John D. Barbour
Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.
Baptism opens a window to the heart of Martin Luther’s 16th-century theology. It offers a perspective for how Luther understands the impact of grace and its channels, as well as the nature of justification in an individual’s life. In his teaching about baptism, Luther demonstrates the vital working of the Word and lays a foundation for a Word-centered and faith-oriented spirituality. With baptism, Luther articulates his vision for the purpose of the Church and the rationale for sacraments. Baptism reveals different sides of the theologian: one who argues with a zeal on the “necessity” of baptism and its meaningful God-mandated practice in Christian communities and another who imagines God’s saving grace too expansive to be limited to any ritual. The apparent tensions in Luther’s articulation can be understood from his overlapping agendas and different audiences: in his baptismal talk, Luther is both processing his own Angst about salvation and negotiating his developing position in relation to the medieval sacramental theology and other emerging reform solutions. While feistily refuting his opponents, he is also speaking from his personal religious experience of being as if reborn with the encounter of the Word of grace and passionately extrapolating his most foundational conviction: God’s unconditional promise of grace as the ground of being for human life, given to humanity in the Word. The matter of baptism leads to the roots of different Christian “confessional” traditions. The format of the ritual has generated less anxiety than differing theological opinions on (1) the role of faith in the validity of baptism, and (2) the effects of baptism in one’s life. Whether infant or adult baptism is favored depends on whether baptism is primarily understood as a sign of faith, a cause of forgiveness and transformation, or an initiation into the Christian community—or all of the above. Baptism is at the center of Luther’s theological nervous system; it connects with every other vital thread in the theological map. Baptism is a mystery and a matter of faith; it calls for a philosophical imagination and mystical willingness to grasp the questions of reality beyond what meets the eye. “I study it daily,” Luther admits in his “Large Catechism.” “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life. Christians always have enough to do to believe firmly what baptism promises and brings.”
Susan E. Schreiner
Crucial for Luther’s theology and his own experience was the question of whether one’s salvation was certain. And the security of the truth which underlay doctrine was complexly related to that question. Luther thus received and developed notions of certitude and security. The concepts as Luther inherited them have a long and somewhat complicated history that can be traced back to ancient Greece. These terms were often distinct throughout antiquity and up to contemporary times. The term “security” has referred to the realm of the political; namely, the security or tranquility of the city state or “nation” both in terms of physical security in times of conflict and also in the history of law. Certitude has a more complex history. For example, Aristotle often understood certainty or akribeia to mean precision, especially in mathematical terms. Those sciences that had the most properties removed (aphaeresis) were the most precise and consequently the most certain. Most prominent in the history of certitudo was the issue of epistemic certainty. Thus we find in Augustine’s doctrine of illumination that uncreated, immutable exemplars were the guarantors of certainty. It was in the later Middle Ages that the issue of epistemic certainty, in the form of mental representation, became a controversial topic. Scotus criticized Henry of Ghent’s views of human cognition and contended that certainty could be had only of self-evident propositions, knowledge of contingent acts, repeated occurrences ordained by God, and sense knowledge of the external world. Ockham argued for epistemic certainty on the basis of self-evident propositions and, most importantly, the reliability of intuitive cognition of individual external objects.
Certainty also had a long history in Christian theology and most often referred to the certainty of faith. Certitude was the conviction of the truth regarding the contents of the faith. Frequently the issue referred to the relationship between faith and reason. Certainty referred primarily to definition of the Christian faith. Not surprisingly, throughout the Christian tradition, certainty was related to the problem of heresy. The early church Fathers tried to establish orthodox doctrine over and against various heretical groups. Everyone agreed that the foundation for Christian truth was Scripture. However, different people interpreted the Bible in ways that were judged to be contrary to Christian faith. Around the year 434, Vincent of Lérins provided a rule that distinguished Catholic truth from heresy. This “Vincentian Canon” required that Christian truth be that which was believed everywhere, always, and by all (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus). These criteria guaranteed the certainty and stability of doctrine. One target of Vincent’s was probably Augustine, because he could be quoted against himself. Due to the many conversions in his life, Augustine made many pronouncements he later retracted, and such retractions were not meant to contribute to uncertainty about the faith. Medieval Scholastic inheritors of Augustine continued to define faith as a cognitive certitude. Their training in dialectic was crucial because it provided the certainty of doctrine against heretics. Luther was trained in dialectic, but in his Disputation against Scholastic Philosophy he opposed the use of Aristotle and logic in theology. Nonetheless, dialectic remained a subject in the university at Wittenberg.
Dialectic could not answer the questions of certainty for which Luther sought answers. His questions were about the certainty of salvation and, for Luther, this certainty could only be found in Scripture and the experience of the Holy Spirit. Such certainty also required a redefinition of faith. As the various reformations continued to divide Western Christendom, controversies about the exegesis of Scripture multiplied both among various reformers and between reformers and Catholics. Throughout the course of the turbulent 16th century, the real source of certainty for all parties became the Holy Spirit.
Throughout the late Middle Ages, certainty and security referred to the relationship between the individual and God. For Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers, these terms took on a meaning beyond the faithful knowledge of the contents of the faith. Any examination of Luther’s writings show that he used “security” and “certainty” synonymously to refer to the certitude of salvation whereby one experienced the security, assurance, and certitude of God’s benevolent will. Moreover, despite his lack of a firm terminology, Luther meant the same thing by “the certainty of forgiveness,” “the certainty of justification,” and “the certainty of God’s good will,” as well as the phrase, “the certainty of being in a state of grace.” All of these phrases referred to the certainty of salvation or the security of knowing that God’s benevolence was directed to one’s own individual salvation.
Ralph W. Hood Jr.
The common core thesis contends that mystical experience is an ultimate non-sensuous experience of unity of all things. It can be identified within major faith traditions, whether explicitly religious or not. Its roots are in the work of William James who explored mystical experience outside the limits imposed by what he perceived as only a provisional natural science assumption of the newly emerging discipline of empirical psychology. Following the explicit phenomenological work of Walter Stace, the phenomenology of a universal core to mystical experience has been operationalized and an explicit psychometric measure developed to allow empirical assessment of the claim to a common core to mysticism. It is the linkage of psychometric approaches to the work of James and Stace that is now known explicitly as the common core thesis. The common core thesis needs to be delineated from the perennialist thesis popularized by Aldous Huxley in which there is postulated not only a common core experience, but also values and practices claimed to be associated with this experience if not directly derived from it. Psychometric and empirical evidence for the common core thesis is substantial and continues to accumulate. The common core thesis is restricted to mystical experience and assumes that this experience seeks to express itself in various faith traditions, whether religious or not, but is not restricted to or defined adequately by the culture or language with which this experience is interpreted. Unlike the perennialist thesis, the common core thesis does not assume that any common theology, philosophy, or practice necessarily follows from mystical experience.
Contingency is a term that occurs in philosophical discourse as well as in theology in a number of contexts and with a number of meanings. In its modern sense the English term contingency refers to events, processes, or properties that may occur, but are not certain to occur; or that have, but might not have, occurred, because they depend on factors beyond our knowledge or which themselves are contingent. Generally speaking, it refers to events, objects, and properties that could be otherwise, that do not have to be as they are, and that do not have to be at all, and for whose existence we cannot give a sufficient cause. Thus contingency covers a whole range of meanings, including “not necessary,” “by chance,” “random,” and “unpredictable.”
In the discourse on science, the debate pivots on questions of determinism vs. indeterminism in physics (especially in quantum physics and in systems theory), on the contingent character of the cosmos and its fundamental physical laws, and on the question of whether the development of evolution and the actual forms of life that result from it are merely coincidental in biology. Some have referred to the first form of contingency as nomological and to the second as local contingency (Robert J. Russell, “Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Zygon 23.1 ). The alternative is between physical determinism (all events necessarily follow from prior initial conditions, so that contingency only refers to a lack of knowledge) and indeterminism (some events are not determined by prior conditions, hence contingency is an ontological fact). In religion and theology, contingency often marks the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. It is used in ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God in the sense that all created beings cannot account for their own existence, but—in their contingency—point to a Creator, who is not contingent, but the necessary ground of his or her own being. However, it is disputed whether such a conclusion is valid or itself contingent. Another divide is between those who argue for total divine predestination (God determines everything that happens; again contingency is only a human category regarding insufficient knowledge and insight) and those who argue that God leaves some things to chance or to being determined autonomously by created entities. A consequence of the latter view seems to be that God cannot have sufficient fore-knowledge with regard to the process of creation so that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seem in danger. On the other hand, the option of total predestination faces the problem that in its view the Creator seems to be responsible for everything, including all evil.
Robert C. Saler
While the term theologia crucis itself is most prominent in Luther’s early works, the later texts bear up the scholarly contention that the fundamental contrast between “cross” and “glory,” with its various methodological and theological implications, remains and is in fact amplified throughout Luther’s later writings. Indeed, considered topically, Luther’s treatment of virtually every significant theological locus throughout his canon—e.g., revelation, ecclesiology, and ethics is impacted by his understanding of the cross.
“Theology of the cross” in Luther does not refer to a bound set of theological statements but rather a methodological stance in which epistemological fidelity to the modes in which God chooses to reveal himself—in suffering, death, and contradiction to expectation—marks the whole of the theologian’s orientation to knowledge of God and the world. While the theology of the cross in Luther’s deployment certainly touches on sociopolitical and ecclesial realities within his time, it is crucial for readers of Luther to understand that for him the motif was bound up within the total “thickness” of Christian life—the sacraments, prayer, discipleship, etc. In contrast to the temptation to treat the notion as a critical principle that can be detached from this total picture of Christian existence, scholarly attention to Luther must take seriously the ecclesiastically embedded character of theologia crucis—with all of the interweaving strands of inquiry that such embeddedness necessitates—in order to get the full picture of how Luther understood the cross’s impact on theology and the Christian life.
The cross is also crucial theologically for Luther because it gets at the core of what he sees the theological project being able to do—deal with God in God’s self-revelation, under the confusing and sometimes seemingly paradoxical terms by which God chooses to engage humanity. Theologia crucis thus stands as the theological putting to death of the Old Adam—who is aligned, for Luther, with theologies of glory—so as to allow the theologian to hear and proclaim the gospel apart from pretension or undue speculation.
Charles P. Arand
Martin Luther’s insistence on the proper distinction between law and gospel in theology marks one of his most important contributions to the Reformation movement and subsequent Protestant theology. In particular, it played the critical role in Luther’s “breakthrough” by which he came to his understanding of God’s righteousness and his justification of the sinner. The distinction between law and gospel served at least two key functions in his thought. First, it kept the story of Christ focused on the benefits to people achieved by his death and resurrection. In this way, it magnified Christ’s work in accomplishing a person’s justification. As a corollary, it provided consolation to Christians struggling with the burden of their sins. Second, the distinction of law and gospel served as a hermeneutical tool for pastors not only to interpret the scriptures in line with their purpose, but also to apply the scriptures in a pastoral way to the lives of their people in order to comfort them and to strengthen their faith. Luther’s distinction of law and gospel raised questions for his followers regarding the law and whether or not it had any positive role to play within the Christian life.
Luther’s distinction between law and gospel is closely related to several other distinctions in his theology. First, it bears a number of similarities with Luther’s distinction of the two kinds of righteousness. But whereas the latter focuses on a description of anthropology, law and gospel focuses on the works of God by which he brings about two kinds of righteousness in the life of a person. Second, law and gospel is also related to Luther’s distinction of the two realms. But whereas the latter focuses on how God rules with his left hand for the well-being of creation and with his right hand for the well-being of the church, law and gospel deal with the two works of God by which he brings about his goals for creation and the church. In the centuries since, scholars have debated aspects of Luther’s distinction, particularly as it impinged on the understanding of the third use of the law.
Luther’s understanding of the Incarnation concerns various subject areas in his theology, among them his understanding of scripture, his teaching on the sacraments in particular, as well as his description of a human being’s life of faith. All these subject areas are based on Luther’s Christology, which is essentially determined by his insights into the Incarnation and the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.
Luther’s description of the Incarnation and the humanity of God is particularly oriented towards the creed of Chalcedon. The insight that Christ is at the same time true human and true god is something Luther holds as relevant to salvation. For this reason, it is important for him on the one hand to think about the Incarnation of God in a Trinitarian context and thereby to highlight Christ’s divine existence. On the other hand, he refers to the concept of the Virgin Birth in order to show that God was born a real human being. Luther describes the union of God and man in Christ principally as a reciprocal exchange of the respective divine and human characteristics. He uses the figure of the communication of properties (communicatio idiomatum) to highlight the Incarnation’s fundamental significance for salvation, which becomes manifest in the course of Christ’s life.
Luther’s conception of the fact and manner in which human and divine natures are united with each other in Christ is of soteriological relevance. With the incarnate God, the sin that Christ has taken upon himself for the salvation of humankind is defeated on the Cross, since by virtue of his human nature the characteristics of being able to suffer and to die were proper to the incarnate Son of God. Accordingly, God himself suffers and dies on the Cross in Christ for his own creatures under the burden of their sins. On the Cross, the God who died in Christ and with his resurrection has overcome the death of sin meets his creatures so that they attain faith and ultimately eternal life in community with God. This saving event is, according to Luther, founded in God’s immeasurable love.
The saving effectiveness of Incarnation, Cross, and resurrection presupposes Christian proclamation, according to Luther. The preaching of the incarnate God is needed, so that through the operation of the Holy Spirit the truth of the proclaimed event can be recognized and faith can thereby arise. In faith in the Son of God who has become man, the believer himself experiences a most intimate connection with Christ. According to Luther, this community of faith determines the consummation of the life of the believer, who therefore lives in love for God and for neighbor because the love of God has been revealed to him/her in Christ.
The community of Christ’s faithful with one another is, according to Luther, above all formed through the celebration of the sacraments. In celebrating them, the believers experience the real presence of the incarnate God in Christ, through whom they are bound in faith based on the communication of properties between the human and divine natures.
William J. Wright
When Martin Luther began his academic studies at Erfurt, Renaissance humanism and skepticism had become well entrenched in the German academic world. He also found them at Wittenberg. Starting with Petrarch, humanists appeared in Italy who acquired the skills necessary to find solutions to their needs in the content of ancient pagan classics and Christian writings. Two major groups of humanists existed after the mid-15th century with distinct solutions for the needs they felt: rhetorical humanists epitomized by Valla and Neoplatonic humanists led by Ficino and Pico. Rhetorical humanism appealed to the heart and exempted the truth of Christian teachings from skepticism. Neoplatonic humanism sought to establish absolute truth by synthesizing the wisdom of all religions and philosophies.
It is well-known today that ultramontane Renaissance humanism was imported from Italy by large numbers of students from the north who studied there. German and other northern humanists mostly followed either in the path laid by Valla or that of Ficino and Pico. Luther was a beneficiary of the Christian humanism and biblicism of the rhetorical path, which also led to the development of the loci method of learning and the educational work of Melanchthon. The Neoplatonic path led to further development of logical solutions based on both Plato and Aristotle. This path developed remarkable syntheses of Christianity with ancient and medieval philosophies and religions, mostly meant to improve Christian life. Though familiar with the Neoplatonic path, Luther did not accept its basic views.
Luther’s theology is strongly Christocentric, but Christology is rarely the central focus of his writings. In some of his most considered summaries of his own faith, he presents Chalcedonian Christology alongside the church’s teaching on the Trinity as the uncontroversial foundation of the Catholic faith, which he shared with his opponents. At the same time, it is evident that Luther’s most celebrated theological innovations, including his teaching on justification by faith, his theology of the cross, his soteriology, and in particular his doctrine of the Eucharist, had considerable Christological implications that sometimes seem at variance with received orthodoxy.
Luther’s Christology must therefore be largely reconstructed from these various strands in his thought. The result is a distinctive albeit not systematic Christology that is focused on the paradoxical unity of divine and human in Christ. In this, Luther often appears close to the teaching of the Alexandrian fathers, but with a much fuller emphasis on the concrete humanity of the savior. His historical debt to late scholasticism is most evident in his few, albeit consequential, attempts to enter into the field of technical Christological doctrine, especially his affirmation in his controversy with Zwingli of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature after the ascension.