Martin Marty on Why You Should Read a Non-Lutheran’s Book about Luther on the Christian Life

Rev-Martin-MartyMartin E. Marty (b. 1928) is one of the most distinguished and prominent interpreters of religion and culture in the 20th century. After receiving a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1956, he served as a Lutheran pastor in the suburbs of Chicago (1952-1962) before becoming a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School (1963-1998), where the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion is named in his honor.

Professor Marty served as president of both the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History, and he has been a senior editor of The Christian Century since 1956.

His biography of Martin Luther (yes, Martin Marty on Martin Luther) was published in 2004 in the Penguin Lives series, and remains perhaps the best short introduction available for the great Reformer’s life and contribution.

He recently penned the afterword to Carl Trueman’s new book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015), praising its unique contribution and explaining how it will contribute to the actual living of the Christian life for those who read it. Professor Marty’s reflections are reprinted below.


Author Carl Trueman has done readers a favor by viewing Martin Luther through a particular prism, one whose perspective can help change lives. Had he simply written a biography, he could have performed a service to readers in general, people who seek to be informed about important topics. While researching he could have scaled the figurative Everest of the 120-plus volumes of Luther’s writings and tried to condense his vision from there in the pages of this relatively short book. Additionally, he would have had to do justice to some of the literally thousands of writings about the man regularly measured to be among the five most significant figures in the millennium past. Readers might have thereupon been dazzled or benumbed by the amount of data served up by often profound and elegant biographers.

Trueman’s acceptance of an assignment in this particular series meant that the authorial choices he made had to relate, as this book does, to Luther’s ponderings on and expressions of the Christian life. It was to contribute to the living of lives among readers in our generation. Accepting that choice meant leaving out many tantalizing subjects, since Luther touched on so many dimensions, events, and themes of human existence. Let it also be said that the author’s need to select also helped save him from having to deal with embarrassing or appalling Luther topics, for example, his late-in-life notorious anti-Semitism—on which, to be sure, Trueman does touch with some pain and much fairness.

Luther on the Christian life? More predictable and more easily handled themes could have been “Luther on Christian doctrine” or “Luther on Christian preaching,” or . . . Think how much easier an author would have it if he dealt with a figure like John Wesley or Saint Francis or hundreds of others whose specialty is devotion to holiness, sanctification, or ethics, as Luther’s was not or has not often been perceived to be. Of course, Trueman could not have commented on the Bible, as he has done in discussing writings that make up much of Luther’s works, without having dealt with the many incentives to, and models of, the Christian life.

What readers must by the end have found remarkable is the way Dr. Trueman has brought clarity and some sense of system to the often obscure, paradoxical, and anything-but-systematic writings of Luther on the Christian life. I would argue that Trueman has served well by keeping his feet on firm ground as he has stood on an approach to Christian life which he sometimes calls Presbyterian or Reformed or evangelical, often in differing combinations. He has never done that flat-footedly or heavy-footedly, but usually incidentally, since he was not writing a book of Presbyterian-Reformed-evangelical doctrine, which can easily be learned by consulting encyclopedias or works of polemics. His intent was not overtly to say, “Notice us! We’re better than you are!” but always to sharpen his points and add color and clarity to his narrative through comparison.

What, we might ask, is the potential profit from his viewing Luther through non-Lutheran eyes? (Readers need little reminder that books on Luther through Lutheran eyes, for all their worth, can often miss much or distort some of what they display or argue!) The profit in this instance? Such an approach helps readers of various confessional, denominational, and personal stances to move from the known—their own understandings—to the relatively unknown “other.” Elements of faith as they show up in the Christian life stand in sharper relief when the comparative approach illumines what was already known and probably taken for granted.

To take an example: when I deal with Muslim worshipers and theologians, as I have done in dialogue with Muslims or in an Islamic school, I later reflect with a greater awareness of the role of the doctrine of the Trinity or witness to the incarnation when Muslim students show puzzlement about Christian Trinitarian and incarnational talk. Why are these two topics so important to us Christians, we are asked? What are the sources and consequences of our beliefs? In the case not of Christians relating to Muslims but of Christians-of-one-sort in relation to Christians-of-another-sort, as it shows up in ecumenical conversation or comparative courses on Christian ethics, the gulfs between commitments in various confessional camps may often look like mere nuances, subtleties, or subjects for Pecksniffian polemicists to distort. Yet in choices made about the life of Christians, these differences can be either alienating or positively informative. The book you have just read will contribute to your living of the Christian life. A rereading—which I picture will be an enjoyable exercise—will confirm this.

Martin Luther’s pursuits thus jostle those who share them through the book’s realistic readiness to deal with Anfechtung, a peculiar sort of doubting. After reading this, they may well be more ready to deal with their own doubts. Those who had been casual about drawing on Scripture to guide their daily lives cannot help but draw closer, thanks to this account of Luther’s probes. Also, in the past century Roman Catholic devotion to scriptural studies is often acknowledged to have been enriched by Luther’s drawing on the Bible for the deepening of the Christian life.

I live across the street from a strategic and compelling Presbyterian church and on occasion am able to attend worship there. As I listen to and share in the hymnody, prayer forms, ethical injunctions, and proclamations of the gospel, I join other non-Presbyterians in affirmation, celebration, and a feeling of being in company or at home. Yet there are not-infrequent moments when, for example, a preacher will explain something to the diverse congregants on a particular day, while wrestling with a particular text, by making an explicit reference to the fact that something emphasized in the Presbyterian tradition can provide color and impetus for the living of the Christian life.

Such an approach magnificently stands out and is helpful in a world where Christians often have to settle for banal, wishy-washy expressions that do little to help inform the Christian life. For example, we who are not Mennonites can learn from their peace witness without becoming Mennonites, or can draw closer to God through the liturgical and musical witness of Episcopalians without having to “jump ship” and sail on an Anglican vessel. As this book which you readers have just finished makes clear, the pursuit of the Christian life is not a matter of picking and choosing, or gazing through a kaleidoscope with jittery images, but is a serious business of seeking perspective and focus. Readers of many sorts will be more equipped than before to share that pursuit, and will want to join me in expressing gratitude to author Carl Trueman.

Martin E. Marty
Emeritus Professor at the University of Chicago
author of Martin Luther

For more information on the book, including other endorsements and sample material, go here.

For more information on the series, go here.

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Photo image credit: Tony Reinke