Scott Hendrix on the Historical Luther

This post is part of our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post examines the perspective of Scott Hendrix.

 

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

In his book Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther, Hendrix argues that the key factor in understanding Luther persists in understanding his desire, as a primarily pastoral reformer, to remind Christianity of its true theology concerning man’s relationship with God.[1] Much like Oberman, Hendrix believes that a holistic understanding of Luther’s context remains necessary to understand the man and his ideas.[2] Hendrix argues that five key ideas formed Luther’s theology:[3] the world in which Luther lived, specifically the sixteenth-century Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg of electoral Saxony in Germany,[4]his interpretation of scripture,[5] his role as teacher before that of reformer or theologian,[6] his occasion for theologizing,[7] and the fact that Luther’s theology arose from his reforming agenda.[8] Without an understanding of these factors, Hendrix argues that any view of Luther would be an underdeveloped and insufficient one. For additional consideration, as the series for which he writes suggests, Hendrix argues that Martin Luther has become a pillar of Christian theology, a purpose that, while not directly contributing to the study at hand, remains for consideration concerning a general understanding of Hendrix’s work.

Hendrix engages Luther topically, first discussing his history, formation, and reformation breakthrough before turning to his views on the Bible, Christian ethics, and the importance of a lifetime of service and confession of faith before God. By incorporating these topical studies on Luther in such a manner, Hendrix presents a view of Luther that accents a variety of his thesis’ and ideas of primary interest. For Hendrix, Luther’s context reveals him to be a Christian dedicated to the veracity of the Bible,[9] the continued debates and disputations of the late-medieval period,[10] historic Christian faith (at least as he understood it),[11] and his dual discovery of justification by faith, and that such a discovery necessitated his role as reformer of the Church and the purpose of loving his neighbor.[12] Ultimately however, Hendrix focuses on Luther’s concern for individual faith and holiness,[13] and the “perdurance and perfection through the work of the Holy Spirit” of that faith.[14] Luther’s profession of “simul iustus et peccator,” that believers are at once sinners and justified, emphasizes Hendrix’s point, that Luther had great concern for both the theologically conceptual and the practically-driven individual implications and applications of such a theology for the Christian. Hendrix maintains that Luther always believed that ‘justification by faith alone’ and the freedom of the Christian existed in within the Biblical text and that he had not discovered anything, but had instead re-discovered true Christian faith.[15] It was this faith that led him to develop the active and pastoral significance of love for thy neighbor. Hendrix argues that, “Luther’s aim was Christian service of the neighbor—not withdrawal from the world or passivity in the face of evil.”[16] This active pastoral concern for the faith of the believer finds itself continually reflected throughout Hendrix’s work. He argues that, “For Luther, the existence of God was not an intellectual issue. God was a divine reality to be respected and to be loved… Faith, hope, and love were gifts of the Spirit that had to be nurtured in the community of faith.”[17]

 

Scott H. Hendrix

Scott H. Hendrix

Essentially, Hendrix’s approach relies more on topical consideration than the desire to find a true center for an understanding of Luther or his theology, and thus we are not presented with a truly clear formative key to properly interpret Luther. This topical approach, while seeking to examine and understand sixteenth-century German Wittenberg and the contextual issues that ultimately gave rise to Luther and his reformation theology, ultimately presents a somewhat stunted overview of Luther. While one must concede that Hendrix could not cover in seventy-three pages what Oberman discusses in over four times that amount, his presentation of Luther seemingly fails to present a holistic understanding of Luther’s context. Does Hendrix succeed in meeting the expectations of his claim that Luther was primarily motivated by the pastoral concern for the true theology concerning man’s relationship with God? Given the relatively limited topical considerations of Hendrix’s work, while we can conclude that Hendrix presents Luther’s pastoral concern for true theology as important for Luther, we cannot conclude with any reasonable degree of certainty that this concern was Luther’s primary motivating factor. What then of Hendrix’s claim that Luther has become a pillar of Christian theology? Hendrix argues that, “Luther’ best gift to Christian theology was his reminder that Christian faith was not traditional religion—but a way to appease the gods and gain their favor –but a way to know and worship God that placed the world and its needs above one’s own desires.”[18] This lasting legacy of Luther, it seems, fulfills Hendrix’s expectation of presenting Luther as a pillar, as his theological legacy remains an important consideration for much of Christianity even today. From a historiographical perspective, the topical manner in which Hendrix presents Luther remains stunted and in need of more contextual support. Yet concerning Luther’s pastoral considerations concerning the relationship between God and Man, it seems that Hendrix’s conclusion becomes an important piece of the Luther puzzle, albeit a piece in need of perhaps more contextual evidence than presents itself.

_________________

[1] Scott H. Hendrix, Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2009, 73.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] For Hendrix, Luther’s theology is not so much a systematic construct as it is a lifestyle; he argues that Luther would not have readily conceded to “having” a theology, that he instead believed he was living his faith.

[4] Ibid., 1-3.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 3-4.

[7] Ibid., 4-5.

[8] Ibid., 5-6; Note: Concerning the relationship between Luther’s theology and reforming agenda, this again seems to derive from Hendrix’s understanding of Luther’s theology as not a system, but an active faith. For Hendrix, it is this active faith that led Luther on his reform campaign as a necessary effect of his belief.

[9] Ibid., 26-32.

[10] Ibid., 7-11.

[11] Ibid., 54-63.

[12] Ibid., 20-25.

[13] Ibid., 45.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Ibid., 21.

[16] Ibid., 42.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Ibid., 73.

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