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Reformation Day Symposium Entry October 31, 2007

Posted by roberttalley in Book Reviews, Martin Luther, Reformation, Religion.
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Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. 1950. Reprint, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978.             

Roland Bainton, a specialist in Reformation history was the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale University. Among his various books on the Reformation, he leaves us with a portrait of one of the most central figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther.            

 In the reprint’s new preface entitled “Here I Stand – After a Quarter of a Century”, Bainton reveals two themes that consistently referred to in his book. The first, one that is not unexpected, is that Martin Luther would, as the author defines it, “…defy Church and State in the name of reason and of conscience” (xiii). The second theme, though involves Luther’s willingness “…after taking a stand… afterward to consider it again” (xiii). Based on these two themes, Bainton attempts to paint a fuller picture of the man, Martin Luther.            

Bainton also reminds us that the context, both religious and otherwise, in which he first wrote this book in 1950 changed significantly. These changes have affected especially how Martin Luther was viewed by Catholics. Although Martin Luther is still a controversial figure, there is a more rational view of the man and his times in the United States due to the sociological and religious changes of the American landscape during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. In order to help one keep up with the new literature concerning Luther, Bainton includes references to the bibliographical literature concerning Luther that was current at the time. This is in addition to the original and extensive bibliography of English, German, and French works given at the end of the book.           

Occasionally during the book the author refers to misconceptions of fact or of opinion about Luther and his times but rarely points out from where these misconceptions come. When he does point this out, it is most often tied into the history of that time and how people of the Reformation time period viewed Luther or how the events may have played themselves out. The most striking example of this comes from the very title of Bainton’s book itself, “Here I Stand”. The well known ending sentence to Luther’s defense at the Edict of Worms, which begins with these three words, was added by the earliest printed version of that defense. Bainton sympathetically surmises, “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (144).           

“Here I Stand” may be divided into two parts. Chapters 1-12 are generally chronological covering the events of Luther’s life from his birth until his return to Wittenberg after a year exile at Wartburg. Bainton points out, “Externally speaking, Luther had reached the turning point of his career” (166). The remaining chapters, chapters 13-22, deal with the time period after Wartburg. They are somewhat chronological but focus more on specific topics that are of importance in evaluating Luther’s effectiveness in “providing a new pattern of Church, state, and society, a new constitution for the Church, a new liturgy, and a new Scripture in the vernacular” (166).            

The first thirteen chapters supply the background for the following chapters. They introduce the times and culture of Germany and of the Catholic Church as well as the formation of Martin Luther as a reformer. Bainton begins with the various influences and events that caused Luther to make the vow that resulted in becoming an Augustinian monk. He then shows how that the various influences in his monastery and as university professor played a part in Luther’s evangelical experience. Chapters 4-12 are given to the four years from 1517-1521 beginning with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses and ending with Luther’s return to Wittenberg in a Europe revolutionized by the events set in motion by his theses. These events include the Leipzig Debate over indulgences, the Papal Bull against Luther, the Diet and Edict of Worms, and the translation of the New Testament into Greek as well as other writings from Luther during this time period.           

While chapters 13-22 refer to various events in Luther’s life after 1521, the main emphasis is how Luther’s teachings and other activities shaped or, in some cases, did not shape the Lutheran, German, and Western landscape. This is presented not only through the ideas which Luther tried to implement (chapters 13-14) but also in comparison and contrast with other leading persons and groups contemporary with Luther (chapters 15-16). This section ends with a chapter on how Luther came to marry, his wife’s influence on him, and how his example of matrimony affected the society of Germany during the next centuries. According to Bainton, Luther “…did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries” (233).           

The second section of Bainton’s book continues in chapters 18-20 with a summation of Luther’s later organizational, literary, and ministerial work activities and how these activities resulted in the formation of the Lutheran church. The final two chapters evaluate respectively Luther’s emotional and spiritual struggles which continued throughout his life and the several controversies which are most often used to bring Luther’s greatness into question. This greatness the author affirms to be shown in Luther’s influence on Germany and on organized Christianity, but above all in the outcome of Luther’s own personal spiritual struggles through his faith in Christ alone.           

One of the strengths of this book is the numerous extended quotations from Luther’s original works and letters as well as from those of his contemporaries, including his enemies. Almost no part of Luther’s life is left untouched. Along these same lines are a number of illustrations of contemporary woodcuts and cartoons from that era. These illustrations with explanation help to explain the various viewpoints of the era. Although Bainton certainly interprets Luther’s life and era in this book, his support for his interpretation comes from evidence from that era rather than from a review of how others have looked at that evidence.           

In addition to the strong support from Reformation era writings and illustrations, the author is candid in evaluating a life with which he is obviously sympathetic. He does not excuse Luther’s faults but does attempt to interpret Luther according to the times. He shows how that Luther’s tendency for hyperbole at times caused him unnecessary difficulties in debates and that his conservatism in carrying out his reforms at times limited how far he was able to reform the Church.            

Bainton admits that he had not always been sympathetic to Luther. “In the twenties I was outraged because [Luther] came, albeit slowly, to condone the death penalty for Anabaptists” (xiii). The author, however, came to identify Luther’s inner struggles for faith with his own and to admire his subject for his courage to stand for his principles.            

This book is helpful in giving a fuller understanding of Luther’s theology, the stages of development through which it went, and the influences upon that theology. Although Luther is perhaps best known for his doctrine of justification by faith alone, according to Bainton, this is only one part of the great theme of Luther’s life. “The God of Luther …. The All Terrible is the All Merciful too…. But how shall we know this? In Christ, only in Christ” (302). He traces this throughout Luther’s life from his early struggles in the monastery through his conversion experience into his later years when he again suffered periods of great depression. He also illustrates this passion of Luther’s theology through a discussion of Luther’s pulpit ministry, exemplified by excerpt from a sermon from Luther’s favorite sermon subject, the incarnation of Jesus Christ.           

In a pastoral ministry, the value of this book is in helping to evaluate one’s theology. There are many things that Luther taught or believed that are difficult to understand because the culture in which we live is much different than that of Luther. This book helps one to understand what he believed and how he came to believe those things and how he applied his beliefs to the various aspects of life. Whether one agrees with Luther or not, it is possible through the presentation in this book to take his developing and developed faith and fine tune our own theology following his example of dependence on the Scriptures and to his hard won single minded devotion to the crucified and risen Christ. For Luther this was more than theology but the light from God by which he guided his life.           

Practically, it is often that a preacher or writer desires to use an illustration from the life of a great person. There are many of these from Luther’s life that are highly usable and sometimes even overused. This book enables one to understand the context from which the illustrative ministry is drawn and enables the preacher to more accurately and more effectively use an illustration, understanding how it may best be applied.  

The greatest value of this book is the fuller understanding of the life of Luther. Much is known about him but as with many great figures in history, people tend to have a shadowy outline of the man or woman but not a true understanding of his life and times. In this way, Bainton has made a lasting contribution to our understanding of the facts. Although his work is over a half century old, those who study Luther, both detractors and sympathizers, will continue to be able to take Bainton’s biography and support their argument with facts.

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