TIMOTHY F. LULL
The great pleasure of reading Luther is complicated by several problems. The greatest of these is the sheer mass of material. The critical edition in German and Latin, the Weimar Ausgabe, includes sixty-eight volumes of his published writings, seventeen of his letters, twelve of documents relating to the translation of the Bible, and six volumes of Table Talk. The American Edition of Luther's Works in English contains fifty-five volumes. Even this fraction of the whole can overwhelm the strongest student.
The mention of German and Latin reminds English-speaking readers of the difficulty of reading Luther in his original languages. Any knowledge of these languages will help, but Luther's German is difficult (think of English a century before Shakespeare!) and his Latin also is quite complex. While the most important documents are available in translation, a few significant ones are not. Some translations are not especially accurate, or not based on more recent critical texts.
Some Luther writings are hard to read. One current anthology begins with Luther's 1517 theses: Disputation Against Scholastic Theology. 1 The argumentation in a later and very central work, The Bondage of the Will, is quite complex and difficult to follow. Many other writings are much clearer, and some are simple and delightful. Luther had a great capacity to communicate with ordinary readers. But Heiko Oberman maintained that a false confidence can emerge when one is carried along by lucid passages and reaches a premature understanding by ignoring more obscure parts— which may in fact contain the very key to what Luther is arguing. 2
There is also no agreed”canon“of Luther's writings nor a single central work like Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes or John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Luther's most important insights are scattered among several dozen writings. He was more a contextual theologian than a systematician—usually responding to specific opponents and immediate pastoral challenges. He did engage in an orderly exposition of major