Although many have interpreted Luther as “anti-metaphysical” and therefore unconcerned with the question of being, careful scrutiny of his texts shows otherwise. Trained at Erfurt to read Aristotle in the via moderna tradition, Luther did have ontological and semantic convictions that are displayed throughout his work, but especially in his disputations dealing with Trinitarian, Christological and soteriological issues. While rejecting as idolatrous the human attempt to grasp the summum bonum through natural reason, Luther nonetheless assumed that God’s revelation in Christ has ontological implications.
The Finnish School of Luther interpretation, founded by Tuomo Mannermaa, has done a great service for Luther research by highlighting the motifs in Luther of Christ’s real presence in the justified believer and the presence of God’s love in faith. Although the Aristotelian categories available to Luther were inadequate for conceiving the paradoxical presence of the infinite in the finite, Luther did not thereby adopt a relational ontology more characteristic of the late 19th century than of his own time. Instead, he simply regarded as true what his philosophical categories could not fully conceive: just as God became a human being while remaining God, so too do humans become God while remaining human. While the Finnish scholarship highlights Luther’s use of participatio in speaking of the presence of the divine in the justified believer, Luther did not mean thereby that human beings are essentially transformed into God, but rather that they are, in faith, profoundly interpenetrated by the divine.
Luther’s discussion of the nova lingua of theology connects to the “real-ontic” presence of Christ in the believer. As a good nominalist, Luther understood that sentential truth presupposes ontology. While everyday language, the language of philosophy generally, has truth conditions that can be articulated in terms of the existence of particular substances and their particular qualities, things are not so clear for the language of theology that speaks of the Trinity, incarnation, and the presence of God in the world and particularly in the life of the believer. How is this language constituted so that the real presence of the divine can be spoken with meaning and truth? While Luther assumes the extensionalism of nominalism when speaking philosophically, it is not clear that this is the case when he speaks theologically. Luther understands that language itself must be profoundly changed in order to grasp and state the reality of the infinite in the finite. Whether this change can be understood on the horizon of an extensionalist semantics is an open question.
Steve Paulson and Chris Croghan
The profound impact of Martin Luther’s theological confession is well documented. What is not as thoroughly explored is Luther’s understanding of the function of preaching, which both rooted his reformational breakthrough and drove the Reformation thereafter. Luther’s simple assertion—instead of the pope, there stands a sermon—resulted in a revolution that impacted all facets of 16th-century life. Luther’s simple assertion concerning proclamation deconstructed a deeply embedded framework that had arisen around Christianity that affected everything from the function of the priest to the definition and role of the church, and even Scripture itself.
While Luther learned as he went, especially in the matter of preaching, the unwavering consistency and even simplicity of his theology is breathtaking. Instead of the pope, a sermon which delivers Christ’s forgiveness of sins. Faith in that promise is certain and is not to be doubted in any way. Thus, preaching and nothing else makes the church, not vice versa.
The ramifications of this assertion are monumental and far-reaching. Luther’s confession caused great upheaval and consternation in his time and continues to do so even now, since it addresses the basic questions of theology and life, such as the role of the individual in salvation, whether the will is free or bound in relation to God, what the authority of Scripture is in relation to tradition, and what the difference between a command and a promise is. Yet Luther held to the claim that the most important matter was the comfort of the conscience, which can come only through a promise delivered in place and time to a person pro me and thus builds a whole gathering of the faithful as true church. Thus, in the face of outcries and upheaval in Christendom, Luther refused to blame the gospel, but simply preached as he had taught, trusting that the word of God does not return empty but accomplishes what it says. So he trusted that in that proclamation God’s will would be done: killing and making alive, naming and absolving the sin of people desperate to hear that freeing proclamation. Thus the Reformation that followed Luther became a preaching movement that distinguished the law and the gospel and applied both categorically. Proclamation is the moment and fullness of the divine election unto eternal life.
Luther believes that a Christian needs to constitute his identity “outside of himself” (extra se). This is because the justification of sinners and our spiritual existence are based on an external grounding, not on our own properties or contributions. In such relationality, Christians are heteronomous beings. Their actions, desires, and even bodily properties are attributed to them from outside as gift. This relationality is strongly present in Luther’s texts.
While Luther employs a rich variety of relational phrases, for instance, “before God” (coram Deo) and “for me” (pro me), he does not employ the concept of relation frequently. When this concept is used, it typically points to a situation in which the person must renounce his old, carnal, and natural properties and seek help from God. The new, spiritual way of life consists of the reception of God’s gifts that are external to oneself.
This view is based in monastic theology. Luther is not content with the monastic renunciation of one’s own properties. He employs mystical terminology without, however, aiming at dissolving the human subject in the manner of Meister Eckhart. Instead, Luther thinks that there is a new path of constituting the Christian person as something that is “external to oneself.” While this view differs from medieval mysticism, it can also be interpreted as a certain “intensification” of its aims. Proceeding on this path, the Christian no longer considers his hands, his feet, his choices, his actions as his own contribution. They are rather something that is attributed to him, a passive attachment.
Luther’s view of relationality helps to understand what he means by the Christian’s first-person involvement in phrases like “my faith” and “for my sake.” He does not have the post-Enlightenment sense of subjectivity in the manner of Pietism or other individualist variants of modern Christianity. On the other hand, the ideas of passive attachment and the attribution of gift-like properties to a believer enable a robust first-person involvement in faith. Within this framework of relational passivity, faith and its acts are not contributions in the sense of human works. At the same time, the Christian has the ability to receive good gifts and participate in them. There are certain parallels with the Stoic view of oikeiosis, the primary social attachment taught by Cicero and many Christian thinkers.
Luther is also well aware of the Augustinian view of divine persons as relations. For this reason, he can also understand in which sense relations can be primary “things” in theology. Sometimes the interpreters of Luther have extended the issue of relationality to cover all kinds of themes that assume a communicative interplay of different parties. Such extension can often highlight adequately the biblical background of an idea that is narrative rather than philosophical.
The Reformation was marked by fights with words, and the understanding of language and the use of it was central. This notion grew to a large extent out of the Renaissance movement in which new thinking on language had emerged, and the discipline of rhetoric, together with a renewed understanding of dialectics, had become more powerful than in medieval times. A turn toward the attention paid to rhetoric in antiquity took place, and a revival of ancient authorities on rhetorical and dialectical theory took root. Luther was a part of this, and rhetorical observations and thoughts play a substantial role throughout his oeuvre, not only in the way he made use of language in his struggle to find and spread new insights , but also in his thoughts, especially on spoken and written communication between God and man. The use of rhetoric is not the only key to explain how and why Luther’s theology developed in new and groundbreaking ways and became as influential as it did, but it certainly laid an important base for the unfolding of his creative thought.
Paul R. Hinlicky
A meta-argument is needed today to go forward in theology with Luther. For speaking of God, even in sophisticated ways, is a dangerous business that can lead astray. Theology is not in the Reformer’s mind an unambiguous good. But neither is silence an option, if God has spoken. If God has spoken, one is summoned, indeed, empowered to speak in response. In some distinction from the dialectical theology of the 20th century, which oscillates between the Word of God and the word of man, Luther employed a dialectic of the Word and the Spirit to organize theology. And if in the power of the Spirit one speaks in response to God’s Word about God, one must also speak with others about speech about God that accords with God’s speech. This discourse straddles the community of faith and the academy. Thus three orders of theological discourse—speech in God’s name, the church’s confession, and academic theology—can be sorted in order to facilitate Luther’s challenge to theology as a dangerous business fraught with peril. It must do so in a way that both retrieves his insight into the dialectic of Word and Spirit and also guards against Luther’s own failures, especially in academic theology, when invective supplanted dialogue.
Within the Trinitarian sequence of Word and Spirit, the performance of God’s gospel word, so that it is experienced by the alienated sinner as the event of God surpassing the wrath of his love to establish the mercy of his love, constitutes the primary theology for Luther. This is discovered in the biblical matrix of Christian faith where the Spirit births every believer. Thus the primary theology of the Bible, taken as gospel speech in God’s name, gives “true” knowledge of God “in Christ crucified”; this is known and acknowledged in secondary theological speech, including Luther’s own doctrinal production. But the articulate recognition of these two orders is the critical work of an academic theologian.
Luther is in principle critically dogmatic, and where he falls short of this standard, he can and may be corrected by his own academic standards. The case depends on (1) the Trinitarian interpretation of the dialectic of Word and Spirit as primary and secondary orders of theological knowledge, respectively, that are conscience-binding, church-uniting and context-independent, and (2) the differentiation of the former from the academic task in hermeneutics and critical thinking that is context-dependent and subject to nothing other than reason and persuasion.
Although often neglected in historical and theological studies of Martin Luther’s work, an understanding of the Holy Spirit undergirds his signal contributions to the history of theology and is essential to any case for his ongoing relevance to contemporary theology and practice. Drawing on biblical exegesis, Luther would reinvigorate the doctrine of the Holy Spirit he inherited from the Western theological tradition and from the Ancient Church. Nonetheless, he wrote in a variety of literary genres and in response to a range of issues. To address this linguistic and historical complexity, this article examines the role the concept of the Holy Spirit plays in his theology by providing readings of texts that have been influential on later appropriations of his work. In doing so, it focuses on two intertwined themes in his theology. First, it examines his understanding of the Holy Spirit in relation to justification—that is, the righteousness of God we receive as a gift by faith—looking at his early biblical theology and two especially influential texts, “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520) and his “Lectures on Galatians” (1535). Second, it discusses his portrayal of the Holy Spirit as sanctifier—that is, as the one who creates holiness or sanctification in us—in his most well-known catechisms, in the “Confession of 1528,” and in his “Lectures on Genesis” (1535) and “Sermons on John” (1537). Throughout, attention will also be given to his understanding of the Trinity, Word and sacraments, faith, hope, and love, and the themes of promise and gift. The article concludes with a sketch of historical work and a discussion of the influence of Luther’s pneumatology on later theology and current areas of research.
Martin Luther critically engaged with tradition in his interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer. As a result, he occasionally departed from a line of interpretation even in later years because he had taken up an idea from the traditional canon. His spiritual approach to prayer, reflected in his interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer, was also developed in critical dialogue with tradition. Luther’s spiritual treatment of the Lord’s Prayer either remained within its linguistic realm or became an element in a practice that reinterpreted the classical model of lectio—meditatio—oratio—contemplatio. When he established the three rules of the study of theology with his oratio, meditatio, and tentatio, this was informed by the fact that he identified existential need as the context for this exercise. Regarding the inner qualities of the spirituality of prayer, Luther called for prayer to be made up of words within a dialectic of law and the gospel rather than deliberately imagined internal images. This also held true when it came to Luther’s view on the particular experience of the Holy Spirit. For him, the only difference was that the petitioner should actively pray with his own words before and after experiencing the Spirit, but remain passive during the actual experience, shifting into a listening mode and praying with the words that flowed into him through the Holy Spirit from the Word of God Himself. This experience represented the pinnacle of this complex spiritual practice, being a specific form of contemplatio. Luther also developed his understanding, with regard to the theology of repentance, of the Lord’s Prayer in particular and of prayer in general by critically engaging with tradition. The fact that he interpreted other petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in terms of the fifth petition, confession, was a sign of his rethinking of the theology of repentance. This reevaluation was the result of Luther’s taking his doctrine of justification as the basis for the doctrine of prayer at the same time as adhering to the framework, in terms of the theology of repentance, for the interpretation of prayer that was defined by tradition.
Scholars use the concept of World Christianity both to account for the growth of Christianity beyond Western Christendom and to recognize the changing map of vitality and leadership within Christian churches beyond the European and North American context. Scholars who use this concept have also committed to documenting the history of all of the churches around the world, making special efforts thereby not only to note the contributions of founders and missionary agencies, but also to investigate the important input of local teachers, evangelists, and pastors, so that a more inclusive history may be made available to these faith communities for their own self-understanding and direction. The spread of Christianity beyond the borders of Europe, a subject once envisioned by Kenneth Latourette as the result of the great century of missionary advance, cannot be understood solely as the accomplishment of the Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries sent from western Europe and North America. Through all the centuries of Christian expansion and migration, scholars need to document and explain not only the theological foundations of various faith traditions, but also how multiple Christianities have adapted and thrived and become rooted in multiple cultural contexts, and exhibit a special vibrancy today in the postcolonial, post-missionary churches in Africa and Asia. Luther’s influence on the rise of World Christianities is an important element in the vitality of contemporary churches in Africa and Asia, but his theological contribution to Christianity beyond the West awaits a fuller articulation and application to the questions and concerns of these emerging centers of Christianity.
Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer
Although born in the territory of the Counts of Mansfield, Luther’s connection to Saxony began early. He attended school in Eisenach (1498–1501), located in electoral Saxony, and enrolled in university (1501–1505) and later entered the Augustinian monastery (1505–1508) in Erfurt, an independent city with close economic and political ties to Saxony. Luther’s association with Saxony and its electors, however, was sealed with his 1508 arrival at the University of Wittenberg, followed by his return to Wittenberg in 1511, where he was to reside for the most remainder of his adult life. His relationship with the rulers in Ernestine and Albertine Saxony and their reaction to his reform movement proved fundamental to Luther’s life and career, just as Luther has become inextricably linked to the history of Saxony and Wittenberg.
Scholars have concentrated on Luther’s interactions with the elector of Saxony Frederick III, “the Wise” (1463–1525, r. 1486–1525), during the early Reformation. Less scholarly attention has been paid to the relationship between Luther and the electors of Saxony during the reign of Frederick’s brother John the Steadfast (1468–1532, r. 1525–1532) and nephew John Frederick (1503–1554, r. 1532–1547), despite the vital role that these rulers played during the development of the new confessional identity. Discussions of Luther’s interaction with these Saxon electors were featured in 16th-century publications and art as well as early histories of the Reformation and of Saxony. Over the course of subsequent centuries, the relationship between Luther and the Ernestine electors has become central to the story of the Reformation and to Saxon history.
Luther’s theology of the Trinity is firmly rooted in the catholic tradition of the church. In scholarly debate, it has therefore not received the same attention as the doctrines usually associated with the distinctive profile of the teaching of the Reformation, like the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The intrinsic connection between Luther’s catholic theology of the Trinity and the distinctive emphases of Reformation theology has consequently often been overlooked. Luther was reasonably well acquainted with the medieval debate and could occasionally, as in the late disputations, directly comment upon them, if the distinctions served to clarify his view of the place of Trinitarian teaching in the church.
The most interesting question with regard to Luther’s doctrine of the Trinity is not which influences can be traced in his Trinitarian thought but how he developed the status of Trinitarian discourse in Christian faith and how he applied it in his treatment of other theological issues.
If we survey Luther’s engagement with the doctrine of the Trinity, ranging from the early glosses on Lombard’s Sentences and Augustine’s De Trinitate to the very last disputation, we can see that in all the different genres in which he develops his theology, Trinitarian reflection plays an integral role. Luther’s own attempts at giving expression to the Trinitarian faith are developed within the boundaries of creedal orthodoxy. He does not modify the doctrinal tradition of the conciliar Creeds but employs it in such a way that its basis in the witness of Scripture becomes apparent and that the task of Trinitarian language in relating the different articles of Christian faith to their foundation and so can be understood by others.