An Interview with Herman Selderhuis

Note: In this interview, Brian G. Najapfour speaks with Herman Selderhuis about his book, Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Crossway, 2017, 347 pp., hardback).

Given the numerous biographies written on Luther, what is the unique contribution of your book to the study of Luther?

Unique is quite a big word, since I did not intend to make a difference or to come up with something new. After having read Luther since I was 14, I just wanted to know who this man was. How did he live with God? What was essential to him? How could he speak such precious words about the Lord and at the same time use language against his opponents and among his friends that I would never allow my children to use? But also I wanted to examine the latter part of his life, since many biographies hardly pay attention to that. Perhaps the unique aspect of my work is that I tried to describe Luther as a fellow believer, as a brother in Christ.

You indicated Luther’s tendency to tell inaccurate information or exaggerate things. For instance, he gave the impression that his early life was marked by extreme poverty when it was not (28). Also, according to him, he and his friend Hans Reinicke went to a school of the “Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life” in Magdeburg (33). But you said such a school never existed in that place. As a man with sensitive conscience, why do you think Luther would give his reader imprecise data?

Well for one thing, we all have memories of our youth that do not always fit reality, so that’s also quite natural for Luther. At the same time, he knew how to use rhetorical skills to convince the people of his message. And in this message he was not always complete in his information, so to say. His family did know times in which income was low, but also times of good wealth. Now, we all know that the majority of people and especially workmen and farmers rather identify with someone who is from their background, so someone also struggling to make a living. That’s why he preferred telling his readers about the times in which there was scarcity in his family. It was not a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either.

In the preface to his Latin writings, Luther mentioned how it was not until 1519 (two years after the posting of the “Ninety-Five Theses”) that he understood the doctrine of justification by faith (84). Was Luther implying then that he was not converted until 1519? Could you please comment more on his conversion experience?

I don’t think it is an issue of conversion as he was Godfearing and a believing Christian from his childhood days. These words refer to the time in which he discovered that the relationship between God and man was fundamentally different than he always thought and was taught. So it is not the conversion from unbeliever to believer, but a conversion to a biblical perspective on God, grace and justification. So not regeneration, but a renewal of theological insight.

On page 137 you wrote, “According to Luther, only three of the seven [sacraments] were found in Scripture: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and penance.” Elsewhere Luther seemed to approve two sacraments only. Could you please explain this seeming contradiction in his belief?

We must understand that Luther did not start with writing something like the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. He was a reformer who had to start rethinking all of theology and all of the articles of faith from the beginning. So at first he was not sure about the sacrament of penance as he did find in Scripture many calls to penance and repentance. Later on he had more clarity and reduced the number of sacraments to two. However, he did maintain the sacrament of penance in such a way that in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper he paid much attention to the life and inner attitude of penance. Being baptized in Christ means awareness of sin and guilt leading to a life in which the confession of one’s sin is permanently present, and the same counts for anyone partaking in the Lord’s Supper. This means that this third sacrament finds its place in the other two.

Some think Luther taught baptismal regeneration. Could you please clarify his view on baptism?

In a way here the same answer can be given. Luther was searching for the right understanding of baptism. He knew that the existing doctrine was wrong, namely, that baptism cleans from original sin and from the guilt one has built up and that after that baptism loses its function and the sacrament of penance is essential for forgiveness. But he did not know what the right view was. He did not want baptism to be a sacrament that works just by being administered, yet he also did not want a sacrament that was a mere symbol, nor a sacrament  in which the effectivity depends on the faith of the believer which means God’s gift in baptism depends on whether we want it or not. In my opinion Luther did not come to a neatly defined doctrine of baptism. Those that came after him like Bullinger and Calvin made use of all Luther had explored and came to a more complete and biblical view. But they would not have found it without Luther.

Do you think it was unwise for Luther to marry Katharina von Bora, an ex-nun whom he did not love? As Luther himself stated shortly before their wedding day, “I do not love my wife, but I do appreciate her” (195). Also, where did such a common belief originate that “the child of an ex-nun and ex-monk would be a monster” (215)?

Oh, but he really did love her but not yet at the moment of marriage. The marriage itself was more out of necessity. Katharina needed a husband to have an orderly income and Luther needed a wife to prove that his protests against compulsory celibacy applied to him also. But once they got married their love for each grew. It is a great joy to read about their love-relationship and I’m convinced that many Christian marriages would go better if there was only part of the love and respect Luther and Katherina had for each other. And as to that monster-belief, I think it is not that difficult to understand its origin. If two people break their eternal vows to God and have intercourse, how else could God punish them than with a monster for it was so wrong what they had done.

In chapter 10 you talk about Luther’s strong anti-Semitism. Why was he hostile to Jewish people?

Hostility against Jews had been common all over Europe and for many centuries, so even if it is hardly allowed to say, most people were used to it and Luther was no exception. This is not an excuse though, as it is a shame for us and our Christian tradition. Yet, in the beginning Luther was quite positive, writing even a tract in which he stressed that Jesus was a Jew. But Luther expected that as a result of his rediscovery of the Gospel, the majority of Jews would also convert to Christ. When this did not happen, he became first disappointed and then very hostile. It is a black page in his biography and in our history, but we need to know about it to humble ourselves, to see that Luther was no hero and to learn from it for today.

In general, what were Luther’s greatest strengths that we should emulate?

What I see as his greatest strength is that he is a theologian in the real sense of the word. Luther speaks about God and he lets God be God. His preaching is not about what Christians experience, not about emotions, not about political and social issues, but it is about the God who justifies and man who needs justification. Our doing of theology and our preaching would become so much richer, so much more biblical if we would seriously take notice of Luther’s theology. Another strength is his fearless standing up for the truth of God’s Word. No pope, no emperor, no tradition scared him off from proclaiming the gospel of grace. And a third strength is his endless service. This man could have become a billionaire, he could have become mighty in politics and even in the church, but he remained keen on serving the Lord and serving the church. That’s how he lived and that’s how he died.

What projects are you currently working on?

For now I have two major projects: as president of the Theological University Apeldoorn (TUA), I try to expand and strengthen the TUA into one of the main centers for Reformed theology in Europe, and as president of Reformation Research Consortium (REFORC) I work on creating a global network for research on Early Modern Christianity. This keeps me quite busy so for the moment I have to postpone working on the books I would like to write.

Herman Selderhuis is President of the Theological University Apeldoorn (Netherlands) and professor of Church History. As ordained minister he preaches every Sunday in various reformed churches. Some of his other functions are: President of Reformation Research Consortium (REFORC), president of the Luther Heritage Foundation, and board member in various European research projects.

Brian Najapfour is currently pursuing a PhD degree at the Theological University of Apeldoorn under Dr. Herman Selderhuis (and Dr. Adriaan Neele). He also serves as Pastor of Congregational Life at Eastmanville United Reformed Church in Michigan. He has authored and coedited numerous books and has contributed several articles to journals, periodicals, and encyclopedia. He is founder and president of Biblical Spirituality Press and cofounder and vice president of God Is Our Help Ministry.

Related Links

"What Luther Says to this Confessional Age" by Carl Trueman

"Luther's Lion-Hearted Historians" by Aaron Denlinger

"Luther, Law and Love" by Nick Batzig

Luther on the Christian Life by Carl Trueman

Between Wittenburg and Geneva by Robert Kolb and Carl Trueman