Writing Lessons from Martin Luther
Among the various subjects about which I enjoy reading is the lives of famous writers. Every such biography I read always gives me some quality or characteristic for imitation and improvement to make my own writing better. I recently learned some important lessons about writing from perhaps the most famous writer of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther.
During a college Reformation class I took, which predictably included a prominent focus on Martin Luther, my favorite history professor had set me on a quest to learn all I could about the era from a voluminous work by Philip Schaff, the famous nineteenth-century theologian and church historian.
After one of his presentations, Dr. Edward Panosian engaged the audience in a Q&A session during which several students asked him which historians he considered and recommended as the best writers about various periods of history. Repeatedly, he answered, "Schaff. Philip Schaff."
Recently, I resumed my intermittent reading of Philip Schaff's eight-volume History of the Christian Church that I had begun several years after that presentation. Having already finished the first of Schaff's eight volumes a couple of years ago, I began his seventh volume, the one covering the German Reformation. The key focus of that era, of course, is the life and work of Martin Luther.
Although by the Diet of Worms, Luther had already established himself as an effective writer, it was after that event that his authorial star became transcendent. Schaff's description of Luther's qualities and characteristics as a writer are as instructive for writers today as they were for his various supporting authors and imitators in the sixteenth century.
Martin Luther was a prolific writer. Although he is most famous for the writing and posting of his "Ninety-Five Theses" on the door of the church in Wittenberg, he wrote much, much more. For example, his early exposition on the Penitential Psalms is outstanding, as is his commentary on the whole book of Psalms. His "Address to the German Nobility," "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," and "The Freedom of a Christian Man," all written after the Diet of Worms, were especially instructive and action inducing. Moreover, his various commentaries on Paul's epistles, especially the one on Galatians, are instructive and exemplary. He also wrote hymns, perhaps the most famous being "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." And he wrote reams of letters, pamphlets, and other books.
But Schaff also reveals a lot of the personal characteristics that made Luther's productivity and effectiveness as a writer possible. Those included his originality, genius, knowledge, courage, eloquence, wit, humor, and use of "juicy and forcible epithets." He had a zeal and passion for his subject matter that was born of his deep convictions and a temper that he used to great effect.
Moreover, Luther "combined the official language of the government with that of the common people. Schaff wrote that Luther listened to "the speech of the mother at home, the children in the street, the men and women in the market, the butcher and various tradesmen in their shops, and 'looked them on the mouth,' in pursuit of the most intelligible terms. His genius for poetry and music enabled him to reproduce the rhythm and melody, the parallelism and symmetry, of Hebrew poetry and prose." He "understood the wants and tastes" of the people who made up his intended audience because he listened closely to them, and then he wrote that way. Whereas other writers were more academic, Luther was "putting the cookies on the bottom shelf" so that everyone could understand the important messages in his writings.
Luther was prolific in his written production because he had a powerful capacity for work. His zeal for his subject and his desire to get that message out prompted him to work hard and to do it heartily. Unlike many writers who want to be known as such rather than actually to do it, Luther wanted to write. And he wrote quickly. For example, he completed his translation of the New Testament into German in only three months.
For all of these good qualities, however, Luther admitted that he struggled with discouragement and self-doubt. He suffered various physical problems, including dyspepsia and insomnia, which hampered his writing routine. He also suffered what many people today call "writer's block." He once wrote to his younger friend and colleague, "a week has passed away since I put pen to paper. . . ." Nevertheless, he persevered and produced tremendous amounts of text by forcing himself to sit down and put pen to paper and finish the job he was compelled by his zeal to do.
Those qualities combined to make him a powerful, effective, and productive writer.
We can all learn something from this great writer and apply the lessons to our own writing.
How about you? Which of Luther's qualities do you need to cultivate? How will you do so? Do you have a plan for improving in those areas?