William J. Wright
When Martin Luther began his academic studies at Erfurt, Renaissance humanism and skepticism had become well entrenched in the German academic world. He also found them at Wittenberg. Starting with Petrarch, humanists appeared in Italy who acquired the skills necessary to find solutions to their needs in the content of ancient pagan classics and Christian writings. Two major groups of humanists existed after the mid-15th century with distinct solutions for the needs they felt: rhetorical humanists epitomized by Valla and Neoplatonic humanists led by Ficino and Pico. Rhetorical humanism appealed to the heart and exempted the truth of Christian teachings from skepticism. Neoplatonic humanism sought to establish absolute truth by synthesizing the wisdom of all religions and philosophies.
It is well-known today that ultramontane Renaissance humanism was imported from Italy by large numbers of students from the north who studied there. German and other northern humanists mostly followed either in the path laid by Valla or that of Ficino and Pico. Luther was a beneficiary of the Christian humanism and biblicism of the rhetorical path, which also led to the development of the loci method of learning and the educational work of Melanchthon. The Neoplatonic path led to further development of logical solutions based on both Plato and Aristotle. This path developed remarkable syntheses of Christianity with ancient and medieval philosophies and religions, mostly meant to improve Christian life. Though familiar with the Neoplatonic path, Luther did not accept its basic views.
Luther’s theology is strongly Christocentric, but Christology is rarely the central focus of his writings. In some of his most considered summaries of his own faith, he presents Chalcedonian Christology alongside the church’s teaching on the Trinity as the uncontroversial foundation of the Catholic faith, which he shared with his opponents. At the same time, it is evident that Luther’s most celebrated theological innovations, including his teaching on justification by faith, his theology of the cross, his soteriology, and in particular his doctrine of the Eucharist, had considerable Christological implications that sometimes seem at variance with received orthodoxy.
Luther’s Christology must therefore be largely reconstructed from these various strands in his thought. The result is a distinctive albeit not systematic Christology that is focused on the paradoxical unity of divine and human in Christ. In this, Luther often appears close to the teaching of the Alexandrian fathers, but with a much fuller emphasis on the concrete humanity of the savior. His historical debt to late scholasticism is most evident in his few, albeit consequential, attempts to enter into the field of technical Christological doctrine, especially his affirmation in his controversy with Zwingli of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature after the ascension.
The impact of Johannes von Staupitz (c. 1468–1524) on Martin Luther can hardly be overestimated. Staupitz was elected vicar general of the reformed Augustinian Order in 1503. Between 1504 and 1506 he had the order’s constitutions printed for the first time, which was about the time when Luther became an Augustinian. It is uncertain whether Luther frequently went to Staupitz for confession. However, Luther clearly was a “Staupitzian,” and as such Staupitz sent him from Wittenberg to Rome as the travel companion of the chief negotiator. Upon Luther’s return, he became Staupitz’s successor as professor of biblical theology in Wittenberg. In his preaching Staupitz was celebrated as the “tongue of the Apostle Paul” and the “herald of the gospel,” one who stood up for the evangelical truth. Criticism of indulgences had begun long before Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses or Propositions of 1517. Staupitz and his disciple Luther, in cooperation with their confrère Wenceslaus Linck, spoke up publicly against the indulgences. They composed a text called Treatise on Indulgences, which Luther “edited.” Luther sent his mother a copy of the first edition of Staupitz’s On the Love of God in 1518. As a true Staupitzian Luther gave his endorsement to subsequent editions of that book, which is essentially a book about “grace alone” and “Christ alone” for salvation. In this book Christ’s suffering is “for us,” and God is made sweet and pleasant to us by grace. Staupitz was a Christocentric theologian in following 1 Corinthians 1:23, “We preach nothing else than Christ crucified.” Luther with his “theology of the cross” remained a faithful discipulus of Staupitz. Luther was grateful to Staupitz that the issue of penance had been solved for him, because now penance appeared “sweet” to him and Christ was his “most sweet Savior.” Staupitz and Linck stood by Luther at Augsburg during the encounter with Cardinal Cajetan in 1518. A later letter in which Luther tells about a bad dream in which he felt deserted by his superior does not necessarily demonstrate any change in Staupitz’s attitude toward him. Their friendship and correspondence continued. Staupitz was fully aware of Luther’s admiration for him, which Staupitz cited in his last letter (of April 1, 1524) to Luther, a letter showing that they remained on good terms despite a difference of opinion on monastic vows. Toward the end of his life Luther, in a letter to Elector John Frederick of March 27, 1545, summed up his indebtedness: “Doctor Staupitz is first of all my father in this doctrine and gave birth to me in Christ.”
Risto Saarinen and Derek R. Nelson
The law both is and functions in Martin Luther’s theology. To the extent that it simply is, the law is wholly good, just, and pure. It reveals God’s benevolent providence for creation by instantiating structures of human relationships, natural processes, and social arrangements within which human life and all of creation can flourish. Luther regards the essential character of the law in a way reminiscent of the haggadah tradition of Rabbinic Judaism, where the law is a narrative which reveals features of the lawgiver. Under the conditions of sin, however, the law can be experienced as wrath by humans who cannot fulfill what it requires, and who suffer as a result of their own transgression of the Word of God or as a result of the transgressions of others. It functions thus as a curb against wickedness and as a means of exposing sin to be sin. Its continued presence in the life of the believer is necessary, as Luther clarified in his various debates with Johann Agricola and the so-called “Antinomians.” When the law is understood only in its antinomy with the gospel, the life-affirming elements of the law are occluded, even as the gospel’s life-redeeming elements are thereby rendered clear.
While numerous fine distinctions can be found in Luther’s theology of the law, it maintains a basic unity-in-diversity. God wills singly in dealing with human beings as his creatures. Therefore “civil law,” the Decalogue, and other manifestations of the law are facets of the one will of God for the flourishing of creation. Recent Pauline scholarship has criticized Luther for eisegesis on Paul’s view of the law; Luther needed to see his contemporary Roman partisans as Paul’s legalistic Jewish opponents, they say, and so he read Romans as a critique of 16th-century “works righteousness.” This view ignores the fact that Luther (and Augustine) viewed the post-conversion Paul as “continent” in doing the works of the law, neither weak-willed nor perfectly virtuous.
Law is necessary for doctrine, but it is also important for the “Christian life” because it helps the believer to understand the reciprocity that underlies interpersonal relationships, seen especially in the “golden rule” that functions as the epitome of the Christian life. The radical receptivity (i.e., passivity) that characterizes the life of faith in believers enables the experience of God’s will, understood as law or command, in a constructive and beneficial way. While Christian life should employ a “faith approach” rather than a “law approach,” genuine faith in God does, in fact, reveal the true meaning of the law. This might be called the “second use of the gospel” in that God’s command (Gebot), viewed in light of the gospel, becomes a source of guidance for the Christian life, the ten commandments, the double love command, and the Sermon on the Mount chief among them.
The uncomfortable question of Martin Luther’s place in the development of modern anti-Semitism is raised by Luther’s status as a national cultural icon after German unification (1871) and by the fact that the Third Reich (1933–1945) perpetrated what is arguably the most violently racist state policy known to human history thus far. Luther contributed to the symbiosis of religious and secular prejudices. The reception of Luther’s anti-Jewish discourse illustrates the gradual diffusion of religious hostility into a society where churches slid from a central position to the margins of social influence. This can only be understood against the backdrop of a long chronology of religious thinking. The long chronology shows that Luther was more a conduit than a catalyst of European anti-Jewish polemic and feeling.
It would not be possible to say that the Lutheran tradition has led to the post-Christian world that is Europe today, the causes of which must be multifarious. Nevertheless, it is thinkers in the Lutheran tradition, as in no other, who have tackled the question as to what the coming of modernity means for the truth of Christian claims. It may be said that Luther himself and those around him took a large step from a Catholic, Aristotelian world into modernity. In the Enlightenment, it was notably German thinkers who had come out of a Lutheran context among them, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Ludwig Feuerbach, who advanced a demythologized interpretation of scripture, seeing the Christian myth as a projection of human self-understanding; the form that their secularizing position took being profoundly influenced by their Lutheran context. Meanwhile, the basic paradigm of Lutheranism, a Christocentic faith set over against reason or works, allowed other Lutheran thinkers to proclaim a Christian apologetic in the face of the Enlightenment (Søren Kierkegaard), and 20th-century secularity (Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). The Lutheran Christocentric apologetic would seem to have ended in incoherence, or to have become irrelevant, in a post-Christian context. It fits ill with forms of post-Christian spirituality. This notwithstanding, it remains the case that ways of thinking that derive from Lutheran thought have profoundly affected the modern world, its philosophy, culture, and psychoanalytic thought. It should be a cause for admiration, not derision, that those who have stood in this tradition—from Luther forward—have been ready to face the intellectual issues of their day and the challenges posed to Christianity. This stands in marked contrast with the comparative failure of the Catholic tradition in this regard.
Timothy J. Wengert
The German Reformation, sparked by the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, unfolded parallel to another intellectual phenomenon then sweeping centers of higher education throughout western Europe: the development of a new way to read classic literature of the humanities, philosophy, and theology, often called Renaissance humanism. At the University of Wittenberg, this resulted in the development of a sodality of professors in the arts and theology faculties, initially including Andreas Bodenstein (Karlstadt), Nicholas von Amsdorf, Martin Luther, and the court’s university advisor, Georg Spalatin, but quickly spreading to include, by the early 1520s, Philip Melanchthon, Justus Jonas, and Johannes Bugenhagen, among others. Any attempt to understand the early phases of Wittenberg’s Reformation without taking into account this sodality will ultimately fail to catch the breadth of this movement and the commitment of these teachers to one another and to their cause. After an early skirmish over theological method resulted in Karlstadt’s distancing of himself from the university, the other faculty members remained committed to reforming the curricula of the arts and higher faculties at the university along humanist, evangelical lines. This reform influenced the theology and practice of the emerging church in Saxony and elsewhere, witnessed among other places in the 1527–1528 Visitation Articles, and led to a uniquely Wittenberg reform, one that always blended the highest regard for good letters and the most ancient sources with a developing Lutheran theology.
Marriage was at the heart of Martin Luther’s break with Rome and the Reformation that followed. He preached sermons praising marriage beginning in 1519 and several years later wrote his first formal treatise attacking the value of vows of celibacy and arguing that marriage was the best Christian life. In 1525 he followed his words by deeds and married a nun who had fled her convent, Katharina von Bora. What started as a marriage of principle and mutual esteem became one of affection and deep emotional bonds. Luther continued to attack the celibate life of Catholic clergy and nuns and to celebrate marriage as a godly estate throughout his career, in sermons, formal treatises, lectures, advice manuals, letters, comments on legal cases, and casual conversation. In all of these, he both praised marriage and family life and commented on its burdensome side, moving from theoretical speculations while he was a celibate monk to reflecting on his own experiences as he became a family man, though his basic theology of marriage did not change much after the early 1520s. His words were direct and blunt, even in formal treatises. Sexual desire was inescapable for all but a handful, he argued, so should be channeled into marriage. Vows of celibacy should be rendered void, and monasteries and convents should be closed or much reduced in size. He agreed with St. Augustine on the three purposes of marriage, in the same order of importance: the procreation of children, the avoidance of sin, and mutual help and companionship. He praised spousal love but asserted that the ideal of reciprocal love in marriage was not an ideal of equality. Proper marital households were hierarchical, for the wife was and had to be the husband’s helpmeet and subordinate. Bearing children was the “precious and godly task” for which women were created, he wrote, and death in childbirth and even the deaths of children were part of God’s plan, though he himself was devastated when his twelve-year-old daughter died.
As cities and territories in Germany and then beyond became Protestant, they passed marriage ordinances and established institutions to regulate marriage, turning to Luther for advice on such issues as divorce, desertion, secret engagements, and parental consent. In making their decisions, judges slowly applied the new Protestant ideas about marriage, which people also learned about through sermons, artwork, and pamphlets. In general, however, other than clerical marriage, actual Protestant marriage patterns were not that different from Catholic ones. They fit with secular values as well, for rural and urban residents of all religious persuasions regarded appropriate marriages and stable families as essential to the social order. Recent scholarship has generally rejected earlier views that the Protestant Reformation by itself brought about dramatic change—for good or ill—in marriage and instead noted ways in which the reformers, including Luther, built on ideas and practices that were already there, especially in the middle-class urban milieus in which most of them grew up.
A teaching of Martin Luther that has had great historical effect is his teaching on vocation. Protesting the Roman Catholic arrangement in which the clergy had callings of higher religious and moral significance than the laity, Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that all callings are equal in moral and religious seriousness. They only differ in function. This teaching unleashed unprecedented commitment and energy to worldly work in the Western world. Paralleling his teaching on the priesthood of all believers, Luther taught that all Christians are called by God through Christ to be his beloved and forgiven children, and that they need no mediators to receive that graceful call directly. At the same time, however, Christians who receive that grace through Christ become priests to their neighbors, mediating God’s love through them to the neighbor. They do that very concretely in their vocations. Thus, Christians become conduits of God’s love received through Christ and offered to the neighbor in the various places of responsibility they have been given. For Luther, Christians do not need to cast about for places to exercise their obedience; they were given in the orders of creation into which each Christian was inevitably placed—marriage and family life, work, citizenship, and church. Each person—lay and clergy alike—is called to work in the world. In fulfilling their work gladly and conscientiously, they serve their neighbor. Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his faith-active-in-love. Work is no longer simply a job or occupation; it is a calling, a vocation. It is a summons from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit sanctifies the Christian’s life, not in a self-centered quest for perfection, but rather in humble service to the neighbor. While Luther thought there were some occupations that were off-limits to Christians, he accepted most worldly roles as useful to the neighbor. The Christian could be a soldier in a just war and even a hangman in a just cause. One alleged weakness of the classic Lutheran teaching on vocation, however, was that it tended to accept uncritically the roles prescribed by the world. In such teaching, the Christian willingly does what the world prescribes. However, recent Lutheran interpretations of vocation are more dynamic. For example, Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation, argued not only that the orders of creation are dynamic and call for constructive change, but that in Christian vocation the two ways that God reigns in the world intersect. The Christian under the reign of God’s gospel interjects the love liberated by that gospel into one’s worldly occupation, transforming it into a genuine vocation. Love has a transformative effect. It functions critically and constructively. Lutheranism at its best has incorporated more dynamic elements into its great teaching on vocation.
The Luther Renaissance is the most important international network for Luther research, as well as an ecclesial, ecumenical and cultural reform movement between 1900 and 1960 in Germany, Scandinavia, and Finland. It was the first exemplary attempt to construct theologically, under the conditions of modernity, a coherent unity of Reformation thought, based on various national discourses and with a focus on the person and experience of Martin Luther. For European Luther studies between 1910 and 1960, the impact of the Luther Renaissance is essential in regard to heuristics, methodology, and scientific results, as well as its ecclesial, cultural, and ecumenical applications. This impact, though declining since 1960, is still vivid, even in critiques and in the shift of paradigms in Luther research.
Recent research has comprehensively evaluated the national trends of the Luther Renaissance in Germany and in Sweden. Research has later addressed the Luther Renaissance in Denmark, Norway, and Finland.
Theologically, the German Luther Renaissance is the “other new start” in Protestantism after 1918, besides and alongside Dialectical Theology; scientifically, the Luther Renaissance responds to the crisis of historicism (e.g., in the work of Ernst Troeltsch) and is intertwined with the rise of Weberian-influenced religious history and sociology. It originated around 1910 with the gewissensreligiöse interpretation of Luther’s first Commentary on Romans (1515/1516, rediscovered and newly edited in 1908) by Karl Holl. Its visible breakthrough as a new theological paradigm came with Holl’s Luther, a comprehensive collection of his studies on Luther written between 1909 and 1921.
In Germany the Luther Renaissance included Karl Holl (1886–1926) and his school, most prominently Emanuel Hirsch (1888–1972); Carl Stange (1870–1959), and his network, including Rudolf Hermann (1887–1962) and Paul Althaus (1888–1966). It also comprised younger theologians such as Hans Joachim Iwand (1899–1960) or, in his early work, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945).
The German Luther Renaissance emphasized the foundational status of the experience of justification in two respects: in terms of religion as a “worldview” (Dilthey) and as a social theory of confessions (Troeltsch, Weber). Concurrent neo-Idealistic and neo-Kantian philosophies of religion were the background for interpreting justification as a foundational and orientational religious experience in the “crisis of modernity” after 1918.
The elaboration of this program during the 1920s developed in different directions, with increasingly contradictory results in the two branches of the Luther Renaissance: the school of Karl Holl, and the German-Swedish network of Stange, Hermann, Nygren Runestam, and Aulén. After 1933 international cooperation within the Luther Renaissance disintegrated because of contradictory theological, ecclesial, and political positions in conformity with or in critique of the (church) politics of the German Nazi party, with its militarism, racism, and totalitarianism. The German Luther Renaissance had lost its international nature by the end of the 1930s.
Current and forthcoming research will have to evaluate historically the international network of the Luther Renaissance before 1933, between 1933 and 1945, and after 1945, including the function of political theologies within the Luther Renaissance—both the totalitarian, racist, and fascist types, and the liberal-democratic, welfare-state types. The foci of recent and forthcoming research are overarching topics of the international Luther Renaissance; source strata of the later reception of Luther, methodological constraints and deficits of different national discourses as possible reasons for the shift of paradigms around 1960, and the long-lasting impacts of the Luther Renaissance.