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A fiery faith that heated up the world

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MARTIN LUTHER: THE CHRISTIAN BETWEEN GOD AND DEATH By Richard Marius Belknap Press/Harvard U. Press 542 pp., $35 Martin Luther's latest biographer, Richard Marius, begins by offering the rather startling opinion that "Luther represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization."

"This is not to say," he adds, "that the catastrophe was all his fault. All sides have a share of the blame for the boiling hatreds and carnage that consumed Europe for well over a century after Luther died. But in my view, whatever good Luther did is not matched by the calamities that came because of him."

A distinguished historian, well-known for his biography of Sir Thomas More, Marius admits he finds the urbane personalities of men like More and the Dutch humanist Erasmus a good deal more congenial than the fiercely passionate Martin Luther. Yet Marius's searching and thoughtful biography of the German monk largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation is a marvelously engrossing, in some ways surprisingly empathic, attempt to fathom the mind and heart of this remarkable man.

The central question Marius asks is what was it that so powerfully motivated Luther to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? Where did his intense brand of belief come from?

Historians and polemicists through the ages have suggested all kinds of motives for Luther's actions, including the notion that the lonely monk's longing for a wife was his real reason for challenging a church that forced its clergy to be celibate!

In Marius's opinion, what drove Luther was his profound terror of death. What Luther feared was not the torments of hell that haunted the imaginations of many other religious people. No, what Marius finds in Luther's writings is a genuine horror at the grim prospect of nonbeing. For Luther, the antidote to this fear was faith in Christ and the resurrection, and he championed his faith with all-consuming intensity.

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