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BRAND LUTHER: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation.

BRAND LUTHER: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation.

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BRAND LUTHER: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation. By Andrew Pettegree. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 383 pages. $18.00.

This book was recommended to me by Dr. Robert Kolb. It wasn’t a personal recommendation. He recommended this book to an entire class of people at a retreat in Norfolk, Nebraska. Three months later I was travelling through Germany on a Reformation Jubilee tour, and while in the gift shop of the Wartburg, I saw this book and purchased it. I’m glad I did. Kolb made an excellent recommendation.

Brand Luther is not another biography of Martin Luther, and yet, it would suffice for introducing the uninitiated into Luther studies. It’s very accessible. This book, however, is primarily concerned with the convergence of Martin Luther and the printing industry.

This is now the third book I’ve read about the Lutheran Reformation in the past year. I’ve read Bainton’s biography Here I Stand and a book about Frederick the Wise. Additionally, I’ve read a fair amount of Luther’s original writings, including most of volumes 44–47 in Luther’s Works: American Edition. I don’t mention this to boast. I say this because I want you to know that while I’m not a Luther expert, I’m at least a notch or two above the casual Luther reader. For this reason—along with Kolb’s recommendation—I’m confident writing the following paragraphs.

Brand Luther is not irresponsible scholarship. Brand Luther is not an unnecessary Luther book that is looking to capitalize on the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation by approaching the event from some wackadoodle position. It is generally recognized that Luther’s successful interaction with the printing industry is significantly responsible for the “staying power” of the Lutheran Reformation, and yet, as Pettegree himself acknowledges, “little scholarly attention had been devoted to the Wittenberg printing industry” (341). Pettegree spectacularly fills this void in scholarship.

Pettegree’s book was a lot of fun. That’s the best way I can put it. It was just plain fun. Not only does Pettegree do solid scholarship, he also writes in a way that is enjoyable for the reader. It wasn’t hard to turn the pages.

I learned a lot about the Lutheran Reformation that I had not known before. This book taught me more about indulgences than any other book I’ve ever read. The third chapter of the book is entirely devoted to it. It’s hardly an exhaustive treatment, but its approach to the nuts and bolts of the indulgence market was fascinating.

I was also fascinated to learn about Luther’s 99 Theses he wrote against Scholastic Theology in September of 1517. These theses were never debated by Luther and were soon eclipsed by his 95 Theses the following month. A recent (1983) discovery of a copy of the 99 Theses printed by Rhau-Grunenberg (Wittenberg’s only printer at the time) provides the necessary evidence to put to rest the now-tired debate of whether Luther ever actually “posted” the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door. “So almost certainly the indulgences were posted up on the door of the castle church, as the accepted narrative would have it, most probably in a now lost printed edition of Johann Rhau-Grunenberg” (72).

Printing for Luther was an extremely profitable enterprise, but it must have also been an extremely frustrating one. Luther was a perfectionist and a micro-manager of the printers. Whenever Luther was away from Wittenberg, he would write extremely detailed instructions to the printers for how he wanted his writings to be published. When mistakes were made, Luther would often express his disdain for them in personal letters to friends. And in the case of one printer, Melchior Lotter, Luther refused him patronage after Lotter had a vicious falling out with one of Luther’s closest friends, Lucas Cranach.

Pettegree’s book gives the Lutheran Reformation a very worldly context, and throughout its pages he presents Luther as simultaneously brilliant and deeply flawed. As a Lutheran myself, Luther is often spoken about in nothing less than heroic terms (excepting his treatise On the Jews and Their Lies—which was a printing failure: only published twice in Wittenberg, and never published in other large printing centers, such as Erfurt, Strasbourg, Leipzig, Basel, or Nuremburg), so the frequent examples of Luther’s flawed humanity were refreshing in their honesty.  

There was a very little in the book that I disagreed with. The first is on page 47 where Pettegree says, “Luther had now had twenty-five years to regret his too-casual proclamation of a “priesthood of all believers.” I can assure you that Luther did not regret such a thing, because Luther never once said such a thing. Luther never uses the phrase “priesthood of all believers.” I learned this from an article by Dr. Timothy Wengert who says, “Although the editors of Luther’s works discuss this category all over the Weimar edition, Luther himself never used the term. In fact, if we want to find the first serious discussion of the category though not the term itself, we have to jump forward 150 years to 1675, when Philipp Jakob Spener penned his lengthy preface to a new printing of the sermons of Johannes Arndt.”[1]

The second grievance with the book was Pettegree’s misunderstanding of Luther’s disagreement with Zwingli. He called the breach with Zwingli “an entirely self-inflicted wound” (245). Pettegree chalks this disagreement up to Luther’s renowned stubbornness, and fails to recognize that Luther was again remaining steadfast to the Word of God as he had done previously in Worms. It wasn’t just Luther against the papists. Luther wasn’t that binary. Luther was truly concerned with the faithful exposition of the Word of God, and Zwingli’s steadfast refusal to let the word “is” mean “is” can hardly be attributed as a “self-inflicted wound” by a stubborn Luther. It was consistently Luther. Luther was more concerned about fidelity to the word of God than antagonism against the papists. Zwingli shared Luther’s disdain for the papacy, but for the one thing needful (i.e., faithfulness to God’s Word) Zwingli fell tragically short.

Other than these two things, the book was superb. I’d recommend it to anybody who is interested in the Lutheran Reformation.

Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota

[1] Timothy Wengert, “The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths” (2006) Institute of Liturgical Studies Occasional Papers. p. 93

Connected to Christ: Why Membership Matters

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FREDERICK THE WISE: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector.

FREDERICK THE WISE: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector.