Martin Luther: The Reluctant Revolutionary

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In last month’s newsletter we briefly looked at some of the social, political, and theological changes that were taking place in Europe prior to Luther’s emergence. This month we will begin to look at Luther himself. I will not cover many of the details of Luther’s life since these may be easily found from other sources. For example, for a nice video on Luther’s life up until about 1525, you might want to watch the 2002 PBS special Martin Luther: The Reluctant Revolutionary on the internet at the following site:

However, this video stresses Luther the man along with his heroism early in his career; it stresses Luther’s biography much more than it does his overall theology. As we will see, these two alternatives in many ways characterize Luther scholarship in general.

In 1999 the German Luther scholar Bernhard Lohse published a book on Luther that he had been working on since at least 1955 entitled Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Fortress Press). In the first chapter Lohse has a helpful survey of previous attempts to characterize Luther. According to Lohse, “extensive, overall descriptions of Luther’s theology have been submitted since the early second half of the nineteenth century.” These studies looked particularly at Luther’s theology but usually only one facet of it and usually with the assumption that the scholar’s individual perspective is the only one that is adequate. Lohse argues that the danger of this approach is that the Luther scholar will read his or her own theology back into Luther. For example, Theodosius Harnack looked at atonement and redemption in Luther’s theology, even as Harnack himself was battling a liberal opposition towards dogma in his Baltic homeland. Harnack is certainly right that the atonement is central in Luther. But so was the doctrine of the Trinity; and so was salvation; and so were the sacraments; etc.
Lohse next looks at a “historical-genetic” approach to Luther study. Here such things as Luther’s personal traits and personal faith are emphasized, especially as these may be seen early in Luther’s career (up to, say, 1525). Lohse asserts that there have been far fewer of these studies than the theological approaches to Luther, although the historical approach often characterizes newer Luther research. For example, Gerhard Ebeling is an example of this historical approach. The upside of the historical approach is that it allows one to view Luther “much more strictly within the context of his time and his debates.” Finally, Lohse himself opts for a combination of the two approaches, and hence the subtitle of his book is “Its Historical and Systematic Development.”
Our main dialogue partner for these history articles, Justo González, in his treatment of Luther in A History of Christian Thought emphasizes Luther’s theology (he entitles his chapter on Luther “The Theology of Martin Luther”), but he also introduces his chapter on Luther with about ten pages of biography of the young Luther under the heading “The Spiritual Pilgrimage [of Luther].” To this extent Gonzalez has a hybrid approach to Luther like Lohse.
Like in the PBS video I mentioned above, González in this biographical section emphasizes the personal traits of Luther. The PBS video casts Luther’s ambitions more in the realm of politics (“the reluctant revolutionary” [italics mine]); whereas there is perhaps some truth to this, González seems more correct as he casts Luther as one with great determination to find God (“the spiritual pilgrimage”). González begins the section “the spiritual pilgrimage” with the following words:
The young Luther seems to have been very much like most young men of his time, except for two things. The first was that he was given to acute changes in mood, leading to periods of depression; the second was that he was perhaps more religiously inclined than the average youth around him.

Note here that González is describing Luther the man, the personal characteristics of Luther. He goes on to describe in detail the events of the young Luther’s life in the context of his struggle with a Roman Catholic Church in need of much reform. Luther was in an intense search for God, but the God he found in the Roman Catholicism of his time seemed capricious: a God marked by holiness and justice rather than love, a God who tortured the Christian with indulgences, relics, and pilgrimages rather than a God who simply wanted us to trust him. Thus in Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517) Luther boldly critiques prior Roman Catholic thought on matters like the nature of God and faith; thus in the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) Luther courageously critiques indulgences; thus at the Diet of Worms (1521) and in Luther’s writings leading up to it, Luther against long odds stands up to the pope and the very powerful church under him.

For me González is on the right track as he highlights Luther’s personal courage as he seeks to reform the church. The PBS special somewhat complements González as it brings out that because of the mixture of church and state at the time, Luther also was by necessity a political reformer as well, even if “reluctantly.” But both of these pictures of Luther are still incomplete, as Lohse helps us see. To adequately treat Luther, we must not only address his courage in the context of his churchly and political opponents. We must also stress the theology of Luther. Luther’s theology affected his personal behavior and vice versa. The history of Luther scholarship as described by Lohse should make us more diligent. Oftentimes theologians and church historians have not given a full depiction of Luther. Protestants often stress the early Luther’s courage against Roman Catholicism, but in so doing downplay the importance of Luther’s theology. More churchly and sacramental scholars often emphasize Luther’s theology but downplay the importance of Luther’s individual faith and courage. This has practical applications for us as well. We must have both personal responsibility and courage as Christians as well as strive to better understand the liturgy of the worship service and the content of Christian doctrine. To help us with the latter, we will look more next time at some of the highlights of Luther’s theology.

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