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Eschatology was until recently a mute locus in the treatment of Luther’s dogmatic, subsumed under the doctrine of justification. There is now a significant agreement as to the eschatological and soteriological significance of the presence of Christ in faith made effective through his cross and resurrection. This pertains to the coram Deo perspective. In the coram mundo perspective, however, eschatology assumes spatial and temporal dimensions and finds expression in mundane boundaries and limits (ta eschata). Luther’s approach to eschatology, then, has two foci, one addressing presence and the other focusing on representations. If in justification all is simultaneous, in works there are distinctions. In one the theological operational category is faith, while in the other it is love.
While the two foci of eschatology are expressed by the two perspectives of the relationship humans have to God and to the world, eschatology in the latter entails two aspects of their implications. One deals with the private individual: death, bodily resurrection, eternal life, final judgment, and the soul’s immortality. The immortality of the soul has been a disputed issue in Luther research but in the end largely irrelevant, considering that the resurrection pertains to the whole human being; the soul and the glorified body will enter eternal bliss with the final judgment. As to this judgment, the restoration of all things (apokatastasis pantōn) is clearly rejected, and yet the eternal damnation of the wicked is not a forgone conclusion. The final revelation, when God will be all in all, will be unveiled only in the light of glory (lumen gloriae) whose mystery Luther claims not to know: nescio.
The other aspect of the earthly dimension has a social and cosmic component in which it is represented by the limits demarcated by the public spheres or orders instituted by God. These are realms in which reason is publicly exercised in work done for the sake of the requirements of the law. The public spheres are instruments in the earthly realm against the work of the devil (ecclesia, oeconomia, and politia), which are the three public realms under the single canopy of Christian love. And this love demands reason and efficacy for the sake of justice and equity. It pertains to sanctification, not to salvation. In the worldly perspective, Luther was susceptible to the end-time speculations of his days, producing even (as a diversion, he claimed) a world historical calendar predicting the arrival of the cosmic Sabbath.
The nodal point connecting these two eschatological foci rests in Luther’s interpretation of the Chalcedonian communicatio. The earthly dimension of eschatology is one with the spiritual, as the person of the incarnate logos cannot be divided. That God creates what God loves is true from creation to consummation; protology and eschatology are one in Christology, while the distinction remains without confusion as long as creation subsists and the love of God abides.
Luther’s position on the duties of rulers to preserve social order and on the obligation of subjects to obey them for the sake of civil tranquility is scripturally grounded, principally in Romans 13:1–7, and presupposes an anthropology in which humans are so sinful as to need worldly government. The foundations of Luther’s thought about politics can be located in two sources: his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and his understanding of the Pauline precept in Romans 13 to obey worldly authorities. Woven into each of these positions is a theological anthropology that holds that fallen humanity is too sinful to survive without divine aid. In the political realm, this aid takes the form of civil government; as a correlate, the authority of the church for Luther is limited to spiritual matters only and has no influence in the governance of the people. Luther’s defense of the social order and civil government set him in sharp opposition to the leaders of the Peasants’ War and led him to support the Protestant princes in their opposition to the Holy Roman Empire (founded on the spurious authority of the Roman Catholic Church in political affairs) after the 1530 Diet of Augsburg. In his defense of obedience to worldly powers and his grounds for justified resistance to impious rule, Luther left a seemingly ambiguous legacy that manifested itself after his death in a division over advocates of obedience to a conciliatory ruler (who wished to reintroduce elements of Roman worship) and purists who insisted that such obedience was a violation of Luther’s intention.
John A. Maxfield
Scholarly analysis of biblical interpretation and commentary in the history of Christianity has become an important subfield in history as well as biblical studies and theology. From the Reformation and into the modern era, Martin Luther has been appreciated first of all as an expositor of the Bible and a confessor of its teachings. His vocation as a theologian called to teach in the University of Wittenberg was especially focused on the exposition of scripture, and his development as a theologian and eventually as an evangelical reformer was deeply tied to his experience in interpreting the Bible in his university classroom, in the Augustinian cloister, and in his household. His interpretation of scripture was the basis of his “Reformation discovery” of justification by faith, and his conflict with the papal church was largely the result of Luther’s conviction that the message of scripture, in particular “the gospel,” was being overwhelmed in the theology and churchly practice of his time by “human teachings” not supported by and contradicting scripture. As a result, Luther and other evangelical reformers of the 16th century appealed to scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the highest authority in shaping their theology and proposals for reform.
Luther’s teachings and leadership in the Reformation were shared and celebrated not only through his doctrinal and polemical treatises and catechetical writings, but also through the many sermons, biblical commentaries on both Old and New Testament books, and prefaces on the books of the Bible that were published in his lifetime and thereafter. Old Testament commentary was an especially important genre of Luther’s published works, as it encapsulated much of his work as a university professor of theology and evangelical reformer.
William R. Russell
A variety of dissident movements within the church appeared and disappeared throughout the medieval period. Each sought to reform the church along various millenarian, moralistic, biblicistic, and anticlerical lines. In the wake of Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) public calls for reform, groups of these kinds reappeared in Europe. Most of them referred to Luther as an inspiration, and they often associated themselves with Luther and his reforms.
In order to distance himself from these groups, Luther used the pejorative German word, Schwärmerei to describe and critique what he saw as their most fundamental error: that they would establish their respective churches on a foundation other than what he called, in the Smalcald Articles (1538), the “First and Chief Article” of the Christian faith: Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and God’s Word alone. Moreover, because these opponents also represented forms of 16th-century protest against the Roman Catholic Church, they would cite him as a source of their teaching. His use of Schwärmerei, then, separates his reform proposal from the ideas and the implications of these groups. As a metaphor, Schwärmerei also vilifies Luther’s Protestant opponents as “swarms” of bees or locusts. The term not only links Luther’s opponents together, it also identifies their presence as unpredictable and hazardous. This usage clearly reflected the polemical discourse common in this historical period and contributed to the generally harsh persecutions of the groups in principalities ruled by Lutherans.
In a variety of ways, Luther’s Protestant opponents taught that believers were capable of knowing God directly (e.g., through spiritual experience or reason). Such knowledge was deemed necessary for a truly faithful and transformed life. Luther’s Protestant opponents, then, maintained that full membership in the church depended on their internal experience of the Holy Spirit, an experience that was to be shared ritually with the community as public witness to the Spirit’s work. Both the experience itself and the subsequent life of discipleship were deemed necessary by these groups in order for one to be a true follower of Christ.
For Luther, however, saving knowledge of God comes only through God’s chosen means of self-revelation: the Word and the sacraments. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins, therefore, is always mediated to believers from an external source—through preaching the Word of God and through the means of grace (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
In addition, these groups’ overemphasis on subjectivity left them vulnerable to abuse by their leaders. They could claim authority, based on their internal experiences, to dominate their followers with cult-like power. Luther believed this to be the dynamic at work in the disastrous “Kingdom of God” at Münster (1535), the Peasants’ War (1525), and the Wittenberg disturbances (1522).
For Luther, the Word alone, as God’s law and God’s gospel, provides the basis for the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church. His opponents disagreed that such a foundation was sufficient for the church to be the church. Indeed, by the end of his career, the Reformer would describe nearly all of his opponents as Schwärmer—eventually even including the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church among their ranks.
In the debate on Luther’s Reformatory Discovery two elements come together: the systematic question of how to determine the essential content of reformatory theology, that is, the core of Reformation itself, and the historical question of the point in his life at which Luther reached this insight. The debate arose first in the late 19th century, when the essence of Protestantism was brought into question and scholars tried to find an answer in the writings of Luther himself.
This historical and methodological conjunction leads to different results concerning both the religious content of the discovery and the date when Luther discovered it. Two main answers have been given. The first supposes that it is the logical structure of self-annihilation and divine affirmation that is specifically reformatory. Luther came to this insight during his first lecture on Psalms, about 1514. This means that he certainly knew what his new theology contained when the indulgences controversy broke out. The second theory underscores that Luther had to establish a kind of outward kerygmatic reality in order to make the inner conflict and contradiction of sentiments acceptable. He reached this position only in 1518, that is, after the beginning of the controversy over indulgences in 1517. Therefore, the final development of Luther’s reformatory insight took place in the confrontation with the ecclesiastical powers of his day.
For many years the debate focused upon a late text by Luther, namely, the preface of the first volume of his Latin works in 1545. It has to be admitted that Luther offered there his own recollection of the beginning of his new theology. But he did so quite briefly, concentrating only on the notion of iustitia passiva. This is a proper term for the content of the reformatory insight, but Luther did not fully explain the spiritual and practical context. Therefore, one must imagine that the Reformatory Discovery came about through a longer process of theological reflection, including its biblical, conceptual, spiritual, and ecclesial consequences. It is significant that the conflict with the Roman Church came up exactly when Luther stressed the externality of God’s Word for establishing the inner status of humankind before God. The church can only be the medium, not the subject, of salvation. And the correspondence to God’s Word means quite simply faith, that is, the acceptance of being accepted by God.
One must reckon here with a process that began with Luther’s first lectures in 1513 and came to an end by 1520. Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian” of 1520 clearly shows his reformatory discovery fully established.
Dirk G. Lange
Martin Luther’s reform of worship centers on gospel proclamation in its various manifestations. Gospel-centered worship necessarily de-centers the individual in his or her own quest for fulfillment or meaning. It de-centers the community from an inward, self-sufficient, closed-border understanding of identity. God comes to the believer and the community in worship through means (that is, through preaching and the administration of the sacraments). These means disrupt, confront, create, renew, and re-orient faith and love.
In A Treatise on the New Testament, That Is, the Holy Mass, Luther sums up the reform of worship in one sentence: “Christ, in order to prepare for himself an acceptable and beloved people, which should be bound together in unity through love, abolished the whole law of Moses. And that he might not give further occasion for divisions and sects, he appointed in return but one law or order for his entire people, and that was the holy mass” (LW 35:81; WA 6:355, 3–4). The law that Luther points to is none other than Christ himself coming to humankind, giving of himself, reconciling all of humanity with God. This work is finished. There are no other sacrifices to be made (The Misuse of the Mass, LW 36). Worship is now characterized by two things: thanksgiving and service.
In his reform of the liturgy, Luther argued that the liturgy is both about the word and the rites. The Word of God (as something “heard,” for example, in preaching) does not negate or replace the ritual of worship but the Word is encountered both in the preaching and in the rites (sacraments). Proclamation happens within the liturgical order. The liturgy is not displaced or replaced by preaching the Word alone. Though the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of the Altar (or Holy Communion) was misused, Luther did not reject the sacrament per se but sought to re-establish a correct interpretation. Sacrament was not to be equated with sacrifice but with a gift from God. Therefore, Luther continually argued for the maintenance of the bond between Word and sacrament as constitutive of the liturgy.
A corollary reform involved retrieving the role of the body in worship. Proclamation employs earthly means. The gospel expressed in words (preaching) presents only half the picture because God’s Word also comes to the worshiping community through non-verbal means. Luther explains how the words are also seen and tasted, how they are received through and in the body.
A key aspect of these characteristics of the reform of worship is on the interior sources of the liturgy. Luther and reformers keep the ceremonies and traditions of the Mass as long as they do not burden consciences (that is, create guilt in a person by making them believe they must still do something to be reconciled with God). The Word, whether preached or embodied in the sacraments, must point the believer always towards the gospel, that is, towards God’s free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and new creation. If, however, the preaching and the sacraments are considered works that make a believer righteous before God, they are to be condemned for then they no longer serve the Gospel.
This reversal in the theology of worship takes shape in Luther’s two proposals for a liturgical order as it does in his writing on public worship and on the sacraments, notably Baptism and Holy Communion. Though he proposed liturgical orders, Luther constantly maintained that such orders should not become “rules” but serve as demonstrations on how evangelical freedom is to be maintained within the framework of God’s Word and sacrament.
Gordon A. Jensen
Martin Luther’s emphasis on the sacraments as a visible, tactile means by which the justifying action of God is conveyed to the believer brings the pastoral heart of the Reformation into clear focus. As Luther continued to explore how justification, the “first and chief article” (“Smalcald Articles,” Part 2, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000], 301), was the measuring stick by which all theology is evaluated, he was forced to define and clarify his understanding of the sacraments as a “more than verbal” (Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978], 5) word that proclaims the promises of God and makes those promises a reality. Using this and other, correlated criteria, Luther justifies the reduction in the number of sacraments found in the Roman Catholic Church of his time. The sacramental controversies that arose in the 1520s also force him to shape and clarify the interconnected nature of the sacramental elements, the word, and faith. By 1530, Luther’s sacramental theology had matured and could be defined by the “sacramental unity” between the word, faith, and earthly elements. This sacramental union also provided the foundational basis for his insistence on the efficacy of the sacraments, since this union was intimately connected to God’s promise of the gospel, proclaimed and enacted.
John M. Frymire
For Martin Luther the sermon was not simply an exercise in which a preacher expounded on the biblical text, taught moral lessons, and reprimanded listeners for their shortcomings. The sermon meant far more than that. Preaching was God’s voice speaking through the minister. Hearing God’s promise of salvation was far more effective than reading it. In terms that echoed medieval theories of demonology, which posited that reading biblical passages aloud exorcized the air, Luther insisted that Satan fled the spoken word of God even if the written form bothered him not a whit. The sermon was the site where Christ confronted Satan in eschatological combat. Minsters made Christ really present from their pulpits and, through their preaching of God’s word, provided the means through which the Holy Spirit “worked,” literally, upon the auditor. Luther’s sense of the sermon was spiritual and physical to the extent that he considered preaching quasi-sacramental in the medieval sense of the opus operatum.
Luther’s theology of preaching was among the most original of his discoveries, but he did not invent the sermon. For 1,500 years Christianity had spread among overwhelmingly illiterate populations, and the oral exposition of scripture was part of Christian services early on. Patristic theologians such as Augustine had preached extensively and left a corpus of manuscript sermons that influenced later exegetes. The advent of printing in the mid-15th century spread the homilies of medieval preachers and their patristic forerunners as never before. Especially popular were postils, model sermons for Sundays and festival days that were available in Latin and vernacular versions. Printing, the spread of the Mendicant preaching orders, improved clerical education, and increasing lay literacy all combined to produce a late medieval preaching renaissance. Martin Luther was born into this renaissance just as he became a trained professional in its tradition. When he died in 1546 he was no longer a late medieval Augustinian, but he had been a preacher by trade for nearly forty years.
Luther preached constantly. None of his other duties took as much of his time. About 2,300 of his sermons survive, which, based on his preaching schedule, represent about half of the sermons he preached. Sermons take up some thirty volumes—that is, one-third—of the Weimar edition (WA) of his works. No other genre in his corpus comes close. The same can be said of the printing and impact of his sermons: none of Luther’s contemporaries came close either. Unlike many of those contemporaries, however, the most significant preacher in early modern Europe never wrote a treatise on how to preach. Luther never produced a comprehensive work of dogmatics either, and for the same reason: the incredibly gifted theologian was not a gifted systematician. Several of Luther’s greatest admirers noted as much, warning future preachers that unlike Luther, whose sermons tended to drift hither and yonder, they should stick to the main roads.
Determining what sermons Luther actually delivered is nettlesome because it hinges on the types and numbers of texts that have come down to us. The issue is always the state of the sources. Thus, the rudiments of Luther’s sermons and postils as genres are presented, and select issues of manuscript and print production that shape our understanding of what Luther preached and how his ideas were received are examined.
Luther not only wrote about charity and social ethics throughout much of his life; he also experienced the conditions that were the object of Christian generosity and ethical reflection. This essay suggests that his study of the Bible and Church Fathers was not the only source of Luther’s writings and revolutionary programs. His experience of deprivation as a child and a monk, his encounters with the homeless poor of Wittenberg, and his observation of corrupt business practices and failed political leadership played significant roles in his sensitivity to the scriptures and the history of ecclesial care for the poor. The rise of social history and the use of social scientific methods have drawn attention to the economic, political, and social context in which Luther lived and to which he responded throughout his life. The reformer’s works on charity and social ethics did not emerge in a vacuum. His initial public foray focused on the “spiritual economy” of the late medieval church, which discriminated against many of Luther’s poor parishioners.
While the Ninety-Five Theses raised serious questions about the sacrament of penance, the role of indulgences, and the authority of the pope, the text also reveals Luther’s early concern for the poor, who were frightened into buying spiritual favors for themselves or their dead relatives. In addition to theological problems, Luther recognized the ethical dimension of this large-scale sales campaign that benefited archbishops and the Vatican treasury. Luther’s rediscovery of the Pauline teaching on justification by grace alone reoriented Christians toward life in this world. Rather than spend effort or money on spiritual exercises that might win one God’s favor in the afterlife, human energies could be directed toward alleviating present suffering.
A dialectical thinker, Luther insisted on holding together two seemingly irreconcilable claims, two disparate texts, two discordant images in order to raise the question: How is one related to the other? His teaching on justification claims that God always advances toward a suffering humanity first and that this advance is revealed with utter clarity in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who incarnates God’s desire to free human beings from the deathly presence of anxious religion and give them “life, health, and salvation.” But such freedom must be used for the good of one’s neighbor who suffers within the economic, political, and social fabric of life. The advance of God, who is mercy and grace, continues into the world through Christ and his body. This essay suggests that while Luther animated significant contributions to biblical studies and theology, a body of ethical teaching has been harder to discern among his followers. Perhaps this hesitancy arose out of fear that an emphasis on ethics would be construed as a lapse into what Luther called “works righteousness.” This essay considers a number of the ethical questions and crises that faced Luther, which have not subsided and ask for contemporary investigation.
A remarkable achievement of Luther’s reform was a revolutionary change in social assistance. The monastic communities of western Europe had long served as centers of hospitality and charity, and the order in which the young Luther made his vows was a reforming order committed to austerity of life and care for the urban poor. For theological reasons, Luther promoted the suppression of the monasteries and vilified the mendicant orders, but this left a gap in care for the growing population of homeless peasants seeking work in urban centers. The reform of social assistance undertaken in the small “Lutheran” town of Leisnig, Germany, in the early 16th century would become the model for many church orders throughout Germany and Scandinavia, influencing today’s state-run and tax-funded assistance to needy families.
Recently, ethicists and Luther scholars have reassessed his reform of charity to ask how the reformer’s social teaching might support engagement with a wide range of present-day social movements. Increased study of Luther’s social writings and the study of evangelical “church orders,” previously marginalized in the academy, offers promising avenues for continued research. This essay also compares three forms of charity—Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Reformed—illustrating the symbiotic relationship between social ethics and theology and underscoring the role of theological priorities in the conceptualization of social assistance.
Finally, this essay considers Luther’s writings on social ethics. Frequently, interpreters of this focus on “faith active in love,” or the utility of his distinction between two kingdoms or governments. Such studies offer a biblical or theological grounding for Lutheran ethics yet frequently overlook the actual crises or practices he encountered. Luther was not a “systematic” theologian, and one must search through his many writings to discover his “ethical” teachings. Luther scholars and historians of social ethics are increasingly interested in the specific ethical questions he was asked to discuss by those who had accepted his reform. The growing popularity of his reform movement and the seismic shift in Christian thought and practice it animated left Luther little time to construct a well-ordered corpus of social teaching, yet many of his concerns are vitally alive in the world today albeit within a different context. Many of his concerns were enlightened by his study of scripture, in which he recognized a mirror of his own turbulent era.
Martin Luther did not write a specific treatise solely on sin. Nevertheless, the topic of sin is important to him. There are very few treatises where the topic of sin does not appear, as there are few treatises where Luther would not use Scripture as the base for his argumentation. Luther’s hermeneutical preconditions for development of the doctrine on sin are both Old Testament and New Testament passages. The beginning of Luther’s doctrine of sin is tied to his discovery of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings during his “Lectures on Romans” (1515–1516). Luther equated concupiscence with original sin and reasoned about human passivity in the process of salvation. With the formulation of new reformational theology, the emphasis on original sin as the corruption of bodily and spiritual powers in its universal, total, and radical aspect grew. Luther came to the conviction that peccatum radicale is unbelief in God, a distrust in Christ’s promises, as clearly expressed in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian.” The reformer did not develop his teaching on original sin from some sort of “original state theology.” A helpful tool to approach Luther is to use the parable from New Testament (Matt. 7:16–20 and 12:33, Luke 6:43–45) about a good tree bearing good fruits. This motive became the central place in the iconographic depiction of the process of salvation by Lucas Cranach’s woodcut Law and Grace (1529/1530). In its illustrative power it offers generally understandable conclusions and is pedagogically effective: good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works. Under the law, the sinner is entirely and totally without good fruits coram deo. Luther became firmly convinced that the true nature of sin is to be found entirely in peccatum radicale and not in peccatum actuale. The essence of the “root sin” is the disobedience to the first commandment and unbelief as lack of trust in God’s promises. Luther was rather unspeculative on the question about the origin of sin. His radical perspective related to sin has the advantage of being able to point to the tragical effect of sin on human beings bearing “fruits of sin”, making them captive to self-destructive conditions as perdition. Luther’s doctrine of sin is holistic, and it formed his homiletical, catechetical, and pastoral language with the conviction that “making sin great” is inseparably connected with exalting only God’s grace and salvation only in Christ only through faith.