REMOVING HISTORICAL GLOSS: Metaxas’ Enlightening Luther Biography

Johann Tetzel was being robbed. The Dominican friar and Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany was on his way from one very profitable preaching crusade to another when a German nobleman, one who had made a great point of asking whether all future sins could be forgiven if only the right indulgence was bought, cashed in on his prior purchase and relieved the preacher of his purse.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Yesterday, October 31, 2017, was the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which, according to the 2000 edition of LOOK magazine was the second, behind the invention of the printing press which enabled it, greatest event in the last one thousand years. The story of Tetzel and the robber baron, which is probably mythical, is one of many that Eric Metaxas covers in his excellent work, MARTIN LUTHER: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.

Although I am only halfway through the book, listening to the audible version, I am totally sold on Metaxas’s ability to make a complicated story not only accessible and informative, but entertaining.

Mailed Not Nailed

For example, everyone knows that a theologian and monk named Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by posting 95 theses opposing the sale of indulgences on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. (An indulgence supposedly draws on the merit of the good works of Christ and the saints to deliver a sinner from punishment on earth or in purgatory). But most do not know that Luther may or may not have personally nailed the document to the doors, the bulletin board of its day. It could have been a clerk that swung the hammer. What sets October 31st apart, according to Metaxas, is that is the day Luther mailed his theses to his presiding bishop, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, with a proposal to call a conference of theologians on the abusive sale of indulgences.

Gutenberg’s Internet

Metaxas also illuminates the fact that, in those early days of the printing press, Luther had no intention of igniting a revolution and no idea of the part he would play in it. He was simply a pastor / theologian and faithful Catholic trying to do his job and protect his parish from oppression and heresy. The 95 theses, written in Latin, would have been indecipherable to most Germans who passed the church doors. They were meant for a limited audience of theological scholars who would have had thoughtful discussions and sent their conclusions and recommendations off to higher authority for approval.

But the printing press was to the sixteenth century what the internet is today. Information transfer went from snail’s pace to light speed almost overnight. Further, with no copyright law in place, Luther could not prevent publishers from pushing his ideas far beyond the boundaries of Wittenberg and Mainz. He was soon embroiled in a battle that he had not planned and could not have anticipated. (He also never made a dime from his writings). Ultimately, Luther saw this series of unfortunate events as providential and embraced his calling as a reformer. But Metaxas removes the gloss of history and helps us see that Luther, like many of us, was a man of his times driven as much by circumstance as by conviction to take up the work which God had prepared in advance for him to do.

I’ve only brushed the surface of Metaxas’s latest, but I hope you will read it. It will give any Christian a greater comprehension of the treasures of grace we possess, the place in history we occupy, and perhaps help us see our calling as well as Luther saw his.

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