Comparing Historical Luthers: Reformation Breakthrough

This post is part of our series on the Historical Luther. Today’s post examines Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb’s respective positions concerning Luther’s “Reformation Breakthrough.”
Rendition of Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses
Rendition of Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses

Scholars have long debated over Luther’s critical and radical breakthrough that led to the reform movement in Wittenberg (and indeed across Europe during the Age of Theological Reform); whether this understanding was a single idea or multiple ideas, where such an idea came from, whether the development of the idea was sudden or gradual, and so on. Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb each offer differing perspectives concerning Luther’s reforming principle that challenged and changed the Western Church.[1] Oberman argues that the road to the “reformation breakthrough” began in earnest with Luther’s development of the principle that, “careful heed to the scriptures was the only scholarly basis for theology and thus the reliable standard of truth.”[2] In terms of chronological development of ideas, much of Luther’s early processing appears to be lost to historical research. Despite the lack of much clear evidence concerning the breakthrough aside from Luther’s own autobiographical account of the incident, Oberman argues that between 1518 and 1519 Luther came to an understanding of ‘justification by faith,’ and began “teaching the righteousness of God as that righteousness through which we are made righteous.”[3] This landmark interpretation of St. Paul in Romans “rent the very fabric of Christian ethics” and caused a great deal of turmoil within the Church.[4] Though in Oberman’s interpretation this understanding for Luther was opposed at every turn by the Devil, this fundamental shift in the understanding of justification formed the basis for Luther’s subsequent theological development, as well as the theological development of many other reformers and Protestants.

For Hendrix, Luther had not one, but two important reformation realizations. The first occurred during Luther’s lectures on the Psalms in early 1519 through his consulting study of Romans 1:17.[5] Hendrix understands this revelation as not only a theological breakthrough, but also the answer to a highly personal conflict concerning perfection that Luther had been experiencing for some time.[6] Hendrix sums the discovery by saying that Luther “realized that God’s justice was good news only after painstaking study showed that it was granted through faith and not earned through meritorious deeds… Discovering justification by faith affected his theology and his experience, his thought and his life.”[7] The second breakthrough that Hendrix posits involves the practical implications of the first and chief interpretation, including Luther’s increased desire for others to experience a genuine Christian understanding akin to his perspicacity, the growing conviction that believers were alone accountable to Christ, an increased sense of eschatological urgency, and Luther’s personal identification with the gospel message.[8] For Hendrix, the “reformation breakthrough” was not merely a new and better theological interpretation on the part of Martin Luther, but was chiefly a development of immense practical importance for the everyday Christian.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

Kolb speaks less of a “reformation breakthrough” than he does of a nuanced theological development of faith and practice. In his interpretation, the key principle of theology for Luther was the relationship between God and man. Kolb comments upon this understanding when quoting the practical implications of Luther’s theology in The Freedom of the Christian: “’a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,’ his definition of the human relationship to God, and ‘a Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all,’ his definition of the relationship among human beings.”[9] Alongside this understanding of the relationship between God and the Christian Luther placed his developed understanding of the justification by the faith of the believer, the “joyous exchange.”[10] Thus while Oberman and Hendrix view the “reformation breakthrough” in terms more confined to the theological understanding of ‘justification by faith,’ Kolb presents the perspective of that development, but within a larger interpretative framework of a renewed understanding of man’s relationship to God.


[1] And indeed, eventually all of Western Civilization.                                                       

[2] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, Yale University Press, London & New Haven, 2006, 151.

[3] Ibid., 152-154.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Scott H. Hendrix, Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2009, 20-21.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Ibid., 21.

[8] Ibid., 23-25.

[9] Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009, 78.

[10] Ibid., 118-121.


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

4 thoughts on “Comparing Historical Luthers: Reformation Breakthrough

  1. I would like to use the rendition image of Martin Luther posting his theses on our church website to promote the upcoming Reformation Worship Service and reception. Can I have permission to use the image or who do I need to ask to get permission from? I am the website coordinator and newsletter editor.

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