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date: 25 September 2017

Mysticism in Martin Luther’s Development and Thoughts

Summary and Keywords

Martin Luther’s spiritual and theological development was deeply rooted in mystical traditions. During his early years as an Augustinian friar, he experienced mystical visions following the paths of Dionysian mysticism, while a few years later he was inspired by Ps-Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John Tauler. His early theology of penitence, as expressed in the Ninety-five Theses, derived from these sources, as did his description of justification in the image of bride and bridegroom in his tract On the Liberty of a Christian. Even more so, central elements in his theology were shaped by mystical influences, including his distinction between Law and Gospel, the doctrine of justification, and the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Thus, Luther’s theology should be seen as a reception and development deriving from the mystical discourse of the later Middle Ages.

Keywords: Martin Luther, mysticism, Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Staupitz, John Tauler, Law and Gospel, justification, priesthood of all believers


The term mysticism was coined in the context of modern Christian theology in the 18th century. However, the phenomenon itself occurs in Asian religions as well as in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This observation makes a definition of the term even more difficult. Several approaches have been taken, some of them based on etymological reflections. While a deduction from the Greek term μυστήριον‎, “mystery,” does not seem to take us very far, the term μύω‎, “close the lips,” which seems to be the root of μυστήριον‎, is more helpful. Obviously, this term denotes an outward gesture and so suggests that mysticism is more than mere inward religious experience. One can also attend to the different religious experiences usually described as mysticism. A common element seems to be the conviction that a direct encounter with God is possible on the earth, one that transcends the borders between here and beyond. In Christian belief, this means to somehow anticipate the eschaton, the age or life of the world to come.

In every religion this includes a sense of elevation beyond all worldly constraints, sometimes transcending even consciousness of the self. If we speak about this in terms of experience, we deal with mysticism in a proper sense. When we turn to reflection on such experience, then we may speak of mystical theology. And when we further see someone leading others into this experience, then we may speak of mystagogy.

The path to mystical experience in the Western, Christian tradition is often said to include a progression through three steps: from purgation to illumination and then, as the highest, to mystical union. The purgation in this framework often is closely bound up with the language of penitence. Consequently, there are many connections between what can be seen as mysticism in a broader sense and the various varieties of the theology of penitence. This sometimes makes it difficult to discern the mysticism or mystical theology in Martin Luther by simply examining the texts. A more nuanced understanding should add a definition of the type provided by Kurt Ruh, who pointed out that one can clearly identify a group of Christian authors who undoubtedly should be recognized as mystics or mystical theologians, including, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Meister Eckhart. Those who later received the writings of authors such as these can then be recognized as at least influenced by mysticism or even as mystics and mystical theologians. This approach defuses the much controverted question of Martin Luther and mysticism at least a bit and so opens the way for the study of his theological background in medieval mystical literature. For this purpose, it is not helpful to adopt Erich Vogelsang’s typology of Areopagitic, Roman, and German mysticism. This schema was misleadingly informed by ideas of national psychology, which one cannot affirm today. Instead, each the works of mystical writers must be set in their own context, so that Luther’s reception of them can be examined with proper historical and theological rigor.

Mysticism as Experience

For the young Luther as a monk, it was a matter of course to share special spiritual experience, even if as an older man he offered only a few hints. In a sermon given on Pentecost in 1523, for example, he remarked: “I saw many monks and clerics who are unsure, and I myself once was elevated into the third heaven.”1 Obviously he was alluding here to 2 Corinthians 12:2, a text in which the Apostle Paul goes on to stress the humility that should eliminate all self-praise, even for those who have had such experiences. It also clearly indicates, however, that Luther himself had had an experience that would seem to qualify as mystical. The mystical element in Luther’s monastic context becomes even clearer in another recollection. Once, he remembers, “I also was in that school, where I thought I was in among the choruses of the Angels, even if in fact I was among the Devils.”2 Leaving aside the older Luther’s polemic about devils, this is a clear allusion to the theology of angelic choruses as found in the Corpus Dionysiacum, where the early Luther would have found the ordines angelorum.3 We do not know exactly what how this statement should be understood, but at the least it shows that even the late Luther could recall experiences of being translated to heaven through mystical transport. As difficult this might be for modern readers, Luther was surely a mystic, a visionary, and somehow ecstatic.

Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius

The earlier remarks also show that Luther in his youth knew and read Pseudo-Dionysius (late 5th to early 6th centuries). Actually, Luther mentions the mystic’s De caelesti hierarchia as an authority in his Commentary on the Sentences, which he read during his time in Erfurt, about 1510 or 1511.4 Dionysius remained an authority even after Luther’s move to Wittenberg: in his first lecture on the Psalms, he praised the negative or apophatic theology, arguing that it would lead to experiences of translation and mystical ecstasy and providing a foundation for true theology in contrast to the scholastic theology of his times.5 This is consistent not only with the ecstatic experiences mentioned earlier but also with Luther’s well-known statement of 1531, “Sola experientia facit theologum,” “Experience alone makes a theologian.”6 Obviously, the kind of experience Luther had in mind by that time had changed somewhat, but the correlation between both phrases is remarkable.

The roots of the shift that occurred between the earlier statements and the later can be seen quite early in the course of Luther’s reformation development. Luther gradually became disillusioned with Pseudo-Dionysius, primarily because of the lack of concrete connections to core Christian affirmations, a consequence of the negative approach he had praised before. In his lecture on the Romans, he criticized those “who, according to the mystical theology, tend to inward darkness, laying aside the images of Christ’s passion.”7 Still, he does not mention Dionysius explicitly in his critique, but he does so a bit later in his second lecture on the Psalms, referring to Dionysius in his interpretation of Psalm 5. Here he states that “no one should believe himself to be a mystical Theologian, reading, understanding or teaching this, or rather seeming to read, understand or teach this. By living, rather by dying and by being damned one becomes a theologian, not by understanding, reading or speculating.”8 Even in these words Luther continues to presuppose a positive meaning for mystical theology, pitting experience against intellectual learning, just as he had earlier applied negative theology to critiquing scholastic theology. Now, the negations Christ experienced in his Passion had become an instrument for criticizing Dionysius, the master of the negative way. Luther thought that the Neoplatonic speculative approach to theology of the Corpus Dionysiacum had been combined with the philosophical theology of Aristotelian scholasticism. From this point on, Luther would not refer positively to Dionysius, in contrast to what he would say about some other mystics.

Bonaventurian Tradition

While Luther quite early rejected Pseudo-Dionysius, he never ceased to admire such mystics as Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153). As late as 1542 he stated: “Bernard loved the incarnation of Christ very much as did Bonaventure. I praise them both to the utmost on account of this.”9 And both of them were well known to him from his beginnings. As early as Pseudo-Dionysius or perhaps a bit earlier, Luther became familiar with tracts that had been transmitted under the name of Bonaventure. Even before the beginning of his lectures on the Sentences, in the fall of 1509, Luther seems to have read and annotated the “opuscula Parva” of the Franciscan mystic.10 Actually, Bonaventure was one of the most popular authors of the later Middle Ages, and this gave rise to many pseudepigraphic works under his name. For Luther, this corpus as a whole was Bonaventure. Here he found spiritual confirmation for his own way of living as a mendicant, for example, a praise of poverty11 or an identification of the mendicant status as status perfectior compared with others.12 The annotations also show that even in this early period, experience is not opposed to Holy Scripture but finds its ground in it, as when Luther states: “The divine Scripture is called Heaven.”13 Later tradition and interpretation will set mysticism and the Bible in opposition to each other. For the young Luther, however, the opposite is true: mysticism led him to scripture as the basis of experiencing God and Jesus Christ. He found both of them connected in the sentence “Christ has to be offered daily inwardly in us,” which he underlined in a tract on preparation for the Mass.14 In sum, the pseudo-Bonaventurian reading of the young Luther inspired him in his sacramental life and his Bible reading, leading him not to elite mystical experiences, as it might have for Pseudo-Dionysius, but strengthening him in the everyday piety of a young priest and monk.

Bernard of Clairvaux

It seems that indirect contact with pseudo-Bonaventure also led Luther to the far more important works of Bernard of Clairvaux. When he read the works of Anselm during his time in Erfurt, he noted some quotations from Bernard on the cover. As Jun Matsuura has shown, these quotations do not all derive directly from Bernard but from quotations in the Pseudo-Bonaventure collection.15 Perhaps inspired by this source, Luther moved on to read Bernard himself, even if one has good reasons to locate this reading for the most part during Luther’s early years in Wittenberg. As Franz Posset has pointed out, the Wittenbergers participated in a late medieval “Bernard Renaissance,”16 and Luther remained positively impressed with Bernard his whole life.17

The better we understand that Luther’s reformation development was caused not only by Paul and Augustine but also by late medieval piety, the more we are able to appreciate a story recounted by Philipp Melanchthon in a famous preface he wrote for the second volume of Luther’s Latin works. According to this story, during a time of distress Luther was comforted by an old man (senior) in the monastery by means of a quotation from Bernard. And, again according to Melanchthon, it was this quotation that led Luther to the right understanding of Paul and justification by faith.18 However historically accurate this report may be, it shows that for the contemporaries of Luther it would be astonishing to oppose the impact of mysticism to the impact of scripture. Both were combined for the young Luther and supported each other.

This suggests that Luther’s early lectures on the Bible are full of Bernardine influence. As early as in his Dictata super Psalterium, Luther praises the Cistercian abbot as a spiritual guide in all temptations that could afflict human beings.19 To him, Bernard is a witness of incarnation and passion, “for according to Bernard the soul has no rest save in the wounds of Christ.”20 A bit later, in the lecture on Romans, we find Luther’s most extensive quotation from Bernard, which might hint at the meaning the Cistercian had for him at this important time in his development. In his scholion on Romans 8:16, Luther gives a long quote about the effect of the Holy Spirit from Bernard’s sermon on the Feast of the Annunciation.21 Astonishingly, Bernard himself here quotes Paul, in fact, exactly the verse Romans 3:28 that had been the biblical target of the old man’s mystical comforting, according to Melanchthon’s report already cited. It may very well have been this Pauline influence that led Luther to somehow transform Bernard’s theology by reducing the significance of merits even more than Bernard himself had done. Bernard had pointed out that nothing could be a merit without God’s grace, but even so he still included merit in his theology of justification, while Luther in a long digression explained to the contrary that a human being would be nothing of worth before God, including all his works.

Luther continued to combine adherence to Bernard, on one hand, with his own new approach, on the other hand, in his second lecture on the Psalms, where Luther presented Bernard as an example of right humility. In his interpretation of Psalm 21:22, Luther picked up Bernard’s distinction between humilitas (“humility”) and humiliatio (“humiliation”),22 to show how God dealt with human beings. However, he did not follow Bernard in stressing that humiliation had to be transformed into humility as a preparation for justification. This would not fit into the new framework of the doctrine of justification that Luther had meanwhile developed, which rejected all human preparation for justification. This gives a good example of the way Luther dealt with mysticism. Rather than simply adopting mystical concepts as a whole, he transformed them, placing them into a new framework and in this way shaping them into something new.

John Tauler

The 14th-century theologian Tauler (d. 1361) is the central figure for Luther’s reception of mysticism. In spring 1518, the reformer himself wrote to Johann von Staupitz about the quarrel over indulgences: “I myself of course followed the theology of Tauler and of his booklet that you recently gave to our Christian Aurifaber to be printed.”23 Thus, even half a year after the publication of the Ninety-five Theses, Luther still saw himself in the stream of late medieval mysticism, primarily in the tradition of John Tauler, Meister Eckhart’s follower. It is not known exactly when he became familiar with John Tauler’s sermons. A clear piece of evidence can be found in his letter to George Spalatin from December 14, 1516. Here he recommended the sermons of Tauler and sent along the Theologia deutsch as “something like a summary”24 to Spalatin, stating that he never had seen in Latin or German a theology more beneficial and consonant with the Gospel.25 This recommendation shows the broader interest in Tauler in Wittenberg at that time. As Henrik Otto showed, nowhere was Tauler read as intensively in the first quarter of the 16th century as in Wittenberg. Along with Luther, Nicolaus von Amsdorff and Andreas Karlstadt were also among the readers of this late medieval mystic.

Possibly we can arrive at an even earlier date for Luther’s first reading of Tauler. The course of the lectures on Romans gives the impression that Luther knew Tauler even earlier, at the latest in the spring of 1516.26 Some scholars even consider the spring of 1515 as the time of Luther’s Tauler reading.27 Whatever the exact date might be, Luther read the sermons in the Augsburg edition, printed in 1508.28 It presented Tauler’s sermons according to the liturgical year, including some sermons of Eckhart’s under Tauler’s name. In his own copy, Luther made some annotations that are still preserved. The notes made by the young Wittenberg monk centered on the pure passivity of human beings in terms of salvation.

Where Tauler’s text has “because if two shall become one, one of the two must behave passively, the other actively,”29 Luther observed in his volume: “Note that it is far more necessary to sustain the divine than to do it. Actually, sense and intellect naturally are passive virtues.”30 This notice is quite important for the development of his doctrine of justification, indicating that as early as 1515 or 1516 he had developed a clear notion of God as acting alone in our salvation and doing so in the context of his reading of mystical theology. The complex of ideas circulating at this time can clearly be seen in Luther’s use of the biblical clay-and-pottery imagery to show the total human dependence of God in his lecture on the Romans31 as well as in his Tauler annotations.32 He added an Augustinian note as well, quoting St. Augustine that “whatever you have as a merit is a gift of prevenient grace. There is nothing in us that God crowns besides his own gifts.”33 Although the quote may have been taken from Albert the Great, most importantly it is an expression of an Augustinian tradition that never allows any possibility of merit to human beings, a concept that Luther sets into a mystical framework.

The same mystical-Pauline-Augustinian complex can be found when Luther, following the mystical line, speaks of God destroying all that is ours34 and then explains that by reference to the Pauline metaphor of the Old Adam, whose own sense and will has to cease.35 In this process, faith becomes the centerpiece. If everything in the human being is destroyed, nothing is left but pure faith in God: “So, salvation as a whole is resignation of the will in all things, just as he [Tauler] teaches here in both spiritual and temporal things. And [he teaches] naked faith in God.”36 One might perceive here either an early glimpse of Luther’s doctrine of justification or the end result of mystical humility. Both are true, for the annotations on Tauler show the early steps in Luther’s development within the late medieval mystical framework, including the rejection of human works. When Tauler wrote, “Children, in this man grew and ascended more than in all outer exercises that all the world might do together,”37 Luther commented: “Because all those are human works, but this is God’s work.”38 Luther found in Tauler a rejection of a piety of works and felt united with him in refusing confidence based on any external work. This also affected sacramental practices. In Tauler could be found a long passage on true contrition with an admonition to bring these feelings directly before God. Then, Tauler concluded, “don’t hurry up to the confessor.”39 Luther not only read this advice but also wrote in the margin “very good counsel.”40

As the letter to Staupitz mentioned earlier indicates, Luther carefully read not only Tauler at this time but also another mystical booklet that can be identified as the Theologia deutsch, which Luther understood as a kind of précis of Tauler’s mysticism. It is noteworthy that Luther’s first published work was an edition of this 14th-century mystical text, an incomplete version in 1516 and later, in 1518, the complete text. In his preface, he recommended the book—as well as the oppositions quoted previously—as a good alternative to scholastic texts. As in Tauler, in the Theologia deutsch he was heavily engaged with the question of penitence. This can be seen in the 1516 edition, where the cover text says: “A spiritual, noble booklet about rightly discerning and understanding what the old and new human being is. What Adam’s and God’s children are. And how Adam should die in us and Christ should rise.”41 With these brief remarks, Luther alluded to passages in the sixteenth chapter, where the death of the Old Adam was depicted and characterized as a kind of penitence. Taking into account that, as mentioned in his letter commending the Explanations of the Ninety-five Theses of May 1518, Luther’s main concern at this time was the question of penitence42 (s. article Luther’s biography 1483–1516), it seems not too much to state that the mystical texts of Tauler and the Theologia deutsch in the years 1515/16 informed Luther’s theology at a central point and helped shape his Reformation theology on the basis of medieval insights.

Transformation of Mystical Theology

Observing Tauler’s inclination to pursue a deeper understanding of penitence, one should not be surprised by Luther’s statement that he just wanted to follow John Tauler, as cited earlier. Tauler’s “very good counsel” seems to have inspired Luther’s first thesis against indulgences: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ saying: ‘Do penitence’ wanted the whole life of the believers to be penitence.”43 This was combined with the second thesis, which argued: “This word ‘penitence’ cannot be understood of sacramental penitence (i.e., confession and satisfaction which is celebrated by the priest’s office).”44 Here we find both the emphasis on inward penitence and the relativization of sacramental penitence. For a broader understanding of the Reformation movement, this means that images of Luther’s protest drawing out a new theology of reformation as a counterpoint to “the” Middle Ages miss the mark completely. In truth, this was one branch of late medieval piety, the inward mystical one, which was opposed in Luther’s work to another branch, the outward piety. Even the famous contraposition of the theologia crucis to the theologia gloriae emerges into a new light when the mystical impact on Luther’s development is kept in view. Describing the theology of the cross as a theology that understands God by the Passion of Christ instead of by human reasoning, Luther echoes verbatim what he had learned in the passion mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux,45 once again opposing it to the scholastic discourse. Obviously, it is also Bernard who stands behind the famous image of bride and bridegroom in Luther’s tract On the Liberty of a Christian. It had been Bernard who adopted the imagery of the Song of Songs to describe the relationship between the soul and Jesus Christ. If perhaps Luther had not learned it directly from Bernard, he could easily have heard or read it in Staupitz’s sermons. Whichever it may be, in this central text of Luther’s reform we still find a strong mystical influence. Lutheran scholars tend to disregard clear correlations of this kind and so might well ignore the importance of mystical theology in the development and impact of Reformation theology. Even in his Wartburg postills, obviously a text that emerged in the context of a split between the new and the old church, we find the Eckhartian and Taulerian idea of the birth of God in the believer’s soul:

Here, the Evangelist gives a memorial concealing the names Joseph and Mary, just calling them father and mother to give us a hint for a spiritual understanding. Now, who is the spiritual father or mother of Christ? He himself mentions his spiritual mother Mt. 4 or Lk. 8: “Whoever does my father’s will, he or she will be my brother, my sister and my mother.” Saint Paul calls himself a father 1 Cor 4: “Even if you had ten thousand teachers in Christ, you will have not more than one father, because I gave birth to you by means of the Gospel, and I have procreated you.” From this, it is clear that the Christian Church, that is, all faithful people, are Christ’s spiritual mother, and all apostles and teachers among the people, if they preach the Gospel, are his spiritual father. And whenever a human being comes to faith anew, then Christ will be born in him.46

Even the mature Luther picks up ideas from his early encounters with mysticism. In his Tauler annotations, Luther interpreted human beings not only as clay in the potter’s hand but also, in a reinterpretation of Aristotelian terminology, as God’s matter: In God’s hand we are matter or clay, he said,47 and stressing even more: “We are pure matter, God the maker of the form, for God works everything in us.”48 This is not at all proper Aristotelianism, but it reformulates a mystical and biblical concept of human existence as being nothing on its own, using the language of Aristotelianism. Astonishingly enough, this sentence in only slightly modified form meets us again in the late Luther, in a text that is commonly seen as a mature statement of his theology: the Disputatio de homine.49 The thirty-fourth thesis reads: “So, the human being of this life is pure matter of God for the life of his future form.”50 Martin Luther, as early as in 1515/16 and as late as in 1536, appropriates the Aristotelian basic distinction against its own proper sense to say what in his eyes must be said theologically about man and his relationship to God. Obviously, for this he was inspired by John Tauler’s mysticism.

However, it would not suffice to rely on a few quotations to establish the lasting impact of mysticism on Luther’s theology. One must recognize as well that some of Luther’s core convictions were shaped by mysticism, even if Luther transformed these mystical insights, primarily by stressing the importance of the Word of God as mediator between God and human beings. The relevance of mysticism for understanding Luther’s theology might be seen in three important elements of his theology:

  1. 1. Law and Gospel: The dialectics of Law and Gospel in Luther’s theology give an insight into divine action as a process of destroying human selfishness and rebuilding the believer by the Gospel of promise, as can be seen in the church postills of 1522:

    Secondly, the human being gets to know himself by the Law, seeing how wrong and unjust his heart is, how far he still is from God, how his nature is pure nothing, so that he refuses his honorable life and understands that it is nothing compared to the fulfillment of the Law. Humilated this way, he creeps to the cross, sighs for Christ and desires for his grace, despairs regarding himself and awaits all comfort from Christ.51

    This leads to the mystical background of Luther’s convictions. The complete humiliation of the human being depicted here was described in the Heidelberg disputation as an opus alienum, God’s “foreign work.”52 At exactly this time, for Luther another kind of opus alienum was the contrition of the heart,53 a concept that was directly connected with Luther’s reading of Tauler and the theology of penitence he found there. Actually, in this context, we find a dialectic in Tauler quite similar to that of the Law and the Gospel:

    The third gate of them is a true contrition concerning sins. What is this? This is a complete true renunciation of all that is not pure God or where God is not really in it, and a true turn to God with all your being.54

    As mentioned earlier, Luther was primarily attracted by Tauler’s penitential theology. There can be no doubt that this includes a dialectical structure, which marks a similarity between the mystical penitential theology and the Reformation theology of Law and Gospel. Regarding this broadly as a transformation, one should note as well the differences between mystical and Reformation theology, which are clearly reflected in the central role Luther gave the word of God in his theology. To understand the metamorphosis of mystical theology in the Reformation, one can speak of a turn toward a theology of the word (worttheologische Wende), which also affects other transformations of mystical theology in Luther.

  2. 2. Justification theology: Obviously, Luther’s theology of justification was shaped primarily by his Pauline and Augustinian reading. But as Luther’s understanding of both was not self-evident, one has to see that somehow the mystical impact paved the way for it. In addition to its tendency to the inward, the relevance of mysticism, as compared with other kinds of late medieval piety, lies in a phenomenon that could be understood as immediatization (Immediatisierung). Most varieties of late medieval piety tend to a gradualism (as Berndt Hamm has labeled it55), a counting piety, which see believers drawing nearer to God step by step. Mysticism, by contrast, sees a direct, immediate encounter between God and human beings, which is mediated by none save God himself. This tendency obviously is set forward in Luther’s doctrine of justification, which focuses on Christ as the only mediator between God and human beings. For Tauler, this immediate encounter includes the conviction that there are no human merits on the way to God, only God’s grace. Indeed, he expresses it in a seemingly Lutheran formulation. Nearness to God happens “never by human works or merits, but by the pure grace and the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ.”56

    The young Luther mirrors this conviction in his Operationes in Psalmos:

    This is called God’s justice as well as ours, because his grace is given to us, as a work of God that he works in us, as the word of God that he speaks in us, as God’s virtues, which he works in us, and many others […], so that by the same justice God and we ourselves are just, just as by the same word God acts and we are what he is. So that we are in him and his being is our being.57

    This quotation combines insights that, according to Luther’s late witness about his development in 1545, describe his discovery of the doctrine of justification with a clear mystical language. Understanding the young Luther this way means that it is not appropriate to set the Pauline-Augustinian tradition over against his late medieval heritage but instead to recognize that in his mind a composite was built up out of a combination of these convictions with mystical theology, all of which were fitted together in a most illuminating way.

  3. 3. There is another issue in Luther’s theology with clear connections to mystical theology: the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Obviously, this is a consequence of the immediatization mentioned before. Not surprisingly, then, we also find this idea in Tauler: “This devout person, he or she is an inward human being, he or she shall be a priest.”58 Admittedly, there is a difference from Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers, which presupposes only baptism for being counted a priest, while Tauler includes a special kind of devotion. Nevertheless, in Tauler a disconnection of the concept of priesthood from the rite of consecration can be observed. The sacrament does not make a priest, and, as he adds, not only men are priests but women as well. This frees the concept of priesthood from its traditional clerical limits, a tendency that Luther adopted and radicalized in speaking of the priesthood of all the baptized. Again, we find not a simple continuation of mystical ideas in Luther, but a small transformation, which in its consequences made reformation a success. It was the concept of the priesthood of all believers that Luther used in his tract to the nobles to enable the princes to enact the reformation of the church. Just so, reformation ideas became political and ecclesiastical reality.

In sum, mystical theology helped Luther shape his Reformation theology in several ways. The transformations he made let him remain an heir of mystical theology, while at the same time he became an opponent of other kinds of mysticism. The “Schwärmer,” or fanatics, as he called them (that is, Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer), continued mystical thinking in a direct, less transformed way, which Luther increasingly criticized by his concentration on the word of God. For much too long these conflicts led Luther researchers to believe that Luther himself was not part of the mystical tradition. Actually, he was a part of it, and his theology cannot be understood properly without taking this into account.

Discussion of the Literature

While orthodoxy and pietism and even the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher were deeply rooted in mystical traditions, modern Protestant theology in its different versions did much to disconnect Lutheranism from mysticism. Antimysticism and anti-Catholicism went hand in hand when, for example, Albrecht Ritschl identified mysticism as the “most distinctive grade of catholic piety.”59 With these words he wanted to discredit pietism, but his conviction afterward became common in liberal theology, as can be seen, for example, in Adolf Harnack. The moves made by Karl Barth and dialectical theology did not change much on this point. As measured by the word of God, mysticism seemed insufficient. Unfortunately, mainly adherents of the “Deutsche Christen” in the Third Reich adopted the idea of a mystical Luther to find analogies to the ideology of Alfred Rosenberg and his “Mythus des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts.”

This misuse was a burden mainly for German Luther research after the Second World War. It took a long while before researchers such as Heiko Oberman, Steven Ozment and, in Germany, Karlheinz zur Mühlen, could deal again with the issue of mysticism and Reformation. Meanwhile, the quest for Luther’s mystical roots seems at present to be among the most vibrant fields of Luther research, with a long list of contributions on the influence of Dionysius, Bernard, Tauler, Staupitz, and others. We lack as yet a new, comprehensive picture that puts the different mystical influences together. For too long researchers have followed the typology of Erich Vogelsang of a “Dionysian,” a “Roman,” and a “German” mysticism, neglecting that this typology stemmed from 1938 and had been influenced by the “blood and soil” (Blut und Erde) ideologies of the Third Reich. Today the notions of national psychology employed by Vogelsang cannot be accepted at all, and, indeed, a great deal of research has been done that makes clear the transnational interconnections between mystics and their theologies in the Middle Ages.

Primary Sources

The most interesting sources for Luther’s encounter with mysticism are the annotations mentioned earlier, for Ps-Bonaventure as well as for Tauler. For understanding his mystical development, a careful reading must be done of mostly his early tracts, one of which sets aside the expectation of finding a “new” Reformation theology and looks instead for the mystical impact upon Luther in his vocabulary and imagery. Going through these sources, at least up to the Wartburg Postilla, will reveal Luther as an energetic participant in late medieval mystical discourse and upon this foundation, rather than pitted against it, as a theologian of the Reformation.

Further Reading

Theo Bell, Divus Bernhardus. Bernhard von Clairvaux in Martin Luthers Schriften. Mainz: von Zabern, 1993 (VIEG 148).Find this resource:

Berndt Hamm and Volker Leppin, ed. Gottes Nähe unmittelbar erfahren. Mystik im Mittelalter und bei Martin Luther. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007 (Spätmittelalter und Reformation. Neue Reihe 36).Find this resource:

Köpf, Ulrich. “Monastische Traditionen bei Martin Luther.” In Luther—zwischen den Zeiten. Eine Jenaer Ringvorlesung. Edited by Christoph Markschies and Michael Trowitzsch, 17–35. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.Find this resource:

Köpf, Ulrich. “Martin Luther als Mönch.” Luther 55 (1984): 66–84.Find this resource:

Leppin, Volker. “In Rosenbergs Schatten. Zur Lutherdeutung Erich Vogelsangs.” Theologische Zeitschrift 61 (2005): 132–142.Find this resource:

Leppin, Volker. “‘omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit.’ Zur Aufnahme mystischer Traditionen in Luthers erster Ablaßthese. In Transformationen. Studien zu den Wandlungsprozessen in Theologie und Frömmigkeit zwischen Spätmittelalter und Reformation. Edited by Volker Leppin, 261–277. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2015 (Spätmittelaler, Humanismus, Reformation 86).Find this resource:

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(1.) WA 11:117, 35f.

(2.) WA 40/III:657, 35f.

(3.) AWA 9:425, 10.

(4.) AWA 9:425, 10.

(5.) WA 3:372, 13–27.

(6.) WA TR 1:16, 13, no. 46.

(7.) WA 56:299, 27–300, 1.

(8.) WA 5:163, 27–29.

(9.) WA 43:581, 11f.

(10.) AWA 9:89–147.

(11.) AWA 9:100, 21p.

(12.) AWA 9:103, 3p.

(13.) AWA 9:142, 10.

(14.) AWA 9:108, 29.

(15.) AWA 9:8, n. 7; 11, n. 11p.

(16.) Franz Posset, The Real Luther: A Friar at Erfurt and Wittenberg (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011), 85–128.

(17.) A comprehensive study of this is given by Theo Bell, Divus Bernardus (Mainz, Germany: vonZabern, 1993).

(18.) CR:6, 158.

(19.) WA 4:74, 21–30.

(20.) WA 3:640, 40.

(21.) WA 56:369p.

(22.) WA 5:656, 28–30.

(23.) WA BR 1:160, 8f.

(24.) WA BR 1:79, 61.

(25.) WA BR 1:79, 61–63.

(26.) WA 56:XXIX.

(27.) See Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen, Nos extra nos.: Luthers Theologie zwischen Mystik und Scholastik, Beiträge zur historischen Theologie 46 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1972), 97 n. 22. He refers to the comparison of handwritings made by Johannes Ficker.

(28.) Johannes Tauler, Sermones: des hochgeleerten in gnaden erleüchten doctoris Johannis Thaulerii sannt dominici ordens die da weißend auff den nächesten waren weg im gaist zu wanderen durch überswebendenn syn: von latein in teütsch gewendt manchem menschen zu säliger fruchtbarkaitt (Augsburg: Hans Otmar, 1508). A scan of this print can be seen at Bayerische StaatsBibliothek digital. To identify the exact goal of Luther’s annotations, one must use this print and not—as I myself did in earlier publications—the modern editions of Tauler.

(29.) Tauler, Sermones f. 2r.

(30.) WA 9 97:12–14.

(31.) WA 56:376, 22.

(32.) WA 9:102, 22p.

(33.) WA 9:99, 27p.

(34.) WA 9:102, 10p.

(35.) WA 9:103, 7p.

(36.) WA 9:102, 34–36.

(37.) Tauler, Sermones, f. 111v.

(38.) WA 9:103, 16p.

(39.) Tauler, Sermones, f. 192v.

(40.) WA 9:104, 12.

(41.) WA 1:153.

(42.) WA 1:525–527.

(43.) WA 1:233, 10f

(44.) WA 1:233, 12f.

(45.) See, e.g., Bernhard von Clairvaux, Sämtliche Werke. Lateinisch/deutsch, hg. v. Berhard B. Winkler. Bd. 5 (Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 1994), 118, 21–26.

(46.) WA 10/I.1:387, 3–14.

(47.) WA 9:103, 14p.

(48.) WA 9:97, 15p.

(49.) Gerhard Ebeling, Disputatio de homine (three parts), vol. 2 of Lutherstudien (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1977–1989).

(50.) WA 39/I:177, 3p.

(51.) WA 10/I.I:S. 455, 5–11.

(52.) WA 1:S. 357, 6–8.

(53.) WA 1:S. 540, 23–25.

(54.) Die Predigten Taulers aus der Engelberger und der Freiburger Handschrift sowie aus Schmidts Abschriften der ehemaligen Straßburger Handschriften, hg. v. Ferdinand Vetter, (Berlin: Weidmann, 1910), 36, 10–14.

(55.) Berndt Hamm, “Einheit und Vielfalt der Reformation—oder: Was die Reformation zur Reformation machte,” in: ibid. Reformationstheorien. Ein kirchenhistorischer Disput über Einheit und Vielfalt der Reformation, ed. Bernd Moeller and Dorothea Wendebourg (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprechtt, 1995), 57–127, 69–71.

(56.) Ibid., 123, 7f.

(57.) AWA 2:S. 259, 1–3, 12–14.

(58.) Tauler, Predigten, 164, 34–165, 1.

(59.) Albrecht Ritschl, Der Pietismus in der reformierten Kirche, vol. 1 of Geschichte des Pietismus. Kirche, vol. 1 of Geschichte des Pietismus (Bonn, Marcus, 1880; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1966), 28.