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Martin Luther’s Treatises and Essays  

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.

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The Debate between Martin Luther and Erasmus  

Robert Kolb

Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus played somewhat significant roles in each other’s lives. Their early relationship is not free from a sense of the serious differences that divided them, but it largely reflected their common commitment to the biblical humanist ideas of “back to the sources” and effective rhetoric. Erasmus’ need to demarcate his positions from those of the heretic and outlaw after 1521 strengthened his resolve to demonstrate publicly at least one important difference between them, resulting in his Diatribe (1524), which provoked a debate with Luther over the freedom or bondage of the will, which Luther treated in his De servo arbitrio (On Bound Choice, 1525) and commentary on Ecclesiastes (1526/1532).

Article

Martin Luther’s Trinitarian Hermeneutic of Freedom  

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.

Article

Martin Luther on the Vocations of the Christian  

Robert Benne

A teaching of Martin Luther that has had great historical effect is his teaching on vocation. Protesting the Roman Catholic arrangement in which the clergy had callings of higher religious and moral significance than the laity, Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that all callings are equal in moral and religious seriousness. They only differ in function. This teaching unleashed unprecedented commitment and energy to worldly work in the Western world. Paralleling his teaching on the priesthood of all believers, Luther taught that all Christians are called by God through Christ to be his beloved and forgiven children, and that they need no mediators to receive that graceful call directly. At the same time, however, Christians who receive that grace through Christ become priests to their neighbors, mediating God’s love through them to the neighbor. They do that very concretely in their vocations. Thus, Christians become conduits of God’s love received through Christ and offered to the neighbor in the various places of responsibility they have been given. For Luther, Christians do not need to cast about for places to exercise their obedience; they were given in the orders of creation into which each Christian was inevitably placed—marriage and family life, work, citizenship, and church. Each person—lay and clergy alike—is called to work in the world. In fulfilling their work gladly and conscientiously, they serve their neighbor. Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his faith-active-in-love. Work is no longer simply a job or occupation; it is a calling, a vocation. It is a summons from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit sanctifies the Christian’s life, not in a self-centered quest for perfection, but rather in humble service to the neighbor. While Luther thought there were some occupations that were off-limits to Christians, he accepted most worldly roles as useful to the neighbor. The Christian could be a soldier in a just war and even a hangman in a just cause. One alleged weakness of the classic Lutheran teaching on vocation, however, was that it tended to accept uncritically the roles prescribed by the world. In such teaching, the Christian willingly does what the world prescribes. However, recent Lutheran interpretations of vocation are more dynamic. For example, Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation, argued not only that the orders of creation are dynamic and call for constructive change, but that in Christian vocation the two ways that God reigns in the world intersect. The Christian under the reign of God’s gospel interjects the love liberated by that gospel into one’s worldly occupation, transforming it into a genuine vocation. Love has a transformative effect. It functions critically and constructively. Lutheranism at its best has incorporated more dynamic elements into its great teaching on vocation.

Article

U.S. Foreign Relations and American Religious Liberalism  

Cara Lea Burnidge

Scholars of American religious liberalism, like the historical subjects they study, wrestle with the place and power of modernity in American history and culture. Recognizing and articulating the influence of modernity requires constant attention to what is, broadly speaking, “foreign.” It includes religious people, groups, ideas, and practices that developed in relationship to liberalism as a historically transnational ideology and movement, as well as those people, groups, ideas, and practices classifiable as “liberal” in relation to the contemporary moment. The historical events, figures, and ideas central to liberal ideological movements in America felt connected, through both their perception and experiences, to ideas, places, and people outside of “America.” This heightened the sense of belonging to an exceptional, if not universal, culture while also placing that culture in global perspective. Identifying who and what is and has been “liberal,” as well as narrating their history, thus requires attention to what Thomas Tweed and others have referred to as “global flows.” As a result, “American religious liberalism,” as a subject of study, does not merely denote a religious liberalism located within the geopolitical borders of America, but a religious liberalism formed, expressed, and experienced through a context of “America.” Consequently, foreign relations have a long and tangled history with American religious liberalism and liberalizing cultural moments and movements in the United States. Foreign figures, ideas, movements, and institutions are a constitutive element in the historical narrative of America’s religious liberalism. From German theologians who introduced American Christians to new biblical hermeneutics to transnational reform movements inspiring new forms of religious practice through social and political activism, global intellectual networks have encouraged Americans’ development of liberal modes of thought and practice. The politics of global empires and international society has also inspired liberal activism through international societies and nongovernmental organizations advocating for anticolonial, pacifist, abolitionist, suffragist, human rights, and many other humanitarian causes. This global context for American reform activism has been a significant factor in the development of liberal factions of numerous religious affiliations. The “global flow” of liberal reform pushed Americans toward spiritual experiences in developing areas of the world through both missionary efforts and individual spiritual exercises. Contact with the “outside” world often turned otherwise conservative or moderate missionaries toward liberal or liberationist theologies. Liberalism also brought “world religions” to American shores. Engagement with “others,” however, is not the only key factor in the intersection of American religious liberals with foreign relations. Religious liberalism has animated each “tradition” defining the history of U.S. foreign policy. Not least of all, religious liberals were instrumental in crafting and promoting internationalism in the long 20th century. Theologically liberal Protestants were in many ways the ideological architects behind interventionism as U.S. foreign policy. Liberal Protestant metaphysics and political activism assumed that intervention was necessary because it improved the lives of those deemed less fortunate and, consequently, was a universal agent for good in the world. Liberal religious institutions and the theologies they produced encouraged intervention (in all its various forms: economic, cultural, militaristic, diplomatic, etc.) on local, national, and international scales for the sake of a nebulous “greater good,” the more sectarian notion of “social salvation,” or even ultimately, and unironically, world peace. To liberal Protestant eyes, such intervention followed the example set by Jesus, fulfilled God’s will for humanity, and provided an opportunity to meet God in the natural world, either through encountering the “least among these” or establishing peace on earth. By the mid-20th century, liberal Catholics and Jews helped to reconstruct public perception of this “American way” around the notion of a shared Judeo-Christian foundation to American identity and action in the world.

Article

Scholasticisms in Martin Luther’s Thought  

Theodor Dieter

The article’s starting point is the observation that “scholasticism” cannot simply be taken as a unity, and thus also not Luther’s relationship to it, in spite of his often very general polemics against “the scholastics.” Rather, Luther’s discussion of specific philosophical and theological topics is analyzed, since only such debates have a clearly defined content and allow for arguments that can be examined, as is characteristic for medieval disputations. Thus, the unusual plural “scholasticisms” is used.

Article

Secularism, Pluralism, and Publics in America  

Charles McCrary

In the United States, religious, political, and social life has been structured by a public/private binary. Oftentimes, religion is understood as private and politics as public. This framework informs a religious/secular binary and carries important implications for the structure of American life. Particularly affected arenas include church-state relations; religious discourse in public life, including prophetic protest and religious nationalism; sexual regulation and the politics of morality; and norms of civic and civil discourse. Real politics and consequences attend the definition of terms like “religious,” “secular,” and “pluralist.” Many observers have called the United States a secular, pluralist nation and, simultaneously, the most “religious” nation in the “developed world.” The perceived incongruities or affinities among these labels betray fundamental assumptions about religion and its place in public life. When public figures invoke the language and imagery of “civil religion,” for example, they may be understood to sacralize the public sphere or bring religion into the public or treat the nation’s “shared” symbols with a religious reverence. Although pluralism, as both a demographical description and a progressive goal, has been broadly championed amid growing religious diversity, certain groups, ideas, and practices have nevertheless remained excluded from the realms of public secularism and private (proper) religiosity. The politics are messy and often subtle, but the consequences can be stark. In these ways and more, American life has been shaped by the entwined concepts of secularism, pluralism, and publics.

Article

Native Americans, Law, and Religion in America  

Michael P. Guéno

Religion was a point of cultural conflict, political motivation, and legal justification throughout the European and American colonization of North America. Beginning in the 14th century, Catholic monarchs invoked Christian doctrine and papal law to claim Native American “heathenry” or “infidelity” as legal grounds that legitimized or mandated their policies of military invasion and territorial occupation. More progressive Christian thinkers argued for the recognition of Native Americans as human beings entitled to certain natural-law protections that morally obligated Spain to conquer and convert them for their own benefit. Spain and France worked with the church throughout the 16th and 17th centuries to establish missions throughout seized Native American territories, while English colonists often segregated Native Americans into “praying towns” for their moral benefit or the sanctity of the colonies. After the United States declared independence, American politicians quickly identified dissolution of Native American cultures as a necessary step in undermining tribal saliency and in ensuring the political dominion of state and federal governments. By the 19th century, policymakers were convinced that encouraging Indians to put aside their “savage ways” would help tribal populations achieve cultural and spiritual salvation through Christianity. In 1869, President Grant initiated a “Peace Policy” that granted Christian missions contracts and federal funding to civilize and Christianize the Native American peoples of assigned reservations. The federal government established boarding schools for the children of tribal communities to teach English, Christianity, and occupational skills in order to “Kill the Indian in him and Save the Man.” During the 19th and 20th centuries, federal legislation stripped Native Americans of lands, property, and rights, while federal agencies forbade the practice of indigenous Native American religions. Subsequent courts legitimated the historic claim of European nations to Native American lands pursuant to the “Doctrine of Discovery,” thus ruling these policies either legal or unreviewable. While judicial decisions throughout the 20th century also recognized tribal rights to land, water, and self-government as well as the legal obligation of the federal government to protect tribal resources, these rulings have been inconsistently realized. Throughout the history of the United States, law has articulated, in the language of privilege, right, and moral prescription, American values and visions of ideal relations. As American culture has changed, federal policy has swung back and forth among initiatives to relocate, terminate, assimilate, and appropriate Native American cultures. Religion and law have advanced agendas of conquest and colonization and become means by which Native Americans peoples have resisted those agendas.

Article

Martin Luther’s Concept of the Human Being  

Ilmari Karimies

Martin Luther’s anthropology, as expressed in his writings, consists of several elements. Luther often utilizes a three-part scheme, according to which a human being consists of body, soul, and spirit. This scheme is, to a considerable degree, derived from the medieval Augustinian and mystical tradition. This tradition sees the three-room Old Testament Tabernacle as a figure of the human person, in whom God dwells in the spirit. Luther’s most important contribution here is in locating faith at the highest and innermost place, in which the human being is in contact with God. The place of the soul undergoes development over time in his works: that is, whether the soul is related to the spirit or to the flesh, is part of sinful carnality, or is a neutral medium. Upon this tripartite natural composition Luther builds a bipartite distinction between flesh and spirit, which concerns the whole man as either carnal or spiritual. This distinction derives from Luther’s interpretation of Paul and Augustine. For Luther, the human being is at the same time sinner and righteous, carnal and spiritual. The spirit and the flesh experience the same things in opposite manners. The third component is the concept of person, which unites the previous two contraries into one subject. It reflects a mode of thought peculiar to Luther, in which mutually opposite and contrary things are brought together by Christological means. The reader should also note that Luther’s anthropology often employs established theological terms, such as homo carnalis, homo animalis, and homo spiritualis. They refer to certain aspects of the person, not to the person as a whole. As Luther also refers to the whole human being as a “person,” the previous terms cannot be replaced by it without confusion. Because of this issue, the word homo in connection with these terms is rendered in English as “man,” but this translation is not meant to exclude the female gender, and it itself refers only to certain aspects of the person.

Article

Law, the U.S. Supreme Court, and Religion  

Derek H. Davis

The United States Supreme Court’s religion jurisprudence is typically analyzed based on whether a court’s decision emerges from an Establishment Clause analysis or a Free Exercise Clause analysis. While this method is useful, a more in-depth analysis can be undertaken by identifying various philosophical themes that describe the court’s varied approaches to deciding religion cases. The cases can be analyzed under at least four separate but interrelated themes: separation of church and state, cooperation between sacred and secular activities in religion-based contexts, equal treatment among religions, and the integration of religion and politics. This article examines the High Court’s often controversial decisions affecting religion through the lenses of these four themes. The term “separation of church and state” is frequently used to describe the American relationship between law and religion, but this term is far too simplistic a description of how church and state interact in the American system; the ways in which the system sometimes embraces separation but sometimes does not, are analyzed and explained. Consistent with the misconception that the Supreme Court always seeks to “separate” church and state, court analysts will sometimes describe the court’s strategy as giving “no aid” to religion. This also is a simplistic analysis, since it can clearly be shown that the court does not seek to “wall” off religion from government aid in all cases. Rather, the court tends to sanction state support of “secular” activities that arise in religion contexts while denying state aid to the “sacred” components of religious activity. “Equality” is a hallmark of American democracy. While the Founders did not earmark equality as a goal of the religion clauses, the concept has nevertheless emerged as a byproduct of deeper goals, namely sanctioning religious pluralism and providing equal access to government office. If separation of church and state were really the centerpiece of how religion and state activity interact in the United States, the Supreme Court would not sanction the involvement of religion in public debate and discourse, nor would it permit political candidates and officeholders to freely talk about religion in their personal lives and its role in American political life. But the court carefully crafts a jurisprudence that rarely intrudes on this kind of activity. In sum, looking at Supreme Court religion cases through a number of philosophical lenses is a fruitful guide to understanding court decisions that are otherwise often highly complex and confusing.

Article

Space and Church–State Controversies in America  

John C. Blakeman

Issues of church and state are an important element of American religious history and politics. Church–state issues frequently concern the extent of government regulation over religious groups and individuals, and they address fundamental issues, from the constitutional limits on government regulation of religiously inspired conduct to state and local government zoning of religious congregations and property owned and used by religious groups. Space is often a part of church–state issues. Beginning with early debates over religious liberty in the Puritan colonies in the 1600s, and again during the American Revolution and framing of the U.S. Constitution between 1775 and 1790, spatial conceptions of the proper role between church and state, and between government and religion, are prominent. Two fundamental thinkers on American religious liberty, the Puritan minister Roger Williams and the constitutional framer James Madison, illustrate this dimension of church–state relations. Disputes over space, church, and state are often resolved by the court system through litigation, or through the political process. Such disputes often stem from government policies and regulations that affect how a congregation or religious group uses its own property. For instance, zoning and other municipal ordinances may affect and burden how a religious group uses its property and even interfere with a group’s religious mission. Religious beliefs may compel a congregation to use its property to engage in charitable works, yet it may be prohibited from doing so due to government regulations on how its property can be used. Or when a congregation seeks to expand its facilities to attract more members, or even build a new worship center elsewhere, it may encounter government policies that regulate its ability to do so. Other disputes over space arise when government regulation of public property affects a religious group’s use of it. For example, some religious groups stake a sacred claim to land or other space owned by the government. However, government regulations concerning how the land is used might interfere with a group’s ability to act upon its sacred beliefs. In some cases, religious groups may seek to use public property for religious purposes and activities, such as the display of a religious symbol or for proselytizing to the public, and government policies may prevent that in order to avoid violating the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion in the First Amendment. A final view of space and church–state issues is more conceptual and less grounded in tangible space, land, and property. Some religious groups seek a more abstract, intangible space between them and government regulation. Groups such as the Old Order Amish that seek to separate from the world will erect a buffer space between themselves and government regulation, so as to preserve the purity, and sanctity, of their way of life that is inextricably linked to their specific religious beliefs.