Martin Luther’s spiritual and theological development was deeply rooted in mystical traditions. During his early years as an Augustinian friar, he experienced mystical visions following the paths of Dionysian mysticism, while a few years later he was inspired by Ps-Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John Tauler. His early theology of penitence, as expressed in the Ninety-five Theses, derived from these sources, as did his description of justification in the image of bride and bridegroom in his tract On the Liberty of a Christian. Even more so, central elements in his theology were shaped by mystical influences, including his distinction between Law and Gospel, the doctrine of justification, and the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Thus, Luther’s theology should be seen as a reception and development deriving from the mystical discourse of the later Middle Ages.
For Luther, the understanding of the world is determined by his theology of creation, according to which the world is created as an expression of the creative love of the eternal God. Natural theology, then, is the ability to interpret all created phenomena as gifts of the Creator, and natural law is the ability to align one’s life with this principle of lovingly serving everything created.
However, in a sinful world afflictions and anxiety makes it impossible to maintain an attitude of unconditional trust toward God based on natural reason. In spite of the possibility of reaching a fairly correct understanding of God as the giver of gifts, one will therefore never learn through natural reason alone to trust God as one’s savior.
The re-creation of a trusting attitude toward God is only possible through God’s presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The creative power of the gospel message thus entails the rediscovery of the significance of the natural knowledge of God and morality. A full appreciation of the natural is therefore dependent on having one’s trust in God re-established by an action of unconditional divine love. From within this perspective, natural law retains its traditional and positive significance.
In this way, Luther integrates aspects of late medieval theology without being fully aligned with any of its prevailing schools of thought. Like the nominalists, he understands God as activity, not as substance, but not in the sense that God can be seen as arbitrary. For Luther, the trustworthiness of God’s promises is what anchors Christian theology. Luther’s understanding of the hidden God is therefore quite different from the nominalist idea of God’s absolute power.
For Luther, theology’s dialogue with philosophy is important. He maintains, however, that rationality that is not explicitly grounded in a theology of creation will never develop an adequate worldview. Following his emphasis on the theology of creation, in his evaluation of the natural Luther was always looking for thought structures that would let the discontinuity of grace be fully appreciated.
Luther’s adoption of the theology of the via moderna (also called the Nominalists) varied during the late medieval period. This school of thought had developed during the 15th century mainly as a method for interpreting Aristotle and relied on certain 14th-century authorities, such as William of Ockham, John Buridan, Gregory of Rimini, and Peter of Ailly among others. Luther studied philosophy according to the via moderna in Erfurt, where his teachers Jodocus Trutfetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen represented a position that tolerated the Thomist and Scotist views. The school also featured a specific kind of theology based on its interpretation of Aristotle. Among the most influential theologians in the German via moderna was Gabriel Biel in Tübingen, whose theology was crucial for Luther’s understanding of the school’s positions. Besides Ockham, whom Biel mentioned as his main authority in his Sentences commentary, Biel adopted the positions of several other authors, even outside the common authorities of the via moderna. Other influential theologians and philosophers affiliated with the via moderna were John Mair in Paris and John Eck in Ingolstadt. Later both became adversaries of Luther and the Lutherans, as did Luther’s former teacher Usingen. The University of Wittenberg did not support the via moderna at all. Thomist and Scotist forms of the via antiqua were predominant among its academics, including the later Reformer Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt. During his early years as a student in Erfurt, Luther remained largely among the camp of the via moderna. Soon after moving to Wittenberg, Luther developed his criticism of Aristotle and late medieval theology, where his main target was Biel’s theology, especially his doctrine of grace. However, during those years Luther retained much of his early education, including an interpretation of Aristotle in which he adopted several of Ockham’s ideas. During his later years, Luther made use of terminological tools of the via moderna, even when opposing some of its theological positions.
Despite positive remarks that Martin Luther made about the “Greeks,” neither he nor Philip Melanchthon possessed personal knowledge of, nor extensive contact with, the Orthodox Church of the 16th century. Second-generation Lutheran exchanges with Constantinople revealed the theological differences between the Orthodox and the churches of the Augsburg Confession. Despite sporadic 17th- and 18th-century encounters with the Orthodox that initially suggested common theological ground upon which to criticize Roman Catholic error, Lutherans came to view the Orthodox (whether Chalcedonian or Oriental) as suffering from corruptions nearly as alarming as those tolerated in Rome. Nineteenth- and 20th-century exchanges broadened to include the Orthodox in Russia, where a limited impact of Lutheran Pietism briefly influenced educational reforms. Imperial Germany’s alliance with the Ottomans prior and subsequent to World War I and the Armenian genocide further alienated the Orthodox from Lutherans and Protestants in general. Only in the late 1960s did serious theological dialogue begin, resulting in both national and international meetings. The rise of the Finnish school of Lutheran theology, with its interest in exploring the possible similarities between the Orthodox understanding of theosis and a transformative understanding of Lutheran justification, gave renewed impetus to dialogues into the early 21st century. Orthodox responses to Lutheran theology five hundred years after the Reformation now focus on questions of pneumatology, ecclesiology, and debates centered around questions of theological anthropology, with specific concerns about gender and sexuality.
Ronald K. Rittgers
Martin Luther vigorously opposed the traditional sacrament of penance and the theology upon which it was based, arguing that they had no scriptural warrant and that they promoted a troubled conscience, works righteousness, and clerical tyranny. As Luther developed his evangelical soteriology, he dismantled the entire late medieval penitential system, seeking to provide for himself and others what he believed this system lacked: an enduring sense of forgiveness of sin. Luther believed that justification by faith offered this certainty of absolution. Still, despite Luther’s opposition to the sacrament of penance, he was a strong supporter of a reformed version of private confession, arguing that it allowed the consoling promises of the Word to be applied directly to the troubled conscience. Owing to Luther’s support for the practice, Lutherans soon developed an evangelical version of private confession that appeared in the vast majority of Lutheran church ordinances as a mandatory rite. However, there was disagreement among Lutherans as to the theological justification for this new rite, with some arguing that it was a sacrament, while others, including Luther, maintained that it was not. This disagreement contributed to an important debate about private confession in the 1530s, the so-called Nürnberg Absolution Controversy, in which Andreas Osiander sought to make a compelling case for the sacramental status of private confession. Luther was directly involved in this debate, and while he shared Osiander’s enthusiasm for private confession, he disagreed with Osiander’s theology of the power of keys. Luther’s view won out, but Osiander raised important questions about the theological justification for Lutheran private confession as a mandatory rite.
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.
Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.
What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).
Throughout his academic life, Martin Luther was in constant discussion with philosophy. He was prepared for this with a substantial study of philosophy at the University of Erfurt, finishing with a master of arts degree. In many parts of Luther’s work, there are explicit discussions of philosophy, in the interpretation of biblical texts and in the definition of theological concepts. Quite early in his theological career, Luther became aware of the problematic dominance of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy in the formation and definition of theological concepts. He was always attempting to develop a clear distinction between philosophy and theology, which freed theology from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy and from the limits of Aristotelian logic, but the same time respected the significance of philosophy. As Luther preferred clear critique and often used strident language for this, his sometimes polemical critique of philosophy, logic, and “the philosopher” (Aristotle) was often interpreted as a fundamental dismissal of philosophy. Since the late 20th century, research has presented a very different picture of Luther’s understanding of philosophy, of the role and significance he gave to philosophy theoretically and in his practical academic work, and of the relation of Luther’s references to Aristotle and the concrete Aristotelian philosophy in scholasticism, as well as to the relationship between theology and philosophy in general. All this research showed how deeply Luther was rooted in the philosophical discourses and contexts of late scholasticism and involved in the debates of nominalism. But this research also made clear how Luther successfully struggled to come to a very different model of the relationship between theology and philosophy than the models of scholasticism, which secured the independence of both intellectual disciplines despite their close relatedness their relatedness. Luther’s understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s significance for theology is closely related to his concept of reason. Again, there is some polemical critique of reason in Luther’s writings, but in fact Luther had a high appreciation of reason, when reason was in exploring the physical, social, and psychic reality and in shaping the natural, social, and moral world. Luther was critical and polemical toward reason when it was used in matters of faith. But although the use of reason in theology had its limits, it was nevertheless indispensable in theological work. This was especially clear in Luther’s hermeneutics, as reason was the means to come to the external clarity of biblical texts in the process of interpretation.
Martin Luther was a subject of the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. His emergence as a reformer was made possible by the sponsorship he received in Wittenberg. He owed his survival to the protection afforded him by the Elector when Emperor Charles V outlawed him and ordered that the papal ban of excommunication be enforced in the empire. The audience to which Luther appealed was the general population of German Christians, both lay and ecclesiastical, who wanted a reform of the church and the reduction of the pope’s influence over it. That his appeal resonated so widely and so profoundly had much to do with a combination of crises that had developed in the empire from the 15th century. That his reform proposals resulted in the formation of a new church owed everything to the political structures of the empire. These facilitated the suppression of radical challenges to Luther’s position. They also thwarted every effort Charles V made over several decades to ensure that the empire remained Catholic. Lutheranism became entwined with the idea of German liberty; as a result, its survival was secured in the constitution of the empire, first in 1555 and then in 1648.