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date: 21 August 2017

Martin Luther and the Trinity

Summary and Keywords

Luther’s theology of the Trinity is firmly rooted in the catholic tradition of the church. In scholarly debate, it has therefore not received the same attention as the doctrines usually associated with the distinctive profile of the teaching of the Reformation, like the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The intrinsic connection between Luther’s catholic theology of the Trinity and the distinctive emphases of Reformation theology has consequently often been overlooked. Luther was reasonably well acquainted with the medieval debate and could occasionally, as in the late disputations, directly comment upon them, if the distinctions served to clarify his view of the place of Trinitarian teaching in the church.

The most interesting question with regard to Luther’s doctrine of the Trinity is not which influences can be traced in his Trinitarian thought but how he developed the status of Trinitarian discourse in Christian faith and how he applied it in his treatment of other theological issues.

If we survey Luther’s engagement with the doctrine of the Trinity, ranging from the early glosses on Lombard’s Sentences and Augustine’s De Trinitate to the very last disputation, we can see that in all the different genres in which he develops his theology, Trinitarian reflection plays an integral role. Luther’s own attempts at giving expression to the Trinitarian faith are developed within the boundaries of creedal orthodoxy. He does not modify the doctrinal tradition of the conciliar Creeds but employs it in such a way that its basis in the witness of Scripture becomes apparent and that the task of Trinitarian language in relating the different articles of Christian faith to their foundation and so can be understood by others.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Trinity, confessions, preaching, disputations, exegesis, God, Christ, divine essence, inner-trinitarian

The Trinity Confessed—The Point of Affirming the Tradition

In 1528, at the end of his last extensive work on the Lord’s Supper, Luther concludes the book with a personal confession of faith.1 It is written during a time when people in Wittenberg were suffering from the plague. The university had been transferred to Jena, but Luther stayed with his congregation in Wittenberg, suffering from serious illness and spiritual trials. In style, this personal confession resembles a “last will and testament,” for example, when Luther solemnly declares that he is of sound mind and not drunk. One of the intentions of putting this confession at the end of the book was, as Luther explains, preventing people after his death from appealing to his authority for views that he did not hold. This personal confession of faith is Trinitarian in form and contains the following tri-partite summary of faith in the triune God:

First, I believe with my whole heart the sublime article of the majesty of God, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons, are by nature one true and genuine God, the Maker of heaven and earth; in complete opposition to the Arians, Macedonians, Sabellians, and similar heretics, Genesis 1[:1]. All this has been maintained up to this time both in the Roman Church and among Christian churches throughout the whole world.2

This confession expresses faith in the Trinity (echoing the Shema Israel (“with my whole heart,” Dt 6:2) as the sublime article of the divine majesty and states that the three persons are “by nature on true and genuine God.” Luther claims that this is a truly catholic confession, maintained by all churches throughout the world. As heretical forms of teaching that are rejected, Luther cites the “Macedonians,” who denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Arians, who defended an ontological subordinationism, seeing Christ as the first creature, and the Sabellians, who argued for a modalist understanding by interpreting the three persons as three modes of appearance of the one God.

Luther then continues with an extended Christological article introduced by the words: “Secondly, I believe and know that Scripture teaches us that the second person in the Godhead, viz. the Son, alone became true man,”3 a statement that is immediately rendered more precise by stating that neither the Father nor the Spirit became man. While the Christological article is in this way introduced with explicit reference to the Trinity, the unity of the divinity and humanity in Christ is more fully developed by two complementary statements. The incarnation is the assumption of full and complete humanity, including the soul. Conversely, Luther stresses that “this man became true God, as one eternal, indivisible person, of God and man.”4 Luther explicitly rejects the Nestorian view that in Christ the Son of God and the Son of Mary exist in relative independence, and he concludes this statement by underlining the Lordship of Christ who is “my Lord and the Lord of all, Jesus Christ, the only, true Son by nature of God and of Mary, true God and true man.”5 This statement of the personal union of Christ in two natures forms the background of confessing belief in the death of Christ as redemption from all sins and belief in the resurrection. This assertion concludes with a strong affirmation of the present rule of Christ who “sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty, Lord over all lords, King over all kings and over all creatures in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, over death and life, over sin and righteousness.”6

In the explication of the second article of his confession of faith, Luther now affirms the doctrine of original sin, because of which all humanity is guilty of eternal death, from which we have been liberated by Christ and which, however, would still condemn us to eternal death “if he did not still intercede and plead for us as a faithful, merciful Mediator, Savior, and the only Priest and Bishop of our souls.”7 Again, the statement of the overcoming of sin by Christ is extended into a description of the present work of Christ in interceding for us in his eternal priesthood. It is here that Luther includes a rejection of free will as “diametrically contrary to the help and grace of our Savior Jesus Christ,”8 which is concluded by a condemnation of old and new Pelagians. Similarly, “monastic orders, rules, cloisters, religious foundations”9 are discarded insofar as they claim to influence human salvation and thus question the sufficiency of the death of Christ. In their place, three “holy orders and religious institutions” are pointed out that are not merely human institutions but have been instituted by God: the ministry of the word, marriage (including the tasks of parenthood), and civil government. Above them, Luther places the “common order of Christian love.”10 Having thus pointed out the positive function of the three orders of ministry, marriage and civil government, rule by the common order of Christian love, Luther again emphasizes that they are not “a means of salvation”11 that is faith in Jesus Christ alone. The orders enable those who believe in Christ alone to be sanctified. In conclusion he states, “We are saved though Jesus Christ alone but we become holy through this faith.”

After this extended Christological article, Luther adds, thirdly, the article of faith in the Holy Spirit: “Thirdly, I believe in the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is one true God and proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, yet is a distinct person in the one divine essence and nature.”12 There follows a summary of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, introduced by the phrase that by the Holy Spirit “as living, eternal, divine gift and endowment, all believers are adorned with faith and other spiritual gifts.”13 These gifts, which include forgiveness of sins and resurrection from the dead, are summarized as “our assurance if we feel this witness of the Spirit in our hearts, that God wishes to be our Father, forgive our sin, and bestow everlasting life on us.”14 Notably, Luther here uses personal language that identifies the Spirit as a giver and uses impersonal language that identifies the Spirit as a gift. This interpretation leads to the summary of the Trinitarian confession in the language of the threefold divine self-giving.

These are the three persons and one God, who has given himself to us all wholly and completely, with all that he is and has. The Father gives himself to us, with heaven and earth and all the creatures, in order that they may serve us and benefit us. But this gift has become obscured and useless through Adam’s fall. Therefore, the Son himself subsequently gave himself and bestowed all his works, sufferings, wisdom, and righteousness, and reconciled us to the Father, in order that restored to life and righteousness, we might also know and have the Father and his gifts.15

In each of the three articles, Luther is careful to include the language of the creedal tradition in his personal confession of faith. The new emphasis, which is here offered for the first time, is the introduction of the concept of God’s trinitarian self-giving. While the language of gift (donum) was formerly used mainly in connection with the Holy Spirit, it is now extended to all three persons. Self-giving implies that each of the three persons is both the subject and the object of giving for the benefit of the human recipient. The concept unites person and work by giving the person priority: only the divine persons of Father, Son and Spirit could perform these works. However, they are not to be viewed as separate agents; their actions are presented as strictly related. The unity of Trinitarian action, demanded by the unity of the divine essence, is expressed in relation to what is not God by the way the action and passion of the Son reveals the meaning of the action of the Father, and by the way in which the work of the Spirit perfects the action of the Son and in this way completes the whole of God’s Trinitarian action.

But because this grace (of Christ) would benefit no one if it remained so profoundly hidden and could not come to us, the Holy Spirit comes and gives himself to us also, wholly and completely. He teaches us to understand this deed of Christ which has been manifested to us, helps us receive and preserve it, use it to our advantage and impart it to others, increase and extend it.16

The self-giving of the Spirit is described as the disclosure of the grace of Christ and its appropriation to believers in such a way that believers are enabled to receive and to preserve it, use it, communicate it, even increase and extend it. God’s Trinitarian action, coming to completion in the self-giving of the Spirit, is the enabling and continuing support of faith apprehending this gift. In the operation of the Spirit, Luther distinguishes between the Spirit’s action inwardly and outwardly. The Gospel is communicated to us by the outward means and methods of the gospel, baptism, and the sacrament of the altar and inwardly in the constitution of faith granting assurance of gospel and enabling believers to apprehend it in faith. By binding the internal work of the Spirit to the external means of communication, the relational structure between God’s Trinitarian action and the Christian faith is maintained. Faith in the Trinity in this way comprises and structures the whole of the divine economy. Through the notion of self-giving, Luther emphasizes the distinction and relation of divine and human work. Because creation is the self-giving of God the Father, no one else is to be trusted in this unconditional sense: everything other than God is, first of all, the gift of God. Because our salvation is achieved by the self-giving of God the Son, one person in two natures, there can be no other ground of salvation, and therefore the salvation achieved in Christ includes the whole of created existence. Because the Spirit appropriates the whole work of God the Father and the Son to us by constituting faith, there is no other way in which humans can appropriately relate to God. For Luther, confessing the Trinity coincides with the exclusive particles of Reformation theology: humans are saved only by Christ, only through grace, and only in faith, as it is witnessed normatively in Scripture. The point of affirming the tradition is precisely that without it, the distinct insight of the Reformation could not be asserted. To know the benefits of Christ, one must not only contemplate his natures and the modes of the Incarnation; rather, one must understand them in the context of the threefold divine self-giving as they are rooted in God’s eternal being, communicated in the person and work of Christ, and appropriated to believers by the Holy Spirit.17

The confession of 1528 summarizes, on the one hand, Luther’s earlier engagement with Trinitarian teaching. On the other hand, it introduces a new phase of Trinitarian teaching in the Small and Large Catechism and in the Schwabach and Smalcald Articles.18 Luther’s view of the development of doctrine in the early church can be seen from the second part of the treatise Of Councils and the Church from 1539.19 The whole treatise reflects Luther’s frustration that a general council called by the Pope will not be able to effect a reformation of the church, an idea he had advocated in 1520. The authority of the ecumenical councils depends on the way in which they attempt to state the teaching of Scripture. In their relative significance, they are, however, highly instructive for charting the ground for the formulation of Christian doctrine in his day. Luther maintains with Hilary On the Trinity, Book I, that one should not teach anything outside Scripture with regard to divine matters. However, when the need for a brief clarifying summary arises, it may well become necessary to use nonscriptural concepts to express the scriptural truth.20 Luther has a more positive understanding of the tradition when it becomes in its creedal form part of Christian worship. This perception is clearly reflected in The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith from 1538.21 Luther’s description of the inner-Trinitarian relations here closely follows the so-called Athanasianum, merely supplying additional scriptural references for the eternal generation of the Son and for the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son.

The Trinity Taught—the Doctrine of the Trinity in Catechetical Instruction

The primary form of Luther’s catechetical teaching a combination of the exposition of the Decalogue with the interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. In the catechisms, he adds instruction concerning Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the two sacraments instituted by Christ. The theological intention of Luther’s catechical writings and preaching is summarized in his first attempt at offering Christian instruction in A Short Form of the Ten Commandments, of the Creed and of the Lord’s Prayer.22 At the center is the pastoral concern for what humans must know to be saved. (a) They should know what they should do or refrain from doing (the decalogue). (b) Based on the acknowledgment that they can do neither by their own powers, they should know where to take, search and find this knowledge so that they can act accordingly (the creed). (c) Therefore, they must also know where to look for it and fetch it. From the beginning, Luther’s exposition of the Creed is based on the insight into the human incapacity to do what God commands on the basis of their own resources.23 Therefore, they have to rely exclusively on what God does for them and gives them to be enabled to do his will. Luther’s restructuring of the catechism reflects the shift from law to gospel. If the Ten Commandments are interpreted in the “if … then” form of the law, they serve to demonstrate the utter incapacity of humans to know, will, and do good. This explains why what God does and gives can only be grasped by faith as radical trust.24 The logical structure of the gospel, “because … therefore,” mirrors the form of God’s promise: “Because I am and have done … you are and you can do.”25 The restructuring of the Apostles’ Creed from twelve articles, each related to one of the Apostles, to three articles, each referring to the work, will, and essence of one person of the triune God, demonstrating the unity of the divine essence by their internal interconnectedness, already points to a substantive shift in the understanding of the Trinity presented by Luther. The exposition of the Creed therefore starts with the stark statement: “The creed divides in three main parts according to the way in which the three persons of the holy divine trinity are narrated in it … of which (articles) the first is appropriated to the Father, the other to the Son and the third to the Holy Spirit, because this is the highest article of faith in which all others hang.”26

In the explication of the first article, like the whole exposition phrased in the first person singular as a personal confession, Luther begins with the rejection of the evil spirit and the refusal to trust in any creature in heaven or on earth, which emphasizes that faith is the fulfillment of the first commandment. Positively, faith in God, the Father, the almighty creator is described as faith in the one invisible and incomprehensible God who as creator of heaven and earth is above everything. Unconditional trust in God is well founded because there can be nothing that impedes God’s will or distracts from his action, neither the devil and his company, nor the limitations of human nature, not even my sinfulness. Because God is almighty, he can give me everything I need. Because he is the creator of everything, and Lord over all how could he not give me everything that is for best. Because he is the Father, I can be assured that he will do everything for my best with a willing heart. Therefore, Luther concludes the first article, I can trust God without any doubt. It appears that Luther here combines what the tradition says about the Father as the unoriginate origin in the Trinity and the creative ground of everything with attributes of the divine essence, especially omnipotence. Throughout the exposition of the whole Creed, Luther maintains the twofold stress on the unconditionality of God’s action and being and the existential emphasis on the personal appropriation to the particular believer.

In the exposition of the second (Christological) article and in the third (pneumatological) article, Luther summarizes the confession in a “not only – but also” structure. Not only is Jesus Christ God’s only Son, eternally generated in one divine nature and essence, but everything has also been subjected to him by the Father with whom he created everything according to his divinity, and he has been placed as Lord over everything according to his humanity. Therefore, no one can trust in God the Father or come to him other than through Jesus Christ his Son, by believing in his name and rule. The exclusivity of access to God the Father in Christ is emphasized by pointing inclusively to all which cannot establish communion with God: human ability and competence (kunst), human actions (werk) or human reason (vernunfft), and indeed everything one could name in heaven and on earth. The Christological narrative is structured by Luther throughout with the addition pro me, emphasizing that everything in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection occurred for the individual believers and their benefit.

In a similar way, the Holy Spirit is described not only as true God with the Father and the Son but also as the one without whom nobody can come to the Father through Christ. By the work of the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son call the believer, make her holy and spiritual in Christ and bring her to the Father. This is a strong statement for the structured unity of divine action grounded in the unity of essence. Every Trinitarian work originates in God the Father and is perfected in the Spirit. The following clauses of the Apostles’ Creed, the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the dead, and eternal life appear as the means by which God the Father through the Son in the Spirit effects the communion of God and the justified and sanctified sinner.

Throughout this first exposition of the Creed in a catechetical context, Luther emphasizes the essential connection between the immanent and the economic Trinity by explicitly expressing the differentiated unity of God’s Trinitarian action. Thus, he combines the emphasis on the unconditionality of God’s Trinitarian action in that every act originates in the unoriginate being of the Father, with the existential point of God’s action because every Trinitarian act is perfected in the Spirit, appropriating salvation to the individual believer and thus bringing her into communion with the Triune God. This combination is then summarized in the account of God’s Trinitarian self-giving, which in the Large Catechism serves as the exposition of the central logic of God’s action.

For in all three articles [of the Creed] God has revealed and opened to us the most profound depths of his fatherly heart and his pure, unutterable love. For this very purpose, he has created us so that he might redeem us and make us holy, and moreover, having granted and bestowed upon us everything in heaven and on earth, he has also given us his Son and his Holy Spirit, through whom he brings us to himself. For … we could never come to recognize the Father’s favor and grace were it not for the lord Christ, who is a mirror of the Father’s heart. Apart from him we see nothing but an angry and terrible judge. But neither could we know anything of Christ, had it not been revealed by the Holy Spirit.27

These phrases appear as the new summary of Luther’s Trinitarian teaching in a catechetical context, relying on the notion of self-giving, first presented in Luther’s personal confession of faith from 1528. It is central for the notion of self-giving that it must be seen as the interconnected self-giving of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Furthermore, it is not only to be interpreted in an epistemological sense, although Luther employs the technical language of revelation. God’s Trinitarian self-giving always implies the unity of being, action, and presence. Hand in hand with the focus on Trinitarian self-giving goes the emphasis on love as the “profoundest depths” of God’s heart. One may speculate whether this expression of the core of Luther’s Trinitarian teaching is the reason that the repetition of formulae from the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds step into the background in the Catechisms and that the language of appropriation, ascribing a particular type of Trinitarian action for linguistic convenience to one person, comes to the fore, so that creation is appropriated to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Spirit. The use of appropriation has led to various misunderstandings of Luther’s Trinitarian thought. Harnack28 interpreted it in a modalistic sense (which he supported); Karl Thieme diagnosed a tendency toward a “naïve tritheism”29; and Georg Wobbermin saw in Luther an anticipation of own “Trinitarian monotheism.”30 In contrast to these views, it must be maintained that Luther expressly refers to “the second person of the Godhead,”31 and that he emphasizes the unity of the divine “essence, will and work of God.”32 There can be no doubt that Luther employs the language of personal agency with regard to the Holy Spirit. The interconnectedness of God’s Trinitarian action serves to underline the unity of the divine essence so that Luther can talk both about the one God as subject of God’s self-giving “God himself has revealed …” and associate the notion of giving with the three persons. However, it is the giving of the Son and the Spirit “through whom he brings us to himself” that point to the origin and the telos of God’s Trinitarian being and action. Although Luther subscribes to the rule opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa, he does not hold that the “undivided” means “indistinguishable.” It is interesting, however, that the formal agreement with the teaching of the Councils of the Early Church plays a much more pronounced role in Luther’s exegetical treatments of the Trinity and his sermons than in the catechetical writings.

The Trinity Biblically Interpreted—the Trinity in Scriptural Exegesis

Agreement with the dogmas of the Early Church is of central significance for Luther’s Trinitarian teaching. However, the conciliar decisions are for him not an independent authority. They point to the authority of Scripture, which is the basis of their significance and legitimacy. The authority of Scripture rests in God’s self-presentation in Christ through the Spirit. Therefore, Luther contrasts the divine work of God’s revelation, witnessed in Scripture and authenticated in the interpretation of Scripture by the Holy Spirit, with the human work of reason. Luther maintained from the beginning that the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly evidenced in Scripture. However, his engagement with Trinitarian matters in scriptural exegesis also shows that this was not only a matter of offering proof texts for orthodox doctrine. Luther intended by means of the interpretation of Scripture to trace back the teaching of the Trinity to God’s revelation as its source and content and to follow the trajectory of God’s self-disclosure to the present hearer of the word of Scripture. The content of the doctrine of the Trinity and the mode in which it can be apprehended are intrinsically connected.

In Luther’s theology, exegesis and preaching go hand in hand. His exegesis of the biblical texts, e.g., in his lectures, is always directed toward uncovering its meaning for its readers and hearers in his day. Conversely, his preaching is committed to grounding the proclaimed message in the exact exegesis of the biblical text because only in this way can God’s address to the congregation today be communicated. This is, itself, part of the Trinitarian action of God in which God makes himself known through the Gospel of Christ as it is made certain by the Holy Spirit. For Luther, the doctrine of the Trinity can be found throughout the biblical writings. He employs texts from the New Testament to demystify texts from the Old Testament, but he also interprets the New Testaments constantly against the background of the Old Testament.33 Doctrinal instruction and kerygmatic address go hand in hand in Luther’s biblical exegesis and cannot be separated.

We can in identify three characteristics of Luther’s exegesis that are all based on the principle, programmatically announced in the Assertio omnium articulorum of 1520, that Scripture is sui ipsius interpres, its own interpreter.34 The first is the consistent intertextuality of Luther’s exegesis. He constantly interprets scriptural passages through other scriptural passages. While he insists that the perspective of a Christian reading of the Old Testament is based on the New Testament witness of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament must nevertheless be constantly present to make sense of the claim that Jesus is the Christ. In the background, Luther’s theology of the word relates the eternal word of the inner-trinitarian conversation to the created word, according which all creatures are vocabula Dei, and to the verbum scriptum, God’s address in Holy Scripture. Luther focuses all three in this address in the word of preaching. The dialogical character of Scripture is, secondly, a consistent feature of Luther’s exegesis, mirroring God’s Trinitarian dialogue as the enablement of his dialogue with his creatures.35 The third characteristic is the emphasis on the performative dimension. Scripture is to be performed in the dialogical structure of worship, and this makes the passive situation of hearing and reading, reflecting the general passionality of creaturely existence, the foundation of the response to God’s address in addressing God in prayer and hymns.

All three characteristics are amply illustrated by Luther’s Treatise on the Last Words of David (2 Samuel 23:1–7) from the year 1543.36 This is the most developed account of Luther’s Trinitarian exegesis of the Old Testament, regrettably interspersed with the most abhorrent outbursts of the polemic of Antijudaism in his later years.37 The occasion for these antijudaic and unjustifiable eruptions seem to be an ongoing acerbic debate with Jewish exegesis of the Hebrew Bible and its influence on some Christian interpreters. Luther’s resorts to the technique of prosopographic or person-relative exegesis, pioneered by Philo of Alexandria and used extensively by patristic writers such as Justin, Hippolytus, Clement, and Origen.38 In this sense, Luther interprets 2 Samuel 23:3 as the exchange between three speakers:

Now we have three speakers. Above, David remarks that the Spirit of the Lord has spoken through his tongue. There the Person of the Holy Spirit is clearly indicated to us Christians. Whatever Turks, Jews, and other ungodly persons believe we disregard. Thus, we have heard that Scripture and our Creed ascribe to the Holy Spirit the external working, as He physically speaks to us, baptizes us, and reigns over us through the prophets, apostles, and ministers of the church. Therefore, these words of David are also those of the Holy Spirit, which He speaks with David’s tongue regarding two other Speakers. What does He say of these? First of all, He speaks of the God of Israel and says that He has spoken to David, that is, has given him a promise. Which Person of the Godhead this Speaker is we Christians know from the Gospel of John. It is the Father who said in the beginning (Genesis 1:3): “Let there be light.” And His Word is the Person of the Son, through which Word “all things were made” (John 1:3). The same Son the Spirit by the mouth of David here calls צוּר‎, “Rock” of Israel and just Ruler among mankind. He, too, speaks, that is, the Holy Spirit introduces the Rock of Israel to let Him speak, too. Thus, all three Persons speak, and yet there is but one Speaker, one Promiser, one Promise, just as there is but one God.39

Luther extends this interpretation to the general rule that where we have two persons of God in Scripture, we can safely assume that there are three persons because the presence of the Holy Spirit as the interpreter is always implied.40

Luther uses the exegesis of the last words of David to present a clear rule of Trinitarian discourse:

Therefore a Christian must here take careful note not to mingle the Persons into one Person nor to divide and separate the one divine essence into three Persons, as Athanasius sings in his Creed. For if I ascribe to each Person a distinct external work in creation and exclude the other two Persons from this, then I have divided the one Godhead and have fashioned three gods or creators. And that is wrong. Again, if I do not ascribe to each Person within the Godhead, or outside and beyond creation, a special distinction not appropriate to the other two, then I have mingled the Persons into one Person. And that is also wrong. Here the rule of St. Augustine is pertinent: “The works of the Trinity toward the outside are not divisible.” The works performed by God outside the Godhead must not be divided, that is, one must not separate the Persons with regard to the works and ascribe to each its distinct external work; but one must distinguish the Person within the Godhead and yet ascribe, externally, each work to all three without distinction.41

Nevertheless, Luther shows in various ways in the treatise that the unity of the divine being ad extra does not exclude a different manifestation of God in the person of Son and in the Holy Spirit so that it is precisely the notion of Trinitarian unity that makes clear that God the Father is made known through the Son and in the Holy Spirit so that faith is constituted in this Trinitarian movement of God. The life of faith consists in retracing the steps of divine self-disclosure to relate in the Spirit through the Son to God the Father. This course leads from exegesis to the use of Scripture in worship, and particularly in preaching.

The Trinity Preached—the Trinity in Luther’s Sermons

In his sermon on Trinity Sunday, 1535, Luther simply leaves the Gospel for the Sunday aside and preaches on the Trinity, “the highest article in our holy faith and in the holy Christian church.”42 Luther concedes that we can stammer and stutter with regard to this article because here God does not present himself clothed in his work as at Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost but shows “who he is in himself without all clothes or works, only in his divine essence.”43 However, who God is in himself we can only know if we leave all creatures behind “and only hear what God says of himself and of his inner essence, otherwise we will not get to experience it.”44 What God says of himself, i.e., “that there is one God, and yet three different persons”45 appears to those who follow reason as if God were foolish and those who believe in what he says mad. Luther counters this with the argument that for humans who by rational means understand so little about themselves and their activities, the attempt at understanding the divine essence without help from God’s word only relying on one’s own head is foolishness upon foolishness. Even if one has thought long and hard about these matters, which Luther admits he has tried himself, the result of such reflection cannot win the comparison with Scripture. With this move, Luther has introduced a paradigm shift in the understanding of reason. He contrasts reason by reflection with communicative reason that is receptive to the message it receives before it begins to reason. The one relies on one’s own head; the other is informed by God’s word.

Luther thus turns to scriptural exegesis and interprets Colossians 1:15 as God’s self-communication about his inner being by means of Scripture. From the perspective of 1 Corinthians 10:9 (“We must not put the Lord to the test”), he interprets Numbers 14:22, where, in the speech of the Lord, it is said that the people put God to the test ten times in such a way that Christ speaks of the people putting him to the test—although Luther knows very well and mentions explicitly that Christ had not yet been born, nor David nor Mary.46 In an aside, Luther justifies the use of the language of persons in the Trinity: “Call it what you will, we call it a person, it may not be proper speech but a stutter, but what should we do? We cannot do better.”47 Luther’s most fruitful references with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity are from John’s Gospel (in this sermon John 14:9; 12:44f.; John 14:1) because there the relationship among the three persons of the one God is expressed in modes of mutual address. From scriptural exegesis, Luther moves to the exposition of the Creed. Here, he is keen to emphasize that “This prayer or confession we have not made or thought out …”48 Like a bee collects nectar from many flowers, so the Creed summarizes the teaching of the prophets and the apostles for simple believers and children. The paradigm of communicative, receptive reason is maintained in the interpretation of the Creed. The exposition of the Creed is supplemented with miraculous stories of how those believing in the doctrine have been saved and those who deny it have come to a terrible and shameful end—Arius providing the much-quoted example. Luther concludes the sermon by returning to the Creed and explaining that the difference of the person is there explained through the appropriation of specific works to each of the persons of the Trinity “so that one does not make one lump or only one person out of it.”49

The doctrine of the Trinity and the paradigm of communicative reason are combined in Luther’s sermons on the gospel of John. The prologue of John’s Gospel is a much-cited text for Luther in his expositions of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Thus God, too, from all eternity has a Word, a speech, a thought, or a conversation with Himself in His divine heart, unknown to angels and men. This is called His Word. From eternity He was within God’s paternal heart, and through Him God resolved to create heaven and earth. But no man was aware of such a resolve until the Word became flesh and proclaimed this to us.50

Luther approaches the language of the word that was with God and he emphasizes a very weak analogy of the word of the heart in humans who, before they speak, have a conversation with themselves in which they can be completely overcome by the affectations of their heart such that once the word is uttered, it carries weight even in human interactions. Luther goes through the different aspects of the inner conversations human have with themselves to elucidate certain aspects: the interior character, the shaping of the inner conversation by the affectations of the heart, the outward efficacy. Slowly, through similarity and greater dissimilarity, he builds an understanding of the Word that was with God and that was God.

St. John thus declares that there was in God a Speech or Word who occupied all of God, that He was God Himself, that He had preceded the existence of all creatures, even of the angels. No one saw or heard Him, not even the angels, since at that time they had not yet been created. Thus, it must be a word or conversation, not of any angel or of any creature but of God Himself, the Creator of all creatures. This we here term “the Word,” not any ordinary word but a Word that is as great as God Himself. Indeed, the Word is God Himself.51

When one follows the whole exposition of the first chapter of John’s Gospel one can follow step by step how Luther traces the history of salvation that begins in the distinction and unity of the God and the Word that was God to the situation of the hearers of his sermon. The inner Trinity, the eternal distinction between God and the Word, which secures both the particularity of the person of the Son and his union with God the Father in being and meaning, is the enabling ground for the Word becoming incarnate and being preached among us today. Conversely, the event of the Gospel being preached today has its roots in God’s own inner being as a speech or as a conversation so that the preaching of the Gospel becomes the self-communication of God through creaturely means which have sanctified for the self-communication of God in the Incarnation.

The exegesis of John’s Gospel is for Luther also one of the most important ways of establishing the divinity of the Holy Spirit as a person in communion with God the Father and God the Son. The communication from the Father to Jesus is thus continued through the Holy Spirit who communicates to believers what he hears in the eternal conversation between the Father and the Son.

But Christ points in particular to the distinctive Person of the Holy Spirit or His attribute, also to His divine essence together with the Father and the Son, when He says: “Whatever He hears He will speak.” For here Christ refers to a conversation carried on in the Godhead, a conversation in which no creatures participate. He sets up a pulpit both for the speaker and for the listener. He makes the Father the Preacher and the Holy Spirit the Listener. It is really beyond human intelligence to grasp how this takes place, but since we cannot explain it with human words or intelligence, we must believe it. Here, faith must disregard all creatures and must not concentrate on physical preaching and listening; it must conceive of this as preaching, speaking, and listening inherent in the essence of the Godhead.52

For Luther, this is not just one metaphor for characterizing the life of the Trinity and its relationship to the life of believers. Through the Spirit who listens in on the conversation between the Father and the Son, God speaks to us so that we can engage in a conversation with God.

There is a twofold conversation underway: the one that we carry on with God and the one that God carries on with us. To speak with Him means to pray, as has been said earlier. It is a glorious privilege that the Sublime Majesty in heaven condescends to let us poor worms open our mouths in conversation with Him and gladly listens to us.

But it is a far more precious privilege that He speaks with us and that we listen to Him. Both are good and great benefits conferred by God. Scripture speaks of these two as the “Spirit of compassion and supplication” (Zech. 12:10). For God does both: He lets us converse with Him through prayer, and He also speaks with us through the Spirit of grace, in order that we may hear Him. God’s speech is far more comforting than ours, for it is the kind that brings peace and a calm and joyful heart. No other speech or power on earth, not even the world with all its skill, learning, and intelligence, can do this, not even Moses himself, who, although he speaks in behalf of God, does not put peace into the heart. The Man who is God Himself must do this, as is stated in Ps. 85:8: “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people.”53

The description of the Trinity as a conversation, we can see from Luther’s exegesis of John’s Gospel, summarizes the different elements of the doctrine of the Trinity, the particularity of the three divine persons, their unity of essence and meaning in the conversation, and the way in which the Trinitarian God relates to us through the Son in the Spirit so that we can engage in conversation with God. The understanding of the Trinity as a conversation grounds the Gospel in the inner life of the triune God. The preaching of the Gospel is therefore never only preaching about the Trinity. Its task to communicate the Gospel can only be fulfilled if it becomes an event for God’s Trinitarian self-communication. Luther’s frequent sermons about the Trinity are therefore also a way of ascertaining the unity of author, content and mode of communication in preaching.

The Trinity Sung—the Trinity in Luther’s Hymns

The Lutheran Reformation is also a movement in which congregational singing acquired a central role for the propagation of the new theological insights and its appropriation of earlier traditions of hymnody.54 Luther himself devoted considerable time and energy to the task of adapting earlier hymns and composing new hymns in words and music. This effort reflects his view that music is a divine gift which makes joyful hearts, puts the devil to flight, and provides innocent enjoyment, so that wrath, desires and pride disappear. Luther therefore assigns the next place after theology to music.55 Next to the word of God, music is to be considered as a divine and most excellent gift that rules the human affections. Two hymns are commonly regarded as “hymns to the Trinity”: the Credo-hymn “Wir glauben all an einen Gott,” adapting an earlier sung creed in Latin that had already been translated into German, and “Gott der Vater wohn uns bei,” which is given a strictly Trinitarian form, excluding mariological stanzas that were possibly widespread at the beginning of the 16th century.

The hymn that has received the most extensive Trinitarian interpretation in recent years is “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen Gmein” (1523). In its dialogical form, it addresses first the Christian congregation and exhorts it be joyful. After a description of the bondage of the believer in the first person to the unholy triad of devil, death, and sin, which lead to hell, the hymn records the inner-Trinitarian address of the Father to the Son as the foundation of the Son’s obedience in the divine economy and reporting finally the Son’s address to the believer, phrased as Christ’s “final word” before he departs to the Father in heaven and sends the Holy Spirit to comfort and guide in the believer into truth. While the hymn was formerly interpreted as a poetic confession of the believer’s transition from sin to grace,56 Helmer has shown that the Christologically centered history of salvation is framed by a Trinitarian structure, beginning with the advent of the Spirit with the spiritual gifts of joy and unity, urging the believers to rejoice and proclaim God’s victory.57 The state of sin is described as an unimpeded fall until life becomes a living hell (verse 2), where good works and merit, indeed everything based on the assumption of a free will, offered no escape, but worsened the situation until there was nothing but despair in experiencing the pain of hell (v.3). The turning point to the human destiny is in God’s perception of human misery before the world’s foundation and in God’s decision to save humans, rooted in his essential mercy. It consists in turning his Father’s heart to the sinner and effecting liberation by offering his dearest treasure. The inner-Trinitarian address to the Son is the mission to liberate humans from sin, sorrow and death so that they live forever.58

The composition of the hymn shows that the inner-Trinitarian communication between Father and Son provides the plot for the Christological narrative of salvation, which is then communicated to the believer in the form of a direct address. The immanent Trinitarian decision shapes the economic Trinitarian narrative; this, in turn, receives its meaning from the address of the Son to the believer. Its content, i.e., that the Son takes the place of the believer in defeating the enemy and thus brings the believer into communion with himself, is exercised through the sending of the Spirit. The poetic form shows the translation of the immanent Trinitarian address (verse 5) into the narrative of Christ’s salvific action, beginning with the Incarnation and ending in the capture of the devil (verse 6). The meaning of the narrative is again expressed in direct address having the changing of places and the resulting communion as its dramatic content (verses 7 and 8). The sending of the Holy Spirit upon the return of the Son to the Father marks the enablement of the believers through heavenly wisdom, comfort, and the teaching of truth (verse 9) to follow the message of Christ’s deeds and words (verse 10) and to rejoice in exultation (verse 1).

The hymn provides an excellent example of Luther’s applied Trinitarian theology, which combines the interweaving of address and narrative, rooted in God’s immanent address and disclosed in the address of the Son to the believer, so that verse 1 and verse 10 correspond in describing the life in the Spirit. The two dynamic trajectories, the sinner’s fall into hell (law) and life in the guidance of the Spirit (gospel), are connected through the changing of places between the sinner and Christ and the following union of Christ and the believer, which, because it is exercised in life in the Spirit, is implicitly also in communion with the Father. The poetic relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit and the interweaving of immanent and economic Trinity in the combination of address and narrative in this hymn of 1523 precedes the catechetical exposition of the Trinity in Luther’s catechetical writings. Therefore, it seems plausible that the catechetical form also presupposes and includes uses of Trinitarian theology as they are manifested in the hymns.

The Trinity in Academic Discussions

At the end of his teaching career, Luther discussed the Trinity in three academic disputations.59 Luther valued the form of disputation and confidently regarded himself as a master in it.60 In the theses for the promotion of Erasmus Alber on the unity of the divine essence, Luther states:

  1. 1. Holy Scriptures teach that God is in the most simple way and that there are three persons (as they say) who are truly distinct.

  2. 2. Of these persons, it is true that each is the whole (totus) God, and apart from him there is no (nullus) other God.

  3. 3. Nevertheless, one cannot say each person alone (personam solam) is God.61

Luther tries to argue for his contention that this is the teaching of Scripture by refuting the claim that the distinction of the persons from the divine essence can be rationally established. However, in the way he phrases what Scripture teaches Luther already employs the distinction between totus and solus, which, used syn-categorically, was one of the medieval tools for clarifying the extension of terms.62 This, Luther seems to suggest, is an appropriate way of employing reason in the explication of the teaching of Scripture. How a Trinitarian person is distinguished from the Godhead itself is neither a matter for the inquiry of reason nor is it comprehended by the angels.63 The attempt by Duns Scotus and others to solve the problem by introducing a formal distinction (thesis 9–11) is bound to founder in much the same way as mathematics and all creaturely knowledge must fail (thesis 13). It is no wonder that Arius, the Jews, and Mohammad deny that Christ is God because they, like a blind person talking about color, presuppose that the creator who subsists in himself is similar to the creature that exists from nothing.64 Luther goes on to show that tensed expressions do not imply a limitation of the referent when they are applied to one person of the Trinity. The expression “The Son is born,” therefore, does not imply the finitude of the Son; an expression indicating the past also denotes the present and the future if predicated on the eternal son. This must be said of God in the same way. God’s having been is his being always; his being in the future is his having always been; his being in the present is having always been and going to be always; and his being eternal.65 Luther refers here to the name of God Jehova “the holy teragrammaton of which the Jews say that it is ineffable,”66 which appears to be a reference to Exodus 3:14, which Luther understood as referring to the essence of God in the sense that God alone possesses his future.67 If the eternity of God cannot be known by reason alone, is there support from Aristotle, who maintains that the eternal or infinite cannot be known and remains beyond comprehension? If that is taken to mean that the eternal cannot exist, is that not tantamount to affirming the nonexistence of God?68 To demonstrate the difference between the realm of philosophical reason and theological reason, Luther contrasts this with Romans 1:20, according to which God’s invisible essence, which is his eternal power and Godhead, is known from the works of creation. This, however, is an awareness of God (notitia), which is obscure in the way that a line touches a whole sphere but only at a point and does not comprehend the whole. A more reliable form of knowledge can only be found by one who touches and apprehends the Son of God, as he is manifest in the flesh. Here, Luther says by an elegant inversion of the subject of “touching” (tangit), the splendor of the paternal glory touches the object and there occurs a reflected ray, which illumines every man walking on this earth.69

Pointing to Christ as the definitive source for understanding the Trinity is even more dramatically emphasized in the first thesis of the Major disputation. God the Father says of the Son: Listen to him! (Matthew 17:5).70 However, whether the command of the Father is not obeyed and the Son not listened to, there occurs the necessity of disputations. Luther sets out the main tenets of his argument: The understanding of divine unity is greater than that of any creature, so mathematical notions of unity fail, and the distinction of persons must be so secure that it is clear that the Father is not the Son and that only the Son became incarnate. Such problems cannot be solved by formal distinctions. Then Luther turns to a matter that seems to have exercised him a great deal. Was the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 correct in rejecting Joachim of Fiore’s criticism of Peter Lombard’s thesis that the divine essence neither generates nor is generated?71 In his thesis 15, Luther explicitly criticizes Lombard’s thesis, and he supports in thesis 16 Joachim’s criticism that in this way the Master of Sentences asserts a quaternity in God. Luther has two lines of argument to support the view that the divine essence is involved in the inner-divine differentiation through the relations of origin of the Son and the Spirit. The first argument analyzes, drawing on Augustine’s support, the statement essentiade essentia in analogy to the creedal statement “true God of true God” (thesis 19).72 Luther identifies Lombard’s concern that two or three essences are posited (thesis 21) or even two or three gods affirmed (thesis 22). Luther concedes that with regard to creatures, essence can be spoken of in an absolute sense. That, however, does not apply to God, where one has the support of Augustine and Hilary that essence is considered relatively, just as substance, wisdom, nature, and other concepts. In conclusion, Luther applauds Pierre d’Ailly, “the most learned among the scholastics,”73 for being very displeased with the Council’s decision. What is at stake in this question? Luther saw the consequence that if the divine essence is not involved in the originating relations of the Trinity, believers would not relate to God in God’s essence when they relate to God in the Spirit and through the Son. Conversely, expressions like God’s “self-giving” in the Trinitarian persons would refer to a giving of a “self” that is not one with the divine essence. The whole soteriological point of the doctrine of the Trinity would be lost, and the essential link between saving faith and doctrinal belief would be broken.

The problem is explicitly discussed in the disputation on the occasion of the promotion of Petrus Hegemon, the last doctoral promotion that Luther records in the Dean’s book of the Wittenberg Faculty.74 Luther starts from the scriptural assertion in 1 Corinthians 1:24 that Paul preaches Christ as God’s power and wisdom (thesis 1).75 Because Christ God’s wisdom and power is shown in the flesh, they must be attributed to him (thesis 8).76 From the work of the Father in creation (thesis 9)77 and the work of the Spirit in communicating goodness and life, the other two persons may not be excluded (thesis 10).78 This raises the question of what a relation means with regard to the being of God; in created beings it is the weakest category with the lowest ontological status, so the objectivity of relations may well be denied (theses 11 and 12).79 Luther counters this understanding of relations in creation with the thesis: “In divine things the relation is res, that is hypostasis and subsistentia.”80 Luther goes on to say that a relation does not suggest a distinction in beings but that distinct beings indicate a relation. His example is that the relationship between the Father and the attribute of wisdom does not constitute wisdom as an independent res, whereas the Son is relative to the Father as another hypostasis from the Father. However, this thesis is not developed further, and Luther concludes this section of the disputation with the remark that one can, through reason and philosophy, say and believe nothing in the right way, but by faith everything. In the disputation itself, Luther defends the thesis that nature and relation make a person so that, if relation is res and nature is res, two res constitute one person. Luther knows that this is a most improper way to state the thesis. However, he notes, that we cannot talk properly in these matters; rather, we must speak, and “that means to believe.” In the disputation, Luther concedes the point but insists that this improper speech is necessary to explicate the relationship between essence, relation, and person. It must be maintained that both the essence and the relation are res, indicative of an ontological reference and not just a semantic difference. In this way, Luther refers back to the patristic usage of distinguishing ousia and hypostasis or, in Latin terms, essentia and subsistententia. Relation is no longer understood as an external relation existing between relata but as a relation that, in the being of God, is constitutive for the persons. The “realistic” meaning of essence and relation is retained, but the question of how exactly they differ without creating an equivocation is not explained in terms of a metaphysical theory. Luther concedes that this is said in the most improper way (impropriissime geredt), but this way of speaking is nevertheless necessary, and that means to believe in the Trinity. It would be wrong to accuse Luther here of an escape into fideism because he can offer a clear semantic rule that explicates the language of the Trinitarian dogma, and he can do justice to the biblical discourse about Father, Son, and Spirit, and the one God. However, he cannot offer a justification in terms of a philosophical theory. Here, his idea of a new language (nova lingua) operating with new modes of signification would have to be applied to Trinitarian language.81

If we survey the discussion of the Trinity in the disputations, we can offer several tentative conclusions. Here, as in other places, Luther operates with a regional understanding of the operation of reason. What is appropriate in the realm of philosophy, which is the region of creaturely being, is not appropriate when we talk rationally about the creative being of the Triune God. This, however, does not lead to a “double theory” of truth because the relationship of the two realms can be rationally explained.82 Secondly, what Luther rejects is a use of reason in divine things, which gives reason a constitutive role for faith and its testimonies in Holy Scripture. However, he clearly accepts and practices an explicative role of reason in explicating what has been disclosed to faith in the testimonies of Scripture. As long as they support this explicative role of reason, believers can use the rich conceptual tool-box of scholastic philosophy and theology in a competent and creative way. If the suggestions of the scholastics seem to go beyond this and establish a constitutive role of reason for faith so that faith would become dependent on a particular philosophical theory, he criticizes these views, normally by a reduction ad absurdum or by the demonstration of the inappropriateness as a reconstruction of the language of faith. The theological trajectory in all the disputations is the basic rule formulated in the major disputation: It is indisputable truth that God is one and three, the only creator of everything outside himself. This truth is to be defended through the Scriptures against the Devil.83 This rule also shows what, for Luther, cannot be disputed and what must be disputed.

Provocations and Inspirations of Luther’s Trinitarian Theology

Luther’s concern throughout is to anchor theological statements about the Trinity in the divine economy, in creation, redemption and sanctification, and in the inner Trinity of God’s eternal being. Only in this way, can the foundation of faith in the self-presentation of the Triune God, which he found most aptly expressed in language of “self-giving,” be properly grasped and so the differentiated unity of God’s action be seen as rooted in the unity of his triune being. The way in which the signa of the language of faith are rooted in the res of faith is ultimately grounded in the intimate union of being and communication in God’s own communicative being. Luther’s attempt to rephrase the classical originating relations of Trinitarian doctrine in terms of the inner-Trinitarian conversation, which through the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit involves God’s human image in this conversation, points to the intimate communion between the inner Trinity and the outer Trinity, God’s relationship to his creation.

Here, it is relevant to state that Scripture calls our Lord Christ—according to His divine nature—a “Word” (John 1:1) which the Father speaks with and in Himself. Thus, this Word has a true, divine nature from the Father. It is not a word spoken by the Father, as a physical, natural word spoken by a human being is a voice or a breath that does not remain in him but comes out of him and remains outside him. No, this Word remains in the Father forever. Thus, these are two distinct Persons: He who speaks and the Word that is spoken, that is, the Father and the Son. Here, however, we find the third Person following these two, namely, the One who hears both the Speaker and the spoken Word. For it stands to reason that there must also be a listener where a speaker and a word are found. But all this speaking, being spoken, and listening takes place within the divine nature and also remains there, where no creature is or can be. All three—Speaker, Word, and Listener—must be God Himself; all three must be coeternal and in a single undivided majesty. For there is no difference or inequality in the divine essence, neither a beginning nor an end. Therefore, one cannot say that the Listener is something outside God, or that there was a time when He began to be a Listener; but just as the Father is a Speaker from eternity, and just as the Son is spoken from eternity, so the Holy Spirit is the Listener from eternity.84 … Behold, this is what Christ meant when He said that the Holy Spirit will speak and proclaim only what He hears in the eternal Godhead with Christ and the Father. Nowhere else can He see and learn what is happening in the Godhead. But this, says Christ, He will proclaim to you—first to your hearts and then through your mouths, that it may be believed until we, too, come to the place where we shall see it publicly.85

In developing this account of the eternal Trinitarian relations and of the three persons in the divine essence, Luther has found a way of anchoring the message of the Gospel as it is found in Scripture, preached, celebrated in the sacraments and sung in hymns of praise, in the very being of God. From this perspective, the doctrine of the Trinity not only appears as an integral part of Luther’s theology but also as the point of integration from which the different particular parts of Luther’s theology can be seen in their essential connectedness. It seems therefore appropriate when Jaroslav Pelikan writes of the doctrine of justification that “it made sense only if it was seen as a development not only from Augustinian anthropology, but from the dogma of the Trinity.”86

Review of Literature

Luther’s theology of the Trinity, its relationship to the creedal tradition, its status in Luther’s thought and its function in his theology, has been the subject of an ongoing debate in historical and systematic theology. Christine Helmer and Reiner Jansen provide the most comprehensive new evaluations of this discussion.87 With regard to its relationship to the creeds of the early church, one can distinguish two poles in the discussion, going back well over a century.88 On the one hand, Luther’s faithfulness to the creeds is underlined, but controversially assessed, depending on the author’s own systematic outlook. Leading exponents of the Ritschlian school, such as Adolf von Harnack and Friedrich Loofs, see in Luther’s adherence to the creeds a kind of unreflective antiquarianism, and they express their regret that Luther did not view the dogma more critically. The same positive attitude toward the tradition is also emphasized by doctrinally more conservative scholars, like Paul Althaus, but it is interpreted in a more positive light. On the other hand is the view, first presented by Karl Holl and emphatically confirmed by his student Emanuel Hirsch, that Luther not only appropriated the dogma of the early church but also modified it in ways that the ancient church would have regarded as heretical.

Not only the relationship of Luther’s view of the Trinity to the tradition of the early church but also the status of the Trinity in Luther’s thought is contested. Is it an “erratic block”89 in the fabric of his thought, fundamentally unrelated to the main concerns of his theology, or does it have a more fundamental role? If so, what does this role consist in: Is it a doxological eschatological affirmation of the gospel to be contrasted to a “general” understanding of God which confronts us with God’s terrible hiddenness?90 Or should one see it as the highest article of Christian faith in which all others hang since it explicates God’s being, will and work in the way in which it constitutes faith?91This question also relates to the different literary forms of Trinitarian language in Luther’s work and their respective contexts. What are the substantive insights into Luther’s Trinitarian thought which are offered by paying close attention to its contexts of communication which are mirrored in different literary genres?

In recent years, attempts have been made to relate Luther’s Trinitarian thought not only to the classical positions of the early church, which, in any case, often serve more as boundary markers for orthodox teaching than as indicators of doctrinal content, but also to the medieval debates on the doctrine of the Trinity, most notably regarding the Fourth Lateran Council.92 Thus, despite frequent polemics against what he regarded as speculative scholastic theology, Luther shows himself well-versed in the technicalities of medieval Trinitarian theology and as highly competent and discriminating in their application to Trinitarian doctrine.

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.Find this resource:

Bielfeldt, Dennis. “Luther’s Late Trinitarian Disputations: Semantic Realism and the Trinity.” In The Substance of Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today. Edited by Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox, and Paul R. Hinlicky. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Helmer, Christine. The Trinity and Martin Luther: A Study on the relationship Between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works, 1523–1546. Mainz, Germany: von Zabern, 1999.Find this resource:

Helmer, Christine. “Luthers Trinitarian Hermeneutic and the Old Testament.” Modern Theology 18 (2002): 37–85.Find this resource:

Herms, Eilert. Luthers Auslegung des Dritten Artikels. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1987.Find this resource:

Jansen, Reiner. Studien zu Luthers Trinitätslehre (BSHST 26). Bern/Frankfurt/M: Lang, 1976.Find this resource:

Kärkkäinen, Pekka. Luthers trinitarische Theologie des Heiligen Geistes. Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2005.Find this resource:

Knuutila, Simo, and Saarinen, Risto. “Luther’s Trinitarian Theology and its Medieval Background.” Studia Theologica 53 (1999): 3–12.Find this resource:

Heubach, Joachim, ed. Luther und die trinitarische Tradition: Ökumenische und philosophische Perspektiven (LAR 23). Erlangen, Germany: Martin-Luther-Verlag, 1994.Find this resource:

Markschies, Christoph. “Luther und die altkirchliche Trinitätslehre.” In Martin Luther—zwischen den Zeiten. Eine Jenaer Ringvorlesung. Edited by Christoph Markschies and Michael Trowitzsch. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 37–85.Find this resource:

Mattox, Mickey L. “From Faith to the Text and Back Again: Martin Luther on the Trinity in the Old Testament.” Pro Ecclesia XV (2006): 281–303.Find this resource:

Paulson, Stephen. “Luther’s Doctrine of God.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb et al., 187–200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Saarinen, Risto. “In Sinu Patris. The Merciful Trinity in Luther’s Exposition of John 1:18.” In Trinitarian Theology in the Medieval West, 280–298. Helsinki: Luther Agricola Society, 2008.Find this resource:

Schwöbel, Christoph. “The Triune God of Grace. The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Theology of the Reformers.” In The Christian Understanding of God Today. Edited by James M. Byrne, 49–64. Dublin: Dublin Columba Press, 1993.Find this resource:

White, Graham. Luther as Nominalist: A Study of Logical Methods used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of their Medieval Background (SLAG 30). Helsinki: Schriften der Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, Helsinki, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, LW 37:360–370; WA 26:499–506.

(2.) LW 37:361; WA 26:500, 27–32.

(3.) LW 37:361; WA 26:500, 33–501, 1. The German text calls Christ the “mittel person ynn Gott” (500, 34).

(4.) LW 37:362; WA 26:501, 30–1.

(5.) LW 37:362; WA 26:501, 34–5.

(6.) LW 37:362; WA 26:502, 22–5.

(7.) LW 37:362; WA 26:502, 31–4.

(8.) LW 37:362; WA 26:502, 35–6.

(9.) LW 37:363; WA 26:503, 35–6.

(10.) LW 37:363; WA 26:505, 11–2.

(11.) LW 37:363; WA 26, 505, 16.

(12.) LW 37:365; WA 26:505, 29–31

(13.) LW 37:366; WA 26:505, 32–33.

(14.) LW 37:366; WA 26:505, 35–37.

(15.) LW 37:366; WA 26:505, 38–506, 3.

(16.) LW 37:366; WA 26:506, 3–7.

(17.) In this sense, Luther’s confession of 1528 is a conscious departure from Melanchthon’s famous thesis in the “Introduction” to the Loci Communes of 1521: “hoc est Christum cognoscere beneficia eius cognoscere, non quod isti docent eius naturas, modos incarnationis contueri,” Philipp Melanchton, Loci communes 1521, übersetzt von Horst-Georg Pöhlmann. Hrausgegeben vom Luherischen Kirchenamt der VELKD (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 1993), 22.

(18.) The last two were written at the request of John Frederick I, since 1532 Elector of Saxony, who had asked Luther to prepare a statement of faith for the General Council Pope Paul III had called together in Mantua in 1537. Although the Elector was against a general council and later refused the invitation officially at the Diet of Schmalkalden 1537, he asked Luther to distinguish between those articles where there could be no compromise and those where there was perhaps room for further conversations. Luther’s proposal echoes many phrases of the 1528 confession but appropriates even more of the formed language of the creedal tradition, especially from the Athanasianum. However, the Trinitarian structure is missing, probably in response to the request of the Elector.

(19.) LW 41:13–178; Von den Conciliis und Kirchen, WA 50:509–653.

(20.) Cf. WA 50:572–573; LW 41:83–84.

(21.) LW 34:197–229; WA 50:262–283.

(22.) Eyn kurcz form der zeehen gepott. D.M.L. Eyn kurcz form des Glaubens. Eyn kurcz form des Vatter unszers, WA 7:204–229. A detailed and nuanced interpretation is offered in: Reiner Jansen, Studien, 9–86.

(23.) Cf. WA 7:204.

(24.) Luther therefore distinguishes two ways of believing. One is to believe what is said of God in true, and the other is to believe in God in the sense of putting one’s trust in him, committing to act with him and so to believe without any doubt that he will be and do towards me, as it is said of him, cf. WA 7:215, 1–9.

(25.) This logical distinction has first been pointed out by, Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), 8; cf. also, Christoph Schwöbel, “Promise and Trust. Lutheran Identity in a Multicultural Society,” in Justification in a Post-Christian Society, eds. Carl-Henric Grenholm and Göran Gunner (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), 15–35.

(26.) Der Glauben teylet sich yn drey heuptstück, nach dem die drey person der heyligen gottlichen dreyfaltickayt dareyn erzelet werden, das erst dem vatter, das ander dem sun, das dritt dem heyligen geyst zu zueygen, dan das ist der höchst artikell ym glauben, darynnen die andern alle hangen, WA 7:214, 24–28 (my translation).

(27.) The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. By Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, second revised edition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2000), here: BC 439, 64–440, 66.

(28.) Cf. Adolf von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, vol. III, 4th ed. (1910), 874. In Harnack’s view Luther has caused and “unspeakable confusion with regard to the meaning of the old dogmas” and asserts that from Luther’s justifying faith there is no bridge leading to the dogmas of the Ancient Church. By alluding to the summary of the Creed in the Large Catechism, he raises the rhetorical question: What has this contemplation of faith got to do with the speculations of the Greeks?

(29.) Cf. Karl Thieme, “Der Gott der Katechismen,” ZThK N.F. 10 (1929), 183–206, 191: “Dass der dreieinige Gott der Katechismen nach der Richtung eines naiven Tritheismus wirkt ist unleugbar”; cf. Thieme’s earlier article, “Zur Trinitätsfrage,” ZThK N.F. 8 (1927), 251–268.

(30.) Cf. Wobbermin, Georg, “Luthers trinitarischer Monotheismus,” ZThK N.F. 9 (1928), 237–252.

(31.) BC 434, 25.

(32.) BC 439, 63.

(33.) Cf. the extensive study by Helmer, Christine, “Luthers Trinitarian Hermeneutic and the Old Testament,” Modern Theology 18 (2002): 37–85.

(34.) “Oportet enim scriptura iudice hic sententiam ferre, quod fieri non potest, nisi scripturae dederimus principem locum in omnibus qui tribuuntur patribus, hoc es, ut sit ipsa per sese certissima, facillima, apertissima, sui ipsius interpres, omnium omnia probans, iudicans et illuminans,” Assertio omnium articulorum Martini Lutheri per bullam Leonis X. novissimam damnatorum 1520, WA 7:94–151, 97, 20–24.

(35.) Cf. Albrecht Beutel, “Wort Gottes,” in Idem (ed.), Luther Handbuch, 2d ed. (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 362–371; Beutel’s account is based on his monograph: Albrecht Beutel, In dem Anfang war das Wort. Studien zu Luthers Sprachverständnis (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), HUTh 27.

(36.) WA 54:28–100; LW 15:265–352; cf. Mickey L. Mattox’ study, “From Faith to the Text and Back Again: Martin Luther on the Trinity in the Old Testament,” Pro Ecclesia XV (2006): 281–303.

(37.) On the historical circumstances cf. Kaufmann, Thomas, Luthers Juden (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2014); on the theological problems cf. Schramm, Brooks, “‘Like a Sow Entering a Synagogue’,” in Encounters with Luther. New Directions in Critical Studies, eds. Kirsi I. Stjerna and Brooks Schramm (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 250–260.

(38.) Cf. Alois Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apsotolic Age to Chalcedon (451), 2d ed. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 126–127. A detailed account of the connection of prosopographic exegesis to development of the concept of the person can be found in: Carl Andresen, “Zur Entstehung und Geschichte des Personbegriffs,” ZNW 52 (1961), 1–39.

(39.) LW 15:276; WA 54:35, 31–36, 9.

(40.) WA 54:39, 7–10; LW 15:280.

(41.) LW 15:302; WA 54:57–58.

(42.) Ein Sermon auff das fest der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit, 23. Mai 1535, WA 41:270–279, 270: “… welcher ist der höchste jnn unserem heiligen glauben und der heiligen Christlichen kirchen.”

(43.) “… wer Er an ym selbs sey ausser allen kleidern oder wercken, blos an seynem Göttlichen wesen,” WA 41, 270, 9–10.

(44.) “… und allein hören, was Gott von sich selbst sagt und seinem innerlichen wesen, sonst warden wire s nicht erfaren,” WA 41:270, 22–23.

(45.) “… das ein einiger Gott sey, und doch drey unterschidliche personen …” WA 41:270, 25–26.

(46.) Cf. WA 41:272, 13–35.

(47.) “Nenn du es wie du wilt, wir heissen eseine person, is wol nit gnug geredt, sondern gestamlet, Aber wie sollen wir jm thun? wir können nicht besser,” WA 41:272, 26–28.

(48.) “Das Gebt oder bekentnis haben wir nicht gemacht noch erdacht …” WA 41:275, 29–30.

(49.) “… das man nicht einen klumpen oder nur eine person daraus mache. Denn darumb sind dreierley unterschiedne werck dazu gesetzt, dass der gemeine Christen mensch eine unterschied habe zwischen den personen und doch die natur nicht zertrennen und einen einigen Gott Jnn einem eingigen ungeteilten wesen bleiben lasse,” WA 41:279, 30–34.

(50.) LW 22:9; WA 46:543–544.

(51.) LW 22:12; WA 46:546.

(52.) LW 24:364; WA 46:59.

(53.) LW 24:419; WA 41:108.

(54.) Cf. the different emphases in: Wichmann von Meding, Luthers Gesangbuch. Die gesungene Theologie eines christlichen Psalters (THEOS 24) (Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovacš, 1998) and Paul Helmer, “The Catholic Luther and Worship Music,” in The Global Luther. A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2009), 151–172.

(55.) This is a paraphrase from Luther’s Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae, LW 53:321–324; WA 50:368–374; Cf. the excellent overview by Schilling, Johannes, “Musik,” in Luther Handbuch, 2d ed., ed. Albrecht Beutel (Tübingen, Gemany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 236–244.

(56.) Classically this interpretation is offered by Friedrich Spitta, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Die Lieder Luthers in ihrer Bedeutung für das evangelische Kirchenlied (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck, 1905), 225.

(57.) Cf. Helmer, Trinity, 121–188.

(58.) There is an interesting parallel of this inner-trinitarian conversation in the Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola in the first contemplation of the first day of the second week, offering the same combination of seeing the misery of sinners and then formulating the decision for their salvation. [Preamble] “The first preamble is to recall the narrative of the subject to be contemplated, in this case how the three Divine Persons were looking at all the flatness or roundness of the whole world filled with people, and how the decision was taken in Their eternity, as They saw them all going down into hell, that the second Person would become human to save the human race.” There is then a double perspective to see the persons on the earth (POINT 1) and to see the three divine Persons on the Throne of their Divine Majesty, and then to hear how the people on the earth talk to each other. “In the same way what the divine Persons are saying, viz., ‘Let us bring about the redemption of the human race, etc.’.” The first contemplation ends with thinking about “what I ought to be saying to the three Divine Persons.” Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Personal Writings. Reminiscences, Spiritual Diary, Select Letters, including the text of the Spiritual Exercises, trans. with introductions and notes by Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean (London: Penguin, 1996), 305–306.

(59.) The disputation on the unity of the divine essence (“De unitate essentiae divinae”) on the occasion of the promotion of Erasmus Alber, 24.8.1543,WA 39/II:253–255 (theses), 254–255 (disputation); on the Trinity (De trinitate), prepared for the promotion of Georg Major, 12.12.1544, WA 39/II:287–289 (theses), 290–320 (disputation), 320–336 (preparatory notes by Georg Maior); and on the distinction of the persons in the Godhead (De distinctione personarum in divinitate), discussed at the promotion of Petrus Hegemon, 3.7.1545, WA 39/II:339–342 (theses), 343–398 (disputation), 399–401 (preparatory notes by Petrus Hegemon). For English translations of the three disputations, see Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox and Paul Hinlicky, The Substance of Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 191–209.

(60.) Throughout his career Luther could self-confidently refer to his disputational skills. Cf. WA TR 4:635, 19–21, no. 5047, 21.5.—11.6.1540), quoted in Helmer, Trinity, 42, n.1. In a less boastful mood he could also refer to Christ as an example in his disputations with the Pharisees: “Sic Christus dominus pro infirmis (non egens disputatione) saepe contra Pharisaeos disceptavit.” Thesis 4 of the Major disputation WA 39/II:287, 11–12.

(61.) “Scriptura sancta docet esse Deum simplicissime unum, et tres (ut vocant) personas verissime distinctas. 2. Harum personarum qualibet totus est Deus, extra quam nullus est alius Deus. 3. Nec tamen dici potest, quamlibet personam solum esse Deum.” WA 39/II:253, 2–6.

(62.) The use of the syncategoremata which Luther here employs is the one established by Pierre d’Ailly, according to whom they signify not something or somethings (aliquid vel aliqua), but in a certain way (aliquanter); E. J. Ashworth, “The structure of mental language. Some problems discussed by early 16th-century logicians,” Vivarium 20 (1982): 59–83, esp. 63–66.

(63.) “Quomodo distinguatur persona a divinitate ipsa, non est rationis inquirere, nec angelis comprehensibile.” WA 39/II:253, 13–14.

(64.) “Nihli mirum, si Arius Iudaeus, Mahometh et totus mundus negent Christum esse Deum.” WA 39/II:254, 17–18.

(65.) “28. Suum fuisse est semper esse, suum futurum est semper fuisse, suum praesens est semper fuisse et futurum, id est aeternum.” WA 39/II:255, 1–2.

(66.) “29. Hoc es illud nomen Iehova, quod tetragrammaton et ineffabile dicunt Iudaei, etimasi, quod dicant, non intelligant.” WA 39/II:255, 3–4.

(67.) In his sermons on Exodus from 1524–1527 Luther explains the passage in the following way: “Per hoc verbum trahit omnes homines ex eo, quod non est deus, quando dicit ‚Ego sum’ vel ‚ero’. Nulla creatura dicere potest ‚ego sum’ vel ‚ero’, sed ‚ich fhar darhin’. Wesen non habet creatura, quod non wancke et semper maneat. Ibi oculas nostros traxit ex omnibus creaturis … ‚Ero’: per fidem puram here in me, alia nihil sunt.” WA 16:41–54, 49, 1–2; 12.

(68.) “30. Sensit et Aristoteles, aeternum eu infinitum, in quantum eiusmodi, esse ignotum et incomprehensibile. 31. Imo affirmat infinitum seu aeternum seu infinitum, in quantum huiusmodi, existere non posse, et secundum rationem visus est recte dicere. 32. Sed consequentiam non vidit, vel potius videre noluit, scilicet quod apud rationem ex hoc sequitur, Deum non esse, nec esse posse.” WA 39/II:255, 5–9.

(69.) “37. Qui scrutando non volet errare, nec a maiestate Gloria opprimi, is fide tangat et apprehendat Filium Dei in carne manifestatum. 38. Hic enim splendor gloriae paternae tangit obiectum, et fit radius reflectus illuminans omnem hominem venientem in hunc mundum.” WA 39/II:255, 20–24.

(70.) “Disputationes de articulis fidei extinctas voluit Deus pater, dum dicit de Deo filio suo: Hunc audite.” WA 39/II:287.

(71.) Cf. the canon Firmiter de trinitate, DH 803–806.

(72.) Cf. Luther’s argument from “light from light” to “essence from essence” for the interpretation of Col 1:15 in the actual disputation, WA 39/II:296, 13–297, 3.

(73.) “XXVI. Und et Cardinali Cameracensi, doctissimo inter Scholasticos, ista determination non iniuria valde displicuit.” WA 39/II:288, 20–21.

(74.) Cf. WA 39/II:337.

(75.) “1. Verbum in divitate vocatur sapientia Patris, vel ut S. Paulus ait: sapetia et virtus Dei, 1. Corinth.1.1.” WA 39/II:339, 6–7.

(76.) “8. Ut, quia in Filio ostensa est per carnem sapientia et virtus Dei, tribuitur ei sapientia et virtus Dei.” WA 39 II:339, 20–21.

(77.) “9. Ita virtus seu potential personae Patris tribuitur ex creation, cum ea sit communiter omnium trium, id est, unius Dei creatoris.” WA 39/II:339, 22–23.

(78.) “Sic bonitas Spiritui sancto et vivification tribuitur, cum ab hoc communi opera trinitatis non ecludatur Pater et Filius.” WA 39/II:339, 24–25.

(79.) “11. Sane tamen intelligenda est relation in divinis, et longe alia quam in creatura vel philosophia. 12. Relatio in rebus non efficit rem, ut dicunt, relation est minimae entitatis, et non per se subsistens, imo secundum Modernos est nhil.” WA 39/II:339, 26–27; 340, 1–2.

(80.) “13. In divinis relatio est res, id est, hypostasis et subsistentia.”

(81.) Cf. Dennis Bielfeldt, “Luther’s Late Trinitarian Disputations: Semantic Realism and the Trinity,” in The Substance of Faith: Luther’s Doctrinal Theology for Today, eds. Dennis Bielfeldt, Mickey L. Mattox and Paul R. Hinlicky (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2008).

(82.) Cf. Mark Mattes, “Luther’s Use of Philosophy,” Lutherjahrbuch 18 (2013): 110–141, esp. 131–134.

(83.) “V. Indisputabilis veritas est, unum esse Deum et trinum, omnium rerum extra se creatorem unicum. VI. Ac si hic aliquid diceretur improprie, tamen res ipsa defendenda est per scripturas contra Diabolum.” WA 39/II:287, 15–18.

(84.) LW 24:364–365; WA 46:59, 26–60, 6.

(85.) LW 24:374; WA 46:68, 3–8.

(86.) . Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Doctrine 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (13001700) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 157.

(87.) Helpful overviews of the main positions of interpretation and the main issues in debate can be found in: Reiner Jansen, Studien zu Luthers Trinitätslehre (BSHST 26) (Bern/Frankfurt/M: Lang, 1976); Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther. A Study on the Relationship Between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works (15231546) (VIEG 174) (Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 1999), 5–25; and Christoph Markschies, “Luther und die altkirchliche Trinitätslehre,” in Martin Luther—zwischen den Zeiten. Eine Jenaer Ringvorlesung, eds. Christoph Markschies and Michael Trowitzsch (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck), 37–85. Pekka Kärkkäinen, Luthers Trinitarische Theologie des Heiligen Geistes (Mainz, Germany: Philipp von Zabern, 2005), 5–15.

(88.) Cf. with detailed documentation: Markschies, “Luther,” 38–44.

(89.) Elert, Werner, Morphologie des Luthertums, Bd. 1: Theologie und Weltanschauung des Luthertums, München: C.H. Beck, 3d ed. 1965 (1931), 191:Aber im allgemeinen ist doch die Trinitätslehre wie ein erratischer Block stehen geblieben.”

(90.) Cf. Bayer, Oswald, Martin Luthers Theologie (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck 2003), 304–314, esp. 306–308.

(91.) Cf. Schwöbel, Christoph, “The Triune God of Grace. The Doctrine of the Trinity in the Theology of the Reformers,” in The Christian Understanding of God Today, ed. James M. Byrne (Dublin: Dublin Columba, 1993), 49–64.

(92.) Cf., Graham White, Luther as Nominalist: A Study of Logical Methods used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of their Medieval Background (SLAG 30) (Helsinki: Schriften der Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, 1994); and Simo Knuuttila and Risto Saarinen, “Innertrinitarische Theologie in der Scholastik und bei Luther,” in Caritas Dei: Beiträge zum Verständnis Luthers und der gegenwärtigen Ökumene, eds. Oswald Bayer, Robert W. Jenson, and Simo Knuuttila (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Gesellschaft, 1997), 243–264.