Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology

Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomir Batka, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 662pp. Hardcover.
Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in world history in the past five hundred years. This is true in the West, even where his influence serves as an underappreciated backdrop to western theology and culture. It is true even in the East, where Christianity is expanding explosively and eastern Christians begin to grapple with the western part of their Christian heritage. This reviewer is not a Luther scholar, but a student of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy, with special interest in its continuities and discontinuities with Medieval scholastic theology and the Reformation. Martin Luther is a vital link in this historical milieu and it is to their detriment if Reformed students of historical theology ignore his theology and influence. The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology is a useful comprehensive introductory text that will both challenge scholars and introduce beginners to current research on Luther’s theology. Reformed readers will find much here that is familiar and much that is foreign to their thinking. Both of these facts make this handbook a useful tool to enable readers to understand better the broader Protestant tradition and to evaluate it in light of Scripture and our respective confessional traditions.
This book is well-organized, well-researched, and comprehensive in scope. Forty-four recognized scholars in various fields of Luther research contributed to its chapters. The reader is led in seven sections through Luther’s life, the Medieval backgrounds of his thought, his hermeneutical principles, the traditional loci of theology, Christian living, the genres of his theological expression, and his impact of subsequent theological and philosophical reflection. Of particular interest to this reviewer are the treatments of Luther’s appropriations and rejections of Medieval theology and method in section two. The picture that emerges is that while Luther was overtly anti-scholastic regarding theological method, he inescapably appropriated portions of it from his context and education. Moreover, in contrast to seventeenth-century Lutheran and Reformed orthodox theologians, who incorporated aspects of scholastic methodology into their theological systems, Luther placed greater emphasis on reforming strains of monastic mystical piety and methodology (esp. chapter three).
Several of the essays in this volume helpfully present opposing views in Luther research, such as continuity and discontinuity with Medieval thought (chapters 7-8) and the Finish school on Luther’s views of union with Christ and justification (chapters 17-18). The latter example highlights poignantly where Reformed scholars will find the material both familiar and foreign. The Finish school presents the familiar concept of union with Christ in salvation, while mitigating the forensic aspects of Luther’s view of justification. However, the opposing essay maintains the decidedly forensic character of his teaching, but maintains that Luther taught a passive and an active justification. In this view, passive justification referred to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner, while active justification referred to the gradual transformation of the Christian life from unrighteousness to holiness. This latter aspect of this analysis will be jarring to most Reformed readers, who subsume this teaching under the doctrine of sanctification. The remaining chapters present a well-rounded view of Luther’s theological development in a way that will lead readers to helpful theological reflection.
One drawback of the comprehensiveness of this book is that it devotes more than twenty-five percent of its pages to the reception of Luther’s theology from the seventeenth through twentieth centuries. While this feature enlightens readers as to what people have done with Luther’s thought, it threatens to diminish the character of the carefully wrought historical theology that marks the other three fourths of the work. The most glaring example of this danger is chapter thirty-one, which treats “Luther as a resource for dialogue with other world religions.” While the author recognizes that Luther was closed to dialogue with world religions based on the exclusive character of the gospel, he argues that modern readers can use Luther’s solas to uphold theological distinctions while building on his simuls (e.g. simultaneously sinner and saint, etc.) to open the door to ecumenical dialog with other religions. He concludes with the historically untenable conclusion, “Had Luther experienced the profound religious diversity and pluralism of today’s world, he probably would have recast the nuances of his dialectic differently for a positive engagement with the world’s religions” (444). The problem is that Luther is a historical figure who can neither be divorced from his times nor from his convictions. The historical Luther is the only Luther that exists and this Luther would most certainly not have entertained such modern ideas of ecumenicity. His solas demanded an exclusive gospel grounded in the Scriptures, and his simuls described the application of that gospel to believers in Christ exclusively. However, chapters such as those treating Marxist evaluations of Luther (chapter 42) and the reception of Luther in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (chapters 45-47) illustrate how the modern world, rightly or wrongly, has appropriated, rejected, or transformed Luther’s theology. The chapter addressing “Luther’s abiding significance for world Protestantism” (chapter 44) is particularly eye-opening in showing Luther’s inescapable impact on modern Christianity, even where his shadow is unnoticed by many.
This comprehensive collection of essays is a useful aid in helping historians and contemporary theologians to ground theological reflection in an informed historical theology. It has much to offer to Lutherans, Reformed theologians, and beyond.