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date: 25 March 2017

Luther for Theology Today

Summary and Keywords

A meta-argument is needed today to go forward in theology with Luther. For speaking of God, even in sophisticated ways, is a dangerous business that can lead astray. Theology is not in the Reformer’s mind an unambiguous good. But neither is silence an option, if God has spoken. If God has spoken, one is summoned, indeed, empowered to speak in response. In some distinction from the dialectical theology of the 20th century, which oscillates between the Word of God and the word of man, Luther employed a dialectic of the Word and the Spirit to organize theology. And if in the power of the Spirit one speaks in response to God’s Word about God, one must also speak with others about speech about God that accords with God’s speech. This discourse straddles the community of faith and the academy. Thus three orders of theological discourse—speech in God’s name, the church’s confession, and academic theology—can be sorted in order to facilitate Luther’s challenge to theology as a dangerous business fraught with peril. It must do so in a way that both retrieves his insight into the dialectic of Word and Spirit and also guards against Luther’s own failures, especially in academic theology, when invective supplanted dialogue.

Within the Trinitarian sequence of Word and Spirit, the performance of God’s gospel word, so that it is experienced by the alienated sinner as the event of God surpassing the wrath of His love to establish the mercy of His love, constitutes the primary theology for Luther. This is discovered in the biblical matrix of Christian faith where the Spirit births every believer. Thus the primary theology of the Bible, taken as gospel speech in God’s name, gives “true” knowledge of God “in Christ crucified”; this is known and acknowledged in secondary theological speech, including Luther’s own doctrinal production. But the articulate recognition of these two orders is the critical work of an academic theologian.

Luther is in principle critically dogmatic, and where he falls short of this standard, he can and may be corrected by his own academic standards. The case depends on (1) the Trinitarian interpretation of the dialectic of Word and Spirit as primary and secondary orders of theological knowledge, respectively, that are conscience-binding, church-uniting and context-independent, and (2) the differentiation of the former from the academic task in hermeneutics and critical thinking that is context-dependent and subject to nothing other than reason and persuasion.

Keywords: Martin Luther, systematic theology, dogmatics, critical dogmatics, theology of the cross, epistemology, Christology, Pneumatology, dialectical theology

Problematizing Theology

Among other things, Martin Luther was an academic theologian, making contributions to the production of Christian doctrine,1 especially in Christology.2 He did so from the hermeneutical perspective of Renaissance humanism’s prioritization of “rhetoric” over “dialectic”;3 thus his academic work was devoted first of all to exegesis of the sources of theology in Scripture and the patristic witness: the Bible and his “blessed Augustine.”4 This hermeneutical turn, however, remains an academic or scholarly one, and it is only that: a prioritization, not a repudiation of the advances in logic by disputation method achieved in scholasticism nor of the necessity for doctrinal theology.5 Luther should not, then, be so easily dismissed as an “unsystematic” thinker. It is in this connection, however, that the specifically theological influence of the theologian Luther outside of Lutheran traditions, while undeniably broad, extending today also to Roman Catholic circles,6 is also shallow. Hardly anyone directly denies platitudes like justification by grace or claims in principle to teach works righteousness. On the other hand, we may speak of an “erasure” of Luther’s Christologically focused doctrine in modern theology.7

The “father of liberal theology,” for example, recognizing that the Cry of Dereliction would fatally compromise his doctrine of the man Christ’s perfect God consciousness, wrote: “I cannot think of this saying as an expression of Christ’s self-consciousness.”8 In his systematic theology, upon resort to the Antiochene Christology of the indwelling Logos, Schleiermacher turned to “the theory of a mutual communication of the attributes of the two natures to one another” as something “also to be banished from the system of doctrine and handed over to the history of doctrine,” since in such a communication “nothing human could have been left in Christ since everything human is essentially a negation of omniscient omnipotence.”9 Curiously, for affirming that the Logos in person experiences dereliction in his own humanity (which is what the ancient church intended with its anti-docetism),10 Luther’s doctrine of Christ is thus characterized in modern theology as docetist or monophysite in tendency;11 as such it has been “banished.”

In this respect, the placid surface regarding Luther’s broad influence is deceptive. For the most part, today’s superficial consensus on grace reflects a sense that transcends the Protestant-Catholic divide of the 16th century by regarding the question concerning justification is passé, as superseded by pressing new questions ranging from existential meaninglessness to social justice to the new predominance of the scientific view of reality. Today’s “common sense” is that justification poses a question that no one is asking. Accordingly, Christological doctrine like Luther’s has become nugatory. Indeed, if it is so that justification is an anthropological question about finding a gracious God, this contemporary consensus is surely justified. By the same token, the contemporary deity that cannot but be gracious provides an answer as well to a question no one is asking.

There is yet a further complication to this broad but shallow echo of Luther’s specific contribution from within Lutheran traditions of theology. Lutheranism historically is as much the product of Melanchthon as of Luther, and there was a subtle but profound divergence in Christological thinking that developed between the two colleagues in reformation. Melanchthon explicitly restricted the communicatio idiomatum to verbal predication—that is, it is a way of talking for preaching, not of being for understanding. Thus the Cry of Dereliction does “not refer to being, but to the then present performance in which he humbled himself.”12 What for Luther was a way of being in Christ and so also then a way of speaking truly about Christ yielded two orders of theological knowledge in Word and faith, respectively, in a kind of dialectical relation to one another, as we shall see. But this dialectic of Word and Spirit became for Melanchthon a way of speaking only, giving but one order of theological knowledge in clear and correct doctrine.13 This divergence should not surprise; differences in theological method reflect differences in construing the object of theology.

Reflecting this not insignificant divergence, in his funeral oration for Luther Melanchthon influentially cast the former in the role of “prophet”—in tacit distinction from a proper scholarly theologian composing clear and distinct doctrinal propositions organized logically.14 Pietism in turn reclaimed this image of Luther as prophet for its anti-intellectual “theology of the heart.” Correspondingly, nary a word concerning Luther the theologian is to be found in the major figures of the age of reason,15 with the exception of Gottfried Leibniz, who engaged seriously though unsuccessfully with Luther’s De servo arbitrio.16 From the 18th century, this trope of Luther as prophet transformed into the “religious genius” of the 19th century—casting Luther as the intuitive but unsystematic channel of the uncanny Other, as in Schelling (on to Otto and Tillich, or, as in Feuerbach’s inversion of this trope, a naive projector of the alienated human essence onto the blank screen of non-existent divinity). Battles over the “German prophet” icon notoriously attended the German church struggle,17 but it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who almost singularly arose to a genuine appropriation of Luther’s Christological doctrine in coming to terms, positively and negatively, with Karl Barth’s powerful renewal of the extra-calvinisticum.18 Indeed, Lutherans today more echo Barth’s dialectic of the Word of God and the word of man than Luther’s dialectic of the Word and Spirit.19

As is evident, then, also within Lutheran (and more broadly Reformation) traditions the specifically theological influence of Luther has waxed and waned. This is so much the case that even to specify the contribution of Luther to the production of Christian doctrine as particularly Christological rather than broadly anthropological20 remains a matter of some controversy, though Olli-Pekka Vainio has shown just how little unanimity there was on the doctrine of justification in the fifty years between the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord,21 and Friedrich Mildenberger has shown how intellectually fragile and ecumenically arbitrary the forced solutions in the Formula were to genuine theological perplexities in the anthropological reading stemming from Melanchthon’s dictum, “To know Christ is to know his benefits.”22 Nevertheless, scholarship continues to parse the question according to certain commonplace, anthropologically focused binaries: the early prophetic Luther against the later dogmatic Luther or the Luther broken through to justification by faith over against the pre-Reformation Augustinian monk who viewed justification as a pilgrimage, to mention just two predominant but mutually irreconcilable scholarly narratives.

Such binaries assume that one already knows what theology is, as Karl Barth feared,23 and is thus in a position to map Luther along the preconceived line of “anthropology spoken in a loud voice.” This assumption indeed precludes the root challenge of Luther for theology, which, like religion, is a deeply ambiguous phenomenon in the eyes of the Reformer, producing idols as readily as icons. If the truism is that theology is speech about the divine or the sacred that claims or aspires to knowledge, Luther articulated his particular challenge to theology in the programmatic Heidelberg Disputation: in Christo crucifix est vera Theologia et cognito Dei.24 True speech about God, that is, articulated knowledge of God, is given in the jarring Pauline paradox (1 Cor. 1:18) announcing—as from God—the victor victimized as the exclusive and, as such, universal deed for human salvation.

The Cognitive Claim

If we let this claim from the early Luther’s “theology of the cross” stand in for Luther’s specific contribution to the discipline of Christian theology in all its variegated forms and elaborations,25 we can navigate the whirl of eddies and cross-currents just sketched toward a better appropriation today of Luther the theologian’s specific challenge to the discipline of theology itself. To begin with, the ocean here is vast. Going back to Luther himself, true theology can be expressed in a variety of genres (a point reflected in the organization of this encyclopedia). Luther himself employed devotional meditations, hymnody, letters of pastoral counsel, the academic disputation, sermons and published collections of sermons, polemic, historiography, catechism, doctrinal essays or treatises, and above all biblical commentaries to speak of God truly. But what claim to truth is being made in any of these genres is matter of careful discernment through rhetorical analysis.

Given this variety of his production, and given the exigencies that cast him into a public position of leadership ceaselessly responding to events, what can seem lacking, as Luther himself acknowledged regarding his late-night, candlelit writings in praising Melanchthon’s book of theological topics,26 is system—a compliment Melanchthon returned by casting Luther as his “prophet.” The erasure of Luther’s Christological claim to truth in modern academic theology exploits this early Lutheran claim that Luther was not a “systematic thinker.” Yet this observation, beginning with Luther himself, is fraught with difficulty so far as it fails to discern the consistent cognitive claim for knowledge of God in Christ crucified at work in all the variegated expressions of Luther’s theology.

Luther does not primarily derive knowledge of God deductively from first principles, even though he acknowledges that classical metaphysics vaguely grasps something of the divine power, wisdom, and goodness of creation’s Creator, as indicated in Romans 1:20, especially by way of the law written into the human heart, Romans 2:15 (which is found more in the testimony of the religions). His precise critique of the primacy of metaphysics in the antecedent theology of the medieval schools is that without knowledge of the cross, this natural knowledge of God is misused to avoid judgment. Avoiding judgment, theology cannot know God truly, that is, in the event of God surpassing judgment to justify the ungodly. So contrariwise, as stipulated by the theology of the cross, Luther will have access to the true knowledge of God only where God’s judgement is faced, met, and surpassed: in Christo crucifixo. Posed this way, the question of justification is not an anthropological given; it is the prophetic indictment of securitas that speaks forth God’s controversy with his wayward humanity.

Modern discussions stemming from the 19th century refer too abstractly to this epistemic access in terms of the so-called positivity of divine revelation which teaches something that cannot otherwise be accessed and thus known.27 Luther would not deny this. For him, the Word of God comes to the self from outside of the self as verbum externum.28 That is true. But all the more crucially for Luther, it comes redemptively to transform the self in the particular pattern of Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. For early Lutheranism before the Osiander controversy,29 justification by faith is thus the new birth, regeneration30 (just as regeneration is not a human virtue or power, but rising at the Spirit’s call from spiritual death in Adam to the new obedience of faith in Christ). The divine apocalypse of Christ crucified conforms the theological subject to Christ’s death and resurrection, hence to knowing God in the event of God surpassing God, in the saving sequence that transpired once for all from Good Friday to Easter morn and is now laid upon the believer by the Spirit. This theology of the Word of God is primary for Luther.

Articulated knowledge of God in this event is conscience-captivating and church-uniting dogma for Luther,31 as he famously claimed for the doctrine of justification and correlatively for the doctrine of Christ in the Smalcald Articles.

Here is the first and chief article: That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4[:25]); and he alone is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1[:29]; and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53[:6]; furthermore, “All have sinned,” and “they are now justified without merit by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … by his blood” (Rom. 3[:23–25). Now because this must be believed and may not be obtained or grasped otherwise with any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us.… Nothing in this article can be conceded or given up.32

This “chief article” binds conscience as a matter of life and death because it articulates the true theology and knowledge of God in Christ crucified. True theology is not free thinking but freed thinking, ever bound to its Lord “to live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness,” as he wrote in the Small Catechism.33 Just so, the church as community of faith stands and falls with this knowledge of God, even when the spiritually emptied institutional shell somehow continues.

Thus for Luther, theology as the work of faith is a discipline of the Spirit; it can only proceed as an intellectual discipleship, a “following after” (nachdenken34 as a form of nachfolgen) by those called to follow. Moreover, this coming of God to call by the Spirit and so to be known in the proclamation of Christ crucified cannot be anticipated. It comes on its own without our prayer. It arrives disruptively. Thus it is ordered not to a system that persuades by the completeness and rigor of its internal coherence as an account of the cosmos. That would be philosophy with its protological orientation. Rather, it is ordered to a new way of life with its eschatological orientation; its work is justified pragmatically, that is, provisionally by its fruits but ultimately from outside of itself by its referent, the God of the gospel at the eschaton of judgment.

With this following in faith comes the good work of understanding. When we examine the academic theologian’s critically dogmatic treatment, in the third place, of the jarring juxtaposition of victor and victim in Paul’s enunciation of Christ crucified for human salvation (as in the string of biblical citations composing the passage above from the Smalcald Articles), we find an argument for the clarification of its sense. This theologically argued and particular clarification is what ought to be taken as Luther’s specifically academic contribution to Christian doctrine. Luther against Latomus:

Et in hac translatione non solum est verborum, sed et rerum metaphora. Nam vere peccata nostra a nobis translata sunt a posita super ipsum, ut omnis qui hoc credit, vere nulla peccata habeat, sed translata super Christum, absorpta in ipso, eum amplius non damnent.

And in this transference [that “Christ was made to be sin”—2 Corinthians 5:21] it is not only a metaphor of words but of things. For truly our sins are transferred from us and placed on Him, so that all who believe Him truly have no sins but they are transferred onto Him, absorbed in Him, no longer damning him.35

For Luther, this exchange of things concerns Christ—literally—in the first place as the Holy One of God in the place of the believer, who is otherwise a helpless sinner. It is Christ who comes as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. Only because of this metaphor of things can this Word incarnate regard its auditor as forgiven and freed as a matter of truth in speaking the joyful exchange.

Note how this clarification also prioritizes Christology over anthropology, as Luther comes to realize by the time of the Eucharistic controversies of the 1520s.

First, what one should believe, that is, the objectum fidei, that is, the work or thing in which one believes or to which on is to adhere. Secondly, the faith itself, or the use which one should properly make of that in which he believes. The first lives outside the heart and is presented to our eyes externally, namely, the sacrament itself, concerning which we believe that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the bread and wine. The second is internal, within the heart, and cannot be externalized. It consists in the attitude which the heart should have toward the external sacrament.… Up to now I have not preached very much about the first part, but have treated only the second, which is also the best part. But because the first part is now being assailed by man, and the preachers, even those who are considered the best, are splitting up into factions over the matter … the times demand that I say something on this subject also.36

Luther’s metaphora rerum concerns the obiectum fidei, Christ who comes to the sinner—whether or not the sinner is troubled or seeking a gracious God.

If that is clarified, a further question for understanding follows. Does the joyful exchange of Christ’s righteousness for the sinner’s sin consist merely in pronouncing it so in an exemplary act of divine voluntarism, by virtue of a fiat, if not a magical “abracadabra”? Does salvation come by preaching alone, for Luther, as exclusive recurrence to the primary theology of the Word apart from the mysterious Spirit’s election? Here we come to something decisive. God’s Word is performative for Luther where and when it please God. The performance is thus parsed for understanding by the Trinitarian dialectic of Word and Spirit. It is by the Spirit-given reality of faith that sin is yielded to Christ and in turn His righteousness is received. This Spirit-given translatio rerum of the human subject in the faith that justifies corresponds in its own specific way of being to the specific way of being that is told by the jarring metaphor, Christ crucified. The point is, at the mercy of the Spirit who works ubi et quando Deo visum est, regeneration to faith is not a “human response” but a divine election. For Luther, this too must be understood.

Thus already in Luther the central, incredibly pregnant, but also dense and paradoxical claim to know God in Christo crucifixo gives rise to such tertiary forms of theological reflection that experiments, tests, and probes the knowledge of God in a world still awash with false prophets and pseudo-messiahs. Here the claim to truth must be argued and so made clear that faith in Christ justifies because in Christ a translatio rerum has occurred once for all; so also it is clarified that the faith that justifies is not generic trust enabled by the naturally performative work of any promise but the specific, Spirit-given exchange of predicates by which the believer releases sin to Christ and receives His righteousness in term. This argument for understanding the joyful exchange as the Christological sense of justification by faith composes Luther the theologian’s specific production of and contribution to Christian doctrine.

The singular cognitive claim, which with greater or lesser consistency governs all of Luther’s thought, from his 1516 letter to Spalatin on the “joyful exchange” to his troubled and troubling late-in-life criticism of rabbinic Judaism’s biblical exegesis for its ignorance of Christ Jesus as the Spirit’s intention in Old Testaments texts, clearly entails internal differentiations, as indicated by speaking of primary, secondary, and tertiary forms of theological knowledge. In any case, we need differentiations if the erasure of Luther as theologian in the contemporary problematization and production of Christian doctrine is to be retrieved without also retrieving the unsavory, not to say injurious, polemic against the devil whom Luther indiscriminately saw at work in peasant, pope, and Jew.37

If true speech about God (the divine proclamation of “Christ crucified”) requires disciplined speech about speech about God (the church’s “chief article”) that binds the consciences that it liberates, it also requires an open-ended experimentation and testing: academic theology as speech about speech about speech about God. Here a more charitable and discriminating hermeneutic than Luther’s dive into demonology will be required. We may usefully borrow and develop the contemporary distinction between orders of discourse in theology to sort the problem in following way.38

Three Orders of Theological Discourse

You may ask, “What then is the Word of God, and how shall it be used, since there are so many words of God?” I answer: The Apostle explains this in Romans 1. The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching. Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God, according to Rom. 10[:9]: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Furthermore, “Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified” [Rom. 10:4]. Again, in Rom. 1[:17], “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever but only by faith. Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith.39

God is known in particular speech about God, namely, of Christ crucified, that putatively comes from God, by a new subjectivity bestowed by God. The self-attesting Word of God and Spirit-given faith constitute for Luther two distinct but sequentially related orders of theology, since faith is, like the Word, a divine gift. Faith being the particular work of the Spirit, what follows from this ordering of theological knowledge is the recognition of the church’s confessing or creedal theology as a positive science of revelation (classically, dogmatics, in distinction from system-building or, as is fashionable today, symbol construction) attending to the preceding cognitive claim of the gospel Word “concerning His Son” in its divine givenness. We have primary theology wherever this claim of the gospel recognizably sounds. But the habitat of the second order of theological knowledge is the ecclesia, the community called out to faith by the Spirit and called together in faith precisely to attend to this Word in its truth and purity.

As such, theology does not in principle aspire to totality and transparency as if it were constructing a philosophical worldview. Nor is it free to invent and reinvent itself at will, but rather constructs knowledge of its object given to it by the gospel in the hic et nunc of the church’s mission in the world. This constructive but not creative task, as the humanist Luther at work in the university learned, requires academic theology as yet a third order of theological knowledge. Here, theology must first of all be a pupil of the science of speech (rhetoric) in the messy world of the Bible from which its cognitive claim comes. Additionally, in the university or academic setting where other discourses make other claims about reality, dogmatics that arises to teach the science of the God of the gospel is necessarily critical. Critical dogmatics thus constitutes yet a third order of theological knowledge.

Since there are “so many words of God,” a hermeneutical break from medieval theology as commentary on Lombard’s Sentences is made in these three orders of theological knowledge. The break is premised upon the fundamental realization that no one can know what claim to truth about God is being made in the sources without first analyzing the genres and their figures of speech in which apparent claims appear. If, as the psalmist prays, God would hide her under the shadow of his wings, the claim is not that God is a powerful hen chicken. Yet a claim to truth about the goodness and power of God is being made. Neither literal nor figurative reading can be decided in advance; one must look and see the forms of human speech in which biblical speech of God occurs, taking them in accord with the analogy of faith—that is, the creedal tradition.

Consequently, having so clarified the claim to truth, to gain its reference to God all human speech, as well as biblical speech about God, must experience a certain deliteralization, which for Luther qualifies the biblical speech as referring to the unique One who is creator of all that is not God. The notable instance of deliteralization occurred when Luther took the ascension of Christ to the right hand of God not as a spatial movement to a region above the earth’s horizon but as exaltation to God’s own authority to judge, the messianic investiture of the so-called office of the keys.40 Yet here too a certain motion is ascribed to God, namely, the victory for us of mercy over wrath. And, that, decisively, is a claim to truth.

From such exercises in biblical theologizing Luther came to his great discovery rhetorically: God’s Word, as creative command, whether in wrathful judgment or as justifying judgment of mercy, is in every case performative: it does what it says and says what it does. Indeed, just this all-powerful creativity is what makes any speech divine or theological in the proper sense.

God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, the desperate, and of those who have been brought down to nothing at all. And it is the nature of God to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, to comfort the miserable and afflicted, to justify sinners, to give life to the dead, and to save those who are desperate and damned. For He is the almighty Creator, who makes everything out of nothing. In the performance of this, His natural and proper work, He does not allow Himself to be interfered with by that dangerous pest, the presumption of righteousness, which refuses to be sinful, impure, miserable and damned but wants to be pure and holy.41

Not any word of liberation nor any word of judgment or justification nor any promise is creative in this divine way. If a mortal judge were to declare sins forgiven, it could be no more than a legal fiction. As the creative declaration of God, however, the forgiveness of sins is life and salvation. Speech in God’s name at God’s command, doing what it is says and saying what it is doing, is God’s own speech. By the same token, then, it is not human legalism or ecclesiastical authoritarianism in the first instance, but God in the office of judge judging by the holy law of love who is faced, met, and surpassed in the gospel word of God that claims the liberated conscience of the community called out by it. This biblical theology of judgment and justification, rhetorically clarified, is primary theology.

Furthermore, the community’s speech back to God in the forms of prayer, the confession of faith, and praise is also theology, inasmuch as such directly recalls to God God’s own initiating speech in the vicissitudes of its earthly journey. This theological work of faith in the world at the Spirit’s call is second in a sequence of Word and Spirit, but no less divine on the lips of human creatures than the preceding proclamation of the gospel, also on the lips of human creatures. Here we have a secondary speech about speech about God; Spirit-given formulas loquendi42 arise in the course of the gospel’s history in times of crisis, when fundamental decisions must be made on how to continue the gospel mission. These rules of faith arise to regulate the primary speech in God’s name by way of facilitating human understanding of it, as rules of grammar illuminate the usages in a language. This speech is secondary to God’s speech as the response to it—as in, “This, O Lord, is what we hear you saying”—yet all the same for Luther inspired by the Spirit.

Luther neatly synthesized his view of the dogmatic tradition as secondary theology constituting an authoritative-because-gospel-illuminating tradition of churchly reflection in the late treatise The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith (1538), which discerns three lines of diabolic attack on the primary theology of Christ crucified: “One will not let him be God, another will not let him be man, and the third will not let him do what he has done … If one article is lacking, then all are lacking.”43 If you take away the “deity,” you take away the power to save and the right to give; if you take away the “humanity,” you take away that which is to be redeemed by the human Christ’s deed of solidarity with us; if you take away faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true human in the foregoing senses, you take away access to the saving deed.

Certainly, such secondary clarifications, however needful, are not themselves the saving God in Christ in his own speech, the primary theology of the gospel. They are secondary articulations of it in human speech about God’s speech in the church’s creeds that clarify to the mind how the saving God is to be spoken, heard, and understood in speaking from the Scriptures to contemporaries. They are believed as Spirit-given normed norms, precisely in order to identify and thus believe in the God of the gospel. They constitute the knowledge of faith in its true but also sanctified humanity. They work on the earth as identifiers to distinguish true God from idols and demons. They provide understanding of God in his economy but not comprehension of God in his naked eternity. As Spirit-given at decisive hermeneutical junctures in the gospel’s history forming an authoritative, but not authoritarian, tradition, they are not for Luther revocable, any more than his own stand for justification sola fide would be, even if the conceptuality employed historically in their formulations is translatable to other or new cultural situations. The canon of Scripture, the conciliar doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ, and salvation by grace all and together represent irrevocable formulas loquendi established by the Holy Spirit in the course of the gospel’s history through the nations. They are settled matters for Luther (thankfully received from Rome!), as he made clear in his 1528 treatise Concerning Rebaptism.44

Attempts to alienate Luther from the ecumenical doctrinal tradition because it is ordered for him as secondary to the primary theology of the gospel narrative are modern “radicalizations” along the lines of the dialectic of the Word of God and the word of man and as such are not faithful to the historical Luther. They are, rather, “reductions” that void the primary theology progressively of content, producing Christological neo-docetism and theological unitarianism, respectively, as is evident in the modern Lutheranism that turns Christ into the idea or principle of a timeless grace (Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace”). If indeed God is to be known in the gospel proclamation in the form of the dense and paradoxical primary theology of the cross, such theological clarifications of the sense of the central Christological paradox by way of such tertiary argumentation are mandatory for preventing misunderstanding or abuse.

Thus for Luther the academic theologian, the primary and secondary orders of theological discourse are so closely related that it is as if they interpenetrate. Indeed, a Trinitarian perichoresis of the Word and the Spirit, not a dialectic of the Word of God and the word of man, will be needed to grasp this kind of internal differentiation and relation in theology.45 Yet just this realization is a human work of theology as an academic discipline, indicating the third order of critical theological discourse. This third order of theological discourse—speech about speech about speech about God—will be required to provide the necessary distance from contesting and experimenting school theologies of what for Luther is as nonnegotiable as it is inseparable: God’s Word and the church’s confession of it in petition, doctrine, and doxology.

This third order of critical thinking in theology knows not only that “churches and councils can err” but also that Holy Scripture can speak ineptly, as even so important a text as John 1:18 sounds as if the divine Logos metamorphosized into flesh.46 In academic theology, it is a matter of critical discernment on the basis of the faithful act of obedient listening in the ecclesia up to and including what Rudolf Bultmann called Sachkritik: the criticism of the biblical text (not to mention church-doctrinal texts) in light of and for the sake of the gospel content it bears.47

Yet, unlike Bultmann, Luther as we have seen remains happily dependent on the ecumenical creedal tradition and, indeed, as a hostile critic of no less stature than Adolf Harnack could write, a “renewer” of it. “The German Reformer restored life to the formulae of Greek Christianity; he gave them back to faith … Luther was the restorer of the old dogma … Of this there can be no doubt—that the gospel was for him ‘saving doctrine, doctrine of the gospel’ (doctrina salutaris, doctrina evangelii), which certainly included the old dogmas; the attempt to represent the matter otherwise has in my opinion been a failure: the gospel is sacred doctrine, contained in the Word of God, the purpose of which is to be learned, and to which there must be subjection.”48 Harnack’s insinuation is that Luther is an uncritical dogmatist, not a critically dogmatic theologian.

If the first form of theology asserts, and the second confesses with the ecclesia what it has heard as God’s Word, also for Luther the third form of theology argues under the assumption that novelty will occur in the gospel’s mission to the nations: the homoousios of Nicea, for instance, or Luther’s own sola fide. There is a great deal of such tertiary theology in Luther, regrettably much in the form of outrageous polemic against real and perceived enemies, but also in the form of historical theology and biblical criticism.

Academic theology is both possible and necessary for Luther inasmuch as critical reasoning in scholarship is a mandate of creation and a necessary vocation. “Everywhere we should stick to just the simple, natural meaning of the words, as yielded by the rules of grammar and the habits of speech that God has created among men; for if anyone may devise ‘implications’ and ‘figures’ in Scripture at his own pleasure, what will all Scripture be but a reed shaken with the wind, and a sort of chameleon … ?” Luther asks in one of his most apocalyptic texts.49 Confidence in the capacity of disciplined reason to read and understand words, also in theology, is based on the creation of God (it is not compatible, then, with the new Gnosticism of a Derrida, for which language is a trap of self-referentiality rather than a means of access to the world and to others). Given Luther’s apocalyptic rhetoric—“The world is the kingdom of Satan, where, over and above the natural blindness engendered from our flesh, we are under the dominion of evil spirits, and are hardened in our very blindness, fast bound in a darkness that is no more human, but devilish!”50—the affirmation of creation Luther here makes on behalf of academic theology is doubly impressive.

On this level, then, one queries and criticizes colleague theologians and their schools of thought for adequacy to the foregoing tasks of primary and secondary theology. One asks, “How is God known according to these others?” and investigates, not by intuiting the hidden thoughts of their hearts but by scrutinizing what is publically said. One rises up to argument and achieves genuine disagreement. In light of Luther’s understanding of the First Commandment, the scope of this academic inquiry is universal, and its method is properly hermeneutical. Understanding its tertiary position opens academic theology up to vast fields of discourse in the world.

Since the Word and the Spirit must collaborate theologically to effect vera theologia et cognitia Dei, it is possible apart from this collaboration to reference the same God under another representation, rhetoric, or even conceptuality (as, at a minimum, Judaism and Islam do), just as one may not know the God of the gospel in spite of the same reference (as, for Luther, pope and enthusiast in his day do not). This complexity already confronts Luther in the New Testament, as he struggles to understand how James or Hebrews or Revelation can be genuinely “apostolic.” By the same token, he knows that if Herod or Pilate were to preach “Christ crucified,” they would count as “apostles.” Luther could argue against the theory of transubstantiation while recognizing the intention of affirming the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic elements—he would rather drink Christ’s blood with the papists than mere wine with the enthusiasts. Conversely, on baptism as conformation to Christ’s death and resurrection, Luther is arguably closer to Menno Simons than to Rome or the other traditions of the magisterial Reformation.51 Clearly, then, on this level of academic theological openness to all that is human, there are and can be infinite differences of degree, often subtle and perplexing.


One may see such potential in Luther for a bolder academic theology than he himself was capable of historically when we bracket out the polemics that enveloped him and the superstitious demonology that permitted him to renounce rational interchange for prophetic invective, bound up with his despairing conclusion that the world was about to end. Apocalyptic too must be deliteralized in academic theology to speak not of the end of time but of the in-breaking of the time of the end. On this academic level, much of Luther’s specific theological legacy consists in insisting on the priority of the first two orders of discourse, so that academic theology remains accountable to the rock from which it is hewn, even as it ventures into the much bigger world of God’s creating than Luther could or did imagine.

Reading for an Alternative Account

Forde, Gerhard O. “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ.” Word and World 3.1 (1983): 28–30.Find this resource:

Forde, Gerhard O. “The Work of Christ.” In Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2. Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, 11–99. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.Find this resource:

Forde, Gerhard O. Theology Is for Proclamation. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990.Find this resource:

Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.Find this resource:

Mattes, Mark C. The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.Find this resource:

Paulson, Steven D. Lutheran Theology. London: T & T Clarke International, 2011.Find this resource:


(1.) Christine Helmer, Theology and the End of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014).

(2.) Marc Lienhard, Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ, Stages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982).

(3.) Jan Lindhardt, Martin Luther: Knowledge and Mediation in the Renaissance, Texts and Studies in Religion 29 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1986); and Timothy P. Dost, Renaissance Humanism in Support of the Gospel in Luther’s Early Correspondence: Taking All Things Captive (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001). This prioritization of grammar over dialectic in distinction from Lombard’s Sentences is taken up in Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 42–55.

(4.) Manfred Schulze, “Martin Luther and the Church Fathers,” in The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists, ed. Irena Backus (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1997), 573–626.

(5.) Graham White, Luther as Nominalist: A Study of the Logical Methods Used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of Their Medieval Background, Schriften der Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft 30 (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Society 1994); Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox, and Paul R. Hinlicky, The Substance of the Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008); and Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther: A Study on the Relationship between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works, 1523–1546 (Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1999), 8–23.

(6.) Paul R. Hinlicky, “A Lutheran Encyclical: Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 6.8 (August 2006).

(7.) Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom, with a Foreword by Mickey L. Mattox (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 60–65; so also Oswald Bayer in Creator est creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation, eds. O. Bayer and Benjamin Gleede (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2007), 33–34.

(8.) Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus, ed. J. C. Verheyden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 423.

(9.) Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, vol. 2, eds. H. R. Macintosh and J. S. Steward (Harper & Row, 1963), 412.

(10.) Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal Christianity (Saint Paul, MN: Fortress, 2010), 96–108; see also Paul R. Hinlicky, “Luther’s Antidocetism,” in Creator est creatura, eds. Bayer and Gleede, 139–185.

(11.) Lienhard, Martin Luther, 176.

(12.) Philip Melanchthon, On Christian Doctrine: Loci Communes, trans. C. L. Manschreck (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 34–35. See by contrast the treatment of the Cry of Dereliction in Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 509–536.

(13.) Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Theology from Luther through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 145–170.

(14.) Philip Melanchthon, Orations on Philosophy and Education, ed. Sachiko Kusakawa (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 256–264. “Throughout his career Melanchthon sought to use definitions, that is, the dialectical question ‘Quid sit?’ and subsequent definitiones, as the basis for theology. Proper definitions bring clarity and certainty to a topic. When the topic is theological in nature, such clarity and certainty become the basis for clear and certain faith. Without those attributes the uncertain conscience can never attain to the comfort and consolation of the gospel.… God’s work in this world through language and logic and the fundamental clarity of his Word provided assurance that theological clarity was being attained.” Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melacnchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker, 1997), 204. This was the method of a “thinker to whom theological definitions offered doctrinal certainty for faith” (Wengert, Law and Gospel, 178). The fusion, rather than dialectic, of primary and secondary levels of theological discourse that Wengert puts his finger on here identifies the subtle academic divergence between the two reformers, which is more deeply a Christological divergence.

(15.) Paul R. Hinlicky, “Irony of an Epithet: The Reversal of Luther’s Enthusiasm in the Enlightenment,” in A Man of the Church: Festschrift for Ralph Del Colle, eds. Michel Barnes and Mickey L. Mattox (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 302–315.

(16.) Paul R. Hinlicky, “The Reception of Luther in Pietism and the Enlightenment,” in Oxford Handbook to Martin Luther, eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomir Batka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 540–550.

(17.) James M. Stayer, Martin Luther: German Saviour; German Evangelical Theological Factions and the Interpretation of Luther, 1917–1933 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000).

(18.) On Bonhoeffer’s appropriation of Luther’s Christological doctrine in dialogue with Barth, see Michael P. DeJonge, Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, and Protestant Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(19.) Hinlicky, Beloved Community, 439–444.

(20.) Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken, 162–176.

(21.) Olli-Pekka Vainio, Justification and Participation in Christ: The Development of the Lutheran Doctrine of Justification from Luther to the Formula of Concord (1580) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008).

(22.) Friedrich Mildenberger, Theology of the Lutheran Confessions, trans. E. Lueker (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).

(23.) Barth too appropriates Luther’s theology of the cross with his dialectic of veiling and unveiling, in which the humanity of Jesus is the veil giving way to the unveiled Son of God ever exceeding the humanity by which the event of revelation occurs. This is a Calvinist understanding (extra-calvinisticum) of the theology of the cross; by contrast, for Bonhoeffer the verbum externum lies not in the deity of Christ exceeding the humanity but the concrete, specific form of humanity in the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. The humanity is not a veil, but the revelation of the divine Sonship in the world whose externality lies in the man in whom we found no beauty and nothing to desire. The latter is arguably the better interpretation, at least of Luther.

(24.) WA 1:362.

(25.) Walter von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, trans. H. Bouman (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976). Luther abandons the rhetoric but not the substance of his early theology of the cross for fear of the disastrous confusion, precisely when it is taken anthropologically rather than Christologically, that one can make oneself pleasing to God by the perverse work of self-hatred.

(26.) LW 34:327; WA 54:180. See also LW 33:16; WA 18:600–601.

(27.) Schleiermacher thus rightly holds that theology is a positive and practical science, but the positivity of theology for him stems from the contingent fact of Jesus’ consciousness of God and the immanent historical radiance stemming from it, not the divine event of the proclamation of Christ crucified.

(28.) See specially Luther’s “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” LW 40:73–223, and the section in the Smalcald Articles in Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 322–323. See also Paul R. Hinlicky, “Verbum Externum: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Bethel Confession,” in God Speaks to Us, eds. Ralf Wüstenberg and Jens Zimmermann, International Bonhoeffer Interpretations 5 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang: 2013), 189–215.

(29.) Paul R. Hinlicky, “Staying Lutheran in the Changing Church(es),” afterword to Changing Churches, by Mickey L. Mattox and Gregg Roeber (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 281–314.

(30.) See the following passages in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4 on Justification: 4.12, 45–48, 62–68, 72, 110, 114–118. To exclude Osiander, the Formulators had to “correct” the Apology (Solid Declaration 3.19).

(31.) This is certainly to agree with Robert W. Jenson’s stipulation of the “ecumenical imperative” that we today “must not now seek Luther’s theological contribution … in what makes them divisive,” Oxford Handbook to Martin Luther, eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomir Batka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 273. Seeking a special way for the continuation of Lutheranism today is reactionary. But it remains the case that Luther’s witness to Jesus Christ is divisive in theology, reflecting as it does 1 Corinthians 2:2, and to that extent also divisive in the church. Luther problematizes The logical problem with Jenson’s argument is that under the conditions of historical existence that attend the church’s earthly pilgrimage, what unites in one respect also divides in others.

(32.) Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 301.

(33.) Ibid., 355.

(34.) This term is from Eberhard Jüngel; see Paul R. Hinlicky, “Metaphorical Truth and the Language of Christian Theology,” in Indicative of Grace, Imperative of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Eberhard Jüngel in His 80th Year, ed. R. David Nelson (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 89–100.

(35.) WA 8:87; LW 32:200. See the analysis of Anna Vind, “Christus factus est peccatum metaphorice: Űber die theologische Verwendung rhetorischer Figuren bei Luther unter Einbeziehung Quintilians,” in Bayer and Gleede, Creator est creatura, 95–124.

(36.) LW 36:335; WA 19 482:25–483:19.

(37.) Luther and the Beloved Community, 379–385.

(38.) This elaborates and further develops George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a PostLiberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) in light of Helmer’s important criticism of it in The End of Doctrine for a fideistic loss of contact with reality, yet without moving toward her apparent foundationalism.

(39.) LW 31:346.

(40.) LW 37:66.

(41.) LW 26:314.

(42.) Hinlicky, “Luther’s Anti-Docetism,” 148.

(43.) LW 34:210.

(44.) LW 40:229–262.

(45.) The exegetical case in Luther for this dialectic of Word and Spirit in Luther is made in Hinlicky, “Luther’s Anti-Docetism,” 169–180.

(46.) Ibid., 147.

(47.) David W. Congdon, The Mission of DeMythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

(48.) Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. N. Buchanan (New York: Dover, 1961), 7:174–175.

(49.) Luther, Bondage, 192.

(50.) Ibid., 132.

(51.) Hinlicky, Beloved Community, 260–270.