Here I Stand by Roland Bainton

Bainton, Roland Herbert. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Meridian, 1995.

Born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben to an ore miner and a woman of prayer[1], and dying on February 18, 1546 in the town of his birth, condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther may have lived the most influential 63 years of any individual of protestant church history. Roland Bainton, a Quaker and a “minister, theologian, and Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School,” has attempted to capture the prominent aspects and driving force behind Luther in his book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.[2]  Bainton writes, “. . . this study may appropriately begin with [Luther’s] first acute religious crisis in 1505. . .” and for the remainder of his book, the focal point of Bainton’s work is on Luther’s Anfechtungen, that is, the religious crises of Luther experienced throughout much of is lifetime. Bainton’s work and subject of this review has, for good reason, become an authority on the reformer, Martin Luther.

Here I Stand is thematically divided into two parts. Although subtle, the first part of the work, approximately Chapters 1-11, details Luther’s struggles—first in Luther’s inability to approach God, and second his challenge with the Church’s move away from what Luther saw as biblical teachings. This first half of the book moves through the narrative of Luther’s life much like any biography would, only with a central focus on Luther’s understanding of God. Essentially, Luther had a frightful experience causing a vow to Saint Anne that in exchange for his life he would become a monk. As a monk, he greatly struggled to understand how a finite man can approach an infinite God and still survive. He continued to work at his salvation, pushing himself to extreme measures and mental torment. Eventually Luther was elevated to the position of priest, although this did not alleviate his anguish. His struggles only intensified after a trip to Rome where he witnessed not only how the money from his fellow poverty-simple Germans was being used; but also the lack of earnestness among his fellow priests and a horrid manipulation relics and indulgences.

In 1511, Luther was granted a position as professor at Wittenberg under the direction of Dr. Johann von Staupitz.[3] It was through his teaching on the Psalms and lectures through the book of Romans that Luther came to understand that his theology was flawed—it was only through “faith alone” that he could approach God. Luther felt the Church went astray, mostly in relics and indulgences. Hoping to correct some problematic practices and teaching of the Church, he posted his Ninety-Five Thesis for debate and discussion. This, it seems, was the igniter that set ablaze a movement that would eventually be called the Reformation.

Until a time just after the Diet of Worms, Bainton narrates most of Luther’s history through the lens of Luther’s struggle. It is here that the reader sees events such as Luther’s battle with Tetzel, his debate with Eck, and his receipt of the papal bull as a spiritually challenging life conflict. Then Bainton shifts to telling the remainder of the narrative through the lens of Luther’s theology. This shift occurs slowly between Chapters 10 and 12. It is as if Bainton is demonstrating a shift in Luther’s life as well. The remainder of the book moves through Luther’s theology while explaining events such as the hearings, excommunication, the translation of the New Testament into German, the exodus of monks and nuns, the burning of martyrs, the Peasants’ War, Luther’s marriage to Katherine von Bora, and Luther’s death.

Here I Stand features a detailed time-line in the front of the book, which servers as an overarching guide to the narrative. In addition, the publication displays a number of historical drawings rendered from woodcuttings of the day. The index is well detailed and the bibliography is extensive with nearly 300 entries. The notation system—of which Harris calls “the unpardonable sin,” is somewhat cumbersome.[4] His method, while keeping the manuscript free of distracting superscript notations and footnotes, requires that one counts the lines of the page to determine the location of the specific end note.

Shortly after its publication in1950, Here I Stand drew the attention of many reviews, mostly positive of Bainton’s work. Harris, for example, was critical of the book’s notational system and Bainton’s trust of Table Talk as an accurate account of Luther’s life and history but he calls the book “superb.”[5] Roth hints that he would have preferred to see more of the social and political undercurrent that influenced Luther’s thinking but still praises the work.[6] Garrison and Campbell also offered positive reviews after the book’s release.[7]

Having read a mid-sized selection of Luther’s work and only a small selection of work about Luther (found in broader history books), this author is hesitant to be too critical of Bainton. Harris suggest that academic debate centered on the historical reliability of Luther’s own accounts might give cause to doubt Bainton’s work; however, it would seem that the exhaustive list of references lends great support and credibility to Bainton’s understanding of Luther. The tone of the narrative and the word choices add flavor to the manuscript, although at times, bring too much of the author into the book. And working through the two themes—those of Luther’s struggle and his theology—add great insight that might not have been present otherwise. The reader is drawn into the Anfechtungen with Luther, forcing one to draw personal application from it. However, by shifting to the theological lens in the recount the remaining narrative, Bainton allows the reader to find answers through Luther’s extensive biblical study and understanding.

Resting so well between a purely academic work and that of biography fit for mass consumption, Here I Stand it an outstanding choice for any reader interested in the life of Martin Luther. This book appears historically solid without getting marred down by the critical debates commonly found in academia. Bainton’s extensive work warrants his book’s reputation and explains why Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther is still found on the shelves of libraries, professors, pastors, and laypeople some 60 years after its publication.

Bainton, Roland Herbert. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Meridian, 1995.
Campbell, Donald J. “Luther.” Christian Century. vol. 67 no. 40. October 4, 1950, 1168-1169.
Garrison, Winfred Ernest. Christian Century. vol. 67 no. 40. October 4, 1950, p 1169.
Harbison, E Harris. Theology Today. vol. 8 no. 4. January 1952, p 558-563.
Roth, Paul. Lutheran Quarterly. vol 3, no. 2. May 1951, p 224-225.
1 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1995), 16-17.
2 Bainton, ii; and, Donald J. Campbell, “Luther” Christian Century (67 no. 40 October 4, 1950, 1168-1169), 1168.
3 Bainton, 39.
4 Harbison, E Harris. Theology Today (vol. 8 no. 4, January 1952, p 558-563), 558.
5 Harbison, 558.
6 Paul H. Roth, Lutheran Quarterly (vol. 3 no. 2, May 1951, p 224-225) 224-225.
7 Campbell, 1168-1169; and Earnest Garrison, Christian Century (vol. 67 no. 40. October 4, 1950, p 1169), 1169.

* I have no material connection to this book. This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.