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date: 21 August 2017

Martin Luther’s Concept of Doctrine

Summary and Keywords

Luther conceives Christian doctrine drawn from the Bible and summarized in the articles of faith as the essential resource and topic of all Christian teaching and preaching. In contrast to both scholastic and post-Reformation theology, Luther emphasizes the strong connection and interdependence between doctrine and proclamation. While doctrine communicates God’s word in his law and his gospel, doctrine can only be pure if it does not confuse law and gospel but carefully distinguishes God’s demand in the law from the promise and gift of his mere grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, the core topic of Christian doctrine is Christ’s redemption through his proclamation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection by which God in the power of his spirit graciously offers justification by faith alone. By representing God’s gracious revelation in the incarnation and redemptive and salvific activity of his son, Christian doctrine communicates the presence of the loving and justifying God who evokes faith and trust through his word. While Christian doctrine grants knowledge about God’s triune activity, it is not only informative, but communicates God’s promise efficiently.

In the course of the Reformation, Luther emphasized more the importance of the verbum externum as an instrument to communicate pure doctrine. To support Christian teaching and education, he wrote the catechisms in which he explains the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed as the essential resources of Christian doctrine, but unlike Melanchthon, he did not summarize Christian doctrine in loci theologici. Yet he understood the articles of faith to be inherently connected and inseparable as they refer to the unity of God. Thus, the systematic explanation of the Christian faith in Lutheran orthodoxy meets with Luther’s understanding of the structure of doctrine and his concern for fully exploring and apprehending God’s grace and justice as revealed in the gospel. At the same time, Luther always used doctrine in soteriological context. Because of its particular content, theological reflection of doctrine cannot exclude the dimension of proclamation.

Keywords: Martin Luther, doctrine, law and gospel, word, Christology, justification, efficacy, catechisms, priesthood of all believers, ministry, life

Luther’s Concept in Light of Later Development

Before we explore Martin Luther’s understanding of doctrine, it may increase awareness of the character of Luther’s approach to put him in context with earlier and especially later developments in the theological use of the concept of doctrine. While from the origins of Christianity, the fundamental task of theology has been to distinguish and preserve the “sacra doctrina” from heresy and defend orthodoxy against heterodoxy, post-Reformation emphasis on theological education, interdenominational controversies, and early modern progress in other disciplines apart from theology pushed Christian theologies in the West to elaborate the scholarly profile as an academic discipline and distinguish scholarly (acroamatic) exploration of Christian doctrine from ecclesial catechesis.1 In the period of Enlightenment, the fundamental challenge to the authority of the Bible as the principle of theological epistemology and to the rationality of Christian doctrines (especially the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, original sin, the satisfactory effect of the death of Jesus Christ, and his resurrection) required significant changes in academic theological reasoning. This transformation is mirrored in a shift of key distinctions. Now, the Protestant theologian Johann Salomo Semler analyzed the distinct character of doctrine/theology on the one hand and faith/piety on the other.2 While he, in line with Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, emphasized the theological maturity and competence of all Christians in reflecting Christian doctrine and living out Christian piety, he indirectly contributed to an even deeper distinction between academic theology and philosophy of religion on the one hand and individual and ecclesial piety and catechesis on the other. In the era of German idealism, Friedrich Schleiermacher in his encyclopedia proposed to conceive of theology as an academic meta-reflection on the nature of Christianity and the particular character of Christian piety. In comparison with this later development, it is striking how little Luther was interested in a scholarly exploration of Christian doctrine distinct from piety and ecclesial life. This can be seen from his use of the Latin terms doctrina and docere and the German terms Lehre and lehren, which refer to theological teaching in both scholarly and homiletic/pastoral contexts.3 For Luther, doctrine and homiletics, teaching and preaching, cannot be separated.4 Preaching refers to doctrine and is based on doctrine, and even in an academic context, doctrine cannot but involve the dimension of proclamation. Thus, it is not surprising that the language Luther uses in his sermons or homilies in worship does not much differ in style from the language he uses in his commentaries on biblical books and in many of his academic sermons and treatises. In this way, he also distances himself from at least some strands of medieval scholastic theology.

Criticism of Scholastic Theology

Luther’s theological approach and his understanding of Christian doctrine are based on his realistic understanding of the capacities of human reason in light of human sin. While he acknowledges the gift of reason and its role in cognition and decision-making, he critiques the idea that human beings could achieve adequate knowledge of God as a condition for true love through the help of Aristotelian metaphysics that he finds in scholastic theology. In thesis 50 of his Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517), he states, in opposition to scholastic theology, that “the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.”5 His critique is not directed against philosophy as such, but against overconfidence in reason and philosophical distinction and neglect of the corruptive power of sin. In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), he explains his critique of the relation between philosophy and theology by reflecting on the real and true ground and origin of theological recognition. While acknowledging that the law of God is “the most salutary doctrine of life,” it “cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.”6 The law requires recognition of God and obedience, but it meets human beings in their self-confidence according to which they attempt to recognize God through their own powers and in their own categories. But such a “person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].”7 Instead, he deserves to be called a theologian “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”8 In this way, Luther contrasts a theologia gloriae that relies on human reason with a theologia crucis that is the only true and reliable source to discover God’s grace and justice and his word manifest in the life, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Criteriological Role of the Distinction between Law and Gospel

In light of the cross, it becomes manifest that nobody can achieve adequate recognition of God and fulfill the law through his or her works. In contrast to the law, the gospel is the promise of God’s pure grace that is manifest in the mission, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Christ is God’s pure gift9 and may not be confused with the law in its demanding character. Otherwise, the gospel of God would be neglected and perverted. The distinction between law and gospel serves as an essential criterion for right Christian teaching. In his view, the distinction perception is present in the whole Bible,10 which in both parts, Old and New Testament, is the primary source of theological recognition and the only criterion for pure doctrine and right teaching. Therefore, scripture exegesis needs to be the basis and source of all teaching11 and theological inquiry into Christian doctrine.

The Christological Foundation of Pure Doctrine

While the distinction of law and gospel is essential for pure teaching, the gospel is the sum of the whole Bible. It is a “word of life, a doctrine of grace, a light of joy, as it promises and gives Christ with all his goods.”12 The content of the gospel is the doctrine of Jesus Christ,13 “the Son of God, whom the Father has begotten today, that is, from eternity, and appointed King of Zion”14 to save humankind from the deathly power of sin and to reconcile the whole world with God.15 It was the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ as God’s son incarnate to proclaim the gospel. Christ is “doctor super omnes doctores.”16 To understand God’s grace and justice revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, however, also involves reflecting and praising God’s triune activity toward the world, which is summarized in the creeds of the ancient church. In his explanation in the Large Catechism, Luther takes the three articles of the Apostle’s creed to reveal what man must know about God’s divinity:

Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words, wherein consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men … for here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love … For … we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost.17

Therefore, the one who defines Christ apprehends and owns him truly.18 In contrast, any Christian teaching that neglects God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and is not based on the gospel is wrong and arrogant in Luther’s view.19 It is essential for Christian believers to know the articles of faith and adhere to pure doctrine, but for Luther, true confession of faith and right Christian teaching is not something that Christians can achieve by their own powers and competences. Rather, it is the communicative character of the doctrine of Jesus Christ that makes Christ present in a way to create real faith and confidence in him. Christ is the word of God who makes himself present in teaching and preaching. Accordingly, teaching authority is grounded in God’s word, and not in human competences. Thus, Luther conceives his teaching and teaching authority to be fully dependent on God’s word and His gospel:

Thus I, too, say: The Gospel is mine, in contradistinction to the teaching of all other preachers, who do not have my doctrine. Therefore I declare: This is my doctrine, that is, Luther’s doctrine. Still I also say that it is not my doctrine; it is not my product but God’s gift. For, dear God, it did not spring from my imagination; it did not grow in my garden; it did not flow from my fountain; it was not born from me. No, it is the gift of God and not a human invention. Thus both are true: It is mine, and yet it is not mine; for it is God’s, the heavenly Father’s. But at the same time it is I who proclaim and espouse such doctrine.”20

In Luther’s understanding, God authorizes true teaching not only in the sense that he calls ministers and doctors to teach and preach His word. It is God’s word that grants and authorizes pure doctrine through its divine efficacy. In contrast to human doctrines and human teaching, Christian teaching and doctrine do not merely provide information and knowledge about something that is absent. Instead, through pure teaching of the word, God makes himself present as the gracious God who has reconciled himself with the world through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. For a closer understanding of this particular communicative power of doctrine, one needs to look at Luther’s theology of the cross in combination with his incarnation Christology.

Drawing on important impulses from Johann von Staupitz during his early theological development between 1512 and 1518, Luther came to understand that the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross reveals God’s gracious forgiveness of sin and His unconditional love. In the Sermon on Preparing to Die (1519), he describes the suffering of Jesus Christ as the picture of grace that believers should engrave in their minds and keep before their eyes especially in situations of contestation and tribulation. Luther advises the readers of the Sermon to

gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [I Pet. 3:19] for your sake as one eternally forsaken by God when he spoke the words of dereliction at the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with this and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let this [i.e., picture] be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally.21

Together with this reflection on the soteriological impact of the cross, the development of Luther’s incarnation theology was strongly stimulated by his debates on the Lord’s Supper and the right understanding of Christ’s promise in the words of institution with Karlstadt, Oekolampad, and Zwingli between 1526 and 1529. In this context, Luther relates to the binding authority of the Christological dogma of Chalcedon of 451. Since this dogma teaches the inseparable unity of the divine and human nature, which Luther emphasizes in line with the theological concern of Alexandrinian Christology, it is impossible to believe that Jesus Christ would make himself present at the Lord’s Supper without his bodily human nature. In the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528),22 Luther concludes:

Our faith maintains that Christ is God and man, and the two natures are one person, so that this person may not be divided in two; therefore, he can surely show himself in a corporeal, circumscribed manner at whatever place he will … And if you could show me one place where God is and not the man, then the person is already divided and I could at once say truthfully, “Here is God who is not man and has never become man.” But no God like that for me! … No, comrade, wherever you place God for me, you must also place the humanity for me. They simply will not let themselves be separated and divided from each other. He has become one person and does not separate the humanity from himself as Master Jack takes off his coat and lays it aside when he goes to bed.23

While the idea of the real and inseparable unity of God and man in Jesus Christ leads Luther to interpret Christ’s divine presence in terms of omnipresence, he also reflects on the soteriological impact of the personal union constituted in the incarnation. In On the Councils and the Church (1539), he uses the image of a scale to explain how God himself has overcome the power of sin and death in the death of Jesus Christ:

We Christians should know that if God is not in the scale to give it weight, we, on our side, sink to the ground. I mean it this way: if it cannot be said that God died for us, but only a man, we are lost; but if God’s death and a dead God lie in the balance, his side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale. Yet he can also readily go up again, or leap out of the scale! But he could not sit on the scale unless he had become a man like us, so that it could be called God’s dying, God’s martyrdom, God’s blood, and God’s death. For God in his own nature cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is called God’s death when the man dies who is one substance or one person with God.24

In line with patristic doctrine, Luther affirms the impassibility of God in his very nature. And yet, in his view, the Christological dogma about the personal union requires us to infer that it is not only the man who dies, but to speak of God’s death. Thus, Luther takes the Christological dogma in a strict sense to fully explore the redemptory power of Christ’s death. In a late Christological disputation, he tries to substantiate this approach by drawing on the patristic idea of communicatio idiomatum,25 but only Luther’s theological successors will elaborate his Christological impulse in a doctrine of communicatio idiomatum that becomes part of Article VIII of the Formula of Concord 1977 on the person of Jesus Christ.26

The Efficacy of Pure Doctrine

Luther’s understanding of the incarnation offers Christological explanation for how God himself through his son overcomes the power of sin and grants justification by pure grace, and how he makes himself present at the Lord’s Supper in such a way that those who gather around his table may experience his forgiving and gracious community. “Christian teaching … is the sort of teaching that does not deal with cowls, tonsures, rosaries, and similar useless matters but with the most difficult and most important issues, namely, how we are to overcome the flesh, sin, death, and the devil.”27 The efficacy of the doctrine of the gospel is based on the way God makes himself present and perceptible for human beings in and through pure doctrine and preaching of the salvation and redemption through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. The gospel of God’s redemption and reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ reveals God’s grace by which he makes himself present through his consoling promise of justification, creates confidence in him, and draws human beings into community with himself. In this way, God’s grace communicated in the gospel overcomes human attempts to justify themselves through their works. “God’s Word is for Luther at the same time instrument and subject of God’s revelation.”28 Hence, “God confers a great blessing whenever he permits Christ to be preached and thought. For the Word brings Christ to the people and acquaints their hearts with him.”29 Thus, the role of Christian teaching and doctrine is not simply to inform about the articles of faith. Rather, the specific character and “primary task of Christian doctrine is to draw human beings into the reality of faith.”30

The Importance of the External Word

The way Luther explains Christological doctrine contributes to understanding the efficacy of doctrine by drawing on the evidence of everyday imagery (cf. the example of the scale) and employing colorful, intuitive language. Again, Luther did not differentiate academic teaching from preaching and catechesis. The imperative phrase “wherever you place God for me, you must also place the humanity for me”31 that Luther used in an academic treatise can be taken as his Christological maxim that summarizes the Christological dogma in a catchy and ostensive way that everybody can understand. While the efficacy of Christian doctrine depends on the self-communicating power of the word of God through which God offers salvation and consolation for humankind,32 language, vocabulary, and the imaginary can contribute to and enhance the efficacy of the external word. In the German exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer (1519), Luther explores the relation between external and internal word as follows:

Now Christ our bread is given in a twofold manner. In the first place, outwardly, by persons, for instance, by priests or teachers … Therefore we should preach only Christ and relate everything to him. All writings should point to him and proclaim why he came, what he brought us, and how we should believe in him and conduct ourselves toward him, so that the people can comprehend Christ and know him through his Word. Then they will not come away from the mass with empty hearts, knowing neither Christ nor themselves.

In the second place, Christ our bread is given us inwardly when taught by God himself. This is also a necessary part of the outward giving, for without it the outer mode of giving is futile. But if the latter is properly carried out, then the inward way cannot remain merely external. God never permits his Word to go forth without leading to fruit. He himself is present and teaches inwardly that which he gives externally through the priest.”33

The importance of the external word became ever more evident to Luther when he saw how slowly and often poorly the rediscovery of the gospel and the principles of the Reformation were promoted and adopted in society.34 Thus, to allow for broad religious education, daily meditation, and exercise in the word of God, Luther wrote the Small and Large Catechisms (1529). They were intended to offer “a Short Summary and, Epitome of the Entire Holy Scriptures.”35 While the Small Catechism addresses children and parents,36 the Large Catechism addresses adult Christians and especially pastors and preachers. In the introduction to the Large Catechism, Luther criticizes both those who are lazy and do not care about daily exercise in the word of God and the other group of “supercilious, presumptuous saints, who are unwilling to read and study the Catechism daily, … esteeming themselves much more learned than God Himself.”37 In contrast to this attitude, Luther implores

all Christians, especially pastors and preachers, not to be doctors too soon, and imagine that they know everything … , but that they daily exercise themselves well in these studies and constantly treat them; moreover, that they guard with all care and diligence against the poisonous infection of such security and vain imagination, but steadily keep on reading, teaching, learning, pondering, and meditating, and do not cease until they have made a test and are sure that they have taught the devil to death, and have become more learned than God Himself and all His saints.38

A second important goal of the catechisms is to ensure that Christians and especially pastors and preachers “May Always Teach the Same.”39 While Christian teaching can be true and pure only if it teaches the word of God, Luther also affirms the necessity for consensus and unanimity among Christians in their teachings. As a matter of fact, his program of Christian education supports the idea that it is constitutive for the unity of the church “to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments” (cf. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession).

The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

Unlike Philipp Melanchthon, Luther did not summarize Christian doctrine in a systematic list of theological loci. Apart from the Large Catechism, we find the most comprehensive summary of Luther’s teaching in the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528) and in his Smalcald Articles (1536). Both were written at times when Luther feared he was near death. While in the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, he emphasized the doctrine of Christ’s real presence at the Lord’s Supper against spiritualistic misunderstandings, in the final testimony of the Smalcald Articles, Luther argues that all his critique of the abuses in the medieval, papal church and the proposed reforms are intended to reinstall pure teaching and practice in accordance with the ancient church. While both writings offer a comprehensive confession of the essential Christian doctrines, their intention is not to present a systematic compendium of Christian teaching comparable to Melanchthon’s Loci theologici. Only after Luther’s death and the Augsburg Interim when Lutheran theologians struggled over the question of how to defend and preserve the Reformation in accordance with Luther’s teaching, theologians like Johannes Corvin began to summarize the essential doctrines of Luther’s theology in a collection of theological loci that clearly indicates the need for a systematic account, but also mirrors the difficulty in summarizing Luther’s manifold statements on different occasions in a coherent way. Yet, although Luther had not written theological loci himself, he was convinced about the systematic character of Christian doctrine. In his lecture on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Luther said that Christian “doctrine must be a round and golden circle without a gap.”40 The articles of faith are linked to each other. One cannot pick one article and exclude others. To believe in God’s word means to apprehend all his articles of faith; otherwise, there is no faith.41 To deny the connection and coherence of the articles of faith amounts to denying the unity of God who “cannot be divided in many articles, but is all in each single article and one in all articles.”42 Thus, faith refers to the word of God and pure doctrine as an indivisible totum that is one even in the plurality of articles.43

Although the articles of faith cannot be separated, Luther conceives the article on redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the justification by grace through faith as the chief article.44 In the Smalcald Articles, he states that “[o]f this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered … even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is no other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved.“45 Redemption and justification through Jesus Christ is the quintessence of Christian faith that rules all Christian doctrine.46 Building on this and similar expressions in Luther, Lutheran theology declared the doctrine of justification the “articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.”47 It is important, however, to realize that Luther did not speak of the chief article on justification in an exclusivist sense. In his view, God’s redemptive and justifying activity cannot be separated from his creative and providential activity. Consequently, the three articles of the Creed cannot be isolated nor hierarchized, but in their interrelatedness reveal God’s grace and justice. Therefore, it is neither surprising nor incoherent that Luther can also address creation as the highest article of faith (cf. the introduction to his sermons on the book of Genesis, 1527).48 While Luther emphasized the criteriological role of the distinction between law and gospel, 19th-century Protestant theology distinguished two principles of Protestantism: the doctrine of sola scriptura as the formal principle, and the doctrine of justification as the material principle. This distinction promoted the criteriological role of the doctrine of justification, which eventually became a topic in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on justification. In the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) of the Roman-Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, both sides affirm—much in line with Luther—that the doctrine of justification “is more than just one part of Christian doctrine” because it “stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other” and “is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ.”49

With regard to Christian language and doctrine today, it is important, however, that Luther would not restrict the explanation of God’s salvation to the forensic terminology of justification. In the catechisms, for example, Luther uses the word “justify” only to describe human attempts at self-justification, not to describe God’s activity. Although Luther in his doctrine of justification builds on Pauline theology and his forensic vocabulary, he also employs other vocabulary to describe how God overcomes sin and recreates the relationship between man and Himself. “Justification” points to the fundamental role of justice in the human-divine relationship, but without suggesting that forensic language would be in any way exhaustive to explore the richness of the new life that God grants through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

Shared Responsibility for the Purity of Doctrine

In Luther’s view, regular meditation and commemoration of the articles of faith with the help of the catechism is not only important for individual faith and life, but also for the flourishing and growth of the church as the communion of saints. Through baptism and faith, every Christian is called to teach the gospel to fellow human beings and in this way has responsibility for preserving pure doctrine. The idea of the priesthood of all believers is one of the key principles of the Reformation and an implication of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, because faith—at least in its adult and mature form—involves explicit knowledge of the articles of faith and personal confidence in God’s promise of justification and salvation. Through such explicit faith, every Christian is a theologian in Luther’s view and can discern between true and false doctrines. As a consequence, Luther argues in a same-named treatise “[t]hat a Christian Assembly or Congregation Has the Right and Power to Judge All Teaching [and to Call, Appoint, and Dismiss Teachers, Established and Proven by Scripture].”50 In contrast, however, Luther distinguished every Christian’s call to witness from the ministry of public proclamation of God’s word through preaching and the administration of sacraments. For the sake of the unanimity and consensus of Christian congregations and the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, Luther emphasized that nobody should teach publicly without the right vocation. To preserve the purity of doctrine as a necessary condition for the unity of the communio sanctorum and for ecclesial life and piety in accordance with God’s word is the essential task and responsibility of bishops and pastors for which he, together with other Reformers, implemented the praxis of visitation.

Doctrine and Life

In his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther explored in two major parts how the Christian doctrine of God’s grace and justification liberates human beings from their inclination to justify themselves through their own works, and how the promise of the gospel at the same time liberates them to truly love God, to discern fellow human beings as neighbors, and to serve them in good deeds. Thus, Christian doctrine is not only given to comfort terrified consciences, but also to allow for the renewal of human life in relation with God and among fellow human beings. While contemplation and meditation of doctrine is important, doctrine is not an end in itself, but rather directed toward life. Doctrine needs to be adopted in life. Luther is very clear that those who only affirm doctrine but do not live accordingly miss the scope of Christian doctrine. In this sense, life has priority.51 True theology, therefore, is practical, not speculative or theoretical, in Luther’s view.52

Just because of its radical importance for life, however, Luther can conversely emphasize the priority of doctrine, because without the word of God and Christian doctrine, life is uncertain and dark.53 It is impossible to follow God’s will without knowing his word through Christian doctrine. Moreover, pure doctrine allows for a realistic self-estimation and a realistic sense of the frailty and sinfulness of life, and for the need of divine salvation and God’s word. Thus, doctrine is constitutive for human discernment and conduct. But Luther also warned against the Donatist’s misunderstanding. Good or bad human conduct cannot be taken as an indication of true or false doctrine. It is not possible to judge one’s teaching on the ground of one’s life. Instead, Luther emphasizes that doctrine and teaching can be pure even though the teaching person’s life is sinful, and pure doctrine remains pure even if the devil were the preacher. Thus, he would not struggle with the Papists about their life as long they engaged in pure doctrine. While it is possible to tolerate evil behavior, it is absolutely unacceptable to condemn pure teaching.54

Review of the Literature

While all doctrinal topics of Luther’s theology and his concept of theology have been discussed intensely in theological research, there is scarce literature on his concept of doctrine as such. This is not surprising because Luther himself did not reflect on the concept on an abstract level. Among the studies that take a general perspective on the role and understanding of doctrine in Luther, Gerhard Ebeling’s inquiry on the relation between doctrine and life in Luther’s theology, first published in 1983, is seminal because it explores the entanglement between doctrine and life in both Luther’s biography and his theological teaching. In the first part of this study, he shows how doctrine influenced Luther’s decision to become a theologian and how the vocation to teach the gospel became essential for his self-understanding. In the second part, he analyses how Luther reflects the interrelatedness and mutual dependence between life and doctrine on a more general level. By way of this two-leveled argument, Ebeling demonstrates the promise structure of pure Christian doctrine and its empirical efficacy in Luther’s life. While this approach mirrors Ebeling’s hermeneutical interest, Eeva Martikainen in her study on Luther’s concept of doctrine published in 1992 defends Luther’s idea against a post-Kantian critique of the metaphysical character of doctrine. She demonstrates how Luther, in contrast to scholastic theology, distinguished Christian doctrine from metaphysics, but still understood doctrine to refer to the reality of God and his salvific activity.

Two recent studies by Bo Kristian Holm and Andreas Stegmann analyze the soteriological role of doctrine from different angles. Bo Kristian Holm explores how Luther conceives Christian doctrine and especially Christology to work as salvific imagery against sin, death, and the devil, and in this way highlights the fundamental soteriological impact of doctrinal imagery. Andreas Stegmann focuses on the soteriological function of preaching55 and its doctrinal character56 in Luther and Melanchthon as a starting point for the Lutheran development of theological education.

The Performative Character of Christian Doctrine: Conclusion and Outlook

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Luther emphasizes the salvific and performative role of Christian doctrine and teaching in both academic/scholarly and ecclesial/pastoral context. The existential appeal of Christian doctrine is given with its promising character of the Christological content of Christian doctrine by which it communicates the mystery of God who has made Himself known through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ in the power of His Spirit. Because of this specific communicative character of Christian doctrine, academic theology that deals with doctrine can never be a neutral meta-discourse. Although in the context of modern epistemology and modern criticisms of the authority of religious resources, it appeared inevitable to distinguish the role and task of academic theology from Christian teaching in ecclesial contexts, Luther reminds us of the specific feature and efficacy of Christian doctrine. Doctrine is not just a set of historic propositions about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the assembly and life of the church, but gives access to the word of God through which God makes Himself present. In Luther’s view, it would be impossible to assume that one could fully mute or ignore the performative truth claim included in Christian doctrine. A negative evidence for this can be found in the fact that Christian doctrine, like other religious doctrines, evokes dispute and raises questions about coherence and the image of the divine even in the context of a cultural studies’ approach.

Luther’s soteriological interpretation of the Christological dogma in his understanding of the cross and the bodily presence at the Lord’s Supper motivated further Christological debate among Lutherans about God’s presence in the world, His participation in the suffering of His son, and the reciprocal relation between the divine and human nature in the person of Jesus Christ.57 In a longer reception process, his theology of the cross eventually influenced modern approaches to Trinitarian theology in the 20th century that aim to overcome anthropomorphic theisms and, in this way, respond to modern challenges for the proclamation of the gospel.58

Building on Luther’s understanding of the performative character of Christian doctrine as explored in this article, future research on the Lutheran idea of doctrine might go in two directions. One would be to investigate and reflect the reception process of Luther’s Christological impulses in and beyond Lutheran theology in light of the question of whether this reception process itself could be interpreted as an effect of the performative character of doctrine. A second line of research could explore whether and in what ways post-Reformation and modern approaches in dogmatics involve narrative structures that are so important in Luther’s teaching that they resonate with a fides quaerens intellectum. Both research directions together could contribute to a closer understanding of how theological doctrine is performative, though not in the same way as ecclesial proclamation.

Further Reading

Ahlers, Botho. Die Unterscheidung von Theologie und Religion: Ein Beitrag zur Vorgeschichte der Praktischen Theologie im 18. Gütersloh, Germany: Mohn, 1980.Find this resource:

Baur, Jörg. “Abendmahlslehre und Christologie der Konkordienformel als Bekenntnis zum menschlichen Gott.” In Luther J. Baur und seine klassischen Erben, 145–163. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1993.Find this resource:

Baur, Jörg. “Orthodoxie: Genese und Struktur.” In TRE, 25, 498–507, esp. 501–504, 1995.Find this resource:

Baur, Jörg. “Ubiquität.” In Creator est Creatura. Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation. Edited by O. Bayer, 186–301. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Promissio. Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie. 2d ed. Tübingen, Germany, 1989.Find this resource:

Beutel, Albrecht. Im Anfang war das Wort. Studien zu Luthers Sprachverständnis, 468–472. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1991.Find this resource:

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Holm, Bo Kristian. “Zur Funktion der Lehre bei Luther. Die Lehre als rettendes Gedankenbild gegen Sünde, Tod und Teufel.” KuD 51 (2005): 17–32.Find this resource:

Holm, Bo Kristian. “Der Trost kommt vom Sehen—zu Katechismussystematik und Lehrbegriff.” In Denkraum Katechismus, Festgabe für Oswald Bayer zum 70. Geburtstag. J. von Lüpke und E. Thaidigsmann (hg.), 109–124. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 2009.Find this resource:

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Lohse, Bernhard. Luthers Theologie in ihrer historischen Entwicklung und in ihrem systematischen Zusammenhang, 223ff, 235ff, 249ff. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 1995.Find this resource:

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Schwarz, Reinhard. “Gott ist Mensch. Zur Lehre von der Person Christi bei den Ockhamisten und bei Luther.” ZThK 69 (1966): 289–351.Find this resource:

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(1.) Cf. Mahlmann, Doctrina, 199–264; Wallmann, Theologiebegriff, 39–41.

(2.) Cf. Ahlers, Theologie und Religion; Laube, Die Unterscheidung von öffentlicher und privater Religion bei Johann Salomo Semler, 1–23.

(3.) Cf. Stegmann, evangelium pure docetur, 249–302.

(4.) Cf. Wallmann, Theologiebegriff, 39f.

(5.) LW 31:12.

(6.) LW 31:39, Thesis 1.

(7.) LW 31:40, Thesis 19.

(8.) LW 31:40, Thesis 20.

(9.) WA 34/I:515, 4–10.

(10.) WA 7:502, 34f.

(11.) Cf. Beutel, Lutherhandbuch, 361.

(12.) WA 10/I.1:520, 19–23 (translation FN).

(13.) WA 40/II:250, 3: “Evangelium es doctrina de filio dei.”

(14.) LW 12:46.

(15.) WA 40/I:91, 9.

(16.) WA 41:582.

(17.) Large Catechism, Apostle’s Creed, 63ff.

(18.) WA 40/I:93, 23f.

(19.) WA 31/I:345, 1.

(20.) LW 23:224.

(21.) LW 42:105f.

(22.) LW 37:161.

(23.) LW 37:218f.

(24.) LW 41:103f.

(25.) Cf. Schwarz, Gott ist Mensch, 289–351; Baur, Ubiquität, 186–301.

(26.) Cf. Article VIII of the Formula of Concord. For the Lutheran discussions, cf. Baur, Abendmahlslehre und Christologie, 145–163. For the development of the Formula of Concord and the Christological debate between Gießen and Tübingen 1619–1624, cf. Wiedenroth, Krypsis und Kenosis.

(27.) LW 27:87.

(28.) Cf. Beutel, Lutherhandbuch, 362 (translation FN); see also 362: the Word of God is “Ort und Inbegriff der ganzen, ungeteilten Gegenwart Gottes” (with reference to WA 16:491, 5).

(29.) LW 42:57f.

(30.) Cf. Holm, Lehre, 20.

(31.) LW 37:219.

(32.) WA 40/III:184, 36: “Doctrinam Evangelii proprie esse doctrinam salutis et consolationis.”

(33.) LW 42:57f.

(34.) Cf. Stegmann, evangelium pure docetur, 253–257.

(35.) Cf. the first paragraph of the introduction to the Large Catechism.

(36.) For Luther’s understanding of the role of parents, cf. WA 16, 491, 20–32: “Denn man mus zwey ding an den eltern sehen, [21] Zum ersten, das sie fleisch und blut sind, Zum andern das kleinod, das Gott an [22] die eltern gehengt hat, nemlich sein wort, denn er hat sie also ynn sein wort [23] gefasset wie ynn eine monstrantz und sie bekleyd mit seinem willen, So mus [24] man die eltern nu ansehen als die das wort und den willen Gottes tragen … Aber da ist das rechte [29] lebendig heiligthumb ynn Vater und mutter, Denn GOTT hat da sein wort [30] hyn gelegt, darynn die gantze Goettliche majestet ist, und ist also sein Goettlicher [31] wille, das man sie ehren soll, Daruemb man ja nicht sie alleine nach fleisch [32] und blut soll messen, sondern nach dem wort Gottes.”

(37.) Large Catechism, introduction, 16.

(38.) Ibid., 19.

(39.) Ibid., 16.

(40.) WA 40/II:47, 3f (translation FN).

(41.) WA 54:158, 28: “Rund und rein gantz und alles gegleubt, oder nichts gegleubt.”

(42.) WA 40/II:48, 23f.

(43.) Cf. Baur, TRE, 95, 503, 6–13.

(44.) WA 40/I:169, 22–26.

(45.) Cf. the Smalcald Articles, Part II, 1, n. 5.

(46.) WA 39/I:205, 3f, 9.

(47.) Cf. Mahlmann, Zur Geschichte der Formel “Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae,” 175–186.

(48.) WA 24:18, 26f.

(49.) JDDJ, n. 18.

(50.) LW 39:301–314.

(51.) Cf. Ebeling, Leben und Lehre, 19f.

(52.) WA 1:72, 16–24, n. 135.

(53.) WA 18:655, 10.

(54.) WA 30:308, 23–25.

(55.) Stegmann, evangelium pure docetur, 253–258.

(56.) Ibid., 275–279.

(57.) Cf. the detailed study of Wiedenroth, Krypsis und Kenosis. Studien zu Thema und Genese der Tübinger Christologie im 17. Jahrhundert, BhTh 162 (Tübingen, Germany, 2011).

(58.) One of the most prominent examples is the monograph of Eberhard Jüngel, Gott als Geheimnis der Welt. Zur Begründung der Theologie des Gekreuzigten im Streit zwischen Theismus und Atheismus, 8th ed. (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 2010).