Page 6, 21st March 1969

21st March 1969
Page 6
Page 6, 21st March 1969 — The man whose Reformation made revolution wearisome

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Organisations: Catholic Church


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The man whose Reformation made revolution wearisome


Luther Alive by Edith Simon (Hodder & Stoughton 50s.) "ONE of the most fascin ating things about the story of Luther's leading part in the Reformation is the progression of small things uniting and enlarging into a huge mass." This passage from the postscript of Miss Simon's book gives us a clue to the type of book that we have here. This is not a biography in the strict sense of the word, but an examination of the makings of the Reformation, in which Luther is the key figure. This approach to Luther leads to a certain amount of confusion in the book when issues, not immediately relevant to the theological issues, are discussed. But then, the Reformation was much more than a mere theological issue. It is, thus, in the complicated political and social, as well as the theological, background that this portrait of Luther emerges.

Miss Simon appears to be writing from an objective theological position, and she makes .no attempt to turn Luther into a hero or an antihero. He appears, as undoubtedly he was, as a man of very mixed characteristics—neither the maligned saint nor the incarnation of evil. Brave and arrogant, he can, at the same time, be seen to be hesitant, and even at times, almost cowardly; unwilling, at a crucial time, to take the lead in the movement that he had set going. His "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me, Amen" contrasts strangely with his failure to respond to Melancthon's cries for help when t h e 'Enthusiastes' were running riot in Wittenburg.

In fact, the time spent at the Wartburg seems almost to have been a running away from the consequences of his revolution. When he did return. the chances of a moderate reformation were gone. Here was the weariness of the revolutionary, uncertain of the future and none too happy at the general course events were taking. Miss Simon makes the point that until quite a late stage, Luther was open to the possibility of a rapprochement with the Catholic Church. and she suggests that it was at the Colloquy of Marburg that Luther accepts that his reform was no longer merely a reform within the Church. The picture of Luther that emerges is of a relative moderate, constantly being pushed faster than he wanted to go by circumstances.

Again and again, the point comes through that, so often, it is personalities and their intricacies, rather than doctrines that bring about the utter breakdown in rela tionships—the doctrinal adjustments come later. Of course, the Catholic Church was in a ghastly mess at this time, and it is sheer prejudice to try and pretend otherwise; of course, Luther and others were right to be scandalised and indignant about this. The trouble comes, I fancy. because none of the main protagonists on either side were men of prayer and sanctity. They were all too humanly motivated by greed, pride and power, mixed in with a genuine desire for purity and orthodoxy in religious ideas and practice.

The great merit of this book is that it presents the facts without attempting to draw judgments on either side. This is not a book for scholars—no sources are quoted, nor are references given for quotations; indeed, where there are quotations from letters etc, the author admits that she places the spirit before the letter in translating. What does emerge is a fascinating study, written in a lively and energetic style, of a very complex period in Christian history.

Anyone who wants an introduction to the makings of the Reformation and some of its leading characters could not do better than to pick up this book; I fancy that it will lead them on, in a pleasant and interesting way, to a deeper and more serious study of the crisis with which Christianity found itself faced in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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