Across the theology of the 19th century, Martin Luther came to represent not only the Reformation but also what it meant to be Protestant—and, more than occasionally, what it meant to be modern, German, and Lutheran, in particular. Much of the modern theological interaction with and “return” to Luther occurred in the context of the various Luther or Lutheran Reformation jubilees; these religious, commemorative occasions were themselves more often than not heavily politicized affairs: for instance, 1817, 1830, 1867, and 1883. In addition, neo-confessional movements and attempts at both retrieving and “repristinating” the theology of the Reformation confessions and the highly developed systems of Protestant orthodoxy, as well as debates over what constituted the key “principle of Protestantism,” had a significant impact in the reception and formation of Luther’s image (Lutherbild) in theology across the modern era. Certain aspects of Luther’s theology, such as his doctrine of the hiddenness of God (Deus absconditus) from his landmark treatise De servo arbitrio (The Bondage of the Will, 1525), played particularly important roles. A few basic approaches to Luther emerged in the second half of the 19th century, spearheaded by such figures as Albrecht Ritschl, Theodosius Harnack, C. F. W. Walther, and Charles Porterfield Krauth. Some, like Ludwig Feuerbach or Søren Kierkegaard, constructed idiosyncratic images of the reformer. Many of the interpretations arose from polemical concerns, whether political, ecclesiastical, or theological. Conflicts over the proper appropriation of Luther’s thought increasingly resembled the battles between Protestants and Catholics in the late Reformation over who could claim the authority of the church fathers and other patristic voices. In many respects, the story of Luther’s theological reception is also a struggle for authority.
Mark D. Chapman
Luther’s impact on Anglicanism, especially on the Church in England but also in Scotland, is difficult to gauge. The English and Scottish Reformations moved in ways that were more influenced by Reformed theology than by Luther himself. Nevertheless, there were many relationships between Luther and Britain that began during the time of Henry VIII. There was a correspondence between Luther and Henry, and the Reformer was even consulted on the King’s Great Matter (his attempt to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled). The king also wrote a treatise on the seven sacraments attacking Luther’s theology, to which Luther responded with his usual vitriol. During the 1520s there were efforts to ban Lutheran ideas under Cardinal Wolsey and John Fisher, although a number of early English evangelicals, including William Tyndale, Robert Barnes and John Frith, adopted many of Luther’s key doctrines even though they blended them with other sources. During the 1530s there were several efforts at forging diplomatic alliances between Henry and the German princes of the Schmalkaldic League, which in turn meant that Lutheran theology received a more sympathetic hearing in England. There was a significant although contested influence of Lutheran formularies on Anglican statements of faith and to a lesser extent on the liturgy of the Books of Common Prayer. What has been described as the “death of Lutheran England” began toward the end of the 1530s and early 1540s with the conservative backlash that led to the execution of Barnes. Later, after the death of Henry, there was a gradual acceptance of ideas, especially on Eucharistic presence, that stemmed from elsewhere in the Continent and that departed significantly from Luther’s views. As such ideas rose to prominence in Anglican theology, especially during the reign of Edward VI, Lutheran theology came to be regarded as increasingly conservative. Although there were further efforts to revive Lutheranism in the Elizabethan period, in general he was understood more as a pastor than a theologian. Although several later British figures promoted Luther, in general it has been more Calvinist or pietist positions far removed from Luther and his teachings that have dominated: for Anglican theology, and with rare exceptions for Britain in general, Luther remains a distant figure who for the most part is unread and seldom taught.
Alister E. McGrath
Following the deep and unsettling questions raised about the legacy of German Protestant theology as a result of the Great War (1914‒1918), a new interest emerged in returning to the fons et origo of Protestant theology in the writings of Martin Luther and other reformers. This was given additional impetus through the work of Karl Holl, who is widely credited with shaping the “Luther Renaissance” of 1919‒1921. Dialectical theology was a movement focused on Karl Barth that arose within German-speaking Protestantism in the aftermath of the Great War. The reception of Luther within the dialectical theology movement is complex and not easily reduced to simple categorizations. The diverse theological and confessional commitments within the movement led to various readings of Luther, generally mediated through secondary sources or channels. The movement portrayed itself in terms of a theocentric new reformation, breaking free from the cultural compromises and entanglements of German liberal theology in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in relation to anthropology, Christology, and the understanding of sin. The movement presented itself as both the heir and reinterpreter of the theological legacy of the Reformation, particularly the theology of Martin Luther, most notably its emphasis on divine revelation. Yet its leading representatives—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten—understood Luther in somewhat different manners. It is therefore important to consider the use made of Luther by each of these figures individually, rather than try to collapse them into a single generic approach which is held to be representative of dialectical theology. The high profile these four writers accorded to Luther unquestionably stimulated Luther studies in the postwar period and contributed significantly to the current appreciation of Luther in contemporary theological debate.
Simon D. Podmore
Principally, Luther defers from philosophy’s authority to the authority of theology owing to an intense recognition of theology’s ultimate foundation in revelation. Allied to this is a suspicion about philosophy’s intellectual hubris and speculative neglect of the individual coram Deo (“before God”)—the “God” who is only known as revealed pro me (“for me”). As it transpires in modern philosophy’s emergence from its “service” to theology, variations of such concerns come to shape a new philosophical horizon which, for better or ill, come closer to Luther’s own in important and underexamined ways. Under implicit or explicit influence from Luther, key figures in modern European philosophy reconfigure critical new modes of philosophy which can be read to reflect Lutheran concerns about the nature of philosophy and reason itself. This story is related through key figures in modern philosophy (Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Heidegger), leading from the birth and apotheosis of the modern, through to the critical emergence of the postmodern. Through the critical reception of Luther in these philosophers, it is shown that modern European philosophy regularly deals with Lutheran tensions but often produces visions of the role of reason and selfhood which would have deeply troubled Luther himself. Nonetheless, there are also signs of a recovery of Luther’s suspicions about the possibilities of knowing which also bring into question the parameters of postmodern philosophy itself.
From the outset, Catholic interest in the life and work of Martin Luther stemmed from ecumenical inquiry as the 19th century ended. The Catholic research concerned with Luther that followed in the 20th century is one of the driving forces of the international ecumenical movement and arose as Catholic theologians made their first hesitant approaches to international ecumenical efforts surrounding the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 in Amsterdam. At first restricted essentially to Germany and German-speaking regions, a specific methodology for approaching the Reformation developed which gradually began to determine ecumenical methodology in international Lutheran–Catholic dialogue. The methodology of differentiating consensus, ultimately developed and applied in today’s Lutheran–Catholic dialogue, frees the approach of dialogical theology when applied to each particular confessional theology to overcome the effect of inherent confessional distinctions and to prepare the way for mutual understanding of the message of justification in the gospel of Jesus Christ, without eliminating particular confessional aspects and emphases.
As a result, neither the theology of Martin Luther nor that of the Council of Trent proves to be an insurmountable impediment to dialogue. Surprisingly, the results of this research have not been restricted to theology and ecumenical dialogue; rather, they continue to be at least implicitly received by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and the popes since the Second Vatican Council.
Today, Catholic doctrine can speak of Martin Luther as a witness to Jesus Christ, a teacher of theology, and a Catholic reformer, without the 16-century condemnations having yet been revised. The reconsideration of Martin Luther by Catholic theologians demonstrates a capacity for reform and points the way to overcoming the contentious theological gestalt of Catholic theology altogether. In this respect, the shape of Catholic theology today shows the influence of Martin Luther’s Reformation.
Luther was a point of reference in all three of the confessional cultures during the confessional age, though this was not something he had intended. His theological “self-fashioning” was not meant to secure, canonize, or stabilize his own works or his biography. Rather, he believed, and was convinced, that the hidden God rules in a strange way. He hides himself in the course of the world and realizes what we would have liked to realizes. Apart from this theological viewpoint, historiographic differentiation is needed: Luther had different impacts on each of the three confessions. Furthermore, one also has to differentiate between a deep impact and the unintended effects of Luther’s thinking. Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. From the beginning, he underwent a heroization and a diabolization by his contemporaries. Apart from this black-and-white reception of his person, it was, and still is, extremely difficult to analyze Luther, his work and medial effects. Historians have always been fixated on Luther: he was the one and only founder of Protestantism. His biography became a stereotype of writing and was an important element of Protestant (or anti-Protestant) identity politics. For some Protestants, his biography became identical with the history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte). For his enemies, his biography was identical with the history of the devil.
In all historical fields, one has to differentiate between the different groups and people who protected or attacked Luther or shared his ideas. The history of Luther can only be written as a shared history with conflict and concordances: the so-called Anabaptists, for example, shared Luther’s antihierarchical ideal of Christian community, although on the other hand “they” were strongly opposed toward his theology and person. Luther or example, had conflicts with the humanists and with Erasmus especially; he argued about the Lord’s Supper with Zwingli, he criticized the Fuggers because of their financial transactions in an early capitalist society; and, last but not least, he was in conflict with the Roman Church. The legitimization of different pictures of Luther always depends upon the perspectives of the posterity: either Luther was intolerant against spiritualists, Anabaptists, or peasants who were willing to resort to violence; or he was defended by humanists like Sebastian Castellio for defending religious tolerance. During his lifetime Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. Hundreds of pro-Lutheran and polemical anti-Lutheran leaflets or texts were published. The many literary forms of parody, satire, caricature, the grotesque, and the absurd were cultivated during the confessional age. Luther’s biography was often used by Lutheran theologians as an instrument of heroization and identity politics in public discourse.
Historically, one can differentiate between the time before and after Luther. The political and religious unity of the Holy Roman Empire was strongly disturbed, if not broken, through the Reformation. The end of the Universalist dreams of universal powers like theology and politics (pope and emperor) were some of the central preconditions for political, cultural, and theological differentiation of Europe. Religious differentiation was one of the unintended effects of theology and the interpretation of the scripture. Decades after Luther’s death, the Holy Roman Empire slowly and surprisingly turned into a poly-, multi- and interconfessional society.
Faith is not a human act but rather (a) an act of God—that is, the power or action of God as a “divine work in us”; and (b) relation before God (coram Deo), or more precisely, a passive relation and responsorial action (vita passiva). Furthermore, the genesis of faith and its execution should be systematically conceived as (c) communication (unio, communio et communicatio cum Christo) in the event of justification; or (d) the encounter of a pure gift by the power of the Holy Spirit in the word event; (e) ensuing the exchange of gifts or the response of the vita passiva.
Grace is an essential element of Christian theological reflection. Primarily, the divine attribute or trait labeled “grace” refers to God’s disposition and activity in regard to the Creation in general and toward human beings in particular. From the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, Scripture bears witness to the fact that God creates things “good” and gives good things. God’s grace is especially manifest in the divine promises and other gifts described in the Bible and realized over time. At the same time, the Scriptures show that human beings—made in the image of God—have a history of devaluing, forgetting, and even abusing those things that God has graciously given. Part of Christianity’s doctrinal development, therefore, consists of attempts to describe the scope and sequence of God’s gracious regard and activity on behalf of a humanity prone to sin and rebellion.
In light of such creaturely “original sin” and ongoing rebellion, Scripture testifies that the Creator remains gracious—that God yet desires to be in relationship with human beings despite their sin. Theological considerations of grace share a basic assumption that although God is not obligated to think, feel, and act for the benefit of sinful humans, God does so nevertheless. While God’s wrath results in severe consequences for sin, God’s grace results in gifts that overcome sin and its consequences. The full extent of God’s gracious giving is in the giving of the divine self in Jesus Christ, the divine Logos made flesh, who is “full of grace and truth” and from whose “fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
Martin Luther’s theology can be fundamentally construed as the development of his thought regarding the nature of grace, the nature of God’s favor and blessing bestowed upon undeserving human beings. The many dimensions of Luther’s biblical teaching and theological reflection have, in the background a desire to understand God’s grace most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Luther’s concepts of the righteousness of God, justification by faith, the bound will, the distinction of law and gospel, the new obedience, the “happy exchange,” and many related concepts are, at heart, attempts to describe what it is to have a God of grace.
Most interpreters have rightly understood that in Luther’s view, to have a gracious God means to have a God who does not require human beings to fulfill a set of prerequisites in order to receive God’s gift in Christ or to reciprocate God’s giving in order to continue receiving Christ and his benefits. For Luther, to have a God of grace means to believe and trust that through Jesus Christ, God has already met all prerequisites and fulfilled all reciprocations. On this point, Luther found himself breaking new ground (or recovering lost ground) in the understanding of divine grace. Luther “broke” with those theological forebears who taught that divine grace was, in one way or another, partly dependent on human willing and doing. For Luther, God graciously wills and works “all in all.” Nevertheless, when Luther’s many descriptions of what it is to “have a gracious God” are analyzed, a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the One giving the gift and the ones receiving it begins to reveal itself. For Luther, faith—that gracious means through which God graciously bestows the righteousness of Christ—creates a dynamic rather than static experience of possessing and being possessed of a God of grace. Indeed, scrutinizing Luther’s writings for descriptions of the experientia of sola gratia continues to be a promising direction for future Luther research.
Duane H. Larson
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.
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.