I’ve come to appreciate small books. Perhaps I’ve grown lazy. Perhaps I use the excuse, “I don’t have time,” to dislike engaging in five or six hundred page examinations of this or that topic. Or, perhaps, I have grown to admire the incredible skill it takes to condense a topic, whatever the topic, into a brief space. So, when I come across something labeled “a brief introduction”, I am more intrigued than I used to be.
Graham Tomlin has done such a thing. His title suggests hundreds of pages and many volumes, but Tomlin compresses Luther and his world into just over 150 pages; and does so adequately. He gives us a volume we might easily consider one of the first to hand to someone who doesn’t know Luther very well and say, “Start here.” Unless, of course, you do what Tomlin recommends instead: “The author’s hope is that it will stimulate readers to read Luther for themselves” (6). As crazy an idea as that sounds, throwing Luther at the uninitiated, it makes sense, for, in Tomlin’s words, “Many medieval and Renaissance authors are pretty turgid and tedious to read. Luther is neither of these things” (6). To which I say, “Yay and Amen!”
But if you must be introduced to Luther before reading him, then this might very well be the book for you. Not just because of its undaunting brevity, but because it is also simply organized and in itself contains many citations and samples of Luther’s writing (some in the text and some in the little side-bars sprinkled liberally throughout).
Tomlin takes us from Luther’s birth to death in a series of nine chapters hitting the high points: the friar, the theologian, the discovery, the fight, the climax, the leader, the breach, the patriarch, and the legacy. Tomlin aims to “paint a picture of a man struggling with some of the deepest of all human questions – if there is a God, is he good? Can he be trusted? What or who is the power that lies behind the universe” (5)? Hearing such a thesis earns a sympathetic ear from any Lutheran reader.
This leads into the book’s greatest strength. Tomlin, whatever his personal theological position, interprets Luther faithfully and well. Standing at the center of the book is the relationship between a sinner and God, which means Tomlin continually circles around and comes back to the doctrine of justification by faith, just as Luther did: “Therefore, to be saved one must become sinful, foolish, poor and helpless – exactly what his spirituality had led Luther to acknowledge himself to be” (45).
Not only that, but the confidence and hope in the true God that Luther needed, he found not in himself, but in the Word of God: “[Luther’s] whole life might be characterized as a struggle with the possibility that God might actually turn out to be the devil…. Over and against this, he would again and again turn to God’s word, which assured him of God’s goodness, despite all that suggested the contrary” (133).
This theme of Luther’s that Tomlin highlights we do well to keep in mind today. We live under the cross, as Jesus taught us in the gospels, and the world constantly appears other than what God says. But there is Christ and faith in Him, which makes us sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. We can, and must, only fix our eyes on Jesus, and let all else fade away. The Word stands alone. This theme closed out Tomlin’s book. He wrote:
“So, although he taught in a university, Luther calls into question the notion of purely ‘academic theology’. God’s word cannot be understood outside of the experience of living the Christian life, with all its uncertainties, doubts and struggles. While theology calls for the highest rigor of thought and serious discipline of mind, it is no merely ‘academic’ pursuit. It is there to help people to live a good, secure and fruitful life, to enable acts of love to come from the heart, not a guilty conscience. It is there to help people to experience the grace and love of God, and to know God as the good and generous giver which the scriptures present, a God who can be trusted. God is on our side, even though very often it does not feel like it” (149).
And then he lets Luther have the last word:
“Faith must spring up and flow from the blood and wounds and death of Christ. If you see in these that God is so kindly disposed towards you that he even gives his own Son for you, then your heart must grow sweet and disposed towards God. And in this way, your confidence must grow out of pure good will and love – God’s toward you and yours toward God” (149).
Tomlin rightly identifies this as the great difference between Luther and those who became his enemies, whether the pope in Rome, the peasants of central Europe, Erasmus, Zwingli, etc. Luther clung to Christ and the Word that preached Christ and only that. He found God’s righteousness only in Jesus and only received through faith. But Rome wanted her tradition and pope and indulgences and sacramental system. The peasants wanted revolution and a utopian world. Erasmus wanted peace, free will, and morality. Zwingli and those who came after him saw Luther go only half-way and abandon reason and philosophy.
An unwillingness to cow-tow to tradition, experience, emotion, or reason, stood behind “Luther’s capacity to make enemies out of friends” (116). While sometimes it was Luther’s style or personality that caused rifts or divisions, mostly Luther stood on the Word of God and others would not. He admitted as much when he said in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, that if he could he would hold to a representational view of the sacrament, because it made the most sense. But, “unfortunately”, God’s Word bound him to find bread and wine and Christ’s body and blood on the altar.
We need this today. The great enemy assaults the Church from all sides, but every attack is, as Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, the same as the first attack, “Did God really say…?” Which is sheer enthusiasm, that is, finding God outside of His Word. This is something Luther refused to do, and something we must refuse to do.
As most biographies of Luther must, Tomlin handles some of the “issues” surrounding Luther: the date of his great discovery of the gospel (Tomlin goes with 1514-1515), whether the Theses were actually posted or not (Tomlin seems to suggest that that came from a “later version” written by Melanchthon, and so possibly not historical), and Luther’s influence on Nazi Germany through his political writings and his writing on the Jews (Tomlin admits that Luther’s doctrine could be abused or misunderstood as it has been in that direction, but refuses to blame him for Hitler and the Holocaust – though he notes that we should remember nothing mitigates Luther’s writings on the Jews from late in his life and they are “a strong corrective to those who want to make Luther a hero too uncritically” ).
But for all that, as with Luther, Tomlin keeps the focus on Christ and His Word. Luther’s legacy in the church is that “pastors are primarily to be preachers, not Mass-providers, like the priests of the old church. The message of the forgiveness of sins, ‘not on account of merits, but on account of Christ’, is to be repeated again and again in their sermons, until everyone gets the point” (125). Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus! Everything is set up in this church, as Luther writes in the Large Catechism, to distribute “daily and fully” the forgiveness of sins. For this is what we need!
This is so, because Luther understood what in dogmatics we call the habitus practicus. Theology isn’t just for the classroom or the mind: it’s for life, a practiced habit. “Luther’s theology was never an academic exercise – it was forged in the furnace of spiritual and physical pain. A test of any theology is whether in times of great distress it provides comfort and strength, or whether it proves irrelevant and useless. If this is a true test, Luther’s theology passed with flying colors” (134). We can thank Graham Tomlin for reminding us of this in such a brief and valuable way.
Doctor Graham Tomlin studied English and theology at the University of Oxford and was a curate of a church in Exeter before returning to Oxford to be chaplain of Jesus College from 1989-1994 and a tutor in historical theology and evangelism at Wycliffe Hall, where he eventually became the vice-principal. He was for several years a member of the faculty of Theology of Oxford University, teaching on the Reformation and contemporary mission and culture before moving to London in 2005.
He is the Dean of St. Mellitus College, a new church training institution set up by the Bishops of London and Chelmsford, providing theological education across London, Essex, and since 2013 Liverpool and the North-West through their new center, based at Liverpool Cathedral. He is also Principal of St. Paul’s Theological Centre, which is based at Holy Trinity Brompton, and a constituent member of St. Mellitus College.
Luther and His World, Graham Tomlin, Lion Books, 2012, 156 pages.