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.
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.