Martin Brecht's monumental three-volume biography of Martin Luther consists of Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521, Martin Luther 1521-1532: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, and Martin Luther The Preservation of the Church Vol 3 1532-1546, all published in English translation from the German by Fortress Press. To date I have worked through the first two volumes and am now embarking on the third. [see update below]
These three volumes represent an extraordinary achievement. For a full appreciation, however, it is important to understand what exactly Brecht set out to do and what makes this work so valuable. His work is neither a traditional biography of Martin Luther, nor a systematic treatment of Luther's theology. What Brecht gives us here is closer to an exposition or digest of Luther's works (his books, sermons, and correspondence) set within a narrative context.
Luther produced an enormous amount of material during his lifetime, with the standard English translation of Luther's works running to 55 large volumes (Luther's Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann). Brecht seems to have mastered not only this material, but the writings of many of Luther's opponents and contemporaries as well. The great service he has rendered for those of us who are not Luther specialists is that we now can turn to the appropriate section of Brecht's work for summary expositions of any of Luther's works and understand them in their particular historical context. Or perhaps better yet, we can read the biography to get a sense of Luther's activity as a whole, pausing here and there to read for ourselves particular works that strike our interest. For that purpose an excellent, affordable companion to Brecht is the beautifully bound and boxed four volume set edited by Theodore Tappert called Selected Writings of Martin Luther (Fortress Press, 2007).
And what a benefit all this is to students and scholars! Imagine one is researching a particular event (for example, the Diet of Augsburg) or controversy (say, the sacramentarian controversy). Brecht will not only introduce us to those events and the major works related to them, but will bring into the discussion the more obscure sermons and letters of Luther from that period that shed important light of Luther's thinking. Consistent with his emphasis on primary sources is the fact that Brecht almost never mentions contemporary scholars in the body of his text. Endnotes cite the appropriate locations in Luther's Works (both English and German editions) along with any relevant secondary literature (the latter mostly in German).
As I mentioned, this is not a traditional biography. The best biography of Luther in my opinion remains Roland Bainton's, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Hendrickson Classic Biographies). In fact, Brecht seems to assume some knowledge of the key events, personages and locations on the part of his readers. Brecht includes helpful plates and illustrations, but no maps. He is less adept than Bainton and certain other biographers at painting the texture of a scene, or depicting the dramatic ebb and flow of events, or really helping us understand the driving inspiration behind some of the secondary characters. And to be honest, some narrative or descriptive portions can be tedious - for example, the initial chapter on Luther's ancestry and childhood (1:1-21) or the details of the struggle between Luther and the Zwickau city council (2:439-446). These are areas where Brecht seems to be striving for completeness or perhaps attempting to make an original contribution by unraveling the details of a complicated situation.
The weaknesses just listed are things we can live with. Brecht has rendered us a great service with the wisdom, time and talent that he has poured into these volumes. This leads me to a final comment on the quality of the printing. These volumes are printed by Fortress Press (now Augsburg Fortress). I called the publisher in September 2009 and discovered that all three of these volumes are now available ONLY in "Print-On-Demand." The volume I saw printed this way was very difficult to read, but with some effort I was able to track down copies from earlier, regular printings. Let's hope that the publisher will go back to a regular printing. "Print-On-Demand" is not the way such an extraordinary achievement should be treated - by a Lutheran press no less!
UPDATE: I have now completed the third volume and, as I expected, there are no changes necessary to my review above. Note that each volume has its own index, while volume three contains a additional, more comprehensive subject index covering the entire set. Finally, I assume that the "Print-On-Demand" problem noted above can be avoided entirely now with the appearance of the Kindle Edition.