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Martin Luther by Martin MartyMartin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Penguin, 2004).

It is hard to believe that for one of the single most important figures in western history, whose collected works run to fifty-five volumes, there are only three or four biographies now in print in English. But so it is for Martin Luther, which makes this biography by Martin Marty a welcome addition. Marty’s volume takes its place in the Penguin Lives series, a series which tries to match famous figures with well known authors for the general audience.

Marty takes as his guiding theme Luther’s lifelong struggle with God: “God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.” The German word upon which Marty fastens this theme is Anfechtungen, a word that is hard to translate but very easy indeed for people to appreciate: “the spiritual assaults that Luther said kept people from finding certainty in a loving God.” Anfechtungen, said Luther, precipitated a “delicious despair” or crisis of certainty for which the believer could only cast himself upon the mercy of God. For the believer, in Luther’s scheme, there is a sure security of faith, but no certainty free of struggle, doubt, anxiety, fears and spiritual warfare. At the end of the day, though, the believer rests in the knowledge that God in Christ says to us, “I am more certain to you than your own heart and conscience.”

Marty takes us through the major passages of Luther’s life: his time in the monastery, his home, the emerging Protestant church, his life as a university scholar and writer, and his civic life in politics. It used to be that Roland Bainton’s biography Here I Stand (1950) was the standard life of Luther. Marty’s wonderful volume is likely to take its place.

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