From the Editor: The Forgotten Years of Martin Luther

MARTIN LUTHER FORGOTTEN? The giant of the Protestant Reformation, the man who even in his day was called “The angel whom God has sent to mankind”? How could he be overlooked?

Actually, only half of Luther has been neglected: his later years.

One biography of Luther that crossed my desk devotes just one chapter (out of fourteen) to the final twenty-three years of his life. Another biography can muster only twenty-three pages to those busy years. That’s one page per year.

In those years, apparently, not much was happening: Luther only married (and fathered six children), intervened in a massive peasants’ war, translated the Old Testament, preached a couple thousand sermons, created a new approach to Christian worship, developed catechisms, settled political squabbles, wrote scores of influential treatises, and composed hymns we still sing today. That’s all.

As one scholar has said, “The older Martin Luther was, if anything, even livelier than young man Luther.” Yet we know hardly anything about him.

Why? I think it’s because we prefer Luther as the young, bold revolutionary. We celebrate firebrands who ignite mass movements for change and reform. Only a few years ago, for example, Lech Walesa in Poland and Boris Yeltsin in Russia were hailed as heroes.

But once you touch off a revolution, then what? As Luther knew, and Walesa and Yeltsin have discovered, that’s when the real work begins. It’s one thing to call for change; it is another to make the changes stick. That usually involves quarreling with fellow leaders and building, brick by brick, a stable future.

Luther endured painful years of controversy as he fashioned a new church, especially as he had to defend his bedrock understanding of faith and grace against all comers. In the process, he made some mistakes—calling for Jews to be expelled, and even, in one complex case, advocating bigamy. That is probably the reason many biographies would like to forget the older Luther: he stands at his most human.

But as one historian said, “We learn from the titans even when their flaws are titanic.” To understand Luther, we need to see him not only as young with limitless potential, but also as old, fully aware of his limitations. To Luther’s credit, neither age nor illness could keep him from proclaiming and defending the gospel of grace.

P.S. This is the second of two issues Christian History has published on Martin Luther. Issue 34, covers “The Early Years.”

By Kevin A. Miller

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #39 in 1993]

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