“Luther would deride the idea of freedom as we know it today and disclaim any credit for it. In fact, he would be disgusted by it, because it has nothing to do with what he regarded as the only real freedom: the bound freedom of a Christian."
“Neither Luther nor any of the other Protestant reformers sought or
envisioned anything like modern individual freedom. Nor did the
Protestant Reformation as such lead to it. What led to it were the
more-than-religious conflicts between magisterial Protestants and
Catholics in the Reformation era, which created a situation that led
indirectly, unintentionally and eventually to the making of a
21st-century world that nearly all committed Christians of the
Reformation era would have deplored.”
Both are quotes from Brad Gregory's third installment on Reformation history -- Salvation at Stake (1999) and The Unintended Reformation (2012). Rebel in the Ranks is not a scholarly treatment of Luther or the times but is intended for those who know little of the real history of the man or the movement. It is probably not a book you would give to someone interested in the details of theological position or the footnotes of its greater history, but it is not a bad book to give to those who know only the mythology and have a skewed idea of what the Reformation and the man who pulled its trigger are about.
It is a simple enough treatment and an easy read, interesting and generally respectful of those whom he treats. For all the Luther movies, from its dramatic black and white treatment of 1952 to the rather unsettling treatment of 2003 and for all the docudramas in between, most folks still approach Luther from the vantage point of ignorance, assuming modern day ideas and issues are what got his dander up. When it comes to worship, most folks think Luther found the mass a tyranny from which the Church and Christians must be set free. That is true only if mass in your definition equates with the sacrifice of the mass and not the historic shape of the liturgy. When it comes to modern ideas of the separation of church and state or individual liberty or the triumph of individual reason and opinion, Luther is blamed for horrors he would neither recognize nor approve. When it comes to Luther and the Jews, it is assumed Luther was an anti-Semite when the reality was that religious freedom did not exist, no one then loved the Jews, and Luther's rebuke was theological and not ethnic -- how could those who had the Law and the Prophets NOT recognize Jesus. When it comes to Lutherans, it is assumed that whatever you learned in catechism class or Sunday school gave you a full treatment of Luther and the Great Reformation and that dogmatic differences between Luther and other Reformers and between Lutherans and other Protestants are minutiae and nothing of real substance. How wrong we are!
I have taken to reading a few of the more current treatments of Luther and the Reformation and Gregory certainly gives us pause. In the end we want to find scapegoats on which to heap our blame and scorn for the things that have gone wrong. For sure, the world we now have is a world gone stray but the blame lies not with Luther or even the Pope on the other side. We always get the world we deserve. You do not have to be Christian to admit the truth of the Scripture: the sins of the fathers are visited upon the
children even to the third and fourth generation. The children suffer for the sour grapes of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Original sin is the one doctrine that needs no Scripture to be proven -- history and the newspaper suffice. The Reformation was no trivial conflict. It was born of a man and of a time in which honest questions arose about truth, hope, life, and death. If the Reformation found rough sailing or ran aground on the rocks of disappointment, the blame lies squarely with its heirs.
Luther was a man, just a man, and yet a noble intellect, a man of stunning accomplishment, and of great ideas. Luther's image of the future has certainly foundered but it cannot be blamed only upon him. We added enough stubbornness, sin, doubt, fear, jealousy, anger, bitterness, and violence to turn a question into an epithet and to take what was hoped to be a new beginning and see it become an all too predictable end. Lutherans and Roman Catholics and all Christians have some blame in this. Yet the seeds of renewal are always as near as the voice of the Word that speaks and the means of grace deliver Christ and His gifts to us. The only questions are about whether or not we are listening and whether or not we are so content in our ungodliness that we neither desire nor welcome the things of God that would redeem us.