Luther's polemical controversies
MARK U. EDWARDS, JR.
Martin Luther was a theologian of remarkable rhetorical gifts who developed and displayed his theology in the give-and-take of ferocious, published debate; he was one of Christianity's great polemicists. In this chapter, we explore the role of printing, the worldview that grounded Luther's polemical approach, the developments in the larger Reformation movement that shaped the approach and style of polemical contests, and the interpretive challenges posed by the polemics of the older Luther.
DuringLuther's lifetime the Reformation went through two phases that shaped the character of Luther's controversial writings and their audience. In the first phase Luther defined a movement. He addressed most of his polemics to an empire-wide audience of readers and auditors. He pointed out the failings within the papally controlled Catholic Church and advocated reforms based on his understandingof the gospel. He attacked, but he also sought to persuade, to educate, and to inform. His main authority was Scripture.
In the second phase Luther was engaged in building and defending an institution. He addressed most of his polemics to readers and auditors who were already Evangelicals or more narrowly Lutherans. He continued to explain and educate but spent proportionately more effort exhortinghis co-religionists. He continued to appeal to Scripture but supplemented these appeals with claims to personal authority based on his unique role within an Augustinian view of history.
The Peasants' War and the controversy among Evangelicals over the proper understanding of the Lord's Supper (the“Sacramentarian Controversy”) mark a transition from the first, proselytizing phase of the Reformation to the second, institution-buildingphase.
The printing press was invented in the Holy Roman Empire in about 1450, seventy years before the outbreak of the Reformation. By 1520 there