Abingdon Pillars of Theology is a series for the college and seminary classroom designed to help students grasp the basic and necessary facts, influence, and significance of major theologians. Written by noted scholars, these books will outline the context, methodology, organizing principles, primary contributions, and key writings of people who have shaped theology as we know it today.
"Martin Luther would be shocked to hear that he is appearing in a series called pillars of theology. To be sure, the professor of biblical interpretation with a doctorate in theology was a theologian. In fact, teaching theology for thirty-four years at the University of Wittenberg brought into Luther's large household, managed by his wife Katharina von Bora, the only salary he ever earned. Still, like most theologians, Luther never thought of himself as having a theology. A theologian becomes a pillar of the discipline in the estimation of admiring readers, but they are not the focus of this book. My purpose is to lay the groundwork and identify the pieces that were later used to construct what is now called Luther's theology." From the book
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By Scott Hendrix
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
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Chapter OneLaying the Groundwork
Martin Luther would be shocked to hear that he is appearing in a series called pillars of theology. To be sure, the professor of biblical interpetation with a doctorate in theology was a theologian. In fact, teaching theology for thirty-four years at the University of Wittenberg brought into Luther's large household, managed by his wife Katharina von Bora, the only salary he ever earned. Still, like most theologians, Luther never thought of himself as having a theology. A theologian becomes a pillar of the discipline in the estimation of admiring readers, but they are not the focus of this book. My purpose is to lay the groundwork and identify the pieces that were later used to construct what is now called Luther's theology.
Five principles will help us understand how Luther himself practiced theology.
First, Martin Luther's theology cannot be presented or understood apart from the world in which he lived. His life and his work were defined by four contexts: (a) sixteenth-century Germany, where he lived and died; (b) Electoral Saxony, an important territory in the Holy Roman Empire, to which Luther was confined after being declared an outlaw in 1521; (c) the small town and University of Wittenberg, where Luther worked from 1512 to 1546; and (d) the Wittenberg cloister of Augustinian Hermits, in which Luther dwelled initially as a monk and then as a husband and father after his marriage in 1525.
All four settings contributed vital elements to Luther's theological practice. He was reared and schooled in the deep piety of late medieval Germany, and he profited from the intellectual currents of Christian humanism that insisted on the value of education and the study of languages. With the help of his colleagues, he became a gifted translator of the Bible and a master of lucid and expressive German that made him—through the new printing technology—a popular writer. Because the Holy Roman Empire was a patchwork of independent cities and territories, the political clout of the electors of Saxony shielded Luther from the imperial ban and permitted their young university at Wittenberg, founded in 1502, to develop into a haven of the new evangelical theology.
Within the university, Luther was one member of a talented faculty that for the most part supported his judgments of scholastic theology and popular piety. A brilliant young scholar of Greek, Philip Melanchthon, who was hired in 1518 at the age of twenty-one, became his closest theological collaborator, and they formed the core of a Wittenberg movement that Luther described as "our" theology even before Melanchthon arrived on the scene:
Our theology and St. Augustine are progressing well and with God's help rule at our university. Aristotle is gradually falling from his throne, and his final doom is only a matter of time. It is amazing how the lectures on the Sentences are disdained. Indeed, no one can expect to have any students, if [they] do not want to teach this theology, that is, lecture on the Bible or on St. Augustine or another teacher of ecclesiastical eminence.
Courses on the Bible and early Christian thinkers were replacing the lectures on medieval scholastic theology, in which Luther and his colleagues had been trained. Scholasticism was built on principles taken from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and its basic textbook was the Sentences, a collection of debatable opinions from earlier writers that were organized into topics by Peter Lombard (1100–60). In Erfurt, where he was among those monks chosen to pursue an academic career, Luther studied both Aristotle's philosophy and scholastic theology. Like other teachers-to-be he delivered the required lectures on Lombard's Sentences, to which he applied the logical skills he had learned from Aristotle and developed during his scholastic training. Teaching theology on the basis of scripture and Augustine (354–430) departed from the scholastic method, but it was not entirely new. It harkened back to the way theology had been taught in schools attached to cloisters, and it revealed the debt that Luther owed to his monastic heritage. Luther lived as a monk for almost one-third of his life, and the monastic goal of an intentional Christian life, in different dress, made its way into his Reformation theology.
Second, Luther's theology grew out of his interpretation of scripture. This axiom is not the same as the principle "by scripture alone" (sola scriptura), that is, making scripture the chief authority for theological assertions. As a theologian Luther's job was to glean from the biblical text insights for his students about God and the world. His first attempt, a course on Psalms, lasted two years (1513–15) and made use of explanations by his predecessors. After the psalter Luther lectured on Romans (1515–16), Galatians (1516–17), Hebrews (1517–18), and again on Psalms (1519–21). He had reached only Psalm 22 when he was summoned to Worms in April of 1521, and after he returned to Wittenberg from hiding in 1522, he did not pick up where he had stopped. During the turbulent years that followed, Luther offered his courses on a regular basis. The lectures commonly used for reconstructing his theology are the second series on Galatians, which were delivered in 1531 and published in 1535, and the extensive course on Genesis, on which Luther lectured from 1535 to 1545 and that now take up the first eight volumes of the American Edition.
Although these lectures are sometimes called "commentaries," especially in their edited and printed forms, they were not commentaries in the modern sense of biblical aids but theology in the raw, that is, direct applications of the biblical text to the world of Luther and his students. For that reason Luther's lectures on scripture often sound like sermons and demonstrate how Luther's theology was both biblical and contextual. About two thousand of his actual sermons have been preserved in the Weimar Edition of Luther's works. In 1538 Luther reflected on his early preaching activity: "Often I preached four sermons on one day; during the whole of one Lent I preached two sermons and gave one lecture every day." The sermons are probably the least utilized resource for appreciating Luther's theological mind, although several important treatises developed from sermons or ideas for sermons. For example, the treatise on good works (1520), a major early book, was an exposition of the Ten Commandments, which Luther started as a sermon that outgrew his intention. The catechisms published in 1529 were actually based on sermons. One way or another, therefore, Luther was frequently interpreting scripture when he was thinking, speaking, and writing about theology.
Third, Martin Luther thought of himself as a teacher before regarding himself as a theologian or a reformer. In 1520 Luther wrote:
Although I know full well and hear every day that many people think little of me and say that I only write little pamphlets and sermons in German for the uneducated laity, I do not let that stop me. Would to God that in my lifetime I had, to my fullest ability, helped one layperson to be better! I would be quite satisfied, thank God, and quite willing then to let all my little books perish.... I will most gladly leave to anybody else the glory of greater things. I will not be ashamed in the slightest to preach to uneducated laypeople and write for them in German.
Luther did not belittle education or academic theology. After all, he was a university professor who debated in Latin with his peers the technical questions of scholastic theology. He prized the doctor of theology degree awarded to him in 1512 and vowed he would not exchange it for all the world's gold. After his excommunication it became the chief warrant for his reforming mission: "God and the whole world bear me testimony that I entered into this work publicly and by virtue of my office as teacher and preacher and have carried it hitherto by the grace and help of God." Although he continued to lecture in Latin until the end of his life, he wrote more books and tracts in German as the reforms made headway. For Luther reform was not yet finished when a new theological curriculum was adopted at the university. Not only clergy-to-be but also working clergy and their parishes needed to be taught a different way of believing, learning, and practicing the faith. That required Luther and his colleagues to preach and write in German and, not to be forgotten, to translate the Bible into the language of the people.
Fourth, Martin Luther was an occasional theologian. This phrase does not mean that Luther wrote theology infrequently but that he was prompted to ponder theological topics while facing specific opponents or issues. In other words, he did not spin out of his head long books about God, Christ, or the church, but he had to think about these topics while solving a particular problem or responding to an adversary. In fact, Luther attributed his theological ability to the stiff and persistent opposition he faced: "I myself ... am deeply indebted to my papists that through the devil's raging they have beaten, oppressed, and distressed me so much. That is to say, they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise."
A good example of this occasional theology is his book on the bound will, written in response to an attack by the prominent Dutch humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who remained loyal to the Roman Church. In his long reply, the title of which is often translated as The Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther defended his conviction that the will was bound to sin until it was liberated by the Holy Spirit. As Luther made his case and tried to refute the biblical evidence brought by Erasmus, he ranged over many topics like the clarity of scripture, the hiddenness of God, the nature of sin, election, freedom of the will, and the grace of Christ. For that reason, The Bondage of the Will is often regarded as one of his major theological treatises. Indeed it is, but it does not present those topics in such a complete or systematic way that Luther's comments in other places can be ignored.
Occasionally, Luther would choose the theme of a treatise, as he did in some of his earliest writings for the laity in German: the sacraments, preparation for dying, short expositions of the Ten Commandments, the creed, the Lord's Prayer, the right kind of good works, and Christian freedom. These tracts or pamphlets, especially those published from 1517 to 1520, sold so well that Luther quickly became the most successful religious author of his day. He was aided, of course, by the rapid expansion of the printing industry and the initial scarcity of German material to publish. Still, Luther knew how to present theology so that laity would both understand it and find it useful. In fact, he was more admired for that ability than for the learned Latin volumes (like Bondage of the Will) that scholarly adversaries coaxed from his pen.
Fifth, Luther's theology arose from his reforming agenda. Although he did, as he wrote, get involved "in the turmoils" with Rome "by accident," by late 1521 at the latest, while he sat in protective custody at the Wartburg, a purpose for the new evangelical movement that had begun in Wittenberg was crystallizing in Luther's mind. When he returned to the city during the first week of Lent (early March) of 1522, he preached a sermon every day. That series of sermons both undermined the leadership of Andrew Karlstadt, his former colleague, and announced the goal of reform that would echo throughout his writings during the coming years. Changes needed to be made in church rules like fasting, in attitudes toward statues and pictures, and in the way the Lord's Supper was offered and received, but those changes were to be made in the spirit of Christian freedom and the goal of change was to enhance both faith and love in the lives of believers. Luther was upset by the suddenness of Karlstadt's alterations. People felt compelled to accept them before they were ready, and that pressure demonstrated a lack of love and mutual forbearance that Christians should have for one another. Hence, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13, Luther preached that possession of the gospel and true faith were of little value if "nobody extends a helping hand to the other, nobody seriously considers the other person, ... nobody looks after the poor" to see how they might be helped. "This is a pity," he said. "You have heard many sermons about it and all my books are full of it and have one purpose, to urge you to faith and love."
When he said "all my books," Luther was exaggerating, but many of his books and sermons did aim at strengthening the faith and love of believers. As the epitome of his teaching Luther could have cited the tract on Christian freedom that he sent to Pope Leo X. He described it to Leo as a "small book if you regard its size," but he maintained that it contained "the whole of Christian life in a brief form, provided you grasp its meaning." Luther condensed that meaning into two propositions: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." Then he explained how the believer becomes free through faith and a dutiful servant of others through love. It was a template of the Christian life that illustrated Luther's way of writing theology—not by constructing an intricate web of theological concepts but by showing readers how they could receive the gifts of faith and love and use them to liberate themselves and to serve others. Luther's desire to change the pattern of Christian living, which he thought had been distorted by medieval clerics, guided the development of his theology and held it together.
Excerpted from Luther by Scott Hendrix Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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