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Mary Jane Haemig
Martin Luther saw prayer as crucial to human life, a life created by the relationship to God. In this relationship God starts a conversation, communicating God’s words of law and promise. Prayer is a part of the human response to God’s speaking, a response itself shaped by the words of command and promise. Luther thought that God’s promise to hear prayer defines both the nature of God and the nature of the human relationship to God, as well as the human approach to life. Luther’s comments and instructions on prayer permeated his work. Luther sought to build an evangelical prayer practice that reflected the key insights of his theology: just as God redeems the unworthy human, so God promises to hear and respond to the one praying, despite his or her unworthiness. Humans respond to God’s actions in law and promise when they pray regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. Freedom in Christ sets humans free to use prayer practices that help them to do this.
Cheryl M. Peterson
Any study of Luther’s ecclesiology faces apparent consistencies or contradictions in Luther’s view of the church, which have been variously explained by scholars in terms of a development in Luther’s thought or as reflecting different genres in which he wrote. An understanding that begins with the Word of God, and the church as the creature of the Word, offers a helpful starting point. Luther’s view of the church and its ministry are both grounded in the Word of God, the promise of the gospel. The church exists wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, and the church is a spiritual community oriented to and shaped by this Word in its life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The distinctions in Luther’s ecclesiology, such as visible versus invisible, are hermeneutical rather than ontological. Luther’s later ecclesiological writings also reflect his Spirit and letter hermeneutic, even as he engages new battle fronts, so that the gospel remains at the center of the church’s proclamation and life. For God’s Word to continue to be preached, God has instituted the office of ministry to which specific persons are called, who are entrusted with this great treasure. Luther’s view of the office of ministry should be interpreted in light of, but not as opposed to, his view of the royal priesthood, which he develops as an ecclesiological concept. Bishops are a specific instance of the public office of ministry, at the heart of which is the preaching of the gospel and overseeing its right preaching for the sake of God’s people.
Erik H. Herrmann
Martin Luther’s exposition of the Bible was not only fundamental to his academic vocation, it also stood at the very center of his reforming work. Through his interpretation of the New Testament, Luther came to new understanding of the gospel, expressed most directly in the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification. Considering the historical complexities of Luther’s own recollections on the matter, it is quite clear that he regarded his time immersed in the writings of Paul as the turning point for his theology and his approach to the entire Scriptures (cf. LW 34:336f). Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation of the New Testament was imbued with such force that it would influence the entire subsequent history of exegesis: colleagues, students, rivals, and opponents all had to reckon with it. However, as a professor, Luther’s exegetical lectures and commentaries were more often concerned with the Old Testament. Most of Luther’s New Testament interpretation is found in his preaching, which, following the lectionary, usually considered a text from one of the Gospels or Epistles. His reforms of worship in Wittenberg also called for weekly serial preaching on Matthew and John for the instruction of the people. From these texts, we have some of the richest sustained reflections on the Gospels in the 16th century. Not only was the substance of his interpretation influential, Luther’s contribution to exegetical method and the hermeneutical problem also opened new possibilities for biblical interpretation that would resonate with both Christian piety and critical, early modern scholarship.
The word “catechism” denotes instruction in the basic knowledge of Christianity. It is a Latin version of the term that the Greek Church Fathers employed when teaching converts before allowing them to be baptized and thus become full members of the church. The verb meaning “catechize” is known already in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 18:25; Gal. 6:6). The application of the noun to a specific textbook, however, originates in Martin Luther’s edition of such a book in 1529, Enchiridion: Catechism for simple vicars and preachers.
Luther composed two catechisms in the wake of the Peasants’ War (1524–1525), which also instigated systematic Roman Catholic Church visitations in Saxony, and Luther’s catechisms can be regarded as an integral part in the building up of a new magisterial (“state”) church. At that time, the Reformer had a comprehensive background in catechetical authorship, which had evolved during his more than twenty years as a preacher. His catechisms were the outcome of a preaching campaign on catechetical matters which he undertook in 1528 as a substitute for the vicar in Wittenberg, John Bugenhagen. For a few years he had demanded that a “catechism” (a sermon on the knowledge necessary for children and simple folk) be printed. Not satisfied with the efforts of his fellow reformers, Luther began to publish the basics on tablets intended to be hung on the wall. These tablets became literally worn out from use and are no longer extant, but they formed the basis of the booklet afterwards called “D. Martin Luther's Small Catechism.” Overnight the term “catechismus” became a universal word for a genre of books intended to convey the elements of doctrine to every member of Christian society. When Luther edited his sermons from the same campaign, he named the publication his “German (later ‘Large’) Catechism.”
The outstanding characteristic of Luther’s Enchiridion, or “Small Catechism,” was its verybrevity, which probably reflects the fact that it was conceived as an oral recitation of questions and answers. In using this form, Luther was preceded by a pastor in Schwäbisch Hall, John Brenz, who also produced his “Questions on Christian Faith for the Youth” in 1527, closely related to his preaching. Brenz included, as Luther would later do, the demand that applicants for the Lord’s Supper should first prove their knowledge of the basics of that belief. In a revised edition, Brenz’s catechism became extremely popular and coexisted with Luther’s in the southern parts of the German Reich, even after the latter was formally adopted as part of normative Lutheran doctrine with the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580.
The notion of a catechism as a short collection of formulas was, however, almost immediately superseded by a wider concept covering a wide range of instructions in faith. The short explanations were felt to be unsatisfactory and gave way to large “exposed catechisms.” Moreover, the catechisms soon became vehicles of confessional or even national identity. Both Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians closed in on essential doctrine in elaborate catechisms, most notably in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and the Catechismus Romanus of 1566.
Both rehearsing the catechism and enlarging the text by adding new glosses existed until well into the 19th century, when a combination of new pedagogical ideals and the full and final secularization of the schools gave way to more obvious methods of instruction in both church and school. By the middle of the 20th century, the catechisms were ousted by Bible history. Today the classical catechism is mainly seen as a challenge and a possible inspiration for combining a short text with substantial religious teaching.
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.
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.