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Martin Luther - Here I Stand

REVIEW

Bainton, Roland Herbert. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1977.

INTRODUCTION

Without a doubt, the German reformer Martin Luther is one of the best known theologians of the Reformation period. The church-history changing act of nailing his 95 theses to the church door of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 set Luther on course to become a man worthy of study by those who follow him and seek biblical truth. Dr. Roland H. Bainton’s book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, first published in 1950, is his seminal work on the person, life, and theology of Martin Luther. In it, Bainton sets out to paint a vivid picture of the man and of the impact his theological considerations on the world after him. While Bainton neglects to highlight valid concerns about Luther’s later writings in an appropriate manner, he is able to draw his reader into an intimate view of who Luther was and what brought him to revisit and rewrite what he had been taught based on his spiritual struggles leading him to the pages of Scripture to find truth.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Roland H. Bainton served as a faculty member of the Yale School of Divinity for 42 years and was the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History until 1962. In 1950, Dr. Roland Bainton delivered a significant contribution to the understanding of the man Martin Luther in his book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. This book is one of 32 books he wrote, 13 of them written after his retirement.[1] According to Amazon, Bainton’s account of Luther’s theological impact but even more so of who Luther was as a man is his most popular book, selling more than 1 million copies.[2]

SUMMARY

Bainton takes his readers through Martin Luther’s life in the first half of the book. The reader gains insights into Luther’s struggles with his own faith, displayed in the immense emotional and spiritual pain he encountered when trying to fit in his mind the image of a just and harsh God from whom he could find no reprieve, even after hours of confession. A clear picture arises of what brought about Luther’s realization that justification by faith was what had been in the pages of Scripture all along but had not set in as a realization that this meant that the wrath of God was justified in the cross, and that through this, he could have peace with God. Bainton guides his readers through the story of Luther’s life, culminating with his appearance at the Diet of Worms, where Luther famously uttered what became the title of Bainton’s book: “Here I stand.”

In the second half of his book, Bainton transitions to a close look at the formation of Luther’s theology. This still happens through the lens of Luther’s life. In this sense, the book continues as a biography, but the shift is clear enough to see the theological considerations taking prominence. Bainton ends the book with a chapter entitled “The Measure of a Man”, in which he describes Luther’s final sixteen years.

CRITICAL REVIEW

From the very first pages, Bainton draws the reader into the immense spiritual struggle Luther experiences. Even for someone without prior knowledge of Luther’s story, there is little doubt, after reading Bainton’s stirring introductory pages, that Luther would either wind up in an asylum or would change the course of the church. The reader gets himself emotionally drawn into the telling of the story as the spiritual struggles described have been experienced by him, even if in a much lighter manner. It is thus that Bainton’s theological highlights, as told in the context of Luther’s struggles, become not a by-line, but an integral part of the story. An example is a passage that describes God’s attitude towards forgiveness:

God does not condition his forgiveness upon the expectation of future fulfillment. And man is not put right with God by any achievement, whether present or foreseen. On man’s side the one requisite is faith, which means belief that God was in Christ seeking to save; trust that God will keep his promises; and commitment to his will and way. Faith is not an achievement. It is a gift.[3]

Bainton displays a casual and somewhat humorous telling of the story in many of his stories about Luther. When he says, “On top of all this he translated the entire New Testament into his mother tongue. This was his stint for the year. One wonders whether his depressions were anything more than the rhythm of work and fatigue,” the reader cannot help but smile as Bainton allows his personality to shine through. Reading about the author from someone who studied under him at Yale[4], it becomes clear that the author is someone who allows his own passion to shine through the pages.

At the same time, there are things not to like about this otherwise highly enjoyable book. Bainton has chosen a rather strange way of documenting his references by referring to them not in footnotes or endnotes, but rather by line references at the end of the book, which – on top of causing additional work – are cryptic to read.

In addition to this technical annoyance about the writer’s way of referencing information, there is a broader concern with what this reader deems to be a critical glossing over. In the final chapter on Luther’s life, “The Measure of a Man”, Bainton seems to diminish the true vitriol of Luther’s writings regarding the Jews in this final stage of his life when he writes “One could wish that Luther had died before ever this tract was written. Yet one must be clear as to what he was recommending and why. His position was entirely religious and in to respect racial.”[5] He calls Luther’s positions on the Jews “a program of enforced Zionism”[6]. James McNutt puts this into much more direct language when he writes,

Luther’s reading of the text remained consistent with his central conviction of God’s justification of the sinner. It embodied the essential dynamic of Luther’s thinking in that it expressed a theological assertion–potential Jewish salvation–by way of proper awareness of the hidden God. As with the theology of the cross, the will of God cannot be known from visible phenomena, thus the Jews must be placed directly into God’s hands. This profoundly theocentric conclusion so clearly consistent with letting “God be God” found no further elucidation in his future statements on the Jewish question.  Tragically, his tirades embodied the exact opposite. By taking the path of vilification premised on observable phenomena, Luther squandered any gains made from his exegetical study. Here was a thought let slip, a seminal insight not pursued. Luther chose the popular path; the path crowded with vicious hatred of Jews, which simply imbibed the prevalent spirit of the day.[7]

As such, this reader would have hoped for a more honest evaluation of this phase of Luther’s life. This would paint a much more rounded picture of the man Luther who, while bringing about true reform, should be viewed in the light of being a man whose measure as a man should be honestly reflected upon. As this reader hails from Germany, such honesty is seen not as simply desired, but as essential in warding off any anti-Semitism by exposing it, even in a reformer such as Luther.

CONCLUSION

As a passionate account of Martin Luther’s life and theology, Bainton’s book is a delight to read. From taking the reader through the circumstances of his early life that shaped him to become the man that he was to leading him to understand why and how Luther developed theological concepts that shaped the Reformation itself as well as the post-Reformation world, Bainton succeeds in painting a well-rounded picture of Luther. This book serves an audience that seeks to have a better understanding of Luther’s life, but also one that academically seeks to understand the development of Lutheran theology. Despite some critiques in both content and execution, this book is highly recommended for the reader who seeks to understand the man Martin Luther.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Amazon.com. Here I Stand – Roland H. Bainton. http://www.amazon.com/Here-Stand-Hendrickson-Classic-Biographies/dp/1598563335(accessed December 4, 2011).

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1977.

Keane, Paul D. Doctor Bainton. http://doctorbainton.blogspot.com/2009/10/45-doctor-bainton-there-is-no-question.html (accessed December 4, 2011).

McNutt, James E. “Luther and the Jews Revisited: Reflections on a Thought Let Slip.” Currents in Theology and Mission 38, no. 1 (February 2011).

New York Times. Obituaries: Dr. Roland H. Bainton. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/14/obituaries/dr-roland-h-bainton-dies-retired-yale-divinity-teacher.html (accessed December 4, 2011).


[1] New York Times, Obituaries: Dr. Roland H. Bainton, http://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/14/obituaries/dr-roland-h-bainton-dies-retired-yale-divinity-teacher.html (accessed December 4, 2011).

[2] Amazon.com, Here I Stand – Roland H. Bainton, http://www.amazon.com/Here-Stand-Hendrickson-Classic-Biographies/dp/1598563335, (accessed December 4, 2011).

[3] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1977), 49.

[4] Paul D. Keane, Doctor Bainton, http://doctorbainton.blogspot.com/2009/10/45-doctor-bainton-there-is-no-question.html (accessed December 4, 2011).

[5] Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 297.

[6] Ibid.

[7] James E. McNutt, “Luther and the Jews Revisited: Reflections on a Thought Let Slip,” Currents in Theology and Mission 38, no. 1 (February 2011): 40.

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