John D. Barbour
Autobiography and biography (which together will be called “life writing”) raise theological questions in ways different from systematic or constructive theology. These forms of life writing tell a story that may or may not be correlated with traditional doctrines. They integrate the first order discourse of symbol and narrative with secondary hermeneutical reflections that interpret and analyze the meaning and truth of religious language. The probing and disturbing questioning in a profound autobiography such as Augustine’s contrasts with the assurances and settled answers expected of theology by religious institutions and communities. Particular religious questions shape specific genres of life writing such as Puritan discourses, nature writing, or African American autobiographies. The theology in autobiography may be either explicit or implicit and involves both questioning and affirmation, as may be seen in works as different as Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son. Conversion has been a central theme and shaping influence on Christian texts, even when authors challenge this focus and create alternative forms. A central theological question posed by autobiography concerns the authority of individual experience when it contrasts or conflicts with traditional norms asserted by orthodox believers and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In spiritual autobiographies by contemporary writers, we see serious attention given to communal norms for life stories and a search for a distinctive personal apprehension of what is sacred. Autobiographical writing has been stronger in the history of some religious traditions than in others. Yet in the modern world, almost every culture has produced life writing that questions or challenges established patterns of thought and practice. In contrast with autobiography, sacred biography has been an important part of every religious tradition, usually describing an exemplar to be revered and imitated. Its strong didactic interests often curb theological questioning of established norms. While modern scholarly biographies often mute theological questions, some writers raise normative issues and argue for why the subject’s life should be valued. As well as the theology explored within life writing, many works reveal a theology of life writing, that is, beliefs about how this kind of writing may bring the author or readers better understanding of God or deeper faith.
Ralph W. Hood Jr.
The common core thesis contends that mystical experience is an ultimate non-sensuous experience of unity of all things. It can be identified within major faith traditions, whether explicitly religious or not. Its roots are in the work of William James who explored mystical experience outside the limits imposed by what he perceived as only a provisional natural science assumption of the newly emerging discipline of empirical psychology. Following the explicit phenomenological work of Walter Stace, the phenomenology of a universal core to mystical experience has been operationalized and an explicit psychometric measure developed to allow empirical assessment of the claim to a common core to mysticism. It is the linkage of psychometric approaches to the work of James and Stace that is now known explicitly as the common core thesis. The common core thesis needs to be delineated from the perennialist thesis popularized by Aldous Huxley in which there is postulated not only a common core experience, but also values and practices claimed to be associated with this experience if not directly derived from it. Psychometric and empirical evidence for the common core thesis is substantial and continues to accumulate. The common core thesis is restricted to mystical experience and assumes that this experience seeks to express itself in various faith traditions, whether religious or not, but is not restricted to or defined adequately by the culture or language with which this experience is interpreted. Unlike the perennialist thesis, the common core thesis does not assume that any common theology, philosophy, or practice necessarily follows from mystical experience.
Contingency is a term that occurs in philosophical discourse as well as in theology in a number of contexts and with a number of meanings. In its modern sense the English term contingency refers to events, processes, or properties that may occur, but are not certain to occur; or that have, but might not have, occurred, because they depend on factors beyond our knowledge or which themselves are contingent. Generally speaking, it refers to events, objects, and properties that could be otherwise, that do not have to be as they are, and that do not have to be at all, and for whose existence we cannot give a sufficient cause. Thus contingency covers a whole range of meanings, including “not necessary,” “by chance,” “random,” and “unpredictable.”
In the discourse on science, the debate pivots on questions of determinism vs. indeterminism in physics (especially in quantum physics and in systems theory), on the contingent character of the cosmos and its fundamental physical laws, and on the question of whether the development of evolution and the actual forms of life that result from it are merely coincidental in biology. Some have referred to the first form of contingency as nomological and to the second as local contingency (Robert J. Russell, “Contingency in Physics and Cosmology: A Critique of the Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Zygon 23.1 ). The alternative is between physical determinism (all events necessarily follow from prior initial conditions, so that contingency only refers to a lack of knowledge) and indeterminism (some events are not determined by prior conditions, hence contingency is an ontological fact). In religion and theology, contingency often marks the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. It is used in ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God in the sense that all created beings cannot account for their own existence, but—in their contingency—point to a Creator, who is not contingent, but the necessary ground of his or her own being. However, it is disputed whether such a conclusion is valid or itself contingent. Another divide is between those who argue for total divine predestination (God determines everything that happens; again contingency is only a human category regarding insufficient knowledge and insight) and those who argue that God leaves some things to chance or to being determined autonomously by created entities. A consequence of the latter view seems to be that God cannot have sufficient fore-knowledge with regard to the process of creation so that God’s omniscience and omnipotence seem in danger. On the other hand, the option of total predestination faces the problem that in its view the Creator seems to be responsible for everything, including all evil.
Robert C. Saler
While the term theologia crucis itself is most prominent in Luther’s early works, the later texts bear up the scholarly contention that the fundamental contrast between “cross” and “glory,” with its various methodological and theological implications, remains and is in fact amplified throughout Luther’s later writings. Indeed, considered topically, Luther’s treatment of virtually every significant theological locus throughout his canon—e.g., revelation, ecclesiology, and ethics is impacted by his understanding of the cross.
“Theology of the cross” in Luther does not refer to a bound set of theological statements but rather a methodological stance in which epistemological fidelity to the modes in which God chooses to reveal himself—in suffering, death, and contradiction to expectation—marks the whole of the theologian’s orientation to knowledge of God and the world. While the theology of the cross in Luther’s deployment certainly touches on sociopolitical and ecclesial realities within his time, it is crucial for readers of Luther to understand that for him the motif was bound up within the total “thickness” of Christian life—the sacraments, prayer, discipleship, etc. In contrast to the temptation to treat the notion as a critical principle that can be detached from this total picture of Christian existence, scholarly attention to Luther must take seriously the ecclesiastically embedded character of theologia crucis—with all of the interweaving strands of inquiry that such embeddedness necessitates—in order to get the full picture of how Luther understood the cross’s impact on theology and the Christian life.
The cross is also crucial theologically for Luther because it gets at the core of what he sees the theological project being able to do—deal with God in God’s self-revelation, under the confusing and sometimes seemingly paradoxical terms by which God chooses to engage humanity. Theologia crucis thus stands as the theological putting to death of the Old Adam—who is aligned, for Luther, with theologies of glory—so as to allow the theologian to hear and proclaim the gospel apart from pretension or undue speculation.
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.
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.
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.
Paul R. Hinlicky
A meta-argument is needed today to go forward in theology with Luther. For speaking of God, even in sophisticated ways, is a dangerous business that can lead astray. Theology is not in the Reformer’s mind an unambiguous good. But neither is silence an option, if God has spoken. If God has spoken, one is summoned, indeed, empowered to speak in response. In some distinction from the dialectical theology of the 20th century, which oscillates between the Word of God and the word of man, Luther employed a dialectic of the Word and the Spirit to organize theology. And if in the power of the Spirit one speaks in response to God’s Word about God, one must also speak with others about speech about God that accords with God’s speech. This discourse straddles the community of faith and the academy. Thus three orders of theological discourse—speech in God’s name, the church’s confession, and academic theology—can be sorted in order to facilitate Luther’s challenge to theology as a dangerous business fraught with peril. It must do so in a way that both retrieves his insight into the dialectic of Word and Spirit and also guards against Luther’s own failures, especially in academic theology, when invective supplanted dialogue.
Within the Trinitarian sequence of Word and Spirit, the performance of God’s gospel word, so that it is experienced by the alienated sinner as the event of God surpassing the wrath of His love to establish the mercy of His love, constitutes the primary theology for Luther. This is discovered in the biblical matrix of Christian faith where the Spirit births every believer. Thus the primary theology of the Bible, taken as gospel speech in God’s name, gives “true” knowledge of God “in Christ crucified”; this is known and acknowledged in secondary theological speech, including Luther’s own doctrinal production. But the articulate recognition of these two orders is the critical work of an academic theologian.
Luther is in principle critically dogmatic, and where he falls short of this standard, he can and may be corrected by his own academic standards. The case depends on (1) the Trinitarian interpretation of the dialectic of Word and Spirit as primary and secondary orders of theological knowledge, respectively, that are conscience-binding, church-uniting and context-independent, and (2) the differentiation of the former from the academic task in hermeneutics and critical thinking that is context-dependent and subject to nothing other than reason and persuasion.
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.
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.