Summary and Keywords
Any study of Luther’s ecclesiology faces apparent consistencies or contradictions in Luther’s view of the church, which have been variously explained by scholars in terms of a development in Luther’s thought or as reflecting different genres in which he wrote. An understanding that begins with the Word of God, and the church as the creature of the Word, offers a helpful starting point. Luther’s view of the church and its ministry are both grounded in the Word of God, the promise of the gospel. The church exists wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, and the church is a spiritual community oriented to and shaped by this Word in its life by the power of the Holy Spirit. The distinctions in Luther’s ecclesiology, such as visible versus invisible, are hermeneutical rather than ontological. Luther’s later ecclesiological writings also reflect his Spirit and letter hermeneutic, even as he engages new battle fronts, so that the gospel remains at the center of the church’s proclamation and life. For God’s Word to continue to be preached, God has instituted the office of ministry to which specific persons are called, who are entrusted with this great treasure. Luther’s view of the office of ministry should be interpreted in light of, but not as opposed to, his view of the royal priesthood, which he develops as an ecclesiological concept. Bishops are a specific instance of the public office of ministry, at the heart of which is the preaching of the gospel and overseeing its right preaching for the sake of God’s people.
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