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date: 12 May 2021


Abstract and Keywords

Five hundred years after his career began Martin Luther remains an intellectual and cultural voice around the world, offering a way of viewing the world and its creator that continues to foster discussion and contemporary application in the Christian church and other sectors of societies from China through Germany to Brazil and the United States. This volume’s forty-seven essays discuss Luther’s grounding in late medieval thought, his hermeneutical principles for interpreting Scripture, his theological emphases, his views of various aspects of Christian living, his role of specific genre in shaping his thought, and various ways in which his thought interacted with contemporaries and has been interpreted in the centuries since his death. Authors from sixteen countries use various methods and approaches for addressing these aspects of the Wittenberg reformer’s way of thinking.

Keywords: medieval context, hermeneutics, Christian doctrine, Christian social thought, genre and theology, reception of Luther’s thought

The 17 December 2011, issue of The Economist dedicated an article to Martin Luther, specifically to ‘how Luther went viral’, noting his role in the first major public relations event in European history, with his massive campaign for reform through a variety of print media. In 2011 a poll of some 13,000 non-German Europeans placed ‘Luther’s Reformation’ third on a list of ‘the most important historical events that you associate with Germany’. Luther himself was placed fourth, after Goethe, Chancellor Merkel, and Einstein, on a list of ‘the most important Germans’ (Forschung & Lehre 2011: 764). No other event and no other person from more than two centuries ago surfaced in the consciousness of those Europeans. Such a list is just as arbitrary and subjective as the decision of editors of Life magazine to judge Luther as the third most important figure of the millennium in 2000 or the vote conducted by a German television network three years later that found Germans regarding Luther as the second most important person in their history.1

Nonetheless, because of his actions in 1517 Protestant Christians around the world have chosen 2017 as the year in which they will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of ‘the Reformation’. For widely varying theological schools of thought it is Luther’s public call for consideration of reform that sets the date for the beginning of all ecclesiastical reform of the early modern period. With Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Schleiermacher, Martin Luther remains among the most widely read and influential Christian thinkers to this day. The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology offers students and scholars a springboard for delving into the Wittenberg reformer’s thinking and the scholarly interaction with his writings.

This Handbook differs from other similar works on Luther in that it restricts its focus to Luther’s thought and does not attempt, apart from the initial essay, to offer a guide for studying his career, significant and fascinating as it is. Much research has been dedicated to exploring the details of his development and the roles he played in society and church, often seeking answers to his precise place in the course of German (p. 2) and European history. Such questions remain important and deserve study, but particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where new interest in Luther is stirring, it is his thought and its potential application to twenty-first-century questions that challenges and intrigues increasing numbers of thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike. As with other such handbooks or ‘companions’ designed to aid newcomers to a field of research, essayists were asked to offer a survey of their subject to provide orientation to central questions in studies of Luther’s way of thinking and past or current treatment of these areas or aspects of his thinking and its impact on the world. This volume is intended to serve those seeking orientation to the vast palette of Luther scholarship. The authors have striven to set Luther’s thought in its historical context and to make it clear which challenges and which concerns shaped his thinking as he strove to make use of his intellectual inheritance and to bring new insights to the people of his culture. Six foci help readers enter into his way of thinking: (1) his grounding in the thinking of his day, (2) his own hermeneutical principles for his way of interpreting and applying Scripture, (3) his theological emphases, (4) his views of various aspects of Christian living, (5) his use of specific genres and the role they played in shaping his thought, and (6) the various ways in which his thought interacted with contemporaries and has been interpreted in the centuries since his death.

Luther research has experienced changes in agenda and concern in the last generation as the ‘Luther Renaissance’ of the early and middle decades of the twentieth century ran its course (Stayer 2000: 3–47). Readers will notice in these essays that some topics have commanded more interest in recent years than others as the conversation among those who study the reformer’s thought has gone on. Two pairs of essays focus on two recent debates among scholars: Luther’s relationship to the Middle Ages and his teaching on the justification of sinners in God’s sight.

As with all other thinkers, Luther developed his theology within the framework of his own education and the discussions and practices of his teachers, at home, in the monastery, at the university, through publications of those who had preceded him as well as personal contacts with older contemporaries. The first section of this volume seeks to provide glimpses into the contexts in which his conception of God and creation took root and sprouted, with essays on the scholastic and the monastic mystical theologies of his time as well as his relationship to earlier reform movements, particularly that around Jan Hus. As a professor of the Bible the influences of traditional streams of medieval Scriptural interpretation as well as that of the ancient Church Fathers shaped his thought. These influences combined with insights and tools he took from contemporary humanistic scholarship. Because one issue under debate in the early twenty-first century is the extent to which Luther’s thought is marked by continuity with the past and to what extent he broke with the past and introduced new methods and content to the practice of theology and the proclamation of the Christian gospel, we have invited two scholars to sketch the concerns of this discussion.

The fundamental frameworks from which thinkers of all kinds proceed are vital for the final form of their thought. This Handbook’s second section examines fields of hermeneutical presuppositions that guided Luther and shaped the way in which he (p. 3) formulated the biblical message and conveyed his ideas. Along with essays on his understanding of history and of language stand examinations of his ‘theology of the cross’ and his distinctions of law and gospel, two components of being human, and the two realms or spheres in which human beings live as well as freedom and bondage. These essays comment on the ways in which Luther’s foundational principles of interpreting God and the human condition took shape in the development of his theology.

The third section of the Handbook presents essays on eleven vital topics of his teaching which he constructed for his preaching, catechesis, exegetical lectures, and pastoral care. Among these doctrinal topics justification by grace through faith commands a good deal of attention. Because another of the most animated debates of the past half-century in Luther studies has concerned the proper understanding of the justification of sinners in relationship to God, we have invited two scholars to sketch two approaches to interpreting Luther’s conception of God’s restoration of human righteousness or fundamental human identity.

Although Luther is often seen as a theologian who concentrated on the relationship of God with sinful human beings and particularly on his efforts to save them through the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity and Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, his ethical thought also had a significant impact on the society of his own and later times. His concept of the Christian’s callings in daily life and his interpretation of God’s commandments for everyday living not only helped shape public life in his own period but still command serious attention and elaboration today. Seven scholars introduce readers to aspects of his understanding of how human beings should behave in relationship to each other within the contexts of their callings in obedience to God’s commands. In this section Luther’s treatment of Jews and Turks is addressed, and along with that essay another exploring the possibilities which his legacy offers for twenty-first-century inter-religious dialogue.

Relatively little has been written in the past about the influence the various genre of writing which he used moulded Luther’s thought. This Handbook features experimental engagements with four of the literary forms—his exegesis, preaching, and catechesis; his works on pastoral care; his polemics; and his translations. He employed each of these and other genres as well to accomplish various tasks in his service to the church and the world around it, and each shaped his thinking in specific ways.

All thinkers who remain in conversation with people of their own or later eras are conveyed to a wider public on the basis of their interaction with those who disagree with them, those who agree with them, and those who interpret their thought, whether positively or negatively, to that wider audience. Essays in the final section of the Handbook assess how Luther’s ideas grew within the context of his home at the University of Wittenberg and how his thought was received and processed by contemporary Roman Catholics and Protestants of other traditions and how his exchanges with his contemporaries shaped his own thinking. Other essays investigate how later generations construed and altered his thinking for use in their own times and situations, from the Late Reformation and Protestant Orthodoxy, through Pietism and the Enlightenment, into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Covering these last two centuries are essays on Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Marxist interpretation of Luther as well as on his (p. 4) continuing influence in Protestant circles and in general in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

This Handbook differs from other similar works on Luther also in its approach to selection of authors. It incorporates three generations of scholars, those reaping the harvest of a long career, those engaged in the midst of their academic service, and those beginning to publish the results of their initial ventures into the reformer’s mind. Our authors come from sixteen countries. That Europeans and North Americans continue to predominate in the field of Luther research will probably not be the case in another generation, as African, Asian, and Latin American scholars join those from Europe, North America, and Australia in interpreting Luther’s insights anew from their specific perspectives. Representatives from several disciplines take part in the discussion of Luther, including musicologists, art historians, linguistic and literary scholars, doctrinal or systematic theologians, church historians, and secular historians. Scholars from the last three disciplines have contributed to this volume.

A Finnish theologian with rich experience teaching in China has written that Luther ‘holds great potential to impact Chinese Christian thought, and he remains a model of social reform [in China]’, a ‘source of inspiration for Chinese theologians and scholars who are creating, in their own cultural contexts, new ways of constructing an authentic Chinese Christian theology’ (Ruokanen 2008: 171). This author also noted that in 2007 new Chinese history textbooks for all universities in the People’s Republic discussed Luther as one of the hundred most influential personalities of history, a forerunner of the modernization of human society. In this case China represents thinkers throughout the Global South or Majority World. Continuing interest in Luther’s way of thinking within Western Europe and North America also make such a Handbook necessary. Its editors hope that it will serve its purpose of aiding those who turn to the Wittenberg reformer for conversation in the midst of their specific contexts and will assist them in translating his thought from his own culture, long-since disappeared, into the developing societies of the twenty-first century. Only in this way will he be taken seriously as the figure in history he was.


‘Beethoven, Goethe, Gutenberg: Ergebnisse einer Umfrage des Goethe-Instituts’. Forschung & Lehre 10/11 (2011): 764–5.Find this resource:

‘How Luther Went Viral’. The Economist, 17 December 2011, 93–5.Find this resource:

Ruokanen, Miikka (2008). ‘Luther and China’. Dialog 47: 167–71.Find this resource:

Stayer, James (2000). Martin Luther, German Saviour: German Evangelical Theological Factions and the Interpretation of Luther, 1917–1933. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.Find this resource: