The uncomfortable question of Martin Luther’s place in the development of modern anti-Semitism is raised by Luther’s status as a national cultural icon after German unification (1871) and by the fact that the Third Reich (1933–1945) perpetrated what is arguably the most violently racist state policy known to human history thus far. Luther contributed to the symbiosis of religious and secular prejudices. The reception of Luther’s anti-Jewish discourse illustrates the gradual diffusion of religious hostility into a society where churches slid from a central position to the margins of social influence. This can only be understood against the backdrop of a long chronology of religious thinking. The long chronology shows that Luther was more a conduit than a catalyst of European anti-Jewish polemic and feeling.
It would not be possible to say that the Lutheran tradition has led to the post-Christian world that is Europe today, the causes of which must be multifarious. Nevertheless, it is thinkers in the Lutheran tradition, as in no other, who have tackled the question as to what the coming of modernity means for the truth of Christian claims. It may be said that Luther himself and those around him took a large step from a Catholic, Aristotelian world into modernity. In the Enlightenment, it was notably German thinkers who had come out of a Lutheran context among them, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Ludwig Feuerbach, who advanced a demythologized interpretation of scripture, seeing the Christian myth as a projection of human self-understanding; the form that their secularizing position took being profoundly influenced by their Lutheran context. Meanwhile, the basic paradigm of Lutheranism, a Christocentic faith set over against reason or works, allowed other Lutheran thinkers to proclaim a Christian apologetic in the face of the Enlightenment (Søren Kierkegaard), and 20th-century secularity (Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). The Lutheran Christocentric apologetic would seem to have ended in incoherence, or to have become irrelevant, in a post-Christian context. It fits ill with forms of post-Christian spirituality. This notwithstanding, it remains the case that ways of thinking that derive from Lutheran thought have profoundly affected the modern world, its philosophy, culture, and psychoanalytic thought. It should be a cause for admiration, not derision, that those who have stood in this tradition—from Luther forward—have been ready to face the intellectual issues of their day and the challenges posed to Christianity. This stands in marked contrast with the comparative failure of the Catholic tradition in this regard.
Timothy J. Wengert
The German Reformation, sparked by the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, unfolded parallel to another intellectual phenomenon then sweeping centers of higher education throughout western Europe: the development of a new way to read classic literature of the humanities, philosophy, and theology, often called Renaissance humanism. At the University of Wittenberg, this resulted in the development of a sodality of professors in the arts and theology faculties, initially including Andreas Bodenstein (Karlstadt), Nicholas von Amsdorf, Martin Luther, and the court’s university advisor, Georg Spalatin, but quickly spreading to include, by the early 1520s, Philip Melanchthon, Justus Jonas, and Johannes Bugenhagen, among others. Any attempt to understand the early phases of Wittenberg’s Reformation without taking into account this sodality will ultimately fail to catch the breadth of this movement and the commitment of these teachers to one another and to their cause. After an early skirmish over theological method resulted in Karlstadt’s distancing of himself from the university, the other faculty members remained committed to reforming the curricula of the arts and higher faculties at the university along humanist, evangelical lines. This reform influenced the theology and practice of the emerging church in Saxony and elsewhere, witnessed among other places in the 1527–1528 Visitation Articles, and led to a uniquely Wittenberg reform, one that always blended the highest regard for good letters and the most ancient sources with a developing Lutheran theology.
Marriage was at the heart of Martin Luther’s break with Rome and the Reformation that followed. He preached sermons praising marriage beginning in 1519 and several years later wrote his first formal treatise attacking the value of vows of celibacy and arguing that marriage was the best Christian life. In 1525 he followed his words by deeds and married a nun who had fled her convent, Katharina von Bora. What started as a marriage of principle and mutual esteem became one of affection and deep emotional bonds. Luther continued to attack the celibate life of Catholic clergy and nuns and to celebrate marriage as a godly estate throughout his career, in sermons, formal treatises, lectures, advice manuals, letters, comments on legal cases, and casual conversation. In all of these, he both praised marriage and family life and commented on its burdensome side, moving from theoretical speculations while he was a celibate monk to reflecting on his own experiences as he became a family man, though his basic theology of marriage did not change much after the early 1520s. His words were direct and blunt, even in formal treatises. Sexual desire was inescapable for all but a handful, he argued, so should be channeled into marriage. Vows of celibacy should be rendered void, and monasteries and convents should be closed or much reduced in size. He agreed with St. Augustine on the three purposes of marriage, in the same order of importance: the procreation of children, the avoidance of sin, and mutual help and companionship. He praised spousal love but asserted that the ideal of reciprocal love in marriage was not an ideal of equality. Proper marital households were hierarchical, for the wife was and had to be the husband’s helpmeet and subordinate. Bearing children was the “precious and godly task” for which women were created, he wrote, and death in childbirth and even the deaths of children were part of God’s plan, though he himself was devastated when his twelve-year-old daughter died.
As cities and territories in Germany and then beyond became Protestant, they passed marriage ordinances and established institutions to regulate marriage, turning to Luther for advice on such issues as divorce, desertion, secret engagements, and parental consent. In making their decisions, judges slowly applied the new Protestant ideas about marriage, which people also learned about through sermons, artwork, and pamphlets. In general, however, other than clerical marriage, actual Protestant marriage patterns were not that different from Catholic ones. They fit with secular values as well, for rural and urban residents of all religious persuasions regarded appropriate marriages and stable families as essential to the social order. Recent scholarship has generally rejected earlier views that the Protestant Reformation by itself brought about dramatic change—for good or ill—in marriage and instead noted ways in which the reformers, including Luther, built on ideas and practices that were already there, especially in the middle-class urban milieus in which most of them grew up.
A teaching of Martin Luther that has had great historical effect is his teaching on vocation. Protesting the Roman Catholic arrangement in which the clergy had callings of higher religious and moral significance than the laity, Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that all callings are equal in moral and religious seriousness. They only differ in function. This teaching unleashed unprecedented commitment and energy to worldly work in the Western world. Paralleling his teaching on the priesthood of all believers, Luther taught that all Christians are called by God through Christ to be his beloved and forgiven children, and that they need no mediators to receive that graceful call directly. At the same time, however, Christians who receive that grace through Christ become priests to their neighbors, mediating God’s love through them to the neighbor. They do that very concretely in their vocations. Thus, Christians become conduits of God’s love received through Christ and offered to the neighbor in the various places of responsibility they have been given. For Luther, Christians do not need to cast about for places to exercise their obedience; they were given in the orders of creation into which each Christian was inevitably placed—marriage and family life, work, citizenship, and church. Each person—lay and clergy alike—is called to work in the world. In fulfilling their work gladly and conscientiously, they serve their neighbor. Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his faith-active-in-love. Work is no longer simply a job or occupation; it is a calling, a vocation. It is a summons from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit sanctifies the Christian’s life, not in a self-centered quest for perfection, but rather in humble service to the neighbor. While Luther thought there were some occupations that were off-limits to Christians, he accepted most worldly roles as useful to the neighbor. The Christian could be a soldier in a just war and even a hangman in a just cause. One alleged weakness of the classic Lutheran teaching on vocation, however, was that it tended to accept uncritically the roles prescribed by the world. In such teaching, the Christian willingly does what the world prescribes. However, recent Lutheran interpretations of vocation are more dynamic. For example, Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation, argued not only that the orders of creation are dynamic and call for constructive change, but that in Christian vocation the two ways that God reigns in the world intersect. The Christian under the reign of God’s gospel interjects the love liberated by that gospel into one’s worldly occupation, transforming it into a genuine vocation. Love has a transformative effect. It functions critically and constructively. Lutheranism at its best has incorporated more dynamic elements into its great teaching on vocation.
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?