The Historical Martin Luther

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

It has been said that Martin Luther has been written about more than any other single person apart from Jesus Christ. Theologians, historians, sociologists, psychologists, academics, and scholars of all stripes have read, studied, and written about the man who, by most accounts, began the Protestant Reformation when he posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in 1517. Luther was a prolific writer throughout his career and the ongoing translation of his writings into English attests to his massive scholarly and pastoral output.[1] The ideas of Luther, both theological and otherwise, continue to provide scholars and students with useful material for study and intellectual formulation, nearly 500 years after his “reformation breakthrough.” Recent scholars seek to understand Lutheran[2] theology in light of his historical context and influences, and it is these factors that we will consider here over the course of the next two weeks.

Given Luther’s prominence within Western culture, it remains unsurprising that there are a plethora of biographies detailing his life and thought. During this series on the Historical Luther, we will examine three of the most influential recent treatments of Luther’s theology and life: Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devil,[3] Scott Hendrix’s Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther,[4] and Robert Kolb’s Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith.[5] Each of these works presents a unique prospect on the life and theology of Martin Luther, adds to the scholarly conversation concerning his theology and work, and highlights a specific perspective on Luther and his historical context. This series will demonstrate that while Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb all provide distinctly different viewpoints on Luther, they all ultimately contribute evidence of a man who sought both a merciful and gracious God opposed to the Devil and a Christ centered theology that impacted the everyday Christian.

Beginning tomorrow with Oberman, we will examine the thesis that Luther was primarily focused upon eternity and that his theology necessitated a life walked between God and the Devil. Thursday, we will offer a reading of Hendrix, who argues that Luther remains best viewed as a pastoral reformer who sought to remind Christianity of its true theology concerning man’s relationship with God. On Friday we will take a look at Kolb, who presents Luther as a product of his influences and focused upon the theology of the cross, with its implications for the God-Man relationship. Next Tuesday, we will examine these three scholars’ positions on Luther’s education and background and turn on Wednesday to consideration of Luther’s “Reformation Breakthrough.” It should go without saying that this series is not meant to be a thoroughly comprehensive analysis or comparison of Luther scholarship as a whole, or even of the scholars under consideration. Rather, this project argues that through the study of these recent works on Luther we may understand some of the important foci of continuing Luther studies and contain to glean insights from the great German reformer.[6]


[1] Ronald Rittgers, Lecture “Martin Luther’s ‘Reformation Breakthrough,’” Valparaiso University, 19 September 2011.

[2] In the sense of the man, not the current Christian denomination.

[3] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, Yale University Press, London & New Haven, 2006.

[4] Scott H. Hendrix, Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2009.

[5] Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

[6] This series is developed from a paper originally written for Dr. Ron Rittgers at Valparaiso University.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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