Roland Bainton summarizes in his words the central thesis. He writes, “Luther was above all else a man of religion (2).” Since this is a biographical work Bainton is going to try and prove his thesis chronologically. As indicated early on he only intends to cover areas that do not support his argument for the purpose of supplying content to the biography. One small digression here is to be noted. This is a weakness. If it cannot be proven all throughout Luther’s life that he is a man of religion, which is the main thesis, then the argument is suspended. Arguably the problem with the thesis is that it is not narrow enough, and it is not explicitly defined. Bainton does not tell the reader that he is going to defend this thesis either. The reader assumes that he will highlight and support this argument. He does indicate that he will only spend a short amount of time in Luther’s early years for the purpose of getting into later years of Luther’s life.
Bainton’s outline for the way in which he defends his thesis follows accordingly. Only significant points that strongly support his thesis will be given. Beginning with his early years in the Augustinian monastery. Here is the genesis of his search. While Luther is here, he understands that no amount of works could ever free him from his internal agony and dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church. Next, Bainton moves into Luther’s years when he was contemplating his new understanding of scripture. While teaching through the book of Romans, Luther learns that man is justified by faith alone and not by works. Martin Luther was so convinced of his truth that he nailed 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church. This event indicates that Luther was willing to stand for what he thought was right. From here the big debates follow, including the one with John Eck. The debate with John Eck shows Luther’s unrelenting work to support his newly discovered truth and to seek out the truth. After the Diet of Worm’s, Bainton highlights the self-discipline that Luther submitted himself to while he was in the Castle of the Wartburg. Luther fought daily so that he could remain in good concise of the truth by translating the Bible into the vernacular. Finally, Bainton closes with Luther’s influence on the home, the German people and the development of his ecclesiology.
The first strength of this work on a pure literature level is that the author assumes that reader already knows a significant amount about Martin Luther’s life already. This is incredibly relaxing for any reader and a good strategy because the writer does not have to go on ad nauseam to explain every detail. However, this is also a weakness. While something’s may be understood by doing a little research, other material including the chapters spent on Luther’s influence in Church politics, economics, and the Anabaptist can be a bit confusing. What Bainton does well is that he was able to capture in this book a picture of a man who desired beyond his strength for the knowledge of salvation. Examples include giving up his father’s dream for him to become a lawyer and abandon his friends to go to the monastery. While in the monastery Luther is pictured as a man crying out in agony, fasting, and nearly freezing to death to assure his salvation (26). His debate with Jon Eck shows his courageousness. While Luther was not certain of John Hus’ complete work, a heretic who was burned in the last century for his doctrine, he went to the library during a lunch break to seek out what he believed, and he came back and agreed with all of John Hus’ doctrine (102-03). His struggle in the Wartburg Castle is an extraordinary example of this man’s fight against the devil. After the diet of Worm’s, he struggled with depression and the thoughts of temptations that he may have been leading others astray (189-190). Most people would break under these pressures and give up their convictions entirely, but Martin Luther was not afraid to stand-alone even if that meant that no one was willing to agree with him. This is Bainton’s most significant achievement in this work. Even later in his life Luther constantly devoted himself to the studying of the Bible by revising and editing his translation. Which was a demonstration that Luther committed his life to excellence. He sought to ensure that his meaning was as close to the original all the while he developed the German Language (336-49).
There are not much weakness in this book most of them are very minor and insignificant. Bainton argues his thesis well but if there were some weakness this is what they were. It ‘s hard to write about Martin Luther and ignore the endless tangents of the remarkable life that he lived and focus on this one theme. The author failed to make explicit a few reasons why certain parts of Martin Luther’s life support his thesis. These occur more frequently towards the end of the book. The first being is his marriage to Katherine. This is an important detail, but despite the fact that Martin Luther was willing to break cultural norms by marrying a nun, Bainton does not tell why this supports his thesis. Another confusing weakness at the end of the book is the summary that the author provides. He subsequently adds under the subheading “The Measure of a Man” three critical areas that Luther affected. One of the three is his main thesis but the other two being, (1) his influence he had on the German people and (2) his influence on the church are more like byproducts of Luther’s agony in search of God. From Bainton’s main thesis Luther never pursued the influence of the people or the influence of the church. He was primarily concerned with getting the truth correct and his own righteousness before God. Another weakness is that the book really seems to have two purposes. The first half moves really fast through the incredible trials that Martin Luther had over come then it slows down right about half way through, and it sporadically deals with other parts that Luther influenced. This section about 200 pages and onward is like a miscellaneous section to support the thesis all the while cutting out the important bibliographic information. It seemed like the author got tired and when he realized that it took him 200 pages to write the first 25 years of Luther’s life consistently he did want to follow the same structure. Consequently, he lost the flow and it indirectly hurt his thesis because it was distracting.
In conclusion the reader will thoroughly enjoy this work by Bainton. Immediately, one is captured by the emotional struggles that Luther under goes and his search becomes the readers adventure. How did Luther overcome all of the difficulties that life threw at him? Well the answer to that question from the book was a resounding statement that God honors those who seek his kingdom first. In addition, this book displayed the strength and the power that one man can have if they rest on the foundation of the Word of God. Today, in our world it may seem large and impossible to reach but in Luther’s day there was literally no institution that taught what he believed, and there was hardly even anyone who believed what he believed. His life is an example that one should not be afraid to stand for their convictions. The book’s value lies in the fact that struggles will come in this life and only those who are serious about what God says in his Word will be able to withstand the devils temptations even at his gates.