Bo Kristian Holm
In analyzing the role of gift and giving in Martin Luther’s theology, one almost inevitably has to deal with the contrast between Marcel Mauss’s description of archaic gift economy, where gifts and exchange are interconnected and gift exchange a total social fact, and Derrida’s critique of Mauss for talking of anything else but the gift, since only a gift uncontaminated by exchange deserves the proper name “gift.” Accordingly, any reading of Luther relating Luther’s theology to the reciprocity of giving seems, from the outset, to grasp anything but the cornerstone of his theology: the justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. Nevertheless, scholars in the early 21st century have been discussing Luther as a theologian of the gift. Some defend a position according to which Luther’s theology can only be rightly understood by maintaining that the divine gift is free and pure. Others argue that Luther’s mature theology allows for an integration of some kind of exchange as a vital part of the very doctrine of justification.
In both cases, social anthropological gift studies can function as a lens for highlighting the heart of Luther’s theology, either negatively by presenting the absolute opposite of Luther’s understanding of divine giving in justification and creation or positively by revealing the very heart of the same. The young Luther vehemently criticized a piety regulated by economic principles and understood divine righteousness in contrast to human principles for righteousness. However, he soon began integrating reciprocal aspects from the traditional definition of righteousness into his doctrine of justification. This was possible due to an emphasis on the divine self-giving, revealed in Christ and slowly elaborated to cover Luther’s understanding of the whole Trinity. In this move, Luther seemed to have been influenced by Roman popular philosophy, which was widespread in the late renaissance, but biblical passages emphasizing reciprocal justice also played an important role. Advocators for understanding Luther’s theology from the perspective of inter-human gift exchange will argue that Luther’s theology of the gift is intimately related to his use of the figure of communicatio idiomatum, which allows the giver to share his attributes with the receiver.
David J. Bartholomew
In many quarters God and chance are still seen as mutually exclusive alternatives. It is common to hear that ascribing anything to “chance” rules out God’s action.
Recent scientific developments have tended to reinforce that distinction. Quantum theory introduced an irreducible uncertainty at the atomic level by requiring that certain microscopic physical events were unpredictable in principle. This was followed by the biologists’ claim that mutations, on which evolution depends, were effectively random and hence that evolutionary development was undirected. The problem this posed to Christian apologists was put most forcibly by Jacques Monod when he asserted “Pure chance,… at the root of the stupendous edifice of evolution alone is the source of every innovation.”
Several attempts have been made to include chance within a theistic account. One, advocated by the intelligent design movement, is to contend that some biological structures are too complex to have originated in the way that evolutionary theory supposes and therefore that they must be attributed to God. Another is to suppose that God acts in an undetectable way at the quantum level without destroying the random appearance of what goes on there.
A third approach is to contend that chance is real and hence is a means by which God works. A key step in this argument is the recognition that chance and order are not mutually exclusive. Reality operates at a number of different levels of aggregation so that what is attributable to chance at one level emerges as near certainty at a higher level.
Further arguments, based on what is known as the anthropic principle, are also used to judge whether or not chance is sufficient to account for existence. These are critically evaluated.
Luther’s understanding of God saturates his oeuvre, and in turn, this understanding is saturated by his doctrine of the justification of the sinner. God is the sovereign source and origin of all that is, and Luther develops his understanding of God in a manner that tries to safeguard this position in such a way that the personal relationship to God becomes the focus point for all he says. The doctrine of God as creator and as savior is modeled in a parallel way in Luther, as he sees God as the source of everything positively in both contexts. God is the sole giver of the gifts that human life requires. As creator, God is omnipresent, omniscient, and sovereign. Nothing can determine God. God is accordingly also the only instance in reality that has free will. Everything else is dependent on God, God’s foreknowledge, and God’s predestination. It is possible to see Luther’s position as an attempt to offer the human being a reliable and trustworthy notion of God, someone he or she can cling to in times of despair and desolation. The only God who deserves to be God, who is trustworthy with regard to being able to provide a safe and reliable basis for human life, is the God who justifies the sinner because of God’s own righteousness. In contrast, a human who puts her trust in herself and her own works or merits makes herself a god and will not be able to stand justified coram deo in the last judgment.
Luther develops the idea about God’s hiddenness in different ways, most notably in his ideas about the hidden God in De servo arbitrio. But also in his notion of the theology of the Cross in the Heidelberg Disputation, and in other places where he writes about the masks of God, behind which God hides in order to do God’s work, we can see related or similar ideas. Thus, Luther develops an ambiguous element in his understanding of God.
Brent A. Strawn
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.
The God of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is arguably one of the most fascinating deities in all religious literature: complex and multifaceted; prone to great acts of mercy and kindness, although not above brutal acts of punishment and wrath; consumed with care for the world and its inhabitants; capable of changing direction or mind; inexplicably in love with God’s people and deeply concerned with their ways in the world.
This robust picture of the character of God in the Old Testament emerges in the aggregate: from viewing the library of books that is the Old Testament as a whole and trying to reckon with their literary complexity at a higher order of reflection. Inordinate attention to specific parts of the Old Testament—this verse, say, or that one, especially when divorced and isolated from all others—can produce a completely different (mis)perception such as that found in some ungenerous estimations that see the God of the Old Testament as petty or unjust, vindictive or bloodthirsty, misogynistic or genocidal. Such estimations are as old as the second-century arch-heretic Marcion but are also found in works of more recent vintage.
Some—although certainly not all—of these negative descriptors can be applied to the God of the Old Testament in certain passages, but a portrait consisting solely of them will end up being little more than a caricature that will not hold up to close scrutiny because it systematically ignores every piece of contrary data found in the Bible. To be sure, accounting for what might be called “polarities” in God’s presentation (God’s love versus God’s wrath) is a challenging intellectual task, literarily as much as theologically. Not all readers are up to the job (witness Marcion). But this task must be engaged if one wishes to write a complete character description (not to mention analysis) of God from the biblical texts. Indeed, the complexity of any more fulsome portrait of God in the Old Testament—marked, for example, by tensions, a vast array of metaphors, and alternative presentations—should be one of the primary results of such an endeavor. The God of the Old Testament is, after all, first and foremost, according to the description above, complex and multifaceted.
The complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament is the direct result of the diversity of the Bible itself—a term that derives from a Greek plural, ta biblia, “the books.” Not only are the books of the Bible several and different at a synchronic level, but also they come from different periods and are themselves (that is, within each particular book) the result of long diachronic processes. This two-layered diversity that marks the Bible adds yet further difficulty to the task of describing God therein, even as it suggests that more than one approach can and must be (and has been) utilized in the attempt.
In the final analysis, it seems safe to say that the complexity of God’s portrayal in the Old Testament has functioned not only to make this deity endlessly fascinating in the history of civilization but also to underscore—at some literary level, if nothing else—that the God of whom the texts speak is truly a divine character: not able to be captured, controlled, or managed by the human characters in the stories and not even by the sacred literature itself. Only a robust approach to the biblical literature that pays attention to both synchronic and diachronic aspects can hope to do justice to such a fascinating deity.
H. G. M. Williamson
The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208
How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions.
Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual.
Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.
Keith F. Pecklers
The 20th-century liturgical movement grew in tandem with the biblical, ecumenical, ecclesiological, and patristic movements, all part of a wider movement of resourcement—a return to biblical and patristic sources. Indeed, the success of the liturgical movement in the 20th century, ultimately ratified in the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), can be seen precisely in its collaboration with those other ecclesial movements for church reform. Especially important was the ecumenical liturgical cooperation that grew across denominational lines as the movement took shape in different churches.
Belgian Benedictine Lambert Beauduin (d. 1960) of Mont César is considered the founder of the Roman Catholic liturgical movement; during a national Catholic labor conference, held in Malines in September 1909, he delivered a conference on the liturgy as the “true prayer of the Church.” Taking his cue from Pope Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio “Tra le sollecitudini,” in which he spoke of the liturgy as “the true and indispensible source” for the Christian life, Beauduin argued that liturgy was foundational for Christian mission and social outreach. This message was consistent with the parish communion movement within the Church of England at the dawn of the 20th century and, indeed, in what the founder of the liturgical movement within the Church of England, A. Gabriel Hebert, S. S. M., wrote in his classic 1935 text Liturgy and Society.
In Germany, the movement centered on the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach and was more scientific in scope. Soon the movement took hold in Austria, France, and the rest of Europe, as well as in the Americas, in Anglican, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches in particular. It is precisely because of this common return to the sources that the 20th-century liturgical movement can only be understood in its wider ecumenical context.
Luther’s understanding of the Incarnation concerns various subject areas in his theology, among them his understanding of scripture, his teaching on the sacraments in particular, as well as his description of a human being’s life of faith. All these subject areas are based on Luther’s Christology, which is essentially determined by his insights into the Incarnation and the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.
Luther’s description of the Incarnation and the humanity of God is particularly oriented towards the creed of Chalcedon. The insight that Christ is at the same time true human and true god is something Luther holds as relevant to salvation. For this reason, it is important for him on the one hand to think about the Incarnation of God in a Trinitarian context and thereby to highlight Christ’s divine existence. On the other hand, he refers to the concept of the Virgin Birth in order to show that God was born a real human being. Luther describes the union of God and man in Christ principally as a reciprocal exchange of the respective divine and human characteristics. He uses the figure of the communication of properties (communicatio idiomatum) to highlight the Incarnation’s fundamental significance for salvation, which becomes manifest in the course of Christ’s life.
Luther’s conception of the fact and manner in which human and divine natures are united with each other in Christ is of soteriological relevance. With the incarnate God, the sin that Christ has taken upon himself for the salvation of humankind is defeated on the Cross, since by virtue of his human nature the characteristics of being able to suffer and to die were proper to the incarnate Son of God. Accordingly, God himself suffers and dies on the Cross in Christ for his own creatures under the burden of their sins. On the Cross, the God who died in Christ and with his resurrection has overcome the death of sin meets his creatures so that they attain faith and ultimately eternal life in community with God. This saving event is, according to Luther, founded in God’s immeasurable love.
The saving effectiveness of Incarnation, Cross, and resurrection presupposes Christian proclamation, according to Luther. The preaching of the incarnate God is needed, so that through the operation of the Holy Spirit the truth of the proclaimed event can be recognized and faith can thereby arise. In faith in the Son of God who has become man, the believer himself experiences a most intimate connection with Christ. According to Luther, this community of faith determines the consummation of the life of the believer, who therefore lives in love for God and for neighbor because the love of God has been revealed to him/her in Christ.
The community of Christ’s faithful with one another is, according to Luther, above all formed through the celebration of the sacraments. In celebrating them, the believers experience the real presence of the incarnate God in Christ, through whom they are bound in faith based on the communication of properties between the human and divine natures.
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.”