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Thursday, November 2, 2017

"Martin Luther - A Biography for the People" (Dyron B. Daughrity)

TITLE: Martin Luther: A Biography for the People
AUTHOR: Dyron B. Daughrity
PUBLISHER: Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2017, (320 pages).

This year is the 500th Anniversary of Reformation Day, that eventful moment that changed the Church and the world. Despite having many volumes already written about this plucky and intelligent German monk, more remain to be said and written. This is probably due to the single greatest impact to the Church at large and how a single man stood against the huge Roman Church aristocracy. The impact of the resistance was so strongly felt that he emboldened many other early reformers to do the same for their jurisdictions leading to a multi-faceted Protestant movement. This book attempts to help us re-visit the story of Martin Luther, cementing its importance, and helping us be grateful for the faith and passion of this man, whose life and work should inspire us to keep standing up for the truth in the eras we are living in. Part of the inspiration for this book is to write for the masses instead of for ivory tower audiences. According to author Dyron Daughrity, this is not just a Protestant movement. It opened the floodgates for the dawn of the modern age; redefining religious freedom; modern capitalism; individualism; secularization; and the courage to change the world. It is also part of the author's personal journey in studying this important historical figure. By writing this work in a language for the common people, the author hopes to replicate the impact of what happened 500 years ago, when the common people stood up against the excesses of the Roman Church regime. It is storytelling of Luther's life and teachings.

Daughrity begins with the world of Luther, describing the political and social climate and the rising Portuguese ambition in the sprawling Roman empire. It was also a time of Muslim conquests but held back through political dominance by the Spanish and the Portuguese. Luther lived in a backdrop of two crises: Avignon papacy (1309-1377) and Great Western Schism (1378-1417), continuing the tense relationships between kings and popes; politics and religions. It was a time of tricky balance of power. We read about Martin Luther who as a little boy, was son of the peasants, yet was able to climb rapidly up the ranks of the social ladder. He was brought up in a strict home and often ridiculed in school. Yet, his drivenness would propel him to the highest academic discipline and passionate study of the Bible. Readers get to see how Luther excelled as a student in Erfurt University. Though not top of the heap, he is driven to learn. He cut short his law education as he thought that there are more eternal things to be concerned about. His decision to enter the monastery was triggered by a promise he made to Saint Anne, after surviving a scary bolt of lightning. He became a very pious monk and learned all he could on how to become a very good monk. Deeply engaged in theological studies, he would become equipped with many skills of study, interpretation, rhetoric, grammar, and priestly rituals. His admiration of the institution of Rome soon was soon derailed as he saw the corruption and hypocrisy surrounding the way things were being done. Priests were disrespectful of the sacraments. Morality was lax. People seemed more interested in the status quo than the way of truth and theological soundness. In Luther's mind, Rome had become a godless and unholy city. Chapter by chapter, the author highlights some of the most powerful events surrounding Luther:
  • His role as a theologian
  • His challenge to the Roman establishment with the 95 theses
  • The growing storm surrounding the dispute and the increasing hostility from Rome
  • Diet of Worms as a sophisticated chessgame, where one of the key purposes is how Rome tried to silence Luther. Here, the famous words of Luther were recorded:
    "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do likewise. God help me. Amen."
  • Luther's marriage to Katharine vob Bora and some curious details about making love under a sheet before onlookers
  • How the death of Luther affected Katherine
  • The writings of Luther
  • Luther's confrontation with the Pope to the point of people saying he was a "Protestant Pope"
  • His core beliefs

Martin Luther remains the most researched and referenced individual as far as the Reformation is concerned. Despite his opposition to many practices of the Roman Catholic Church, he remains within the Church. He didn't leave the Church. He was excommunicated by the Pope. He stood against the ills of the Church but not the Church. He attempted reforms from within the Church but was ostracized because he refused to toe the official line. Many of the things he did were radical moves which most ordinary citizens would never dare to breach. This was one bold individual who was empowered by the Spirit to point people back to the five solas of the faith:
  • Sola Scriptura; (Scripture Alone)
  • Sola Fide; (Faith Alone) 
  • Sola Christus; (Christ Alone) 
  • Sola Gracia; (Grace Alone) 
  • Sola Deo Gloria. (For the Glory of God Alone)
While his earlier years were commendable in terms of standing up for the truth, his later years were more controversial. Even fellow reformers like Zwingli and Erasmus challenged some of his theology. Many of them argued that Luther didn't go far enough. The author even said that if Zwingli and Luther had reconciled, the Protestant movement would not have been as fragmented. Some of Luther's writings had been accused on being antisemitic! This book provides a fascinating description of Luther in such a way that it reads like a novel. At the same time, Daughrity pieces together important historical milestones to help the reader appreciate the cultural and contextual background at that time. I appreciate how Daughrity begins with the intention to write for the masses rather than for academics. This means the book would appeal to a wider audience. The writing is at a popular level. The information is provided in chronological order, from Luther's birth to death. Key areas of Luther's life are covered. There is the personal and family background. There is the academic pursuit. There is the interactions with friends and key characters at that time. There is also a theological angle to help laypersons understand the reasons for the break with the Roman Church and the debates.

I am fascinated by one key aspect of Luther. The spirit of Protestantism still exists today. For scholars, this can be harnessed as a constant pursuit of truth. For conservative churches, this could be a continued struggle to stand up for the whole truth and the purity of the gospel. For progressive churches, it means learning to evolve and give space for diverse views without compromising on fundamentals. It is a continuing tension between standing up for truth and allowing room for diversity without tearing apart a community of faith. Luther was forced out of the Church because he refused to budge from his convictions. This is a familiar pattern. Denominations have split. Churches have been torn asunder. Wars have also been fought. Is peace possible? What does it mean to speak the truth in love? One troubling thought from the book comes from the "Experts at Division" section which is a criticism of Luther. For all of his wonderful things he had achieved, he failed to create a structure to avoid infighting and division. The continued fragmentation of the Protestant Church is a case in point. Luther is no saint even though he tried to be as pious as possible. While we celebrate the birth and renewal of the Church, we need to remember that the Church is still very much a work in progress. Perhaps, one of the most hopeful pointers about the purpose of Church comes from David Wells's in his excellent book: "Courage to be Protestant."
"This kind of church is an outpost of the kingdom, a sign of things to come in Christ’s sovereign rule. And this, I dare say, is the only reason we have for the church’s existence and service. It is the anticipation of that great day when Christ returns in his glory. It is pointing beyond itself to that moment. It lives in this world, but it lives because it has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. This is the knowledge that changes everything. Business savvy, organizational wizardry, cultural relevance are simply no substitute for this. Unless the Lord rebuilds the evangelical church today, as we humble ourselves before him and hear afresh his Word, it will not be rebuilt. But if it is, then what we will see will be the true “attractional church.”
If you want to have a readable summary of Luther's life, this book is highly recommended.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Abilene Christian University Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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