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A meta-argument is needed today to go forward in theology with Luther. For speaking of God, even in sophisticated ways, is a dangerous business that can lead astray. Theology is not in the Reformer’s mind an unambiguous good. But neither is silence an option, if God has spoken. If God has spoken, one is summoned, indeed, empowered to speak in response. In some distinction from the dialectical theology of the 20th century, which oscillates between the Word of God and the word of man, Luther employed a dialectic of the Word and the Spirit to organize theology. And if in the power of the Spirit one speaks in response to God’s Word about God, one must also speak with others about speech about God that accords with God’s speech. This discourse straddles the community of faith and the academy. Thus three orders of theological discourse—speech in God’s name, the church’s confession, and academic theology—can be sorted in order to facilitate Luther’s challenge to theology as a dangerous business fraught with peril. It must do so in a way that both retrieves his insight into the dialectic of Word and Spirit and also guards against Luther’s own failures, especially in academic theology, when invective supplanted dialogue. Within the Trinitarian sequence of Word and Spirit, the performance of God’s gospel word, so that it is experienced by the alienated sinner as the event of God surpassing the wrath of his love to establish the mercy of his love, constitutes the primary theology for Luther. This is discovered in the biblical matrix of Christian faith where the Spirit births every believer. Thus the primary theology of the Bible, taken as gospel speech in God’s name, gives “true” knowledge of God “in Christ crucified”; this is known and acknowledged in secondary theological speech, including Luther’s own doctrinal production. But the articulate recognition of these two orders is the critical work of an academic theologian. Luther is in principle critically dogmatic, and where he falls short of this standard, he can and may be corrected by his own academic standards. The case depends on (1) the Trinitarian interpretation of the dialectic of Word and Spirit as primary and secondary orders of theological knowledge, respectively, that are conscience-binding, church-uniting and context-independent, and (2) the differentiation of the former from the academic task in hermeneutics and critical thinking that is context-dependent and subject to nothing other than reason and persuasion.

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Following the deep and unsettling questions raised about the legacy of German Protestant theology as a result of the Great War (1914‒1918), a new interest emerged in returning to the fons et origo of Protestant theology in the writings of Martin Luther and other reformers. This was given additional impetus through the work of Karl Holl, who is widely credited with shaping the “Luther Renaissance” of 1919‒1921. Dialectical theology was a movement focused on Karl Barth that arose within German-speaking Protestantism in the aftermath of the Great War. The reception of Luther within the dialectical theology movement is complex and not easily reduced to simple categorizations. The diverse theological and confessional commitments within the movement led to various readings of Luther, generally mediated through secondary sources or channels. The movement portrayed itself in terms of a theocentric new reformation, breaking free from the cultural compromises and entanglements of German liberal theology in the first two decades of the twentieth century, particularly in relation to anthropology, Christology, and the understanding of sin. The movement presented itself as both the heir and reinterpreter of the theological legacy of the Reformation, particularly the theology of Martin Luther, most notably its emphasis on divine revelation. Yet its leading representatives—Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten—understood Luther in somewhat different manners. It is therefore important to consider the use made of Luther by each of these figures individually, rather than try to collapse them into a single generic approach which is held to be representative of dialectical theology. The high profile these four writers accorded to Luther unquestionably stimulated Luther studies in the postwar period and contributed significantly to the current appreciation of Luther in contemporary theological debate.