- Luthers Erbe. Eine Kritik des deutschen Protestantismus by Wolfgang Wippermann
In Luthers Erbe, Wolfgang Wippermann explores how Christians in general and German Protestants in particular have related to the following issues and populations over time: secular rulers, warfare, socioeconomic structures, Jews, Roma, and women. He devotes a chapter to each subject, beginning with an overview of significant developments in antiquity and the Middle Ages, moving next to Luther’s contributions, and ending with reflections on modern German Protestantism. On balance he finds much to criticize and little to praise. Christians have gone astray, he argues, “weil sie Staat, Krieg und Kapital für gut, Juden, Roma und Frauen dagegen für böse gehalten haben” (7).
In the first three chapters, Wippermann celebrates the early church for its autonomy from the state, the determination of its members to avoid military service, and the solicitude it showed toward the poor. The church began gravitating away from these ideals in the fourth century, after coming to enjoy the favor of the Roman Empire and subsequent states. Church leaders leveraged state power to persecute their enemies at home and abroad, and they crafted theological justifications for war. While it continued to support the poor, the church itself grew exceedingly rich and materialistic. In Wippermann’s estimation, Luther failed to confront these ills, and in some respects he made matters worse. He endorsed nearly absolute obedience to secular leaders, recognized war as a means God employed to exact justice, and demonstrated little concern for the poor. These stances helped shape a German Protestant tradition that, with a few exceptions, has proven unflinchingly loyal to the state, has sacralized war, and has never seriously challenged the injustices of capitalism. He finds glimmers of hope in recent decades, including the resistance of the Confessing Church during the Nazi era and the church’s role in coordinating civilian protest in the GDR in the 1980s.
In the book’s final three chapters, the author no longer looks to the early church for models worth reclaiming. In the New Testament, one finds evidence of Christian hostility toward Jews and the expectation that women should defer to men. These attitudes remained in place throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Roma, meanwhile, arrived in Europe only in the fifteenth century and soon faced severe persecution. The challenge for Christians has been to shed old prejudices and to recognize the full dignity of all human beings. Luther once again fell far short of the [End Page 155] mark. Wippermann rejects the efforts of scholars to distance the bulk of Luther’s career from the vituperative works he wrote late in his life, arguing instead that the reformer was fiercely and consistently antisemitic. Luther also despised the Roma and was patronizingly dismissive of the capacities of women. These attitudes defined German Protestantism for centuries to come. Only recently have Protestants come to recognize the integrity of Judaism and the dignity of women. Wrestling with the church’s dark legacy vis-à-vis the Roma has barely begun.
Wippermann wrote Luthers Erbe with a general audience in mind, avoiding jargon and arcane scholarly debates. The book offers brisk, accessible overviews of six important topics in the history of Christianity. The downside of this approach is that the author tends to oversimplify complex topics in ways that can be misleading. To cite just one example, he dismisses indulgences as a crass fundraising tool without even a gesture toward the theological rationale behind the practice and why it made sense to serious-minded Christians. Wippermann is also inconsistent and unrealistic in his expectations concerning how the church has navigated historical change. On the one hand, he faults the church for abandoning certain features of early Christianity, such as autonomy from the state, pacifism, and identification with the poor. He does not consider the possibility that some of these changes might have been creative adaptations that allowed the church to advance its mission in a new historical context. On the other hand, he condemns Christians for taking too long to...