As Timothy J. Wengert notes in the forward, the early years of Martin Luther has been a long time interest for researchers and readers alike. Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand dedicates half of the work to Luther’s life up to 1521 (This classic work is still the best introduction to the life of Luther). Berndt Hamm’s The Early Luther (Eerdmans, 2014) continues this trend in this volume translated by Martin J. Lohrmann.
Instead of a negative depiction of Luther’s monastic days, Hamm deems Luther’s early years as instructive to his mature thought. He situates Luther firmly within his late medieval, Catholic, and monastic context. As an eager student, Luther worked in conjunction with these traditions for many years, formulating much of his theological categories. Hamm demonstrates not only his years of research in medieval thought, but also rightly conveys Luther’s debt to late medieval theology.
By providing a careful study of Luther’s medieval heritage, Hamm’s discussion of Luther’s departure from this heritage is ever more meaningful. Through the various chapters, Hamm narrates the medieval position Luther inherits, the reformer’s struggle with these ideas, and his writings and actions that demonstrates Luther’s theological continuity, but significantly more, his discontinuity. With this careful parsing of late medieval theology, Hamm’s work counters others in his resistance to establish a rigid early or late date to Luther’s break from monastic or Catholic theology and initiating a reformational or evangelical theology. He unravels the entire process of Luther’s transformation, examining these developments on multiple fronts through various theological concepts.
One of the themes repeatedly addressed is Luther’s understanding of faith. Through the years 1513 to 1518, Luther replaces the concept of the love of God with the concept of faith as the centerpiece. Whereas faith was considered the least pious element of justification in late medieval thought, Luther emphasized faith in relation to repentance as a “comforting, joyous confidence that clings to the words of promise in the gospel” (22). With this turn, Luther was arguing for a justification not based on emotions but on a faith committed to repentance.
Chapter two addresses the role of Anfechtung and Luther’s struggle for holiness. Hamm contends that without Luther’s Anfechtung, from 1505 to 1511 while he was at Erfurt, Luther could not have moved beyond merely a pursuit of holiness to a greater discovery of God’s relationship with humankind and Luther’s development of reformation faith.
Returning to the relationship between faith and repentance, Hamm addresses the dependence but also departure from the medieval concept of faith in chapter three. Chapter four is a reexamination of the Ninety-five Theses, giving specific attention to the doctrine of repentance. Hamm highlights the reformation element of the Theses in its profaning of indulgences and voiding the soteriological element of repentance in Catholic theology. For Luther, repentance was the result of faith and not sufficient for salvation in of itself.
The themes of faith, repentance, and Anfechtung are brought together in Hamm’s argument that Luther should be labeled a mystical theologian. Hamm states, “Luther picked up the characteristic brokenness of late medieval mysticism as we encounter it in exemplary fashion in Staupitz’s theology of humiliation and Tauler’s theology of Anfechtung, but he radicalized their respective medieval insights about the immediacy of God’s presence and human brokenness” (229). By expanding the christological and soteriological elements of these mystical traditions, Luther’s reformational theology included systematic theological ideas but also experiential mystical theology.
Hamm’s The Early Luther not only reveals the roots of Luther’s theology, but unpacks the process of Luther’s refomational theology. By Hamm’s examination of the cultural and theological foundation which Luther works within, we gain a greater appreciation for why Luther departed from these theological concepts and the significance of Luther’s reformational theology. The Early Luther is an important work, which deserves a wide readership, contributing to other studies of early Luther such as Martin Brecht’s Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521.