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Luther: man between God and the Devil Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 14th, 2020


The preface to Luther by Heiko A. Oberman gives the reader a sneak preview of what to expect while reading the book. In his opening sentence however, Oberman warns the reader that discovering Luther is something that cannot fit within the confine of scholarship exposition. To understand Luther however, Oberman notes that people must be ready to leave behind their views about the world and life.

This is because Luther’s world was different from what the contemporary man knows; the church had so much power that it was equated to heaven, while the emperor’s represented the “powers of heaven” (xix).

Reading through the book, one gets the impression that Oberman shares in the religious and spiritual issues that he documents about Luther having gone through. He relates the Luther experiences and discoveries both in terms of emotional and physical struggles as the same as what people in the contemporary society face.

In the preface, one gets the impression that Oberman does not give religion or the state of the society as much weight as a factor that affected Luther’s life. This is made clear by the phrase, “It is not the Catholic, protestant or modern Luther we are looking for…” (xix).

He however acknowledges that “we” will encounter religions and society’s state in the course of reading the book. The use of “we” in preface gives the reader the impression that he/she is not alone in discovering Luther. Oberman makes himself part of the journey too.

The dying scene

The main body of Oberman’s books starts with the dying scene where Luther is being attended by the “Reverend father”. It was February 18, 1546 when Luther Died. Before his death, Luther went through some final testing where witnesses were summoned by his friend Justus Jonas just to confirm that Luther had “died steadfast in Christ and the doctrines that he had preached” (3).

Oberman notes that Luther had always prayed that he would always be able to resist the devil to the very end believing that resisting Satan, who is branded as the ultimate and bitterest enemy to human kind would be his ultimate liberation from the tyranny posed by sin. Oberman also notes that Luther believed that a trust in God convinced him that the agony that he suffered in his life would be nothing more than brief blow upon his death (3).

Liberal thinking

Oberman further succeeds in portraying Luther as a person who had his own way of thinking. As indicated in the book, the author narrates that Luther adjusted his time with benchmarks rather than tolerance, enlightenment, modernity or progress to determine time. In order to understand Luther therefore, Oberman suggests that “we” need to read Luther’s history with a non-conventional perspective (12).

Luther’s influence on the politics of the day seems to have been known to him more than anyone else. In one scene for example, Oberman states that Luther knew he posed a risk to the policy in Saxony. Since he did not want to break the sovereign’s freedoms that would be contained in political actions, he made the Saxony’s elector an attractive proposal that if accepted would have seen him leave the land (22).

In a bid to stop Luther from leaving, the elector summoned him and promised to take a neutral position, while granting Luther the academic freedoms necessary to discuss scriptural questions with his students without any hindrances.

Yet, Luther’s affair with the law was not always smooth. In 1520 for example, Pope Leo announced a conditional excommunication to Luther based on his works, which the pope defined as “heretical, offensive and false” (Oberman 22). The pope however gave Luther 60 days to submit a response.

Luther however could do nothing like that and finally in 1521, the Pope signed the excommunication letter, hoping that it had finally settled the troubles that arose from Luther. Luther’s supporters argued that the excommunication was motivated by the fact that the church could not stand reformation, yet a time for the same in the church was long overdue (Oberman 24).

Reformist, teacher, doctor or preacher?

Oberman’s book further notes that Luther’s influence on reformation would have ended sooner were it not for the death of Emperor Maximilian I in 1519. Before the death of the emperor, the Elector Cajetan in Saxon had done a lot to protect Luther.

However, his protection of Luther stood no chance of surviving a final decision by the Papacy in Rome. Luckily however, the death of the emperor created a political upheaval in succession, which for a fair amount of time shifted attention from the Luther question.

The controversy between the Germans and the Papacy regarding Luther was clear as one end held that no one could be placed under a ban without being accorded a suitable hearing, while the other side maintained that Luther was under an automatic ban due to his incorrigible and notorious heretics (Oberman 36).

While the Papal attracted critics, Oberman portrays Luther as having gained more public support especially from his writings which criticized how cases were “nipped in the bud” when they were tried in the imperial, papal or local courts (36).

Having argued that no one deserved being banned without being given fair hearing, the Germans succeeded in convincing the Papacy to grant Luther a hearing. In 1521 therefore, Luther appeared before the Bishop’s court sought to find the reality about the accusations of heretics placed on Luther.

During the hearing, Oberman portrays Luther as a tactical and knowledgeable person who refused to answer non-specific questions. Asked whether he recognized the books written in his name as his own work, Luther sought to have the books mentioned individually (38).

According to Oberman, the mentioning of the books served to dispense the notion that Luther was a “stupid monk” to anyone in the court room who may have held that idea. Asked whether he could recant, Luther requested the court to give him time to think. On his return the following day, his answer was an indirect one.

He said that his books were neither polemical nor sharp. He stated that his writing addressed the Christian faith and life as directed by the gospel. To this end, he stated that not even the opponents would find anything objectionable in the books.

About the books that addressed the Papacy, Luther told the court that he had addressed how the papal office had ruined the church, weighed the human conscience down and oppressed the empire. He therefore argued that he could not renounce anything he had written in his books because by doing so, he would be encouraging tyranny.

By recounting this episode, Oberman portrays Luther as a person who stood steadfast with what he believed in regardless of whether he had the support from others or not.

In a documented recounting of the proceeding that took place in the hearing, Luther is portrayed as a watchful person who not only realized that the hearing was not intended to gather information, but rather to accept the anticipated recantation by Luther or uphold the ban.

Since the hearing was made of Germans, Luther argued that instead of acting independently, the Germans had acted childishly, allowing themselves to be fooled by the Romans.

Oberman observes that though Luther’s evaluation of how the interrogation was conducted was indeed valid, he (Luther) was wrong about the Germans acting childishly. Oberman argues that no where in western Christendom would people find it politically viable to protect a seemingly rebellious monk against extradition from Rome.

More so, obtaining a public hearing like what the Germans did for Luther who was perceived by Rome as a notorious heretic was also unusual. According to Oberman therefore, the same Germans who Luther has termed “follies” had kept his issue alive in such a long time such that the ban imposed by Rome was stifled (Oberman 40).

Oberman’s book gives a clear picture of Luther’s attack on Rome and the papacy and gives the reader the actions that made Luther such a bitter person against the actions of Rome. At some point in the book, Luther is quoted saying that every person in Rome had gone crazy and “…had become inane fools and the devils” (Oberman 43).

His reason for such strong wording about Romans was the fact that they had accepted the information passed by the church in Rome in that time, which Luther referred to as lies, which were being passed on as truths.

According to Luther, Rome was the devil’s gateway to the church, yet, Christ sought representation through people who were willing to work, preach, suffer and die. Instead however, the office of the Pope which was supposed to act as the servant of Christ leading the way for the church followers had become the “ruler of rulers” (Oberman 43).

Reading this book however, one not only identifies the character of Luther, but also Oberman’s character as well. For instance, by making the devil a central agenda in his biography of Luther, one gets the impression that Oberman shared the convictions that Luther had about good and evil. One also gets the impression that not only does Oberman find the justification for a faith in Christianity, but he also finds “a new belief in the devil” (104).

Surprisingly, Luther and Oberman are from different centuries. Luther was from the middle ages, while Oberman just wrote the book in the 19th century. Yet Oberman’s writing succeeds in portraying the devil not as a medieval residue, but an astonishingly modern reality. Oberman specifically portrays Luther’s role giving the reader a new understanding of Satan’s role in a person’s life.

Through Luther’s believes and discoveries regarding Satan, Oberman gives the reader a few insights about how Satan allegedly operates. For example, as opposed to what many people may think; holiness and sanctity does not necessarily mean that the devil is absent.

According to Luther, acts of Christianity which include preaching the gospels, people gathering to hear God’s word and other things that Christians do in order to strengthen their faiths provoke Satan to attack Christians even more.

Luther also notes that in an attempt to ‘mislead’ Christians, the devil ties people down to religiosity. To this, Oberman adds that one is entangle in self devout analysis. He thus concluded that the ideals of divinization, perfection and holiness are Satan’s way of misleading the Christian faithful. Unlike a person who seeks Christ because he or she is “filthy and sinful”, Oberman notes that those who think they are divine, perfect or holy do not see the need to do so.

Oberman is also successful in drawing a distinction between modern Protestantism and what Luther believed. Most notably, Oberman documents the high regard that Luther had for the sacraments. Despite his protests against the act of the Catholic Church and the papacy, Luther is quoted as having said “I am undeserving, but I rely on the faith of the church- or of another believer.

Whatever my situation, O Lord, I must be obedient to your church, which bids me to go to communion. If I bring you nothing else, at least I bring you this Obedience” (Oberman 242). Further distinction between modern Protestantism and what Luther believed is portrayed by Oberman as his demand that Christians go to confession at least once annually.

To this, Luther stated that instead of people approaching the sacraments with fear and humility, they should have faith and be confident when taking part in the sacraments. Through abandoning humility and fear and embracing faith and confidence, Luther argued that people would stop seeking worthiness, since no one could be worthy before God.

Luther’s stand about the sacrament did not go unchallenged. Oberman notes that the Swiss for example questioned the profit that people got from assuming that Christ’s flesh was represented in the Holy Communion, while Christ himself had dismissed the flesh as having no profit. Further the Swiss questioned Luther how obedience can replace insufficient faith. With no clear answers from Luther regarding these questions, the Swiss branded Luther a neo-papist and a captive of the middle ages (Oberman 242).

As a reformist, Oberman portrays Luther as a person who attracted more foes in high ranking positions than was prudent to do at that day and age. For example, he challenged the supremacy of the papacy and the mandate given to councils.

Though he acknowledged that the pope deserved respect as the bishop of Rome, while the papacy deserved being held in high regard especially because it was an institution created by agreeing people, he said that neither the pope nor the papacy deserved to serve as the standard of obedience. Instead, the Gospel should be used as the measure of obedience (Oberman 246).

Oberman once again portrays Luther as a person who had a firm believe in himself and the things he did. For example, while his friends tried to dissuade him from publicly questioning the authority that the pope and the papacy office had on Christianity, Luther rendered an account based of St. Peter who the pope is modeled after. To this, he said that though Peter had a prime and honorary position among other apostles, his position did not give him any legal supremacy or authority to “make, send, govern or ordain other apostles” (Oberman 247).

Oberman also portrays Luther as a man who believed that the institutions in the church should have been formed under the guidance of the Gospel. This he suggested should have been the case if people adhered to the gospel adequately instead of depending on heresy.

According to Oberman, Luther insisted that the unwavering theology of the cross of Christ could not support either catholic-subjectivism or the protestant individualism. Rather, true theology would further unity in Christianity regardless of the denominations and would thus succeed in letting people know the need to heed God’s commandments.

A reoccurring image of Luther throughout the book is that of unwavering and often fearless man. One gets the impression that Luther knew the possible implications of his words and actions but still chose to criticize or point out the evils that bedeviled the society mainly because the church then refused to play its rightful role and instead chose to engage in power games and governance.

In 1519 for example when his ties with Rome were still intact, Oberman observes that Luther said that the church “was an accumulation if schisms” (249). When the church in Rome finally excommunicated him, he burned the canon law and the bull of the pope to show his rapprochement. This was seen by some as the final act of revolt that Luther had started in 1517.

Oberman notes that attempts by those opposed to Luther’s action to brand him a Hussite failed. Hussites had previously waged war against the Catholic Church and labeling Luther as one would no doubt would have cost him some support. Luther is however portrayed as a person who would have cared less about the labels that his opponents gave him.

Luther is also portrayed as a person who attached meaning to his dreams. In Oberman’s account, it is stated that Luther had Utopian and devilish dreams, which he quickly recognized as traps set by Satan. In his interpretation, Satan conjured up images of purity for people and then encouraged them to understand the evil contained in their words, actions or thoughts (64-66).

The reformation

Oberman starts the chapter on reformation breakthrough by creating the Luther that people would have expected to see. Having become a doctor of theology, Oberman states that Luther was now in the same ranks as some stupid monks who spent their time arguing about nothing in specific.

The monks perceived themselves as guardians of the proper doctrine and piety, yet, they were barely able to “count their own toes” (151). Oberman therefore portrays Luther as a truth seeker therefore contradicts public expectation of what the learned theologians of his time were used to doing.

Oberman credits the reformist ideas of Luther to the fact that he (Luther) encouraged people not only to agree to the idea that God is just, but rather seek him with their entire beings, which included their thoughts and actions; bodies and souls; and suffering and love. Oberman also observes that the search for salvation as championed by Luther suggested that all people; whether educated or not could engage in the same exercise.

Still, Oberman portrays Luther who did not allow his understanding of theology to alter his perspective or raise his voice to critique the medieval theologians who were regarded as authorities at that point in history.

Central to the reformist ideas of Luther as noted by Oberman was Vicar General Staupitz. The latter is credited by Luther for “first of all being my father in this doctrine, and having given birth [to me] in Christ” (Oberman 152). Having introduced Luther into the doctrine, Oberman’s book indicates that Staupitz gave him a longing to seek the reality of the principles therein from the scripture.

Still, not everything in the scriptures made perfect sense to Luther. More specifically, Oberman quotes Romans 1:17, as a scripture written by the St. Paul as an obstacle that Luther struggled with. The scripture reads: “For therein [in the gospel] is the righteousness of God revealed” (Oberman 152).

During his study of the scriptures however, Luther appear to have come as one thing as the absolute truth; that God’s righteousness is the eternal law through which all men and women will be judged on doomsday.

According to Oberman, the righteousness of God is not distributed to humankind like talents; rather, it put men who are willing to abide by God’s teaching in a position where they can attain righteousness. Luther’s discovery about God righteousness however suggests that it is united with Christ’s righteousness, further confirming that Jesus Christ and God the father are one.

According to Oberman, Luther’s ability to think originally gave him the reformist qualities. More so, he was willing to test the discoveries he made while studying the scriptures against the prevailing laws used by the church.

Luther’s discovert about the righteousness of God was unheard of during his time. He used it to discredit the doctrine of good works as championed by the church and to human action; he discredits the reward and merit ideals which were at the time the main motivators for human action (156).

According to Oberman, tribulations and struggles make the true life of a theologian as opposed to speculation or philosophizing. Notably however, Luther’s experiences as a reformist reduce the fears, hopes, successes and struggles to two stages: 1) a desperate monk; and 2) the self-confident reformer.

Oberman however notes that Luther astounds scholars because his works seems to have taken some form of systemic research, from which drew conclusions and finally delved into the world of reform. Accordingly, Luther’s reformist ideas were drawn from lesson from St. Augustine and St. Paul. After seeking a deep understanding of the scripture, he indulged in conflict with the pontifical church through logical accusations and arguments.

Luther’s reformist role is not only covered by Oberman alone. Other writers like Levi et al (259-284) have included Luther among the reformers who contributed schismatic solutions towards the renaissance and reformation.

Luther’s Death

Oberman gives the reader the impression that Luther’s death was not only waited by Luther himself, but his adversaries too. Most notably was Johannes Cochlaeus who first wrote about Luther. Unlike Oberman however, Cochlaeus did not have any kind words for Luther. He instead denounced him as the devil’s spawn that is portrayed in the Bible as the seven-headed dragon.

What no one could not establish beyond Luther’s death however was whether his soul was taken by the devil or whether God rewarded it by taking it to everlasting happiness as Luther all along wished for in his life.

Their books takes special note of the role that the reformist idea played in Germany at a time when Rome had taken the reigns of power in Europe through the office of the papacy and the pope as the power figure. In this book however, one gets the idea that Luther’s ideas only set ablaze the feelings about Rome that had simmering in Europe and especially Germany.

In an effort to solve the mystery of who between God and the Devil took Luther’s soul, Oberman’s book (3) gives an account of how simple believers and people in the academic world sought to establish the truth. The not-so-informed believers simply imagined that whoever was fast would snatch Luther’s soul first.

The academic scholars on the other hand argued that a descent into hell could be easily diagnosed medically. According to their argument, Luther’s death would have been abrupt if the devil took his soul because, “the devil [would have] snipped the thread of life…, thus leaving the church unable to render its last assistance” (Oberman 3). As such, they argued that Luther’s slow death meant that he had commended his soul into the hands of God.

Initially, Oberman (4) succeeds in portraying Luther as a patient, understanding and cheerful man who understood the reality of death in such a way that many men would have difficulties doing.

More specifically, he describes how Luther knowing his death was imminent chose to spend his last days in his birth place in Eisleben where he mediated a protracted battle between two brothers. Weeks before his death, Luther is portrayed as a patient man who despite his despise for lawyers, spent hours sitting between the two parties trying to mediate them.

Oberman also succeeds in portraying Luther as a man who had the nerve to accept that the inevitable death was eventually going to catch up with him. He even seems to have made fun of the fact that in death, he “would lie down in [his] coffin and give the worms a fat doctor to feast to on.”(5).

Oberman also portray Luther as a man who had a firm believes in life after death although he did not state it as a fact. Rather, he said that “it was very likely” that people’s spirits in heaven would be renewed. He however stated that it was also likely that man’s spirit and body would remain undetached for people who would end up in hell (5).

How closely Luther’s friends associated him with a man of God is evident when the news were first broken to his friend Melanchthon. Struggling for control and struggling to get the right words to break the news about Luther’s death to his students, Melanchthon used a phrase used to describe Prophet Elijah’s death. He told his students that the “charioteer of Israel has fallen” (Oberman 6).

Having been the personality behind the evangelical movement and the reformation, Luther left a gap that had no immediate successor. To this end, Oberman manages to bring out the difference in tact between Prophet Elijah and Luther. Unlike Elija who had picked Elisha to be his successor, Luther had refrained from such a thing believing that the Gospel would be strong enough to charge its own way (Oberman 7). Unfortunately, not every one shared in the Pope’s opinion.


Overall, reading about Luther gives one the impression that he was an argumentative, single-minded person, who hard an enormous amount of self confidence and believe. This characteristic mainly comes across because he did not waiver even when he faced opposition for his writings or spoken word. Being branded a heretic meant that he could face death by fire.

Yet, even with controversies regarding his 95 theses raging, he could not renounce any of his written works or apologize for the same (Cep 5). He strongly believed that he had written the right thing and that apologizing for pinpointing the evils in the society would only lead to more tyranny.

His writings and actions however led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo and since Luther knew he could not reform the church from outside, he began the process of building a new church (Cep 14). This marked the beginning of the protestant church, which was based on the concepts of freedom and liberty.

According to Oberman, Luther never referred himself as the reformer; rather, he used the titles professor, preacher or doctor because he believed his role in Christendom was proclaiming the good works which were necessary for the survival of the real religion on the threatened world. Yet, Luther did not fail to have a fair share of shortcomings.

Oberman notes that Luther, the ex-monk at some tome adopted the role of a new layman who was eager for the joys and pleasures that come with secular jobs. According to Brady, the new form of apocalypticism and worldliness that overtook Luther at some point meant that he became an alien to reformation (41).

The progressive reformation that was as a result of Luther’s actions was far from his initial intention. Reading through Oberman’s account of Luther, it is clear that though Luther imagined a world where the devil was forever pursuing God’s children, he adopted a sober view of Christianity and hence adopted a reformist role.

Works Cited

Brady, Thomas. The work of Heiko A. Oberman: papers from the symposium on his seventieth birthday. PA Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 2003. Print

Cep, Casey. “The ecstasy is real”. The Harvard Book Review. Dec. 2008. Web.

Levi, et al. Renaissance and Reformation: The Intellectual Genesis. New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 2004. Print.

Oberman, Heiko. Luther: man between God and the Devil. California: The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, 1992. Print.

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