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The Luther Letter
A Commentary on Martin Luther, the Reformation
and the Modern World

Edited by William R. Russell, Ph.D.

No. 2, February 2003


This month's newsletter brings to mind these famous words from the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "NOTICE: PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

Quotable Quote

In 1539, the Reformer offered an important tip on how to study theology.

When someone of Luther's stature gives such a tip, it behooves us to listen: "Moreover, I want to point out to you a correct way of studying theology, for I have had practice in that. If you keep to it, you will become so learned that you yourself could (if it were necessary) write books just as good as those of the fathers and councils, even as I (in God) dare to presume and boast, without arrogance and lying, that in the matter of writing books I do not stand much behind some of the fathers. Of my life I can by no means make the same boast. This is the way taught by holy King David (and doubtlessly used also by all the patriarchs and prophets) in the one-hundred-nineteenth Psalm. There you will find three principles, amply presented throughout the whole Psalm. They are Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio." [editor's note: these last three words are translated, "prayer, meditation, affliction"]

Luther and the "Next Christianity"

Penn State's Philip Jenkins, who has created quite a buzz with his analysis of the global church, draws on Luther and the Reformation: "Ever since the sexual-abuse crisis erupted in the US Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1990s…commentators have regularly compared the problems faced by the Church to those it faced in Europe at the start of the sixteenth century, on the eve of the Protestant Reformation…." Furthermore, Jenkins reports, "The reform agendas now under discussion within the US hierarchy involve ideas about increased lay participation in governance-ideas of the sort heard when Martin Luther confronted the Roman Catholic orthodoxy of his day." He then goes on to mention "the first Reformation," "Luther's Reformation," and how "The cultural gap between Christians of the North and the South will increase rather than diminish in the coming decades, for reasons that recall Luther's time." Church historians will argue with Jenkins' analysis of the Lutheran Reformation, but he points us toward the realities of the current global scene-and it's nice to see Luther in print.

The Metaphorical Luther

"We are at 1515," writes Richard Sipe (a former monk and current psychotherapist who speaks and writes about the "new Reformation" needed in the Church of Rome), "between when Martin Luther went to Rome in 1510 and 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the door in Wittenberg." For Sipe and others (e.g., Jenkins, above), Luther is a metaphor for the pending, much needed reform of Roman Catholicism. As they use Luther, he comes across as too interested in the moral corruption so rife in the church of his day-it wasn't so much the immorality of the church that bothered Luther, as it was the poor theology and preaching (i.e., the confusion of Law and Gospel).

Maroslav Volf on Luther on Vocation

Mark Oppenheimer's recent piece on Volf includes these words, "In his first book…Volf argues that the Lutheran…notion of vocation is not adequate in our time. Luther's idea of an earthly calling to complement one's religious calling fails because people frequently hate the work they do, are often exploited, and nowadays change jobs every few years. People are often underpaid. The global market's race to offer the lowest wage drags children to assembly lines. Luther has no good answers to these problems, Volf contends. Luther's 'understanding of work as vocation is indifferent toward alienation in work….Hence it seems that virtually every type of work can be a vocation, no matter how dehumanizing it might be.' Christians, according to Volf, should not accept this dehumanizing reality." My doctoral advisor, George Forell, told me years ago to avoid absolute, sweeping dismissals of any influential theologian or theological movement, because, "Someone will always know more about that person or movement than you do-there is a reason why they have been so influential. Be careful." Given that all I know of Volf's interpretation of Luther is what I quote above, I would respectfully submit that Professor Volf would do well to be more careful. Luther does have at least some "good answers" and Luther's understanding of vocation was precisely formulated to speak to people who were "alienated in work."

A German Shepherd

Reinhard Huetter writes about and then quotes from, the great German Lutherinterpreter, Oswald Bayer: "…Bayer develops a theology oriented especially toward the thinking of Martin Luther and critical of modernity's foundationalist strategies." Now comes the quote: "Theology emerges from worship and moves toward it. As a specialized and specific conceptual undertaking, it is part of the auditory faith that loves God not only with all of one's heart, but also with all of one's power and vitality, and with all of one's thinking (Mk. 12:30). Understood comprehensively, theology is identical with faith." There is a reason that Bayer is seen as such a big dog in Luther studies these days-he is certainly on to something here.

Luther and Mother Mary

This appeared a couple of years ago, in a promo for the then upcoming conference, "Mary, Mother of God": "Mary's title as Mother of God has not fared well in Protestant Christianity. The vehement attack of the Reformation against the exaggerated cult of Mary in late-medieval Christianity diminished Mary's place in the story of salvation, personal piety and public worship. This occurred despite Luther's high view of Mary. His Christmas meditations and exposition of the Magnificat extol the Virgin who, faced with the role of bearing the Messiah, lived by faith alone." Whoever wrote this seems to know something about Church history in general and Luther studies in particular…

Sources: "Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther's German Writings";  "The Next Christianity," The Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 2002);  "Embracing Theology," The Christian Century (January 11, 2003);  Suffering Divine Things, 70; Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, Autumn 2001 Report, 5.

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Document revised, 2003: Jan. 20,  ICLnetProject Wittenberg is coordinated by,  Reverend Robert E. Smith