Man Between God and the Devil

By Heiko A. Oberman

Yale University Press. 380 pp. $29.95

SOMETHING strange, almost shocking, has befallen the heroic Martin Luther that most of us encountered years ago in World History I. The new Luther is not the first heroic figure, the first supposed prophet and precursor of modernity, to undergo a sudden estrangement at the hands of historical specialists. But if Heiko Oberman's biography is representative, Luther's eclipse may exceed all the rest.

By eclipse I don't mean a fall from historical significance or salience -- though that could be an incidental result -- so much as an alienation from all the ordinary assumptions of 20th-century minds.

Those of us who had our first serious brush with the great reformer in the age of historiographical innocence beheld what was, in most ways, a recognizable figure, one who would be no stranger among World Council of Churches liberals and ecumenicists. That earlier Luther's immortal cry of defiance at the Diet of Worms in 1521 (to which he had been summoned to answer for his attacks on papal authority) could be seen as marking a supreme moment of release from medieval obscurantism and the oppression of private conscience. Luther's "Here I stand; I can do no other" had sounded the high note of which tolerance and variety in our own time were the ultimate consummation. Like the rediscovery of classical learning in the Renaissance, this was one of one of the standard chestnuts of textbook history.

But if, again, Oberman's biography may be taken as representative -- and it was much praised in its German edition some years ago -- almost nothing of that earlier Luther survives in present historical fashion. Instead of looking forward to the consequences of Luther's revolt, instead of taking his measure of Luther's meaning and significance from what came later, Oberman for the most part orients his examination of Luther to what lay "behind" him. He discovers Luther's anchorage not in some vision of the future but in medieval orthodoxy.

Begin, for instance, with Oberman's skepticism that Luther's heroic utterance at Worms was really uttered. And consider, beyond that, that Luther's summons to appear before the Imperial Diet for dialogue and interrogation was an event less of religious than of civic and political significance: a fulfillment of the emperor's pledge that not even the most obstreperous heretic would be placed under ban without a hearing.

But the reinterpretation of Worms is not the half of it. With all the painstaking exactitude of Germanic scholarship, Oberman's most astonishing transformation is that of Luther himself, the man and his character. Under Oberman's hand, he emerges as precisely that sort of medieval monk we might once, and all innocently, have pictured as the very target of Luther's wrath. His notion of the church is -- literally -- primitive; that is, it is the long-suffering and reclusive church of the martyrs and early fathers, awaiting an early apocalypse. For Luther, Oberman tells us, the antithesis of "reformation" (an ideal, needless to say, far more familiar to Luther and his time than we would have supposed) would not be papal authority or the oppression of conscience; it would be "deformation," the clutter and sophistication and corruption which had crept into the administrative machinery of the church at the Renaissance. Oberman's Luther, though sufficiently bold to defy the dogma of priestly celibacy, married a fugitive nun and therefore looked forward to the birth of a first-born child with genuine fear. The superstition was that God punished such defiance by making monsters of infants, sending them into the world "scarce half made-up," like Shakespeare's Richard III.

Not only is this Luther not exactly forward-looking, in a way anticipatory of modern thought, he above all senses himself to be in an hourly, daily, immediate duel with the Devil; and that Fiend, certainly a spiritual and perhaps a corporal presence, betrays his hand in all who differ from Luther, especially papalists and Jews. This passionate and haunted sense of being "between God and the Devil," in the revealing words of Oberman's subtitle, explains the violent and sometimes vulgar force and directness of Luther's rhetorical rages. Even Erasmus and the other humanists, with whom he had at first made common cause in biblical scholarship, in time drew upon themselves his wrath and enmity.

In few really important respects, then, does the Luther Oberman has retrieved from whiggish history resemble the heroic liberal we once imagined we knew. To be sure, this Luther still denounces the unscriptural sacraments, especially "penance"; he still defies the authority of popes and councils to place Holy Scripture at the center of revelation; he still emphasizes faith and grace, not "works," as the point of the divine scheme of salvation; and for that latter doctrine his guidepost is still St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. And Oberman's Luther remains, finally, the philosophical nominalist of the Erfurt school, scornful of the refinements and formulations of scholasticism. His eucharistic doctrine remains as we remember it. But the doctrine of the "real presence" reflects Luther's towering impatience with puny philosophical subtleties and "explanations" in the face of the biblically revealed reality of God's majesty.

On the whole, Heiko Oberman's study is probably to be recommended mainly to those with a more than ordinary interest in Luther and the Reformation, and some patience for historical subtleties. But this book strikes me as having a somewhat more general significance. It offers further evidence of the specialization of history in our time, whose unavoidable effect is to substitute mosaics of scholarship for color and causation, drama and heroism. No doubt this is in many ways a gain for historical authenticity -- good history surely must start with a humbling sense of the strangeness and otherness of eras now lost to us, whose features we may be tempted to read selectively and with the distortions of present-mindedness. But there is a price. One may in some ways respect the Luther portrayed here, but inspiration seems wholly out of the question.

Oberman's biography confirms a curious paradox -- that the closer history and biography get to the strangeness of the past, the less excitement they will generate for the lay reader, and therefore the less intelligibility about the past they will convey. In this, perhaps, history is a bit like translation: It has been said of translation that "like a mistress, if it is faithful it is not beautiful; and if it is beautiful it is not faithful."

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.