Jeffrey G. Silcock
Luther does not develop a theology of hope because hope is not the central driver of his mature theology. Central for him is rather faith in the promise of God, which gives rise to hope as well as love. There are two sides to justification that correspond to the now/not-yet character of Luther’s eschatology. On the one hand, we are already righteous through the gift of Christ’s righteousness, which we have in spe but not yet in re. On the other hand, the hope of righteousness strengthens us against sin as we wait for the perfection of our righteousness in heaven. However, in the final analysis, the basis of our hope is not the incipient righteousness which has begun in us (in re) as we gradually grow in holiness and righteousness, but Christ’s own perfect righteousness which he imputes to us through faith (iustitia aliena). For hope can only be rock-solid if it is grounded not on anything within us, but on Christ alone.
The early Luther has a very different view of things because, before 1518, he is still very much under the influence of Augustine, which means that justification is primarily a process that goes on within a person’s heart rather than, as in the later Luther, faith in God’s word of promise that comes to a person from outside and gives what it says. The dominant theological concept in Luther’s early work is the theology of humility, which is predicated on the view that God must first humble you and cause you to despair, before he can raise you up and give you hope. Since here faith is not yet oriented to the promise but defined by humility, it has to remain uncertain, as does hope. In the later Luther, on the other hand, faith gives rise to confidence and hope because it is firmly grounded in God’s word of promise, which is always reliable because God does what he says.
With his faith firmly grounded in Christ, Luther knows that he can weather all the trials and struggles of life; in fact, he can even look forward to death, since for Christians death is but the door to life with God forever. For Luther, Christ is the only hope for a hopeless world. For him, this is not wishful thinking but is rock-solid because it is based on the promise of the crucified and risen Lord. This is also the basis of the Christian hope for eternal life in the presence of the Triune God, together with the renewed creation and all the hosts of heaven.
Susan C. Karant-Nunn
In the late 15th century, when Martin Luther was born and grew up, death was very much present. Family, friends, and neighbors seldom reached what we today would consider a middle age, and women of childbearing age were at special risk. Catholic clergy took pains to offer Christians at every social level ways in which they could prepare themselves for the happiest possible afterlife.
When Martin Luther joined the order of Augustinian Eremite Friars in 1505, he had never read a Bible. He now gained access to one that the brothers of the Erfurt house had in their library. Luther read it intently. He found that numerous Catholic points of theology and practice were not validated in scripture. In 1517, he chose the issue of indulgences on which to attack church practice, in view of the fact that the ordinary people in Wittenberg to whom he regularly preached—he was not their pastor—sacrificed a great deal to pay for certificates of indulgence.
As a result of his encounter with the Bible, Luther proceeded to dismantle long-standing Catholic belief concerning death and treatment of the dead. He disqualified the Virgin, saints, and priests as intermediaries between individual souls and God. He insisted that as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, humans could not perform good deeds to earn themselves entry to Heaven. They had, instead, to rely on the atoning power of Christ’s death on the cross to pay the penalties that they deserved for their continual sinning. Those who had faith in the atonement would be saved. Justification by faith supplanted a theology of justification by good works.
Gradually, over about twenty years, new Lutheran liturgies for ministering to the sick and dying and for burying the dead were introduced. Beginning at about midcentury, preachers were instructed to compose funeral sermons for just about every burial. These constitute a new literary subgenre. Many were published for reading by a larger audience, and as many as a quarter million of such printed sermons have survived. Visible as a theme within them is the traditional belief that every Christian should strive to achieve a “good death.” The phrase meant that dying people should cling fervently to the certainty that Christ has paid the penalty for faithful Christians’ sins.
Faith is not a human act but rather (a) an act of God—that is, the power or action of God as a “divine work in us”; and (b) relation before God (coram Deo), or more precisely, a passive relation and responsorial action (vita passiva). Furthermore, the genesis of faith and its execution should be systematically conceived as (c) communication (unio, communio et communicatio cum Christo) in the event of justification; or (d) the encounter of a pure gift by the power of the Holy Spirit in the word event; (e) ensuing the exchange of gifts or the response of the vita passiva.
Grace is an essential element of Christian theological reflection. Primarily, the divine attribute or trait labeled “grace” refers to God’s disposition and activity in regard to the Creation in general and toward human beings in particular. From the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation, Scripture bears witness to the fact that God creates things “good” and gives good things. God’s grace is especially manifest in the divine promises and other gifts described in the Bible and realized over time. At the same time, the Scriptures show that human beings—made in the image of God—have a history of devaluing, forgetting, and even abusing those things that God has graciously given. Part of Christianity’s doctrinal development, therefore, consists of attempts to describe the scope and sequence of God’s gracious regard and activity on behalf of a humanity prone to sin and rebellion.
In light of such creaturely “original sin” and ongoing rebellion, Scripture testifies that the Creator remains gracious—that God yet desires to be in relationship with human beings despite their sin. Theological considerations of grace share a basic assumption that although God is not obligated to think, feel, and act for the benefit of sinful humans, God does so nevertheless. While God’s wrath results in severe consequences for sin, God’s grace results in gifts that overcome sin and its consequences. The full extent of God’s gracious giving is in the giving of the divine self in Jesus Christ, the divine Logos made flesh, who is “full of grace and truth” and from whose “fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16).
Martin Luther’s theology can be fundamentally construed as the development of his thought regarding the nature of grace, the nature of God’s favor and blessing bestowed upon undeserving human beings. The many dimensions of Luther’s biblical teaching and theological reflection have, in the background a desire to understand God’s grace most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. As such, Luther’s concepts of the righteousness of God, justification by faith, the bound will, the distinction of law and gospel, the new obedience, the “happy exchange,” and many related concepts are, at heart, attempts to describe what it is to have a God of grace.
Most interpreters have rightly understood that in Luther’s view, to have a gracious God means to have a God who does not require human beings to fulfill a set of prerequisites in order to receive God’s gift in Christ or to reciprocate God’s giving in order to continue receiving Christ and his benefits. For Luther, to have a God of grace means to believe and trust that through Jesus Christ, God has already met all prerequisites and fulfilled all reciprocations. On this point, Luther found himself breaking new ground (or recovering lost ground) in the understanding of divine grace. Luther “broke” with those theological forebears who taught that divine grace was, in one way or another, partly dependent on human willing and doing. For Luther, God graciously wills and works “all in all.” Nevertheless, when Luther’s many descriptions of what it is to “have a gracious God” are analyzed, a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the One giving the gift and the ones receiving it begins to reveal itself. For Luther, faith—that gracious means through which God graciously bestows the righteousness of Christ—creates a dynamic rather than static experience of possessing and being possessed of a God of grace. Indeed, scrutinizing Luther’s writings for descriptions of the experientia of sola gratia continues to be a promising direction for future Luther research.
Mary Jane Haemig
Martin Luther saw prayer as crucial to human life, a life created by the relationship to God. In this relationship God starts a conversation, communicating God’s words of law and promise. Prayer is a part of the human response to God’s speaking, a response itself shaped by the words of command and promise. Luther thought that God’s promise to hear prayer defines both the nature of God and the nature of the human relationship to God, as well as the human approach to life. Luther’s comments and instructions on prayer permeated his work. Luther sought to build an evangelical prayer practice that reflected the key insights of his theology: just as God redeems the unworthy human, so God promises to hear and respond to the one praying, despite his or her unworthiness. Humans respond to God’s actions in law and promise when they pray regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. Freedom in Christ sets humans free to use prayer practices that help them to do this.
Cheryl M. Peterson
Any study of Luther’s ecclesiology faces apparent consistencies or contradictions in Luther’s view of the church, which have been variously explained by scholars in terms of a development in Luther’s thought or as reflecting different genres in which he wrote. An understanding that begins with the Word of God, and the church as the creature of the Word, offers a helpful starting point. Luther’s view of the church and its ministry are both grounded in the Word of God, the promise of the gospel. The church exists wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, and the church is a spiritual community oriented to and shaped by this Word in its life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The distinctions in Luther’s ecclesiology, such as visible versus invisible, are hermeneutical rather than ontological. Luther’s later ecclesiological writings also reflect his Spirit and letter hermeneutic, even as he engages new battle fronts, so that the gospel remains at the center of the church’s proclamation and life. For God’s Word to continue to be preached, God has instituted the office of ministry to which specific persons are called, who are entrusted with this great treasure. Luther’s view of the office of ministry should be interpreted in light of, but not as opposed to, his view of the royal priesthood, which he develops as an ecclesiological concept. Bishops are a specific instance of the public office of ministry, at the heart of which is the preaching of the gospel and overseeing its right preaching for the sake of God’s people.
Erik H. Herrmann
Martin Luther’s exposition of the Bible was not only fundamental to his academic vocation, it also stood at the very center of his reforming work. Through his interpretation of the New Testament, Luther came to new understanding of the gospel, expressed most directly in the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification. Considering the historical complexities of Luther’s own recollections on the matter, it is quite clear that he regarded his time immersed in the writings of Paul as the turning point for his theology and his approach to the entire Scriptures (cf. LW 34:336f). Furthermore, Luther’s interpretation of the New Testament was imbued with such force that it would influence the entire subsequent history of exegesis: colleagues, students, rivals, and opponents all had to reckon with it. However, as a professor, Luther’s exegetical lectures and commentaries were more often concerned with the Old Testament. Most of Luther’s New Testament interpretation is found in his preaching, which, following the lectionary, usually considered a text from one of the Gospels or Epistles. His reforms of worship in Wittenberg also called for weekly serial preaching on Matthew and John for the instruction of the people. From these texts, we have some of the richest sustained reflections on the Gospels in the 16th century. Not only was the substance of his interpretation influential, Luther’s contribution to exegetical method and the hermeneutical problem also opened new possibilities for biblical interpretation that would resonate with both Christian piety and critical, early modern scholarship.
The word “catechism” denotes instruction in the basic knowledge of Christianity. It is a Latin version of the term that the Greek Church Fathers employed when teaching converts before allowing them to be baptized and thus become full members of the church. The verb meaning “catechize” is known already in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 18:25; Gal. 6:6). The application of the noun to a specific textbook, however, originates in Martin Luther’s edition of such a book in 1529, Enchiridion: Catechism for simple vicars and preachers.
Luther composed two catechisms in the wake of the Peasants’ War (1524–1525), which also instigated systematic Roman Catholic Church visitations in Saxony, and Luther’s catechisms can be regarded as an integral part in the building up of a new magisterial (“state”) church. At that time, the Reformer had a comprehensive background in catechetical authorship, which had evolved during his more than twenty years as a preacher. His catechisms were the outcome of a preaching campaign on catechetical matters which he undertook in 1528 as a substitute for the vicar in Wittenberg, John Bugenhagen. For a few years he had demanded that a “catechism” (a sermon on the knowledge necessary for children and simple folk) be printed. Not satisfied with the efforts of his fellow reformers, Luther began to publish the basics on tablets intended to be hung on the wall. These tablets became literally worn out from use and are no longer extant, but they formed the basis of the booklet afterwards called “D. Martin Luther's Small Catechism.” Overnight the term “catechismus” became a universal word for a genre of books intended to convey the elements of doctrine to every member of Christian society. When Luther edited his sermons from the same campaign, he named the publication his “German (later ‘Large’) Catechism.”
The outstanding characteristic of Luther’s Enchiridion, or “Small Catechism,” was its verybrevity, which probably reflects the fact that it was conceived as an oral recitation of questions and answers. In using this form, Luther was preceded by a pastor in Schwäbisch Hall, John Brenz, who also produced his “Questions on Christian Faith for the Youth” in 1527, closely related to his preaching. Brenz included, as Luther would later do, the demand that applicants for the Lord’s Supper should first prove their knowledge of the basics of that belief. In a revised edition, Brenz’s catechism became extremely popular and coexisted with Luther’s in the southern parts of the German Reich, even after the latter was formally adopted as part of normative Lutheran doctrine with the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580.
The notion of a catechism as a short collection of formulas was, however, almost immediately superseded by a wider concept covering a wide range of instructions in faith. The short explanations were felt to be unsatisfactory and gave way to large “exposed catechisms.” Moreover, the catechisms soon became vehicles of confessional or even national identity. Both Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians closed in on essential doctrine in elaborate catechisms, most notably in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 and the Catechismus Romanus of 1566.
Both rehearsing the catechism and enlarging the text by adding new glosses existed until well into the 19th century, when a combination of new pedagogical ideals and the full and final secularization of the schools gave way to more obvious methods of instruction in both church and school. By the middle of the 20th century, the catechisms were ousted by Bible history. Today the classical catechism is mainly seen as a challenge and a possible inspiration for combining a short text with substantial religious teaching.
Luther did not write an exhaustive dogmatic account of the person and work of Christ. The lack of such a work has led to differing assessments of the place of Christology in Luther’s thought. Some have concluded that Christology played only a secondary role in Luther’s theology. Others have countered that Christology stands at the center of Luther’s thought. The range of assessments on Luther’s Christology can be explained, in part, by the expectations of our theological categories. Luther, like the Church Fathers before him, discussed Christology in a broader context than the scholastic manuals and systematic theologies of late modernity. For both Luther and the Church Fathers, the mystery of Christ stood at the center of their confession of the Trinity, reading of scripture, and life of prayer and worship. When discussing the Trinity, Luther declares, “Where this God, Jesus Christ, is, there is the whole God or the whole divinity. There the Father and the Holy Spirit are to be found. Beyond this Christ God nowhere can be found.” Similarly, when it comes to scripture, Christ is the test by which to judge the books of the Bible. Luther declares, “Remove Christ from the scriptures and what more will you have?” For Luther Christ stands at the center whether we are discussing the Trinity or scripture: “Thus all of Scripture, as already said, is pure Christ, God’s and Mary’s Son. Everything is focused on this Son, so that we might know Him distinctively and in that way see the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally as one God. To him who has the Son scripture is an open book; and the stronger his faith in Christ becomes, the more brightly will the light of scripture shine for him.” All of Luther’s theological reflection proceeds from his faith in Christ.
Thinking of Christology only in terms of a formal reflection on the unity of two natures in one person risks reducing the discussion to paradoxical metaphysics and overlooking the broader interests of Luther and the Church Fathers. This point is crucial for a consideration of Luther’s Christological sources in the Church Fathers. Luther aligns himself with the Christological insights of the Fathers and councils by showing how Christ and his saving work stand at the center of theological endeavors. For the Fathers and creeds of the Early Church, the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son forms the context for their reflections on the man Jesus and his saving work. Similarly, for Luther, scripture’s teaching on the Trinity and Christ, as received and clarified by the Fathers and councils, serves as his hermeneutical resource for understanding Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the blessed exchange between Christ and the believer, and justification by faith.
Luther, like the Church Fathers, worked out the distinctive features of his Christology amid controversy. Luther’s debate with Zwingli sharpened his understanding of the Incarnation and reveals his debt to the Fathers. Luther’s use of the communicatio idiomatum and the implications of the sharing of attributes for the Lord’s Supper and our salvation align him closely with the Greek Fathers, particularly those indebted to the theological insights of Cyril of Alexandria. The remarkable convergence between Luther’s argument with Zwingli and Cyril’s argument with Nestorius reveals the strong Alexandrian and Neo-Chalcedonian sympathies and instincts of Luther’s Christology.
Luther conceives Christian doctrine drawn from the Bible and summarized in the articles of faith as the essential resource and topic of all Christian teaching and preaching. In contrast to both scholastic and post-Reformation theology, Luther emphasizes the strong connection and interdependence between doctrine and proclamation. While doctrine communicates God’s word in his law and his gospel, doctrine can only be pure if it does not confuse law and gospel but carefully distinguishes God’s demand in the law from the promise and gift of his mere grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, the core topic of Christian doctrine is Christ’s redemption through his proclamation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection by which God in the power of his spirit graciously offers justification by faith alone. By representing God’s gracious revelation in the incarnation and redemptive and salvific activity of his son, Christian doctrine communicates the presence of the loving and justifying God who evokes faith and trust through his word. While Christian doctrine grants knowledge about God’s triune activity, it is not only informative, but communicates God’s promise efficiently.
In the course of the Reformation, Luther emphasized more the importance of the verbum externum as an instrument to communicate pure doctrine. To support Christian teaching and education, he wrote the catechisms in which he explains the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed as the essential resources of Christian doctrine, but unlike Melanchthon, he did not summarize Christian doctrine in loci theologici. Yet he understood the articles of faith to be inherently connected and inseparable as they refer to the unity of God. Thus, the systematic explanation of the Christian faith in Lutheran orthodoxy meets with Luther’s understanding of the structure of doctrine and his concern for fully exploring and apprehending God’s grace and justice as revealed in the gospel. At the same time, Luther always used doctrine in soteriological context. Because of its particular content, theological reflection of doctrine cannot exclude the dimension of proclamation.