Heiko A. Oberman. Man between God and the Devil. Trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Heiko Oberman’s biography of Martin Luther describes many challenges for Historians, particularly those working with topics that rely on foreign languages, the distant past, or contemporary political and religious issues. The study of Luther’s work, life, and impact on the modern world involve all three. In their own way, all three of these items relate to accuracy in research and understanding of the subject at hand. The first two items relate to understanding the language and the cultural references that shape Luther the man, his theology, and the European reaction to it. The third relates to how modern people, including, but not limited to Historians interpret Luther’s life, work, and opposition.
In the preface to the English edition, Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart addresses the issues of language, translation, and interpretation. Not only must Historians be at least bilingual in order to perform research, they must also be familiar with facets of those languages easily lost over time or through translation. Idiom and cultural references change, forcing even Historians who work only in their native tongue to be conversant with the usages of an earlier and alien time. This issue of cultural bilingualism becomes even more important for Historians who deal with pre-modern systems of belief, as it is easy to ignore or cast off cultural apparatus that are critical to a fundamental understanding of the past.
In the case of Martin Luther, one example is the “real” presence of Satan, the Devil, in the world working against Christ for dominion of Earth and over the souls of mankind. Oberman argues that the necessity of showing Luther’s peaceful death through portraiture and witnesses was due to the belief that the Devil suddenly cut the lives of his rightful prey short, and that the pain and fear of death marked their faces. Oberman further argues that Luther’s frequent references to the Devil and the Anti-Christ in his work was not mere rhetoric, but a genuine belief that the enemy of Christ and Christians was working in the world to seduce people away from the true path. The imminent approach of the Millennium, Christ’s return to Earth and the climactic battle between good and evil drove Luther’s work, and this all-important issue drove Luther in his efforts to better the church.
With the exception of small denominations, this interpretation of both Luther and the Millennium have disappeared from modern Christian belief, according to Oberman because of the course of the nineteenth century, belief in the Devil fell by the wayside for most European and American Christians. Confused by these apparent superstitions in Luther’s work, theologians shifted the emphasis of their interpretation to something more palatable for the post-Enlightenment audience. These critical issues, thus, disappeared from their discourse, changing the nature of Luther’s message.
This provides a timely warning for my own work. Researching the Vietnam War, it is easy to forget that people many did (and still do) believe in the Domino Theory and the omnipresent threat of International Communism to the United States and other democracies. Rational to my mind, or not, belief in these problems spurred diplomatic and political action, as well as personal decision-making. It is not easy to avoid treating people who believed these things as gullible is not an easy task. Similarly, examining testimony, letters, and newspapers that express these beliefs, or the idea that it was the duty of the Christian United Sates to stand against the Godless Communists without a certain amount of disbelief is difficult to manage. However, in order to understand how these issues shaped the attitudes and actions of soldiers toward their enemies, or even foreign civilians, I have to be able to view these items as dispassionately as possible. My opinion about these attitudes is not what matters, being able to understand them, and how they influenced the world is what I have to concentrate on.