Harvesting Martin Luther's Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church

Harvesting Martin Luther's Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church

by Timothy J. Wengert


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As profound as Martin Luther's ideas are, this giant of church history was concerned above all with practical instruction for daily Christian living. Harvesting Martin Luther's Reflections highlights this concern of Luther, mining his thought in key areas of doctrine, ethics, and church practice. Gathering noteworthy contributions by well-known Luther scholars from Europe and the Americas, this book ranges broadly over theological questions about baptism and righteousness, ethical issues like poverty and greed, and pastoral concerns like worship and spirituality.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781506427119
Publisher: 1517 Media
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Series: Lutheran Quarterly Books
Pages: 274
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Timothy J. Wengert is emeritus professor of Church History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. A parish pastor for seven years in Minnesota and Wisconsin with a doctorate from Duke University, he taught on Philadelphia's faculty from 1989-2013. He has written extensively on the Reformation, was co-editor of the English edition of The Book of Concord (Fortress, 2000) and translated Luther's Small Catechism, used throughout the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In addition to books on Philip Melanchthon and Martin Luther, he co-authored with Susan Wood a book on Lutheran/Roman Catholic relations, Shared Spiritual Journey (Paulist, 2016) and currently serves on the U.S. Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogue. He currently resides in Long Valley, NJ.

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Harvesting Martin Luther's Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2486-2

Chapter One

The Catechetical Luther

Luther on Baptism


Martin Luther extols the benefits of baptism in his Large Catechism, barely able to contain his delight:

In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings - victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God's grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts. In short the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could all be true.

Halting the sacrament's gradual slide into obscurity in the Middle Ages, Luther injected a vitality into baptism missing since the early days of the church. No longer was this merely the sacrament of infancy. Luther saw baptism's significance extending far beyond the momentary rite at the font. Baptism permeates the entire life of the believer, and therefore plays a large role in Luther's theology. References to the sacrament are found not only in predictable places such as catechisms and treatises but also in surprising sources such as the Lectures on Genesis. Further, Luther relied on baptism in the midst of his intense spiritual assaults (Anfechtungen), as has often been noted.

Two factors shape Luther's theology of baptism. One is the internal necessity of coordinating baptism with the central tenet of the reforming movement, the doctrine of justification. After his recovery of the gospel, Luther viewed all of theology through the lens of justification by faith alone. That is, church structure and doctrine are reshaped so that the eschatological message of Christ crucified and risen is clearly proclaimed. In his writings on baptism it is Luther's intention to reform the understanding of the sacrament so that it signifies, as he puts it, "full and complete justification."

The other factor is the external context. No thinker is unaffected by the institutional and intellectual currents of his age. Hence, commentators on Luther must keep one eye on the historical surroundings. While Luther's views on baptism do not fundamentally change, they are shaded and nuanced in certain ways depending on the context.

Luther and the Middle Ages

The importance of baptism in the Middle Ages had decreased compared with the early church. Whereas the church fathers saw baptism as a light that illumined the entire life of the Christian pilgrim, for the church of Luther's time the sacrament was but a single point on the sacramental spectrum, important to be sure, but superseded by penance and eucharist. This happened for two reasons.

First, the notion that a sacrament worked ex opere operato tended to ritualize and desiccate baptism. In essence this Latin formula meant that the sacraments infused grace simply from the use of them, apart from any act of the soul. As long as the recipient posed no obstacle (such as being in a state of mortal sin) the sacrament effected the transmission of grace. Given this background, one can begin to understand Luther's charge that the Scholastics "had reduced the power of baptism to such small and slender dimensions that ... it had now become entirely useless."

Second, in the development of the medieval sacramental system, baptism tended to be associated only with the beginning of life, its chief role being to wash away the guilt of original sin. Its link with ensuing Christian pilgrimage was largely supplanted by the sacrament of penance. Once a person reached the age of reason and was guilty of mortal sin, he sought restoration via the penitential system.

For Luther the medieval understanding of the sacraments and the concept of ex opere operato had diluted baptism's transformative power because they virtually eliminated the need for faith. While the necessity of baptism was acknowledged, the sacrament itself was often viewed in a mechanical manner, which allowed it to become infected by nomism. As Luther recognized, the vacuum created by the absence of faith is filled by works:

For if the sacrament confers grace on me because I receive it, then indeed I receive grace by virtue of my work, and not by faith; and I gain not the promise in the sacrament but only the sign instituted and commanded by God.

Against the sacramentalism of the medieval church Luther emphasizes the necessity of faith: "Thus it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added. This faith justifies and fulfills that which baptism signifies." The sign by itself remains empty. Nor does the water contain any magical power. Unless faith be present (not understood merely as intellectual belief but as a trusting relationship with the living God), the sacrament is "vanity of vanities and vexation of Spirit."

Faith plays a crucial role in baptism, but Luther never imagines that faith "makes" the sacrament. In other words, the recipients do not gather together their crumbs of belief and offer them to God who in turn makes their baptism efficacious. This grossly distorts Luther's understanding of how God's promises work and is fundamentally as legalistic as the Scholastic understanding.

Rather, Luther's sacramental theology turns on his dynamic understanding of God's word as promise. In the medieval tradition the word "consecrated" conferred a power upon the substance of the sacrament. For Luther the Word is directed not to the element itself but to the recipient of the sacrament. Moreover, this Word is not a dead letter but something powerful, active and creative, working faith itself in the believer.

The God who created the world through his Word is also able to create faith in those receiving the sacrament. In a sermon from 1537, Luther makes this connection between the creative and sacramental Word:

How does this (creation) happen? Through the words "Let it come into being." Through this word everything was created and conceived. Even humanity was created by this word. If you or I were to speak thusly nothing would happen. But when God says, "Let it come into being," the world is full of people, children and animals. ... Thus you can reason: If God is able by the word to create heaven and earth and fill the world, that is, everything we see with our eyes, why is it not possible to take water and baptize, saying "In the name ..." and so be washed from all sins in body and soul?

If the Word spoken in baptism is understood only as a human word, it conveys essentially nothing. But because God himself is speaking through his human instrument, the same God who by speaking created heaven and earth, the Word achieves its soteriological goal, namely cleansing from sin in body and soul.

Consequently, the Word of promise always precedes faith. The promise awakens and nourishes faith. A sacrament can be said to "depend" on faith only in the sense that a promise has no effect apart from belief. Luther asserts that the meeting of promise and faith gives a "real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments."

Luther's concern to highlight faith separates his understanding of baptism from a medieval one. But faith is never an autonomous act of the believer, but rather the trust engendered by hearing God's promises. It is no accident that in his definitive attack on the medieval sacramental system, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther gives priority to the promise in his understanding of baptism:

Now, the first thing to be considered about baptism is the divine promise.... This promise must be set far above all the glitter of works, vows, religious orders and whatever else man has introduced, for on it all our salvation depends.

With the notion of the Word as promise, Luther reshapes baptism under the dynamic rubric of Word and faith.

In his early writings on baptism, Luther latches onto a "family" of words well suited to his new understanding of justification. It becomes clear that nothing less than the language of baptism, the language of death and life, can aptly describe the transformation wrought on one who trusts in God's promises.

For example, when one is baptized, says Luther, one should not understand this "allegorically" as the death of sin and the life of grace but as "actual death and resurrection ... for baptism is not a false sign." Similarly, he disdains those who speak of baptism as a "washing" away of sin for that is "too meek and mild." Rather, "the sinner needs to die, in order to be wholly renewed and made into another creature." Following Paul in Romans 6:4, Luther sees baptism as the way the cross and resurrection become contemporaneous with the believer. Baptism effects the "joyous exchange" (fröhliche Wechsel), a term Luther used frequently to express his understanding of the atonement. As Ulrich Asendorf has made clear, this "exchange" is not merely an intellectual construct but rather effects a real transformation in the believer.

Furthermore, Luther's claim that "baptism is full and complete justification" represents another protest against the late medieval church. Rejecting any understanding of the salvation that envisions cooperation between the human and divine wills, baptism for Luther effects a death and resurrection, which rules out a segmented or progressive understanding of justification. Neither the Thomist nor nominalist conceptions of justification, both of which allow for the incremental cooperation of the human subject with grace, can possibly serve as paradigms for Luther's new understanding of the God-human relationship. However, baptism goes to the heart of justification - God's slaying of the sinner and God's resurrection of a completely new creature.

Luther's early writings on baptism not only highlight the role of God's promise and baptism's close link with justification, they also reveal his concern to merge baptism with the sacrament of penance. Medieval theologians divided penance into the categories of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. It was especially subject to abuse in Luther's day, most notoriously in the indulgence controversy. Luther complained that penance, which had its foundation in baptism and whose function was to point to baptism, had degenerated into the "external pomp of works" and the "deceits of man-made ordinances."

A specific target for Luther is Jerome, who said that penance is the "second plank after the shipwreck" and thereby inferring that the power of baptism is broken because of sin. Luther, concerned to stress baptism's lifelong significance, turns this image on its head:

The ship remains one, solid, and invincible; it will never be broken up into separate "planks." In it are carried all those who are brought to the harbor of salvation, for it is the truth of God giving us his promise in the sacraments. Of course, it often happens that many rashly leap overboard into the sea and perish; these are those who abandon faith in the promise and plunge into sin. But the ship itself remains intact and holds its course unimpaired. If any one is able somehow by grace to return to the ship, it is not on any plank, but in the solid ship itself that he is borne to life.

Concerned to combat the tendency to emphasize penance over baptism, by the end of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church he coalesces the two sacraments. Penance becomes a return to baptism. Consequently, baptism is no longer just the sacrament of infancy or merely an "initiation rite" into the church. Now baptism spans the earthly life of the believer.

This emphasis on the permanence of baptism is necessary because of sin. Although we are "pure and guiltless" at the moment of our baptism, sin continues to adhere to our nature, since we are "at once justified and a sinner." However, sin cannot harm the one who has been baptized. Since baptism was his "actual death," the believer is comforted in already knowing the result of God's future judgment. Moreover, in the daily return to baptism one has the assurance that God does not impute sins; he "winks" at them because of the pledge he has made in the sacrament.

Finally, in his early writings on baptism Luther links baptism, Christian freedom, and the priesthood of all believers. The reform unleashed by Luther was not limited to the realm of doctrine. His new understanding of the gospel propelled him to criticize the institutional church because he believed it had undermined Christian liberty. As Luther saw it, traditional distinctions between temporal and spiritual orders or between clergy and laity did nothing but obfuscate the freedom bestowed in justification.

In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, Luther disputes on the grounds of baptism the arrogation of rights, privileges, and status by the clergy:

Since those who exercise secular authority have been baptized with the same baptism, and have the same faith and the same gospel as the rest of us, we must admit that they are priests and bishops and we must regard their office as one which has a proper and useful place in the Christian community. For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop, and pope....

In the new evangelical understanding, baptism supplants the character indelibilis. Luther's view of the sacrament results in an "ontological leveling" of the church, eliminating the notion of a "higher" clerical estate.

The section on baptism in the Babylonian Captivity evidences a similar theme, particularly in the call for the abolition of all vows and religious orders. The latter are diametrically opposed to the sacrament because they hobble Christian liberty:

by what right, I ask you, does the pope impose his laws upon us? ... Who gave him the power to deprive us of this liberty of ours, granted to us in baptism? One thing only, as I have said, has been enjoined upon us to do all the days of our lives - to be baptized, that is, to be put to death and to live again through faith in Christ.... But now faith is passed over in silence, and the church is smothered with endless laws concerning works and ceremonies....

Luther views baptism as a forceful weapon in his battle against the Roman hierarchy. Because the sacrament bestows all that a Christian needs, namely full and complete justification, it becomes an explicit challenge to Rome's multitudinous additions to the gospel. Under the banner of baptism, and in the name of liberating bound consciences, Luther launches a wide-ranging assault on church tradition and canon law.


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