Reforming the Church and renewing Christendom


Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval by Heinz Schilling and translated by Rona Johnston Gordon, Oxford University Press, US $39.99, Pp 576, July 2017, ISBN 978-0198722816

Wittenberg was an unknown small town in northeastern Germany five hundred years ago. And Martin Luther was an unknown monk living there before he posted ninety-five theses against indulgences. Many monks routinely invited disputations in sixteenth century Germany. The intellectual circles also criticized indulgences as a matter of routine. But, Martin Luther’s criticism was different. In the next five years, the German church became embroiled in turmoil and it condemned Luther as a heretic (and the most famous man in Germany). A theological spat had become a great public event and led the birth of Protestantism five hundred years ago. In Martin Luther Heinz Schilling revisits, and reinterpret the role of, Martin Luther.

Luther does not prove to be so very different from his Imperial opponent if viewed in the light of the Christian attitudes of their age. In 1521, as he spoke out before Emperor and Imperial Diet in favor of an evangelic renewal of the church, Luther, too, thought of Christendom only in universal terms. Heinz Schilling writes that, by the time of his death, early modern particularist forces were as evident in the reform of the church as they were elsewhere. The universal evangelical renewal of Christendom had become the discreet reformation of the Lutheran or Reformed territorial and urban churches. In place of the unity and peace that Erasmus, for one, had sought for Christendom, estrangement and hostility now dominated. Soon the German territories, and Europe, and Europe more broadly, would be trapped in an unremitting struggle for political and confessional-cultural supremacy, a conflict that even contained signs of a fundamentalist desire to see the enemy eradicated.

Heinz Schilling says that Luther’s self-assertion had meant that, just like the Protestant churches, the post-Tridentine renewed Roman Church had inevitably become a particularlist church and its head, the pope, a particularlist prince, no matter how much he might continue, even up to the present, to insist upon the universality of his church. Just like the papacy, Luther and all the confessional churches emerged from the Reformation abided by their universalist-couched assertion that they alone represented the truth, signaling clearly the discrepancy between claim and reality.

Just like all the other actors of his age, Luther understood religion in universal terms – for the reformer in him was the sole truth for an evangelically renewed Christendom. Heinz Schilling writes, “As God’s prophet he was responsible for bringing that truth, which alone could save, to all people and for ensuring its implementation everywhere. Charles V’s political universal project failed, but so too did Luther’s theological and ecclesiastical universal project. The outcome was momentous.” Heinz Schilling argues that cultural and political differentiation within Europe, the modern concept of liberty, and in the long term even the ideological pluralism without which modern society would be unthinkable were all only possible when universalism no longer held sway. Such ideas would have been utterly alien to both Emperor and reformer.

It is hard to draw up a balance sheet of successes and failures for Luther than for the Emperor and the popes. Hardly any other figure had anything like the same influence on the transition that had begun in Europe in the late medieval period. Heinz Schilling writes, “Even when viewed in the context of a longer ‘age of reformation,’ Luther still stands out as a reformer – he consolidated existing reforming impetuses and provided them with a new energy and a new dynamic.” His opponents also profited from his response, above all Ignatius of Loyola, the reformer of the papal church, who seems inconceivable without the provocation provided by Luther. Because of Luther, the Reformation era and the period of confessionalization that followed marked the apogee of a secular turn that neither grew from nor focused on church and religion alone.”

Although there existed a lot of literature on Martin Luther, there has been a gap as far as his universalism is concerned. Martin Luther fills that gap. It is a meticulously researched book that provides deep analysis of the role of Martin Luther in the rise of Protestantism. It is an insightful and highly scholarly book but it’s very readable at the same time. It should be on university curriculums for history. It is a must-read for everyone interested in the history of Europe and religion. Heinz Schilling’s scholarship is unmatched in its insight, scholarly value, and authority.