Editor’s Introduction: Art and Anfechtung

[1] On the occasion of the 500th observance of the Reformation, it is appropriate to look back and reconsider some of the themes and strategies that gave wings to the movement. In this issue of JLE we will focus on two such themes and emphases, namely the role of Anfechtung in Luther’s wrestling with the idea of God’s justice, and the use of art as a tool for proclamation and spiritual formation.

[2] In the first article, Nelson Rivera, associate professor of theology at Moravian Theological Seminary, charts the evolution of Luther’s understanding of divine justice through his lectures on the Psalms early in his career through his last lectures on Genesis. After wrestling with God like Jacob, Luther also walks always limping but with a new understanding of God’s justice, namely that “[T]he God of justice is the one who acts on our behalf and for our sake, despite of who we are. Moreover, God is always steadfastly faithful in his interest and love for us” (Rivera, §14). However, what is perhaps most insightful and provocative in Professor Rivera’s article is his interpretation of Luther’s process of engaging the Scriptures in search for answers to ethical and existential queries. It is a process marked by Anfechtug, a spiritual struggle that includes an element of doubt and in probing the Sacred Scriptures for meanings that are far from self-evident. But it is in that arduous process of wrestling with the text that Christ comes to our encounter as God’s word directed to us. In Rivera’s own words:

For Luther, believing in Christ frees us to read the Scripture and to find Christ witnessed and proclaimed, present for us in the text. Nonetheless, the biblical text, like faith itself, is “weak.” There is nothing self-evident about divine revelation in its pages. Understanding Scripture is always a struggle. There is a weakness, a limitation to the text itself, since it is not all consistent, ethical, rational, or makes always sense. The interpretation of Scripture presupposes that we trust God, that we pray that the Spirit reveal its truth, that in God’s mercy we hear God’s word addressing us. (Rivera, §29)

[3] In the second article, Suzanne Hoeferkamp, an artist and a theologian of art and culture, explores the ways in which the Reformation made use of art as a medium to proclaim the word and as a powerful weapon in the reformation of church and society. Hoeferkamp explains that the violent iconoclastic revolts that happened during Luther’s seclusion in Wartburg Castle compelled him not only to return to Wittenberg, risking his life, but also to address the proper role of art in the ministry of the church. Luther’s position on the role of art in the church was forged then not by his controversy with Rome but by his response to the iconoclasm of some of his own fellow reformers. However, the superstitions attached to religious art, as relics for example, did play an important role in the urgency felt by Luther to reformulate their proper use in the piety and life of believers. Hoeferkamp reminds us that among the Reformers, Luther was the only one that encouraged the use and production of religious art, as long as it was meant for didactic purposes and not for veneration. In fact, Luther even commissioned works of art. As Hoeferkamp explains: “God’s words and deeds were also brought to the attention of ordinary people through panel paintings and altarpieces which were created for Reformation worship services in Wittenberg. Through works of art such as these, an interpretation of Luther’s theology and Reformation thought was made visible. (Hoeferkamp, §11). And by being made visible the message of the Reformation was made available to all regardless of their socio-economic status.

[4] As we look back to remember, commemorate, lament, and celebrate 500 years of the Reformation, let’s do so for the sake of moving forward. These articles remind us that it is precisely in the struggle that we find the blessing of new insights. Let us not shy away from the challenges and struggles that lie ahead.

Carmelo Santos


Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Carmelo Santos

​Carmelo Santos, Ph.D., serves as associate pastor at St. Mark’s (San Marcos) Lutheran Church in Springfield, VA. He is also a lecturer at Georgetown University.