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.
In Christianity, theological language must be understood against the background of the multifaceted semantic field of Logos. “Logos” (as “word” and as “linguistic reason”) is used in multiple contexts: (1) Trinitarian theological (John 1:1); (2) creation (Gen. 1:3) and revelation-theological (Jesus Christ “the Word of God” [ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ]: Rev. 19:13); and (3) soteriological-eschatological (“Word of Life,” 1 John 1:1). These references are mediated through the philosophy of language’s concept of “translation” (Johann Georg Hamann) and the idea of divine condescension into human language.
In Luther, religious language as the language of the Bible is to be understood on the one hand by its character as a living address to humankind and on the other as an immediate confession of the believer in spontaneous reaction to it. In biblical language, the Word of God, conveyed in human terms, comes closer to us than we do to our own selves and transforms our earthly existence to the goal of everlasting life.
Theological language is intellectual interpretation and conceptual reflection on religious language with a theoretical aim—in other words, its intent is to reach an agreement about itself under the conditions of the overall context; it concerns the truth of religious language and texts.
Because Luther—linguistically aware to the highest degree—recognized the specific distinctiveness of biblical language, and of New Testament language in particular, his writings contain an abundance of differentiated reflections on the state of appropriate theological language. The Word of God in our human language requires theology to have a “different” or “new” logic (and philosophy) in its articles of faith. All traditional philosophical terms and logical forms of judgment and conclusion must be “translated” into Christianity—even, for example, the concept of the human being and of the Word itself.
In particular, the unity of God and man in Christ compels a new sort of language or way of thinking. The imaginative form of spatial prepositions (such as “in”) must be rethought in determinate negation. In God, opposites coincide.
Because God’s Word is directed against the self-conception of the sinner before God, it comes to humankind essentially in the twin linguistic structure of “Law” and “Gospel”; these categories also define theological language in a specifically Reformation sense.
New Testament language, in its fundamentals, is eschatologically oriented. Hence, categories such as “substance” or “essence” (essentia) must be rephrased on the condition that nothing has already been defined, and everything is still developing. Luther undertook this with an eschatology of the Word of God.
As Luther shows in the case of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body …,” the new logic is a genuinely linguistic logic, or rather thinking from language. Traditional (formal) logic replaces the logic of real language with an artificial model.
Finally, Luther also reflects on the linguistic status of the word “God” as a grammatical subject. Here, too, he wants the word “God” to be comprehended as a fluid substance, understanding it essentially as a verb—as a linguistic expression of movement—thus embodying the Reformation idea of “for me” (pro me).
Ultimately, it is always about the important role of two linguistic aspects in theological language: grammar on the one hand, which should receive fundamental attention, and linguistic usage (usus loquendi) on the other, the comprehension of which is also crucial. Thus, Luther’s understanding of theological language could be summarized in this statement: theology, understood linguistically, is a grammar of the language of the sacred scriptures.
John R. Stumme
During the 20th century there was a remarkable change in the interpretation of Martin Luther’s approach to society. During the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, many understood that Luther advocated a sharp separation between gospel and world, faith and politics, church and state. Faith or religion was understood to be a private affair that had nothing to do with the autonomous functioning of government and other secular institutions. Christians were to obey the existing powers, even if unjust or authoritarian, and serve their neighbor through acts and church institutions of mercy. Lutherans were called quietists, defeatists, and dualists, and Karl Barth alleged that Luther’s understanding of law and gospel allowed other gods to claim allegiance alongside Jesus the Lord. And then especially there were the Lutheran failures in the Nazi experience.
All of this spurred theologians to critically evaluate their tradition and to take a fresh look at Luther in order to assist the church to be a more responsible presence in a changing world. In the middle decades of the last century, there was an impressive outpouring of historical and theological studies on what was being called Luther’s “two-kingdoms doctrine.” These studies did not exonerate Luther from all the ills of the tradition that bears his name, but they did reveal that other ideas and interests led to Luther’s approach often being wrongly interpreted and ideologically misused. These studies offered new interpretations, often differing in their positions and emphases, which demonstrated the complexity, the “labyrinth” (Johannes Heckel), of Luther’s thought and also revealed something about the social location of the interpreter. Yet there was wide agreement that Luther in his life and his theology did not disdain or withdraw from social and political life. On the contrary; a revisionist strain saw Luther’s theological distinctions to be essential for the church both to preserve the uniqueness of the gospel and to encourage Christians to participate critically in society. Questions remained, yet many in various contexts found in Luther a way for the church to affirm both justification and justice.
This all too brief sketch of the controversial and checkered history of interpretation of Luther’s thought on society since the early 20th century sets the stage for turning to Luther himself. In addressing social and political issues, Luther moves out from the center of his theology. That center is justification, the belief that people, sinners before God, are forgiven and justified by faith alone because of Jesus Christ. Christians living in faith before God also live at the same time in the networks and institutions of society where they are freed and called to love their neighbor. For Luther Christians always live in these two realms or relationships in which God is active; the loving God who justifies also creates the world in which Christians and others live. Better labels for Luther’s approach than “two kingdoms” are “the twofold rule of God” or “the two realms.”
Luther works out his understanding of political authority and its relation to spiritual authority as part of the twofold rule of God. He does so while protesting the abuses in the church and leading a reforming movement. He is concerned to show the proper function of Word and sword and their relationship. His 1523 treatise Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed sets out his perspective, which later he developed and modified.
Luther develops a new concept of the Word of God that concentrates on the word and image of Christ. He uses performative images and presence metaphors not only in the field of Christology, but also in the field of creation and consummation. The Word of God and the image of Christ are the only medial possibilities for proclaiming the presence of God with the prevalence of the oral word over the written word (scripture). Christ is understood as the personal Word of God, which can be communicated only through interpersonal mediality and polysemy. The cultural technique of communication makes faith possible (e.g., through the sermon, Lord’s Supper, or baptism). Rhetoric is the effective and affective way to communicate this Word of God.
The rhetoric of the crucified as the imaginative Word of God is the medium that liberates the believer from being entangled with sin, hell, and death. Yet speech cannot be functionalized to become a guaranteed presence of this word—although Christ understands himself as a communicator. At the same time, his word is a rhetorical strategy for coping with the absence of God. The cry at the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) is a verbal expression of the complete Godforsakenness of the crucified. The words on the cross express the radical absence of God. The rhapsodic cry is centered on abandonment. It cannot be whitewashed by ontology or logic. With these words Luther accentuates the negativity of the dead body as a communicative practice. The Word of God (and the word of the Christian) is characterized by polysemy: the word of the resurrection of Christ is gospel. Only this oral word enables the perception of resurrection. In many other dogmatic fields, such as creation, theological anthropology, incarnation, the sacraments, ecclesiology, and eschatology, faith and words belong together because God’s companionship with us is verbal. The iconic and metaphoric character of the word is not a representation of the fourfold sense of scripture, but a unique way to accentuate the performativity and at the same time the polysemy of the Word of God.