You are looking at 151-160 of 257 articles
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.
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 2 in BC 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.