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.
Piotr J. Małysz
Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of human willing and the will’s freedom. Luther’s thought in this area is best seen as a response to a problem that medieval theology inherited from Augustine. The puzzle concerns the conceptualization of divine and human agencies. Medieval theology, despite its commitment to emphasizing divine grace, articulated the reality of the two agencies in a way that practically, and then also conceptually, privileged human initiative instead. Luther, in contrast, returns to Augustine’s intuition, though not quite his language, and proposes that nothing short of a Trinitarian conception of freedom will do for the affirmation of human choice that, nonetheless, presupposes and defers consistently to divine initiative and support.
Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth
In the 21st century, philosophy of biology and studies in sexuality are dominated by the contrasting views of idealist deconstructionism and materialist naturalism. Not unlike the nominalists and scholastic realists of Martin Luther’s day, contemporary philosophers, scientists, theologians, and sociologists debate whether human constructs form all that is known or if the material world gives rise to truths about bodies, desire, and sexuality. In the context of the medieval debate, Luther rejected philosophy as an adequate discipline in the most important discussions concerning human nature. He turned away from speculative philosophy to focus on evangelism of the Gospel. The heart of Luther’s reformation was his insistence on the truth of the Incarnation and the justifying grace of God given through Christ’s death and resurrection. Luther’s evangelical proclamation, rooted in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and in the early fathers of the church, especially Augustine, reoriented many issues of the medieval church, including views concerning the body, desire, and sexuality.
Luther’s understanding of the Incarnation had specific ramifications for his views concerning the body, sensuality, desire, and sexuality. From Luther’s reading of scripture and his pastoral and familial work in the world, he came to expound that humans are bodily creatures with physical needs, driven to provide for these needs by desire. Human need for relationship is also driven by desire. As Christ befriended, healed, fed, and washed the bodies of those he met, so too the Christian is called to human relationship with others and the bodily service of the neighbor. This is also true in romantic relationship, which has a bodily element for Luther, who rejected sexual abstinence as a human virtue.
Luther’s understanding of justification is critically important to this discussion. Luther knew that sin wreaks havoc in all human relationship, including loving sexual relationships. Because sin, for Luther, is centrally a problem of unbelief, a problem that manifests in false pride or despair, the solution to sin is not the law but faith in God’s redeeming grace. What justifies desire and sexuality is not obedience to the law but faith, which allows God’s love to flow from the lover to the beloved. While a civic use of the law can aid lovers who seek to know how best to care for each other, it is by faith that the lovers’ desire is justified. Indeed, through faith, the lover’s desire for the beloved becomes utterly for the beloved’s sake, a desire that teaches the lover about the absolute love of Christ. In this way, marriage, including the mutual sexual desire of the spouses, is a schoolhouse of faith, which while ever sinful is also justified.
Luther has no doctrine or treatise specifically on bodily desire and sexuality. An attempt to create such a doctrine would be wrongheaded. However, Luther’s theological claims concerning the Incarnation and God’s justifying grace through Christ reframed the discussion of these issues in his day. Contemporary discussion and debate about sexuality would profit from a careful examination of Luther’s re-formation of the discussion of these issues.
Anne W. Stewart
Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.
For Luther, the understanding of the world is determined by his theology of creation, according to which the world is created as an expression of the creative love of the eternal God. Natural theology, then, is the ability to interpret all created phenomena as gifts of the Creator, and natural law is the ability to align one’s life with this principle of lovingly serving everything created.
However, in a sinful world afflictions and anxiety makes it impossible to maintain an attitude of unconditional trust toward God based on natural reason. In spite of the possibility of reaching a fairly correct understanding of God as the giver of gifts, one will therefore never learn through natural reason alone to trust God as one’s savior.
The re-creation of a trusting attitude toward God is only possible through God’s presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The creative power of the gospel message thus entails the rediscovery of the significance of the natural knowledge of God and morality. A full appreciation of the natural is therefore dependent on having one’s trust in God re-established by an action of unconditional divine love. From within this perspective, natural law retains its traditional and positive significance.
In this way, Luther integrates aspects of late medieval theology without being fully aligned with any of its prevailing schools of thought. Like the nominalists, he understands God as activity, not as substance, but not in the sense that God can be seen as arbitrary. For Luther, the trustworthiness of God’s promises is what anchors Christian theology. Luther’s understanding of the hidden God is therefore quite different from the nominalist idea of God’s absolute power.
For Luther, theology’s dialogue with philosophy is important. He maintains, however, that rationality that is not explicitly grounded in a theology of creation will never develop an adequate worldview. Following his emphasis on the theology of creation, in his evaluation of the natural Luther was always looking for thought structures that would let the discontinuity of grace be fully appreciated.
Luther’s adoption of the theology of the via moderna (also called the Nominalists) varied during the late medieval period. This school of thought had developed during the 15th century mainly as a method for interpreting Aristotle and relied on certain 14th-century authorities, such as William of Ockham, John Buridan, Gregory of Rimini, and Peter of Ailly among others. Luther studied philosophy according to the via moderna in Erfurt, where his teachers Jodocus Trutfetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen represented a position that tolerated the Thomist and Scotist views. The school also featured a specific kind of theology based on its interpretation of Aristotle. Among the most influential theologians in the German via moderna was Gabriel Biel in Tübingen, whose theology was crucial for Luther’s understanding of the school’s positions. Besides Ockham, whom Biel mentioned as his main authority in his Sentences commentary, Biel adopted the positions of several other authors, even outside the common authorities of the via moderna. Other influential theologians and philosophers affiliated with the via moderna were John Mair in Paris and John Eck in Ingolstadt. Later both became adversaries of Luther and the Lutherans, as did Luther’s former teacher Usingen. The University of Wittenberg did not support the via moderna at all. Thomist and Scotist forms of the via antiqua were predominant among its academics, including the later Reformer Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt. During his early years as a student in Erfurt, Luther remained largely among the camp of the via moderna. Soon after moving to Wittenberg, Luther developed his criticism of Aristotle and late medieval theology, where his main target was Biel’s theology, especially his doctrine of grace. However, during those years Luther retained much of his early education, including an interpretation of Aristotle in which he adopted several of Ockham’s ideas. During his later years, Luther made use of terminological tools of the via moderna, even when opposing some of its theological positions.
Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.
What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).
Throughout his academic life, Martin Luther was in constant discussion with philosophy. He was prepared for this with a substantial study of philosophy at the University of Erfurt, finishing with a master of arts degree. In many parts of Luther’s work, there are explicit discussions of philosophy, in the interpretation of biblical texts and in the definition of theological concepts. Quite early in his theological career, Luther became aware of the problematic dominance of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy in the formation and definition of theological concepts. He was always attempting to develop a clear distinction between philosophy and theology, which freed theology from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy and from the limits of Aristotelian logic, but the same time respected the significance of philosophy. As Luther preferred clear critique and often used strident language for this, his sometimes polemical critique of philosophy, logic, and “the philosopher” (Aristotle) was often interpreted as a fundamental dismissal of philosophy. Since the late 20th century, research has presented a very different picture of Luther’s understanding of philosophy, of the role and significance he gave to philosophy theoretically and in his practical academic work, and of the relation of Luther’s references to Aristotle and the concrete Aristotelian philosophy in scholasticism, as well as to the relationship between theology and philosophy in general. All this research showed how deeply Luther was rooted in the philosophical discourses and contexts of late scholasticism and involved in the debates of nominalism. But this research also made clear how Luther successfully struggled to come to a very different model of the relationship between theology and philosophy than the models of scholasticism, which secured the independence of both intellectual disciplines despite their close relatedness their relatedness. Luther’s understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s significance for theology is closely related to his concept of reason. Again, there is some polemical critique of reason in Luther’s writings, but in fact Luther had a high appreciation of reason, when reason was in exploring the physical, social, and psychic reality and in shaping the natural, social, and moral world. Luther was critical and polemical toward reason when it was used in matters of faith. But although the use of reason in theology had its limits, it was nevertheless indispensable in theological work. This was especially clear in Luther’s hermeneutics, as reason was the means to come to the external clarity of biblical texts in the process of interpretation.
The contemporary academic study of religion has its roots in conceptual and theoretical structures developed in the early to mid-20th century. A particularly important example of such a structure is the concept of the “numinous” developed by the theologian and comparativist Rudolf Otto (1869–1397) in his work, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1923). Building on the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772–1834), and Jakob Fries (1773–1843), Otto developed the concept of the numinous—a “category of value” and a “state of mind”—as a way to express what he viewed as the “non-rational” aspects of the holy or sacred that are foundational to religious experience in particular and the lived religious life in general. For Otto, the numinous can be understood to be the experience of a mysterious terror and awe (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and majesty (Majestas) in the presence of that which is “entirely other” (das ganz Andere) and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language and other media. Otto conceives of the concept of the numinous as a derivative of the Latin numen, meaning “spirit,” etymologically derived from the concept of divine will and represented by a “nodding” of the head. Otto argues that understanding the numinous in a satisfactory way requires a scholar to draw upon their own experience of religious sentiments, given its non-discursive and direct nature; this becomes a point of contention among later secular scholars of religion. In later works, such as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (1932), Otto gives numerous examples of the ways in which the concept of the numinous can be applied cross-culturally to traditions beyond Christianity, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Otto’s theories regarding the numinous have been extremely influential in the development of the academic study of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the impact they had upon scholars such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, whose works were instrumental in the formation of religious studies as a discipline. Jung cites the concept of the numinous extensively with regard to his theories on the breakthrough of unconscious material into conscious awareness. Eliade’s work The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) takes Otto’s concept of the numinous as a starting point in the development of its own theory; Eliade’s use of the category of the “sacred” might be considered derivative of Otto’s larger conception of the “holy” (das Heilige). Eliade’s work, like Otto’s, has been extensively criticized for postulating a sui generis nature of both the numinous and the sacred, which are viewed by Eliade as irreducible to other phenomena (historical, political, psychological, and so forth). Smart’s influential “dimensional analysis” theory and his scholarship on the topic of world religions is highly informed by his utilization of Otto’s theory of the numinous within the contexts of his cross-cultural reflections on religion and the development of his “two-pole” theory of religious experience. The concept of the numinous continues to be theorized about and applied in contemporary academic research in religious studies and utilized as part of a framework for understanding religion in university courses on world religions and other topics in the academic study of religion. In part through the work of Eliade, Smart, and other scholars—Otto included—who have found a popular readership, the term has been disseminated to such a degree as to find common usage in the English language and popular discourse.