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.
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.
Throughout his academic life, Martin Luther was in constant discussion with philosophy. He was prepared for this with a substantial study of philosophy at the University of Erfurt, finishing with a master of arts degree. In many parts of Luther’s work, there are explicit discussions of philosophy, in the interpretation of biblical texts and in the definition of theological concepts. Quite early in his theological career, Luther became aware of the problematic dominance of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy in the formation and definition of theological concepts. He was always attempting to develop a clear distinction between philosophy and theology, which freed theology from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy and from the limits of Aristotelian logic, but the same time respected the significance of philosophy. As Luther preferred clear critique and often used strident language for this, his sometimes polemical critique of philosophy, logic, and “the philosopher” (Aristotle) was often interpreted as a fundamental dismissal of philosophy. Since the late 20th century, research has presented a very different picture of Luther’s understanding of philosophy, of the role and significance he gave to philosophy theoretically and in his practical academic work, and of the relation of Luther’s references to Aristotle and the concrete Aristotelian philosophy in scholasticism, as well as to the relationship between theology and philosophy in general. All this research showed how deeply Luther was rooted in the philosophical discourses and contexts of late scholasticism and involved in the debates of nominalism. But this research also made clear how Luther successfully struggled to come to a very different model of the relationship between theology and philosophy than the models of scholasticism, which secured the independence of both intellectual disciplines despite their close relatedness their relatedness. Luther’s understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s significance for theology is closely related to his concept of reason. Again, there is some polemical critique of reason in Luther’s writings, but in fact Luther had a high appreciation of reason, when reason was in exploring the physical, social, and psychic reality and in shaping the natural, social, and moral world. Luther was critical and polemical toward reason when it was used in matters of faith. But although the use of reason in theology had its limits, it was nevertheless indispensable in theological work. This was especially clear in Luther’s hermeneutics, as reason was the means to come to the external clarity of biblical texts in the process of interpretation.
Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.
What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).
Luther’s adoption of the theology of the via moderna (also called the Nominalists) varied during the late medieval period. This school of thought had developed during the 15th century mainly as a method for interpreting Aristotle and relied on certain 14th-century authorities, such as William of Ockham, John Buridan, Gregory of Rimini, and Peter of Ailly among others. Luther studied philosophy according to the via moderna in Erfurt, where his teachers Jodocus Trutfetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen represented a position that tolerated the Thomist and Scotist views. The school also featured a specific kind of theology based on its interpretation of Aristotle. Among the most influential theologians in the German via moderna was Gabriel Biel in Tübingen, whose theology was crucial for Luther’s understanding of the school’s positions. Besides Ockham, whom Biel mentioned as his main authority in his Sentences commentary, Biel adopted the positions of several other authors, even outside the common authorities of the via moderna. Other influential theologians and philosophers affiliated with the via moderna were John Mair in Paris and John Eck in Ingolstadt. Later both became adversaries of Luther and the Lutherans, as did Luther’s former teacher Usingen. The University of Wittenberg did not support the via moderna at all. Thomist and Scotist forms of the via antiqua were predominant among its academics, including the later Reformer Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt. During his early years as a student in Erfurt, Luther remained largely among the camp of the via moderna. Soon after moving to Wittenberg, Luther developed his criticism of Aristotle and late medieval theology, where his main target was Biel’s theology, especially his doctrine of grace. However, during those years Luther retained much of his early education, including an interpretation of Aristotle in which he adopted several of Ockham’s ideas. During his later years, Luther made use of terminological tools of the via moderna, even when opposing some of its theological positions.
Piotr J. Małysz
Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of human willing and the will’s freedom. Luther’s thought in this area is best seen as a response to a problem that medieval theology inherited from Augustine. The puzzle concerns the conceptualization of divine and human agencies. Medieval theology, despite its commitment to emphasizing divine grace, articulated the reality of the two agencies in a way that practically, and then also conceptually, privileged human initiative instead. Luther, in contrast, returns to Augustine’s intuition, though not quite his language, and proposes that nothing short of a Trinitarian conception of freedom will do for the affirmation of human choice that, nonetheless, presupposes and defers consistently to divine initiative and support.
Martin J. Lohrmann
Martin Luther’s reforms involved complicated questions of authority. On one hand, Luther defied the greatest authority figures of his day: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; on the other hand, he can be accused of setting himself up as a new authority or of defending the status quo at the expense of more sweeping reform. The theological and practical rationale behind Luther’s views of authority will be investigated.
Luther’s critique of power and view of social systems grew out of his theological conviction that God alone rules creation and liberates people from sin and death. Because the Bible is the primary place of Christian knowledge for who God is and what God does, Luther’s view of scriptural authority also requires examination of the principles Luther developed to help Christians understand and live out their faith in biblically grounded ways. On this point, Luther had to address critiques from Rome that he interpreted the Bible subjectively and individualistically, even as he sought to curtail this same tendency among more radical reformers. Luther’s biblical interpretation uniquely combined elements he received from late-medieval monastic life, scholastic theology, and humanist scholarship.
How these theological and scriptural influences informed Luther’s conflict with papal authority will be examined. As has often been remarked, Luther did not set out to attack the papal church. Nevertheless, his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), which questioned the theology and practice surrounding the sale of indulgences, invited questions of papal authority with respect to money, the penitential system, and the afterlife. Early opponents of Luther like Sylvester Prierias and John Eck quickly identified such affronts to the authority of the church hierarchy and its dominant theologies, turning the discussion of indulgences into a broader controversy about papal authority. With writings including To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate and Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (both written in 1520), Luther confirmed the depth of his critique, which further escalated issues of authority related to theology, biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and politics.
By what authority could an Augustinian brother and small-town university professor make such bold assertions? Luther believed that his job to serve as pastor and professor made him duty-bound to focus on central matters of faith, even if the institutional church opposed his insights. His method of biblical interpretation and view of church authority extended to reforms concerning “the office of the keys,” a historical term that, in a broad sense, describes the scriptural foundations of authority within the church and, more narrowly, refers to the particular means by which sins are forgiven through the church’s ministry.
Finally, these challenges took place in the context of a politically established European Christianity known as “Christendom.” Luther therefore also addressed how the spiritual message of the gospel related to the political realities of his day. His approach to this topic—also visible in the work of his colleague Philip Melanchthon—offers a perspective that is at once specific to the early modern period and stands as an enduring contribution to European political theory. In summary, Luther’s multifaceted engagement with questions of authority provides a fascinating matrix through which to explore and understand his work.
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.
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.
Luther was a point of reference in all three of the confessional cultures during the confessional age, though this was not something he had intended. His theological “self-fashioning” was not meant to secure, canonize, or stabilize his own works or his biography. Rather, he believed, and was convinced, that the hidden God rules in a strange way. He hides himself in the course of the world and realizes what we would have liked to realizes. Apart from this theological viewpoint, historiographic differentiation is needed: Luther had different impacts on each of the three confessions. Furthermore, one also has to differentiate between a deep impact and the unintended effects of Luther’s thinking. Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. From the beginning, he underwent a heroization and a diabolization by his contemporaries. Apart from this black-and-white reception of his person, it was, and still is, extremely difficult to analyze Luther, his work and medial effects. Historians have always been fixated on Luther: he was the one and only founder of Protestantism. His biography became a stereotype of writing and was an important element of Protestant (or anti-Protestant) identity politics. For some Protestants, his biography became identical with the history of salvation (Heilsgeschichte). For his enemies, his biography was identical with the history of the devil.
In all historical fields, one has to differentiate between the different groups and people who protected or attacked Luther or shared his ideas. The history of Luther can only be written as a shared history with conflict and concordances: the so-called Anabaptists, for example, shared Luther’s antihierarchical ideal of Christian community, although on the other hand “they” were strongly opposed toward his theology and person. Luther or example, had conflicts with the humanists and with Erasmus especially; he argued about the Lord’s Supper with Zwingli, he criticized the Fuggers because of their financial transactions in an early capitalist society; and, last but not least, he was in conflict with the Roman Church. The legitimization of different pictures of Luther always depends upon the perspectives of the posterity: either Luther was intolerant against spiritualists, Anabaptists, or peasants who were willing to resort to violence; or he was defended by humanists like Sebastian Castellio for defending religious tolerance. During his lifetime Luther was an extremely polarizing figure. Hundreds of pro-Lutheran and polemical anti-Lutheran leaflets or texts were published. The many literary forms of parody, satire, caricature, the grotesque, and the absurd were cultivated during the confessional age. Luther’s biography was often used by Lutheran theologians as an instrument of heroization and identity politics in public discourse.
Historically, one can differentiate between the time before and after Luther. The political and religious unity of the Holy Roman Empire was strongly disturbed, if not broken, through the Reformation. The end of the Universalist dreams of universal powers like theology and politics (pope and emperor) were some of the central preconditions for political, cultural, and theological differentiation of Europe. Religious differentiation was one of the unintended effects of theology and the interpretation of the scripture. Decades after Luther’s death, the Holy Roman Empire slowly and surprisingly turned into a poly-, multi- and interconfessional society.