Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
Martin Luther’s Theology: It’s Historical and Systematic Development
I’ve had to read a couple of really good books on Luther over the last two weeks. I’m really blown away by this man and all that he accomplished in his lifetime. He’s a really interesting figure when it comes to controversy and I’m still trying to get a hold on his theology, but studying him from a historical perspective is every bit as fun as the theology.
A few fun things about Luther:
- SUPERSTITION: I guess I’ve known at some level that the medieval period was a very superstitious time, but I think I had this notion that the great, especially theological greats, had somehow transcended that plain. Not so with Luther. He was convinced that he had seen the devil several times while studying in his office at Wittenberg. He had quite a preoccupation with witchcraft and superstition which might seem weird except for the fact that this was the culture he lived in. Witchcraft and superstition were way culturally significant than were matters of theology. In the book Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Heiko Oberman, a German Luther Scholar, does a masterful job of teasing out what this meant for the formation of Luther’s theology. Luther was highly aware of this cosmic conflict between God and the Devil. He knew the Devil as an active agent and adversary not only to God but all of humankind. Luther also portrayed God as the conqueror of the demonic powers both in his present time and in all time to come. Both now and in the age to come, Jesus wins the victory over the Devil and his demons.
Superstition isn’t in vogue now and we are so scientific that it is even considered evidence that a person is unstable. But it’s really interesting to see how central this was for Luther and his thinking. You can’t separate his theology from this cosmic battle that he believed to be waging. It was the water in which he swam.
Some criticize Luther for this sort of dualism which pervades his theology, but I think Oberman does a great job of showing that this really isn’t the case.
- PENANCE: Luther was incredible as a bible scholar. He did an amazing amount of commentary work – Psalms, Romans, Galatians, much of the New Testament…he translated the whole bible from Latin into German while is was in seclusion hiding from the Pope. He was truly an amazing bible scholar. It was from this work that he became increasingly disillusioned with the idea of penance. He noted the faulty translation of Acts 2:38 by Jerome in the vulgate. Jerome had translated it “Do Penance and be baptized” when the Greek clearly states “Repent and be baptized.” From this faulty interpretation and translation a whole system of penance had been built within the Roman Catholic Church.
Penance had essentially four steps:
penance (which was the indulgences thing)
Luther’s 95 thesis were essentially about this 4th one.
Luther reacted to one common story which circulated at the time of his Wittenberg appointment. Some brigand had obtained an indulgence for stealing from the church official who had come to sell them and raise money for the church. Then he waited in the weeds for the official to come back down the road from whence he had come and robbed the vicar of the whole box of money. He left him only the copy of his indulgence sign by the pontiff himself. It’s probably not a true story but illustrates the issue with penance.
I love Luther’s work on grace. He is so strong on the fact that the miracle of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is the sheer gratuity of it all. I’m working on “Bondage of the Will” right now and hope to post more on it later.