Reading Luther Not Wisely But Well: Part One

Carl Trueman Articles
Martin Luther is perhaps the single most important thinker for Protestants. Not that he is the greatest theologian, exegete or even role model. There are other, more qualified candidates for each of those titles. He is, however, the original agenda setter for Protestantism: his focus on justification by faith, his critique of papal authority, and his prioritizing of Word over sacrament have all set basic trajectories for subsequent generations.

Nevertheless, Luther is a complex thinker whose writings in the hands of the inept enthusiast fulfill a function analogous to that of a cut-throat razor in the hands of a child who wants to emulate his father's morning routine 'so as to be just like daddy.' The result can be messy and sometimes dangerous. After all, Luther is a man who can be quoted positively by godly Lutheran pastors, shaven-headed neo-Nazi sociopaths and forty-something representatives of the  Beautiful People. Luther is indeed more easily quoted than actually understood.

It is this quotable quality of Luther that makes him both so attractive (and often so much fun) and also such a liability. Therefore, in this article and that of next month I want to offer the reader not an exhaustive guide to his thought or even a hawk's eye view of the Lutheran landscape; rather, I want to outline difficulties of which the reader of Luther should be aware and then a brief bibliographical essay which should provide the aspiring Luther aficionado with the basic foundations for avoiding the obvious pitfalls. My hope is that this will help to read his works well. I would say 'wisely'; but I fear that reading Luther wisely in today's Christian society of the easily hurt might well make him, in some ways the least wise of Reformers, somewhat tiresome. And, to misquote Dr. Johnson, to be tired of Luther is to be tired of life.

I have heard it said that Luther was not a systematic theologian. This statement is both true and false. Often it is used to imply that Luther's thinking was not systematic in the sense that it was somewhat jumbled or contained a lot of loose ends or that he had no patience with system as such, but reveled in theology as internally incoherent kerygma. In this sense, the claim is not true. Luther was a remarkably systematic thinker in several ways. Thus, his emphases and interests (e.g., righteousness, sacraments, incarnation, authority) are remarkably consistent throughout his career. Further, while his thought did develop over his long career (and on certain points in quite dramatic ways), these developments were generally very consistent and comprehensible when set within the context of his biography.

For example, modern evangelicals are often confused by his break with Zwingli over the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper in 1529. Yet this should not really be a surprise. In 1520, Luther attacked the Mass for being a sacrifice but saw transubstantiation merely as an error, and that not because it affirmed the Real Presence but because it denied the continuation of bread and wine in the substance of the elements. Luther certainly shifted his emphasis from promise to presence between 1520 and 1529; but his position in 1529 represents an elaboration of, not a fundamental change in, the substance (sorry) of his view in 1520.  

Nevertheless, Luther is not systematic in the sense that all his theological writings are occasional, called forth by specific situations: pedagogical, polemical, pastoral, political. He did not write a systematic theology or even produce a theological common place book. In Lutheranism, that honour went first to Melanchthon. This means that, when we quote Luther, we need to be sensitive to context. 

Thus, a knowledge of Luther's biography is crucial for understanding his theology.Given the dramatic developments in his thinking, from late medieval monk to elder statesman of a Protestant movement, and the fact that he writes in such a personally engaged manner, his theology must be read against the background of his life story. Of course, even those with minimal acquaintance with Luther know that Luther's thinking undergoes a dramatic shift between 1515 and 1520 and that this must shape how we use his writings; but he lived for a further twenty-six action-packed years, during which he wrote rather a lot. Other events - the clash with Erasmus, the Peasants' War, marriage, the Diets of Speyer, the Marburg Colloquy, the Augsburg Confession, the formation of the Schmalkaldic League, the conflict with the Antinomians - these and many more exerted important influence on the shape and development of Luther's thought. Those who wish to read Luther thoughtfully and who also wish to use him in contemporary theological construction need to have some knowledge of his fast life and turbulent times.

Obviously, I cannot here cover all the relevant aspects of Luther's biography; but I would offer four specific areas in which knowledge of his life and times is vital to correct understanding: his central role in the ecclesiastical paradigm shift that was the Reformation; his premodern cultural sensibility; his existential suffering; and his eschatological confidence.

On the first, I remember one famous theological writer confidently declaring that the emerging/ent church movement was the kind of paradigm shifting movement that comes along only every five hundred years or so. Sadly, such hyperbole comes along rather more frequently.  Does it not seem only yesterday that Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, was being trumpeted by evangelicals as 'the greatest outreach opportunity of the century'? In retrospect, The Passion surely stands somewhere between A Muppet Christmas Carol and Dave and the Giant Pickle in the honour roll of celluloid contributions to world evangelisation. 

Thus, it was with the Great Emergence: for all the bombast, it really shifted no paradigms but merely engendered massive quantities of those ridiculous Bono-style sunglasses and silly pork pie hats. It raised no really challenging questions beyond the obvious theodicy issue of how a God of love could allow a language as potentially beautiful as English to be permanently defiled by the addition of ugly and unnecessary terminological gibberish like 'missional', 'attractional' and 'pastor of creative arts ministries,' along with its various cognates.

The self-importance of postmodernists aside, there have on occasion been some truly important periods in church history which have really changed things. The fourth century, the Aristotelian renaissance of the late Middle Ages, and the Reformation are three more likely contenders than the Callow Crew of Emergents, led by those unforgettable Paradigm Breakers, Brian, Rob, and  the 'relationally mobile' chap with the soul patch whose name eludes me. If Peckinpah's Wild Bunch came too late and stayed too long, then, when it came to shattering paradigms, the Callow Crew posed too much and achieved too little. Luther, however, was the genuine article, one of the greatest paradigm breakers of them all.   

By moving the word to the centre of ecclesiastical life and faith to the centre of salvation, Luther articulated a theology which demanded a new form of church, generated new experiential expectations, and thereby created new pastoral problems. The crucial thing for today's reader to realize is that Luther's initial theology demanded all this without necessarily providing the answers in an obvious form. Indeed, how could it do so? The development of Luther's thought and practice were therefore ongoing. Between 1520 and 1546, he had to develop new liturgies, catechisms, forms of church government and pastoral practice not only to embody to his new theological insights but to inculcate them in the people and, most importantly, to handle the situations, questions and difficulties which those same insights caused.  

On Luther's premodern cultural sensibility, there is no greater sign of this than the way he talks of the devil as a physical presence with whom he dialogues on a regular basis. Indeed, I have heard it said that until one realizes that Luther lived in a universe full of devils and demons who made their presence physically felt, one cannot really understand how Luther looked at the world. Even in Luther's own day, this was not the universal outlook: his was the world of the rural medieval peasant, not that of the slick urban dweller of Geneva or Zurich. To read Luther well, one needs to imagine oneself into the kind of world to which he was responding.

On Luther's existential struggles, the wild see-saw between law and gospel, the terrible anxieties (Anfechtungen) which he experienced - and probably experienced more severely as a Protestant than he did in the cloister - were determinative of his theology. Indeed, the terrors of Law and of God were really that for him: terrors.  

I suspect that which was terror for him has lately become a marketing opportunity for others, that the closest some of his modern acolytes come to Anfechtungen is finding out that the release of the new iPhone has been delayed by a week. To adopt the aesthetics of the hipster or the stand-up comic and talk with glib confidence of the Law-Gospel dialectic or the 'theology of the cross' is to make a mocking abstraction of what for Luther was life and death, real, personal, passionate, and deeply felt. Indeed, comparing Luther to the ways in which the new Luther pundits bandy such terms around reminds me of the lines of the poet: 

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall 
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap 
May who ne'er hung there.

"Hold them cheap indeed," do those whose care for Hollister clothes, Hilfiger frames and Hollywoodesque orthodontics seems rather more obvious than their ever having hung helpless under the terrifying shadow of God's Law. 

Finally, Luther's eschatological expectation is vital to understanding his biography, his theology, and even his hate. And it is much neglected by his evangelical fans. Luther is an example of late medieval expectation of the end of time. When the Reformation really started to move forward in 1519-20, Luther seems to have believed it was part of the final act of history prior to the return of Christ. This shaped his theology in numerous ways. 

For example, in 1520 he seems to have been supremely confident that all that was needed was the preaching of God's Word and all would be well. People would turn to Christ. Christians would behave as Christians. Rulers would rule well. Servants would obey their masters. The years from 1525 to his death mark in many ways his slow and painful realization that the end was not nigh and the Word in and of itself was not enough: his later works witness to the fact that ecclesiastical structure was needed, as were moral imperatives. It also goes some way to explaining his changing attitude to the Jews, from the generally positive (for his day) attitude of the 1523 treatise, The Jesus Christ was Born a Jew to the vitriolic vomit of On the Jews and their Lies in 1543.

Reading Luther is rewarding and important. We can learn from his strengths, from his sins and from the sheer experience of wrestling with a great and exuberant mind in action. He is also a true paradigm shifter, who continues, for good or ill, to inform modern Christianity. But such reading must be done in a way that appreciates he lived in a time before Twitter, when the great one-liners rested upon pages of elaborate argumentation and were first and foremost actions of their time.   

In Part Two, I will offer some suggested reading which will help the careful reader become a more informed student of Dr. Martin.