December 1999

Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death.  By Richard Marius. Harvard University Press. 542 pages. $35.

Inspired by Heiko Oberman’s classic, Luther: Between God and the Devil, Marius follows Luther from his birth in Saxony in 1483 through his theological development while at Wittenberg to his death in 1546. Unlike Erik Erikson in his psychological study, Marius never reduces Luther to his childhood influences, though he documents the severity of his early life. Luther himself testified to the harshness of his parents: His father, he said, thrashed him so savagely he would run away, and “for the sake of a nut my mother beat me until the blood flowed.” Young Luther was no doubt eager to leave such domestic bliss behind him, and Marius dramatizes well his flight to the monastery. Caught in a terrible storm, Luther prayed for the intercession of St. Anne and vowed that, if spared, he would enter religious life. (Much later, Luther conveniently recalled that he understood his vow to be made through the Hebrew “Hannah” meaning “under grace” versus “under the law” — thereby freeing him from any commitment made.)

Debilitated by what Marius calls Anfechtungen — skepticism and bouts of depression coupled with an abnormal fear of death — the bright and gifted Luther nevertheless advanced quickly under the tutelage of his mentor and first father figure, Johannes von Staupitz. Ordained in 1507, Luther was named Vicar within the Augustinians in 1515 and began to write commentaries on the Psalms and the Epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.

In retrospect, Luther saw that it was during this time that his “reformation breakthrough” came to be. In his Table Talks Luther admits that while reflecting on the splendor of Scripture he came to see the baseness of human reason, that “Frau Jezebel” by which Satan has deluded so many churchmen. For it is not intelligence and faithfulness to the Tradition that make a theologian but “dying and being damned makes the theologian, not understanding, reading, or speculating.” During these years Luther began to explicate the three central themes which would dominate his life: salvation by faith alone; sola Scriptura; and divine omnipotence to the exclusion of human free will, a predestinarianism which would be left to John Calvin to work out fully. Herein lies the essence of Luther’s 95 Theses. Marius does an excellent job of explicating the meetings between Luther and Church officials, especially Johann Eck, from his posting of his theses in 1517 to the Diet of Worms in 1521 at which Luther was declared “a heretic and an outlaw of the empire.”

The last twenty years of Luther’s life were for the most part spent translating Scripture into German and attending to certain civil responsibilities, mainly squelching riots that arose in his name. Marius notes that there is much scholarship that still needs to be done covering this part of Luther’s life, and concludes his book with chapters treating Luther’s marriage to Katherine von Bora, his scorn for Judaism, his attacks against Erasmus, and his seemingly constant depression.

Marius is a better historian than theologian. What he says here about Luther’s life should not be ignored by future students of this complex person; but when it comes to Catholic doctrine, Marius makes many unsubstantiated and even careless remarks. Some examples: Referring to the Sacraments, he states, “The pious fiction of the church held that each sacrament had been instituted by Christ”; ignoring clear Patristic evidence to the contrary, Marius maintains that “purgatory had not been of ancient belief in the church”; and he seems to fall for a popular untruth when he writes of “the Christian aversion to sexual intercourse….” Still, Marius has contributed an insightful study of a tragic figure whose passions and fears brought to both religion and civilization a discord that endures to this day.

- David Vincent Meconi

Means to Message: A Treatise on Truth.  By Stanley L. Jaki. Eerdmans. 234 pages. $22.

Anyone inclined toward philosophical housecleaning could profit from this book, which nicely complements the recent papal encyclical on faith and reason. In that document John Paul II charged modern philosophy with abandoning the investigation of being to concentrate instead on knowing. Benedictine philosopher, physicist, and historian of science Stanley L. Jaki agrees, and has written what his publisher calls “an important corrective to much of the work currently taking place in the field of philosophy.” To explain the need for course correction, Jaki grinds a truckload of philosophic thought between the pestle of his mind and the mortar of experience, showing that many philosophers fail to begin at the beginning and are sooner or later undone by that error.

Every philosophy is a message conveyed through some tangible means, and Jaki argues that any worthwhile philosophy must account for the reality of the mechanism by which it is conveyed. To put it another way, one cannot pose even an apparently fundamental question such as “What is truth?” without first acknowledging the reality of both the questioner and the means by which the question is asked. Jaki shows how and why this logical requirement is frequently violated, especially by scientists unmindful of Einstein’s warning that “the man of science is a poor philosopher.”

Since careless philosophy is not something to which scientists alone are prone, Jaki also refers to popular culture. In fact, we can infer that Means to Message is at least in part a response to the debasement of philosophy shown even by contemporary comic strips, where (to take one example) Hagar the Horrible says that his “philosophy” is “do unto others before they do unto you.” Like other such comments and many bumper stickers, the Viking’s flippant statement reduces philosophy to instinct. Citing examples of his own, Jaki observes that philosophers have surrendered their rightful turf to others by ignoring what people before Descartes considered essential questions.

In reaffirming the coherence of the Christian worldview, Jaki takes aim at luminaries from Immanuel Kant to Carl Sagan. He is capable of the suave putdown (“Those who try to ‘understand how patterns emerge from total randomness’ do not seem to comprehend the meaning of the word ‘total’”) and the pithy observation (“Science, as packaging, ranks now with sex and sports in effectiveness”), but prefers more workmanlike discourse. Unfortunately this preference sometimes makes for awkward syntax.

Means to Message has 14 chapters whose loaded titles reflect its ambitious scope. Jaki begins with Objects and moves inexorably toward Clarity and then Science. Terms in hand, he looks at Free Will, Purpose, and Causality. By then he has said what he wants to about the human condition, and he turns his gaze to Change, Mind, and Universe. Many philosophers would stop there, but Jaki moves on to penetrating looks at Ethics, God, Miracles, and History. The last chapter, “Alone?,” is a devastating critique of astronomy’s ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) on grounds that are, as Jaki gleefully notes, “distinctly empirical.” Among contemporary books of philosophy that are modest in size but pack a punch, Means to Message takes an honored place next to E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) and Peter Kreeft’s Three Philosophies of Life (1989).

- Patrick O’Hannigan

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