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Luther did not write an exhaustive dogmatic account of the person and work of Christ. The lack of such a work has led to differing assessments of the place of Christology in Luther’s thought. Some have concluded that Christology played only a secondary role in Luther’s theology. Others have countered that Christology stands at the center of Luther’s thought. The range of assessments on Luther’s Christology can be explained, in part, by the expectations of our theological categories. Luther, like the Church Fathers before him, discussed Christology in a broader context than the scholastic manuals and systematic theologies of late modernity. For both Luther and the Church Fathers, the mystery of Christ stood at the center of their confession of the Trinity, reading of scripture, and life of prayer and worship. When discussing the Trinity, Luther declares, “Where this God, Jesus Christ, is, there is the whole God or the whole divinity. There the Father and the Holy Spirit are to be found. Beyond this Christ God nowhere can be found.” Similarly, when it comes to scripture, Christ is the test by which to judge the books of the Bible. Luther declares, “Remove Christ from the scriptures and what more will you have?” For Luther Christ stands at the center whether we are discussing the Trinity or scripture: “Thus all of Scripture, as already said, is pure Christ, God’s and Mary’s Son. Everything is focused on this Son, so that we might know Him distinctively and in that way see the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally as one God. To him who has the Son scripture is an open book; and the stronger his faith in Christ becomes, the more brightly will the light of scripture shine for him.” All of Luther’s theological reflection proceeds from his faith in Christ.
Thinking of Christology only in terms of a formal reflection on the unity of two natures in one person risks reducing the discussion to paradoxical metaphysics and overlooking the broader interests of Luther and the Church Fathers. This point is crucial for a consideration of Luther’s Christological sources in the Church Fathers. Luther aligns himself with the Christological insights of the Fathers and councils by showing how Christ and his saving work stand at the center of theological endeavors. For the Fathers and creeds of the Early Church, the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son forms the context for their reflections on the man Jesus and his saving work. Similarly, for Luther, scripture’s teaching on the Trinity and Christ, as received and clarified by the Fathers and councils, serves as his hermeneutical resource for understanding Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the blessed exchange between Christ and the believer, and justification by faith.
Luther, like the Church Fathers, worked out the distinctive features of his Christology amid controversy. Luther’s debate with Zwingli sharpened his understanding of the Incarnation and reveals his debt to the Fathers. Luther’s use of the communicatio idiomatum and the implications of the sharing of attributes for the Lord’s Supper and our salvation align him closely with the Greek Fathers, particularly those indebted to the theological insights of Cyril of Alexandria. The remarkable convergence between Luther’s argument with Zwingli and Cyril’s argument with Nestorius reveals the strong Alexandrian and Neo-Chalcedonian sympathies and instincts of Luther’s Christology.
Luther conceives Christian doctrine drawn from the Bible and summarized in the articles of faith as the essential resource and topic of all Christian teaching and preaching. In contrast to both scholastic and post-Reformation theology, Luther emphasizes the strong connection and interdependence between doctrine and proclamation. While doctrine communicates God’s word in his law and his gospel, doctrine can only be pure if it does not confuse law and gospel but carefully distinguishes God’s demand in the law from the promise and gift of his mere grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, the core topic of Christian doctrine is Christ’s redemption through his proclamation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection by which God in the power of his spirit graciously offers justification by faith alone. By representing God’s gracious revelation in the incarnation and redemptive and salvific activity of his son, Christian doctrine communicates the presence of the loving and justifying God who evokes faith and trust through his word. While Christian doctrine grants knowledge about God’s triune activity, it is not only informative, but communicates God’s promise efficiently.
In the course of the Reformation, Luther emphasized more the importance of the verbum externum as an instrument to communicate pure doctrine. To support Christian teaching and education, he wrote the catechisms in which he explains the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed as the essential resources of Christian doctrine, but unlike Melanchthon, he did not summarize Christian doctrine in loci theologici. Yet he understood the articles of faith to be inherently connected and inseparable as they refer to the unity of God. Thus, the systematic explanation of the Christian faith in Lutheran orthodoxy meets with Luther’s understanding of the structure of doctrine and his concern for fully exploring and apprehending God’s grace and justice as revealed in the gospel. At the same time, Luther always used doctrine in soteriological context. Because of its particular content, theological reflection of doctrine cannot exclude the dimension of proclamation.
Martin Luther’s anthropology, as expressed in his writings, consists of several elements. Luther often utilizes a three-part scheme, according to which a human being consists of body, soul, and spirit. This scheme is, to a considerable degree, derived from the medieval Augustinian and mystical tradition. This tradition sees the three-room Old Testament Tabernacle as a figure of the human person, in whom God dwells in the spirit. Luther’s most important contribution here is in locating faith at the highest and innermost place, in which the human being is in contact with God. The place of the soul undergoes development over time in his works: that is, whether the soul is related to the spirit or to the flesh, is part of sinful carnality, or is a neutral medium. Upon this tripartite natural composition Luther builds a bipartite distinction between flesh and spirit, which concerns the whole man as either carnal or spiritual. This distinction derives from Luther’s interpretation of Paul and Augustine. For Luther, the human being is at the same time sinner and righteous, carnal and spiritual. The spirit and the flesh experience the same things in opposite manners. The third component is the concept of person, which unites the previous two contraries into one subject. It reflects a mode of thought peculiar to Luther, in which mutually opposite and contrary things are brought together by Christological means.
The reader should also note that Luther’s anthropology often employs established theological terms, such as homo carnalis, homo animalis, and homo spiritualis. They refer to certain aspects of the person, not to the person as a whole. As Luther also refers to the whole human being as a “person,” the previous terms cannot be replaced by it without confusion. Because of this issue, the word homo in connection with these terms is rendered in English as “man,” but this translation is not meant to exclude the female gender, and it itself refers only to certain aspects of the person.
Academic disputations were a fixture of university life throughout Martin Luther’s lifetime. Luther participated regularly in various sorts of disputations, first as a student at the University of Erfurt and then as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. Although the disputation represents an important aspect of Luther’s indebtedness to late medieval scholasticism, the disputational form was not simply a matter of convention to Luther. It became one of the major communicative vehicles through which he developed and expressed his theological ideas. The 95 theses are a well-known case in point, but Luther’s prolific career as a disputator had already begun prior to the eruption of public controversy in October of 1517, and would continue at regular intervals (with the exception of one conspicuous hiatus) for several decades afterwards.
Although several of Luther’s most influential sets of theses were explicitly intended for the consideration of his academic and ecclesiastical colleagues (e.g., the “Heidelberg Disputation”), the majority of his disputations took place as a curricular exercise within the University of Wittenberg. As such, most serve a purpose, which is simultaneously pedagogical and polemical. Luther viewed the disputation as a crucial opportunity for students both to observe and to practice the utilization of logic and dialectic for the refutation of theological error. He deployed and recommended those same tools for the defense of proper doctrine in the face of objections. In many cases, the specific topic under consideration was furnished by contextual stimuli and accordingly reflects particular sites of disagreement between Luther and his variegated array of theological opponents. This naturally includes many of the neuralgic points, which stand at the center of the Protestant reformation (e.g., original sin, the doctrine of justification, free choice, church authority, etc), but it also includes a range of contested topics between Luther and other reformers (e.g., disputations against the antinomians, against the Christology of Caspar Schwenckfeld, and in response to anti-trinitarianism, etc). Several of Luther’s disputations also treat the relationship between theology and philosophy, and reflect at some length upon what he refers to somewhat provocatively as the “new language” of theology. Taken cumulatively, Luther’s disputations encompass a broad and diverse theological terrain. Indeed, there is hardly an aspect of the reformer’s theology, which fails to appear within this extensive corpus. As such, the disputations provide an essential resource for the study of Luther’s thought and its development over time.
Martin Luther’s doctrine of creation can be identified as the center of his theology. The justification for this judgement is threefold. First, the centrality of creation to Luther’s theology is rooted in Luther’s expansive interpretation of the act of creation. Luther’s theology of creation is neither limited to a description of what happened “in the beginning” nor restricted to some initial and selective point of life. Instead, Luther understands creation as the principal and permanent feature of God’s action and communication, something happening constantly and taking place in a threefold way: by creation, preservation, and re-creation. In addition to this Martin Luther’s doctrine of creation is a strong antidote against any present Deism or present Gnosticism. Second, creation may be seen as central to Luther’s theology because it describes God’s sovereignty and is directly linked to it. For Luther, God’s action is always sola gratia, always a creatio ex nihilo. This does not mean that Luther ignores or denies the vast creational involvement in creatural matters, for instance, in the emergence of new life. Instead, his intention is to emphasize God’s almightiness: God acts purely out of freedom and love and not because of any obligation. When God creates, he needs no available material substance, when God justifies, he needs no preliminary human work. Of course, God may use them but he does not need them. In principle, God’s actions are all initial and initiating beginnings. Therefore, creation, preservation, and re-creation happen “without any of my merit and worthiness.” Every calculating do ut des—I give to you so that you give to me—comes to an end here. All creatural and theological creation, preservation, and re-creation is not earned by one’s own virtue but given sola gratia. Third, the doctrine of creation is central because Luther develops out of it the basis of his ethical thinking. God’s already described creational activity puts all humankind into place and determines their role in creation. Luther understands the human’s response to God’s gift to lie in the gratitude of the creature toward the creator, and not in the critique of the creator or in a tempting or attempting “improvement” of the gift through an effort of self-creation. As creature, one is called to shape the given world, but more so to receive one’s own personal destiny with gratitude. For Luther, this thankfulness also means embracing, or at least accepting, one’s own creation as a destiny that is determined, individual, and in many respects unalterable. In addition to this personal perspective of gratitude, God’s verbal and communicative means of creation in dialogue with his creature is for Luther a basic feature of his ethics as well. Luther generalizes this creational dialogical structure and uses it in the ethical field not only to characterize the relationship between creator and creature but also to characterize the relationships among the creatures themselves.
John Witte Jr.
The Lutheran Reformation transformed not only theology and the church but law and the state as well. Beginning in the 1520s, Martin Luther joined up with various jurists and political leaders to craft ambitious legal reforms of church, state, and society on the strength of Luther’s new theology, particularly his new two kingdoms doctrine. These legal reforms were defined and defended in hundreds of monographs, pamphlets, and sermons published by Lutheran writers from the 1520s to 1550s. They were refined and routinized in hundreds of new reformation ordinances promulgated by German cities, duchies, and territories that converted to the Lutheran cause. By the time of the Peace of Augsburg (1555)—the imperial law that temporarily settled the constitutional order of Germany—the Lutheran Reformation had brought fundamental changes to theology and law, to church and state, marriage and family, criminal law and procedure, and education and charity. Critics of the day, and a steady stream of theologians and historians ever since, have seen this legal phase of the Reformation as a corruption of Luther’s original message of Christian freedom from the strictures of human laws and traditions. But Luther ultimately realized that he needed the law to stabilize and enforce the new Protestant teachings. Radical theological reforms had made possible fundamental legal reforms. Fundamental legal reforms, in turn, would make palpable radical theological reforms. In the course of the 1530s onward, the Lutheran Reformation became in its essence both a theological and a legal reform movement. It struck new balances between law and Gospel, rule and equity, order and faith, and structure and spirit.
Duane H. Larson
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.
Christopher Boyd Brown
The years 1517–1525 were the most tumultuous of Luther’s career. They saw his emergence from obscurity to become a figure of international controversy and national renown as the controversy over indulgences exploded, with far-reaching ecclesiastical and political consequences. He emerged as a master—if not practically the creator—of the popular press, dominating German vernacular printing with a flood of treatises and the publication of his German New Testament in 1522. These years were the crucible in which Luther’s theology was shaped into its mature form through conflict not only with supporters of the papacy and of scholasticism but also with former colleagues and sympathizers. By 1525 Luther’s theology had established itself as a movement and distinguished itself from other versions of reform.
Mickey L. Mattox
Luther’s life in the years after 1525 was relatively placid in comparison to the turbulence he experienced between the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses and his marriage to Katharina von Bora in 1525. To be sure, there were events and controversies aplenty, and many of them impacted the circumstances of his daily life, altered or sharpened the focus of his theological work, and influenced the shape his movement would take after his death. He remained to the end a central figure in both church and civil affairs, supporting the evangelical reform of the European churches and offering his advice—and his criticism—to any who would listen. Limitations on his travel resulting from the Edict of Worms made him a sideline player at the Augsburg Diet of 1530, but he contributed crucially to Evangelical identity through his two catechisms of 1529, as well as the Smalcald Articles he wrote to define and defend Evangelical faith and practice. The elder Luther also assumed a leading role in Wittenberg’s university. He was its most famous professor as well as its most powerfully creative thinker. In 1535 he became dean of its faculty as well. As dean, he presided over a number of important disputations dealing with such issues as ecclesiology, Christology, and the doctrine of the Trinity. He also remained little Wittenberg’s most famous and influential person, eclipsing in many ways even his own prince electors. People of low status and high sought out Dr. Luther for advice of every kind. Informally, he became a powerful patron. Luther continued as well to lecture and publish theological works during this period, notably biblical “commentaries” (typically based on classroom lectures), a treatise on the church and one on the papacy, and a harsh series of treatises against the Jews. He remained the most influential contributor to Evangelical self-understanding, opposing, for example, both the Anti-trinitarian thinkers outside his movement (Servetus, Campanus) and the antinomian thinkers within it (Agricola). The German Bible translation project he had begun at the Wartburg resulted at last in the complete “Luther Bible” (1534). Together with a team of colleagues he dubbed “my Sanhedrin,” he continued to work on this project, with the last revised edition appearing in 1545. Notwithstanding the abiding apocalyptic angst and increasing world weariness that frequently marked the works of his later years, his theological vitality continued largely unabated. The elder Luther was not content merely to repeat the settled truths he had discovered in his youth, but continued to “shake every tree” in the great forest of Scripture in his quest to know God rightly and serve him faithfully. As Luther moved into his fifties and sixties he also suffered from a steadily debilitating complex of interrelated health issues. His death at age sixty-two on February 18, 1546, left his movement without its charismatic leader and thus vulnerable to both external political attack and internal theological division. Contrary to Saxon legal practice, he designated Katharina his sole heir.
Ronald K. Rittgers
Luther was first and foremost a pastor who was deeply concerned with the care of souls. While the study of his controversial writings provides important insight into various aspects of his theology, it was his pastoral writings that arguably made the greater impact on his contemporaries. These writings spanned his entire career, examined numerous topics, and appeared in various genres. Luther’s deep commitment to producing pastoral works aimed at edification and consolation, especially of the laity, may be seen as a continuation of a late medieval trend that was similarly concerned with spiritual nurture and guidance. Consolation was a dominant theme in Luther’s pastoral writings, but so was the call to a deeply earnest Christianity that embraced suffering and affliction for the sake of the gospel. Luther’s pastoral writings were intended to help pastors minister to the needs of their flocks, but in many cases these works were directed to the laity, both to console and exhort them in the Christian life and also to mobilize them for ministry to one another.