Luther was criticized for his polemics, particularly by his humanist contemporaries, and his writing did not in fact live up to the ideal of modestia (moderation). However, personal invective such as that engaged in by some humanists under cover of an incognito was not particularly evident in Luther’s work. Once he had sharply distanced himself from scholastic theology, especially in his academic lectures and series of theses, his polemical writing increased as a result of the dispute over indulgences (autumn of 1517). In his literary skirmishes with Tetzel, Luther first switched to using the vernacular German; it became characteristic of his polemical writing that he reacted quickly to enable the reading public to follow the controversy. From spring of 1520, as the number of defenders of the old faith (Prierias, Eck, Alveldt, Emser, Murner, Catharinus, and others) steadily grew, Luther was neither willing nor able to answer every written invective directed at him. The particular historical context, the prominence of his opponent, and the importance of the theme for further advancing the Reformation all played important roles in whom he chose to respond to. Since 1522 Luther was involved in numerous controversies with inner-Reformation opponents that centered on questions regarding how to conduct the Reformation, the sacraments, the external means of their administration, and how to treat members of congregations too weak or unprepared to accept change. Luther thought it important to draw clear lines with respect to opponents in his own camp, especially Karlstadt, Müntzer, and Zwingli. Of particular importance among his other writings are polemical texts against Turks and Jews. He found polemics in service of the truth of Christ’s teachings to be unavoidable.
Though it is well-known that Martin Luther stood in some connection to the late medieval theologians of his Order and that he intensively studied Augustine’s works in the mid-1510s, the exact nature of the influence either or both exercised upon the development of his theology is disputed. Arguably his adoption of advanced anti-Pelagian convictions aligns him with Gregory of Rimini contra pelagianos modernos in the realm of scholastic theology, while the pastoral theology he imbibed from Staupitz places him in a living tradition of “Augustinian Frömmigkeitstheologie” within the O.E.S.A. (the Hermit Order of St. Augustine). However, the most important impetus Luther received from late medieval Augustinianism was its determination to do theology in conversation with Augustine’s own works. Probably in 1514, Luther read the anti-Pelagian writings contained in the 1506 Amerbach edition of the Opera Omnia, and made his own both the iustitia passiva from sp. litt. 9.15 and the nexus of doctrines associated with residual “sin” in the baptized, which was increasingly emphasized in Augustine’s later works against Julian. Though young Friar Martin’s “Augustinianism” shifted in several respects, it possessed an enduring significance in Luther’s evangelical theology.
In the history of the German language, hardly any other author’s linguistic work is as closely associated with the German language as Martin Luther’s. From the start, Luther as a linguistic event became the embodiment of German culture and was even elevated as the birth of the language itself; his style was emulated by some, scorned by others. Luther forces one to take a position, even on linguistic terms. The Bible is at the heart of the argument, being the most important work of Luther’s translation. However, it is only one particular type of text in the general work of the reformer. The role that the Bible plays both on its own and in connection with Luther’s other works, as well as the traditions Luther drew on and the way he worked with language, will be examined within the matrix of Early New High German, with all its peculiarities.
Michael P. DeJonge
Contemporary political theology often defines itself against Lutheran social ethics, which is portrayed as politically disengaged and overly deferential to state power. At the same time, contemporary political theology often embraces the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an exemplary political theologian. This incongruity is generally resolved by distancing Bonhoeffer from his tradition, at least on matters of political theology. But Bonhoeffer’s political theology was thoroughly Lutheran. Throughout the years of his political-theological engagement, from the Nazi rise to power in 1932–1933 to the drafting of Ethics and related writing in 1940–1943, he participated in ongoing conversations within Lutheran social ethics on the issues of, among others, the two kingdoms and the orders. In the process, he critically appropriated these elements of Lutheran thinking into an especially dynamic and christocentric framework that in turn informed his positions on various issues such as the church’s proclamation against the Nazi state and the ecumenical church’s witness for peace. Bonhoeffer is an example of Lutheran political theology, one that suggests the need to revise at least the more sweeping judgments about Lutheran theology as inherently incompatible with political engagement.
Curtis L. Thompson
In relation to Martin Luther, the topic of “history and its meaning” is necessarily imprecise. It can refer to his personal understanding of history and its meaning. It can refer to the history and meaning that Luther himself made as a result of especially his theological work. And it can refer to the history and meaning that came after Luther and was influenced by him. Therefore, some nuance and refinement are called for in dealing with this complex topic.
Luther in his own way was immersed in the topic of history and its meaning. He did not devote much of his writing and speaking explicitly to a kind of “philosophy of history.” However, he wrote and spoke much about the dynamic affairs of God, human beings, and the world, and he could not have done so without conducting his discussion of such events within a comprehensive theological framework that provided an ultimate horizon of meaning. Some explicit claims that Luther made on history and its meaning can be identified, e.g., that it provides lively examples by which the common person could more readily grasp truths that were less effectively communicated by discursive language. From these claims can be articulated a general overview of Luther’s stance on why history and its meaning were to be taken seriously.
Besides the knowledge that can be gained about this topic by marshalling Luther’s explicit claims, additional insight can be garnered through a more indirect approach. Much more awareness can be gained into Luther’s view of this topic by turning to the implicit claims that can be discerned within Luther’s theological formulations. This can be done by considering Luther’s theology from various vantage points. Taking different perspectives on his theological understanding can result in obtaining further knowledge into his view of history and its meaning, e.g., that it is marked by paradoxicality, sacramentality, complexity, intensity (of meaning), and totality (of scope).
The meaning of history is never completed in the past or the present; past and present meanings continue to be brought into fuller form in the future. Therefore, this theme has not been treated thoroughly until it has included an account of Luther’s impact in this area on future thinkers. The legacy of Luther’s view of history and its meaning is expansive. A report on this aspect of the issue must necessarily be limited. Even a selected narrative, however, can provide a sense of the truth that history’s meaning is an ever-unfolding affair.
Across the theology of the 19th century, Martin Luther came to represent not only the Reformation but also what it meant to be Protestant—and, more than occasionally, what it meant to be modern, German, and Lutheran, in particular. Much of the modern theological interaction with and “return” to Luther occurred in the context of the various Luther or Lutheran Reformation jubilees; these religious, commemorative occasions were themselves more often than not heavily politicized affairs: for instance, 1817, 1830, 1867, and 1883. In addition, neo-confessional movements and attempts at both retrieving and “repristinating” the theology of the Reformation confessions and the highly developed systems of Protestant orthodoxy, as well as debates over what constituted the key “principle of Protestantism,” had a significant impact in the reception and formation of Luther’s image (Lutherbild) in theology across the modern era. Certain aspects of Luther’s theology, such as his doctrine of the hiddenness of God (Deus absconditus) from his landmark treatise De servo arbitrio (The Bondage of the Will, 1525), played particularly important roles. A few basic approaches to Luther emerged in the second half of the 19th century, spearheaded by such figures as Albrecht Ritschl, Theodosius Harnack, C. F. W. Walther, and Charles Porterfield Krauth. Some, like Ludwig Feuerbach or Søren Kierkegaard, constructed idiosyncratic images of the reformer. Many of the interpretations arose from polemical concerns, whether political, ecclesiastical, or theological. Conflicts over the proper appropriation of Luther’s thought increasingly resembled the battles between Protestants and Catholics in the late Reformation over who could claim the authority of the church fathers and other patristic voices. In many respects, the story of Luther’s theological reception is also a struggle for authority.
Mark D. Chapman
Luther’s impact on Anglicanism, especially on the Church in England but also in Scotland, is difficult to gauge. The English and Scottish Reformations moved in ways that were more influenced by Reformed theology than by Luther himself. Nevertheless, there were many relationships between Luther and Britain that began during the time of Henry VIII. There was a correspondence between Luther and Henry, and the Reformer was even consulted on the King’s Great Matter (his attempt to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled). The king also wrote a treatise on the seven sacraments attacking Luther’s theology, to which Luther responded with his usual vitriol. During the 1520s there were efforts to ban Lutheran ideas under Cardinal Wolsey and John Fisher, although a number of early English evangelicals, including William Tyndale, Robert Barnes and John Frith, adopted many of Luther’s key doctrines even though they blended them with other sources. During the 1530s there were several efforts at forging diplomatic alliances between Henry and the German princes of the Schmalkaldic League, which in turn meant that Lutheran theology received a more sympathetic hearing in England. There was a significant although contested influence of Lutheran formularies on Anglican statements of faith and to a lesser extent on the liturgy of the Books of Common Prayer. What has been described as the “death of Lutheran England” began toward the end of the 1530s and early 1540s with the conservative backlash that led to the execution of Barnes. Later, after the death of Henry, there was a gradual acceptance of ideas, especially on Eucharistic presence, that stemmed from elsewhere in the Continent and that departed significantly from Luther’s views. As such ideas rose to prominence in Anglican theology, especially during the reign of Edward VI, Lutheran theology came to be regarded as increasingly conservative. Although there were further efforts to revive Lutheranism in the Elizabethan period, in general he was understood more as a pastor than a theologian. Although several later British figures promoted Luther, in general it has been more Calvinist or pietist positions far removed from Luther and his teachings that have dominated: for Anglican theology, and with rare exceptions for Britain in general, Luther remains a distant figure who for the most part is unread and seldom taught.
The reception of Luther in central Europe has been influenced by the Counter-Reformation and re-Catholicization more than anywhere else. Protestantism was so widespread in this area throughout the 16th century that it largely reduced the Roman Catholic Church to a minority confession, but 500 years later it comprises a majority. The diaspora situation did not leave space for academic research in Luther’s theology. This article focuses on just two regions of central Europe that can serve as typical case studies: parts of the lands of the Bohemian crown, and of the kingdom of Hungary. Similarities could be found in other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, but particular historical complexities make it difficult to speak about central Europe as a whole.
In its early phase, Luther’s thought spread primarily in regions where the population was able to read Reformation texts in German: Silesia, North Bohemia, Moravia, Upper Hungary, west Hungary, and Transylvania. From about 1520, it was predominantly the cities along the routes of German traders that contributed to the spread of Luther’s writings in central Europe. In addition, the strong political position of the estates influenced the reception of Luther’s theology in certain areas more than in others. Moreover, the catechetical work done in schools under humanistic influence supported the idea of reformation and religious tolerance. Luther had a much more lasting impact on piety and spirituality through his Small Catechism and hymns than through theological reception, for example in Slovakia. In Bohemia, in contrast, Luther’s works were first translated into another national language, and there occurred theological reflection from various angles, yet no lasting tradition of Lutheranism was established.
Reformation in Slovakia, as in like in Hungary, Austria, and Poland, was dominated by Lutherans, whereas in Bohemia and Moravia the Hussite reformation and religious freedom allowed the development of various other confessions, such as Utraquism and the Unity of the Brethren. In central Europe, the Reformation started earlier but was broadly established later than in western Europe. In the first half of the 1520s, the impact of Luther was sporadic and not connected throughout larger areas. After the battle at Mohács and the Diet of Augsburg, the call for ecclesiastical reform was more broadly accepted, first in the cities with predominant German populations, then by the nobility, and by the 1540s by Hungarians, Slovaks. The Letter of Majesty in Bohemia (1609), and the Peace of Vienna and Diet of 1608 in Hungary constituted legal recognition of the evangelical communities. The Reformation in Bohemia and Hungary was more diverse than anywhere in western Europe. The confessionalization of the Reformation reflected and accentuated ethnic differences throughout the region.
Niels Henrik Gregersen
In Denmark, Martin Luther was initially seen as a humanist reformer on a par with other humanists, but during the 1520s he increasingly became a divisive figure separating those wanting only to reform the Roman Catholic church from within, and those working for a break with Rome. Ways of understanding Luther differed widely within the evangelical camp too. Early “Lutherans” in Denmark, such as Hans Tausen and the drafters of the Confessio Hafniensis of 1530, presented legalistic and spiritualistic elements. In 1536, however, King Christian III announced the Reformation of Denmark, using robust Wittenberg theologians such as Johann Bugenhagen and Peder Palladius to reform the church, the university, and the society at large. Since then Denmark has been an unusually homogeneous Lutheran country, compared to Lutheran areas of Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, including Luther’s own Sachsen. Yet Danish views of Luther have changed significantly over the centuries, especially after the national awakening in the 19th century. Thereafter, Luther was seen as a church father, though also as a somewhat remote figure. In 20th-century theology, N. F. S. Grundtvig and Søren Kierkegaard served as mediating figures between premodern Lutheranism and contemporary theology. After World War II, the Reformation is still widely regarded as formative for Danish history, albeit in combination with other inspirations. A secular mindset grew stronger both within and outside the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, with some promoting a liberalist interpretation of Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine, and others challenging the Evangelical-Lutheran Church’s status as the “People’s Church.” By January 1, 2016, 76.9 percent of the Danish population were tax-paying members of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Denmark.
Alister E. McGrath
Following the deep and unsettling questions raised about the legacy of German Protestant theology as a result of the Great War (1914‒1918), a new interest emerged in returning to the fons et origo of Protestant theology in the writings of Martin Luther and other reformers. This was given additional impetus through the work of Karl Holl, who is widely credited with shaping the “Luther Renaissance” of 1919‒1921. Dialectical theology was a movement focused on Karl Barth that arose within German-speaking Protestantism in the aftermath of the Great War. The reception of Luther within the dialectical theology movement is complex and not easily reduced to simple categorizations. The diverse theological and confessional commitments within the movement led to various readings of Luther, generally mediated through secondary sources or channels. The movement portrayed itself in terms of a theocentric new reformation, breaking free from the cultural compromises and entanglements of German liberal theology in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in relation to anthropology, Christology, and the understanding of sin. The movement presented itself as both the heir and reinterpreter of the theological legacy of the Reformation, particularly the theology of Martin Luther, most notably its emphasis on divine revelation. Yet its leading representatives—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten—understood Luther in somewhat different manners. It is therefore important to consider the use made of Luther by each of these figures individually, rather than try to collapse them into a single generic approach which is held to be representative of dialectical theology. The high profile these four writers accorded to Luther unquestionably stimulated Luther studies in the postwar period and contributed significantly to the current appreciation of Luther in contemporary theological debate.