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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Theological aesthetics is the theory or view of beauty in relation to God, including how the senses bear on or contribute to matters of faith. It has a long and important tradition in all forms of Christian faith, since this faith affirms that God is beautiful and therefore desirable. In both the Eastern and Western churches, views of beauty have appropriated criteria not only from the Bible but also from pre-Christian antiquity, borrowing from Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and others. These views tend to see beauty in metaphysical terms, that is, that the core of reality is to be understood on the basis of not only being, truth, goodness, and unity (the “transcendentals,” defining the reality of all things) but also (with some exceptions) beauty.
Interpreting the scriptures, Christian thinkers in late antiquity, such as Augustine, singled out proportion as a criterion for beauty, and the Pseudo-Dionysius singled out light. Thomas Aquinas adopted these two perspectives, rooted in the wider Greek philosophical tradition, and added integrity or perfection as a third criterion. Late medieval nominalists and mystics did not focus on theological aesthetics but the piety and spirituality of “bridal mysticism,” mediated through Bernard of Clairvaux, present in Luther’s training in the friary, facilitated these views for Luther.
Luther appreciated aspects of this metaphysical tradition, such as the role of mathematics as indicating humanity’s eternal destiny or the cosmic role of proportion in musical intonation and rhythm. However, he was more powerfully influenced by other developments in the late Middle Ages, seen for instance in Jean Gerson, which heightened the affects over the intellect, intellectualizing beauty less and acknowledging how beauty moves and transforms people. He rejected that aspect of the tradition which was apt to view beauty as an end goal of an itinerary of spiritual transformation into more godlike traits, a “theology of glory.”
For Luther, God is the primary actor in the story of human salvation, not the human. God’s work of humbling humans “turned in upon themselves” is anything but beautiful: it is painful, indeed deadly, for “old beings.” But God’s proper work of regenerating and renovating humanity, including awakening human senses to “innocent delight,” is most beautiful indeed. The justification of sinners before God is due to their being “adorned” in Christ’s beauty, his righteousness, empowering them to cooperate with God in God’s ongoing “poetic” creativity.
As bearing human sin, Christ subverts the standard medieval criteria of proportion, brightness, and integrity. But because Christ assumes the consequences of sin and sin itself and takes it away, sinners through the “happy exchange” receive the beauty proper to Christ. Through the renewal effectuated by the word, humans receive creation as gift and are genuinely awakened to its beauty, similar to the beauty that God made it originally. As new creatures, believers’ desire is reoriented to desire what God desires.
While it is not a central concept (he devotes no treatises or disputations to it), it colors how we understand his view of justification and his view of human receptivity and gratitude. It has important ramifications for worship, the arts, and life.
Martin J. Lohrmann
Martin Luther’s reforms involved complicated questions of authority. On one hand, Luther defied the greatest authority figures of his day: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; on the other hand, he can be accused of setting himself up as a new authority or of defending the status quo at the expense of more sweeping reform. The theological and practical rationale behind Luther’s views of authority will be investigated.
Luther’s critique of power and view of social systems grew out of his theological conviction that God alone rules creation and liberates people from sin and death. Because the Bible is the primary place of Christian knowledge for who God is and what God does, Luther’s view of scriptural authority also requires examination of the principles Luther developed to help Christians understand and live out their faith in biblically grounded ways. On this point, Luther had to address critiques from Rome that he interpreted the Bible subjectively and individualistically, even as he sought to curtail this same tendency among more radical reformers. Luther’s biblical interpretation uniquely combined elements he received from late-medieval monastic life, scholastic theology, and humanist scholarship.
How these theological and scriptural influences informed Luther’s conflict with papal authority will be examined. As has often been remarked, Luther did not set out to attack the papal church. Nevertheless, his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), which questioned the theology and practice surrounding the sale of indulgences, invited questions of papal authority with respect to money, the penitential system, and the afterlife. Early opponents of Luther like Sylvester Prierias and John Eck quickly identified such affronts to the authority of the church hierarchy and its dominant theologies, turning the discussion of indulgences into a broader controversy about papal authority. With writings including To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate and Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (both written in 1520), Luther confirmed the depth of his critique, which further escalated issues of authority related to theology, biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and politics.
By what authority could an Augustinian brother and small-town university professor make such bold assertions? Luther believed that his job to serve as pastor and professor made him duty-bound to focus on central matters of faith, even if the institutional church opposed his insights. His method of biblical interpretation and view of church authority extended to reforms concerning “the office of the keys,” a historical term that, in a broad sense, describes the scriptural foundations of authority within the church and, more narrowly, refers to the particular means by which sins are forgiven through the church’s ministry.
Finally, these challenges took place in the context of a politically established European Christianity known as “Christendom.” Luther therefore also addressed how the spiritual message of the gospel related to the political realities of his day. His approach to this topic—also visible in the work of his colleague Philip Melanchthon—offers a perspective that is at once specific to the early modern period and stands as an enduring contribution to European political theory. In summary, Luther’s multifaceted engagement with questions of authority provides a fascinating matrix through which to explore and understand his work.
R. David Nelson
The central act of Christian worship is a mystery embodied in a meal. From its earliest expressions, Christianity has practiced the celebration of the Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving,” from the Greek adjective εὐχάριστος “thankful, grateful”), later and variably also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Mass (Catholic), and the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodoxy). The practice, which has taken innumerable liturgical forms and religious glosses in the course of Christianity’s history, at minimum both serves as the reiteration of Jesus’s final Passover meal and encapsulates a host of significant biblical and theological images and ideas, including fellowship and community, divine presence, creation, spiritual nourishment, participation, the eschatological celebration, embodiment, and the suffering and death of Jesus. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a central theme in Luther’s theology and literary deposit, and it played a significant role in the development of early Protestant doctrine and practice. Worked out primarily in the course of political crises and controversies among a host of interlocutors, both Catholic and Protestant, Luther’s teaching on the Supper reflects deep-seated commitments in areas such as Christology, the relationship between theology and philosophy, and the doctrine of ministry, to name but a few, and it bears important implications for a variety of dogmatic, practical, church-political, and interdisciplinary concerns.