Book Review: How is Luther to be Remembered?

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Book Reviews
By Kurt Stadtwald

1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation

by Peter Marshall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN (print) 978-0-1996-8201-0

At this point, writing about the commemoration of the quincentennial of the posting of the Ninety-five Thesis is like finding a lump of fruitcake in the back of the refrigerator, whether or not you like rum and candied fruit.

Unless we are, however, complete captives of our attention span, what we certainly must have taken from the 2017 celebration of the Reformation is that it commemorated events that, unlike leftovers, do not have an expiration date—that the Reformation has an ongoing significance in the matrix of human affairs called history and in the lives of uncounted people living and dead. The Reformation’s perceived meaning for groups and individuals over the past five centuries is the subject that Peter Marshall, Professor of History at the University of Warwick, takes up in 1517 (Marshall, 2017). Central to his discussion is why Protestants have fixed 1517 as the Luther year, why the posting of the Ninety-five Thesis has become the zero minute of the Reformation’s launch, and what the action of its posting meant both then and later on.

For most Lutherans it must seem only natural that the posting is the iconic image of the Reformation’s inception, but Marshall is very careful to show that it has only become so, and to a great extent was a creation of later centuries, not the sixteenth. Before then it competed with other moments of perhaps greater historical significance in the formation of Lutheranism and Protestantism’s emergence from Catholicism; for example, 1520 with the publication of Luther’s Freedom of a Christian (among other landmark statements of Lutheran doctrine and dissent) and Luther’s burning of the bull of his own excommunication, 1521 with Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms that ended with his “Here I Stand” declaration, 1522 with the publication of the New Testament in Luther’s German translation, and even 1530 with the publication of the Augsburg Confession.

What is for Marshall even more curious is that the posting of the Ninety-five Thesis probably did not take place in the way that nearly all moderns think it happened, if they have absorbed the iconography of the event in art or on the screen such as that reprinted. Since 1961 a growing number of historians have expressed reasonable doubts that Luther indeed nailed the document to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. Marshall recounts the issues and evidence surrounding the posting in chapters one and two and comes to the following conclusions: First, the main act of Luther’s publication was the mailing of the Ninety-five Thesis along with a tract on indulgences to Germany’s primate Albrecht, the Archbishop of Mainz sometime after October 31. Second, when he did not get a timely response he circulated the document among colleagues in order to hold an academic debate against the abuses of indulgence selling, the reason that Luther ostensibly wrote the Ninety-five Thesis in the first place. If there had been a public posting in Wittenberg, it therefore took place not in October, but in November. The hoped-for debate, however, never took place. Third, Luther lost control of the text of the Ninety-five Thesis as they were copied, printed and reprinted multiple times in late 1517 and early 1518 through the agency of both those who considered Luther a friend or a foe. Fourth, Luther’s theses do not constitute an anti-Catholic manifesto, but expressed a pastor’s distress about the excesses of indulgence preaching and selling—excesses that other Catholic officials had previously voiced. Fifth, Luther never reminisced around the table or wrote about ever tacking up the Ninety-five Thesis. The first and best evidence of the posting of the document came from Philip Melanchthon who wrote in Life of Luther (1546) simply that Luther “publicly attached these [theses] to the church attached to Wittenberg Castle, on the day before the feast of All Saints, 1517.” It is also Melanchthon who first gave the posting its privilege of place as “the beginning of the declaration of Christian teaching,” and “the start of the amendment of doctrine.” “Remember, therefore, this day, and at the same time think of these same things!” (Melancthon, P. 1522, as cited in Marshall, 2017, p. 63, 70)

Marshall is not dismissive of what Melanchthon wrote about the October revolution of 1517, because Melanchthon was not an irresponsible man or careless scholar. On the other hand, Melanchthon was not an eyewitness, and his interests in the event were not primarily historical. Therefore, the posting of the Ninety-five Thesis is as Marshall’s title advertises an “invention”: “[I]t can, categorically, be stated that the Thesenanschlag [German for the “Theses Posting” and, sorry to say, Marshall’s preferred term for the traditional hammer-driven-nails-affixing-paper-to-wooden-door perception of the event] is a myth. That is not the same as to say it is a lie or a deception, and even less to imply that it is something peripheral or unimportant.” Rather, this myth like all myths are “powerful and meaningful narratives, which give shape to deeply engrained values, beliefs, and ideals. They are, quite simply, ‘the stories which a group, a society, or a culture lives by’” (Marshall, 2017, p. 13-14).

Clearly Marshall is not a vandal in that he is seeking to strike hammer blows of his own on the sacred objects of others, but to give the commemoration of the Reformation some context—to show readers how Protestants and Catholics, Lutherans and the Reformed, Germans and Anglo-Americans, among others, have over time understood the value and significance of the Reformation. In fact, the majority of the book is a study of what the Reformation meant in the context of the times from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, using quite a variety of contemporary memorabilia, media, and religious and secular writing produced around the centennials and half-centennials of the Ninety-five Thesis, and Luther’s birth and death. In this respect, the title of the book is misleading. Only the first two chapter are specifically about 1517.

Marshall’s survey of how the Reformation has been commemorated shows that contemporary events powerfully shaped what participants understood its value to be. On the eve of Germany’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the 1617 Jubilee of the Reformation was an opportunity to shore up Protestant solidarity and morale in the face of growing imperial and Catholic militancy against them. In the next century, those in Enlightenment circles saw the Reformation as “a crucial milestone in a progressive human history of emancipation” that on the one hand emphasized “how a corrupt and oppressive Church exploited popular ‘superstition’,” and on the other “Luther’s Reformation was the harbinger of economic progress, reason, toleration in religion, emancipation from irrational beliefs, and the ability of each person to ‘think for themselves’” (Marshall, 2017, p. 110).

The nineteenth-century celebrations grew and became more elaborate as more participants joined—including for the first time, American Lutherans. In Germany, Luther reached the pinnacle of his hero status, the Thesenanschlag achieved iconic status, and Wittenberg became a must-see tourist destination enhanced by the 1858 installation of bronze doors to the Castle Church emblazoned with the Ninety-five  Theses. The twentieth century with its two world wars, the rise and destruction of the Nazi Empire, the rise and implosion of the German Democratic Republic, and the growing specialization of historical and theological disciplines fragmented views, heightened anxieties and criticisms about Luther and the Reformation. Indeed, Marshall’s final chapter becomes, as the title denotes, a catalog of controversies.

Marshall’s book is helpful in that it will remind thoughtful readers that the process of learning is often tied to unlearning, the difficulty of which should not be taken lightly. In the case of the hammering Luther, the unlearning of the imagery should not be gut-wrenching, rather an appreciation that history, as dramatic as it is, is likely never as picturesque as the devices of the artist, the poet, the filmmaker, the preacher, and even some historians. Moreover, Marshall affirms the posting has been a powerful image of justice and reform, and one that has helped Lutherans reclaim its legacy from those seeking to debase or coopt it. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see this book being of interest to a general audience, especially those who are interested in the life and times of Luther or seeking a clear-cut estimate of the Reformation’s historical effect. For those interested interested in other recent works on Luther, the work of Andrew Pettegree or Scott H. Hendrix may be a better fit. The bibliography below lists the details. LEJ


Hendrix, S.H. (2017). Martin Luther: Visionary reformer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Pettegree, A. (2017). Brand Luther: How an unheralded monk turned his small town into a center of publishing, himself the most famous man in Europe—and started the Protestant Reformation. New York, NY: Penguin Books.