- The Making of Martin Luther by Richard Rex
“Of the making of biographies of Martin Luther there is no end,” Ecclesiastes might have said. Any new biography of Luther must justify another trip over the well-trodden ground. Richard Rex’s The Making of Martin Luther justifies its existence, giving a detailed, critical, but not partisan, picture from a Catholic perspective of Luther’s intellectual development through 1525. The volume gives an eminently readable, well grounded account, apparently aimed at the reader with some theological knowledge, but a limited acquaintance with Luther (though usefulness to the non-specialist is limited by the absence of references to English translations of Luther). No other recent biography is directly comparable. The focus is definitely on Luther’s theology, but as embedded in his life. Primary sources are extensively cited; secondary sources, especially the voluminous German Protestant scholarship on the early Luther, make almost no appearance, aiding a more flowing narrative, but also raising some questions for the specialist.
The Catholic perspective is noticeable in Rex’s willingness to note the problematic sides of Luther’s character (“It was one of Luther’s foibles to mistake his own personal touchiness for a selfless dedication to the truth” [p.111]), without denying the difficulties to be found in his adversaries. The resulting portrait is neither the Catholic Luther of Peter Manns nor the Lutheran Luther from whom [End Page 762] Otto Herman Pesch thought Catholics needed to learn. Rex’s Luther is the creator of a “new religion” (p. 150), a radically individualist, subjective version of Christian faith, even if such was not Luther’s goal. Rex’s Luther is much like the Luther of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation.
If the strength of the volume is the biographical narrative, the weakness is the analysis of Luther’s theology. For Rex, the key to Luther’s thought is his insistence on the certainty of one’s own salvation (p. x). This undoubtedly significant aspect of Luther’s theology becomes the hermeneutical lens for Rex’s interpretation. The test of such an interpretive proposal is how well it illuminates its subject, and Rex’s reductive insistence on certainty as interpretive device obscures as much as it uncovers. Rex oddly identifies certainty as the content of Luther’s understanding of justification: “This [certainty] was the core meaning of his most famous slogan, ‘justification by faith alone” (p. x). What almost entirely disappears in Rex’s account is Luther’s insistence that the only righteousness that will avail before the judgment of God is strictly and only the righteousness of Christ, in which the Christian participates by faith. If any short phrase gives the core of Luther’s understanding of justification, it would be, “Christ is our righteousness.” Of that, one must be certain, for clinging to the righteousness of Christ is our only hope before the temptations of pride and despair. To note Luther’s emphasis on certainty without giving equal tine to what Luther thought we must be certain about is to misread Luther. The development of this aspect of Luther’s understanding of justification has been a major preoccupation of Luther scholarship for a century.
This failing does not destroy the value of the book as a theologically focused biography of the early Luther. Paired with Berndt Hamm’s much denser The Early Luther, it is an excellent place to start in pursuit of a balanced picture of the puzzling Reformer.