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Luther was a point of reference in all three of the confessional cultures during the confessional age, though this was not something he had intended. His theological “self-fashioning” was not meant to secure, canonize, or stabilize his own works or his biography. Rather, he believed, and was convinced, that the hidden God rules in a strange way. He hides himself in the course of the world and realizes what we would have liked to realizes. Apart from this theological viewpoint, historiographic differentiation is needed: Luther had different impacts on each of the three confessions. Furthermore, one also has to differentiate between a deep impact and the unintended effects of Luther’s thinking. Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. From the beginning, he underwent a heroization and a diabolization by his contemporaries. Apart from this black-and-white reception of his person, it was, and still is, extremely difficult to analyze Luther, his work and medial effects. Historians have always been fixated on Luther: he was the one and only founder of Protestantism. His biography became a stereotype of writing and was an important element of Protestant (or anti-Protestant) identity politics. For some Protestants, his biography became identical with the history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte). For his enemies, his biography was identical with the history of the devil.
In all historical fields, one has to differentiate between the different groups and people who protected or attacked Luther or shared his ideas. The history of Luther can only be written as a shared history with conflict and concordances: the so-called Anabaptists, for example, shared Luther’s antihierarchical ideal of Christian community, although on the other hand “they” were strongly opposed toward his theology and person. Luther or example, had conflicts with the humanists and with Erasmus especially; he argued about the Lord’s Supper with Zwingli, he criticized the Fuggers because of their financial transactions in an early capitalist society; and, last but not least, he was in conflict with the Roman Church. The legitimization of different pictures of Luther always depends upon the perspectives of the posterity: either Luther was intolerant against spiritualists, Anabaptists, or peasants who were willing to resort to violence; or he was defended by humanists like Sebastian Castellio for defending religious tolerance. During his lifetime Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. Hundreds of pro-Lutheran and polemical anti-Lutheran leaflets or texts were published. The many literary forms of parody, satire, caricature, the grotesque, and the absurd were cultivated during the confessional age. Luther’s biography was often used by Lutheran theologians as an instrument of heroization and identity politics in public discourse.
Historically, one can differentiate between the time before and after Luther. The political and religious unity of the Holy Roman Empire was strongly disturbed, if not broken, through the Reformation. The end of the Universalist dreams of universal powers like theology and politics (pope and emperor) were some of the central preconditions for political, cultural, and theological differentiation of Europe. Religious differentiation was one of the unintended effects of theology and the interpretation of the scripture. Decades after Luther’s death, the Holy Roman Empire slowly and surprisingly turned into a poly-, multi- and interconfessional society.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
It is by now a well-established fact that Martin Luther never intended to start a new church. He grounded his reforming and theological claims in the universally acknowledged canon of Scripture and decisions of the Early Church. Despite the fundamentally ecumenical intention of the Augsburg Confession and many overtures toward reconciliation, Luther and his colleagues were unable to reverse the divisive impact of their reforms. In the 20th century, however, the twin processes of establishing a worldwide Lutheran fellowship and participating in the nascent ecumenical movement after 1910 prompted Lutherans toward a fresh appreciation of Augsburg Confession, Article 7 and the universal quality of Luther’s theology. This can be seen already in the constituting assembly of the Lutheran World Convention in 1923, where Bishop Ludwig Ihmels made a case for Lutheran ecumenism on the grounds of Lutheranism’s cultural adaptability, commitment to the dogmas of the Ancient Church, and Christocentric focus. Lutherans were accordingly significant figures in the multilateral process during the first half of the 20th century, with Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom serving as head of Life and Work, and American Lutherans pushing for confessional rather than national membership in the World Council of Churches. The newly constituted Lutheran World Federation undertook its first theological study in the 1950s on the topic of “The Unity of the Church,” continuing to affirm a double commitment to Lutheran confessional identity and ecumenical reconciliation. Ecumenism underwent a dramatic change as a result of the new involvement of the Catholic Church following Vatican II, a change that suited Lutherans well. The new focus was on bilateral dialogue, resolving the specific difficulties between two churches. While ecumenical efforts have mostly been directed toward outlining areas of doctrinal consensus and removing obstacles to visible and structural unity, in certain dialogues the person and work of Luther himself has been at the center of the conversation. This can be seen most clearly in the dialogue with Catholics on the Reformation legacy, with the Eastern Orthodox prompting a reassessment of Luther’s teaching on union with Christ, and with Mennonites in narrating the painful history of Lutheran persecution of Anabaptists.
From late 1517 into early 1521 Catholic theologians and church officials examined Luther’s publications for erroneous doctrines and to weigh the gravity of his heterodoxies. Pope Leo X issued on June 15, 1520, the official censure, in Exsurge Domine, of forty-one positions Luther had advanced, under qualifications as “dangerous,” “erroneous,” or “heretical.” The ranking academic body of Europe, the University of Paris, added on April 15, 1521, its Determinatio that Luther was advancing erroneous or heretical positions in 104 positions lifted from his works.
On the way to these judgments, the Dominicans Johann Tetzel, Sylvester Prierias, and Cardinal Cajetan played roles, as did the university theologians of Louvain and Cologne, while Johann Eck contributed significantly to Exsurge Domine. The censures, however, lacked clarity in presenting Luther and his doctrine, since they listed his errant propositions unsystematically and with little precision on their gravity. From them remained the fact of Luther’s condemnation.
German Catholic pamphleteers of 1518–1530 sketched Luther as subverting authorities, both civil and ecclesial. Eck’s handbook of Catholic defenses (1525) added traits of Luther’s revival of Manichaean heresies and opening the doctrinal field to the frenzied Karlstadt, Zwingli, and Anabaptists. Johannes Cochlaeus chronicled Luther’s life and works amply, with readings in the worst light, from which Catholics for centuries were schooled to perceive Luther as ever-changing but thoroughly pestilential in his impact on both church and world.
The Age of Enlightenment made an epochal paradigm shift in the assessment of Luther. This upheaval is exemplified in brief case studies from the literature, historiography, and theology of that period. These studies show that the German Enlightenment overcame the fixation on Luther’s theology, which was limited to its own time, while it formed a structural discipleship—doing in that context what Luther had done in his—of Luther. In this way, it could recognize its own historical responsibility with critical autonomy while still invoking Luther’s spirit and character.
Adam S. Francisco
The geographical extension of Islam into Christian lands generated a wide variety of responses and a tremendous amount of consternation amidst its subject and neighboring populations. This was the case in the early centuries of Islam as well as the age of Ottoman expansion into Europe at the time of the Protestant reformation. Just as the conflict between Martin Luther and the papacy was beginning, the issue of how Europe should respond to the military campaigns of the Turks in Hungary became increasingly paramount. Luther was initially aloof to the matter. But the farther the Turks moved up the Danube River basin toward Vienna, and the more he heard about the pope clamoring for a crusade and German preachers expressing ambivalence toward and sometimes preference for the Turk, the more he was pressed to address the issue of war with the Ottomans. Unsurprisingly, given his view of the secular realm, he came out strongly in favor of war, for in his mind it was just. He continued to support every preparation for it so long as it was not construed as a crusade. He also believed that physical warfare was not enough. It had to be accompanied by the spiritual disciplines of prayer and repentance. About the time of the siege of Vienna, Luther also began to view the Turkish threat as an apocalyptic threat. He was convinced that the rise of the Turks was foretold in the eschatological prophecies in scripture, especially Daniel 7. He also believed that, while the Turks would be successful for a time, their days were numbered as the last days were soon approaching. Until then, Christians needed to be warned about the dangers of Islam. He had heard and read that many Christians who ended up in the Ottoman Empire eventually became Muslims. So he spent most of his energy in writing about and inquiring into the theology and culture of the Turks for the purpose of encouraging and equipping Christians to resist it. Some of his work was practical and pastoral. His later work was polemical and apologetical. Throughout it all, he remained committed to making as much information on Islam available as possible. This culminated in his involvement in the publication of a Latin translation of the Qur’ān in 1543, a work that was included in the first collection of texts relating to Islam to ever be printed.
Martin Luther was engaged with the topic “Jews and Judaism” all his life, from his earliest works until his last. The main context for his preoccupation with this topic was interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly in his many and ample lectures on books of the Old Testament, starting with the “Dictata supra Psalterium,” his first lecture on the Psalms (1513‒1515), down to his “Lecture on the Book of Genesis” (1535‒1545). In addition, he wrote several treatises on the question of how Christian society should relate to the Jews living in its midst, most important, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” (1523) and “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543). These writings were, however, to a large extent also exegetical works. Altogether Luther’s attitude toward the Jews and Judaism is characterized simultaneously by continuity and by radical change: (1) continuity is obvious in his theological statements on Judaism which were based on a certain hermeneutics of the Old Testament centered in the Messiahship of Jesus Christ; and (2) change in his demands regarding the treatment of contemporary Jews which in earlier years followed his conception of the Two Kingdoms whereas in later times he came back to the traditional ideal of corpus Christianum. This change led to contradictory receptions of his statements on the topic in the course of history. All this is reflected in the research on the subject since the beginning of modern historical scholarship.
Jeffrey G. Silcock
Luther does not develop a theology of hope because hope is not the central driver of his mature theology. Central for him is rather faith in the promise of God, which gives rise to hope as well as love. There are two sides to justification that correspond to the now/not-yet character of Luther’s eschatology. On the one hand, we are already righteous through the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which we have in spe but not yet in re. On the other hand, the hope of righteousness strengthens us against sin as we wait for the perfection of our righteousness in heaven. However, in the final analysis, the basis of our hope is not the incipient righteousness which has begun in us (in re) as we gradually grow in holiness and righteousness, but Christ’s own perfect righteousness which he imputes to us through faith (iustitia aliena). For hope can only be rock-solid if it is grounded not on anything within us, but on Christ alone.
The early Luther has a very different view of things because, before 1518, he is still very much under the influence of Augustine, which means that justification is primarily a process that goes on within a person’s heart rather than, as in the later Luther, faith in God’s word of promise that comes to a person from outside and gives what it says. The dominant theological concept in Luther’s early work is the theology of humility, which is predicated on the view that God must first humble you and cause you to despair, before he can raise you up and give you hope. Since here faith is not yet oriented to the promise but defined by humility, it has to remain uncertain, as does hope. In the later Luther, on the other hand, faith gives rise to confidence and hope because it is firmly grounded in God’s word of promise, which is always reliable because God does what he says.
With his faith firmly grounded in Christ, Luther knows that he can weather all the trials and struggles of life; in fact, he can even look forward to death, since for Christians death is but the door to life with God forever. For Luther, Christ is the only hope for a hopeless world. For him, this is not wishful thinking but is rock-solid because it is based on the promise of the crucified and risen Lord. This is also the basis of the Christian hope for eternal life in the presence of the Triune God, together with the renewed creation and all the hosts of heaven.
Susan C. Karant-Nunn
In the late 15th century, when Martin Luther was born and grew up, death was very much present. Family, friends, and neighbors seldom reached what we today would consider a middle age, and women of childbearing age were at special risk. Catholic clergy took pains to offer Christians at every social level ways in which they could prepare themselves for the happiest possible afterlife.
When Martin Luther joined the order of Augustinian Eremite Friars in 1505, he had never read a Bible. He now gained access to one that the brothers of the Erfurt house had in their library. Luther read it intently. He found that numerous Catholic points of theology and practice were not validated in scripture. In 1517, he chose the issue of indulgences on which to attack church practice, in view of the fact that the ordinary people in Wittenberg to whom he regularly preached—he was not their pastor—sacrificed a great deal to pay for certificates of indulgence.
As a result of his encounter with the Bible, Luther proceeded to dismantle long-standing Catholic belief concerning death and treatment of the dead. He disqualified the Virgin, saints, and priests as intermediaries between individual souls and God. He insisted that as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, humans could not perform good deeds to earn themselves entry to Heaven. They had, instead, to rely on the atoning power of Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalties that they deserved for their continual sinning. Those who had faith in the atonement would be saved. Justification by faith supplanted a theology of justification by good works.
Gradually, over about twenty years, new Lutheran liturgies for ministering to the sick and dying and for burying the dead were introduced. Beginning at about midcentury, preachers were instructed to compose funeral sermons for just about every burial. These constitute a new literary subgenre. Many were published for reading by a larger audience, and as many as a quarter million of such printed sermons have survived. Visible as a theme within them is the traditional belief that every Christian should strive to achieve a “good death.” The phrase meant that dying people should cling fervently to the certainty that Christ has paid the penalty for faithful Christians’ sins.
Faith is not a human act but rather (a) an act of God—that is, the power or action of God as a “divine work in us”; and (b) relation before God (coram Deo), or more precisely, a passive relation and responsorial action (vita passiva). Furthermore, the genesis of faith and its execution should be systematically conceived as (c) communication (unio, communio et communicatio cum Christo) in the event of justification; or (d) the encounter of a pure gift by the power of the Holy Spirit in the word event; (e) ensuing the exchange of gifts or the response of the vita passiva.
Grace is an essential element of Christian theological reflection. Primarily, the divine attribute or trait labeled “grace” refers to God’s disposition and activity in regard to the Creation in general and toward human beings in particular. From the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, Scripture bears witness to the fact that God creates things “good” and gives good things. God’s grace is especially manifest in the divine promises and other gifts described in the Bible and realized over time. At the same time, the Scriptures show that human beings—made in the image of God—have a history of devaluing, forgetting, and even abusing those things that God has graciously given. Part of Christianity’s doctrinal development, therefore, consists of attempts to describe the scope and sequence of God’s gracious regard and activity on behalf of a humanity prone to sin and rebellion.
In light of such creaturely “original sin” and ongoing rebellion, Scripture testifies that the Creator remains gracious—that God yet desires to be in relationship with human beings despite their sin. Theological considerations of grace share a basic assumption that although God is not obligated to think, feel, and act for the benefit of sinful humans, God does so nevertheless. While God’s wrath results in severe consequences for sin, God’s grace results in gifts that overcome sin and its consequences. The full extent of God’s gracious giving is in the giving of the divine self in Jesus Christ, the divine Logos made flesh, who is “full of grace and truth” and from whose “fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
Martin Luther’s theology can be fundamentally construed as the development of his thought regarding the nature of grace, the nature of God’s favor and blessing bestowed upon undeserving human beings. The many dimensions of Luther’s biblical teaching and theological reflection have, in the background a desire to understand God’s grace most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Luther’s concepts of the righteousness of God, justification by faith, the bound will, the distinction of law and gospel, the new obedience, the “happy exchange,” and many related concepts are, at heart, attempts to describe what it is to have a God of grace.
Most interpreters have rightly understood that in Luther’s view, to have a gracious God means to have a God who does not require human beings to fulfill a set of prerequisites in order to receive God’s gift in Christ or to reciprocate God’s giving in order to continue receiving Christ and his benefits. For Luther, to have a God of grace means to believe and trust that through Jesus Christ, God has already met all prerequisites and fulfilled all reciprocations. On this point, Luther found himself breaking new ground (or recovering lost ground) in the understanding of divine grace. Luther “broke” with those theological forebears who taught that divine grace was, in one way or another, partly dependent on human willing and doing. For Luther, God graciously wills and works “all in all.” Nevertheless, when Luther’s many descriptions of what it is to “have a gracious God” are analyzed, a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the One giving the gift and the ones receiving it begins to reveal itself. For Luther, faith—that gracious means through which God graciously bestows the righteousness of Christ—creates a dynamic rather than static experience of possessing and being possessed of a God of grace. Indeed, scrutinizing Luther’s writings for descriptions of the experientia of sola gratia continues to be a promising direction for future Luther research.