Luther's Lion-Hearted Historians

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Luther expressed his appreciation for history and historians on numerous occasions. History, he believed, provides fodder for both fear and praise since God is sovereign over the course of human events. History records and reminds us how God "upholds, rules, obstructs, prospers, punishes, and honors the world, and especially men, each according to his just desert, evil or good." History serves ethics by providing numerous examples of conduct to be emulated or avoided, and by providing a sense of national identity that is critical to the maintenance of public mores. Historians, therefore, "are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that one can never honor, praise, and thank them enough."

Luther also had thoughts on how history should be done (i.e. historiography). He shared those thoughts in 1538 in the preface to a German translation of Galeatius Capella's history of the reign of the Milanese Duke Francesco II Sforza. Given the attention Luther is receiving this year as an object of historical interest, it's intriguing to note how Luther himself believed historians should proceed with their task. Hearing Luther ruminate on the practice of history gives some insight into how he himself might have wished his own story told.

The historian, Luther opines, must be "a first-rate man who has a lion's heart, unafraid to write the truth." The reformer found few historians living up to this standard. "The greater number write in such a way that they readily pass over or put the best construction on the vices and deficiencies of their own times in the interest of their lords or friends and in turn glorify all too highly some trifling or vain virtue. On the other hand, they embellish or besmirch histories to the advantage of their father land and disadvantage of the foreigners, according to whether they love or hate someone."

Luther, it seems to me, understood well that history is a loaded enterprise because it traffics identities. The historian is never merely retelling things that have happened. Both in the selection of events depicted and in the manner of their depiction, the historian is constructing his subject's identity, and ultimately either vindicating or vilifying his subject. "Love or hate" for one's subject, as Luther puts it, heavily informs the identity ultimately constructed.

Luther's judgment that most historians lack lions' hearts and shy away from the truth may seem more pertinent to his day than ours. Early modern historians were generally more upfront than their present-day counterparts in acknowledging their "love or hate" for their subject(s), and in vindicating or vilifying accordingly. But I'm not personally convinced that all that much has changed between Luther's day and our own. Few historians in our day, it seems to me, really value truth above all else as they engage in the historical task. Few, for that matter, likely believe in "truth" as something distinct from their own or anyone else's interpretation of the facts at all, at least if pressed on the matter. The modern academy apes the Christian virtue of "truth" with its insistence on methodological objectivity, and promises/threatens those who pursue/reject that virtue the heaven/hell of tenure/termination. But the academy's watered down virtues and eschatological promises/threats aren't ultimately capable of producing Luther's longed-for lion-hearted historians. At best it will produce historians who are better at hiding their "love or hate," much as I surpass my own children's skill at masking the inherent self-centeredness that mutually characterizes them and me.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the Gospel holds greater resources than the modern academy for producing truth-tellers (Eph. 4:24-25), and thus Luther's lion-hearted historians. Just as the Gospel frees us to be honest about ourselves before God and others, rejecting efforts to vindicate ourselves, it ultimately frees to be honest about others and eschew efforts to justify or incriminate them -- the fate of our historical subjects, after all, pivots on the presence of God's grace towards them, not on our moral judgments, however subtly communicated, regarding them. Christians of all people should have less invested in their own or anyone else's identity than they do the truth, and more incentive to bear true witness about their neighbor, whether dead or alive, than others might have.

Regardless, two question persist: Would Luther have wished the same moral standards, for which he advocated, of historical writing in general applied to the historians and histories of his own life and doings? And (perhaps more pressing in our own historical moment) who among the historians narrating Luther this year will prove lion-hearted, and who will prove that some agenda -- love, hate, or otherwise -- ranks higher in their priorities than the truth?

Posted November 20, 2017 @ 8:02 AM by Aaron Denlinger
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