Lucas Cranach the Elder. Martin Luther. 1533. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.
There’s a fascinating article about Martin Luther’s body in the current edition of The American Historical Review (“Marin Luther’s Body: The ‘Stout Doctor’ and His Biographers,” April 2010). The author, Lyndal Roper, is a fellow and tutor in history at Bailliol College at Oxford University. She points out that Luther’s artists and biographers weren’t shy about depicting his monumental form, and Luther himself often spoke of the body, especially his own body, in ways that we find shocking today. In the middle ages, the ideal Christian was an ascetic—a thin saint whose physical form testified to a life of fasting and self-denial. A former monk, Luther rejected monasticism and embraced physical pleasure (food, beer, marital sex). But this was no hedonism.
Physicality was an important part of Luther’s theology. He rejected any teaching that tried to split body and spirit. At the 1529 Marburg Colloquy he debated Eucharistic theology with the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, who believed the bread and wine were mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Luther insisted on the “real presence” of Christ in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.
Luther’s theology is often reduced to sola fide—salvation by faith alone apart from good works. But just like his expansive form, there was so much more to his message. His positive reevaluation of the body is just one example.
(You can read a previous post I wrote about Martin Luther, called “The Luther Myth,” by clicking here.)