Heiko Oberman, Luther biographer and scholar of the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the late Middle Ages, was the Regents’ professor of history at the University of Arizona for seventeen years before his death in May, 2001 at the age of 70. Considered the preeminent Dutch Calvinist authority on late-medieval theology, Oberman has bequeathed to our generation several substantial works including, Dawn of the Reformation, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought, The Impact of the Reformation, and The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications. Foremost among his books is the classic biography on Martin Luther: Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. First published in German in 1982 to critical acclaim, the American edition under review has been ably translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart.
Oberman sees in Luther a complex man who has been misunderstood in much of the historiography. Without giving adequate attention to the medieval context of Luther’s life and work, the reformer has been illegitimately studied through a modern lens. However, to simply say that Luther was in fact a man of the Middle Ages would be to miss the mark as well. For Oberman, Luther is to be understood in a devil-God dialectic: “It is not the ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or even ‘modern’ Luther we are looking for…our objective is Martin Luther between God and the Devil” (xix). Oberman makes no apologies for narrowly tailoring his view of Luther in this way for “Precisely this ‘narrow’ perspective will, in fact, open to us the total vista of the Reformation and the part it played in Luther’s time and life; how unexpected it was when it became reality; how imperiled it remained after Luther’s death” (xix). In examining the reformer through this devil-Christ dialectic, students of Luther are granted passage into “the total vista of the Reformation.” Oberman’s purpose in writing Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is to “grasp the man in his totality—with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time” (xix).
The thesis of Luther: Man Between God and the Devil may be summarized briefly. Convinced he and his generation were living in the Last Days, Luther saw himself as a prophet proclaiming the “Reformation-to-come”—the second coming of Christ when God would consummate His kingdom. This message is heralded against the backdrop of the Devil’s “counterreformation.” Oberman explains: “According to Luther’s prediction, the Devil would not ‘tolerate’ the rediscovery of the Gospel; he would rebel with all his might, and muster all his forces against it. God’s Reformation would be preceded by a counterreformation, and the Devil’s progress would mark the Last Days” (12). According to Oberman, Luther “never styled himself a ‘reformer.’ He did not, however, shrink from being seen as a prophet; he wanted to spread the Gospel as an ‘evangelist’” (79). Luther could not see himself as a reformer or his movement as a “Reformation” given his conviction that “reformation” is God’s work. “Hence it is not a question of Luther initiating or bringing on the reformation. From his point of view, all he or any Christian can do is to initiate reforms to better the world to such an extent that it can survive until the moment when God will put a final end to our chaos” (80; cf. 177).
Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is divided into three parts with a total of eleven chapters. Acting as book-ends there is a prologue and an epilogue. Part I titled “The Longed-for Reformation” considers the Reformation as “A German Event,” “A Medieval Event,” and “An Elemental Event” (chapters 1-3). Part II considers “The Unexpected Reformation” while describing Luther’s development academically and spiritually and his fateful confrontation with Rome (chapters 4-6). Part III shows “The Reformation in Peril” with chapters considering Luther’s life as “between God and the Devil,” “Discord in the Reformation,” “Christianity between God and the Devil,” “Wedded Bliss and World Peace: In Defiance of the Devil,” and finally, “The Man and His Deeds” (chapters 7-11).
Among the many strengths of Oberman’s work is the advance of his thesis with painstaking attention to the historical details of Luther’s life and time. For example, chapter 1 sketches the importance of Frederick “the Wise” in protecting Luther’s role in the Reformation: “Without Frederick and his councilors, Cardinal Cajetan’s interrogation of Luther would have taken place in Rome and not on German soil. Without the Elector’s perseverance, the evangelical movement would have come to an end in 1518, to remain at best a dimly remembered chapter in church history. Luther the reformer and charismatic genius would never have existed, only Luther the heretic, who for a time enjoyed a certain degree of notoriety…” (21). In addition, we learn why Luther kept his distance from the national movement of his day. Oberman explains, “[For Luther] The German event is not the achievement of national glory, but rather repentance and reform” (46). A second strength is Oberman’s ability to give the reader insight into the emotional struggles of Luther without falling victim to reckless psychoanalysis of the reformer. In this, Oberman succeeds in accomplishing his purpose of grasping the man in his totality, namely, “with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time.” This skill is particularly on display in chapter 6 titled, “The Reformer Attacked” where Oberman asserts that it is Luther’s “fear of the Lord” that gave him the strength to resist the empire in Worms and “bear to be condemned as a heretic by Rome and damned as the Devil’s spawn” (187). Furthermore, Oberman helps the reader better understand Luther and his role in the Reformation by accepting Luther’s self-understanding of being an instrument in the hands of God: “Luther’s proclamation before the emperor in Worms, ‘Here I stand, God help me, Amen,’ is a trenchant expression of his certainty that contrary to his wishes and plans, God had made him His instrument” (178).
A fair question to ask of Oberman’s work is whether or not the totality of Luther can be understood through this devil-God dialectic. Lutheran scholar Eric Gritsch denies that this is possible “given the complexities of historiography.” While it is clear that Luther understood himself as a man caught up in a cosmic battle between God and the Devil, it is not clear that this is the only way of passage into “the total vista of the Reformation and the part it played in Luther’s time and life . . . .”
Surely Oberman is correct when he states, “To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective. It is history ‘sub specie aeternitatis,’ in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity” (12). In Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Oberman has given the reader uncommon help in grasping this “unconventional perspective.” It is fitting that Oberman dedicated this work to the late Roland Bainton, for it is possible that Oberman’s work will succeed Bainton’s classic biography of Luther as the definitive work for our generation.