Slaying the Dragon Slayer?

The title of the December 18, 2017 New York Times book review of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Martin Luther is “Slaying the Dragon of the Dark Ages”. The review of his book here may be more aptly styled as slaying the dragon slayer. The New York Times’ book review did its own bit of dragon slaying in that it considered Metaxas to have written from the point of view of a “homer”. It specifically says despite the footnotes this is not a scholarly work but a popular one. This is important to remember and dovetails into my next point.

I found the book pretentious. I listened to the audio version which Metaxas read himself and if Charlie Krauthammer is right, Metaxas is pretentious in the extreme. In his book, Things that Matter, Krauthammer discusses the advisability of pronouncing a foreign language word in English. “How do you pronounce a foreign-language word when speaking English? My answer: “When in Rome, speak Roman; when in America (what some people call the United States), speak English. Drop the umlauts, the aigues and graves, and give foreign words their most mundane English rendering” (47). Speaking from experience he says to do otherwise is to linguistically patronize (48). If you listen to Metaxas read his book you will feel bludgeoned by a German club. John Hus is “hoos” but the Hussites are not Hoosites. This is probably the mouse, moose, mice thing. And I’ve never heard anyone pronounce Matins, Mateens, but he does. That’s not patronizing; that’s just wrong. Finally, he has a penchant for using 5.00 words when a .50 cent one is available. Why do that in a popular biography?

I have read what are considered the magisterial biographies on Luther. To be fair, I would think this would only qualify me as some sort of expert had I read the German biographers in their langue. I have not. But I’ve read Brecht (all 3 volumes), Oberman, and Bornkamm in English as well as a half-dozen English ones. I particularly commend to you the five volume History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century  by D’Aubuigne. This is a 19th century French perspective and is worth reading. It is not listed in Metaxas’ bibliography. Several things Metaxas said didn’t ring true to what I have read, and some things he related I had not heard at all.

Speaking of giving an impression of being scholarly but really being popular, I found Metaxas giving the same take on the Borgia’s as you find elsewhere. The same accusations of deviancy, profligacy, degeneracy, etc. The 2013 book The Borgias by G. J. Meyers is a corrective to this showing how in 1924 a five volume work by Peter De Roo refuted these accusations. But the Meyer’s book admits despite that book being published every decade or so the salacious rumors about the Borgias bubble to the surface again.

I also had problems with his methodology. He begins by telling you basically everything you’ve ever been told about Martin Luther is wrong, and he is going to set you straight. First, I know of no reputable Luther scholar passing on the legends Metaxas claims everyone believes. They like him cite them as stories. Second, Meataxes wants to refute the legend and use the legend. He refutes that Luther ever nailed anything to the castle church door, and then in the closing chapters dwells whimsically on the fact that a cast was made of Luther’s dead hands and how you can look at the very hands that 500 years ago wielded the hammer. Third, he rightly rejects Erick Erickson’s psychobabbling Young Man Luther, but no professor, biographer, or Confessional Lutheran pastor every gave that 1958 work the time of day. Finally,  Metaxas makes much out of a 2008 archeological excavation of the Luther residence’s trash pile. I agree it can tell you something about the diet and dress and habits of someone who lived there maybe even at exactly Luther’s time frame, but to say know we know what Luther ate seems a leap.

The author presents fairly Luther’s early criticism of how poorly the Jews were treated by Christians and it was no wonder they wanted no part of Christianity, and just as fairly, he deals with Luther’s severe, dead-wrong comments about the Jews late in life. He says that no one has explained Luther’s early view of the Jews with his later. I’ve been told for the last 40 years (at least since the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1983) that Luther thought that once the true Gospel was proclaimed to the Jews and the attacks against them lessened, they would convert in droves. When that didn’t happen, the old man Luther became bitter and vile towards them. I was never told Luther was right; only that this could explain the disparity between young and old Luther.

He correctly cites Luther’s 1522 desire that his followers not use his name to identify themselves. His opponents coined the term Lutheran, and Luther pointed out he wasn’t crucified for anyone. However, he doesn’t include the fact that later in life because “Lutheran” was the name used to identify the true preaching of the Gospel, it could be used. I searched in vain for a quote that I thought said this specifically. The closest I found was this. “What has Luther himself said about the use of his name? He writes: ‘There are some who want to avoid danger by saying: I am not a follower of Luther or of anyone else; I am a follower of the Gospel. Truly this type of a confession does not help them, and it is the same as denying Christ. It is true that when speaking about your soul’s salvation, you should not say: I am a Lutheran or I am a Papist, for neither one has died for you or is your master. Christ alone has died for you and is your Master. You must confess that you are a Christian. Now if you believe Luther’s doctrine to be evangelical and the doctrine of the Pope to be unevangelical, you cannot reject Luther just like that. If you do, you reject his doctrine along with him, although you know that it is the doctrine of Christ. This is what you must say: Luther may be a fool or a saint; this does not resolve the matter, but his doctrine is not his own, but Christ’s. For you can see that those in control do not want to destroy only Luther, but they want to destroy his doctrine. It is because of this doctrine that they harass you and ask, are you a Lutheran?.” This is from the Confessional Lutheran Church of Finland ( However, it gives no attribution.

Two of the more egregious things Metaxas does is resurrect the mythology that Luther’s references to different spirits and demons show he’s a child of his time. German scholar Oswald Bayer has the more accurate view: “Once again, as said by Meyer’s Huttern: ‘His spirit is the field of battle between two aeons/ it surprises me not that he sees demons'” (Martin Luther’s Theology, Bayer, 2)! It surprises me that Metaxas didn’t surmise as much.

The second more egregious thing, and much more damaging, for Confessional Lutherans is that he bluntly states that for Luther faith effects the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. This is not what Luther taught. Christ’s Words of Institution effect the Real Presence; faith receives their benefits. Because in our postmodern world, he who tells the best narrative wins, and make no mistakes Metaxas is a genius at this, his views of Luther are going to be the one’s popularly passed down. Hence, more than I would slay the dragon slayer of the Dark Ages, Metaxas, I would slay the view that his is a definitive biography of Martin Luther.


About Rev. Paul R. Harris

Ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
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