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date: 16 October 2019

(p. 633) Conclusion: Venturing into the Study of Luther

(p. 633) Conclusion

Venturing into the Study of Luther

In conclusion, the editors will not attempt to offer a comprehensive summary of Luther’s way of thinking or its significance. The essays in this volume demonstrate the impossibility of such a brief synthetic synopsis. At best, concluding words can only point to tools and ideas that can aid further study.

Luther’s theological challenge to the church of his day changed the agenda of Western Christian discussion quite radically; his ecclesiastical call for reform provided upheaval in the institutions of church and society. Beyond that, his cultural impact contributed to significant developments in language and literature within the German lands and to new ways of spreading ideas that shaped their formulation as well as their distribution. Both his actions and his thinking affected political and legal theory and practice within the German empire. Though his place in the formation of early modern European public life should not be exaggerated, he looms large over the societal landscape of many lands and cultures in the period. His influence endured, particularly through his publications, and that influence has continued to this day and has not been confined to Western Europe.

Luther’s writings contain a vast array of insights and angles from which to assess reality and daily life. The sheer quantity of what his pen produced overwhelms some who consider a venture into his thought. Not only does Luther’s thinking, as complex and as simple as the everyday challenges and dilemmas people find in different circumstances around the world, sometimes seem intimidating. The literature accumulated by the beginning decade of the twenty-first century that has explored and exploited his words certainly seems no less daunting. Nonetheless, individual readers and researchers, from the streets of São Paulo and San Francisco to the jungles of Togo and Tamil Nadu, have been attracted by his way of thinking. Scholars and students from schools in Adelaide (p. 634) and Aarhus to libraries in Beijing and Berlin, continue to turn to Luther for ideas for forming fresh perspectives on questions and problems that beset them in their contexts.

Luther’s medieval German environment stands in contrast to many elements in every culture around the globe today. His view of life, its framework and its functions, arose in strikingly different circumstances from the surroundings of all those who delve into his work today. Despite this fact, his parsing of the human condition rings true and seems translatable in the widest spectrum of societal settings in this ‘post-modern’ world. Chinese educational reformers in the nineteenth century and Indian and South African social critics in the twentieth found inspiration and initiatives in his work for proceeding with their own tasks. The agenda he set for theological discussions of who God is and what it means to be human has occupied the Christian church’s thinkers until this day. His conceptions of humanity and reality have influenced many of the shapers of modern thought, from Ludwig Feuerbach to Martin Heidegger.

How can new students of the Wittenberg reformer reach back five hundred years to sort out these conceptions of human life and truth? Honest and helpful engagement with his writings requires some grasp of the historical cultural and social environment that created the framework for his thought. This setting included the life of the church and the pious, the university and its thinkers, the political structures and societal crises of sixteenth-century Europe at the cusp of early modern Western ways of thinking and organizing society. Such historical context can be gained through a variety of studies of specific aspects of late medieval and early modern Europe. This concluding postscript presents some of the basic editions of the source material from Luther’s own pen, some tools for studying these texts, and some of useful surveys of this thought, from which new students can gain a foothold in the exploration and application of his way of thinking to their own lives. This literature is vast; here are mentioned tools aimed largely at those working in an English-language environment but that will prove helpful to those in other environments as well.

Luther’s writings began to be published in a ‘collected works’ in 1518. Two decades later his oeuvre had grown considerably, and his Wittenberg colleagues resolved to publish a new ‘complete’ works, the so-called ‘Wittenberg edition’ (after its place of publication) (1539–59).Within the troubled landscape of controversy over the interpretation of elements of Luther’s legacy that followed his death and the Smalcald War, a rival ‘Jena edition’ (1555–8) soon appeared and became the edition of choice for several generations. One of Luther’s student editors, Johann Aurifaber, provided supplements to these editions in the ‘Eisleben edition’ (1564–5); an edition of Luther’s letters (1565); and a collection of his words at the supper table in the Augustinian cloister, where he and his family hosted students, colleagues, and guests, the ‘Tischreden’ (Table Talks, Eisleben, 1566).

A century passed before need was found to issue a new edition of Luther’s collected writings, the Altenburg edition (1661/4), and its material was supplemented in the one-volume ‘Halle edition’ (1702).The ‘Leipzig edition’ of 1729/34 was followed quickly by a German translation of Latin writings and an updating of the language in the German writings, edited by Jena professor Johann Georg Walch (Halle, 1740–53); it was adapted and expanded by A. F. Hoppe in the ‘Saint Louis’ edition (1880–1910).

(p. 635) By the time this edition for North American German-reading pastors began to appear, the first edition of Luther’s works composed according to the developing critical standards of modern editing appeared in the ‘Erlangen’ edition (1826–57), updated in its second edition (Frankfurt/M and Erlangen 1862–85). By the time its final volumes appeared, a new era had begun with the appearance of the first volumes of what now serves as the standard edition of Luther’s works.

The monumental ‘Weimar edition’ serves scholars today as the most complete, extensive modern critical edition of what Luther put on paper, divided into sections presenting his general works of all genre (73 volumes), his work on the German Bible translation (12 volumes), his correspondence (18 volumes), and his Table Talks (6 volumes): D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Böhlau, 1883–1993). During the 110 years of its production nearly all leading German Luther scholars contributed. A number of other ‘study’ editions have appeared over the past century. The most significant of these are Martin Luther. Studienausgabe, edited by Hans-Ulrich Delius (Berlin and Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1979/1999, 6 volumes), Martin Luther. Lateinisch-Deutsche Studienausgabe, edited by Wilfried Härle, Johannes Schilling, and Günther Wartenberg (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2006–9), and Martin Luther. Deutsch-Deutsche Studienausgabe, edited by Johannes Schilling (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2012–).

Multi-volume collections of selected works of Luther may be found in libraries under his name, in a number of languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. In English much of Luther’s oeuvre appeared in Luther’s Works, edited by Helmut T. Lehmann, Hilton C. Oswald, and Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia/Fortress, 1958–86). A twenty-volume supplement has begun to make additional materials available in English, edited by Christopher Boyd Brown (2009–). For English-only readers access to Luther’s printed sermons on the appointed lessons for Sundays and festivals is possible through the reprint of the Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, edited by John Nicholas Lenker (Minneapolis, 1905–9; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983/95) and freshly translated Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils, edited by Eugene F. A. Klug (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).

Luther did not work alone. Particularly his colleague Philip Melanchthon supported him and in fact stimulated and expanded his thinking. Luther studies lead those who read the older reformer’s works inevitably into contact with his younger comrade in arms. Melanchthon’s works were edited already in the sixteenth century. The first modern edition that approaches complete coverage of his writings was published between 1834 and 1860, the Corpus Reformatorum [1–25]. Philippi Melanthonis Opera quae supersunt omnia, edited by C. G. Bretschneider and H. E. Bindweil (Halle and Braunschweig: Schwetschke). Improved editions of selected writings may be found in the seven volumes of Melanchthons Werke in Auswahl [Studienausgabe] edited by Robert Stupperich (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1951–75) and Melanchthons Briefwechsel, edited by Heinz Scheible et al. (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: fromann-holzbog, 1977–).

The reading of Luther’s and Melanchthon’s texts may well be facilitated for scholars around the world by reading translations in their own languages, but engaging Luther on his own turf demands perusing the texts in early modern high German (p. 636) (Frühneuhochdeutsch) or Latin. To aid the process of working one’s way into the former, the authoritative dictionary of the German language launched by the brothers Grimm, Jakob Ludwig Carl and Wilhelm Carl, in 1854 serves as a reference for the language of the sixteenth century as well (Deutsches Wörterbuch [2Leipzig: Herzel, 1965–]). For most questions regarding sixteenth-century vocabulary Alfred Götze’s Frühneuhochdeutsches Glossar (7Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967) suffices, supplemented by Robert R. Anderson, Ulrich Goebel, Oskar Reichmann, and Anja Lobenstein-Reichmann (eds.), Frühneuhochdeutsches Wörterbuch (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1986–) and Matthias Lexer, Mittelhochdeutsches Taschenwörterbuch (38Stuttgart: Hirzel, 1992). For support from modern usage readers may consult the Oxford Duden German–English Dictionary (2Oxford: Clarendon Press/Mannheim: Brockhaus, 1997).

The lexicographical work of Charles du Fresne Du Cange, a seventeenth-century French historian and philologist, Glossarium mediae et insimiae latinitatis (Niort: Favre, 1883–7) remains the most complete guide to the Latin of Luther’s time. J. F. Niemeyr’s Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: Brill, 1984) and—despite its geographical focus on Great Britain—the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (London: Oxford University Press, 1975–) are also helpful. The Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968/2012) provides the standard classical vocabulary.

An extensive bibliography of such aids is found in Hans-Otto Schneider, ‘Bibliographische Hinweise zur sprachlichen Erschließung der frühneuhochdeutschen Texte in unserer Ausgabe’, in Irene Dingel (ed.), Controversia et Confessio. Theologische Kontroversen 1548–1577/80, Kritische Auswahledition. 1. Reaktionen auf Das Augsburger Interim, Der Interimische Streit (1548–1549) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010), 35–9.

Identification of Latin geographical references to towns and other places is facilitated by use of Orbus Latinus (Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1971). The ecclesiastical calendar often determined the dates given for events in sixteenth-century Germany; to find on what day and month ‘the Friday before the second Sunday after Trinity’ or ‘the eve of Saint Agatha’s day’ fell, readers can turn to Hermann Grotefend, Taschenbuch der Zeitrechnung (14Hannover: Hahn, 2007).

A host of biographies of Luther can help the reader to understand the course of Luther’s career and something of his surroundings. The most detailed of these in English remains Martin Brecht’s three-volume study, Martin Luther. [1] His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521; [2] Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532; [3] The Preservation of the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985–1993), translated by James Schaaf from Martin Luther, [1] Sein Weg zur Reformation 1483–1521; [2] Ordnung und Abgrenzung der Reformation 1521–1532; [3] Die Erhaltung der Kirche 1532–1546 (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1981–7). Two more recent biographies deserve intention: Volker Leppin, Martin Luther (Darmstadt: Primus, 2006), and Heinz Schilling, Martin Luther: Rebell in einer Zeit des Umbruchs (Munich: Beck, 2012).

Those who wish to explore Luther’s theology may proceed from this volume to grasp an overview of his thought through a number of one-volume surveys. Those that have (p. 637) guided readers in the past half century include Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966) from Die Theologie Martin Luthers (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1962). Althaus’s accompanying The Ethics of Martin Luther was also translated by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972) from Die Ethik Martin Luthers (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1965).

Gerhard Ebeling produced more of a hermeneutic to Luther’s theology in his Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, translated by R. A. Wilson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1970) from Luther: Einführung in sein Denken (5Stuttgart: Mohr/Siebeck, 2006). Bernhard Lohse’s Martin Luther’s Theology, its Historical and Systematic Theology was translated by Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999) from Luthers Theologie in ihrer historischen Entwicklung und in ihrem systematischen Zusammenhang (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995). Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation was translated by Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) from Martin Luthers Theologie: eine Vergegenwärtigung (Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2004). Hans-Martin Barth’s The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012) was translated by Linda M. Maloney from Die Theologie Martin Luthers, eine kritische Würdigung (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2009). Robert Kolb wrote Martin Luther, Confessor of Faith (Christian Theology in Context; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Some people in many parts of the world find late medieval and early modern European history a fascinating theatre for viewing human life. Larger numbers find Martin Luther’s way of thinking of significance for their own situations. However, the meaningful rendering of his insights into any contemporary cultural and social context demands sensitivity to the dynamics of Western European life in his time. Dynamic translations of historical texts, for instance those from Luther’s pen, become possible through creative but disciplined readings. Translators of ways of thinking must have some sensitivity to the thought patterns and political, social, economic, institutional, and intellectual factors which impacted those thought patterns in another age and place. The illocutionary thrust of Luther’s thinking must guide the reading of what he wrote, and its perlocutionary force can aid in assessing how he was understood in his day. From such readings of texts readers gain the ability to derive insights from him that can be of use in their own context.

Not all the problems which Luther addressed have parallels in twenty-first-century situations, of course, and not all twenty-first-century questions will find direct or even near equivalents in his time and in his thinking. Nonetheless, his concerns and insights did model an approach to the challenges of everyday life in his context that can broaden and deepen perceptions of our own situations. Readers of this volume will find in it a variety of models for imaginative and creative engagement with questions regarding the person and modus operandi of God, what it means to be human, and what gives human beings dignity and hope today as they seek orientation in fast-changing cultures and societies of various kinds. (p. 638)