Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church

Edited by Timothy J. Wengert. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. 260 pp.

[1] This impressive collection of essays by leading Lutheran theologians and Reformation historians represents the state-of-the-art in current Luther scholarship. Originally published in Lutheran Quarterly these essays now appear under a single title in Eerdmans’ new and promising series, Lutheran Quarterly Books. Organized under three headings, the Catechetical Luther, Luther and God’s World, and Luther and Christ’s Church, thirteen essays explore a variety of themes in the Reformer’s writings with an eye toward the ongoing significance of these topics for Christian faith and life. Ethicists will find several (Kolb, Schwanke, Froehlich, Lindberg, Rieth, and Hendrix) of the entries especially useful not only for a historical understanding of Luther but also their effort to let him address contemporary issues. In this way the volume serves as a fine supplement to the more general introduction to Luther’s ethics found in work of Althaus, Forell, and Lazareth.

[2] Mark Tranvik contributes an essay on “Luther on Baptism” demonstrating Luther’s reformation of baptism from a sacrament of initiation to a sacrament of perpetual significance for the Christian life. “Luther on the Two Kinds of Righteousness” is the title of Robert Kolb’s chapter. Kolb sees this distinction as crucial for Luther’s overall approach to theology and ethics as it reflects both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of human life. Hence, the conceptual framework of the two governments cannot be understood apart from Luther’s grasp of two ways of being righteous- one before God and the other before the neighbor. Dietrich Korsch uses Luther’s seal as a template for the hermeneutic of his doctrine in “Luther’s Seal as an Elementary Interpretation of His Theology.” Johannes Schwanke examines Luther’s confession of creation on the basis of the Genesis lecturers. There is much here that will enrich the pastor’s catechesis of the First Article and strengthen the articulation of a Lutheran response to postmodern claims of autonomy. Schwanke demonstrates how Luther’s confession that God “has made me along with all creatures” (Small Catechism) will not allow us to “condone the view that human sympathies and personal preferences should qualify the promise of creation. If the divine address and exhortation to life apply to humanity, as Luther says, ‘independent of my merit and worth,’ then one cannot apply self-serving criteria of personal history or merit particularly in the case of the physically handicapped or those with Alzheimer’s disease. The unassailable worth of each individual applies unconditionally to all human persons. This worth is unmerited, and therefore cannot be lost” (97). Gerhard Sauter shows how Luther provides an eschatological answer to Anfechtung in his chapter “Luther on the Resurrection” that rounds out the “Catechetical Luther.”

[3] “Luther and God’s World” begins with Karl Froehlich’s “Luther on Vocation” was originally a lecture given to seminary students as he uses Luther to raise questions of pastoral identity and formation in the broader context of the Christian calling in the world. Carter Lindberg examines Luther’s understanding of poverty; both its cause and appropriate solutions in “Luther on Poverty.” Lindberg describes the worldly character of Luther’s ethic: “For Luther social ethics, good works, are not salvatory, but they do serve the neighbor. Since works are not ultimate but penultimate activities of the sinner saved by the justifying God, they are this-worldly rather than other-worldly; directed to the neighbor rather than to God. Works are a response to God’s promise; a response that flows from faith active in love; from worship. Thus Luther’s social ethics are aptly described by the phrase ‘the liturgy after the liturgy’.” (138). Ricardo Willy Rieth demonstrates that Luther attacks greed from the perspective of the first commandment in “Luther on Greed.” Scott Hendrix writes on “Luther and Marriage” demonstrating the Reformer both demoted as a sacrament and elevated marriage as a vocation -the arena for both faith and love. Gregory Miller examines Luther’s understanding of Isalm as a historical, political and eschatological reality in “Luther on the Turks and Isalm.”

[4] The final section, “Luther and Christ’s Church” offers three essays. Helmar Junghans traces the development and implications of Luther’s liturgical proposals in “Luther on the Reform of Worship.” Carl Axel Aurelius offers an introduction to Luther’s evangelical use of the Psalms for lament and praise in “Luther on the Psalter.” Another essay by Scott Hendrix, “Martin Luther’s Reformation of Spirituality” notes Luther’s continuity and discontinuity with the medieval tradition. Hendrix describes Luther’s spirituality as a “guestly spirituality” as Luther understands the life of the Christian lived in a world where God is the host and we are on the receiving end of divine generosity in creation and redemption.

[5] The concluding words of veteran Reformation scholar, David Steinmetz’s foreword to Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church aptly describe the value of this book: “Their work is a gift to Luther research and an important aid for the general reader who wants a reliable guide to Luther, a figure who has an undiminished capacity after nearly five hundred years to surprise and instruct us” (xi). This anthology will enhance the understanding and usefulness of Luther both for laity and clergy. The essays are thoroughly researched and clearly written making this volume an accessible tool for those interested in probing the promise of Luther’s theological legacy for church life and ethics.

John T. Pless

John T. Pless is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.