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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.

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Though it is well-known that Martin Luther stood in some connection to the late medieval theologians of his Order and that he intensively studied Augustine’s works in the mid-1510s, the exact nature of the influence either or both exercised upon the development of his theology is disputed. Arguably his adoption of advanced anti-Pelagian convictions aligns him with Gregory of Rimini contra pelagianos modernos in the realm of scholastic theology, while the pastoral theology he imbibed from Staupitz places him in a living tradition of “Augustinian Frömmigkeitstheologie” within the O.E.S.A. (the Hermit Order of St. Augustine). However, the most important impetus Luther received from late medieval Augustinianism was its determination to do theology in conversation with Augustine’s own works. Probably in 1514, Luther read the anti-Pelagian writings contained in the 1506 Amerbach edition of the Opera Omnia, and made his own both the iustitia passiva from sp. litt. 9.15 and the nexus of doctrines associated with residual “sin” in the baptized, which was increasingly emphasized in Augustine’s later works against Julian. Though young Friar Martin’s “Augustinianism” shifted in several respects, it possessed an enduring significance in Luther’s evangelical theology.