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Luther on Trial

It’s hard to think of a theological bookshelf that does not have Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand on it. In many ways the book is the definitive expression of Luther—the imaginative space when we think of the Reformation. The book has sold essentially the same number of volumes as Packer’s Knowing God. It should be read by everyone who loves the Protestant heritage.

The Author

Roland Bainton was an Englishman who moved to the US at the age of 8. He completed his doctorate at Yale and he never seemed to leave Connecticut after that, serving on the theology faculty for 42 years. There are legends about Bainton’s quickstyle lectures, laced with humor but always brilliant. One account says that each year at the Yale Christmas party, Bainton would recite Luther’s famous ‘Christmas Sermon’. Just goes to show: when you’ve been somewhere 42 years, you can do whatever you want at the Christmas party.

Bainton’s religious convictions are equally well-known. He was heavily influenced by Quakers—a group under heavy scrutiny at the time for their pacifistic stance against World War II. Bainton found in their resistance something noble and brave, and by all accounts he carried this in his bosom for decades, even when he had became a Congregationalist minister.

Over the decades Bainton wrote a total of 32 books, though Here I Stand is clearly his most influential work.

The Need for Here I Stand

When Here I Stand dropped in 1950 the world had a different mindset. Protestantism in classical denominations was still overwhelmingly based on the heritage of Europe, with most people descending from Germany, England, etc. The global expansion of the faith and the changing demographics in America were not yet felt in these old world traditions. Billy Graham had only just had his first crusade in L.A., and I Love Lucy was only in pre-development to become the next television hit. The problem of secularization was only barely felt at this point, though it was rapidly on the rise. But for 1950, the world was still much as it had been for decades: a world of sharply drawn lines, denominationally, ethnically, and culturally.

The situation in the church was something quite different in 1950, too. Luther was cherished in memory but only barely known at the popular level. The red-spined English translations of Luther’s works that we own (or covet) had not yet been printed. In fact, the most notable publications on Luther in Bainton’s day were either written for scholars or for anti-Catholic apologetic in response to the Catholic scholar Denifle, who had published a series of works that blistered the memory of Luther. Denifle called him a morally degenerate monk, who started the Reformation mostly because of his libido. He also claimed Luther was a bumpkin who didn’t know his medieval theology enough to handle the monastery.

In either case, the memory of Luther had grown either faded (Protestantism) or ad hominem (Catholics). Here I Stand was to change much of this. In fact, much of the resurgence in Luther and the story of the Reformation within wider evangelicalism is due in large part to Bainton.

What Should I Look for When Reading Here I Stand?

Bainton’s work is well-written to say the least. The opening scene of chapter 1 tells the story of Luther in the thunderstorm with such liveliness you can almost hear the crack of doom over the poor guy’s head. It practically makes us want to cry out to St Anne.

So the book is wonderful and can be read by anyone, frankly, from high school on. Bainton leaves behind the scholarly jargon and debate that can confuse as much as help the reader. It still bears the stamp of authority on it, too, so there is little reason to be worried that you are getting a faulty account of Luther and his times.

One thing to beware though is the color Bainton adds to the portrait of Luther. As I said above, Bainton was influenced by the pacifism of the Quakers and he had an enduring fear of the role of the state in matters of faith or personal freedom. The story Bainton tells does tread in a lopsided direction, mostly in the characterization of Luther and his struggle for Reformation. Bainton admitted this himself 25 years later in a new preface:

This book was written in the McCarthy era when I felt the great principle was: “Here I Stand”…[I felt] naturally, that Luther would defy Church and State in the name of reason and conscience.

At times in Here I Stand it’s Luther against the world, though in reality Luther was protected by Prince Frederick and appealed to the state to enforce the Reformation. This is hardly reason to neglect the book, though, as there is a real sense in which Luther was up against the powers of the world. But one should be careful about walking way with an image of Luther as the lone Rambo taking out the enemy.

Another feature in the book that is less prominent are the hard places in Luther’s story: the attacks on Reformed theologians, the attacks on the Jews, and the many ways Luther can be a hard man to love in later life. Bainton takes some of this on towards the end of the book, but the move is always to ‘cover the nakedness’ of Luther rather than admit the problems. In Bainton’s defense, the world in 1950 was long on criticism of Luther, and the Nazi regime had only just recently used his memory to bolster their rationale for the Holocaust. Bainton’s desire to give us a Luther we can respect is worth the effort, even if today we are more willing to talk about these problems.

So the book is a classic, not only for what it teaches us, but for the way it opened all later generations to the possibility of exploring Luther and the early Reformation.

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