The Theology of Martin Luther

Article excerpt

Hans-Martin Barth, The theology of Martin Luther, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2013. 547 pages.

'If Luther were alive today...'. This line of thinking may be a temptation for Lutherans trying to apply Luther's theology to contemporary situations, but Luther was in many ways a man of his time, a time that according to German theologian Hans-Martin Barth no longer exists. It is tempting to view Luther's theology as universally applicable, and indeed the very nature of the theology of justification, for example, is that it applies to all people at all times. However, the way we think about it, and the situation in which it is applied, will be different according to the era we live in. This, at least, is a large part of Barth's viewpoint in his new comprehensive analysis of Luther's theology.

This is an accessible introduction. Although it is large, it is superior in style to Oswald Bayer's recent introduction (Martin Luther's theology: a contemporary interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008). It could well be, however, that Bayer's sometimes odd phrasing is the fault of the translator. I am in no position to judge the clarity of the German original. And more than Bayer, Barth makes an historical and contextual analysis of Luther which is then compared against modern sensibilities, deciding, according to his publisher's hype, 'what can be salvaged and what's got to go'. This is good marketing, but as the book progresses, we see that Barth is not quite the iconoclast he initially may seem, and that there is a lot of Luther that he suggests can stay. Yet the book does indeed attempt to answer the question of Luther's continuing relevance, in preference to simply rehearsing his theology.

The placement of Luther within his medieval world is critical for making such an evaluation, and this is evident no more strongly than in the area of Luther's political thought. A strict separation of church and state may be traceable to Luther, and the Lutheran temptation is to think that Luther claims that Christian principles don't apply in the political realm and so therefore the church should stay out of politics. This line of thinking comes from Luther's two kingdoms - or two governments - theology, at the expense of the lesser known three orders theology. Here, by the way, we see another strong theme that emerges in Barth's book - the way the widely noted dualistic thinking of Luther is worked out, not just in simple polarities but in an almost dialectical fashion. And we would do well to note the thoroughness with which Luther works through particular issues. Far from keeping out of politics, by prioritising the gospel he guides his readers on a sometimes tortuous path into the very midst of the political minefield. More than this, though, Barth argues that Luther could hardly even conceive of our modern secular world, and that his political theology must be thought of in the context of a wholly Christian society where the secular and the sacred were too intertwined. This is a society, after all, where Luther could happily conceive of secular authorities enforcing church attendance. Today the situation is vastly different, and Barth contends that the alienation of the churches from public discourse is a bad thing. He would likely agree with Jacques Ellul's assertion that the role of Christians is to speak prophetically into a society that has forgotten its Christian roots.

When we come to the contentious issue of Luther's anti-Semitism, Barth perhaps forgets his own advice. Or at least he tries to have it both ways. He is entirely aware of the context in which Luther writes, and notes his surprisingly favourable early writings on Jews and Judaism. But he castigates Luther for the anti-Semitism of his late writings, which we simply can't ignore after the Holocaust, but which Luther can hardly have been expected to anticipate. This must be put down to Luther's later temperament. The fierceness of his tone here is certainly not unique to this issue; in addition, Luther was in this respect very much a product of his time. …