Luther's contemporary theological significance
ROBERT W. JENSON
This chapter cannot be written from a strictly analytical or historical point of view. An earlier theologian's contemporary theological importance can only be assessed from within the church's present theological enterprise, that is, from within her continuing reflection on her mission. Since the church's mission is to make and be faithful to the claim that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, we may also think of theology as the intellectual labor internal to speaking this“gospel” intelligibly in the always new times and places which the mission reaches. Theology is thus a temporally extended debate—sometimes a calm discussion, sometimes a shouting match—about Christ and the church, which has now continued for nearly two millennia. As such a protracted conversation goes on, participants drop out, leavingtheir influence and writings behind them, and new ones enter, from new historical contexts.
Such considerations must give this chapter its method. Active participants in the continuing theological argument are inevitably and properly cannibals of their predecessors. They dismember predecessors' systems or structures of intuition, and use bits and pieces for their own purposes. To ask about Luther's contemporary theological significance is, therefore, to ask for suggestions that such and such aspects or parts of Luther's theology are likely to further the present enterprise.
Any such list is individual; others might cut along different lines. But the choices need not be arbitrary or idiosyncratic if the nominatingtheologian is both faithful to the church's tradition of teaching and taken up by the questions now being posed. Proof that these conditions are fulfilled must be, of course, circular: only the usefulness of the suggestions made can show that they were the right ones. In the view of the present writer, two mandates determine what we should now take from Luther.
First is the ecumenical imperative. Luther was indeed one of“the Reformers, ” whose proposals triggered lasting schism in the Western church. Whether he would have pressed his convictions in quite the same way had he been able to look farther into the future, we cannot know. In