Book Review by Peter D. S. Krey, April 25, 2011
David M. Whitford, Luther: a Guide for the Perplexed, (London: T&T Clark International, 2011), 177 pages with extensive footnotes, bibliography for further study, and index.
Although David Whitford wrote this short, issue-oriented book about Martin Luther’s life and thought as an introductory overview, even Luther scholars, I believe, can learn a great deal by reading it. Whitford is obviously at the cutting edge of Luther-friendly scholarship and he provides many insights into the most crucial issues involving him, not shirking even the most controversial and problematic ones.
Whitford begins with a metaphor, namely, saying that Martin Luther is a medieval theological cathedral and entering the cathedral of his thought from out of the sunshine, first requires adaptation to the dim light. Slowly the majestic arches ascending heavenward appear and then the stained glass windows explode into color. (Whitford includes some good writing and his description of the lightning stroke that scared Luther to death and made him promise to be a monk, is another example: near an outdoor flash of lightning: “One’s hair prickles and if you are in a puddle, your legs and feet vibrate with electricity.”)
Continuing the use of his apt metaphor, Whitford notes that every great cathedral also has corners of darkness and he finds Luther’s relationship with the Peasants’ War and his late anti-Jewish tracts in such corners. Interestingly enough, Whitford has a positive defense for Luther in most cases. Although it did not work for Luther in his times, Whitford’s first presenting Thomas Müntzer’s agenda of wanting to purge the ungodly, works well for Luther’s defense now. Whitford also points out, that even if the NAZI’s used Luther’s raging tracts against the Jews that said to burn down their synagogues and destroy their houses, he never intended that they be killed, but only that they be made to wander like Gypsies. He admits, however, that there is no excusing Luther, here at his worst.
In Part One Whitford begins with Luther’s life and times and continues in Part Two with Luther’s theology: a/ justification by faith b/ law and gospel and the theology of the cross c/ the bondage of the will, and d/ the Antichrist. In Part Three he takes up Luther’s social and political engagements: a/ politics, authority, and just resistance b/ the Peasants’ War and finally, c/ Luther on the Jews. Whitford presents his insights in simple and direct ordinary language of experience. His down to earth style is helpful and refreshing, because the theological issues of the day are usually presented in technical language, almost impossible to understand, e.g., condign and congruent merits, ex opera operato vs. opus operatum, forensic justification, etc. Sometimes, however, his ordinary language does not provide an entré into understanding Luther’s use of language, the way he places opposites together to create a tension for personal growth and development or bring about social movement. The power of Luther’s dynamic, dialectical language is left out when Whitford merely states that Luther is very comfortable with paradox.
Whitford includes some helpful information, some from his own research. For example, Luther was shocked by discovering that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. Whitford argues convincingly that it became an important factor in Luther’s coming to believe that the pope was the Antichrist. In 1520 Luther read Ulrich von Hutton’s new 1519 edition of Lorenzo Valla’s treatise of 1440 exposing this perjury. Whitford has extensive acquaintance with the Acts of the German Imperial Diets (deutsche Reichstag Akten), which helps him explain the politics involved in the election of Emperor Charles V, providing deeper insight into how Frederick the Wise could protect Luther. Whitford presents both sides of the Finish theosis debate, taking care to present each side quite fairly. He differentiates Luther’s theology of the cross from the theology of glory accurately, but twice he calls the Heidelberg Disputation, the Heidelberg Catechism (page 77 and 79, and even in the index). This mistake confuses the Reformed Catechism of 1563 with Luther’s Disputation of 1518 and they are unrelated. (There are also several typos in the book, but they really do not detract from Whitford’s excellent introduction.)
Whitford presents so many issues from Luther’s life so briefly that the coverage of some becomes very light. I would have liked more about the Peasants’ War, only because it’s my particular interest. Still, Whitford touches the issue concerning Luther’s pamphlet against the raging, murderous peasants, showing how he intended to differentiate them from the other peaceful peasants. Luther never wanted defenseless peasants slaughtered and condemned the rampaging peasants as well as the blood thirsty tyrants. I don’t recall any documentation, however, connecting medieval carnival, the way Bob Scribner would picture it, with the Peasants’ War. It was an early modern war with cannonades and total annihilation of the peasants’ forces.
Often Luther is quoted to have said, “It’s better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian.” Although this precise saying is nowhere to be found in Luther, it could well be extrapolated from a Luther citation, which Whitford includes: “One need not be a Christian to be a secular ruler. It is not necessary for the emperor to be a Christian or for him to rule as a Christian. It is enough that he have reason. Thus, the Lord God preserves the Kingdoms of the Tartars and Turks” (page 116).
It may be better to follow Reinhold Niebuhr’s criticism of Luther’s interpretation of the Fourth Commandment, of which Whitford seems unaware. Governments should not be derived from the command for parental obedience, because rulers do not rule by divine right, but by the consent of the people. They are not naturally above the people as parents are to children.
David Whitford’s book is well worth reading and would do well as a text book for introductory classes on the Reformation. I dare say, even advanced classes would benefit by his summarization of Luther scholarship.
Corrections: Typos that could be corrected in the next printing include: “might” to “mighty” as well as “to” to “too.” Here an entire phrase is left out of the citation: “indoctrinated to believe that God cannot be man” (See LW 45:229), (both of these mistakes occur on page 153). “Know” should be “now” on page 160 n. 30. Words are run together on page 98 line 3. (I thought his translation of Augenspiegel was a mistake, because today “eyeglasses” are Brillen. But in Early New High German it means eyeglasses and not a “mirror for the eyes.”
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