Friday, February 18, 2011
How to Read Luther
Interpreters make much of the differences between the early Luther and the later Luther. Some things are more clear in this regard but in other ways the later Luther and the early Luther are the same. It seems clear, for example, that Luther held to the ever virginity of Mary and even the immaculate conception of Mary late into his life. These oddities have caused some angst among those who desire a very Protestant Luther.
There is a movement for a "new" Luther that has arisen from the Finns and there has been much debate about seeing Luther and the issue of justification largely through the lens of "union with Christ." I am not going to debate this here except to suggest that Luther may be dead but our understanding of Luther is definitely not static.
Bainton, a Congregationalist, had the definitive Luther biography for years [Here I Stand]. Now others, some Lutherans included [Kittelson, for example] have added to and even replaced this book. But Roman Catholics have also ventured to review the life and legacy of Martin Luther, the obedient rebel. Now another book, this one by Franz Posset, attempts to find the REAL Luther. Apparently, the real Luther still holds some mystery to us.
Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press partnered in the monumental endeavor of bringing Luther's works into the English speaking world. Theirs was not a finished effort and CPH is working on its own to finish the job with many more volumes yet to come. In addition, the number of Luther biographies and theological reviews of Luther is greater than the number of books translated into English. This alone could keep a publishing house busy for quite some time.
I would propose something far different. I think that we must read Luther through the lens of the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Some would try to reverse that and read the Confessions through Luther's works but I think this does a disservice both to Luther and to the Confessions which are his priimary legacy (even those he did not author). I believe that Luther himself would defer to those Confessions as the documents which both define and give an identity to the movement he helped to begin and to the church which, for good or ill, bears his name.
It may be naive on my part or reveal a lack of critical scholarship from a parish pastor who sometimes thinks himself more learned than he is, but I believe that for Lutherans, the Luther that counts most of all is the Luther who is revealed to us in those Confessions. This Luther is not the wild eyed rebel who wrecks havoc upon the church of his day but the evangelical and catholic Luther, careful to preserve the faithful heritage that passed down to him, concerned enough to make sure that this deposit of faith was not tainted by invention or innovation, and foresighted enough to make this the formal legacy of those who lived and died with him and who followed after him.
Pelikan, an erstwhile Lutheran who, it is said, left Wittenberg when he feared it had become a protestant sect, wrote a book entitled Obedient Rebels. This title encapsulates the perspective I have of Luther and, I believe, the perspective of the Confessions. Luther rebelled in order to be obedient to the faith, to the Scriptures, to the Gospel, and to the catholic identity bequeathed to him from the church that came before. His obedience to that living tradition forced him to make the radical departure from the boundaries of the Roman Church -- at least to risk this expulsion. Lutherans, at their best, have always maintained this perspective. We insist that the Reformation was not about rebellion but about obedience, not about personal interpretation but about the Gospel that is yesterday, today, and forever the same, and not about Luther or authority or power -- but faithfulness.
That is why I get so upset when modern day Lutherans see the Reformation and Luther as primarily a rebellion and rebels who sought to free themselves from the shackles of tradition and do something new, something free, and something unbounded by any rule or law. This antinomian spirit has resulted in worship that betrays our Lutheran and confessional identity, in a view of sexuality in which clear words of Scripture are trumped by a Gospel principle, and in a radical congregationalism which refuses authority, accountability, and relationship with others.
Luther, I believe, would have us see as his primary legacy the formal Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. So if we would read him, let us read him through the lens of these Confessions. Whether Roman or Congregationalist or Lutheran, those who read Luther are obligated to connect him to those confessional statements which he regarded as defining and binding upon the movement that bears his name. So, if we would beat our chests in pride over Luther, let us show it most of all by taking seriously and observing faithfully those Confessions.