, every Christian and anyone who cares about history, culture or religion will obviously want to read a biography or two of Luther.

Lyndal Roper, Regius Prof of History at Oxford, has written the obvious up to date choice.

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (577pp, Bodley Head / Penguin Random House, 2016)

My copy only arrived today, but she can certainly write.

And this is, as one would expect, a scholarly well-annotated biography.

There are also 75+ illustrations too!

Roper's main focus is Luther's inner life and personal development in historical context. It remains to be seen whether all her psychoanalysing will seem convincing but it is surely a worthwhile project to really try to understand what made this man tick. His many letters at least provide a wealth of material. Roper suggests we know more about Luther's inner life than that of anyone else from the 16th C.

Roper is obviously impressed with Luther's courage and charisma. She finds him to be a man of contradictions. This is no hagiography but neither is it obviously set out to he a hatchet job.

In particular, Roper writes with feminist interests, and I imagine Luther will be criticised on this score, though she also notes his unusual emphasis on husband and wife enjoying marital sex. Luther's anti-Semitism and his foul-mouthed polemic will be explored.

And she highlights Luther's doctrine of the real presence (rather than salvation by grace alone through faith alone or sola scriptura) as a particularly significant and original part of his theology.

Roper calls Heiko Oberman's biography of Luther "a classic ... still ... the best biography of the man." (p13)

Roper also says that Heinz Schilling's biography (which appears to be due out in March in English) is magnificent and is "the first to put Luther in a more rounded historical context and to give equal weight to his opponent Charles V." (p13)

It is of interest that Roper's own father was a Presbyterian minister.

Roper also mentions that Simon Ponsonby read and commented the whole manuscript and made her re-think many of her interpretations. I don't know if this is Simon Ponsonby of St Aldates, Oxford, or someone else?

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