After this series on the Historical Martin Luther, we are left with some questions: Which of the works that we have surveyed best describes and explains the life, development of thought, and theology of Martin Luther? Does Oberman, Hendrix, or Kolb distinguish himself amongst scholars as presenting a perspective that offers adequate explanation for the general scholarly consensus regarding Luther? While there are certainly differences of opinion and scholarship concerning Luther, the core of this theology, his educational and theological influences, and the “reformation breakthrough,” each of the scholars that we have examined here has done a job worthy of commendation. To choose a single scholar over the other two would be a disservice to the great amount of unity between the accounts. Certain divergences can easily be explained as a difference in interpretation concerning facets of Luther for which we have little hard evidence. Each scholar presents contributions to the realm of Luther scholarship that are valuable resources for future study in the field. Continue reading
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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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. Continue reading
The educational and spiritual formation of Martin Luther has received a great deal of attention in recent years, and the studies of Oberman, Hendrix, and Kolb all give treatment to Luther’s education, family life, and upbringing. Though citing the dearth of information from Luther’s early years in Eisleben, Oberman takes a critical approach to his formative years under Hans and Margaret, viewing them as important in an understanding of Luther, though not in the overbearing manner of earlier scholarship. One social factor that Oberman attributes to young Martin as the result of his parents was his sympathetic understanding of the common folk; though not peasants in the strict sense of the term, Oberman argues that Luther learned much practicality and commonality from his parents. Additionally, Oberman infers from Luther’s prayer to St. Anne that he had received at least some form of training and understanding of traditional medieval Catholic popular piety. In considering Luther’s education at Mansfield, Oberman seeks to refute the once prevalent idea that he had been influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life of the Devotio Moderna movement. Oberman also writes at some length concerning the role of witchcraft in young Martin’s life, though he ultimately concludes that while the Devil remained a very real figure for the mature Luther, the folk lore of the common German people had a negligible effect on his thought, writing that, “How curious that there should still be the gullible Hanna and her superstitions which are supposed to have had such a decisive influence on Luther.” Continue reading
Having surveyed the general contours of Oberman and Hendrix the past two days, we now turn to scholar Robert Kolb and his assessment of the person and theology of Martin Luther. Kolb begins his work, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, with a statement introducing the limited scope of his endeavor, writing that “Luther’s thought, as complex as his perception of human life, as nuanced as he believed the Biblical message to be, defies adequate summary.” Kolb later purposes his work as a presentation that, “seeks to help readers begin to engage Luther’s way of thinking, the Wittenberg way of practicing theology and confessing the Christian faith in teaching and living.” Throughout his work, Kolb presents his readers with a view of Luther that emphasizes his formative influences, as well as his Theology of the Cross and its implications on the relationship between God and man. We will give further treatment to Luther’s formative educational experiences and influences below; here we will consider Kolb’s emphasis on Luther’s theology of the cross and his definition of the God-man relationship. Continue reading
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. Much like Oberman, Hendrix believes that a holistic understanding of Luther’s context remains necessary to understand the man and his ideas. Hendrix argues that five key ideas formed Luther’s theology: the world in which Luther lived, specifically the sixteenth-century Augustinian cloister in Wittenberg of electoral Saxony in Germany,his interpretation of scripture, his role as teacher before that of reformer or theologian, his occasion for theologizing, and the fact that Luther’s theology arose from his reforming agenda. 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. Continue reading
Heiko Oberman (d. 2001), in his book Luther: Man between God and the Devil, posits that “To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective… in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity.” Oberman writes this biography of Luther with several key ideas in mind. First, he writes Luther on the assumption that “the Reformer can only be understood as a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon.” Second, Oberman seeks to understand Luther in his contextual totality: “The crucial point is to grasp the man in his totality—with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time.” An overview of Oberman’s work will demonstrate that he does indeed demonstrate the eternal direction of Luther’s life, his medieval political and religious context, and Luther’s’ belief in the reality of Satan. Continue reading
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. 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 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, Scott Hendrix’s Abingdon Pillars of Theology: Luther, and Robert Kolb’s Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. 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. Continue reading