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date: 28 April 2017

Martin Luther’s Reformatory Discovery

Summary and Keywords

In the debate on Luther’s Reformatory Discovery two elements come together: the systematic question of how to determine the essential content of reformatory theology, that is, the core of Reformation itself, and the historical question of the point in his life at which Luther reached this insight. The debate arose first in the late 19th century, when the essence of Protestantism was brought into question and scholars tried to find an answer in the writings of Luther himself.

This historical and methodological conjunction leads to different results concerning both the religious content of the discovery and the date when Luther discovered it. Two main answers have been given. The first supposes that it is the logical structure of self-annihilation and divine affirmation that is specifically reformatory. Luther came to this insight during his first lecture on Psalms, about 1514. This means that he certainly knew what his new theology contained when the indulgences controversy broke out. The second theory underscores that Luther had to establish a kind of outward kerygmatic reality in order to make the inner conflict and contradiction of sentiments acceptable. He reached this position only in 1518, that is, after the beginning of the controversy over indulgences in 1517. Therefore, the final development of Luther’s reformatory insight took place in the confrontation with the ecclesiastical powers of his day.

For many years the debate focused upon a late text by Luther, namely, the preface of the first volume of his Latin works in 1545. It has to be admitted that Luther offered there his own recollection of the beginning of his new theology. But he did so quite briefly, concentrating only on the notion of iustitia passiva. This is a proper term for the content of the reformatory insight, but Luther did not fully explain the spiritual and practical context. Therefore, one must imagine that the Reformatory Discovery came about through a longer process of theological reflection, including its biblical, conceptual, spiritual, and ecclesial consequences. It is significant that the conflict with the Roman Church came up exactly when Luther stressed the externality of God’s Word for establishing the inner status of humankind before God. The church can only be the medium, not the subject, of salvation. And the correspondence to God’s Word means quite simply faith, that is, the acceptance of being accepted by God.

One must reckon here with a process that began with Luther’s first lectures in 1513 and came to an end by 1520. Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian” of 1520 clearly shows his reformatory discovery fully established.

Keywords: Martin Luther, justification, law and gospel, simul iustus, simul peccator, “Tower-Experience”, iustitia Dei

The Historical and Methodological Dimensions of the Topic

What was Luther’s Reformatory Discovery? When did it take place? What happened before this date? And why did his new insight produce so many consequences, in both church and society? The topic of a “Reformatory Discovery” is crucial for research both on Luther’s theology and on the Reformation as a historical event. But the topic has its own history. There is perhaps no other subject in reformatory theology in which historical and theological questions are so deeply intertwined.

This becomes evident when one considers the time at which these questions arose. The inquiry about Luther’s discovery is determined by historical circumstances in the late 19th century, comprised of four crucial elements. The first arose as a consequence of romantic historicism, which focused upon the single subject: All historical change must begin with a great personality. The second is the theoretical conviction that persons act on the basis of their own convictions. Accordingly, there must be one basic insight that moves persons to historical action, especially in the field of religion. The historical result of such an action represents the insight in its most precise form. The third element consists in the critical edition of sources that makes precise biographical research possible. The Weimar Edition of Luther’s writings, which sets them in historical order, provides the texts necessary for such an inquiry. The final element is a special view of Luther’s person alongside the other reformers, such as, for example, Philipp Melanchthon. This has something to do with the historical situation in continental Europe, where confessional Lutheranism had to be reshaped, leaving behind the traditional self-understanding of premodern Christianity, and thus in opposition to the Catholic Church.

Consequently, the attempt to define the Reformatory Discovery requires determining both its specific theological content and its historical point of departure. The attempt depends, moreover, on a theological examination of Luther’s thought during a particular period in his life. This was a new setting of the question, compared with the traditional self-understanding of reformatory Christianity which was content with the recognition that Protestantism had arisen in the 16th century out of late medieval Catholicism. This was understood as a broad historical movement in which the personality of Luther was certainly involved, but which took on its decisive ecclesiological shape through confessional writings, most notably the Augsburg Confession of 1530. And this, of course, was Melanchthon’s oeuvre, not Martin Luther’s.

The specific historical circumstances behind the quest to identify Luther’s Reformatory Discovery not only led to the peculiar framing of the question at its beginning but also continues to bias the problem up to today. This means that one must always consider the whole problem of the identity of the Reformation when one asks about Luther’s Reformatory Discovery, since the approach to understanding religion on the basis of its origins has not changed since the late 19th century. In any case, the process of research on this topic can be reviewed much better than was possible in the past. In doing so, one must keep in mind the parallels between the object of our questioning, that is, the historical and theological situation of Luther himself, and the methods used to find the appropriate answer. For this reason, the story of research is at the same time the story of the topic.

The texts that are used for research on the Reformatory Discovery include three kinds of literature, roughly speaking. The first of these consists of Luther’s early lectures, from the first lectures on the Psalms (1513–1515)1 through the lectures on Romans (1515–1516),2 Galatians (1516–1517),3 and Hebrews (1517–1518).4 The second consists of the publications around and in consequence of the indulgences controversy (1517 ff.), Luther’s second set of lectures on Psalms (1518–1521),5 and his sermons on the sacraments (1519–1520).6 The third type is represented by a single text, the late foreword to the first volume of the Latin edition of Luther’s works in 1545, which has been called his “great self-testimonial.” This is one of the most thoroughly investigated texts out of all of Luther’s writings.7 It is often connected to a small section of the first lecture on Psalms, on Psalm 71,2.8 The varying emphases that different scholars have placed on one of these sets of texts or another depends upon their systematic presuppositions.

In general, two main theses have been elaborated. The first contends that the Reformatory Discovery happened in 1514, that is, during the exegesis of Psalms for Luther’s first lectures. The other one argues that the decisive change came about only in 1518, that is, after the beginning of the struggle over indulgences. But to understand these conflicting results, we must examine the history of research together with its systematic implications or presuppositions.

The Striving for Religious Subjectivity

As noted, the historical, intellectual, and ecclesial situation in the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries—that is, the period between 1870 and 1918—made a certain reconstruction of Christian belief necessary. In 1870, Albrecht Ritschl had established—probably for the last time—a basic conjunction between Christian belief and secular morality by means of the term “Kingdom of God,” which was preached by Jesus and established by the church. It was especially this conjunction that had to be reshaped anew by taking stock of the difficulties that modernity posed for bringing together religion and morality. To achieve this purpose, the notion of morality had to be understood more deeply, that is, keeping in mind that human morality always fails in the end—rather than fulfilling its traditional purpose of realizing the Good. This is why the starting point of religion must be located not in the sphere of the fulfillment of the commandment of morality but in the ground of all moral activity, within the person himself or herself. Only one who understands that humans are not capable of finally realizing the Good is able to see how religion really works, namely, as a fundamental function of life that precedes all moral action. A new morality based on the critically regarded person is the elementary function of religion, which is, in this perspective, compatible with the modern understanding of life. It is exactly this type of religious subjectivity that scholars found in Luther’s Reformatory Discovery. It was at once a critical foundation for modern society and morality as well as a new basis for religion under the conditions of modernity. Karl Holl (1866–1921) in particular established this interpretation, relying especially upon Luther’s early lectures, which had been critically edited in the Weimar Edition (cf. Note 1) and other special editions. Holl based his interpretation primarily upon the first lectures on the Psalms and the lectures on Romans, as well as on Luther’s own preparatory texts.9

This combination of contemporary concerns with historical research worked as follows. The starting point is the search for personal or subjective authenticity. Only a person subjectively responsible for his or her own life can be regarded as a model for an effective orientation toward the world. We find just this kind of subjectivity in Luther’s decision to become a monk and to follow the monastic rules of life. We see in the years afterward that this path to religious authenticity fails, because religious intentions such as these are directed only toward the final end of life’s history, namely, the Last Judgment. This disposition must lead into despair, not into salvation, because the person’s religious intentions are never realized. These religious efforts correspond precisely with the bourgeois striving for completion that never reaches its goal.

Luther, in this interpretation, found a new way to deal with his own desperation, namely, through the study of Holy Scripture. There, he found himself confronted by God, and this confrontation produced in him a feeling of emptiness, even in a sense of annihilation. But this experience of being made nothing precisely in the confrontation with God, this ongoing sense of emptiness, was transformed into the abundance of divine presence in the midst of human existence. This experience must not be explained as a temporal consequence of first coming to despair and afterwards reaching satisfaction; instead, it must be shaped as a real coincidence: simul iustus, simul peccator. It is not by chance that this famous formula, often used as a general key for Luther’s theology, is pronounced exactly here, namely, in the lecture on Romans (commenting chapter 7,18).10

Holl was able to draw out his own understanding of Luther’s religion by means of this central insight, which he suggested dating to 1511, prior even to the first lectures on Psalms. Those who follow Holl’s description of Luther’s Reformatory Discovery, even if they may differ as to its date, are convinced that through this insight, Luther first set forth on the path toward eventual conflict with the Roman Church, and that as later events unfolded, he persisted in this same struggle. Indeed, this comes as no surprise, since long before the indulgences controversy he had already developed the fundamentally modern insight into religion that was able to transform the medieval church and its theology.

Nevertheless, some problems remain. The most important one consists in the description of the human soul as the medium of the newly constructed religion. One find in Luther’s vital experience a sense of annihilation. But when one reflects more carefully upon this sense, one can hardly say what it might be. For one does not know oneself being annihilated; this surmounts the person’s possibilities of feeling. This problem applies to the other side of the claimed coincidence as well, namely, the divine presence right inside the soul. This presence must be an ultimate reality, but one experiences only its shadow, no more substantive than one’s sense of emptiness or annihilation. This means, in short, that although a model of bringing together human self-negation and divine affirmation has been elaborated, there remain hidden presuppositions behind this model, which must be elaborated if the model is to persist. The main topics that require clarification include the following: How can the human soul be defined so as to be capable of these diverse, contradictory sentiments, and in a manner that is persistent in spite of the sharp tension between despair and hope? How can the Divine be configured to make it consistent with the antinomy of destruction and affirmation?

Here, it is important to recall the nearness of Luther’s theology up to this point with the mystical tradition he had encountered especially in discussions with Johannes von Staupitz, his fatherly friend and counselor. In mystical spirituality, we find the aforementioned coincidence of human nothingness and divine abundance expressed, but this always occurs by means that recognize their own inadequacy for expressing the realities to which they refer. Thus, there is always a spiritual silence in the end, which, following the experience of mystical unity, finds words to give what is at best an approximate account of the experience. If we consider that Luther’s early theology up to 1515 is consistent with the logical form of a conincidentia oppositorum, we understand why his proximity to mystical traditions persists even in later expressions of his theology.

The theological problem of the famous formula simul iustus, simul peccator consists in the difficulty of figuring out the status of the human soul’s ability to feel desperation and affirmation in the same moment. Another critical moment must be added. The concentration upon the inner antinomy of fear and hope leaves the causes for the antinomy underdetermined. There might also be nondivine causes that produce the inner tension of the religious person—fear of the Last Judgment, for example, and hope of a final, but not yet achieved, salvation. Though Luther has developed the human antinomy interpreting Holy Scripture, he has not yet pointed out why it is exactly that the divine encounter produces this consequence within human life. Emptiness and abundance may coincide; up to now the main result of this structure consists in the attempt to overcome the moral weakness of the ethical subject. The structure of being reduced to nothing in order to become a capable subject afterwards remains a bourgeois model that is interested in building up a moral person. Religion remains a means of morality. Thus, a real independence of religion cannot be achieved by this model; therefore, one cannot be satisfied taking the famous simul formula for the essence of Reformation.

The Promise of Religious Objectivity

It is this topic, religious independence, that leads us to another point concerning the essence and the starting point of the Reformatory Discovery. We must remember what the concern of Karl Barth’s theology was before, during, and after World War II, namely, his implicit goal of establishing an ecclesial form of Christianity that did not depend on outward historical presuppositions, but instead received its existence and credibility from the Word of God. This goal was also reflected in Luther research, especially as represented in the work of Ernst Bizer (1904–1975). Bizer identified Barth’s notion of the Word in Luther’s texts beginning in 1518. He spoke of a “sacramental understanding” of the Word that seemed to him the correct expression of Luther’s Reformatory Discovery.11

Systematically, Bizer’s argument can be reconstructed as follows. The result of our former reflections was that we have to inquire about the subject who undergoes the experience of fundamentally contradictory sensations. The formula “simul iustus, simul peccator” poses the question how one can imagine a subject capable of this coincidence. It is evident that one cannot assume a subject distant from his or her own emotions and sentiments. But if one accepts this internal contradiction as a basic phenomenon, one must also presume that the person is deeply concerned by this tension, and even loses his or her internal sense of identity. The consequence of this line of reasoning is that one must look for an external counterpart to the human soul or subject, namely, God. The question then arises how God’s encounter with the human soul can be understood in something other than a substantial manner, as if God were an empirical givenness. The solution is to understand that God’s presence in his Word refers to determining humankind. Life must be directed by reasons and purposes. Therefore, one needs some kind of self-determination. Luther’s earlier reflections have shown that the person cannot achieve a satisfactory life only by his or her own means; the negative sentiment of despair marks this conclusion unmistakably. An element of self-determination is required; one which recognizes the human inability to realize the Good but at the same time opens up the possibility of a life directed by powers that lie beyond our own resources, which lead our intentions to the right and successful way. This double determination—by the self and by the Other—is concentrated in the Word of God. As a created “word” of God, we are able to grasp and understand it. Hearing the word, we are addressed as subjects; the word evokes from us an answer. But at the same time, God’s Word touches us beyond our capability of dealing with worldly means. As finite beings, we are ultimately concerned. To achieve this aim, the Word of God articulates itself in a twofold manner, that is, as an obligation and as a promise, or, in Luther’s later terminology, as law and gospel.

The account of Luther’s theological development as reconstructed by Bizer means, therefore, that the internal clash of our sentiments, that is, the logical matrix of the internal contradiction of feelings, is itself in fact the consequence of God’s own Word in which God himself is present. This also answers the question of God’s ultimate reality. What could be more real than a concept of the determination of ourselves that grounds all our assumptions about reality? Our own subjectivity means simply that we are addressed, spoken to, by God, and that we cannot exist without this determining word of address. This word creates a kind of “kerygmatic objectivity” that one encounters in listening to God’s Word, and it is this verbal objectivity within the soul that places us in relation to God.

This explanation of Luther’s concern functions to establish that the relation of humankind to God is prior to and independent of our own purposes. God must be regarded as the infinite source of human life, not merely as the means of its completion. This implies that God’s presence in the individual life is real and sufficient even before one’s life ends. That is why one can immediately be certain of salvation, even before death. God’s presence overcomes all temptations in the world; it overrides even the fear and despair that arise from our distance to God. It defeats sin, the devil, and hell. On Bizer’s account, this combination of God’s extrinsic kerygmatic objectivity and our human inward subjectivity, mediated by the Word and perceptible through the contradictory sentiments of despair and hope, fear and belief, completes Luther’s Reformatory Discovery.

Luther’s sermons on the sacraments in 1519 and 1520 make this conception clear.12 His new outlook can be indisputably demonstrated from the sermon on penitence from 1519. The traditional logic of penitence concerns above all the feelings of the sinner, his contrition and confession, as well as the consequences of priestly absolution and the related works of satisfaction. Luther changes the perspective here, powerfully underscoring the act of absolution, that is, the Word of God as uttered by the mouth of the priest. Here, one at last finds solid ground precisely in what happens in the sacrament of penitence. Establishing man’s relation to God here depends not on human efforts but on God alone.

This elaboration of Luther’s insight seems to have developed only as a consequence of the struggle over indulgences. It eventually became clear to Luther in dealing with the lack of coherence in indulgence preaching that all ecclesial action depends on God’s own self-representation.

Luther’s Reformatory Discovery: A Conversion?

Our systematic reconstruction has shown that the focus on religious subjectivity is not at all misleading. To the contrary, the modern perspective on Luther helps one to understand the Reformatory Discovery more precisely.

We must not, however, follow a conversion theory to make sense of Luther’s discovery of the proper sense of the gospel, as was broadly suggested in interpretations inspired by the Pietistic tradition. The Pietistic interpretation relies on a conception of conversion as the model for religious subjectivity that inserts a sharp biographical turning point between one’s former and present life. There are a few remarks in the late “Tischreden” that are amenable to interpretation along Pietistic lines.13

One of Luther’s texts, however, seems to point in this direction, the so-called Great Self-Testimonial of 1545. It must be admitted that we find here a compelling reminiscence from the older Luther. In the preface to the first volume of his collected Latin works, he offered a comprehensive overview of his own story. But it is important to note first of all that Luther was commenting upon the table of contents of the present volume. He was not writing an autobiography. Second, Luther telescopes his insight into St. Paul and his letter to the Romans. This must not be understood as a precise literal history, but instead as a systematic topic. To be sure, the model of Luther’s doctrine of justification can only be found in St. Paul, but since Luther always regards the Bible as a coherent whole, St. Paul’s argument can become the matrix for biblical exegesis at any place. It must not be restricted to a professional exegesis of St. Paul, for example, in the lectures on Romans. Third, Luther chooses for this text one version of his central theological view among others. Speaking about the difference between iustitia activa and iustitita passiva, he restricts the explanation of his experience to one possible way. We are not obliged to search for exactly this application of terms in his early writings as if it were the only or even the most precise explanation. On the contrary, what Luther means by iustitia passiva is not made clear simply by opposing it to iustitia activa, but by interpreting it from the standpoint of God’s action. God’s justifying action refers more to a grammatical insight (as genitivus subjectivus) than to a philosophical one.

Regardless, Luther’s autobiographical reminiscence of 1545 has become probably the most interpreted section of his writing. What we really seem to find there is the following: There has been a transition in understanding St. Paul and, accordingly, the central message of the Bible as well. The old understanding regarded God as an external counterpart to man; the relation between God and humankind was the law, which claimed the realization of the Good on the part of humankind. The gospel communicated the power to accomplish one’s moral obligations, which had become impossible for man as sinners; this is what was meant by justification. But in the end, the justified sinner had to meet God as the eternal judge, whose grace could be hoped for, but whose final judgment could not be foreseen, bearing in mind that no one was able to fulfill all moral obligations. The new understanding, however, peered more deeply into God’s action. God is always the one who gives—he is the infinite source not only of the world as creation but also of humankind in the struggle for the Good. And God remains the giving one, even in relation to the sinners. He gives his presence in Christ, totally and sufficiently. He makes humans just, which means that he makes them acceptable in his own eyes.

Luther has, without any question, correctly articulated this difference in his preface from 1545, one year before his death. But reproducing this central structure means only giving one crucial point of his theological, or let us say religious, convictions, because all of the moments we referred to explaining the movement as well the structure of contradictory sentiments as the transmission of God’s justice by his word are omitted in this remarkable section of the preface that speaks about iusitia passiva. That is why it should not be taken as the fundamental text for the discussion on the Reformatory Discovery.

Luther’s Discovery of the Gospel

Luther’s Reformatory Discovery is, in its most precise expression, the (re)discovery of the Gospel. Clearly, such a discovery can only be made within a religious framework which becomes altered by the new insight. Clearly, too, the (re)discovery does not mean that the Gospel was unknown before, nor is the lively acceptance of the Gospel a mere historic repetition of what was known in ancient Christianity. Instead, what happened was a new appropriation of the biblical gospel under the historical conditions of the late Middle Ages—a transformation that brought forth an authentic understanding of the original sense of Christianity. The fact that this concept of piety spread out and contributed to the formation of new ecclesial structures underscores the potency of the concept; it was the right moment for this kind of “modernization”. How can we understand the process by which the Reformatory Discovery was made?

A set of diverse factors contributed to the result. Among them the person of Martin Luther is surely the most important one. But his person was also shaped by his context and by his experiences. It is characteristic of the late 15th century that people were cultivating their religious sensibility, concomitant with a rising sensibility in regard to their own lives. We must imagine this time as especially concerned with the question of life’s final destination. Luther shared this concern and participated vigorously in it not only through his humanist education at Erfurt. With this background in mind, one can see that Luther’s decision to enter the order of St. Augustine was consistent with his previous orientation toward life. Joining a religious order was not just a way to lead one’s life to an eternal future and fulfillment. The search for a consistent position of individual life in direct encounter with God had nothing to do with fulfillment of this life; rather, it was an attempt to find solid ground for individual life. That is why Luther was reported to have been an orderly member of his order, using all the means available for living a religiously impeccable life. It was his striving for religious authenticity, the reflex of a disposition characteristic of his generation, which brought him to the experience of despair. Apparently, there was a contradiction between the promises of monastic discipline and the religious expectations he wanted to fulfill. This conflict might have continued, in which case Luther would have been just another disillusioned friar.

The difference that enabled Luther to escape from this destiny was his appointment to study theology, above all to become a doctor with the special task of biblical interpretation. His studies gave Luther the opportunity to transpose his individual problems into a new and broader network, that is, the biblical texts. Once he was charged with professional exegesis, his personal interests could be discussed on a more objective level. In his early lectures, primarily in his first lectures on Psalms, we can see how much he stressed the third aspect of medieval exegesis, namely, the ad hominem perspective of the sensus tropologicus. In this way, he connected his individual interests to divine texts that promise, in a way different from that of regular monastic life, a solid answer to the question of salvation. One can observe a trajectory in the young Luther’s thought in which the answers become more and more appropriate, and stress increasingly the divine action of encountering humankind, including Luther himself. We must imagine the process not as planned out beforehand but as one that unfolded above all as a consequence of Luther’s professional work of lecturing and preaching on the Bible. Thus, one can understand that Luther did not see himself making his own sense out of the normative sources. Instead, he believed that the content of the Bible itself brought him to new insights.

The first problem that had to be solved was how to pose humankind before God, in respect to the human nothingness as a sinner who nevertheless was addressed by God. The solution to this problem was, as mentioned, the coincidence of contradictory sentiments, namely, despair and hope. The simul formula brings this coincidence to concise expression. But biblical exegesis cannot rest easily with this result. It must be recognized that this inner conflict between these two sentiments is induced by the word found in the Bible. The word itself must therefore become part of the game. It must be seen as God’s own action—which is only possible by Christ preaching, the son of God preaching, God’s Word. This is the point where the ecclesial mediation of the word becomes crucial. It is absolutely necessary that all ecclesial action remain transparent to God’s own Word. The church is nothing else but a medium of God’s Word, born from the Word, preaching the Word, always obedient to the Word. The Word thus becomes the elementary counterpart of human belief.

From this result we can understand why the topic and the praxis of indulgences provoked Luther’s protest. Especially among simple people, the impression could not be avoided that the human remission of ecclesial punishment was equated with the divine absolution of sin. In this very moment the human action of the church took the place of the divine judgment. On the other hand, holding open the place for God’s own action in his Word, humankind would find themselves annihilated (and in a more rigid sense than ecclesial punishment can imagine) but affirmed at the same time, and this affirmation is absolutely unconditional.

This conception must have struck Luther deeply. The new spelling of his name, Luther-Eleutherius instead of Luder, used for the first time in the dedicatory letter of the theses on indulgences to Albrecht of Mainz, November 1, 1517, and always afterward, shows precisely Luther’s new religious consciousness: He has become free, independent from any ecclesial mediation that obscures the divine Word. And he could still expect that his arguments would be understood in the way he meant them, namely, as the rediscovery of the original sense of the Gospel. His bewildering experience in the following years, however, was that his proposals, though exegetically well founded, were disapproved of by the Roman authority. This brought him in a confrontation with the church that he had not intended. Only at this point did Luther begin to see that the true Gospel would probably necessitate its own ecclesial structures, remaining, so to speak, within the old traces of the Gospel, against the occupation of the Gospel by the church. This means that what we call the Reformation Discovery reached its final form only in 1520, as a result of the excommunication proceedings initiated against him personally. For this reason, Reinhard Schwarz in his masterpiece Martin Luther, Lehrer der christlichen Religion14 calls the period between 1517 and 1520 a “transitional period,” at the end of which Luther’s theology at last reached its stable and coherent formation.

This completes the overview of the complex and historically contingent process by means of which Luther’s Reformatory Discovery was made. It is a process with many steps, including Luther’s own individual development; ancillary scientific accomplishments, such as the humanist movement; Luther’s call to lecture on the Bible at Wittenberg; his insistent efforts to understand the significance of God’s Word for the salvation of humankind; his personal courage in publishing and defending his theological insights; and at last the experience of being excommunicated from the church, in spite of the pious, religious ambitions with which he had begun. Surely, at many points along this journey Luther must have become self-aware of these developments, as he later remembered them. They remained the constitutive elements of a great change motivated by deeper insight into God’s essence and God’s will as they are revealed in Christ.

Drawing a picture such as this one provides others as well with an opportunity to take stock of their own religious biography as analogous to Luther’s Reformatory Discovery—seeking the original sense of the truth of the Gospel in the midst of the religious (or secular) traditions in which we live.

Review of the Literature

The reader is now prepared for a better understanding of the scientific debate that has taken place since the beginning of the 20th century, above all in German scholarship. The main problem of the discussion, which varies in manifold ways, is methodological. Two questions must be combined. First, is there a prominent notion whose elaboration leads to Luther’s Reformatory Discovery? The late Self-Testimonial suggests that this might be the notion of iustitia, but there are also other important terms that seem to be connected to the reformatory insight, for example, promissio, as Oswald Bayer argues in the tradition of the Bizer School.15 The second question is how to judge the 1545 preface historically.

As suggested, both questions are problematic. The Reformatory Discovery must not be identified with a single transformation of even a central theological concept, as iustitia undoubtedly is. The hopelessness of this debate should have become clear as long ago as the polemical work of Heinrich Denifle, O.P., a Catholic polemicist against Luther, in the year 1904.16 Denifle could show that there had been interpretations of iusititia Dei in the medieval scholastic theology that preceded some formulations of Luther and which had been claimed as specifically reformatory. This suggests that the Reformatory Discovery must be regarded in a broader sense, including personal self-understanding and the ecclesial system as a whole. Especially if this semantic restriction toward one single keyword is combined with the search for an individual turning point of a conversion, the purpose must fail; without taking stock of the biographical and ecclesial context, we cannot truly understand how a single theological insight can fundamentally change one’s life.

Thankfully, Otto Hermann Pesch published two compendia on the literature addressing this question. The first one dates from 1966,17 the second from 1983–1984.18 Pesch not only presents the scientific contributions in a very accurate and substantive manner, but also gives a hypothesis at the end of each article that attempts to focus and to continue the debate. The care reflected in his reports cannot be reproduced in this overview, but his final theses must be presented here. In his first article in 1966, which takes its starting point with the debate on Bizer’s theory, Pesch first proposes to make a distinction between a theologically grasped reformatory turning point and the personal-life transition suggested by the notion of the Tower-Experience. Theological convictions must be elaborated; they must not be understood in the manner of an instantaneous event delivered from on high. Nevertheless, there may be biographical moments in which insights already developed come into subjective consciousness concerning one’s own life; but these moments never lack concrete historical circumstances. Secondly, Pesch also proposes to differentiate these intellectual and psychological aspects from the beginning of the struggle about indulgence since 1517. His proposals have been widely accepted.

The second compendium of the literature from 1983–1984 deals with the debate since 1966. Pesch’s final thesis makes the former proposal, regarding the results or trends of the debate, more precise: (a) There was a reformatory transition on the field of theological insight in the spring of 1518, and it refers to a new understanding of iustitia Dei. (b) In Luther’s earlier theology, we find moments and structures that prepare the way for the final shift in the spring of 1518. (c) The beginning of the troubles over indulgences does not mark a moment of new theological progress, but simply brings about the personal and ecclesial consequences that were implicit within Luther’s new understanding of iustitia Dei.19

Pesch’s solid presentation of the details of this debate allows us recommend his articles as substantial contribution to the theme, especially as they are to be found in two volumes (edited by Bernhard Lohse) that bring out the most important positions.20

Primary Sources

The texts that are used for research on the Reformatory Discovery include three kinds of literature. The first of these consists of Luther’s early lectures, from the first lectures on the Psalms (1513–1515)21 through the lectures on Romans (1515–1516),22 Galatians (1516–1517),23 and Hebrews (1517–1518).24 The second consists of the publications around and in consequence of the indulgences controversy (1517 ff.), Luther’s second set of lectures on Psalms (1518–1521),25 and his sermons on the sacraments (1519–1520).26 The third type is represented by a single text, the late foreword to the first volume of the Latin edition of Luther’s works in 1545, which has been called his “great self-testimonial.” This is one of the most thoroughly investigated texts out of all of Luther’s writings.27 It is often connected to a small section of the first lecture on Psalms, on Psalm 71,2.28 The varying emphases that different scholars have placed on one of these sets of texts or another depends upon their systematic presuppositions.

The crucial texts on Psalm 72,2 and the Great Self-Testimony are also in the 1968 edition of Der Durchbruch der reformatorischen Erkenntnis bei Luther, edited by Bernhard Lohse.

Further Reading

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985–1993.Find this resource:

Hendrix, Scott H. Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.Find this resource:

McGrath, Alister. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Vol. 2: From 1500 to the Present Day. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press 1993.Find this resource:

McGrath, Alister. Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough. Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1985.Find this resource:

Thompson, Cargill. “The Problem of Luther’s ‘Tower-Experience’ and Its Place in His Intellectual Development.” Studies in Church History 15 (1978): 187–212.Find this resource:


(1.) The first lecture on psalms: Dictata super psalterium, WA 3:11–652; WA 4:1–462; WA 55/I:1–119; WA 55/II:1–124.

(2.) WA 56:3–528. First: Johannes Ficker, Luthers Vorlesung über den Römerbrief 1515/1516, 2 vol., Anfänge reformatorischer Bibelauslegung (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1908).

(3.) WA 57:5–49, 53–108. First: Hans v. Schubert, Luthers Vorlesung über den Galaterbrief (Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 1918).

(4.) WA 57:3–91, 97–238. First: Johannes Ficker, Vorlesung über den Hebräerbrief 1517/18, 2 vol. Anfänge reformatorischer Bibelauslegung (Leipzig: Dieterich, 1929).

(5.) Operationes in Psalmos, AWA.

(6.) Sermon von dem Sakrament der Buße 1519, WA 2:713–723. Sermon von dem heiligen hochwürdigen Sakrament der Taufe 1519, WA 2:727–737. Sermon von dem hochwürdigen Sakrament des heiligen wahren Leichnams Christi und von den Bruderschaften 1519, WA 2:739–758. Sermon von dem neuen Testament, d. i. von der heiligen Messe 1520, WA 6:353–378.

(7.) WA 54:185 f.

(8.) WA 54:179–187. Vgl. Bernhard Lohse, Luthers Auslegung von Psalm 71 (72), 1 und 2 in der ersten Psalmenvorlesung, in Der Durchbruch der reformatorischen Erkenntnis bei Luther: Neuere Untersuchungen, ed. Bernhard Lohse (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1988), 1–13.

(9.) Karl Holl, “Was verstand Luther unter Religion?” (1910), in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte 1, Luther (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1921), 1–90.

(10.) WA 56:343, 19.

(11.) Ernst Bizer, Fides ex auditu:Eine Untersuchung über die Entdeckung der Gerechtigkeit Gottes durch Martin Luther (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 1966).

(12.) Ein Sermon von dem Sakrament der Buße (1519), WA 2:713–723. Ein Sermon von dem heiligen hochwürdigen Sakrament der Taufe (1519), WA 2:727–737. Ein Sermon von dem hochwürdigen Sakrament des heiligen wahren Leichnams Christi und von den Bruderschaften (1519), WA 2:742–758. Ein Sermon von dem Bann (1520), WA 6:63–75.

(13.) cf. WA TR 2, no. 2540. WA TR 3, no. 3232.

(14.) Reinhard Schwarz, Martin Luther, Lehrer der christlichen Religion (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).

(15.) Oswald Bayer, Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1971).

(16.) Heinrich Denifle, Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung (Mainz: Kirchheim, 1904–1909).

(17.) Otto Hermann Pesch, “Zur Frage nach Luthers reformatorischer Wende: Ergebnisse und Probleme der Diskussion um Ernst Bizer, Fides ex auditu,” in Der Durchbruch der reformatorischen Erkenntnis bei Luther, ed. Bernhard Lohse, 445–505; n. 16 (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968).

(18.) Otto Hermann Pesch, “Neuere Beiträge zur Frage nach Luthers ‘Reformatorischer Wende,’” in Durchbruch (1988), 245–341; n. 16.

(19.) Ibid., 332–337.

(20.) Durchbruch, 1968.

(21.) Dictata super psalterium, 3, 11–652. 4, 1–462. 55 I, 1–119. 55 II 1–124.

(22.) WA 56:3–528.

(23.) WA 57:5–49, 53–108.

(24.) WA 57:3–91, 97–238.

(25.) Operationes in Psalmos, AWA 1 and 2.

(26.) Sermon von dem Sakrament der Buße 1519, WA 2:713–723. Sermon von dem heiligen hochwürdigen Sakrament der Taufe 1519, WA 2:727–737. Sermon von dem hochwürdigen Sakrament des heiligen wahren Leichnams Christi und von den Bruderschaften 1519, WA 2:739–758. Sermon von dem neuen Testament, d. i. von der heiligen Messe 1520, WA 6:353–378.

(27.) WA 54:185 f.

(28.) WA 54:179–187. Vgl. Bernhard Lohse, Luthers Auslegung von Psalm 71 (72), 1 und 2 in der ersten Psalmenvorlesung, in Der Durchbruch der reformatorischen Erkenntnis bei Luther: Neuere Untersuchungen, ed. Bernhard Lohse (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1988), 1–13.