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Reviewed by:
  • Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer by Scott Hendrix
  • Dorothea Wendebourg
Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. By Scott Hendrix. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015. 341 pp.

Yet another Luther book riding on the wave of the Reformation jubilee of 2017? How many have already eaten up readers' time and stuffed their shelves? Whoever looks at the book market of the last few years cannot help sighing. However, taking note of the author of the present volume makes one think twice and have a closer look. After all, with his Recultivating the Vineyard (2004) Scott Hendrix presented one of the really fruitful books in the field of Reformation history in recent years. With this work in mind even the tired reader will give Martin Luther. The Visionary a chance. Two short introductory books (Martin Luther. A Short Introduction, Oxford, 2010, and Luther, Abingdon, 2009) served as finger exercises for it.

The book has two parts whose titles and lengths reveal its agenda. The first part describes the years 1483/84–1521 in 110 pages, the second deals with the years 1522–1546 in 165 pages. Whereas other Luther biographies put the main emphasis on the nearly four decades of "the young Luther" up to his appearance at the Diet of Worms (who could be called "young" only insofar as he was a late developer), Hendrix devotes the greater part of his book to the last twenty-four years of the Wittenberg Reformer. He presents this partitioning as a natural one, because "Luther's life divides nicely into two parts: before and after he became a reformer" (ix). Before 1521 "Luther proposed many reforms but did not see himself as the leader of a popular movement as comprehensive as the Reformation turned out to be" which he became after his return from the Wartburg (xiii). It is this movement and its results that interest Hendrix—the Pursuit of a Vision (title of part II). The earlier four decades of Luther's life come into focus as a period of various proposals of limited ecclesial and academic reform—the Pathways of Reform (title of part I). What is interesting and the most original [End Page 197] feature of Hendrix's book is his identification of the turning point, namely, Luther's exile at the Wartburg. Driven out of church and society, bound to nothing and no one but Christ and thus fundamentally "free," Luther "adopted a new identity and a new purpose that he believed had come from God." This new identity and purpose of the free Luther were "based on a vision of what Christianity could become" (115). The Reformer was born and the rest of his life would be dedicated to the pursuit of his vision.

The price paid for this dating is the downplaying of the previous years. The limited importance of the 95 Theses for the Reformation is hardly questioned any more, although the fact that Luther discovered "freedom" as a leitmotiv of his life and even changed his name accordingly, precisely when he had composed the theses, should be taken seriously. What is more questionable, however, is the deemphasizing of the central writings of the year 1520. These writings, which Hendrix rightly calls "platforms for reforming Christendom," (85; strangely without saying more than one belated sentence (181) on The Babylonian Captivity) rise far above the level of all proposals of individual reforms he had produced previously. Not coincidentally "freedom" is the keyword which binds most of those writings together. In fact, already in 1520, when the outcome of the inquisition trial was clear and finally sealed with the bull of excommunication, Luther identified his and every Christian's freedom in Christ alone and presented the vision of a Christianity which lives out of such freedom. Also in that phase he was already completely confident of his role as the one who had been given this insight and the task to spread it by God. The months at the Wartburg were simply the continuation and deepening of the spiritual and theological ensemble the year 1520 had brought—exclusion from the church, freedom in Christ, vocation given by God, working for a renewal of Christianity based on that freedom...


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