Although many have interpreted Luther as “anti-metaphysical” and therefore unconcerned with the question of being, careful scrutiny of his texts shows otherwise. Trained at Erfurt to read Aristotle in the via moderna tradition, Luther did have ontological and semantic convictions that are displayed throughout his work, but especially in his disputations dealing with Trinitarian, Christological and soteriological issues. While rejecting as idolatrous the human attempt to grasp the summum bonum through natural reason, Luther nonetheless assumed that God’s revelation in Christ has ontological implications.
The Finnish School of Luther interpretation, founded by Tuomo Mannermaa, has done a great service for Luther research by highlighting the motifs in Luther of Christ’s real presence in the justified believer and the presence of God’s love in faith. Although the Aristotelian categories available to Luther were inadequate for conceiving the paradoxical presence of the infinite in the finite, Luther did not thereby adopt a relational ontology more characteristic of the late 19th century than of his own time. Instead, he simply regarded as true what his philosophical categories could not fully conceive: just as God became a human being while remaining God, so too do humans become God while remaining human. While the Finnish scholarship highlights Luther’s use of participatio in speaking of the presence of the divine in the justified believer, Luther did not mean thereby that human beings are essentially transformed into God, but rather that they are, in faith, profoundly interpenetrated by the divine.
Luther’s discussion of the nova lingua of theology connects to the “real-ontic” presence of Christ in the believer. As a good nominalist, Luther understood that sentential truth presupposes ontology. While everyday language, the language of philosophy generally, has truth conditions that can be articulated in terms of the existence of particular substances and their particular qualities, things are not so clear for the language of theology that speaks of the Trinity, incarnation, and the presence of God in the world and particularly in the life of the believer. How is this language constituted so that the real presence of the divine can be spoken with meaning and truth? While Luther assumes the extensionalism of nominalism when speaking philosophically, it is not clear that this is the case when he speaks theologically. Luther understands that language itself must be profoundly changed in order to grasp and state the reality of the infinite in the finite. Whether this change can be understood on the horizon of an extensionalist semantics is an open question.
Scholars use the concept of World Christianity both to account for the growth of Christianity beyond Western Christendom and to recognize the changing map of vitality and leadership within Christian churches beyond the European and North American context. Scholars who use this concept have also committed to documenting the history of all of the churches around the world, making special efforts thereby not only to note the contributions of founders and missionary agencies, but also to investigate the important input of local teachers, evangelists, and pastors, so that a more inclusive history may be made available to these faith communities for their own self-understanding and direction. The spread of Christianity beyond the borders of Europe, a subject once envisioned by Kenneth Latourette as the result of the great century of missionary advance, cannot be understood solely as the accomplishment of the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries sent from western Europe and North America. Through all the centuries of Christian expansion and migration, scholars need to document and explain not only the theological foundations of various faith traditions, but also how multiple Christianities have adapted and thrived and become rooted in multiple cultural contexts, and exhibit a special vibrancy today in the postcolonial, post-missionary churches in Africa and Asia. Luther’s influence on the rise of World Christianities is an important element in the vitality of contemporary churches in Africa and Asia, but his theological contribution to Christianity beyond the West awaits a fuller articulation and application to the questions and concerns of these emerging centers of Christianity.
Martin Luther is intimately interwoven with the history of New Testament scholarship. Histories of modern biblical interpretation often begin their treatment with Luther and other Reformation currents, suggesting a direct genealogical relationship between the Reformer and modern criticism. Indeed, Luther’s frank criticism of the theological utility of certain books in the New Testament—James, Hebrews, Revelation—were to prove a warrant for the later development of historical critical approaches to Scripture that would also entail judgements about the authenticity of biblical texts. Later scholars increasingly came to use historical, philological criteria rather than material, theological criteria to reach these judgements, but they relied on the possibility Luther established of criticizing sacred scripture while remaining within the institutional church, even if certain tensions with ecclesiastical authorities were inevitable.
In the 20th century, the decisive influence of Luther can be found on a series of influential New Testament scholars and their interpretative efforts. To consider only an exemplary few—Rudolf Bultmann, Gerhard Ebeling, Ernst Käsemann, and Martin Hengel—one can begin to grasp the enormity of the Reformer’s imprint on modern New Testament scholarship, due in part to the outsize influence of the German Lutheran theological academy on the development of the discipline.
In recent decades, Luther has been invoked above all in the lively debates surrounding the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” and the question of whether Luther fundamentally misconstrued the Pauline message by unconsciously conforming it to his own experience of and reaction against late medieval Catholicism. While Luther has often been asked to shoulder the blame for a host of exegetical problems in this regard, more sophisticated recent approaches have allowed him to be an interpreter in his own right, with justified contemporary concerns that motivate his actualizing exegesis of Paul.
In the end, with the turn toward reception history and the reinvigorated retrieval of the theological tradition in contemporary biblical scholarship, more of Luther within New Testament study is likely to be seen in the years ahead.
Derek R. Nelson
So much is known about Martin Luther, and the stakes of telling his story have been perceived to be so high, that an astonishing variety of presentations of his life have been offered. Some of his earliest opponents sought to discredit and vilify Luther by highlighting and in some cases fabricating shameful details about his life. His collaborators and sympathizers came to his defense. With similar one-sidedness, they inaugurated a long tradition of Luther hagiography. The man who did much to diminish the role that devotion to the saints played in the piety of Christianity came to function much like a Protestant saint. Miracles, such as his portrait not burning up in house fires, even came to be attributed to him.
As the process of confessionalization took place, subsequent generations told the Luther story as one of divine intervention in history. The monastic theologian became an evangelical prophet as well as a “national” hero. For Roman Catholics, Luther became the quintessential heresiarch, because the spate of divisions emerging from medieval Christendom were thought to be attributed to him, and thus any attempt to characterize and caricature him could be justified by appealing to the urgency to refute him. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biographies of Luther display evidence of the growing sensitivity to objective historical scrutiny but maintained their confessional biases. Protestants in their 20th-century portrayals tend to exemplify the dominant philosophical and methodological interests of biographers: existentialists see an existentialist Luther, psychoanalysts see a manic-depressive Luther, and so on.
Portrayals of Luther come in other media, as well. Stage adaptations and numerous films show a tormented, angst-ridden soul who faces his pain with sometimes heroic resolve. And Luther becomes a wax nose, easily bent for organizers’ agendas, when he is depicted and contextualized in various anniversaries of his life, death, and Reformation.
Luther had a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards what was still the new technology of the printing press. He could both praise it as God’s highest act of grace for the proclamation of God’s Word, and condemn it for its unprecedented ability to mangle the same beyond recognition. That ambivalence seems to be reflected in the judgment of modern scholarship. Some have characterized the Reformation as a paradigmatic event in the history of mass communications (a Medien- or Kommunikationsereignis), while others have poured scorn on any reductionist attempt to attribute a complex movement to a technological advance and to posit in effect a doctrine of “Justification by Print Alone.”
The evidence in favor of some sort of correlation between the use of printing and the success of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland is certainly formidable. Thousands of German Reformation pamphlets (Flugschriften) survive to this day in research libraries and other collections (with Luther’s own works predominant among them), suggesting that the Holy Roman Empire was once awash with millions of affordable little tracts in the vernacular. Contemporary opponents of the Reformation lamented the potency of cheap print for propaganda and even for agitation among “the people,” and did their best either to beat the evangelical writers through legislation or else to join them by launching their own literary campaigns. But, ubiquitous as the Reformation Flugschrift was for a comparatively short time, the long-term impact of printing on Luther’s Reformation was even more impressive, above all in the production and dissemination of Bibles and partial Bibles that used Luther’s German translation. The message of the Lutheran Reformation, with its emphasis on the proclamation of God’s Word to all, seemed to coincide perfectly with the emergence of a new medium that could, for the first time, transmit that Word to all.
Against this correlation must be set the very low literacy rate in the Holy Roman Empire in the early 16th century, which on some estimates ranged between only 5 and 10 percent. of the entire population. Even taking into account the fact that historical literacy rates are notoriously difficult to estimate, the impact of printing on the majority must have been negligible. This fact has led historians to develop more nuanced ways of understanding the early-modern communication process than simply imagining a reader sitting in front of a text. One is to recognize the “hybridity” of many publications—a pamphlet might contain labeled illustrations, or be capable of being read out aloud as a sermon, or of being sung. Luther himself published many successful hybrid works of this kind. Another is the notion of the “two-stage communication process,” by which propagandists or advertisers direct their message principally to influential, literate, opinion-formers who cascade the new ideas down. Clearly much work remains to be done in understanding how Luther’s propaganda and public opinion interacted. The fact that our present generations are living through a series of equally transformative and disruptive communications revolutions will no doubt inspire new questions as well as new insights.