Ink Against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents.
Ink Against the Devil is an updated and expanded version of Harry Loewen's 1974 Luther and the Radicals. Coming from a scholar working within the Anabaptist tradition, this book is instantly valuable for its perspectives on Martin Luther's work concerning radical reformers. While summaries provided on a book's back cover are not always authoritative, this book's jacket includes the provocative phrase "radical reformer Martin Luther" to orient renders to its content. Indeed, though the book does not really count Luther as a radical reformer, it presents many of his works sympathetically and observes that without Luther there may not have been a Radical Reformation.
Due to the many differences between Luther and more radical groups, of course, such an insight cannot stand without comment. Loewen's book, therefore, addresses the historical, political, and theological sources of conflict between Luther and his many opponents. These mostly focus on opponents within the radical tradition represented by leaders such as Thomas Muntzer, Hans Denck, and Menno Simons. This expanded edition, however, also includes chapters on Luther's disputes with Erasmus of Rotterdam and with the papacy, as well as his antagonistic views of Islam and Judaism. These chapters give readers a wide sense of Luther's theology, work, and relationship to others. While the new chapters make effective use of recent scholarship, some natural conversation partners like Mark U. Edwards, the author of Luther and the False Brethren (Stanford, 1975), and Scott Hendrix, of Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict (Fortress, 1981), unfortunately do not appear in the bibliography.
Occasional factual errors (e.g., the age of Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz at the time of the 95 Theses) sneak into the text; these errors occur more frequently in the older chapters and do not distract from the main points. A larger obstacle, however, comes in the assumption--common to many works about Luther--that Luther introduced a personal and subjective interpretation of the Bible:
In interpreting the Bible Luther's experience of justification by faith held a central position. In essence this meant that a Christian had the right to interpret the Word of God according to his or her personal understanding of it. For Luther the individual conscience, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, thus became, in addition to the Bible, a Christian's highest court of appeal (7).
If this statement were true, however, then Luther's refusal to consider the perspectives of more radical reformers would seem arbitrary and unfair, as it is sometimes presented here and elsewhere. But Luther rooted both his personal experience of justification and his interpretation of the Bible upon a commitment to "plain reason" and the common witness of the Christian tradition. Though it became an early and frequent accusation against him, subjectivism was anathema to his project from the beginning. For this reason, Luther's rejection of "spiritualists" and radical reformers did not represent a deviation from his early theology but was part of how he aimed to keep God's word of grace central to his church reforms. Loewen appreciates this side of Luther's thought but does not always apply it consistently, so that divisions with people like Denck and Schwenkfeld sometimes seem to describe a tragic intolerance in Luther rather than a steady application of his reforming theology.
Throughout the book, Loewen makes a compelling distinction between evangelical and revolutionary Anabaptists. He also notes that due to the fundamentally radical nature of Anabaptist reforms in general, it was hard for people of the time to distinguish between these groups. Nevertheless, the more ambiguous cases of radical preachers like Thomas Muntzer and Melchior Hoffman invite further consideration of the relationship between pacifist and revolutionary Anabaptists. Muntzer took his liberating gospel into the Peasants' War; Hoffman is described in this book as a pacifist, though his apocalyptic preaching directly inspired the violent Anabaptist kingdom in Munster. Loewen's fascinating distinction between spiritual and political radicalism will hopefully lead to further study of this important theme, especially in relation to the magisterial Reformation.
In summary, this volume stands as a valuable study of Reformation movements and relationships. It is crucial that people today encounter the Reformation through the eyes of others. Loewen has presented Luther in ways that put him and his teachings in lively conversation with a wide variety of people and perspectives. Also, Loewen's prose is quite engaging, so that the narrative remains compelling and readable across 300 dense pages. Ink Against the Devil makes a unique contribution to Reformation history and ecumenical studies.
MARTIN LOHRMANN Wartburg Theological Seminary
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|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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