An Incomplete Lutheran Summer Reading List
Summer is almost here, and with it comes summer reading lists – those suggestions from various folks of books that will help you relax while on vacation or learn a little something while enjoying a warm breeze on your porch. So, during this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a summer reading list of “Luther books” seems appropriate. Now, this list is by no means exhaustive, and the books on it are not in any order of preference. But, this list may provide a start for anyone who has been thinking that maybe all this Reformation stuff should be checked out.
- First, a few biographies; starting with Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland H. Bainton: First published in 1950, a paperback edition is offered by Abingdon Press. Its author, Roland Bainton (1894–1984) was the recipient of many degrees, including one from Gettysburg College, a specialist in Reformation history, and long-time Yale University professor. His work, Here I Stand, has been described as both vivid and readable – two things that should be considered a “must” when picking a biography as a summer read. At 464 pages, however, it is a “long” read by 21st century standards.
- A slightly shorter work (only 316 pages) is James M. Kittleson’s 1986 book, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Kittleson (1941-2013), taught at Ohio State University for 26 years, before concluding his career as professor of church history at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. First published in 1986, the 2nd edition (edited by Hans Wiersma, another religion scholar) was published in paperback by Fortress Press in October 2016. This book has earned the honor of being referred to as the “standard biography” of Martin Luther, and has been described as fair, insightful, and detailed without being overwhelming.
- Even shorter (only 224 pages), yet still well worth consideration is the work of yet another Luther scholar, Martin E. Marty, entitled Martin Luther: A Life. First published in 2004, the 2008 reprint edition is available from Penguin Books. Marty, first a Lutheran pastor, taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School From 1963 to 1998. He is still considered one of America’s more influential Lutheran scholars, and this work described by some as perhaps the best one-volume biography of Martin Luther.
- Also by Dr. Marty is a more recent work concerning the continuing impact of Luther entitled October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World. Published in 2016 by Paraclete Press, it is only 128 pages. This book, however, is not a biography or a history. Rather, it takes a look at the issues that led Luther to post his 95 Theses, and how they continue to impact the Church and us as Christians.
Of course, if you really want to understand Luther, reading what he wrote is important. Luther, however, wrote a lot! And, reading Luther (even when translated into modern English) can often feel more like running an uphill obstacle course than taking a summer walk in the park. So, how and where do you begin? Fortunately, yet another Lutheran Pastor and Reformation scholar, Timothy J. Wengert , has edited a number of works that can help. born in Teaneck, New Jersey in 1950, Dr. Wengert was ordained in 1977. From1989 until his retirement in 2013 he served as professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While the list of books Dr. Wengert has written or edited is lengthy, the few listed below provide a good start for “reading Luther”.
- First, The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform, Volume 1 – at 592 pages this is a lengthy volume, but does not have taken “all at once”. Published by Fortress Press in 2015, it provides a good collection Luther’s early writings – sermons, letters, treatises, and the 95 Theses – that helped set the Reformation in motion. This volume also provides maps and reproductions of woodcuts (there’s some excitement) to illustrate the period it covers. More important, Dr. Wengert provides commentary so you are not left alone to wander through Luther’s thoughts and views. If the size of this volume still sounds like too much, consider an excerpt publication from it – The Freedom of a Christian: 1520. Offered last year as a study edition from the previous work, it is only 94 pages. It contains not only Luther’s tract, The Freedom of a Christian, but also a letter to Pope Leo X that Luther was directed to write by a member of the papal court in the hope that a reconciliation would result. With his letter Luther included The Freedom of a Christian – that, next to his Small Catechism, is considered by some to be his most important work. It is through this tract (and his letter to Pope Leo X), that Luther clearly presents his belief that Christians are justified by faith, and because of it freely seek to serve their neighbors.
- And, since Luther’s Small Catechism is one of Luther’s most celebrated works, also consider Dr. Wengert’s Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Published in 2009 by Fortress Press, Dr. Wengert presents, in just 176 pages, a sound discussion of Luther’s catechisms (both small and large) and their enduring relevance for all Christians; describing the Small Catechism in the first chapter as, “Martin Luther’s precious gift to the church.”
- Finally, if none of the preceding sound like your perfect summer read, at least consider reading (hopefully again) the Small Catechism – a few words on a few pages that, in very many ways, encompasses all that is Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.