Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World

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Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World Summary

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Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017), by the historian and biographer Eric Metaxas, was written, in part, to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, a critical period in the history of Western thought in which the intellectual period of modernity started to be adopted by religious thinkers. The biography follows the events that sparked the Reformation, starting with All Hallow’s Eve in 1517, when the young monk Martin Luther nailed a list of grievances with the doctrine of the Medieval Christian church on the church door ay Worms, and ending with Luther and the rest of the Reformation’s contributions to the modern concept of human rights and religious liberty.

Metaxas begins his book with a reexamination of what is known about the historical moment of Luther’s religious revolution. He argues that Luther did not intend to start a rebellion against the church; rather, he hoped to start an academic debate about the morality of the values that the European world, which was becoming rapidly post-Medieval, inherited from its Medieval legacies. Mainly reacting against the perspectives of the Catholic Church, which dominated European thought, he posted a document that became known as his 95 Theses on a church door. This document would one day be credited for birthing futuristic religious ideals of virtue, faith, and freedom that carry into twenty-first-century life.

Among Luther’s ninety-five grievances, one of the most incendiary proclamations was a rejection of the Catholic conception of indulgences, whereby one could reduce the moral repercussions of a given sin by making a monetary contribution to the church. Luther viewed this secular reparation structure as inherently immoral, enacted only to amplify the Catholic Church’s domination over contemporary Christian thought, at the expense of perpetuating the elite class’ already grotesque power advantage over the rest of the population. He viewed the ability of the elite to effectively pardon their own sins as an inevitable progression back to the outmoded concept of predestination, a Calvinist doctrine that held that an individual’s level of power and wealth in the mortal world signaled one’s admission status into heaven. Known as a humble and fervently religious man who bordered on asceticism, Luther’s 95 Theses moved rapidly through the Western world, with the assistance of the newly invented printing press, which allowed people to replicate the list exactly. Armed with a common document rather than verbal reinterpretation, the proletariat class of Germany gained a common vocabulary for understanding Luther’s futuristic vision.

After explicating Luther’s effect on sixteenth-century Europe, Metaxas demonstrates how Luther’s ideas are connected to the social and religious frameworks operating in modernity. One of these persistent ideas is that which Luther called “law and gospel.” This idea held, in its original form, that law essentially functions to mend humankind’s fractured relationship with God. In the past century, the same idea has been abstracted into a more secular and anti-capitalist meaning, as the law is now conceived of as a restorative and neutralizing force for a world of discursive power that tends towards hostility, inequity, and exploitation. He also notes parallels between the broken man-God relationship and modern conceptions of different problems in mental health. He points specifically to the pathogenic model of depression as a “disease” as a newer metaphor for human alienation from God.

Metaxas also notes Luther’s contributions to modern linguistic conceptions of content and meaning in text. Rather than parsing religious texts in an entirely concrete way, Luther focused on the semantics of the various aspirational statements God expresses, convinced that they were God’s “instruments” for articulating an indelible message of forgiveness that backgrounds the more anecdotal and particular textual moments. Luther’s originalist conception of religious text, in which one prioritizes God’s word over one’s contemporary echo chamber of interpretation, carries forth into modern problems such as legal theory about the interpretation of foundational political documents, such as the United States Constitution.

Noting all of Luther’s contributions to the structure of modern thinking, Metaxas recognizes that Luther’s voice might not have carried outside the boundary of his own lifetime without his intrinsically warm and altruistic character, which convinced people to listen to him. Even after his excommunication from the Catholic Church, when Luther refused to renounce his castigation of its dogma, people continued to follow him loyally, generating the Lutheran variant of Christianity that enjoys one of the largest followings five hundred years later.

Metaxas concludes the biography with a slight qualifying argument, pointing to Luther’s address at Worms in 1521, where he delivered a Lutheran definition of “conscience.” He asserts that though Luther was more open-minded than his Catholic contemporaries, he did not advocate here for unrestrained free will; rather, he simply endorsed a new interpretation of Christianity that enclosed human subjectivity within parameters of freedom still ultimately determined by God. Despite the ideological shortcomings one can point out from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, Metaxas depicts Luther as a hugely progressive figure for sixteenth-century thought who helped catapult humankind into the modern era.