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Whitford, David M. [Ed.]
Martin Luther in Context.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. XVI, 416 S. m. 9 Abb. Geb. £ 84,99. ISBN 978-1-107-15088-1.
David M. Whitford has gathered forty-seven compact, concise essays, averaging less than ten pages each, which provide students and scholars in the field with surveys of central elements of the context in which Martin Luther developed and in which his Reformation spread. Some essays dwell almost exclusively on context; others focus on Luther’s own writings and actions within broader contexts, treated in various degrees. Some authors have dedicated their scholarship over the years to Luther or his immediate surroundings over longer or shorter periods of his life while others approach the Wittenberg reformer from other their own interests in late me-dieval or early modern history. It is fruitful to gain insights from those who have worked in related fields of research alongside those who have focused their research in the vicinity of Wittenberg.
Three-quarters of the authors come from the United States or Canada; Europeans, chiefly Germans, constitute the remaining corps of experts, an indication of how slowly majority world Luther research is edging into the Western consciousness. Younger schol-ars are well represented alongside some veterans in their fields. Non-English language scholarship is missing in some bibliographies, which otherwise for the most part provide constructive springboards for initial ventures into the topics treated.
While, as in any such collection, the quality of the essays varies, in general the treatments of elements of the reformer’s thought as well as factors that formed him and to which he reacted are pre-sented in ways that effectively familiarize students with the sig-nificant questions being discussed in scholarship today regarding the specific topics. W. intends that these assessments of »Luther in context« serve as »tool[s] to be used, a starting point for further work« (4), making it a useful reference for students or scholars from other backgrounds to find an initial orientation to the issues and current scholarship on its topics.
W. has structured his overview in seven parts, »Life and Educa-tion,« »Religious and Intellectual Context,« »Social and Cultural Context,« »People,« »Themes in Luther’s Thought,« »Works,« and »Reception.« It is impossible to summarize all essays. A sampling of those I found particularly helpful for me and for my students offers a sense of how the volume can be put to use.
Beth Allison Barr brings her extensive research on Saint Anne into sharp focus to illumine how the cult of saints functioned in the piety of Luther’s youth, discussing the reformer’s own reflections on the mother of Mary as well as Lukas Cranach’s depictions of Anne. Gordon Jensen’s tightly-woven synopsis of »late medieval theology« acquaints readers with the schools of »scholastic« theol-ogy and with the »popular, or vernacular, theology,« assessing both its differing kinds of mystical approaches to cultivating personal faith and devotion and the devotio moderna. Euan Cameron’s introduction to pre-Luther »calls for reform« points to official ecclesias-tical plans and movements for reform on several levels as well as critiques of religious life from Erasmus and others outside the es-tablishment. David Price treats the Italian background of Northern European humanism, Erasmus and Reuchlin as two of its foremost representatives, and the roles of both Luther and Melanchthon in combining humanistic methods with the call for ecclesiastical reform. Ron Rittgers aids newcomers to the subject to find their way into the mentality that shaped the practice of the sacrament of penance and the significance of indulgences in »satisfying« the temporal punishments that sin merited. Ralph Keen traces the development of Luther’s attitudes toward the papacy and his expression of his critique of the institution.
Among the well-crafted essays on Luther’s »social and cultural context« I found those on Luther’s literary interactions with Turks and Jews by Gregory Miller and Stephen Burnett particularly valuable, as is Amy Leonard’s careful analysis of the place and roles of women in late medieval German society. Miller explains why Luther promoted translation of the Koran and strove to increase popular knowledge of Turkish religion and culture. Burnett focuses on the nature of Jewish daily life in Luther’s world. David Luebke offers readers an insightful assessment of how the Holy Roman Empire functioned (and failed to function) as imperial governance, lifting up the practice of litigation before the Reichskammergericht as a key feature of keeping order and peace within the German-speaking lands.
I found »Themes« the weakest of the sections, not because of the quality of the six essays that the volume contains but because of my expectation that analyses of precisely what the social and political contexts as well as the intellectual, theological settings of specific doctrinal themes might be. The volume gives a fine overview of the general »religious and intellectual contexts,« but central doctrinal themes (including sin and evil; justification – definitions of right-eousness and faith or trust included –; the Word of God in its sever-al forms; the church; and the span of ethical positions that developed from Luther’s understanding of God’s commands and callings) could well have received attention. All these topics can be understood only in the context of both the theological discussions of his time and the late medieval, early modern social, legal, and politi-cal frameworks of the German-speaking lands and the Western church. Treatments of some of those topics would have added value as models for such research. Nonetheless, the six essays in this section are valuable for initial approaches to Luther’s way of thinking. For instance, Steven Paulson and John Hoyum treat Luther’s »theol-ogy of the cross« with clarity and skill. Volker Leppin’s examination of the implementation of reform places the advance of the Wittenberg Reformation within the frameworks of secular political developments and Luther’s appeals to the populace that aimed at reshaping faith and practice at the popular level.
The seven essays on »Luther’s Works« present competent summaries of Luther’s use of polemic (Hans Wiersma), his biblical commentaries from the 1520s–1540s (Mickey Mattox), his »sermons, catechisms, and worship aids« (Timothy Maschke), his »Table Talk« (Ingo Klitzsch), and the Luther Bible (Arnoud Visser), as well as edi-tions of Luther’s Works from the sixteenth century to the present, in original languages and English translation.
This valuable tool for instruction and guidance in initiating new research provides an entry into a broad spectrum of key components of Luther’s story and will refresh and strengthen the grasp of current scholarship, particularly North American research, for those who already are familiar with the reformer’s life and thought, just as it provides helpful catalysts for those first exploring these topics.