In Andrew Pettegrew's book: “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” Pettegrew gives a very serviceable overview of Luther's life leading up to the 1517 Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was a confrontational man. He was also a true, Biblical theologian in a time when theological deceit ruled the day. He sought both to please the Pope; but insisted on speaking against the Pope's errors. While he respected the church, he also saw, very clearly, that the church was corrupt. He was aware that they were selling indulgences for a way to earn time out of purgatory/ (Hell) and Luther was disgusted by the practice. He insisted on speaking out against it. His 95 Theses posted to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517 sparked the Protestant Reformation. God used Luther in numerous ways. But God used others as well; both people and systems. Good old fashioned “capitalism” was used by God as much as anything to elevate Luther's message and destroy his Catholic detractors. Let me explain.
In his book, Pettegrew lays out the events in systematic fashion to prove the point that it wasn't only Luther's superior theological knowledge. It was also the fact the the common man, who was also a consumer, chose to buy Luther's works over and against his Catholic antagonists by a ration of almost 10 to 1. The old fashioned economic axiom of “supply and demand” played a major role in determining the outcome of the Reformation. And the facts were simple yet profound. The people wanted to buy and read Luther. And they did not have a desire to read his Catholic detractors at anywhere near the same clip. Luther won on ideas. But he also won in terms of popularity and economics. He was in demand, so the printers of the day printed his works. The Catholics were not in demand and so their books went unsold and in many cases, un-printed.
Luther lit the torch of the Reformation when on Oct. 31, 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle door. Luther did not expect much of a response. A few weeks earlier he had posted a “Theses” bemoaning scholasticism in Germany and this provocation went largely unheeded. That is to say, no on really cared about Luther's view on the matter. But in God's provenience, the theses against indulgences turned out to be a much different matter. Luther shook the world when he spoke out against the Catholic practice of raising funds by selling indulgences that would knock years off of purgatory. Even before Luther, there was a bit of a backlash against Rome. Some Germans felt like they were being exploited; and Luther's words gave voice to this unrepresented mass. Luther became an immediate hero in Germany and the Catholic church fell further and further into the abyss of unpopularity.
John Tetzel was no doubt the indulgence salesman that Luther went after most vociferously. And Tetzel, who was a scholar in his own right, responded to Luther in print. But when Luther offered a counter-rebuttal to Tetezel he did something unorthodox and indeed, controversial. Rather than writing in Latin, the common language of academic debate, Luther decided to write in German so the common people could take part and share their opinion in the debate. Biographer Pettegrew records: “If this was to be a public scandal, Luther would address the public. But by doing so, taking the debate out of the academic theater and the formal process of the dissertation, he also abandoned the protection of his status as a professor. From this point on Luther would be a marked man.” (kindle location, 1328.)
By God's providence, Tetzel had not much longer to live. And Luther claimed to have written words of encouragement to him on his deathbed; though this cannot be proven. At any rate, the Reformation had begun and Luther was it's primary human agent.
Luther continued to crank out works against Catholicism from his Wittenberg post; though these went largely ignored and unheeded by a Catholic hierarchy who saw Luther as nothing more than a “fly in the ointment.” In reality, Luther was gaining in popularity and would take Germany and even to a wider extent, Europe by storm.
Luther, in his own right, had become a continental celebrity. His unrestrained railings against Catholicism had both chagrined Rome and empowered the commoners. Luther was their champion, even though he eschewed some of the excesses of the populace. When the “Peasants War” broke out in the 1520s; Luther unguarded his restraint and even wrote against the rebellious excesses of the commoners. Though he was beloved for standing up to Rome, he was also a beacon of peace unto those who would use his teaching to spark a governmental rebellion. But Luther wanted no part of this. Initially he desired to reform within the Catholic church. When that became impossible, he sought a peaceful church within what was becoming known as “Lutheranism” or “evangelicalism.”
The plain and simple fact was, at the height of the reformation, Luther was more popular and a “better sale”than his catholic counterparts. Pettegrew records: “In the years between 1521 and 1525, when the pamphlet war was at its height, Luther and his supporters out-published their opponents by a margin of nine to one.” (Brand Luther, by Pettegrew, kindle location 3219) A few months later in the Reformation, Pettegrew records: “Luther’s works outstrip those of any other author by a factor of ten; he out-published the most successful of his Catholic opponents by a factor of thirty. Even this bald statistic understates the dominant role of Wittenberg in the printed works of the Reformation. After Luther, three of the next four most published authors were Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, and Justus Jonas; the only author to break into this Wittenberg cartel was Urbanus Rhegius of Augsburg.”
The demand for Luther was much, much greater than the demand for his Catholic detractors; and this as much as anything else, signaled the direction that the Reformation would take. The “supply and demand” of Luther's popularity coupled with Catholicisms unpopularity made Luther a hero and the Pope a goat. Even when the Catholic church sought to force their publications on others, it backfired on them. The common man simply refused to purchase the Catholic rebuttals of Luther. And, more often than not, the Catholic church was too “high-brow” to answer Luther in the vulgar vernacular of German anyway. They wished to stay academic and dialog in Latin; but Luther took the debate to the people; and in so doing gained a following far beyond anything the staid Catholics were willing to gain.
When it was all “said and done” Luther won the day. Evangelical reforms took hold in Germany and the church educated the children according to gospel standards, at Luther's demand. Catholicism waned in Germany, as well as other parts of Europe. Luther, for all of his faults, had won. Europe, indeed the entire world, would never be the same.
Luther would live out his days trying to give structure to the theological movement he produced. He pressed for better Christian education and he set up a structure for the new “Lutheran” church in Germany. People would no longer seek to buy their way to salvation through the purchase of indulgences. They would be taught to look to and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Apart from him we have nothing. But with him we have everything. This, as much as anything, was the message of Luther. He proclaimed a very “Christ-o-centric” gospel and as such he left the chicanery of indulgence selling behind. He upset the sensibilities of the Catholics of his day. But he rested in the preaching of the true gospel. Luther was far from perfect, but he believed in a sovereign God who saved sinner's in accordance with His perfect will and plan. Through Luther, God restored the gospel. We no longer need be enslaved to worldly salesman who see Godliness as a means of financial gain. To the contrary , we can trust in Christ and Him alone. As Luther taught. We trust in Christ and not man; but we rejoice in the men God has used to preserve his gospel. God used Luther. Let us rejoice.
Pettegrew's book focuses specifically on how the printing industry brought about the Reformation. And in many ways he is right. From the days of Guttenberg's press, until he time of Luther; the publishers made much money by printing indigence certificates for the Catholic church. But Luther's arrival on the scene changed all of that. Now that he was in demand at a ratio of 10 to 1 over his Catholic counterparts, meant that the publishers were eager to print his works; if not for theological reasons, then for economic ones. Luther not only turned the theological world on it's head, but he also turned the printing industry; and by extension the economy itself in upheaval.
As Christians, we merely see this as God's providence in getting the truth of the gospel proclaimed during very theologically dark days. God used Luther in amazing ways. God's truth shined forth in the midst of overwhelming darkness. Any Christian should be exited to read of this universe-altering events.
I recommend all Luther students, and even casual students of Christian history to read this work. It will not only help you understand the 16th century better; but it will help you understand how the economic aspect of "supply and demand" played a role in God using the print industry in the Reformation to elevate Luther and the true gospel over the fairly tales then expressed by Roman Catholicism.
Pettegrew does a good job of placing Luther's wider life within the contest of the Reformation and of the print industry in general. The main focus of Pettegrew's work was how Luther effected the print industry; and in this regard Pettegrew did not disappoint. But throughout the book he gives a good synopsis of Luther's overall life and in so doing he gives good context for what Luther did and why he wrote what he wrote. Pettegrew is to be commended to making this mercurial, historical figure more understandable for 21st century ears.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend the reading of this book. Not only for those who would like to know how the print industry can have a massive effect on the world at large. But also for those who admire Luther for his courage and want to know why they should admire him for things beyond this. He was willing to die for his belief in the true gospel. Oh, that God would give us more like Luther! He was a rare jewel for the church. May God be pleased to give us more with his combination of zeal, knowledge, and courage.