Reading Luther Not Wisely But Well: Part Two

Article by   February 2013
In last month's article, I argued that Luther remains a useful source for the thoughtful Christian but that the occasional nature of his writings means that he is more easily quoted than correctly understood.  Thus, in Part Two, I want to offer some suggestions for further reading.  Of course, the literature on Luther is vast and growing every year. Thus, what I highlight here are simply the books which I consider to be the most helpful.

Basic to reading Luther is.... reading Luther.  One cannot do better than to study the books and pamphlets which he actually wrote. The standard scholarly text of his works, in Latin and German, is the Weimar edition which started publication in the nineteenth century and continues, I believe, to this day. For those who prefer English, the so-called Philadelphia edition (nearly sixty volumes and counting) provides excellent access to all the major works and much more. It is also available via Logos and is really quite excellent. There are also many one-volume selections: the best are those by John Dillenberger and by Timothy Lull.  When teaching courses on Luther, I use the latter. A judicious selection of texts, clearly laid out, and with wide margins for notes. For those looking for ways in to his theology, probably the Catechisms, The Freedom of the Christian Man and The Bondage of the Will would be the places to start. In addition, every pastor should have on his bookshelf a copy of The Book of Concord, the confessional standards of Lutheran churches around the world. Theodore Tappert's translation is available for free online; the more recent and superior edition by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert is available as a quality hardback from Concordia.

I mentioned last time that Luther's life is central to reading his theology. His thinking, while remarkably consistent, does develop over time. He nuances his positions on various issues as he faces challenges which his own Reformation theology generated.Thus, knowing what issues he is facing and when is important when reading him. The benchmark biography of Luther in English is the three volumes by the German historian, Martin Brecht. These look rather forbidding: nearly 1400 pages of text, excluding notes. Nevertheless, the translation is very readable and the narrative moves at a good pace, such that the reader's interest is maintained and the basic storyline remains very clear.  

For those with less time to spare, there is the classic biography by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand. It was my first introduction to the Reformation and remains a favourite. Bainton was a radical thinker himself, not doctrinally sympathetic to Luther but rather emotionally so: he knew what it was like to be a beleaguered outside, a man at war with his times. Thus, he writes on Luther with considerable passion. A more recent short biography is that by the distinguished Lutheran historian, Martin Marty, in the Penguin Brief Lives series. This is fun too: well-written and peppered with little anecdotes of Luther's personal life. To these I would also add Robert Kolb's Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, a relatively short but learned and extremely informative introduction to Luther's life and major theological contributions. Readers should also consult Heiko Oberman's Luther: Man between God and Devil for an example of a brilliant, if at times speculative, account of Luther's life by the most significant Reformation scholar of the last fifty years.

When it comes to Luther's theology, there are many volumes from which to choose. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, is still useful. Philip S. Watson's Let God Be God and Gordon Rupp's The Righteousness of God are both classics from the mid-twentieth century (and, as a point of trivia, both authors happened to be Methodists). For me, the best overall summary of Luther's theology in Bernhard Lohse's Martin Luther's Theology. Anyone trying to produce a 'theology of Luther' has to make a critical decision at the very outset: should his thought be arranged chronologically, so as to highlight its unity in development, or thematically, so as to highlight its internal coherence? Either way, the risk of interpretative distortion is significant. Lohse effectively sidesteps the issue by refusing to make such a choice and presenting instead a study of Luther's thought in which the first half of the book is a form of intellectual biography and the second of intellectual synthesis.  The result is a very fine study of Luther.

There are a number of other treatments of Luther's theology with contemporary twists: Hans Martin Barth's The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment is a very substantial recent addition to the literature. Similarly, Oswald Bayer's  Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation is worth reading, as is Paul R. Hinlicky's Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom.

Books on individual themes in Luther abound. Of particular note in the recent literature is Kolb's Luther and the Stories of God, a very thought-provoking study of Luther's exegesis and homiletic approach which draws positively on modern narrative theory. I might add at this point that Robert Kolb is a prolific Luther scholar and just about everything he has written on Luther and Lutheranism is well worth reading.

On the cross, Walther von Loewenich's Luther's Theology of the Cross now enjoys the status of a classic. On the same theme, Gerhard Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross is also very stimulating.   

On baptism and the Lord's Supper, the point at which evangelicals and Reformed Protestants will likely find Dr. Martin most perplexing, perhaps the best starting place is the relevant section in Kolb's The Christian Faith: A Lutheran Exposition. For those wanting more, they should try Albrecht Peter's Commentary on Luther's Catechisms: Baptism and Lord's Supper.

The dark side of Luther is nowhere more evident than his later writings on the Jews. This is a difficult subject, not simply because of the venom with which he writes but also because of the problems of writing about such from a post-Holocaust perspective. Three books in particular should be consulted. The first is Oberman's The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, a classic articulation of the Jewish issue as one of religion.  Eric Gritsch's Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment is also worth reading, in part because Gritsch himself was a member of the Hitler Youth. Finally, the recent volume by Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany deserves the widest possible readership, both for its brilliant analysis of how Luther was used by Nazi propagandists, and for the judicious questions it raises about Oberman's central thesis. Paul Althaus (whose work The Ethics of Martin Luther is still worth reading) does not emerge with any great honour, I am afraid.

Eerdmans also has a great series of books which draw the best from the Luther Quarterly.  Kolb on the bondage of the will and the collection of essays gathered by Timothy J. Wengert under the title The Pastoral Luther are two real highlights.

Finally, two titles which are personal favourites: Eric Gritsch, The Wit of Martin Luther, is a short, brilliant study of Luther's use of humour as a rhetorical and theological device. My only criticism is the book could have been much, much longer. And then Charles P. Arand and Robert Kolb, The Genius of Luther's Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church is a profoundly practical reflection on how Luther's theology can and should shape life in the church today.  This is a book with useful implications well beyond the boundaries of confessional Lutheranism.

A list like this barely scratches the surface. But it is a start and I hope it is of some small help to a few of you.


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