Reviewed by David Luy
The study of Martin Luther’s theology poses a considerable set of challenges for the beginner and specialist alike. The sheer vastness of Luther’s literary production (in excess of 120 volumes in the critical edition of his works), combined with the many twists and turns of the reformer’s theological development threaten to overwhelm the student, scholar or pastor. As an added obstacle, Luther speaks from a world largely alien to modern experience and does so in a vocabulary and idiom, which is sometimes prone to confuse and disorient. For these reasons and many others that might be mentioned, it is typical for scholars of the reformation to characterize Luther’s writings as a vast ‘ocean’, the depth and scale of which few can hope to exhaust or master. If sheer volume and internal complexity are the measure of opacity, then one could justifiably add that Luther scholarship is itself something of a jungle, presenting its own perplexing tangle of competing judgments and opinions. A person could easily expend years reading only books about Luther, and emerge with a little more than a cacophony of discordant characterizations of the reformer’s thought and consequent significance.
The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology adds to a burgeoning genre of recent publications, which provide a cross-section of contemporary Luther scholarship by assembling a collection of essays authored by a wide assortment of major scholars in the discipline. The Handbook is unique among other multi-authored texts in that it focuses almost exclusively upon Luther’s thought—it’s development, content, context, style of expression, and etcetera. The organization of the volume is intended to afford the reader a basic orientation to Luther’s theology, while simultaneously making her aware of the various perspectives and vantage points, which lead to the diversity of characterization and appraisal that exists within the discipline of Luther scholarship today. In this sense, the Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology functions equally well as a “Handbook of the Study of Martin Luther’s Theology.” In both respects, the volume makes a salutary contribution to contemporary scholarship and serves its intended audience well.
The book is divided into seven major sections, which treat important aspects of Luther’s theology. After a single essay in part I , which provides a cursory overview of Luther’s life, part II focuses upon Luther’s complex relationship to the late medieval context within which he matured as a theologian. In many ways, this section prepares the reader for the diversity of perspective, which will characterize the remainder of the book, for the question of continuity and discontinuity within Luther’s theological development is a seminal concern of modern Luther scholarship. Thus, in addition to essays dealing with various aspects of Luther’s intellectual context (e.g. his relationship to humanism, patristic sources, etc), the section concludes with two essays (by Gerhard Müller and Volker Leppin), which provide contrasting pictures of Luther’s relationship to the late medieval milieu of his formal education. These contrasting portraits receive subtle recapitulation in subsequent essays, which inevitably communicate assumptions as to the extent of continuity or discontinuity that surface in Luther’s approach to particular doctrines. In each of these specific cases, the question whether distinct Luther’s contribution represents the continuation, transformation or deconstruction of previous trajectories within the Christian tradition looms large.
Part III directs attention upstream of Luther’s biblical exegesis and theological writings by excavating a few of the core presuppositions, which inform his basic theological approach. The reader is introduced to important, structuring concepts such as the theology of the cross and the distinction between law and gospel. These reflections helpfully prepare the way for parts IV and V, which turn to concrete domains of Luther’s oeuvre, focusing upon his doctrine and ethics respectively. These two sections introduce and survey fundamental topoi within Luther’s constructive vision of the Christian faith as he thought it ought to be believed and practiced. The essays differ in perspective and style, but each provides a useful overview of the important literature, thus calling attention to the spectrum of interpretive opinion within the discipline. The contentious question of how best to interpret Luther’s doctrine of justification is addressed via two essays (Risto Saarinen and Mark Mattes), each representing a distinct perspective on the issue.
Scholars from every perspective are wont to insist upon the clichéd proviso that Luther is no systematic theologian. For most, the qualification is not intended to suggest that Luther’s theological outlook lacks coherence, but rather to emphasize that Luther’s theological output is conveyed in the midst of occasional circumstances and mediated through particular offices and roles. For better and worse, Luther does not provide posterity with anything that resembles the genre of a dogmatic system. Part VI supplies material content to this observation by examining the various compositional genres that structure Luther’s theological writing. Taken together, the four essays that comprise this section provide a helpful reminder that Luther worked out his theological vision as a classroom instructor, a catechist, a preacher, a polemicist, a writer of hymns and as one administering pastoral care and counsel to congregants and friends. Recognition of these various, concrete offices and roles goes a long way in accounting for the so-called ‘earthiness’ of Luther’s theological vernacular as well as the ‘abrasiveness’ of his response to critical interlocutors.
Part VII addresses Luther’s theological reception. The breadth and complexity of this topic is reflected by the sheer length of the section, amounting to twelve separate essays on a range of issues. Several essays deal with Luther’s immediate reception, whether positively among the several collaborators, which comprise the so-called ‘Wittenberg circle’ (Wengert) or negatively among his Roman Catholic critics (Smolinsky). Several essays also collectively survey the nature and extent of Luther’s impact within later epochs, ranging from the period of confessionalization and Protestant orthodoxy all the way to various trajectories within 20th century theology. The concluding chapters of the section turn to the emergence of constructive interaction with Luther’s theology in the majority world. These essays draw the main sections of the book to a close, recalling the editorial introduction’s stress upon the shifting center of gravity within Luther studies (3-4). The editors also supply a concluding chapter, which furnishes an exemplary overview of the basic tools and resources necessary for pursuing the study of Luther’s theology.
The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology manages to bypass most of the besetting deficiencies that multi-authored collections tend to exhibit. The editors frame its contents in such a way that the reader is prepared to view the contrasting views of the various authors as instructive rather than perplexing. The text is intentionally comprised of a diverse assortment of authors, spanning the spectrum of outlook, geographical location and career stage. The result, for those who peruse the volume cover to cover, is an illuminating overview of the state of Luther scholarship today. The bibliographical information supplied in each essay will also serve the student or scholar who seeks to acclimate him- or herself to the ‘state of the question’ regarding particular aspects of Luther’s theology.
The book will serve equally well as a reference text for more occasional consultation among non-specialists. Pastors and students looking for a representative entrée into any particular domain of Luther’s thought will find this publication exceedingly helpful. A selective use of the text will inevitably mitigate the extent to which a particular reader is able to perceive the influence of basic interpretive judgments, which inevitably inform each individual essay. It should also go without saying that books such as this one do not function well when used as a substitute for engagement with the primary texts of Luther’s writing. Thus, the text will serve best when used as a companion and supplement to further reading. This proviso notwithstanding, The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology will be a useful aid for those who seek to navigate the ocean of Luther’s theological contribution, traverse the jungles of subsequent Luther-reception, and draw constructive lessons from both for the enactment Christian faith in today’s world.
David Luy (PhD) is Assistant Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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