Luther Scholarship Under the Conditions of Patriarchy

[1] Martin Luther’s doctorate in theology, earned at the University of Wittenberg on October 19, 1512, granted him, as it did to all who earned the degree, the license to uphold church teaching and preside over disputations by either writing the theses in one’s role as “opponens” or to participate in them as “respondens.” Luther took this seriously. A doctorate of theology was one of three advanced degrees in the medieval university, the other two in jurisprudence and medicine. Theology was special because it came with the title of “master of the sacred page,” and thus merged academic qualification with ecclesiastical status. Doctors of theology were ordained priests. As faculty members in a theology department, they were required to submit to the authority of the pope, to preach in churches, and to aid bishops in determining orthodoxy or heresy.[1] Luther’s doctorate, then, was the reason why he insisted on his right to debate ecclesiastical authorities who challenged his orthodoxy. It was also why he appealed to a council to rehabilitate him as a Catholic in good standing after his excommunication from Rome and ban from the empire.

[2] Women scholars of Luther, on the other hand, some of them ordained, some lay, know that teaching theology under the conditions of patriarchy does not grant them the same rights and privileges of the doctoral degree that are assigned to their male counterparts. While the words on diplomas might say the same thing, they mean different things for women “doctors of the church.” The words function as a performative utterance for male diploma holders; for women, the words bounce off the stained-glass ceiling. Women scholars are subject to another set of rules for which they were not prepared. For them, having the diploma means that they will be disciplined according to the rules that their male colleagues—and sometimes their women colleagues—enforce. Rights and privileges are granted—and withheld—by the patriarchal order. The doctoral degree, in other words, grants women entrance into “Luther scholarship under the conditions of the patriarchy.” The disciplining of their minds begins when their gendered bodies are noticed.

[3] Patriarchy is the medium in which we live and move and have our being. Society is structured along the gender line (as it is also on the color line, as W.E.B. DuBois explains in his Souls of Black Folk). This is true even as the gender line has become more fluid. Some are ignorant of the gender line’s existence; others are hyper aware. The line is not literal, yet its demarcation in church and world restricts those who are painfully aware of its agency. The women scholar of Luther notices the power of the gender line in many ways. She becomes aware as she reflects on why she was not even shortlisted for the job she was more than qualified for; why no one paid attention to her words in the seminar while her male counterpart who said the same thing later was the center of attention; why her book was negatively reviewed for not taking into account the canon of white male Luther scholars; why her hearer reacted aggressively to her talk; why she has the perennial feeling that she is being underestimated; why her work is oddly erased from bibliographies. She suppresses her feelings, her anger at being diminished, her frustration at not being heard, her sadness when she sees manuscript after manuscript reproduce the one-sided canon.

[4] Theology is an academic discipline, subject to the disciplining that academic disciplines exert on their practitioners. Discipline is intended to secure objectivity, or at the very least the absence of bias. This value of the academic production of knowledge is secured by gate keeping against types of thinking that infuse it with ideology, money, and emotions. Self-interest skews research’s objectives. Knowledge is “value-free,” the only interest being knowledge for its own sake. Academic regimes, such as peer review, are important tools ensuring that standards for objectivity are met. Adequate discussion with an adequate number of interlocutors, fair representation of positions other than one’s own, and an explication of one’s positionality are examples of criteria used to adjudicate objectivity.

[5] Yet the patriarchy exerts its conditions on the production of knowledge. The disciplining is directed to which dissertation topics are deemed viable. Carol P. Christ reports, for example, in her (co-authored) book, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, that her advisors at Yale, all of them male, disallowed her to write on the topic of feminist theology. Their rationale was “viability.” Feminist theology was not, in their view, “viable” as an area of study, worthy of academic inquiry. This was in the 1970s, but I have heard the same trope repeated within my academic lifetime by women colleagues who have been told not to pursue feminist topics because these would not be viable on job market. This leaves unspoken the reality that the norms of “viability” are determined by those who set up the promotion ladder.

[6] Peer review is another area vulnerable to cooptation by the academic patriarchy. Articles and books are anonymously reviewed by scholars who make suggestions for resubmission or rejection. These scholars are supposed to uphold the standards for critical neutrality. Yet where gender is concerned, peer review inserts a bias. Recent studies demonstrate this. One study, for example, shows “that homophily [gender-dependent preference] will persist even if numerical parity between genders is reached, highlighting the need for increased efforts to combat subtler forms of gender bias in scholarly publishing.”[2] Rewards are meted out for those who cite the interlocutors deemed authorities in the field, who follow paths of inquiry laid out by notable predecessors, and who do not veer too far afield with mention of race, class, or gender.

[7] The discipline becomes transparent when the author is known to be a woman. Men prefer to read books written by their gender, as M.A. Sieghart, explains in her essay, “Why do so few men read books by women?” When books by women are read by male reviewers, the women’s scholarly authority is diminished in numerous ways.[3] For example, my recent book How Luther Became The Reformer, published on March 26, 2019, was reviewed a few months later by Carter Lindberg, a scholar of the Protestant reformation and like me a graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago according to his Wikipedia page.[4] Lindberg begins his second paragraph with the following claim: “Perhaps this is a useful study for those unfamiliar with Reformation studies and Luther research; however, scholars in these fields long ago moved on from what Helmer perceives as the dark side of the Luther Renaissance” and proceeds to identify a list of desiderata that he finds deficient in my work.[5]

[8] Condescension is one mark of gender discipline. Many sentences in the review begin with “Nor does she…,” and go on to cite white male Luther scholars as the necessary correctives to my scholarly gaps. “These and comparable studies cover more extensively much of the same ground as Helmer.” In other words, men have already spoken definitively about this subject, after which there is nothing more to say. This is another mark of gender discipline. Striking about this review by an older white male colleague is precisely the emphatic insistence in the bulk of the review that my work is not only not cognizant of this white male Lutheran trajectory of scholarship but that my study is much less sophisticated and scholarly than these purported studies held up as exemplars. Ironically, Lindberg lists works written by white male German authors prior to 1999; if a woman scholar’s bibliography were so dated this would become another occasion for gender discipline. Interestingly the editors of the journal in which this review appeared (Lutheran Quarterly) saw it fit to publish a review whose cantus firmus appears to have been to undermine my authority as a scholar and theologian who is also a woman.

[9] This sort of denigration is not unusual in my over three decades of experience as a Luther scholar. In fact, it is par for the course. The gate keepers of Luther studies are older white male Lutherans. How many books on Luther must I still pay homage to whose footnotes do not mention any women scholars of Luther, let alone people of color? Why are women erased from bibliographies, even though there are women scholars of Luther who write, and teach, and publish? When I raise this issue to editors and publishers, no one notices. Male-authored reviews, articles, and books about a sixteenth-century German manly man continue to inform the consensus that authorities on this subject can only be men. Like recognizes like. “Unlike” must be erased or diminished.

[10] I wonder if viability in the field of Luther scholarship has a specific kind of masculinity at stake. The tradition does have a historical legacy of a crisis of masculinity left in the wake of the wounded German soldiers who returned from the battlefields of the Great War, as historian Deborah Cohen documents in her book, The War Come Home.[6] Luther scholarship emerged as a viable academic discipline around World War I, as I have shown in my (aforementioned) book How Luther Became the Reformer.[7] Church historians like Karl Holl and systematic theologians like Reinhold Seeberg, saw in Luther a paradigmatic figure who experienced the God of wrath and then invented the religion of modernity. Luther was a “strong Christian” (Holl’s allusion to Romans 14), the one who could withstand the divine wrath, while not yet experiencing the divine love. Luther was held up as this “here I stand” figure as Germany was losing the war in 1917. This is the image of defiant masculinity in the face of military humiliation. Could there be a connection to the way contemporary Luther scholars reproduce this patriarchal ethos of masculinity as they discipline the discipline? The masculinist authority of so much contemporary Lutheran scholarship is a product not simply of the patriarchy, but of the wounded patriarchy, and the patriarchy is always wounded, by women.

[11] Patriarchy is embedded in the canonical texts of western literature. Aristotle thought that women had pragmatic reason, but, by nature, lacked the strength of will needed to act consistently (rather than emotionally or appetitively) without male leadership giving them guidance.[8] Saint Paul explicitly told women how to behave. “Women,” Paul taught in his 1 Corinthians 14:34 (with parallel in 2 Tim 2: 11) “must remain silent in the church.” This mandate is the perennial truth haunting women leaders in religious contexts. They must be silent, erased, diminished. A theologian embodied female is an oxymoron, a freak, someone who causes the disorder that Paul wished to avoid with his mandate. The gate keepers who straddle church and academy, as is the case with scholarship on an ecclesiastically significant figure like Luther, assert the rightful place for men in the (wounded) patriarchal order. They insist on citational practices that affirm their right to speak in church. Lindberg’s review of my work is telling because it insists on resinscribing these canonical authors as a way of correcting my alleged scholarly and citational deficiencies. How much of this academic disciplining is infused with Pauline ethics?

[12] Every woman scholar of Luther has stories similar to mine. We have all read the playbook for Luther scholarship under the conditions of (wounded) patriarchy. We all live the playbook as our academic reality. An important resource for understanding the mechanisms of the playbook is Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.[9] Her book has sparked a global discussion on how “misogyny” is the particular regime deployed by the patriarchy to keep women in their place. Manne argues that a patriarchal world assigns woman their place as care-giver. Child-bearing and child-rearing are the two most obvious care-giving roles, which can also include care of elderly parents and partners, fostering and nursing. Care-giving is woman’s sole identity marker. Any woman who deviates from this role, most notably by assuming a public leadership position, will be disciplined. Misogyny is the toolkit that the patriarchy has at its disposal to make sure that women conform to their care-giving identity. Women who fulfill this role are lauded. Look at any tabloid’s obsession with celebrity’s pregnant bellies, their post-baby bodies, and their mothering skills. Lauding and shaming are the two modes of judging these women.

[13] Women who transgress their sole role of caretaking present the greatest threat to the patriarchal order. Manne’s go-to example is women politicians, such as Hillary Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Manne explains that women in leadership positions are particularly vulnerable to misogyny. Her study identifies common patterns of disciplining these women by diminishing their authority, insinuating depravity into their characters, emphasizing their lack, and cultivating reactions to these women that are palpable, such as the feeling of disgust. There are verbal tools that effect this disciplining: She is “crooked”; there is something suspicious about her; she is a “little old lady” or a “pretty young thing.” Persons, men and women, are complicit in these practices of identifying the source of suspicion and expanding it to envelope a woman’s entire person; “hostile” and “aggressive” are the favorite epithets of courageous women leaders. Persons are usually unaware of why they attribute their feelings of disgust to a woman leader: these attributions of negative emotions are socialized behaviors and not “natural” causal reactions.

[14] Every woman theologian I know has stories about scholarship under the conditions of patriarchy—every single one. The men I speak to, on the other hand, are oblivious. The gender line is obvious to those on its “far side”; those who reinforce the line don’t even know it exists. Unless it is explicitly pointed out, male scholars are unaware that their footnotes reproduce white male scholarship; that their bibliographies erase the contributions of women theologians and people of color; that their genealogies persist in mentioning only their gender; that they pay attention only when someone of their gender speaks; and that they only invites members of their gender to speak at those conferences. They do not consider it unusual that their gender is over-represented in academic venues; this overrepresentation is more comfortable to them. And when the presence of women makes them uncomfortable, they unconsciously and consciously deploy the misogynistic repertoire. Microaggressions and implicit biases inevitably insert themselves into professional relationships. Ignoring, shouting, becoming aggressive, talking down are three examples of the repertoire that are the usual treatment. Do male Luther scholars really not know what they are doing?

[15] Why bother even raising one’s voice in protest of the distinctive patriarchal conditions under which Luther scholars work? The tradition has privileged white men for centuries. The discipline’s disciplining mechanisms are fiercely ingrained into the verbal patterns, gestures, and emotions of researchers. Books on Luther continue to be published without paying the slightest attention to women scholars, and these are still held up as scholarly exemplars. Conferences are still organized without noticing that women are absent from the speaker lists. The field continues to attract those who are sustained by it and repels those who are the objects of its discipline. It seems sadly resistant to change.

[16] There are some who are aware of the gender line and are courageous enough to resist its disciplining. There are men who are curious about their role in maintaining the gender line and are willing to do something about it. Needed are “canons within the canon,” or “ecclesiolae in ecclesia,” or more precisely scholars dedicated to their subject matter in such a way as to contract with other scholars unlike themselves to form a community of scholars. Or perhaps it is time to move past paternity and canonicity in Luther scholarship. Smaller groups learn together about harmful discipling practices and grow together–even through difficult conversations—to bring light to bear on interesting questions. I founded the Lutheran Scholars Network on precisely this mandate—that scholars might bring out the best in each other—historians and constructive thinkers—when they are focused on the subject matter together and are intentional about mutual edification. My recently inaugurated group “Logic and Luther” is an even smaller community dedicated to working together on fascinating and complicated questions of medieval philosophy in early modern Lutheran doctrine. While the areas of philosophy and doctrine usually code male, this small group practices conversational strategies that mutually recognize the rights and privileges afforded by a doctoral degree. Only in this way, can producing knowledge together also be an exercise in upbuilding (to allude to a famous Danish Lutheran philosopher).




[1] For an excellent article on Luther’s doctorate of theology, see Richard J. Serina, Jr., “Luther’s Doctorate and the Start of the Reformation,” Lutheran Forum (2017) 53-56; online (accessed April 7, 2022)

[2] Markus Helmer, Manuel Schottford, Andreas Neef, and Damian Battaglia, “Research: Gender bias in scholarly peer review,” ELife (March 21, 2017); DOI:

[3] An excellent book on this topic is Mary Ann Sieghart, The Authority Gap: Why Women Are Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men and What We Can Do About It (New York: W.W. Norton, 2022).


[5] Carter Lindberg, Lutheran Quarterly 33/3 (Autumn 2019): 326-328; DOI: 10.1353/lut.2019.0061.

[6] Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939 (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).

[7] Christine Helmer, How Luther Became the Reformer (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019).

[8] See Aristotle, Politics, especially Book 1, Chapter v. “Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.” (1254b) In: The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. and intro. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 1132).

[9] Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Christine Helmer

Christine Helmer is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, where she is also Professor of German and Religious Studies. She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on the philosophy and theology of Martin Luther and Friedrich Schleiermacher as well as on the nature of theology in the university. She founded the Lutheran Scholars Network, which includes a subgroup “Logic and Luther.” Her most recent monograph is How Luther Became the Reformer (Westminster John Knox 2019) and she is completing a book (with co-author Amy Carr), Justification and Justice: A Theology of Ordinary Faith.