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Martin Luther’s Christological Sources in the Church Fathers  

Carl Beckwith

Luther did not write an exhaustive dogmatic account of the person and work of Christ. The lack of such a work has led to differing assessments of the place of Christology in Luther’s thought. Some have concluded that Christology played only a secondary role in Luther’s theology. Others have countered that Christology stands at the center of Luther’s thought. The range of assessments on Luther’s Christology can be explained, in part, by the expectations of our theological categories. Luther, like the Church Fathers before him, discussed Christology in a broader context than the scholastic manuals and systematic theologies of late modernity. For both Luther and the Church Fathers, the mystery of Christ stood at the center of their confession of the Trinity, reading of scripture, and life of prayer and worship. When discussing the Trinity, Luther declares, “Where this God, Jesus Christ, is, there is the whole God or the whole divinity. There the Father and the Holy Spirit are to be found. Beyond this Christ God nowhere can be found.” Similarly, when it comes to scripture, Christ is the test by which to judge the books of the Bible. Luther declares, “Remove Christ from the scriptures and what more will you have?” For Luther Christ stands at the center whether we are discussing the Trinity or scripture: “Thus all of Scripture, as already said, is pure Christ, God’s and Mary’s Son. Everything is focused on this Son, so that we might know Him distinctively and in that way see the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally as one God. To him who has the Son scripture is an open book; and the stronger his faith in Christ becomes, the more brightly will the light of scripture shine for him.” All of Luther’s theological reflection proceeds from his faith in Christ. Thinking of Christology only in terms of a formal reflection on the unity of two natures in one person risks reducing the discussion to paradoxical metaphysics and overlooking the broader interests of Luther and the Church Fathers. This point is crucial for a consideration of Luther’s Christological sources in the Church Fathers. Luther aligns himself with the Christological insights of the Fathers and councils by showing how Christ and his saving work stand at the center of theological endeavors. For the Fathers and creeds of the Early Church, the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son forms the context for their reflections on the man Jesus and his saving work. Similarly, for Luther, scripture’s teaching on the Trinity and Christ, as received and clarified by the Fathers and councils, serves as his hermeneutical resource for understanding Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, the blessed exchange between Christ and the believer, and justification by faith. Luther, like the Church Fathers, worked out the distinctive features of his Christology amid controversy. Luther’s debate with Zwingli sharpened his understanding of the Incarnation and reveals his debt to the Fathers. Luther’s use of the communicatio idiomatum and the implications of the sharing of attributes for the Lord’s Supper and our salvation align him closely with the Greek Fathers, particularly those indebted to the theological insights of Cyril of Alexandria. The remarkable convergence between Luther’s argument with Zwingli and Cyril’s argument with Nestorius reveals the strong Alexandrian and Neo-Chalcedonian sympathies and instincts of Luther’s Christology.