Ink against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents by Harry Loewen (review)
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Reviewed by
Harry Loewen. Ink against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xx, 336. $36.99

This book is an expansion of the author's 1974 monograph titled Luther and the Radicals: Another Look at Some Aspects of the Struggle between Luther and the Radical Reformers, which was based on a MA thesis from 1961. Although some more recent literature on the original topic has been incorporated in the analysis, rather than a significant revision of the earlier work the book greatly expands the topic to include chapters on Luther's opposition to Erasmus on the freedom of the will, Luther and the Jews, Luther's writings on the Turks (and thus Islam), and Luther's later (1541 and 1545), highly polemical (even abusive) writings against the staunchly Catholic Duke Henry of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and against the Roman papacy. The author approaches his topic as a Christian from the Mennonite tradition seeking greater understanding among Christians. As Mennonite scholar Walter Klaasen notes in his foreword, "This is a book for the church." In general Loewen succeeds in evaluating Luther's religious thought and polemical writings in the way he wants to view all religions, namely "sympathetically and critically." Luther is presented as a man of religious conviction in an age when disagreement in religion was taken seriously, even of ultimate consequence, a cultural reality that often expressed itself through intolerance and persecution of religious dissenters of various kinds.

The significant expansion of an already large and frequently addressed topic leads to some deficiencies in the book. There are numerous typographical errors, errors of fact, and mischaracterizations, for example: Luther's ten-month, protective exile at the Wartburg is mislabelled as "solitary confinement" (it was neither), his understanding of church and state and the role of subjects is described as "simply [following] medieval feudal theory," and the radical theologian Thomas Müntzer is said to [End Page 274] have written a version of his Prague Manifesto in "Czechoslovakian." Such errors do not instill in the reader a sense of confidence in the reliability of this survey or the editorial process that has brought the book to the public.

More broadly, while presenting some analysis of Luther's writings the analysis is largely based on secondary literature, and much of this from the 1950s and even older scholarship. While some recent literature is used both in revision of previously published chapters and in the new material, the central arguments of other scholars on these topics are too often not engaged, most notably those in Mark U. Edwards, Jr.'s, Luther and the False Brethren (1975), Edwards's Luther's Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531–46 (1983), and Scott H. Hendrix's Luther and the Papacy (1981), to mention only significant works that have strong theses regarding Luther's motivations for engaging his opponents the way he did. More importantly, the specific historical contexts of Luther's polemical writings against various opponents are not sufficiently explored in order to develop a clear thesis regarding Luther's differentiated understanding of his opponents, which he himself sometimes described as false Christians (papists), false brethren (other evangelical reformers whom Luther rejected as fanatics and obstinate sacramentarians), and unbelievers who persistently reject the gospel (unconverted Jews and Turks/Muslims) and whom Luther viewed as a threat to his society. In sum, each of the twelve chapters that engages a specific target of Luther's polemics introduces a highly complex subject that requires much more extensive analysis. While such a sweeping overview has its attraction, it also runs the risk of distortion: Luther is defined by his negative response to his opponents rather than understood in the various contexts in which he sought to engage them. Given the author's Christian commitment and desire to inspire more positive understanding among different Christian groups, the new book would have better served had it kept its focus on Luther and the radicals and presented a more detailed analysis of why Luther opposed other evangelical reformers and their communities in the sixteenth century, then posing a clearer argument for how greater understanding can serve Christians in a more tolerant age, as well...