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.
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.
The Eucharist is a liturgical meal of bread and wine, which is almost always preceded by a service of reading the Scriptures. Christians attribute the origin of the Eucharist to Jesus Christ himself at the Last Supper on the night before he died. Many Christians regard the Eucharist as a sacrament and as their central ritual, and many celebrate the Eucharist weekly or even more often. This sacred meal has had various names throughout history: the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Offering, the Divine Liturgy, the Mass. The most common name in the early 21st century, however, is Eucharist, which derives from the Greek word Eucharistia, a thanksgiving.
What we know since the 3rd century as the basic form of the Christian Eucharist is most probably the result of a number of trajectories from the first 150 years of Christianity coming together, including: fellowship meals in remembrance of Jesus, celebrations of his passion and resurrection, and the tradition of his significant meals such as the Last Supper and the Supper at Emmaus (Luke 24).
In the late 4th and 5th centuries, many local traditions coalesced to produce (1) a basic common form of Eucharistic liturgy consisting of entrance rite, liturgy of the word, homily, prayers, the sharing of a kiss of peace, presentation of gifts of bread and wine, Eucharistic prayer, Lord’s Prayer, fraction of the bread, distribution of communion, and dismissal; and (2) the various traditional liturgical families tied to major Christian cities: Byzantine (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch), Coptic (Alexandria), East Syrian (Edessa), and Roman.
The church of the first millennium knew a common affirmation of the understanding of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic elements as well as a variety of ways of expressing the notion of Eucharist as sacrifice. The first controversies over how to express Christ’s presence arose in the 9th century, and they rose to a crescendo with Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. The most sophisticated explanation of that presence (transubstantiation) was provided by Thomas Aquinas in the mid-13th century.
The Protestant reformers of the 16th century made various criticisms of traditional Roman Catholic theology and practice. They insisted on using the language of the people, giving communion in both bread and wine, and dismissing the language of Eucharistic sacrifice. The Reformed tradition (John Calvin) and the Lutheran differed considerably, however, on how to affirm Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic celebration, with Luther taking a much more realist position and Calvin a more “spiritual” understanding. The Church of England was reluctant to take sides in this discussion and its own theological position on the Eucharist remains a matter of debate.
The liturgical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, combined with renewed interest in biblical and patristic scholarship, has produced a remarkable convergence among various Christian churches, and it has led to Eucharistic liturgies among Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists that bear a notable similarity to one another.
Luther’s understanding of God saturates his oeuvre, and in turn, this understanding is saturated by his doctrine of the justification of the sinner. God is the sovereign source and origin of all that is, and Luther develops his understanding of God in a manner that tries to safeguard this position in such a way that the personal relationship to God becomes the focus point for all he says. The doctrine of God as creator and as savior is modeled in a parallel way in Luther, as he sees God as the source of everything positively in both contexts. God is the sole giver of the gifts that human life requires. As creator, God is omnipresent, omniscient, and sovereign. Nothing can determine God. God is accordingly also the only instance in reality that has free will. Everything else is dependent on God, God’s foreknowledge, and God’s predestination. It is possible to see Luther’s position as an attempt to offer the human being a reliable and trustworthy notion of God, someone he or she can cling to in times of despair and desolation. The only God who deserves to be God, who is trustworthy with regard to being able to provide a safe and reliable basis for human life, is the God who justifies the sinner because of God’s own righteousness. In contrast, a human who puts her trust in herself and her own works or merits makes herself a god and will not be able to stand justified coram deo in the last judgment.
Luther develops the idea about God’s hiddenness in different ways, most notably in his ideas about the hidden God in De servo arbitrio. But also in his notion of the theology of the Cross in the Heidelberg Disputation, and in other places where he writes about the masks of God, behind which God hides in order to do God’s work, we can see related or similar ideas. Thus, Luther develops an ambiguous element in his understanding of God.
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.
Liturgical theology studies the meaning of Christian worship. Although it is a relatively recent approach, it is solidly anchored in the Christian tradition. Its present shape, fame, and impact would not be what they are and its major representatives would not be able to do what they are doing without the lasting influence of the Liturgical Movement and some inspiring figures that helped shape its theological profile. Their ideas and writings were widely received beyond linguistic and denominational borders and continue to be influential in the early 21st century. More concretely, the key to comprehending what liturgical theologians do lies in their appeal to and usage of the liturgy, broadly understood as the Church’s ritual, prayer, and worship practices. Therefore, liturgical theology is not so much a subdiscipline corresponding with a specific object of research and requiring a set of specialized methods, but rather a way of theologizing pertaining to the entire scope and content of the Christian faith and religion. Liturgical theologians interpret the liturgy as the normative horizon for any theoretical theological reflection and take the liturgy not as the only but definitely as the primary source for theology. This operational principle is reflected in the age-old adage lex orandi, lex credendi, which in its earliest formulation implies that the “law of faith,” or belief content, is determined, or shaped, by the “law of prayer,” or liturgical praxis. Because liturgical theology is still a field in full development, it faces a lot of challenges for the future—both within the Church and in the academy—but at the same time entails a promising ecumenical potential.
A teaching of Martin Luther that has had great historical effect is his teaching on vocation. Protesting the Roman Catholic arrangement in which the clergy had callings of higher religious and moral significance than the laity, Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that all callings are equal in moral and religious seriousness. They only differ in function. This teaching unleashed unprecedented commitment and energy to worldly work in the Western world. Paralleling his teaching on the priesthood of all believers, Luther taught that all Christians are called by God through Christ to be his beloved and forgiven children, and that they need no mediators to receive that graceful call directly. At the same time, however, Christians who receive that grace through Christ become priests to their neighbors, mediating God’s love through them to the neighbor. They do that very concretely in their vocations. Thus, Christians become conduits of God’s love received through Christ and offered to the neighbor in the various places of responsibility they have been given. For Luther, Christians do not need to cast about for places to exercise their obedience; they were given in the orders of creation into which each Christian was inevitably placed—marriage and family life, work, citizenship, and church. Each person—lay and clergy alike—is called to work in the world. In fulfilling their work gladly and conscientiously, they serve their neighbor. Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his faith-active-in-love. Work is no longer simply a job or occupation; it is a calling, a vocation. It is a summons from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit sanctifies the Christian’s life, not in a self-centered quest for perfection, but rather in humble service to the neighbor. While Luther thought there were some occupations that were off-limits to Christians, he accepted most worldly roles as useful to the neighbor. The Christian could be a soldier in a just war and even a hangman in a just cause. One alleged weakness of the classic Lutheran teaching on vocation, however, was that it tended to accept uncritically the roles prescribed by the world. In such teaching, the Christian willingly does what the world prescribes. However, recent Lutheran interpretations of vocation are more dynamic. For example, Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation, argued not only that the orders of creation are dynamic and call for constructive change, but that in Christian vocation the two ways that God reigns in the world intersect. The Christian under the reign of God’s gospel interjects the love liberated by that gospel into one’s worldly occupation, transforming it into a genuine vocation. Love has a transformative effect. It functions critically and constructively. Lutheranism at its best has incorporated more dynamic elements into its great teaching on vocation.