- Luther! Biographie Eines Befreiten by Joachim Köhler
Published on the eve of the Reformation's 500th anniversary, Joachim Köhler's biography is designed for a popular, but educated German audience. Neither a theologian nor Reformation historian, Köhler studied philosophy, German literature, and art history, receiving his Ph.D. for a dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche. Since then he has authored biographies, monographs, and novels, most revolving around the lives of Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, has worked as editor for the German news magazine Stern, and directed its book-publishing branch. His current biography is his first foray into the sixteenth century.
In his forward Köhler responds to claims that Luther is no longer relevant to Germans because he was too fanatical, no constitutionalist, [End Page 244] mostly devoid of democratic impulses, foreign to multiculturalism, not politically correct, brash, and servile to authority; nor did his message move toward humanistic, pacifistic, or socialist ideologies. Köhler claims—and this is his thesis—that for Luther, "it was enough to be a Christian, that is a truly human human being (menschlisher Mensch)" (7). In his own times, continues Köhler, Luther returned joy to religion, introduced a God who was not always wrathful, but smiling, a God who was present, not distant. For society, "He brought to the people their new freedom, and that sufficed" (9). Köhler insists that his book is no laudatio, but admits that in it the reader "will hear an unmistakable 'Long Live Luther!'" (9).
The text follows the chronological arc of Luther's life in three sections: "Distress" (Bedrängnis) addresses Luther's life up to his Rome trip (1510/11); "Liberation" (Befreiung) describes his Reformation discoveries and early battles; and "Preservation" (Bewahrung) begins with the Diet of Worms (1521) and ends in 1525, with forays into Luther's later struggles, and even an assessment of his influence on J. S. Bach.
Köhler's sources are exclusively German, consisting largely of Luther's own writings (with emphasis on the Table Talk), and a smattering of nineteenth-century treatments and more contemporary studies. Although much of the action of the book takes place in Luther's head, Köhler's biography is neither an intellectual nor psychological history, but a popularized version of both. The strength of the book is Köhler's skill in articulating complex theological issues in a comprehensible way.
Köhler follows some current trends in Luther scholarship and ignores others. He emphasizes the influence of mysticism on Luther, and his copious (and uncritical) use of the Table Talk helps to humanize the Reformer. But he ignores studies that increasingly see Luther as the most important member of a group of intellectuals in Wittenberg. With the exception of Staupitz and his early encouragement, Luther stands as a solitary genius. Moreover Köhler takes as objective reality the Reformer's point of view, particularly with regard to late medieval piety and the papal church.
More problematic is the work's teleological thrust. Often Köhler emphasizes the long-term impact of Luther's ideas—on the music of Bach or the formation of the German language—an approach [End Page 245] that while accurate, serves to heroicize Luther. Most dubious, however, is Köhler's claim that in its origins, Luther's Reformation was conceived of by Staupitz and Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, who employed the zealous young monk to attack the papacy. Having discerned that indulgences were the church's weakest point, these co-conspirators pointed Luther in that direction. As a result, Luther's ninety-five theses are no longer the result of a personal theological breakthrough or pastoral concerns, but ultimately a product of Staupitz's and Frederick's machinations. Köhler goes so far as to claim that "Because Frederick's professor raised his general attack on indulgences to the door of Wittenberg's indulgence central [the Castle Church], no suspicion would possibly fall on the Elector" (146). In other words, by having Luther nail the theses to the structure housing his own relic collection (a...