John Witte Jr.
The Lutheran Reformation transformed not only theology and the church but law and the state as well. Beginning in the 1520s, Martin Luther joined up with various jurists and political leaders to craft ambitious legal reforms of church, state, and society on the strength of Luther’s new theology, particularly his new two kingdoms doctrine. These legal reforms were defined and defended in hundreds of monographs, pamphlets, and sermons published by Lutheran writers from the 1520s to 1550s. They were refined and routinized in hundreds of new reformation ordinances promulgated by German cities, duchies, and territories that converted to the Lutheran cause. By the time of the Peace of Augsburg (1555)—the imperial law that temporarily settled the constitutional order of Germany—the Lutheran Reformation had brought fundamental changes to theology and law, to church and state, marriage and family, criminal law and procedure, and education and charity. Critics of the day, and a steady stream of theologians and historians ever since, have seen this legal phase of the Reformation as a corruption of Luther’s original message of Christian freedom from the strictures of human laws and traditions. But Luther ultimately realized that he needed the law to stabilize and enforce the new Protestant teachings. Radical theological reforms had made possible fundamental legal reforms. Fundamental legal reforms, in turn, would make palpable radical theological reforms. In the course of the 1530s onward, the Lutheran Reformation became in its essence both a theological and a legal reform movement. It struck new balances between law and Gospel, rule and equity, order and faith, and structure and spirit.
Duane H. Larson
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.
Luther in his early years came of age in a late medieval setting from which he was not prone to depart during these years. His father, Hans, strongly impressed upon his son a responsibility to improve his lot by climbing the social ladder, for in his eyes that was what a dutiful son should do. But young Luther declined to follow this path and instead entered the order of the Augustinian Eremites in Erfurt in 1505. Here, he found pious advisors, chiefly John Staupitz, his patron over the course of the following years. Luther’s first mass in 1507 symbolically marked the break with his father. From that time forward, Luther spent his time as a monk, priest, and theologian. Somehow he became involved in controversies within his order, which led him to make a journey first to Rome in 1511/12, and, following his return, to Wittenberg. Here, he developed his hermeneutical method lecturing on the Psalms and Paul. In this time, his religious thought developed, but not all at once, as Luther himself often reported, but gradually. Here he was influenced not only by Paul and Augustine, but also by the late medieval mysticism he came to know through the sermons of John Tauler. Reading these sermons in 1515/16 he inserted many marginal notes, and they show that he was a proponent of an inward piety focused on the concept of faith. At this time, he was still attached to his spiritual advisor John of Staupitz. Mainly through the temptation occasioned by the doctrine of predestination, Luther developed some helpful insights, which led him to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only Savior. His insights took him beyond the medieval framework and made him a reformer who was first and foremost focused on a new approach to the academic training of the theologian.
Christopher Boyd Brown
The years 1517–1525 were the most tumultuous of Luther’s career. They saw his emergence from obscurity to become a figure of international controversy and national renown as the controversy over indulgences exploded, with far-reaching ecclesiastical and political consequences. He emerged as a master—if not practically the creator—of the popular press, dominating German vernacular printing with a flood of treatises and the publication of his German New Testament in 1522. These years were the crucible in which Luther’s theology was shaped into its mature form through conflict not only with supporters of the papacy and of scholasticism but also with former colleagues and sympathizers. By 1525 Luther’s theology had established itself as a movement and distinguished itself from other versions of reform.
Mickey L. Mattox
Luther’s life in the years after 1525 was relatively placid in comparison to the turbulence he experienced between the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses and his marriage to Katharina von Bora in 1525. To be sure, there were events and controversies aplenty, and many of them impacted the circumstances of his daily life, altered or sharpened the focus of his theological work, and influenced the shape his movement would take after his death. He remained to the end a central figure in both church and civil affairs, supporting the evangelical reform of the European churches and offering his advice—and his criticism—to any who would listen. Limitations on his travel resulting from the Edict of Worms made him a sideline player at the Augsburg Diet of 1530, but he contributed crucially to Evangelical identity through his two catechisms of 1529, as well as the Smalcald Articles he wrote to define and defend Evangelical faith and practice. The elder Luther also assumed a leading role in Wittenberg’s university. He was its most famous professor as well as its most powerfully creative thinker. In 1535 he became dean of its faculty as well. As dean, he presided over a number of important disputations dealing with such issues as ecclesiology, Christology, and the doctrine of the Trinity. He also remained little Wittenberg’s most famous and influential person, eclipsing in many ways even his own prince electors. People of low status and high sought out Dr. Luther for advice of every kind. Informally, he became a powerful patron. Luther continued as well to lecture and publish theological works during this period, notably biblical “commentaries” (typically based on classroom lectures), a treatise on the church and one on the papacy, and a harsh series of treatises against the Jews. He remained the most influential contributor to Evangelical self-understanding, opposing, for example, both the Anti-trinitarian thinkers outside his movement (Servetus, Campanus) and the antinomian thinkers within it (Agricola). The German Bible translation project he had begun at the Wartburg resulted at last in the complete “Luther Bible” (1534). Together with a team of colleagues he dubbed “my Sanhedrin,” he continued to work on this project, with the last revised edition appearing in 1545. Notwithstanding the abiding apocalyptic angst and increasing world weariness that frequently marked the works of his later years, his theological vitality continued largely unabated. The elder Luther was not content merely to repeat the settled truths he had discovered in his youth, but continued to “shake every tree” in the great forest of Scripture in his quest to know God rightly and serve him faithfully. As Luther moved into his fifties and sixties he also suffered from a steadily debilitating complex of interrelated health issues. His death at age sixty-two on February 18, 1546, left his movement without its charismatic leader and thus vulnerable to both external political attack and internal theological division. Contrary to Saxon legal practice, he designated Katharina his sole heir.
Ronald K. Rittgers
Luther was first and foremost a pastor who was deeply concerned with the care of souls. While the study of his controversial writings provides important insight into various aspects of his theology, it was his pastoral writings that arguably made the greater impact on his contemporaries. These writings spanned his entire career, examined numerous topics, and appeared in various genres. Luther’s deep commitment to producing pastoral works aimed at edification and consolation, especially of the laity, may be seen as a continuation of a late medieval trend that was similarly concerned with spiritual nurture and guidance. Consolation was a dominant theme in Luther’s pastoral writings, but so was the call to a deeply earnest Christianity that embraced suffering and affliction for the sake of the gospel. Luther’s pastoral writings were intended to help pastors minister to the needs of their flocks, but in many cases these works were directed to the laity, both to console and exhort them in the Christian life and also to mobilize them for ministry to one another.
Luther’s position on the duties of rulers to preserve social order and on the obligation of subjects to obey them for the sake of civil tranquility is scripturally grounded, principally in Romans 13:1–7, and presupposes an anthropology in which humans are so sinful as to need worldly government. The foundations of Luther’s thought about politics can be located in two sources: his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and his understanding of the Pauline precept in Romans 13 to obey worldly authorities. Woven into each of these positions is a theological anthropology that holds that fallen humanity is too sinful to survive without divine aid. In the political realm, this aid takes the form of civil government; as a correlate, the authority of the church for Luther is limited to spiritual matters only and has no influence in the governance of the people. Luther’s defense of the social order and civil government set him in sharp opposition to the leaders of the Peasants’ War and led him to support the Protestant princes in their opposition to the Holy Roman Empire (founded on the spurious authority of the Roman Catholic Church in political affairs) after the 1530 Diet of Augsburg. In his defense of obedience to worldly powers and his grounds for justified resistance to impious rule, Luther left a seemingly ambiguous legacy that manifested itself after his death in a division over advocates of obedience to a conciliatory ruler (who wished to reintroduce elements of Roman worship) and purists who insisted that such obedience was a violation of Luther’s intention.
John A. Maxfield
Scholarly analysis of biblical interpretation and commentary in the history of Christianity has become an important subfield in history as well as biblical studies and theology. From the Reformation and into the modern era, Martin Luther has been appreciated first of all as an expositor of the Bible and a confessor of its teachings. His vocation as a theologian called to teach in the University of Wittenberg was especially focused on the exposition of scripture, and his development as a theologian and eventually as an evangelical reformer was deeply tied to his experience in interpreting the Bible in his university classroom, in the Augustinian cloister, and in his household. His interpretation of scripture was the basis of his “Reformation discovery” of justification by faith, and his conflict with the papal church was largely the result of Luther’s conviction that the message of scripture, in particular “the gospel,” was being overwhelmed in the theology and churchly practice of his time by “human teachings” not supported by and contradicting scripture. As a result, Luther and other evangelical reformers of the 16th century appealed to scripture alone (sola scriptura) as the highest authority in shaping their theology and proposals for reform.
Luther’s teachings and leadership in the Reformation were shared and celebrated not only through his doctrinal and polemical treatises and catechetical writings, but also through the many sermons, biblical commentaries on both Old and New Testament books, and prefaces on the books of the Bible that were published in his lifetime and thereafter. Old Testament commentary was an especially important genre of Luther’s published works, as it encapsulated much of his work as a university professor of theology and evangelical reformer.
William R. Russell
A variety of dissident movements within the church appeared and disappeared throughout the medieval period. Each sought to reform the church along various millenarian, moralistic, biblicistic, and anticlerical lines. In the wake of Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) public calls for reform, groups of these kinds reappeared in Europe. Most of them referred to Luther as an inspiration, and they often associated themselves with Luther and his reforms.
In order to distance himself from these groups, Luther used the pejorative German word, Schwärmerei to describe and critique what he saw as their most fundamental error: that they would establish their respective churches on a foundation other than what he called, in the Smalcald Articles (1538), the “First and Chief Article” of the Christian faith: Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and God’s Word alone. Moreover, because these opponents also represented forms of 16th-century protest against the Roman Catholic Church, they would cite him as a source of their teaching. His use of Schwärmerei, then, separates his reform proposal from the ideas and the implications of these groups. As a metaphor, Schwärmerei also vilifies Luther’s Protestant opponents as “swarms” of bees or locusts. The term not only links Luther’s opponents together, it also identifies their presence as unpredictable and hazardous. This usage clearly reflected the polemical discourse common in this historical period and contributed to the generally harsh persecutions of the groups in principalities ruled by Lutherans.
In a variety of ways, Luther’s Protestant opponents taught that believers were capable of knowing God directly (e.g., through spiritual experience or reason). Such knowledge was deemed necessary for a truly faithful and transformed life. Luther’s Protestant opponents, then, maintained that full membership in the church depended on their internal experience of the Holy Spirit, an experience that was to be shared ritually with the community as public witness to the Spirit’s work. Both the experience itself and the subsequent life of discipleship were deemed necessary by these groups in order for one to be a true follower of Christ.
For Luther, however, saving knowledge of God comes only through God’s chosen means of self-revelation: the Word and the sacraments. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins, therefore, is always mediated to believers from an external source—through preaching the Word of God and through the means of grace (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
In addition, these groups’ overemphasis on subjectivity left them vulnerable to abuse by their leaders. They could claim authority, based on their internal experiences, to dominate their followers with cult-like power. Luther believed this to be the dynamic at work in the disastrous “Kingdom of God” at Münster (1535), the Peasants’ War (1525), and the Wittenberg disturbances (1522).
For Luther, the Word alone, as God’s law and God’s gospel, provides the basis for the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church. His opponents disagreed that such a foundation was sufficient for the church to be the church. Indeed, by the end of his career, the Reformer would describe nearly all of his opponents as Schwärmer—eventually even including the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church among their ranks.
In the debate on Luther’s Reformatory Discovery two elements come together: the systematic question of how to determine the essential content of reformatory theology, that is, the core of Reformation itself, and the historical question of the point in his life at which Luther reached this insight. The debate arose first in the late 19th century, when the essence of Protestantism was brought into question and scholars tried to find an answer in the writings of Luther himself.
This historical and methodological conjunction leads to different results concerning both the religious content of the discovery and the date when Luther discovered it. Two main answers have been given. The first supposes that it is the logical structure of self-annihilation and divine affirmation that is specifically reformatory. Luther came to this insight during his first lecture on Psalms, about 1514. This means that he certainly knew what his new theology contained when the indulgences controversy broke out. The second theory underscores that Luther had to establish a kind of outward kerygmatic reality in order to make the inner conflict and contradiction of sentiments acceptable. He reached this position only in 1518, that is, after the beginning of the controversy over indulgences in 1517. Therefore, the final development of Luther’s reformatory insight took place in the confrontation with the ecclesiastical powers of his day.
For many years the debate focused upon a late text by Luther, namely, the preface of the first volume of his Latin works in 1545. It has to be admitted that Luther offered there his own recollection of the beginning of his new theology. But he did so quite briefly, concentrating only on the notion of iustitia passiva. This is a proper term for the content of the reformatory insight, but Luther did not fully explain the spiritual and practical context. Therefore, one must imagine that the Reformatory Discovery came about through a longer process of theological reflection, including its biblical, conceptual, spiritual, and ecclesial consequences. It is significant that the conflict with the Roman Church came up exactly when Luther stressed the externality of God’s Word for establishing the inner status of humankind before God. The church can only be the medium, not the subject, of salvation. And the correspondence to God’s Word means quite simply faith, that is, the acceptance of being accepted by God.
One must reckon here with a process that began with Luther’s first lectures in 1513 and came to an end by 1520. Luther’s “On the Freedom of a Christian” of 1520 clearly shows his reformatory discovery fully established.
Dirk G. Lange
Martin Luther’s reform of worship centers on gospel proclamation in its various manifestations. Gospel-centered worship necessarily de-centers the individual in his or her own quest for fulfillment or meaning. It de-centers the community from an inward, self-sufficient, closed-border understanding of identity. God comes to the believer and the community in worship through means (that is, through preaching and the administration of the sacraments). These means disrupt, confront, create, renew, and re-orient faith and love.
In A Treatise on the New Testament, That Is, the Holy Mass, Luther sums up the reform of worship in one sentence: “Christ, in order to prepare for himself an acceptable and beloved people, which should be bound together in unity through love, abolished the whole law of Moses. And that he might not give further occasion for divisions and sects, he appointed in return but one law or order for his entire people, and that was the holy mass” (LW 35:81; WA 6:355, 3–4). The law that Luther points to is none other than Christ himself coming to humankind, giving of himself, reconciling all of humanity with God. This work is finished. There are no other sacrifices to be made (The Misuse of the Mass, LW 36). Worship is now characterized by two things: thanksgiving and service.
In his reform of the liturgy, Luther argued that the liturgy is both about the word and the rites. The Word of God (as something “heard,” for example, in preaching) does not negate or replace the ritual of worship but the Word is encountered both in the preaching and in the rites (sacraments). Proclamation happens within the liturgical order. The liturgy is not displaced or replaced by preaching the Word alone. Though the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of the Altar (or Holy Communion) was misused, Luther did not reject the sacrament per se but sought to re-establish a correct interpretation. Sacrament was not to be equated with sacrifice but with a gift from God. Therefore, Luther continually argued for the maintenance of the bond between Word and sacrament as constitutive of the liturgy.
A corollary reform involved retrieving the role of the body in worship. Proclamation employs earthly means. The gospel expressed in words (preaching) presents only half the picture because God’s Word also comes to the worshiping community through non-verbal means. Luther explains how the words are also seen and tasted, how they are received through and in the body.
A key aspect of these characteristics of the reform of worship is on the interior sources of the liturgy. Luther and reformers keep the ceremonies and traditions of the Mass as long as they do not burden consciences (that is, create guilt in a person by making them believe they must still do something to be reconciled with God). The Word, whether preached or embodied in the sacraments, must point the believer always towards the gospel, that is, towards God’s free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and new creation. If, however, the preaching and the sacraments are considered works that make a believer righteous before God, they are to be condemned for then they no longer serve the Gospel.
This reversal in the theology of worship takes shape in Luther’s two proposals for a liturgical order as it does in his writing on public worship and on the sacraments, notably Baptism and Holy Communion. Though he proposed liturgical orders, Luther constantly maintained that such orders should not become “rules” but serve as demonstrations on how evangelical freedom is to be maintained within the framework of God’s Word and sacrament.
Gordon A. Jensen
Martin Luther’s emphasis on the sacraments as a visible, tactile means by which the justifying action of God is conveyed to the believer brings the pastoral heart of the Reformation into clear focus. As Luther continued to explore how justification, the “first and chief article” (Smalcald Articles 2 in BC 301), was the measuring stick by which all theology is evaluated, he was forced to define and clarify his understanding of the sacraments as a “more than verbal” (Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of Christian Sacraments [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978], 5) word that proclaims the promises of God and makes those promises a reality. Using this and other, correlated criteria, Luther justifies the reduction in the number of sacraments found in the Roman Catholic Church of his time. The sacramental controversies that arose in the 1520s also force him to shape and clarify the interconnected nature of the sacramental elements, the word, and faith. By 1530, Luther’s sacramental theology had matured and could be defined by the “sacramental unity” between the word, faith, and earthly elements. This sacramental union also provided the foundational basis for his insistence on the efficacy of the sacraments, since this union was intimately connected to God’s promise of the gospel, proclaimed and enacted.
John M. Frymire
For Martin Luther the sermon was not simply an exercise in which a preacher expounded on the biblical text, taught moral lessons, and reprimanded listeners for their shortcomings. The sermon meant far more than that. Preaching was God’s voice speaking through the minister. Hearing God’s promise of salvation was far more effective than reading it. In terms that echoed medieval theories of demonology, which posited that reading biblical passages aloud exorcized the air, Luther insisted that Satan fled the spoken word of God even if the written form bothered him not a whit. The sermon was the site where Christ confronted Satan in eschatological combat. Minsters made Christ really present from their pulpits and, through their preaching of God’s word, provided the means through which the Holy Spirit “worked,” literally, upon the auditor. Luther’s sense of the sermon was spiritual and physical to the extent that he considered preaching quasi-sacramental in the medieval sense of the opus operatum.
Luther’s theology of preaching was among the most original of his discoveries, but he did not invent the sermon. For 1,500 years Christianity had spread among overwhelmingly illiterate populations, and the oral exposition of scripture was part of Christian services early on. Patristic theologians such as Augustine had preached extensively and left a corpus of manuscript sermons that influenced later exegetes. The advent of printing in the mid-15th century spread the homilies of medieval preachers and their patristic forerunners as never before. Especially popular were postils, model sermons for Sundays and festival days that were available in Latin and vernacular versions. Printing, the spread of the Mendicant preaching orders, improved clerical education, and increasing lay literacy all combined to produce a late medieval preaching renaissance. Martin Luther was born into this renaissance just as he became a trained professional in its tradition. When he died in 1546 he was no longer a late medieval Augustinian, but he had been a preacher by trade for nearly forty years.
Luther preached constantly. None of his other duties took as much of his time. About 2,300 of his sermons survive, which, based on his preaching schedule, represent about half of the sermons he preached. Sermons take up some thirty volumes—that is, one-third—of the Weimar edition (WA) of his works. No other genre in his corpus comes close. The same can be said of the printing and impact of his sermons: none of Luther’s contemporaries came close either. Unlike many of those contemporaries, however, the most significant preacher in early modern Europe never wrote a treatise on how to preach. Luther never produced a comprehensive work of dogmatics either, and for the same reason: the incredibly gifted theologian was not a gifted systematician. Several of Luther’s greatest admirers noted as much, warning future preachers that unlike Luther, whose sermons tended to drift hither and yonder, they should stick to the main roads.
Determining what sermons Luther actually delivered is nettlesome because it hinges on the types and numbers of texts that have come down to us. The issue is always the state of the sources. Thus, the rudiments of Luther’s sermons and postils as genres are presented, and select issues of manuscript and print production that shape our understanding of what Luther preached and how his ideas were received are examined.
Luther not only wrote about charity and social ethics throughout much of his life; he also experienced the conditions that were the object of Christian generosity and ethical reflection. This essay suggests that his study of the Bible and Church Fathers was not the only source of Luther’s writings and revolutionary programs. His experience of deprivation as a child and a monk, his encounters with the homeless poor of Wittenberg, and his observation of corrupt business practices and failed political leadership played significant roles in his sensitivity to the scriptures and the history of ecclesial care for the poor. The rise of social history and the use of social scientific methods have drawn attention to the economic, political, and social context in which Luther lived and to which he responded throughout his life. The reformer’s works on charity and social ethics did not emerge in a vacuum. His initial public foray focused on the “spiritual economy” of the late medieval church, which discriminated against many of Luther’s poor parishioners.
While the Ninety-Five Theses raised serious questions about the sacrament of penance, the role of indulgences, and the authority of the pope, the text also reveals Luther’s early concern for the poor, who were frightened into buying spiritual favors for themselves or their dead relatives. In addition to theological problems, Luther recognized the ethical dimension of this large-scale sales campaign that benefited archbishops and the Vatican treasury. Luther’s rediscovery of the Pauline teaching on justification by grace alone reoriented Christians toward life in this world. Rather than spend effort or money on spiritual exercises that might win one God’s favor in the afterlife, human energies could be directed toward alleviating present suffering.
A dialectical thinker, Luther insisted on holding together two seemingly irreconcilable claims, two disparate texts, two discordant images in order to raise the question: How is one related to the other? His teaching on justification claims that God always advances toward a suffering humanity first and that this advance is revealed with utter clarity in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who incarnates God’s desire to free human beings from the deathly presence of anxious religion and give them “life, health, and salvation.” But such freedom must be used for the good of one’s neighbor who suffers within the economic, political, and social fabric of life. The advance of God, who is mercy and grace, continues into the world through Christ and his body. This essay suggests that while Luther animated significant contributions to biblical studies and theology, a body of ethical teaching has been harder to discern among his followers. Perhaps this hesitancy arose out of fear that an emphasis on ethics would be construed as a lapse into what Luther called “works righteousness.” This essay considers a number of the ethical questions and crises that faced Luther, which have not subsided and ask for contemporary investigation.
A remarkable achievement of Luther’s reform was a revolutionary change in social assistance. The monastic communities of western Europe had long served as centers of hospitality and charity, and the order in which the young Luther made his vows was a reforming order committed to austerity of life and care for the urban poor. For theological reasons, Luther promoted the suppression of the monasteries and vilified the mendicant orders, but this left a gap in care for the growing population of homeless peasants seeking work in urban centers. The reform of social assistance undertaken in the small “Lutheran” town of Leisnig, Germany, in the early 16th century would become the model for many church orders throughout Germany and Scandinavia, influencing today’s state-run and tax-funded assistance to needy families.
Recently, ethicists and Luther scholars have reassessed his reform of charity to ask how the reformer’s social teaching might support engagement with a wide range of present-day social movements. Increased study of Luther’s social writings and the study of evangelical “church orders,” previously marginalized in the academy, offers promising avenues for continued research. This essay also compares three forms of charity—Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Reformed—illustrating the symbiotic relationship between social ethics and theology and underscoring the role of theological priorities in the conceptualization of social assistance.
Finally, this essay considers Luther’s writings on social ethics. Frequently, interpreters of this focus on “faith active in love,” or the utility of his distinction between two kingdoms or governments. Such studies offer a biblical or theological grounding for Lutheran ethics yet frequently overlook the actual crises or practices he encountered. Luther was not a “systematic” theologian, and one must search through his many writings to discover his “ethical” teachings. Luther scholars and historians of social ethics are increasingly interested in the specific ethical questions he was asked to discuss by those who had accepted his reform. The growing popularity of his reform movement and the seismic shift in Christian thought and practice it animated left Luther little time to construct a well-ordered corpus of social teaching, yet many of his concerns are vitally alive in the world today albeit within a different context. Many of his concerns were enlightened by his study of scripture, in which he recognized a mirror of his own turbulent era.
Martin Luther did not write a specific treatise solely on sin. Nevertheless, the topic of sin is important to him. There are very few treatises where the topic of sin does not appear, as there are few treatises where Luther would not use Scripture as the base for his argumentation. Luther’s hermeneutical preconditions for development of the doctrine on sin are both Old Testament and New Testament passages. The beginning of Luther’s doctrine of sin is tied to his discovery of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings during his “Lectures on Romans” (1515–1516). Luther equated concupiscence with original sin and reasoned about human passivity in the process of salvation. With the formulation of new reformational theology, the emphasis on original sin as the corruption of bodily and spiritual powers in its universal, total, and radical aspect grew. Luther came to the conviction that peccatum radicale is unbelief in God, a distrust in Christ’s promises, as clearly expressed in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian.” The reformer did not develop his teaching on original sin from some sort of “original state theology.” A helpful tool to approach Luther is to use the parable from New Testament (Matt. 7:16–20 and 12:33, Luke 6:43–45) about a good tree bearing good fruits. This motive became the central place in the iconographic depiction of the process of salvation by Lucas Cranach’s woodcut Law and Grace (1529/1530). In its illustrative power it offers generally understandable conclusions and is pedagogically effective: good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works. Under the law, the sinner is entirely and totally without good fruits coram deo. Luther became firmly convinced that the true nature of sin is to be found entirely in peccatum radicale and not in peccatum actuale. The essence of the “root sin” is the disobedience to the first commandment and unbelief as lack of trust in God’s promises. Luther was rather unspeculative on the question about the origin of sin. His radical perspective related to sin has the advantage of being able to point to the tragical effect of sin on human beings bearing “fruits of sin”, making them captive to self-destructive conditions as perdition. Luther’s doctrine of sin is holistic, and it formed his homiletical, catechetical, and pastoral language with the conviction that “making sin great” is inseparably connected with exalting only God’s grace and salvation only in Christ only through faith.
Theological aesthetics is the theory or view of beauty in relation to God, including how the senses bear on or contribute to matters of faith. It has a long and important tradition in all forms of Christian faith, since this faith affirms that God is beautiful and therefore desirable. In both the Eastern and Western churches, views of beauty have appropriated criteria not only from the Bible but also from pre-Christian antiquity, borrowing from Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and others. These views tend to see beauty in metaphysical terms, that is, that the core of reality is to be understood on the basis of not only being, truth, goodness, and unity (the “transcendentals,” defining the reality of all things) but also (with some exceptions) beauty.
Interpreting the scriptures, Christian thinkers in late antiquity, such as Augustine, singled out proportion as a criterion for beauty, and the Pseudo-Dionysius singled out light. Thomas Aquinas adopted these two perspectives, rooted in the wider Greek philosophical tradition, and added integrity or perfection as a third criterion. Late medieval nominalists and mystics did not focus on theological aesthetics but the piety and spirituality of “bridal mysticism,” mediated through Bernard of Clairvaux, present in Luther’s training in the friary, facilitated these views for Luther.
Luther appreciated aspects of this metaphysical tradition, such as the role of mathematics as indicating humanity’s eternal destiny or the cosmic role of proportion in musical intonation and rhythm. However, he was more powerfully influenced by other developments in the late Middle Ages, seen for instance in Jean Gerson, which heightened the affects over the intellect, intellectualizing beauty less and acknowledging how beauty moves and transforms people. He rejected that aspect of the tradition which was apt to view beauty as an end goal of an itinerary of spiritual transformation into more godlike traits, a “theology of glory.”
For Luther, God is the primary actor in the story of human salvation, not the human. God’s work of humbling humans “turned in upon themselves” is anything but beautiful: it is painful, indeed deadly, for “old beings.” But God’s proper work of regenerating and renovating humanity, including awakening human senses to “innocent delight,” is most beautiful indeed. The justification of sinners before God is due to their being “adorned” in Christ’s beauty, his righteousness, empowering them to cooperate with God in God’s ongoing “poetic” creativity.
As bearing human sin, Christ subverts the standard medieval criteria of proportion, brightness, and integrity. But because Christ assumes the consequences of sin and sin itself and takes it away, sinners through the “happy exchange” receive the beauty proper to Christ. Through the renewal effectuated by the word, humans receive creation as gift and are genuinely awakened to its beauty, similar to the beauty that God made it originally. As new creatures, believers’ desire is reoriented to desire what God desires.
While it is not a central concept (he devotes no treatises or disputations to it), it colors how we understand his view of justification and his view of human receptivity and gratitude. It has important ramifications for worship, the arts, and life.
Martin J. Lohrmann
Martin Luther’s reforms involved complicated questions of authority. On one hand, Luther defied the greatest authority figures of his day: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; on the other hand, he can be accused of setting himself up as a new authority or of defending the status quo at the expense of more sweeping reform. The theological and practical rationale behind Luther’s views of authority will be investigated.
Luther’s critique of power and view of social systems grew out of his theological conviction that God alone rules creation and liberates people from sin and death. Because the Bible is the primary place of Christian knowledge for who God is and what God does, Luther’s view of scriptural authority also requires examination of the principles Luther developed to help Christians understand and live out their faith in biblically grounded ways. On this point, Luther had to address critiques from Rome that he interpreted the Bible subjectively and individualistically, even as he sought to curtail this same tendency among more radical reformers. Luther’s biblical interpretation uniquely combined elements he received from late-medieval monastic life, scholastic theology, and humanist scholarship.
How these theological and scriptural influences informed Luther’s conflict with papal authority will be examined. As has often been remarked, Luther did not set out to attack the papal church. Nevertheless, his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), which questioned the theology and practice surrounding the sale of indulgences, invited questions of papal authority with respect to money, the penitential system, and the afterlife. Early opponents of Luther like Sylvester Prierias and John Eck quickly identified such affronts to the authority of the church hierarchy and its dominant theologies, turning the discussion of indulgences into a broader controversy about papal authority. With writings including To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate and Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (both written in 1520), Luther confirmed the depth of his critique, which further escalated issues of authority related to theology, biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and politics.
By what authority could an Augustinian brother and small-town university professor make such bold assertions? Luther believed that his job to serve as pastor and professor made him duty-bound to focus on central matters of faith, even if the institutional church opposed his insights. His method of biblical interpretation and view of church authority extended to reforms concerning “the office of the keys,” a historical term that, in a broad sense, describes the scriptural foundations of authority within the church and, more narrowly, refers to the particular means by which sins are forgiven through the church’s ministry.
Finally, these challenges took place in the context of a politically established European Christianity known as “Christendom.” Luther therefore also addressed how the spiritual message of the gospel related to the political realities of his day. His approach to this topic—also visible in the work of his colleague Philip Melanchthon—offers a perspective that is at once specific to the early modern period and stands as an enduring contribution to European political theory. In summary, Luther’s multifaceted engagement with questions of authority provides a fascinating matrix through which to explore and understand his work.
R. David Nelson
The central act of Christian worship is a mystery embodied in a meal. From its earliest expressions, Christianity has practiced the celebration of the Eucharist (lit. “thanksgiving,” from the Greek adjective εὐχάριστος “thankful, grateful”), later and variably also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Mass (Catholic), and the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodoxy). The practice, which has taken innumerable liturgical forms and religious glosses in the course of Christianity’s history, at minimum both serves as the reiteration of Jesus’s final Passover meal and encapsulates a host of significant biblical and theological images and ideas, including fellowship and community, divine presence, creation, spiritual nourishment, participation, the eschatological celebration, embodiment, and the suffering and death of Jesus. The doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a central theme in Luther’s theology and literary deposit, and it played a significant role in the development of early Protestant doctrine and practice. Worked out primarily in the course of political crises and controversies among a host of interlocutors, both Catholic and Protestant, Luther’s teaching on the Supper reflects deep-seated commitments in areas such as Christology, the relationship between theology and philosophy, and the doctrine of ministry, to name but a few, and it bears important implications for a variety of dogmatic, practical, church-political, and interdisciplinary concerns.
Mark D. Tranvik
The treatise or essay has played a key role in the transmission of ideas in the Western intellectual tradition and the Church in particular. Generally shorter than a book or monograph, the treatise attempts to examine a topic in a manner that is thorough yet avoids systematic treatment. The tone of the treatise usually avoids polemics and favors instead a more dispassionate treatment of its subject. In the middle ages, treatises in scholastic theology often became highly abstract and lifeless, focusing more on logical precision designed to appeal to the mind (intellectus). Entreaties to the heart (affectus) were often suspect because they were thought to lack intellectual rigor. Martin Luther’s “rhetoric of faith” results in a different view of the form of the treatise. Luther’s theological revolution centered on justification by grace through faith alone meant that theology was no longer aimed at only the mind. The whole person, mind and heart (intellectus and affectus), was now the proper object of instruction and persuasion. Luther stresses that faith, or pistis in the New Testament sense, involves a trust that encompasses thinking and feeling. Accordingly, Luther’s treatises and essays often exhibit this new rhetoric. The tone is often warm and embracing but certainly not to the exclusion of the mind. Evidence of this can be seen in five treatises he composes in the crucial year of 1520. This is the period just before he is excommunicated. To say the least, his future is highly uncertain. It is not surprising that he turns to the genre of the treatise as a format well suited to his program of reform. The Freedom of a Christian, The Treatise on Good Works, On the Papacy in Rome, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church are the result. Together they comprise a radical proposal for change that envisions a Church grounded in God’s Word and sacraments from which springs forth a people freed to love and serve their neighbors in all of their callings.
Piotr J. Małysz
Luther puts forth a Trinitarian hermeneutic of human willing and the will’s freedom. Luther’s thought in this area is best seen as a response to a problem that medieval theology inherited from Augustine. The puzzle concerns the conceptualization of divine and human agencies. Medieval theology, despite its commitment to emphasizing divine grace, articulated the reality of the two agencies in a way that practically, and then also conceptually, privileged human initiative instead. Luther, in contrast, returns to Augustine’s intuition, though not quite his language, and proposes that nothing short of a Trinitarian conception of freedom will do for the affirmation of human choice that, nonetheless, presupposes and defers consistently to divine initiative and support.