Brand Reformation: A Conversation about Martin Luther with Historian Andrew Pettegree

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

MOHLER: Andrew Pettegree is professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he is the founding director of the St. Andrews’ Reformation Studies Institute.  He is the author of several books, including: The Invention of News, The Book in the Renaissance—which was a New York Times notable book in 2010—and Emden and the Dutch Revolt.  His most recent work is Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.  Professor Pettegree, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Professor Pettegree’s new book is entitled Brand Luther, and it has the kind of subtitle that we’re accustomed to seeing in books by the Puritans and others in centuries past.  The subtitle: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.

Professor Pettegree, the subtitle does really tell us the story of the book.  How did you get onto this as a scholar?

PETTEGREE: Well, I was asked by the publisher, Penguin, to write a book for the great Luther celebrations of 2017, when we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. And I wanted to do it, but I didn’t want to write a biography. So I thought what I’d do is take the opportunity to unite the two main strands of my work in life, which are, respectively, working on the Reformation and working on the history of the book. I started off as a historian of the Reformation. I wrote several books about Protestantism and the development of the Protestant movement. But then in mid-career, I took a turn towards working on the history of communication. And it just struck me that this was a fantastic opportunity to unite those two strands of my work and talk about Luther as a communicator. And so that’s what I’ve done with Brand Luther.

MOHLER: Just to be candid, I have these conversations only when there is a book I believe is really worthy of the discussion.  And so that having been said, I have to tell you that I have two entire sections from floor to ceiling of books on Luther in my library, and this is the single most interesting book on Luther I believe I have ever read.

PETTEGREE: Well that’s very kind of you.

MOHLER: And I must say it was a bit unexpected, because even with the 500th anniversary of 1517 coming upon us, it’s hard to believe there’s something really new to write about Luther. The story as it’s known can be told in so many different ways—Heiko Oberman to Roland Bainton and beyond. But you do merge your two interests in such an incredible way here that it made me think we really can’t talk about the Reformation after reading this book, Brand Luther, without going back to the point you make. And just looking at it even providentially, there would have been no Reformation in the sense we know it, and there would have been no Luther in the sense we now know him, had it not been for a cast of characters, a unique moment. And a part of that was the technology of printing, and in particular, as you make the point at the end of the book, you really can’t explain Luther without the book. But you also, in many ways, in Germany can’t explain the book without Luther.

PETTEGREE: Yes, I think that’s right.  I think that there’s always been an understanding, not least promoted by Luther himself, that the technology of printing was critical to the Reformation’s success. I think you get an idea of what the Reformation might have been like without printing if you look back a hundred years to Jan Hus and the Hussites, because, of course, that was a successful revolt, which occurred a hundred years before print. But it was localized; it remained very much a Czech, a Bohemian affair because there was no way of spreading the word in this wild-fire way. So printing made a fundamental difference. But Luther also, to some extent, rescued print, because one of the things that really became clear to me on an earlier project was that print was a technology which really wasn’t bound to succeed. It wasn’t inevitable that print would establish itself as the predominant medium of communication. There are plenty of books before in the invention of printing—that is hand-written manuscript books—and they served their uses well. It was a more restrictive audience, books were more expensive, but nevertheless, the manuscript market worked well. And when printing first came along, once the first excitement about technology had receded, there was quite a lot of pushback. In many ways, people felt these printed books were inferior to their familiar manuscripts. So the whole industry went into something of a nosedive. There was a retrenchment, a lot of bankruptcy among printers; people couldn’t work out how to make money from print. And if this sounds familiar to some of your listeners from the sort of experience of trying to monetize digital technologies in our own age, I think that does have resonance. People come up with the technology first, they think it’s fabulous, and then they think, hold on, how could we make money from it?

MOHLER: Well, you make the point that Gutenberg himself went bankrupt after printing his famous Bible. It was not an immediate success.

PETTEGREE: That’s right. I mean, the Bible was a sensation. It sold out before it had been printed. It was extremely expensive, and yet he was bankrupted by the expense of all the experimentation. And that was not an unusual experience. In most places where printing had been started in the 15th century, it very quickly ceased again and print had to consolidate. So, it became clear that there had to be a new audience for print, that you couldn’t fuel this enormous growth in production unless you had new readers who had not been readers in the manuscript world.

And that’s precisely what Luther did. He found a way to engage new readers, new readers who were not necessarily comfortable as Latin readers, who had to be addressed in their own language, in his case German. And he found a way of making money for printers, and that was by writing short, pamphlet-length books which could be produced in a couple of days—three days—put out on the market place, and sold out so that the printers got an immediate return. So, that proved to be the most fantastic mechanism, not only for spreading the market through a sequence of reprints that were from Wittenberg outwards—to Leipzig, to Augsburg, to Nuremberg, to Strasbourg—but also, giving print a second chance in places where the early experimentation had flickered and died.

MOHLER: I’ll tell you what my fear was when I picked up your book, just, again, to be very honest. My fear was that the title Brand Luther was going to be a hint of a reductionistic understanding of Luther. The theologian in me was very concerned that this, as Eric Erickson tried to offer a psycho-analytic reduction of Luther, and economists and others have reduced Luther—there have been political arguments—you, to your credit, take Luther very seriously as a man, as a theologian, as a pastor, as well as a major figure in defining the emergence of Germany, the technology of the book, and the economy of Saxony. So, I just want to state a word of appreciation up front. At virtually every turn, I was just very pleased at how you, I think, very carefully presented Luther theologically, as well as economically and politically.

PETTEGREE: I think he’s a most extraordinary man. I think if historians ever needed proof that individuals matter and individuals have the capacity to change the course of history, then they only really need to look at Martin Luther. This is a man who, until middle age, had shown no signs that he would seek or grasp celebrity. He was a person who into his thirties had published nothing, yet somehow, from nowhere, had found a voice that was quite unique. He loved to write, theologically, in a different way, to address a different audience, an audience that many of his fellow theologians thought should not be engaged in these discussions. But, he also wrote serious Latin works for his fellow clerics because his movement would not have succeeded had he been a one-man band, had he been a prophet crying in the wilderness. He needed to persuade other members of the clergy that his theological insights were profound enough and important to risk dividing the church. And it was only because people of that sort read his books, often in Latin, and preached in their own churches that Luther’s movement could move out of Wittenberg. So, yes, I take him very seriously as a theologian, and I try to give, also, some sense of what it was like to meet this man, because I’m absolutely sure that in this era where face-to-face contact mattered so much—those three early journeys he made early in his career to Heidelberg, then to Augsburg, then to Worms for the confrontation with Charles V, these were absolutely crucial in showing him to the German nation, but also one-to-one conversations with people who were curious but not yet converted. I think that the magnetism of Luther’s personality plays a large part in why people took on aspects they didn’t find particularly palatable. People were deeply worried when this ecclesiastical figure started calling the pope antichrist. I mean, that was way beyond their expectations when they first read and approved his criticism of indulgences. But, I think he had a sort of personal magnetism which somehow carried people over their natural borders and boundaries.

MOHLER: You know, you mentioned several things in your book that I’m sure, in one sense, I knew before—I must have—but I really hadn’t thought of in this way. One of the things you point out is that Luther and his prince basically did not speak to one another, but may have actually come face-to-face with one another only at the Diet of Words.

PETTEGREE: Yes, I think it’s possible that Luther preached in the Castle Church in Wittenberg in the presence of Frederick the Wise. That would seem plausible. But there’s no record of them ever having spoken one-on-one, and this strange voodoo hold he has over Frederick the Wise is one of the most fortuitous aspects of the Reformation, because had Frederick the Wise had agreed to hand him over to the clerical authorities for him to be ferried off to Rome, that would have been the end of the Reformation before it had begun. We wouldn’t know who Martin Luther was. He wouldn’t even merit a footnote in history. But it was a decision of this strange, stubborn, deeply pious Catholic man with one of the largest collections of relics in Europe to stand by his local professor and not to give him up that really made the Reformation possible.  I mean, there is a lot of good fortune in Luther’s story, without which it wouldn’t have been a story at all.

MOHLER: Well, just to state the matter in a way that many people don’t understand, this was matter of life and death daily for Luther, throughout most of his lifetime, at least until once he started what we called the Reformation and the course was set. Just given the political fortune and including the fact that Wittenberg itself was reabsorbed back into the Holy Roman Empire, I would just say, it was a moment in history in which certain things had to happen, otherwise we would not be talking about Martin Luther.

PETTEGREE: That’s absolutely right.  It was only a year after Luther’s death that Charles V entered the city victorious. He was able to visit Luther’s grave, but of course he couldn’t lay hands on him. So yes, Luther did live the at least the first ten years after his protest against indulgences in a state of imminent expectation of death. He really did think—and of course this is the great revelation of Heiko Oberman’s book which you mentioned early—he really did think he was living through the last days, and that he could only understand the perilous position in which he put himself as an actor in the end of the world. And I think that gave him at the sort of folly of heedlessness to be able to cope with the extraordinary pressures of the situation in which he put himself.

MOHLER: I learned many things from Heiko Oberman; I’m very indebted to him. But part of it came from a conversation near thirty years ago, in which he was with several young historical theologians, I was amongst them, and he grew frustrated with us. And he was talking about Luther and his anfechtungen, in particular, and he grew frustrated with our questions and he said, “Young men, you will never understand Luther until you understand that he went to bed every night believing that he might wake to face either God or the Devil.”


MOHLER: History and biography are necessarily reductionistic. There is no way you reduce a human being to a book, whether it is one volume or many volumes. A selectivity is at work, and that selectively has to do with what questions are asked about a person in history. And in that sense, i think what Andrew Pettegree has done in this book is especially important because of the questions he asks. He asks questions that, for the most part, I’ve not seen asked before about Luther. How was it that Luther, who had not written anything, within four years became the most published man in Germany? How is it that an Augustinian monk who had no previous celebrity, within a matter of just a few years, became the most famous man in Europe? How do you explain Luther and the book, or for that matter, how do you explain the book and Luther?  All that is part of what makes Brand Luther such interesting reading.  


MOHLER: That’s a totally different period of time in this medieval world, with the modern world yet coming into view. And Luther, in that sense, when you refer to him as Brand Luther, was also a religious, church leader of an entirely different type. And one of the most important points you make is how he developed an entirely different style of writing. Let me quote your words back to you. You say this,

“It’s a story that sees Luther blossoming almost overnight as a writer of extraordinary power and fluency. A natural stylist in a genre that had not at the point particularly valued those skills.”

Let me just insert there, and by that—so our listeners know—you mean theology. In the process, Luther created what was essentially a new form of theological writing, and then you use these words:

“Lucid, accessible, and above all, short.”

PETTEGREE: Well, brevity was not a skill which was much valued in theological debate before Luther came along. The medieval tradition was of pulverizing your opponent into submission by marshaling examples and arguments which lasted over and over, through repetition and reiteration and multiple citations. And, of course, that carried over into the sermons. The tradition of the time was that sermons would often last two or three hours. They would be theatrical events. And they were endurance tests. They were meant to be. It was, in a sense, going to hear a great preacher was an aspect of pilgrimage. You expected to be moved, but you expected to be exhausted by the effort. So when Luther writes a book called The Sermon on Indulgence and Grace, which is 1500 words long and fits perfectly into an eight-page pamphlet, there’s a certain irony in the use of the word “sermon” because it was like no sermon had ever been before. Someone asked me recently how Luther captured this new tone, this new style, and I said I think the years he’d spent as the parish preacher in the years before 1517 were absolutely crucial here. He came to Wittenberg as a professor, as a member of this young university lecturing to students, and I think that was important because he had a very fine mind. But he was also responsible for the sermons in the parish church. And his intense identification with his Wittenberg congregation is something that carries him through his entire life. And I think it’s crucial to understanding how he could, when he decides first of all to write in German, which is itself a radical step, he could find this voice that immediately captured the attention of a wider public.

MOHLER: You make the point that he could write in lucid and eloquent Latin for his fellow academic theologians, and did so, and how important that was. But toward the end of your book—and, by the way, at the end of every chapter, I kept thinking it can’t get better than this—but in many ways my favorite chapter is your last chapter entitled, “Legacy.” And I want to read back a paragraph to you because it makes the point you just made.  You wrote:

“Luther was a German figure and a German writer. His pleasures—food, music, family, beer—were not especially cerebral, and this was because they conveyed an engaging style honed over many years in his ministry preaching to his Wittenberg congregation. Luther was a thoroughly educated man, but wore this slightly. His sermons were littered with homely examples and improving tales.”  

Then you continue to say, “All this was integrated in a style of theological writing that Luther had essentially invented.”  

I still think that’s astounding.  Here you have this singular man who dared to write over the heads of the academics to the people of Germany and, not only that, but to the German Christians in such a way that he created a church. In the chapter before this, you lay out so well how it really is evident in the fact that you could walk into a German church of the Reformation a century after Luther and you could tell this was a Reformed church by the preaching, by the singing, and by the way the people had owned this faith for their own.

PETTEGREE: Yes, and I think his musical sensitivity was very important at that. He was a decent musician and he liked playing for pleasure and his grasp that hymn tradition could be one way not only of engaging the congregation, which it surely was, but as a teaching tool. And I think any of us who’ve been parents recognize how important repetition to the learning process and how valuable song can be in that. And Protestant churches adopted it to the extent that they very often taught catechism and new hymns or, in a Calvinist case, psalms, to the children first so that children could then teach it to grown ups, because children’s minds just soak this up so easily.

The other thing about his German writing that’s worth saying is that it put his colleagues who stayed in the Catholic tradition in a terrible bind because, on the one hand, it was very dangerous to abandon the field to Luther and let him have vernacular writing all to himself; but on the other hand, they weren’t sure this is an area in which they should follow him. They were by no means certain that they should dignify the idea of theological discussion among laypeople by following Luther into this conflict. So they were in a sort of double bind here. And they were slow to take it on. So although Luther had many capable opponents, their reluctance to engage him in the vernacular meant that Luther and his colleagues out-published them in these early crucial years by a factor of about nine- or ten-to-one. Of course, that’s giving the evangelicals a tremendous advantage. They ruled the airwaves for these ten years.

MOHLER: Well, and that was pointed out by Luther’s own Catholic opponents when they came into the towns and could find nothing in the books stalls except Luther. People were deeply worried when this ecclesiastical figure started calling the Pope “antichrist.”  I mean, that was way beyond their expectations when they first read and approved his criticism of indulgences. But, I think he had a sort of personal magnetism which somehow carried people over their natural borders and boundaries.

PETTEGREE: Yes, they blamed the printers. They said the printers were all closet evangelicals. Now, I don’t think that’s true at all.  Many people who printed for Luther had been happily printing for the Catholic church two or three years before he came along, and they simply made a pragmatic business decision that Luther was better business.  And you can see that in the fact that if you look at Luther’s publications, they’re very often reprinted six, seven, eight, ten, twelve times in the first couple of years. Whereas his Catholic opponents struggled to get a single reprint. In other words, there was a first edition which, in the tradition of the book, was often highly subsidized by either the author or a patron, and then it sold out or didn’t sell out and then it wasn’t reprinted at all. So these were really market forces which determined that Luther would be much published and more published than his opponents. It wasn’t bias on the part of the publishers. They would gladly have published Catholic works, had they been able to make money from them.

MOHLER: Now I want  to ask you some controverted questions about Luther, because you deal with them directly.  And the first one is: did Luther actually nail the 95 Theses to the Castle Church Door in Wittenberg?

PETTEGREE: Well, I think you have to go through this in stages. I think the 95 Theses were posted on the Castle door. The Castle door was the formal notice board of the university. That’s where all routine academic business would have been posted, including invitations to a disputation, which is what Luther was issuing. Secondly, I think it’s certain, or nearly certain, that what was posted was a printed broadsheet published by Johann Rhau Groneberg, the only publisher in Wittenberg at the time. We know that, I think, because we found relatively recently the only surviving copy of a dissertation text that Luther published six weeks before the 95 Theses, his theses on scholastic theology. And that suggests that this was routine and that it’s not therefore particularly unlikely that somebody, that there was a now lost edition of the 95 Theses printed in Wittenberg. Did Luther put it up himself? I think that’s a dramatic flourish; it’s perfectly possible that the official of the university designated to put it up did so on his behalf. So, perhaps the dramatic stride through Wittenberg, which you can still do today—you can go from his home through the town to the Castle Church—perhaps that didn’t happen. I was talking about this to a friend who also works on it, who agrees with me; it was almost certainly put up, probably glued up, rather than nailed up on the Castle Church  door. But, he said to me, “Do you know a German professor who does their own paperwork?” Maybe that’s a persuasive argument that Luther did not put it up himself, but it was certain that Luther posted it.

MOHLER: I also appreciate what I can only call your text-critical review of that history of the document that became printed as the 95 Theses. And I also have to think that it’s a lot less dramatic of Luther (or someone on his behalf) gluing the Theses to the Castle Church door.

PETTEGREE: Yes, it doesn’t have the resonance of the sort of the mighty hammer. But you know, 1517 only really became canonized as the beginning of the Reformation 100 years later, when it was celebrated in 1617 when protestants needed a rallying point just before the Thirty Years war. In many respects, for me, the crucial event is the publication of the German Sermon Against Indulgences in March, 1518. But I think, you know, we’ve got the bunting bought and all the plans made. So I don’t think we can change the date of the celebrations now; I think they’re too far gone.

MOHLER: Right, and I have to say I’m thankful that you have written what’s coming out in time for what will certainly be many reconsiderations of Luther with that 500th anniversary. I want to ask you another controverted question, because you also deal with this one. When do you believe Luther came to what can rightly described as justification by faith alone?

PETTEGREE: I think it’s very likely that occurs in around 1515. That is, he had a theological understanding of that question before the indulgence controversy. I don’t think at the time he thought of that as particularly controversial. It had very firm roots in Christian theology. And I don’t think at that point his critics thought of it as particularly controversial. For him, the big issue of the day was the curriculum of the University at Wittenberg, and the influence of scholastic theology. That was likely to have been a far more bitter argument. I think justification by faith only becomes inflammatory, explosive, in the particular context of an existential crisis of the church. And it’s only when Luther builds that into the sort of foundation sense of his new criticism of his church hierarchy and his new plan for a reformed church does it really become a hot issue.

MOHLER: Another question that has plagued me ever since Luther has been such a focus of my concern and intense interest at every level, and it has to do with the fact that in my reading of Luther the Reformer. The greatest challenge that came to him came from Erasmus in his work on the Freedom of the Will. And had Erasmus won that argument at the theological level, it’s hard to imagine the Reformation could have continued. Why did it take Luther so long to respond to Erasmus? He was so quick to respond to just about everyone else. But it seems to me that the Reformation was made vulnerable by his delay in responding to erasmus.  

PETTEGREE: Well, these were very difficult years for the Reformation. 1525 was a rough year and, to be fair to Luther, he recognized that if Erasmus was going to cut all their ties, he had chosen the right issue on which to do that. He never doubted that Erasmus had gone to the core issue theologically that divided him and his critics. But 1525 was a terrible year. He was really troubled by the Peasants’ Revolt and the fact that the peasants were using Luther’s teaching as a justification for rebellion. And had Luther not been able to put distance between himself and the rebels on that, that could have destroyed any chance that his movement would continue to enjoy any support from the German princes. And that would have been a terrible crisis for them. He was also preparing to get married, and he recognized that the sight of a former monk marrying a former nun was going to be a huge propaganda coup for his opponents that could claim this was what the Reformation came down to, this sorted sexual bargain between these two people. So, he was under an enormous amount of pressure in these years. And there is a portrait of him painted by Cranach in these years where he looks devastatingly washed out.

MOHLER: Now, let me go forward in your book, then, since you mentioned Katie and his marriage. You also point out that in his very happy and fulfilling marriage life, Luther and his extremely able partner—that is, his wife Katharina von Bora—they really, in many ways, invented the protestant family.

PETTEGREE: Yes, the whole issue of the priesthood and family had been very troubling in the medieval church. And it was dealt with differently by different parts of the Western church. In England, for instance, clerical celibacy was quite strictly enforced. In other parts, Switzerland for instance, it was perfectly routine for priests to take what was in effect a common law wife in return for paying a small wife tax. But, of course, that did not give that wife any protection. She didn’t inherit on her husband’s death. It was a very unsatisfactory situation. Now by marrying and encouraging all his followers to marry, Luther created this new family at the center of the community, and it was extremely powerful. I think it also sensitized Luther to certain issues which became very important in the movement as a whole. One of them was female literacy. Until this point, reading had been almost entirely a male preserve.  Only women in the very top echelons of society learned to read. But Luther, both theologically and I think emotionally through his experience as a father, believed that it was absolutely vital that women had as much chance to take an informed view of their faith as men. So Lutheranism is accompanied by a vast growth in schooling boys schools but also girls schools. And this is the first step toward closing the literacy gap that was such a stark feature of medieval and early modern society.

MOHLER: Speaking of Luther and the book, I was very interested to see how personally involved Luther was even in the aesthetics of his books and with the Flugschriften, the pamphleteering that went on. Luther understood that how the text would appear would have something to do with how credible it was understood to be.  

PETTEGREE: That was one of the revelations for me after I started researching the book. I mean, I hadn’t expected to find such direct evidence, not least in his correspondence, of his passionate involvement in the day to day work of the printing press. I think it would have been a real struggle for the printers in Wittenberg when he marched in the print shop, which I am sure he did virtually on a day to day basis, not least because it was very common for authors to check their own proofs. And since you get one sheet pulled off one at a time, that meant you pretty much had to go back every day to check the new proofs. Well Luther made his opinions extremely clear. He thought and always expected the printers would cut corners to save money, make more money for themselves. So he was very down on them. But when you think of it, should it be that surprising? Luther had a very unusual background for a priest. He was the son of an industrial entrepreneur. His father was involved in the copper mining industry. He was brought up in, therefore, an industrial household, one which was dominated by an extremely risky business of investment, raising capital, the risk that the stream of copper would run out—a very uncertain life. But, you know, being brought up in a family that lived through metal work, I think he had a natural affinity for the technology of print. And put that together with the design brilliance of Luther’s Cranach, and I think you have a very potent combination.

MOHLER: Several secular historians looking at Luther have argued that his most lasting achievement was the translation of the Bible into German, which in many ways—such as the Authorized Version, the King James Version, combined with Shakespeare in English, helped to situate the English language—he helped to situate the German language that’s lasted for centuries. Do you see that as one of Luther’s greatest achievements.

PETTEGREE: Well, I think that it’s one of the greatest achievements of the team that Luther gathered around him. It’s only really the New Testament which is a solitary achievement. And you could legitimately say that that laid down the guidelines in terms of tone, language, and appeal. But once Luther returned from the Wartburg, the rest of the translation involved Bugenhagen, Agricola, particularly Philip Melancthon, who he thought of as the great brain of the Reformation. It’s rather charming, actually. Whereas we think of Luther as incomparable, he thought of young Philip Melancthon as incomparably the better brain than he had himself.

MOHLER: What do you think, on the other hand, was Luther’s greatest tragedy, his greatest failure?

PETTEGREE: His greatest failure…I would think that he felt his greatest failure was that the church ended divided. I think Luther always thought of himself as a good Catholic. He intended to reform the church, not divide it—and that the church was not only divided between Catholics and as it turned out Protestants but that the Reformers did not themselves remain united. I think that was a source of great grief to him. Everything from that respect started to go wrong in 1525 with the Peasants’ War.

And perhaps, here, Luther was guilty of too much of his own rhetoric. If there was one phrase that he might have wanted to recall, it was probably the priesthood of all believers. When Luther used that phrase, what he meant was that through justification by faith, that Christians had direct access with God. In other words, the priestly intercession was not necessarily. But what he didn’t mean was that the priesthood of all believers could be interpreted that all Christians had equal power of interpretation of the Bible. But once he’d given the sort of theological opening for that, and he’d given a translation of the Bible, the Reformation was of course extremely vulnerable to the sense that we’ve abandoned the authority of the Pope. We hadn’t put ourselves under the authority of Luther, so why not interpret for ourselves what we believe the Bible means? So the fragmentation of the evangelical movement was really predestined from that moment. I think he would think of that as his greatest failure.

MOHLER: Now we’re having this conversation with 2017 fast before us, and I think many people living today are going to ask a very basic question that applies directly to Luther, but by extension, to virtually anyone who lived during his time. How do we evaluate Luther—the man, the historical figure, the theologian, the churchman, the Reformer—in a way that’s intellectually honest, given the distance not only historically, but morally, between 1517 and 2017?

PETTEGREE: Yeah. Well, I think that has two parts. Firstly, we evaluate people by their works, by their consequence, by their impact. And I think on all those levels, Luther is remarkable. Whether you regret what occurred, or whether you stand in the tradition created by Luther, one has to acknowledge that he was a person who made an extraordinary impact on his society. And the division of Western Christendom that came about in the years after 1517 is still with us today. I think you should say that, and I think that it’s important also to realize that this is the past, that this happened a long time ago, when morals were different, when life was very different. Life was very hard. People were surrounded by death. We live in a society now which sort of half abolished risk, whereas Luther and his contemporaries lived in a society full of risk, full of pain. Luther lived the last 15-20 years of his life in virtually constant pain, and this was not an unusual experience. So there’s no point in wagging our fingers at people in history and thinking they should have behaved like us. That’s the opposite of the historical process. History is about understanding the past, not about looking for ourselves in the past.

MOHLER: Professor Pettegree, it has been a delight to have this conversation with you, and I have to tell you that I really enjoyed your previous work on The Invention of News, and I can see how your previous work and scholarship on the Reformation, combined with that incredible historical understanding of the invention of news and, in so many ways, print media, how they came together in Brand Luther. I can only ask you, what are you working on now?

PETTEGREE: Well, I’m working. I have a group here who work on the history of the book, and we have a database called “The Universal Short Title Catalogue,” which is a searchable, free access database of all books published before 1600. And we’re now in the process of extending it into the 17th-century. And when we’ve done that, that will be the best part of a million books, with the best part of six million copies attached. So that keeps me busy. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll write a sequel for The Invention of News and take the story of news up into the present day. But at the moment, I’m just enjoying talking about Brand Luther, looking forward to the anniversary, and working away with my students.

MOHLER: Professor Pettegree, thank you so much today for joining me for Thinking in Public.

PETTEGREE: My pleasure.


MOHLER: I often tell students that my introduction to the controversies of church history came when, as a teenager, I first read a history of the Reformation. Then I bought a church history. I didn’t know it had been written by a Catholic, but it referred to the Reformation instead as the “Protestant Revolt.” Well there you have it. Is it a reformation, or a revolt?—one of the most basic questions of church history. And yet when we look at it, we really can’t answer it at once, and we can’t answer it at all without talking about Martin Luther, the central figure in the beginning of the Reformation. That’s why this book by Andrew Pettegree is so important. Its title is Brand Luther. That’s interesting in and of itself because one of the things that Professor Pettegree acknowledges is that by the time of his death—actually long before his death—as a major figure during the course of the Reformation, Luther had already become in essence what we moderns would call a brand. And thus Martin Luther becomes something of a more modern person right before our eyes, standing out in contrast to virtually all Christian leaders who had preceded him, certainly in the medieval church.

But of course, there’s far more to Luther, and that’s what I really appreciate about the approach taken by Professor Pettegree. 2017 looms right before us, and that means we’re going to be looking at many reconsiderations of the Reformation, going back to the year 1517. As Professor Pettegree made clear, it was only in 1617 that Lutherans in Germany decided that that was the date from which they would start the Reformation’s history. And of course it came in itself in a context of politics and history that required a more clear Protestant identity. Well, if anything, in the year 2017, we face a similar kind of challenge with another necessity of defining a Protestant identity. That’s why I’m so glad to have had this conversation with Professor Andrew Pettegree about his book Brand Luther, because he offers insights and avenues into understanding Luther’s life that we had not had before. That’s what makes a book truly important. Not just because it tells a story better than or as well as the stories told before, but because it tells us more about the story than we knew before. And that’s what makes the year 2017 so optimal for this kind of reconsideration, and that’s what makes this book such an example of what we hope will come in the course of the celebration of the Reformation’s beginning in the year 2017.  

But there’s more to that, of course, and we’re going to be looking at many conversations. My introduction to the controversies of church history came as a teenager when I read two different church histories—the first written by a Protestant, and of course, it spoke gloriously of the Protestant Reformation; the second written by a Roman Catholic, and all the sudden I was introduced to what it called the “Protestant Revolt.” Well there you have, to say the very least, a direct contradiction in interpretations. And by the time we come to the year 2017, Protestants and Catholics have five hundred years of arguing about what the Reformation was all about. And when we look at the year 2017, we face an incredible opportunity to go back to 1517 in a way that previous generations really could not. In this sense, we should be very thankful for modern history, for modern historiography, and modern historical writing, such as evidenced by Brand Luther, because here we are taken back into original documents, even some text-critical considerations of Luther. Here we have access to information that even those in 1717, 1817, and 1917 didn’t have. In its essence, history is not only a reconsideration and retracing of things past, it is a reconsideration of the meaning of these things for the present, and also for the future. As a confessional Protestant, I am particularly thankful for the kind of scholarship that is evidenced in this book, and I’m also thankful for this conversation. It is, I believe, an example of a conversation that needs to go not only well into the year 2017, but well beyond.

Many thanks again to my guest, Professor Andrew Pettegree, for thinking with me today.  For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to  For information on Boyce College, go to  Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public.  Until next time, keep thinking.  I’m Albert Mohler.