The Luther Renaissance is the most important international network for Luther research, as well as an ecclesial, ecumenical and cultural reform movement between 1900 and 1960 in Germany, Scandinavia, and Finland. It was the first exemplary attempt to construct theologically, under the conditions of modernity, a coherent unity of Reformation thought, based on various national discourses and with a focus on the person and experience of Martin Luther. For European Luther studies between 1910 and 1960, the impact of the Luther Renaissance is essential in regard to heuristics, methodology, and scientific results, as well as its ecclesial, cultural, and ecumenical applications. This impact, though declining since 1960, is still vivid, even in critiques and in the shift of paradigms in Luther research.
Recent research has comprehensively evaluated the national trends of the Luther Renaissance in Germany and in Sweden. Research has later addressed the Luther Renaissance in Denmark, Norway, and Finland.
Theologically, the German Luther Renaissance is the “other new start” in Protestantism after 1918, besides and alongside Dialectical Theology; scientifically, the Luther Renaissance responds to the crisis of historicism (e.g., in the work of Ernst Troeltsch) and is intertwined with the rise of Weberian-influenced religious history and sociology. It originated around 1910 with the gewissensreligiöse interpretation of Luther’s first Commentary on Romans (1515/1516, rediscovered and newly edited in 1908) by Karl Holl. Its visible breakthrough as a new theological paradigm came with Holl’s Luther, a comprehensive collection of his studies on Luther written between 1909 and 1921.
In Germany the Luther Renaissance included Karl Holl (1886–1926) and his school, most prominently Emanuel Hirsch (1888–1972); Carl Stange (1870–1959), and his network, including Rudolf Hermann (1887–1962) and Paul Althaus (1888–1966). It also comprised younger theologians such as Hans Joachim Iwand (1899–1960) or, in his early work, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945).
The German Luther Renaissance emphasized the foundational status of the experience of justification in two respects: in terms of religion as a “worldview” (Dilthey) and as a social theory of confessions (Troeltsch, Weber). Concurrent neo-Idealistic and neo-Kantian philosophies of religion were the background for interpreting justification as a foundational and orientational religious experience in the “crisis of modernity” after 1918.
The elaboration of this program during the 1920s developed in different directions, with increasingly contradictory results in the two branches of the Luther Renaissance: the school of Karl Holl, and the German-Swedish network of Stange, Hermann, Nygren Runestam, and Aulén. After 1933 international cooperation within the Luther Renaissance disintegrated because of contradictory theological, ecclesial, and political positions in conformity with or in critique of the (church) politics of the German Nazi party, with its militarism, racism, and totalitarianism. The German Luther Renaissance had lost its international nature by the end of the 1930s.
Current and forthcoming research will have to evaluate historically the international network of the Luther Renaissance before 1933, between 1933 and 1945, and after 1945, including the function of political theologies within the Luther Renaissance—both the totalitarian, racist, and fascist types, and the liberal-democratic, welfare-state types. The foci of recent and forthcoming research are overarching topics of the international Luther Renaissance; source strata of the later reception of Luther, methodological constraints and deficits of different national discourses as possible reasons for the shift of paradigms around 1960, and the long-lasting impacts of the Luther Renaissance.
Kathryn A. Edwards
In the 15th- and early-16th-century German-speaking lands, reports circulated of spirits shaking the walls of houses, comets presaging imminent doom, and dwarves warning miners to leave their tunnels. Widely accepted, such accounts point to a worldview in which the natural was believed to encompass a far broader swath of beings and activities than modern definitions of the term. Humans were enmeshed in a world where forces beyond human experience and, at times understanding, were active; they accepted their place in it and manipulated it, if necessary.
When studying such attitudes and the practices surrounding them, scholars of late medieval and early modern religious movements must move beyond truisms about “magical” or “enchanted” worlds to understand the impulses driving both reformers and those they wished to reform. Certainly 15th- and 16th-century Germans accepted that the divine permeated all creation, as creation was a product of God, and they saw divine manifestations throughout their world. Based on this truism, scholars have debated the extent to which pre-modern Europe was an enchanted world for approximately a century. Yet the powers imbuing that world had a more complex relationship to divinity than the somewhat romantic connotations of “enchanted” found in various modern works. Magicians, witches, devils, and other entities were all created beings who could access powers beyond the normal ken but were certainly not divine, despite any claims they might make to the contrary. Because such powers were imbued into nature itself, they were accessible to ordinary humans as well. And access them humans did! They were invoked to protect a village, cure ill children, and ward off injuries to livestock. They could also be used for evil, and archival and print documents attest to the practice of maleficent or demonic magic by learned clergy and illiterate peasants alike. When Protestant reformers demanded recognition of God’s omnipotence, they implicitly condemned this applied, occult magic and, in the process, practices that reflected a complete cosmology, that is, an understanding of how this world and the heavens operated. In this circumstance, it is not surprising that even the early reformers themselves could seem reluctant to abandon this immanent occultism.
Besides the great treatises and the German Bible, there are a number of smaller texts by Martin Luther that can be characterized as occasional writings. They can be roughly divided into table talk, letters, and prefaces. The larger part of these was not originally intended for publication. This is true especially of the so-called table talk. Since 1531 guests at Luther’s table took down his remarks and collected them for their own purposes. Only in 1566 did Johann Aurifaber publish his famous edition of Luther’s Table Talk, which shaped the popular image of the reformer. Today scholars are well aware that the complicated history of the transmission of Luther’s table talk makes it rather difficult to hear his authentic voice. Another important genre of Luther’s occasional writings is his letters. Overall, about 2,600 letters from his hand in both Latin and German are extant. Although he rejected the publication of his private letters, the first collections appeared in print during his lifetime. Other letters had been published by Luther himself as open letters (Sendbriefe) for a wider public. Closely related to these are the prefaces and the dedicatory letters to individuals and groups that Luther added not only to his own books but also to those of other authors. Thus he could use his reputation to establish a large-scale publication campaign in favor of the Reformation.
Stephen G. Burnett
Christian Hebraism was a facet of Renaissance humanism. Biblical scholars, theologians, lawyers, physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and teachers in Latin schools sought to learn Hebrew in order to read the Old Testament in its original language, and to borrow and adapt ideas and literary forms from post-biblical Hebrew texts to meet Christian cultural and religious needs. While some medieval Christian scholars such as Nicholas of Lyra and Raymond Martin made extensive use of Hebrew in their works, not until the early 16th century were a significant number of Christians able to learn Hebrew and use it to study the Hebrew Bible and post-biblical Jewish texts. The desire of biblical humanists to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the curiosity of Christian Kabbalists searching for ancient wisdom, and a slowly growing number of Jewish tutors and Christians who were able to provide Hebrew instruction all contributed to the growth of this movement. Jewish printers pioneered the techniques of mass-producing Hebrew books to feed this new market. Christian printers would use these same techniques to print grammars, dictionaries, and other books needed for instructing Christians. The growing conviction of Martin Luther and his followers that the Bible was the sole source of religious authority (sola scriptura) provided the most compelling reason for large numbers of Christians to learn Hebrew. The most active and innovative Protestant Hebraists during Luther’s lifetime were members of the “Upper Rhineland School of Biblical Exegesis,” including Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, Conrad Pellican, and above all Sebastian Münster.
Martin Luther and his Wittenberg colleagues were early adopters of the new Hebrew learning. He first learned Hebrew using Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, and put his knowledge to practical use when lecturing on the Old Testament and translating the Bible into German. His colleagues, above all Philip Melanchthon and Matthaeus Aurogallus, helped Luther translate and revise his translation from 1521 until his death in 1546. Luther characterized his approach to interpreting the Hebrew Bible as “Grammatica Theologica,” employing Hebrew philology to interpret the text, but also wherever possible making it “rhyme” with the New Testament. Toward the end of his life, Luther became increasingly concerned that Münster and other Hebraists were too quick to accept Jewish interpretations of many Old Testament passages, particularly verses that traditionally had been understood to be messianic prophecies. In On the Last Words of David (1543) Luther offered a model of how he interpreted the Old Testament, while sharply criticizing Christian Hebraists who followed Jewish interpretation too closely.
Philipp Robinson Rössner
Martin Luther is often considered, by historians, theologians, and economists alike, to have had no, primitive, or antiquated knowledge on economic matters. New research has suggested the opposite. Luther’s economic insights were deep, sharp, and modern and even carry much relevance for today. The misinterpretation of Luther as a medieval ignoramus shouting helplessly against the forces of emerging capitalism of his day rests on a double misconception. First, it is often assumed that capitalism broke through in the early Luther age (1480–1520s). But at that time, the German economy, which served as a source for inspiration to Luther, contracted: incomes, output and real wages went down after 1500. Moreover, capitalism had been there for centuries when Luther came forth. Secondly, Luther’s dismissal as a contributor to modern economic knowledge also rests on a decisive misconception of what “modern” economic knowledge entails. Only if we define “modern economics” as neoclassical economics, i.e., the post-1940 academic mainstream consensus in the Western world, based on the assumption of perfect competition, fully transparent information, rational actors, and a free-market economy, does Luther’s economic vision appear out of tune. How could Luther have been ignorant of the rise of the new economy when there was no such rise at his time, or “modern” economic knowledge when neither this type of knowledge nor a modern neoclassical vision of the economy existed?
It has long been recognized that John Calvin admired Martin Luther and that the Frenchman’s theology at various moments approached the teaching of Wittenberg. This relationship, however, was always mediated, particularly through the work of Philip Melanchthon. The literature on Calvin has not fully appreciated the manner in which his epistolary and literary references to Luther formed part of the French reformer’s rhetorical strategies for forging unity among the churches of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed that the divide between Wittenberg and Zurich formed the central stumbling block to a full reform of the church, and saw himself, as an outsider, as uniquely placed to break the impasse. How the reformers understood the catholicity of the churches extended well beyond the localities in which they found themselves. Their interpretations of unity were closely related to readings of ecclesiastical and doctrinal history, and the manner in which they understood the Reformation to stand in continuity with apostolic traditions. Reform, catholicity, and tradition were essential components of the reformers’ thought that need to be investigated through a more organic approach that takes into account the ways in which they were interwoven, while at the same time recognizing how they exposed conundrums that often served to expose divisions within the movement.
The doctrine of justification is an account of how God removes the guilt of the sinner and receives him or her back to communion with God. The essential question concerns how the tension between human sin and divine righteousness is resolved. Luther’s central claim is that faith alone justifies (that is, makes a person righteous in the eyes of God) the one who believes in Christ as a result of hearing the gospel. This faith affects the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that covers the sins of the believer. In contrast to medieval doctrines of justification, Luther argues that Christ himself, not love, is the form, or the essence, of faith. Love and good works are the necessary consequences of justification even if they are not necessary for justification. However, the inclination to love and perform good works is present in the believer through Christ, who is present in faith, but these characteristics do not as such, as renewed human qualities, have justifying power.
Luther’s doctrine of justification cannot be classified with simplistic categories like “forensic” and “effective” (see the section “Review of the literature” below). Often these terms are used to refer to differing interpretations of justification. However, several recent traditions of scholarship perceive this categorical differentiation as simplistic and misleading. Instead, these terms may well function to designate different aspects of God’s salvific action. In the narrow sense, justification may refer to the forensic and judicial action of declaring the sinner free from his or her guilt. A broader sense would include themes and issues from other theological doctrines offering a holistic and effective account of the event of justification, in which the sinner believes in Christ, is united with Christ’s righteousness, and receives the Holy Spirit.
Depending on the context, Luther may use both narrow and broad definitions of justification. Here Luther’s doctrine of justification is approached from a broader perspective. On the one hand, justification means imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness to the believer without merits. On the other hand, faith involves effective change in the believer that enables one to believe in the first place. This change is not meritorious because it is effected by Christ indwelling in the believer through faith. Thus, Christ gives two things to the sinner: gratia, that is, the forgiveness of sins, and donum, that is, Christ himself. The media through which Christ offers his mercy are the word and sacraments. Thus, Luther’s sacramental theology, Christology, and soteriology form a coherent whole. Because justification involves union with Christ, which means participation in Christ’s divine nature, Luther’s doctrine of justification has common elements with the idea of deification.
The questions of love’s nature and its different forms were crucial to Martin Luther from the beginning of his theological career. Already as a young monk and theologian he struggled with the human incapacity to love God and sought a satisfying answer to this problem. He criticized the views of late medieval theologians such as Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel and developed his own interpretation on the basis of the distinction between human and divine love. In the 1930s, the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren presented an interpretation of Luther’s theology of love that became widely accepted. Nygren made a strong distinction between two kinds of love and called them eros and agape. In his view they were contradictory to each other. Only the latter, selfless and disinterested agape, which gives to the object its value, is proper Christian love. For Nygren, Luther is the main representative of Christian agape, which is directed from God to a human being and from that human being to a neighbor. A human’s love of God is actually excluded, and God is considered to be the object of faith.
The strength of Nygren’s view has probably prevented a larger discussion of Luther’s theology of love. Nevertheless, since the 1980s some scholars have criticized Nygren’s interpretation of Luther. Among Catholic Luther scholars, Peter Manns in particular was interested in Luther’s conception of love of God and its connections with monastic theology. On the Lutheran side, Tuomo Mannermaa came to Luther’s theology of love from the viewpoint of the relation between faith and love. For Mannermaa, “faith” in Luther’s view is above all real participation in Christ and through him in the life of the Triune God. This led Mannermaa to think about Christian love in terms of real participation in divine love. In understanding the ontological nature of love, Mannermaa thus clearly differs from Nygren’s value-theoretical approach.
When seeking answers to his questions concerning Christian love, Luther used elements of the theological tradition. As an Augustinian monk, he could adhere to many emphases of his own order: Christian life as love of God and one’s neighbor, receiving of God and his gifts and denying oneself, and living in Christian unanimity where Christians have one mind and one heart. Luther interpreted all these Augustinian aspects through his own understanding of self-giving divine love, which sets one in the other’s position in order to understand his or her needs. Such love fulfills the demand of the law, which orders one to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself. To love God means to consider him to be goodness itself and the source of everything good, as well as to will the same with him. In other words, one has to set oneself in God’s position in order to understand that the only living God wants and needs to be considered as such. Only then is one able to receive everything good from God and to serve one’s neighbors with everything one has. The self-giving divine love gives to its objects their existence, goodness, beauty, righteousness, strength, wisdom, and wealth. In this sense, everything comes from God. A human being is meant to love with a similar love, which is oriented to those who are “nothing,” sinful, weak, poor, foolish, or unpleasant, in order to make them living, righteous, holy, strong, wise, and pleasant. This kind of love does not “seek one’s own” from its objects but gives them what it is and has. However, it does not exclude love of good and of things, such as God himself and his beautiful creatures. They may and should be loved because of their divine goodness, not because of some benefit which one may get from them.
Luther often says that God is to be loved in one’s suffering, needy, and ailing neighbors. God is thus hidden within disadvantaged humans, so that his goodness is to be seen only through them. But God may also be loved when one has experienced his love and mercy. Then one experiences how God loves one who in himself or herself is “nothing.” This experience arises from love as thankfulness and from joy in God’s goodness. In both cases God is loved as a good and merciful heavenly Father, but without the intention of seeking for one’s own benefit from him. The love of God in this sense means that one does not “dictate” to God what is the good that she awaits from God, but is ready to receive everything that God wants to give.
The theology of early modern Lutheranism was based on Martin Luther. From the mid-16th century to the start of the 18th, the theology developed and taught at Lutheran universities in Germany (in modern research called “Lutheran Orthodoxy”) centered on the Lutheran confession and took place within the institutional setting of church and university created by the Wittenberg Reformation. Luther’s theology was pervasive throughout early modern Lutheranism owing to basic confessional material such as the Luther Bible, Luther’s hymns, Luther’s Catechisms, Luther’s book of prayers, Luther’s liturgies, Luther’s homilies, Lutheran confessions, individual and complete editions of Luther’s works, Luther anthologies, and Luther memoria. This orientation reflects not so much an intensive preoccupation with his person and work and fundamental reflection on his authority, but rather stems from the natural presence of Luther in the Lutheran church and its theology.
This reception is tangible not only in intertextual references, such as when his work is mentioned, quoted, or paraphrased, but also in the approach, completion, and content of theological thinking. Lutheran Orthodoxy continued contributing to the theological work of the Lutheran Reformation, especially in biblical exegesis, soteriology, and Christology, but also in anthropology, ecclesiology, and ethics. Although Lutheran Orthodoxy at times abbreviated or went beyond some points of Luther’s thought, resulting in a broad spectrum of diverging theological positions, it largely remained within the framework created by the Wittenberg Reformation in the 16th century. In fact, many theological initiatives of the Reformation did not come to fruition until the post-Reformation period, and many theological problems that had remained unresolved were then clarified. Hence, Lutheran Orthodoxy must be regarded as the legitimate heir and authentic interpreter of the theological legacy of the Lutheran Reformation. Because the potential of the Lutheran Reformation can be seen in Lutheran Orthodoxy, examining it can bring a fresh perspective on the history of the Reformation.
The concept of modernity has emerged as a major philosophical, theological, and sociological category of interpretation in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was meant to embrace fundamental changes to the fabric of Western culture, including the rise of capitalism, liberalism, democracy, and secularity. From its inception, references to Luther and the Reformation have been a frequent element of this kind of theory. The first major theorist of modernity in this sense was arguably Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, who set the tone of subsequent contributions by aligning modernity with subjectivity. For him, the religious dimension of this development was crucial, and he was explicit in his claim that it was the Reformation that brought the turn to subjectivity in the realm of religion. A side effect of the turn to subjectivity was the alienation of the subject from the world. Modernity is thus deeply ambivalent, and so is Protestantism. Later thinkers developed these insights further, but also criticized the identification of Luther with the origin of modernity, pointing to continuities between his theology and earlier, medieval thought.