15 October 2007

On the Complications of Reading Luther

Luther was an amazing man.  But you're not done with him when you've read his early stuff.  You're certainly not done with him when you've read his diatribes against Rome.  He had another battle to face and that was just as important:  his words of criticism against Zwingli and his ilk.  You're really not done with him until he's battled through on both fronts.  Then you get his mature thought, and it seems to hold fairly constant until his death.

So when you read him, note the dates.  Through till 1517-18, you've still got an essentially Roman Catholic Luther.  Move to the 1520-24 and you've got the anti-Romanist Luther.  It took the battles after 1524 to make Luther realize how much Rome itself served as bulwark against a rampant spiritualization of the Holy Sacraments.  By the time you to the Catechisms (1528 and beyond) you've got a Luther who has contended against both dangers, and presents a more balanced picture of his thought.  

This method of reading Luther is far from novel.  It is, in a sense, sanctioned in his intro to the collected Latin works.  He warns that the papal leaven was rife in him for many years.  

What is truly curious and delightful is when a thought expressed in the early years carries through all the intervening years.  I'd suggest THAT's a key point in Luther.  A much unexamined point in the great Reformer would be his take on the communion of saints, which remains essentially unchanged from the great document on the Eucharist in 1519 to his writings on John in 1528 to his writings on the Church in 1539.  It is a thought sadly missing in much of Lutheranism today.  


WM Cwirla said...

So very true about Luther. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to study Luther under Norman Nagel, who emphasized this very point, that Luther must be read both in chronological and polemical context. I recall Dr. Nagel requiring that all citations of a work by Luther include the date for this very reason.

I would disagree, however, that Luther's thinking about the communion of saints remained essentially the same from 1519 to 1539. In 1519 and well into the early 1520's, Luther was prone to speak of "Christ and all His saints" whereas later Luther tended to speak of Christ alone, distinct from the saints. One measure of this is Luther's depiction of the church as a "brotherhood" (Bruderschaft) of Christ and His saints, something that is front and center in 1519 but drops completely from view as Luther's understanding of the Sacrament as gift (donum) is clarified.

DRB said...

How should we read what Luther said this in his lectures on Romans?

'The second argument is that “God desires all men to be
saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), and He gave His Son for us men
and created man for eternal life. Likewise: All things
exist for man, and he himself exists for God that he
may enjoy Him, etc. These points and others like them can be refuted as easily as the first
one. For these verses must always be understood as
pertaining to the elect only, as the apostle says in 2
Tim. 2:10 “everything for the sake of the elect.” For
in an absolute sense Christ did not die for all, because He says: “This is My blood which is poured out for you” and “for many”—He does not say: for all—“for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 14:24, Matt. 26:28).'
Luther, M. (1999, c1972). Vol. 25: Luther's works, vol. 25 : Lectures on Romans (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

The commentary says he did not intend to publish these 1516 lecture notes.

Philip Hoffman said...

For a different take on reading Luther, you might want to check out my questions and concerns and help me discern this issue at http://prairieponderings07.blogspot.com/2007/10/early-vs-late.html


Philip Hoffman said...

May I add (and ask): It seems like it is the overall opinion that one must simply chuck the "early" Luther unless you can find some traces of "late" Luther in the "early" Luther. Is this is the case? Is this is what is being counselled?

Kind of like, don't pay attention to Karl Barth in his Commentary on Romans because he hadn't developed just yet. But then again, ironically enough, I just read a study saying all of the late Barth is in the early Barth, just in a latent and undeveloped way. Would one be allowed to say the same thing about Luther, or did he do such a 180 that this just isn't possible?

William Weedon said...

Oh, there are things that run straight through him. Some quite surprising ones (like the Thomastic version of the immaculate conception of Mary!). But his thoughts on the meaning of Romans did undergo a significant change when he began to joy in the extra-nos-ness of what happened upon the cross.

Additionally, as in the cited passage where Luther blindly followed Augustine on 1 Timothy, and God's will for salvation only of the elect, he came to speak differently in later years - insisting that we learn to read the will of God for us out from Calvary and not from probing around in the things God has not revealed of Himself.

So, it's not a discounting of early Luther, to recognize that his thought evolves and grows enormously, until, as he himself once said: "Then I was done with Augustine."

Anonymous said...


How can Christ's work be 'extra nos' if he has united human nature to the divine?

William Weedon said...

His work can be given us our own because He has united human and divine natures in His person, thus the work is truly human and avails for the race. But that work was not accomplished in my person, but for my person.

Chris Jones said...

[Luther's] thought evolves and grows enormously, until, as he himself once said: "Then I was done with Augustine."

While St Augustine was wrong on the point on 1 Timothy (remember, "100% of the Fathers were 85% orthodox"), it still bothers me immensely that Dr Luther seems to have set his own judgement over that of the Fathers. If we will not follow the sensus patrum we have rejected the Apostolic Tradition. How can we follow a teacher with that attitude?

If the change in Luther's thought over time ends in a rejection -- in principle -- of the teachings of the Fathers, then I certainly would not call that "growth." I came to the Lutheran Church for the Catholic faith, not for a canonization of the opinions of Luther.

William Weedon said...

Oh, amen, Christopher! His statement of being "done with Augustine" was much more in the sense of: "done with Augustine as the SOLE key to interpreting all the Scriptures and all the fathers!" Remember the weight that Augustine had, especially for an Augustinian eremite! Luther lets him be one among the fathers and delivers him from the burden of infallibility. That was the weight of the statement.

Unknown said...

This is truly interesting stuff to a neophyte. :-) I have a question. What is a Thomistic view of the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary?


William Weedon said...

Dear Omar,

Thomas and Luther taught that the Blessed Virgin was conceived in original sin (and so subject to death), but that at the implantation of the soul, the Holy Spirit did a clean up job, if you will, that preserved her from the stain of actual sin in her life. Luther in a homily from the mid 1520's described her as the exact middle. We are on one side, conceived in sin and living in sin; Christ is on the other side, conceived sinless and living sinless. Mary is the middle, he taught, conceived in sin and yet living without sin - and this, as he never failed to emphasis, not by her own efforts but as a special grace and gift of God.

I once set out to write a paper on how Luther came to rejoice in Mary as the type of forgiven sinners. I read and researched and found, much to my surprise at the time, that even into the years right before he died, he continued to speak of her as "ohne alle S√ľnde" - without all sin.

If you have a copy of AE 43:40 you can see glimmers of this in a book published numerous times throughout his career, his "Personal Prayer Book." There he argues that when the angel greeted Mary as "full of grace" this meant: "proclaimed to be entirely without sin - something exceedingly great. For God's grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil."

I suspect that this opinion was not uncommon in early Lutheranism, and might explain why in the Latin of the Formula she is given the title "sanctissima" - the "most holy" Virgin. (SD VIII:100)

Unknown said...

Fr. Weedon,

Thanks for the explanation! I thought it was something along those lines, but asked to be sure.
I'm still only a neophyte...