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date: 21 August 2017

Promise in Martin Luther’s Thought and Theology

Summary and Keywords

Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.

What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).

Keywords: Martin Luther, faith, promise, gift, speech act, divine power, sacraments

Martin Luther used promise in ways that continued and altered the traditions of promise in Western theology and practical philosophy. Of these many traditions, the Stoic tradition looms large. Within stoicism, promises hold a central role in determining how societies are just.1 Promises require cooperation, recognition, trust, and habits. These practices sustain communities and enable practices of shared freedom. As Hannah Arendt observed in a related context, promises create the possibility of politics because they allow for action, cooperation, and a future given by that promise.2 These practical considerations merge with Luther’s deep theological reflection on promise, even if there is a significant gap between Roman and Christian faith.3

Likewise, promise was used as a specifically theological concept to understand and explain God’s own activity. Luther held promise to be central in his account of theology and his retrospective remarks in the Genesisvorlesungen (1535–1545) about what he thought had been accomplished in his lifetime. Luther recalled how the “light of the gospel” has been “restored,” so that “whenever we hear the Word mentioned, we understand it to be the promise and the ministry.”4

To be sure, Luther continued to use the dominant metaphors of gift and giving that are often virtually synonymous with God’s grace in the Western theological tradition. His Römerbriefvorlesung (1515/1516) abounds with the gift of God even if he specifies that gift as one of a peculiar sort: a promise.5 This occurs especially in Luther’s exposition of Romans 4:7. In this lecture, Luther compared God’s promise of righteousness to the promise of a doctor to cure a sick person.

It is similar to the case of a sick man who believes the doctor who promises him a sure recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor’s orders in the hope of the promised recovery and abstains from those things which have been forbidden him, so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health or increase his sickness until the doctor can fulfill his promise to him. Now is this sick man well? The fact is that he is both sick and well at the same time. He is sick in fact, but he is well in the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts and who has reckoned him as already cured, because he is sure that he will cure him, for he has already begun to cure him and no longer reckons to him a sickness unto death.6

In this passage, Luther combined the language of gift with that of faith. Gifts ordinarily do not require faith at all; they are received, rejected, or returned. Adding faith here shows that Luther considered this gift to be a promise. Promises require faith; gifts do not. Beyond adding faith to this gift, Luther shows that a promise is not simply given, as many gifts are, but is something that awaits a fulfillment in the future. The gift he discusses has a tense to it, is extended from the present to the future. Luther also used promise to make sense of justification as a kind of recognition on God’s part as well as being at the same time sick and well, metaphors that Luther employed to discuss the existence of those justified by faith as being at the same time sinful and just.

Beyond the specific use of promise in discussion of God’s grace, other more properly theological questions arise. This kind of divine giving points to questions of the relationship of divine possibility (namely, what God is free to do) and God’s promise (what God has acquired an obligation to do). Promise, far from deflating the significance of human agency in the wake of God’s grace, instead creates a vigorous and supremely active life in Luther’s mind because promises allow for human action when trusted in faith. This conjunction shows how Luther combines the theological and practical strands of his heritage.

These various approaches have difficulty being synthesized, an important point because these examples do not exhaust Luther’s use of promise. An approach to understanding Luther’s use of promise requires analytical clarity as well as questions of the overall coherence of the variety of employments of promise throughout his writings. In brief, the best procedure to follow entails identifying promise as a constellation of concepts and practices in Luther’s work. Walter Benjamin proposed this figure as a way to show connections among a variety of distinct ideas that nevertheless form a figure.7 Taking promise as a constellation in Luther allows the interpreter to resist identifying a univocal, singular conceptual core of promise that has to then be unfurled in each instance or to eliminate the varied uses to which Luther put promise.8

In each of these areas of analytic clarity and smaller-scale studies gain more for the reconstruction of Luther’s theology of promise. More is gained by taking each piece of Luther’s use of promise one by one while resisting the attempt to conflate them; this approach will allow Luther’s contribution to thinking on promise to come to the fore. This will further show the need for some interpretive tools beyond the predominant use of speech act analysis for promise in Luther.

Finally, promise has also sometimes figured significantly in accounting for the development of Luther’s reformation theology. In some lines of interpretation, Luther’s so-called “Reformation discovery” or “Reformation experience” consists of Luther’s discovery of promise and his use of it in interpreting his experience and the Bible.9 While promise is important for Luther’s theology, a comprehensive demonstration of that importance as well as its genetic role in bringing Luther through one stage of his life to become the Reformation Luther encompasses issues that extend beyond the purpose of this article.

By sticking to the figure of promise as a constellation, the following article will take some examples of Luther’s writing on and use of promise that frequently appear in more well-known writings in order to show the value of this approach and the range of Luther’s reflection. What follows is not exhaustive but indicative of the main lines of promise in Luther’s writings. Taking constellation to be a gathering of Luther’s uses certainly admits and welcomes further accounts of promise in his work and practice.

Promise as Testament

In addition to defining promise as an effective word whose speaking enacts what it signifies, Luther defined promise as a testament to interpret Jesus’ death and the Lord’s Supper. By using the paradigm of a testament to explicate promise, Luther formulates promise with respect to the interaction of time, gift, testator, and heirs. This definition receives decisive treatment first in his Hebräerbriefvorlesung (1517/1518). In those lectures, Luther developed Jesus’ death as testament following the miniature theory of incarnation and reconciliation present in the biblical text itself. The Letter to the Hebrews characterizes Jesus as a priest who is able to make a new covenant (diatheke), construing the members of Jesus’ community as heirs of a promised inheritance. Thus, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews relates the promise Jesus makes to a will, which is effective only upon the death of the one making the will (Heb. 9:15–17).10 Luther received this passage of the Letter to the Hebrews with John Chrysostom’s reading, which amplifies the connection between promise and last will and testament.11

Luther’s discussion of this passage reinterprets Jesus’ promise through the use of a two-natures Christology. Luther wrote: “Since he cannot die, yet promises (namely, by making a testament) that he will die, it was necessary for him to become man and thus to fulfill what he had promised.”12 Christ’s intention to promise requires him to “become human,” and so promise acts as an explanation for the incarnation. Once Christ becomes human, he is therefore able to die and so able to promise. Luther then expands Chrysostom’s treatment to specify what this testament consists of and why Christ made it: to offer “immeasurable blessings, namely, the remission of sins and eternal life,” which Luther justifies by reference to Matthew 26:28–29’s account of the Last Supper.13 In Matthew, Jesus refuses to drink the cup until the fulfillment of the Reign of God. This links incarnation, atonement, and Eucharist together in promise.

Luther used this explication of promise as testament in order to both criticize some kinds of Eucharistic sacrifice as well as to develop his own.14 This theological reconsideration of sacrifice led to his reform of the mass, though not without the external impetus of the 1522 Wittenberg crisis caused by Andreas Karlstadt and other practical questions of composing church orders. Promise figured significantly in his reflection on baptism as well as his definition of what a sacrament is, a sign attached to a promise.

Luther’s use of promise in his Reformation writings on the sacraments, from 1519 to 1520, makes significant use of promise as a speech act. For instance, he reconsidered the traditional use of signs in construing a sacrament: “in every promise of God two things are presented to us, the Word and the sign, so that we are to understand the Word to be the testament, but the sign the sacrament.”15 In the terms of rhetoric and logic, for Luther, the spoken word of the priest or minister is not a logos apophantikos, a sentence that can be either true or false, because the spoken word is not a claim but a performative. In modern terms, classifying the kind of speech Luther intends can use a distinction that J. L. Austen formulated as the difference between performative and constantive utterances, roughly, those speech acts that do something and those which claim or refer to states of affairs.16 Luther’s theories of speech need bearing out; they are complex and are very much in need of further exploration in his preaching and practical writings in order to show that these speech theories make explicit what he attempts in practice.17

In the middle of this period, Luther’s De captiviate Babylonica (1520) captures much of the connection Luther made between promise, testament, and faith. In this treatise, Luther reiterated his account of promise as testament with the more exacting distinction that “a testator is a promiser who is about to die, while a promiser (if I may put it thus) is a testator who is not about to die.”18 Luther then shows that what it is crucial about a promise is whether or not it is trusted, which gives him the criteria to sift through what counts as preparation or reception of the Eucharist, resting it solely on “faith alone.”19 Just as God does not deal with humankind other than through promise, so “in no other way can a human being come to God or deal with him than through faith.”20 This connection exemplifies the interaction between promise and faith in Luther’s conception of God, divine action, and the human participation in both.

Promise as Divine Self-Binding

Western theological traditions of promise delivered a major problem of grace to Luther’s era. Promise figured as an important notion in a series of common theological concerns about God’s freedom and power.21 Whether originating in Augustine’s attempts to articulate God’s grace independent of human free will or as a way to explore how and in what ways God was limited by Peter Damien or Peter Abelard, promise has mainly stood in for a variety of ways that God has power or how that power is a condition for God’s graciousness.22 If God is free and free in some kind of unrestricted way, this freedom seems to make any of God’s particular actions arbitrary. If God could act differently, what, if anything, could keep God’s commitments to Israel and the world steady? One path to resolve the conflict between God’s freedom and specific choices is through promise. God freely promises, and so the act of promising binds God. God’s promise seems to close the distance between divine freedom and God’s specific salvific actions.

Luther responded to this complex of problems in his articulation of promise and assertion (assertio) in De servo arbitrio (1525).23 There, Luther wrote, focusing on a particular assertion, that God foreknows all things necessarily:

For if you doubt or disdain that God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them? For when he promises anything, you ought to be certain that he knows and is able willing to perform what he promises; otherwise, you will regard him as neither truthful nor faithful, and that is impiety and denial of the Most High God.24

Promise in this use signals the self-binding of divinity; God is able to exercise power in order to accomplish what the Bible declares God will. Thus, one may rest faith squarely on these promissory assertions instead of having confidence in something other than God’s own promise.

One might further conclude that the drift of Luther’s argument on assertions supports the claim that God’s promises differ from human ones. Taking this passage by itself, it seems that assertion connects power and certainty together. So far as God’s promise goes, it seems that on the basis of that promise alone, one has no right to doubt when considering the power this promisor has. God simply may do whatever God wants and so if God promises, one cannot doubt God’s promise while upholding God’s power to act as God wishes.

In the terms of J. L. Austin’s analysis of speech and claims, the performative promise rests on the constantative claims made about the one promising. Though assertions in the section quoted seem to stand by themselves (faith trusts the promises of God and not anything else), they require a statement about God in order to justify God’s trustworthiness (God may be steadfast because of the sort of power God has). The activity of making a promise shifts back and forth between the promise and the character or abilities of the one promising to address the question: Can I trust the promise? Yet the power of God seems as if it could endanger the promise, bringing to the fore traditional theological problems about divine freedom in the language of divine power. Nothing about God’s power seems to suggest that if God so promises that God therefore must stick to that promise. This requires situating Luther’s reflection here in terms of the larger set of theological problems to which he is heir.

Theologians have often used self-binding in order to stave off a serious problem that stems from God’s freedom. Since it seems God is capable of everything, it seems that God either could have promised something else or in some other way, and so the very power that seems to make God’s promise certain could indicate that God could abandon or alter promise at will. This question focuses on God’s past decision. At the beginning of this theological tradition, few theologians thought the conflict between promise and power concerned the present state of affairs but that it only mattered in terms of God’s earlier decisions that lie at the beginning of God’s creative or redemptive actions of God toward the world. In other words, theologians wanted to state that salvation history, the sacraments, and church order are worthy of trust because God has bound Godself to them, while also recognizing that God did not have to act in this way, being free to have chosen other events, ways, and means. In short, theological inquiry only gave attention to the contingency of the past.

A new stage emerged in this reflection once theologians in the late thirteenth century translated political and ecclesial questions about power into the theological sphere, which then shaped how God still is free to act contrary to the promised order.25 No longer did divine power concern the contingency of the past but also whether the future was likewise contingent. This new direction came from questions from the ecclesial and political realms. This question might be simplified as whether rulers or popes were able to act freely beyond and above already-established law. In the language of modern political thought, can a ruler enact a “state of exception” where ordinary laws and constitutions no longer apply? Once this political matter was posed in terms of the theological question of divine freedom, God’s power was stylized as the sovereign political agent who can act exceptionally. Self-binding then combined an important set of goals: to stress that God is absolutely sovereign and free but also entirely reliable in God’s promising. In general this problem attained a stable shape as the relation of absolute and ordained power (potentia absoluta and potentia ordinartio).

Although Luther did not use these traditional terms of absolute and ordained power in De servo arbitrio, his attention to promise and power shows an awareness of the need to address the problem of divine power. His way of navigating God’s power and promise lies in the confession that concludes this work. There, Luther reiterates a common medieval trope, the three lights by which one may interpret the world. These three lights are the light of reason or nature, the light of faith or grace, and, lastly, the light of glory.26 Throughout much of the treatise Luther sought to distinguish what he now calls the light of reason from the light of faith. With this second light, Luther folds his earlier claims about assertion and promise alike into a wider context. His summary statement is:

Let us take it that there are three lights—the light of nature, the light of grace, and the light of glory, to use the common and valid distinction. By the light of nature it is an insoluble problem how it can be just that a good man should suffer and a bad man prosper; but this problem is solved by the light of grace. By the light of grace it is an insoluble problem how God can damn one who is unable by any power of his own to do anything but sin and be guilty. Here both the light of nature and the light of grace tell us that it is not the fault of the unhappy man but of an unjust God [. . .] But the light of glory tells us differently, and it will show us hereafter that the God whose judgment here is one of incomprehensible righteousness is a God of most perfect and manifest righteousness.27

Luther’s use of the three lights shows how promise itself is qualified. This qualification does not occur by embracing the radically free God who may act against the ways that God has bound. God’s promise will not fail because God is somehow free from that promise. Without the addition of the third light, the light of glory, Luther would seem to articulate a dualistic God, one who, according to reason does all things and drives all events with divine necessity and the God who “does not desire the death of the sinner” in the promise.28 The freedom of the gospel and the freedom of God to act in whatever way God wishes would forever clash. The light of glory here shows that for all the power of promise, God’s work in it is not yet finished. Here Luther embraced the important qualification that only when God’s promise is fulfilled in the eschaton in the light of glory, can we resolve the contradictions between the light of promise and the light of reason. In other words, the character of a promise is that no matter how certain it is, however strong its assertions are, as a promise it still is weak. A promise is still weak because it is not yet complete, because it has not yet reached its fulfillment. To abandon this qualification of the divine promise by its not yet completed outcome is to completely relinquish the assertions that Luther holds are necessary for Christian belief.

Because the unbounded and free God who is bound only in promise represents an intrusion of the political in the more properly theological, one can see in Luther’s De servo arbitrio that he did not directly address the problem of freedom and promise so much as move the tradition in a different direction by his practical reasoning, by focusing on the performative and future-directed dimensions of promise. Together, these point out the need to think of promise as a gift.

Promise and Gift

Luther’s use of promise requires attention to promise as a kind of speech act and as a kind of gift. Accounts of Luther’s use of promise have often had frequent recourse to the linguistic analysis permitted by what philosophers and linguists have called the speech act. This interpretive category has fueled significant advances in understanding Luther’s writing on promise. Alongside of the speech act, interpreters of Luther can now add the category of gift, which, in tandem with speech act analysis, can make explicit other aspects of Luther’s use of promise that are not entirely subsumed under their linguistic dimensions.

The performative use of promise is on full view in his Tractate de libertate christiana (1520), where Luther upholds the idea that promises are distinguished from commandments by their effect: “It should be pointed out that the entire Scripture of God is divided into two parts: commands and promises.” These two “parts” divide into two functions: “The promises of God give what the commands demand, in order that everything might be done by God alone—both the giving of the commands and the fulfillment of them.”29 In this dense passage, Luther signals that in promise God alone acts and this action accomplishes something much different than commanding. In this additional layer, Luther indicates that God’s promises are performative but also need to be taken as a gift.30

To analyze promise as a gift, Luther’s discussion of the three powers of faith that he develops following his discussion of the two parts of Scripture shows how promise in Luther’s use in this treatise is a highly idiomatic kind of gift. First, a note about gifts and gift-exchange: most kinds of gift involve reciprocity between giver and recipient in order to uphold mutual obligations or relationships or they eliminate that reciprocity. Though much of the dispute about gifts involves either how gifts entail obligation or how gifts might be given freely and without any need for reciprocation, these two kinds of gift will have to suffice to bring out the distinctiveness of promise as gift.

Luther’s outlines of the three powers of faith build upon each other to attain and enable the summative discussions of gift in the treatise. These sweeping passages use the language of gift, reciprocity, and return to make the central points of Christian freedom: “I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what is profitable, necessary, and life-giving form my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”31 This idea is a strange sort of reciprocity: Christ gives to us, but our obligation does not return to him but to others in need. Likewise, we give to others but do not obligate them. In this way, Christian community is formed, and, in remarkable summary,

in conclusion, we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. Otherwise, we are not Christian. As Christians we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.32

The kind of gift Christ gives does not simply continue on to others. In no way does Luther in these passages identify Christ’s giving and other’s giving as a single collapsible chain of reciprocity. One does not give back to Christ for the gifts given. Rather, one gives on to others, forming a community of gift that is in some way from Christ but not so directly. This seeming gap in reciprocity and giving requires promise to account for it and Luther’s discussion of what he calls the threefold powers of faith make this clear.

The first of Luther’s powers of faith shows that in it God suffuses the soul with righteousness as “an iron united with the flame.”33 The Christian has no need of justice acquired through other means since it is such an overwhelmingly grand gift. Nowhere in this section does Luther describe reciprocity or obligation except in the slightest hint of the negative statements as he concludes the section: “This freedom does not lead us to live lazy and wicked lives …”34 The powers of faith Luther articulates set the stage as the conditions for agency later.

By contrast with the seemingly unilateral power of faith to receive righteousness from God, the second power faith establishes reciprocity between God and human beings by virtue of how faith gives truth, honor, and glory to God. This sense is lacking entirely in Luther’s concluding remarks. Here Luther displays the relationship of faith to promise borne out in a practical reflection on faith. Faith “honors the one it trusts with the most reverent and highest regard.” The relationship of promise to faith is not unilateral but wholly reciprocal:

when God sees that we consider him to be truthful and that by the faith of our heart we give him the honor he is due, then he does us the honor of considering us truthful and righteous on account of our faith. Faith results in truth and righteousness by giving to God what belongs to him.35

Faith is crediting God what God promises and so treating God as true. This return to God in turn means that God treats those with faith as true as well. This reciprocity makes up for the gap between God’s giving and human giving, but it does not lead to the repetition by the Christian toward the neighbor of the action of Christ to humankind. This final link lies in the third power of faith.

Promise as a gift comes to the fore in this last power because it denotes a deep mutuality, the exchange by which Christ and the soul become one. All that one has belongs to the other in common. Here, Luther does not identify Christ as the sole active agent, giving his righteousness and taking the soul’s sin and injustice. Rather, he shows how this third power continues the second because “[faith] is not the doing of works but the trusting of God that both glorifies him and acknowledges him to be truthful.”36 Luther concludes this section with a note that indicates what will occupy the rest of the treatise until the summary conclusion: he only asks about the person who does works here, not yet about the works themselves. In other terms, Luther has set up the qualities and dimensions of human agency, that the person is born out of these exchanges and sustained by these gifts. This promise as gift is a wholly unilateral one in that God’s gift in Christ does not demand a return. In order to be a promise, it has to be trusted and God accorded truth by the one who has faith. Likewise, this promise liberates by giving without measure, permeating the whole soul with righteousness. Luther might seem to ignore the future of this promise, whether it is true or not, but the weakness of the promise that he articulated in De servo arbitrio is here in the trust that accords God’s truthfulness. Luther does not explore the counterfactual, that is, whether God would be considered true if faith did not give God that truth. But, from the human perspective, there would be no truth of God if promises were not trusted. The reciprocity of promise is engendered within God’s overarching promissory action. Thus, we can conclude that Luther’s odd gift-exchange in the conclusion to this treatise occurs within the promissory action of God in Christ. Christ’s giving engenders are won not by being a gift but by being an idiomatic gift called promise. The pattern of giving that Luther outlines in summary is initiated and sustained by promise; without promise this sort of agency collapses.

Turning now to assess these two main traditions of promise in Luther, we can note that Luther’s use of promise as gift and as a continuation of the theological tradition of God’s self-binding in promise lie alongside of each other throughout his work. Luther does not often combine these two moments, nor does he expressly interrogate the theological use of promise to indicate God’s self-binding. His oftentimes perplexing statements about the Deus absconditus throughout his writings lead interpreters to claim him for a form of nominalism that prioritizes God’s freedom over any specific action, order, or promise God has undertaken, or to show how he anticipates modern resolutions of divine freedom in the terms of divine subjectivity, not even to say some of the more daring Trinitarian attempts to resolve divine freedom and promise that have emerged right up to the present day. Luther seems to perpetuate the problem of sovereignty that Giorgio Agamben has identified: that anyone who may act exceptionally or against an otherwise established order always undoes that order.37 This kind of sovereignty creates problems for any promise because the very condition of possessing the power to do what one wills allows the promisor to work against the ability of the will to be steadfast and faithful to promises. Likewise, it seems that Luther risks thinking of God as a subject along the lines of the political subject entertained in the analysis of sovereignty in the thirteenth century and throughout modernity.38

A more modest analysis as the one offered here shows that Luther did not identify the problem of divine power and sovereignty nor did he directly confront it. In drastic summary, Luther could have done so by showing how the faith that promise requires has a hand in legitimating and validating the promise. In other words, as Luther holds elsewhere, faith creates divinity.39 This situation shows that when God promises, God does not restrict Godself from a previously available range of action. Rather, in promising, God risks God’s very name and hands it over to the world. Only once those promised have faith in God can God than attain glory and honor due. That is what faith does, giving God truth and honor and glory. God comes to be God in being promised, one might state.

Of course, this modest solution in outline requires integration with other important theological questions, especially whether God’s power needs to be reconsidered as a kind of weak power rather than the untrammeled omnipotence that has sometimes been accorded to God, not even to say of the Trinitarian life of God that enables it. But such a direction follows the path Luther has laid out in his reflection on promise. As theologians continue to consider the character of their work and its relationship to modernity and its political theology, Luther’s negotiation of divine power and promise should continue to provide excellent proving grounds.

Review of the Literature and History of Interpretation

Attention to Luther’s theological development has figured most in bringing promise to the forefront of accounts of Luther’s theology. Karl Holl initiated modern occupation with promise and the early Luther in his seminal 1910 work on the then recently recovered Romerbriefvorlesung.40

This work of Holl’s brought about the broad movement known as the Luther Renaissance.41 This movement is useful for recounting the history of scholarship on Luther’s view of promise because it draws into it a variety of other traditions of Luther interpretation in the Weimar era: the Erlangen school, Scandinavian scholarship, and the Liberal tradition’s occupation with Luther, as well as numerous other theologians occupied with Luther. Each of these traditions brought varying approaches and doctrinal interests. Some interrogated the early Luther with respect to the atonement. Others sought to find in Luther a theology liberated from metaphysical commitments. Still others wished to find in Luther the truly evangelical or protestant theology and needed to find in Luther’s development the moment in which Luther ceased to be medieval and when he began to be modern.

A new stage emerged with Oswald Bayer’s still-essential treatment of promise in Luther examines in detail Luther’s writings through 1520, carefully showing the development of Luther’s use of promise. In the same era, J. S. Preus considered promise crucial for Luther’s biblical hermeneutics and development.42 Bernd Hamm provided an exhaustive and decisive study of the horizon of promise in patristic and medieval theology, focusing on the role that promise plays in divine freedom and divine self-binding. Hamm showed that much of Luther’s reflection on promise continues the medieval use of promise to signify God’s self-binding.43

While Heinrich Assel’s Der andere Aufbruch did not attend to the interpretation of Luther directly, it made space for more critical approaches to Luther by showing how Karl Holl’s theological approach conditioned his interpretation of Luther. This builds on Risto Saarinen’s account of anti-metaphysical interpretations of Luther to clear the decks for a variety of approaches to the subject.44

Interpretation of Luther narrowly understood can quickly explode in a variety of studies of promise in Luther when the criteria for consideration expands to those studies that make use of his work for systematic or constructive theological ends. Important entries in these include the exploration of promise by Hans-Joachim Iwand, Robert W. Betram, Ronald Thiemann, Oswald Bayer, Robert W. Jenson, and Christoph Schwöbel.45

The broader theological engagement with Luther’s view of promise will be better served by an approach that recognizes the varied use to which Luther puts promise, as well as the surprising number of ways that promise permeates his reflection. As theologians search for more adequate ways to construe divine power and divine action, especially God’s gracious love at work in the Crucified One and his Eucharist, Luther’s various approaches and uses of promise should continue to stimulate alternatives.

Further Reading

Assel, Heinrich. Der andere Aufbruch die Lutherrenaissance—Ursprünge, Aporien und Wege: Karl Holl, Emanuel Hirsch, Rudolf Hermann (1910–1935). Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994.Find this resource:

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

Courtney, William J.Capacity and Volition: A History of the Distinction of Absolute and Ordained Power. Bergamo, Italy: P. Lubrina, 1990.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. Promissio, Pactum, Ordinatio: Freiheit und Selbstbindung Gottes in der scholastischen Gnadenlehre. Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1977.Find this resource:

Reinhuber, Thomas. Kämpfender Glaube: Studien zu Luthers Bekenntnis am Ende von De servo arbitrio. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.Find this resource:

Simon, Wolfgang. Die Messopferlehre Luthers: Voraussetzungen, Genese, Gestalt, und Rezeption. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.Find this resource:



(1.) Heinrich Assel, “Verheissung,” Historisches Wörterbuch Philosophie, eds. Joachim Ritter et al. (Basel: Schwabe & Co AG Verlag, 2001), vol. 11, 689–694. On Cicero in particular, see A. A. Long, “Cicero’s Politics in De officiis,” in From Epicurus to Epictetus: Studies in Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 307–334. For the bona fide tradition as a whole, and the centrality of promise to it, see Martin Josef Schermaier, “Bona fides in Roman Law,” in Good Faith in European Contract Law, eds. Reinhard Zimmerman and Simon Whittaker (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 63–92.

(2.) Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 243–244.

(3.) See Teresa Morgan, Roman Faith and Christian Faith: Pistis and Fides in the Early Roman Empire and Early Churches (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

(4.) WA 44:711, 10–11; LW 8:181.

(5.) Bo Holm describes this passage and other early works in terms of gift exchange and reciprocity. See Holm, Gabe und Geben bei Luther (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2006). I expand his account by reference to promise.

(6.) WA 56:272, 3–19; LW 25:260.

(7.) Benjamin claims that “ideas do not incorporate the phenomena” and so any attempt to organize a group of phenomena has to assume the form of a constellation such that “the ideas relate to the things as pictures of stars to the stars themselves,” in Ursprung des deutsche Trauerspiels (1925) in Gesammelte Werke, eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), vol. I, part 1, 214–215.

(8.) In his magisterial study of promise in Luther’s early writings, Oswald Bayer notes that to take Luther’s writing on promise as the “unfolding of a core” does damage to his development. See Oswald Bayer, Promissio: Geschichte der reformatorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie, 2d ed. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1989), 13.

(9.) See Bernard Lohse, Durchbruch der reformatorische Erkentniss bei Luther (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1968).

(10.) Wolfgang Kraus, “Die Bedeutung von διαθήκη‎ im Hebräerbrief,” in The Reception of Septuagint Words in Jewish-Hellenistic and Christian Literature, eds. E. Bons, R. Brucker et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 67–83.

(11.) On Luther and Chrysostom and testamentum, see Bayer, Promissio, 216–222. For the wider background, see Simon, Die Messopferlehre Luthers: Voraussetzungen, Genese, Gestalt, und Rezeption. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 208–215.

(12.) WA 57/III:212–213; LW 29:213.

(13.) WA 57/III:213; LW 29:213.

(14.) Simon, Die Messopferlehre Luthers, 303–326.

(15.) Sermon von dem neuen Testament (1520), WA 6:518, 14–18; LW 36:44.

(16.) J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, eds. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 3. Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 7.

(17.) For a powerful and wide-ranging account of Luther’s theories of language, see Joachim Ringleben, Gott im Wort: Luthers Theologie von der Sprache her (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 2010).

(18.) WA 6:513, 14–16; LW 36:38.

(19.) WA 6:514, 13; LW 36:39.

(20.) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42.

(21.) Berndt Hamm, Promissio, Pactum, Ordinatio: Freiheit und Selbstbindung Gottes in der scholastischen Gnadenlehre (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1977).

(22.) For what follows, see the exhaustive discussion in William J. Courtney, Capacity and Volition: A History of the Distinction of Absolute and Ordained Power (Bergamo: P. Lubrina, 1990).

(23.) Alternative interpretations of Luther’s view of assertions with a constructive purpose are Eilert Herms, “Gewißheit in Luthers ‘De servo arbitrio’,” in Phänomene des Glaubens (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 2006), 56–80; and Eberhard Jüngel, “‘…unum aliquid assecutus, omnia assecutus . . .’ Zum Verständnis des Verstehens – nach M. Luther, D. servo arbitrio (WA 18:605),” in Ganz Werden (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 2003), 54–75.

(24.) WA 18:619, 1–6; Bondage of the Will in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, eds. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 122.

(25.) Courtney, Capacity and Volition, 87–102. See also Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012), 282–304.

(26.) Thomas Reinhuber, Kämpfender Glaube: Studien zu Luthers Bekenntnis am Ende von De servo arbitrio (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000).

(27.) WA 18:785, 26–38; Bondage of the Will, 331–332.

(28.) Luther’s interpretation of Ezekiel 33:11, variously undertaken throughout De servo arbitrio. For example, WA 18:683.1–10.

(29.) WA 7:52, 24–25; Freedom of a Christian, trans. Mark Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 58–59.

(30.) Speech-act theory has additional problems internal to the theory that can prove inadequate to the phenomenon of promise. On this, see Gregory Walter, Being Promised: Theology, Gift, and Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2013), 9–11.

(31.) WA 7:65, 36–66, 6; Freedom of a Christian, 82.

(32.) WA 7:69, 12–14; Freedom of a Christian, 88–89.

(33.) WA 7:53, 27; Freedom of a Christian, 60.

(34.) WA 7:53, 32–33; Freedom of a Christian, 60.

(35.) WA 7:514, 21–24; Freedom of a Christian, 61.

(36.) WA 7:56, 4–5; Freedom of a Christian, 64.

(37.) Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 7.

(38.) On the modern form of this subjectivity, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Die Subjektivität Gottes und die Trinitätslehre,” in Grundfragen Systematischer Theologie, vol. 2 (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980), 96–111.

(39.) WA 40/I:359–362. On this passage and related ones see Stefano Leoni, “‘Fides creatrix divinitas’: La Fede come esistenzia di Deo in Lutero,” Archivio di filosfia 59 (1991): 13–35; and Gregory Walter, “On Martin Luther’s Statement, ‘fides creatrix divinitas,’” dialog 52 (2013): 196–203.

(40.) Karl Holl, “Die Rechtfertigungslehre in Luthers Vorlesung über den Römerbrief mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Frage der Heilsgewissheit,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 20 (1910): 245–291. Reprinted in Karl Holl, “Die Rechtfertigungslehre in Luthers Vorlesung über den Römerbrief mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Frage der Heilsgewissheit,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1932), vol. 1, 111–154.

(41.) Heinrich Assel, Der andere Aufbruch die Lutherrenaissance—Ursprünge, Aporien und Wege: Karl Holl, Emanuel Hirsch, Rudolf Hermann (1910–1935) (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994).

(42.) J. S. Preus, From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1969).

(43.) Hamm, Promissio, Pactum, Ordinatio.

(44.) Risto Saarinen, Gottes wirken auf uns: Die transzendentale Deutung des Gegenwart-Christi-Motives in der Lutherforschung (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlat, 1989).

(45.) Hans-Joachim Iwand, The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, trans. Randi H. Lundell (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008); Robert W. Bertram, A Time for Confessing, ed. Michael Hoy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008); Ronald F. Thiemann, Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise (South Bend, Notre Dame University Press, 1985); Oswald Bayer, Theologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloh Verlagshaus, 1994); Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); and 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 Publications, 2014).