Kenneth Brownell’s short book gets four stars from me as an ‘average’. Aspects of the book swing from little more than three to a definite five. I shall attempt to unpack why and how.
It is remarkable that in the academic world of research, despite all researchers knowing the importance of going back to primary sources, that so few actually do. Among theologians, very few are fluent enough in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin to read the earliest texts of the Bible and Early Church. Fewer still can handle Luther’s German too. Most of us are content to read secondary sources (such as this very book itself) or dabble in language enough that, with the aid of lexicons and commentaries, we can handle a few verses here or there in preparation for a sermon or learned treatise on a subject.
So I don’t feel too bad to confess that in over 30 years of reading Christian literature I’ve never yet read Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Of course, I’ve read about them and understand (or thought I did) their importance and context in history. Hey, I even grew up with the old jokes of Luther having a ‘diet of worms’ and so on. Everyone knows all this kind of thing.
What Brownell succeeds in doing is filling out the story, briefly, and removing the myths about the 95. He makes the ‘too familiar’ unfamiliar again so we can appreciate this point in history with fresh eyes. The first few pages give the historical context to his famous ‘nailing of the theses’ which would mark, eventually, the beginning of Protestantism and then go on to speak of the aftermath as this obscure little academic became a theological superstar, literally ‘overnight’.
One ‘myth’ I found it illuminating to read is that the 95 theses were well-thought out theological arguments which brought the Catholic church crashing down. In fact, Luther was just beginning his journey on discovering Biblical theology and the theses show just how much he remained a loyal Catholic at that time. There is no mention, Brownell points out, of the doctrine of justification by faith alone – arguably the most important tenet of Protestant faith. Luther was still very much a Catholic at this point.
Another ‘myth’ is that this document was a scandalous attack on the established church. In fact, Luther merely followed a time-honoured tradition of nailing the theses on the church door in Wittenberg to begin an intellectual debate – in this case, about the abuse of selling indulgences. Ultimately, of course, the Catholic Church would hold its own counter-reformation and much of Luther’s complaints would be answered, but by that point his theses had ignited Europe and Luther had begun his own journey of discovery which would lead him far from Catholicism to a point of no return.
There is good reason then, why many theologians have not studied the 95 in any depth – it’s actually a rather tame and almost amateurish document. The importance lies not so much in Luther’s theological arguments as in how the points were taken up and spread so fast. In short: he was in the right place at the right time saying the right things. Luther’s later works, just a few years later, when he had really begun to develop a strong biblically-based theology, are far more important works to read and Brownell quotes from several of them.
In all of this then, Brownell’s book is surprisingly excellent. Concise, readable and accurate, I learned much about this important moment in history.
Less useful, however, is the author’s ‘9.5’ theses themselves.
While Brownell bases his ten short chapters on Luther’s original 95 and gives us a good dozen or more direct quotes from the English translation of the same, much of the author’s ‘theses’ are merely his own opinions dressed up to appear as though they are bringing Luther’s arguments into the modern world.
He makes a big thing of churches dismissing justification by faith as ‘outdated’ which I find hard to believe. There is always a tendency for religious people to tend towards ‘doing’ as an expression of their faith and this ‘doing’ can easily become a must for salvation rather than, as Protestants believe, a reaction which results from salvation. I do not see the Protestant church as a whole though, dumbing down this theology. Instead, I see an age-old battle which has raged on since Jesus’ time and will no doubt carry on until time itself ends. It’s easier to ritualise than do things from the heart.
A bigger hang-up for Brownell, however, is that of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. I recall this being a big bugbear in evangelical circles in the 80s and I’m quite amused to see Brownell raise it now as though it is some new demon on the horizon. I know nothing about the author but it wouldn’t surprise me to find he’s older than I and is a little caught up with things which were important decades ago rather than now. in old age, sometimes we get stuck on something from the past and won’t let it go!
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not denying that the issue of the prosperity gospel is still with us. But it is no longer a major player in theological circles. I’ve heard no one speak of it since the early 90s and in all my dealings with Christian youth in the UK over the last 20 years I’ve never been aware of any form of it rearing its ugly head. Outside of the USA, this really isn’t something the church needs to be watching out for.
Instead, Brownell misses the opportunity (other than to pay brief mention to challenging cultural norms) to challenge Christian people to more radical faith which removes itself from professional, middle-class lifestyles and makes itself more relevant to the ordinary lives of people all over the world. The missionary heart, the servanthood of Christ and the need to meet the needs of neighbours is all but dead in the church today. Such things have either become ritualised (having a fete to raise money for charity) or come with conditions (we’ll feed the poor – but only if they will sit down and let us force the gospel message down their throats for dessert afterwards).
This leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Despite the tame quality of Luther’s theses, his words sparked a fire which made Christianity alive again in a very real way. While much wrong was still done in the name of faith (every faith system – even atheism – has the bad apples), for a period of time people came to real faith, full of hope, and lived lives which made things better for others. What a shame that Brownell didn’t take the opportunity to light another fire with this otherwise eminently enjoyable little book.
Overall then, considering how easy it is to read, this book is well worth picking up – if only to better understand Luther in history. If you’re looking for deep analysis you won’t find it here – but then at 98 pages, you’d be foolish to think you would. Will this book take the Christian world by storm? I doubt it, but don’t let that put you off spending an hour or two to read it. It’s very pleasant.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org