Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer, reviewed by Paul Sponheim

[1] In this volume the English-language-preferred reader of things theological receives a distinguished German scholar’s summation and appropriation of the fruits of some forty years reading Martin Luther. The book’s immediate source was a series of fifteen double hour lectures given at the University of Tùbingen in 2001-2002. Thus there is here a freshness that perhaps reflects the life of the classroom. The content also has a sense of newness about it, perhaps deriving in part from the fact that Bayer consciously draws not simply on the classic texts such as de servi arbitrio, but also very heavily on Luther’s catechisms, biblical prefaces and hymns. The result is a volume that is at once very helpful and very challenging.

[2] Bayer conceives of his task as “a conversation with Luther, in which one is ready to listen and ready to engage critically” (xxi). He is convinced that “our own contemporary existence must be examined in light of the same questions that occupied Luther for his entire life.” Thus the reformer asked, as do we, “What is the correct way to talk about God and his relationship to human beings? How do salvation, life, and blessedness enter into a world of sin, the devil, and death? How does one become confident about this salvation, precisely at the time when things happen every day to contradict it? Is the church necessary, and if so, who needs it? How does the Christian live in a world that is viewed apocalyptically” (xix-xx)?

[3] Three themes in this appropriation stand out because they are lifted up as integral to the whole of Luther’s work. That is true of the “motto” “You are called to freedom!” (Gal. 5:13). Secondly, the concept of freedom “is to be understood in terms of the distinction between law and gospel” (xvi). “A third signature theme is ‘justification by faith alone'” (xvi). There is a palpable concreteness carried by such themes, as Bayer drives home in his second chapter which identifies the “topic of theology” as “the sinning human and the justifying God” (38). The emphasis carried by the italics matters for “it is necessary to see the verbal adjectives … not as accidental and incidental, but rather as essential and determinative of the matter” (38).

[4] Bayer’s work very much deserves to be subtitled a contemporary interpretation. He recognizes important differences between Luther’s context and his own. This is not merely a matter of no longer finding sufficient grounds for identifying the Pope with the Antichrist (325, 333). Yet Luther’s own voice is heard distinctly in every chapter and not only in the copious quotations included. Themes Bayer finds crucial in Luther’s thought are lifted up pointedly as needed now — for example, the crucial role of the external word against expressions of “enthusiasm,” then and now. He finds a major adversary in the modern world’s emphasis on “inventing itself.”1 Again italics serve him: “In its universalizing of the gospel, the modern age is antinomian [‘the human being is by nature free, good, and spontaneous’], but at the same time it is increasingly nomistic [as a human being is ‘under the pressure to redeem himself’]” (65). Bayer very helpfully recognizes that the human heart is both proud and desperate (Jer. 17:9): “In superbia, in self-glorifying obstinacy and pride, I place too high a value on myself as creature; in desperatio, in despair and doubt, I falsely assess what I am as a creature” (182).

[5] A common criticism of Luther laments that he lacks an adequate doctrine of creation. Bayer responds vigorously by showing how Jesus “mediates” creation to us (115)2 Bayer drives home Luther’s explanation of the first article where of the Creator’s work it is said that “all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.”3 He sees so clearly that “if the gospel is considered to be nothing other than the defeat of evil and sin, one runs a risk of minimizing the truth about creation” (62). Let us instead recognize that “the gospel has a superabundance of positives.” Particularly helpful is his expansive discussion of the three estates, lifting up that notion as more important for Luther than the more frequently cited notion of the “two realms.” He observes that “there is danger when it comes to Luther’s teaching about the two realms that one can single out sexuality, marriage, family, rearing, education, and business and assign such to the political sphere as ‘temporal’ rule, playing these off against ‘spiritual’ rule” (125).4 He elaborates: “The ethic based on the two realms is limited in time; by contrast, the three estates, if one can look beyond the pressure of the moment in the political realm, will be altered but not done away with altogether” (325). Striking here is the application of the estate of the church to all human beings (126), who are, though, specifically not co-creators (166).5 Noteworthy as well is his recognition against Luther that the third estate originates not only as a response to sin but rather is given already in creation and, accordingly, that “political order does not exist solely as force to be used against force” (152). In chapters 5, 6 and 7 and elsewhere there is strong recognition of the role of reason, the first use of the law, and civil righteousness.

[6] Bayer sees Luther’s anthropology as identifying the human person as one who “listens and responds.” If Bayer’s stress on the concrete, historical and personal draws support from J.G. Hamaan, here he chooses to cross the channel and appropriate John Austin’s now classic work on performative language.6 God’s promissio is an illocutionary word, doing what it says as much as saying what it does. Bayer’s emphasis is not on an “establishing” function that “allows something that exists already to be described.” Rather, a performative utterance “actually constitutes a reality” (51). He notes that Austin’s prime example of illocutionary speech is the making of a promise and lays claim to the logic of promise: “because it deals with an activity that takes time and qualifies time, it cannot be falsified at any given moment by discounting the fact that time is needed” (51). The performative promissio is lifted up repeatedly (e.g.: resurrection, 253, 341; Lord’s Supper, 57). Indeed the sweep of the notion calls Bayer to italics: “The trinitarian nature of God is the inner structure of the promissio” (341). Reinhard Hütter has contended that “Luther understands the gospel as being primarily an utterance making a certain statement, one that on the basis of the specific character of its object always also plays an illocutionary role.”7 He writes that the gospel utterance “transcends the alternative between apophantic speech and performative speech.”8 Mark Mattes has responded in granting a role to the locutionary, but urging us to recognize that the descriptive narrative of God’s redemption of sinners is “inseparably tied to the illocutionary. Its whole point is to make us people of faith. The content of faith, what faith is about, is for the sake of the reception of faith, the trust of the heart.”9

[7] This debate about the locutionary and the illocutionary is connected with a broader issue, the perennial Lutheran struggle to understand the relationship between God’s activity and human activity in the coming-about and life of faith. In American Lutheranism one remembers the vigorous arguments between “first and second form” understandings in the election controversy.10 Bayer does not back away from the difficulties. Consistently the reader is reminded that the Christian life is a “vita passiva” (42-43). Yet that phrase does not simplistically banish all problems. He writes that God “awakens and demands faith” (310). He cites Luther’s Confession of 1528 on how with regard to “a wonderful blessing of Christ” the Holy Spirit “helps us to receive it and to hold onto it” (99). Language of God “demanding” and “helping” does seem stubbornly relational language.11 Bayer sees the difficulty Luther’s language raises and asks “If … God is the one who works everything in everyone with all his power, does he then bring about not only salvation but also disaster? Not only faith, but also unbelief (190)? A book that lifts up such a question surely qualifies as “challenging.”

[8] Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Bayer to “answer” such questions. Double pre-destination is available as an answer, but Bayer strongly resists such a move (326-27). But if he does not “answer,” he does respond helpfully. He can write of how in the giving of the promise a response is sought but not as a condition for the relationship.12 That is, he finds God’s promise to be unambiguous because of God. Bayer’s God, like Luther’s, is a God who is always “there beforehand” (107-09). His rejection of the “senseless” notion of a second baptism is a vivid illustration of this: “God made his promise once for all in baptism … God does not lie … It is not a guarantee of salvation, but it is the action of God in the life of this person, which continues to have its effect and behind which I can never go” (268-69).

[9] What we face here seems a principled refusal to sort out the divine and the human actions in some kind of causal structure.13 Bayer’s introductory chapter is entitled “The Rupture between the Ages.” He is not referring to the frequently debated question of whether Luther and his work belong to the modern age or rather to the Middle Ages: ” … something else is more decisive: the huge rupture between ages is, in reality, that between the old and the new aeon, which takes place on the cross of Jesus Christ” (1). Given that rupture, Bayer steadfastly resists any “natural theology” appeal to a unifying scheme of reality. Specifically regarding justification he stresses that this “transaction” “brings with it a contradiction to the desire of the human being to find an identity by which he seeks to bring peace to himself in a moralistic and metaphysical way; his striving for wholeness is crushed. He cannot establish a continuity of any kind across the rupture … Instead, he is created completely anew … ” (235). But though he claims no “philosophy of history” and no theodicy, he does offer from de servi arbitrio Luther’s passage on the “three lights” of nature, grace and glory.14 Moreover, in a striking footnote, he can ask whether “precisely with respect to the eschatological hope of faith — we must speak of ‘the open wound of theodicy'” (213, n53). He asks: “Based on the gospel, is it not more correct to believe, to hope, and also to teach that all human beings will be saved in the end, along with all creatures, after passing through death and judgment” (327)?

[10] Bayer knows that Christians must teach (67), but he insists that “the hope for the deliverance of all is not a statement that is appropriate as teaching in the sense of a proposition, but rather is appropriate to prayer” (327). Indeed “Luther and Melanchthon are to be criticized” for “making definite statements as propositions” at this point (327). We are back on the ground of the relationship of the locutionary and the illocutionary, of course. One may wonder whether this appeal to prayer — his closing chapter is “Promise and Prayer” — is claiming the high ground epistemologically. The book that ends with this appeal began with an assertion that “those who think within a systematic framework are obsessed with unity and consistency” (xv). Yet in that same introduction he proposes to “contemporize Luther with a systematic intention –namely, posing the question about what is true” (xix). Bayer emphasizes that Luther’s understanding of tentatio “involves the excess of certainty on the part of the one who knows, over against one’s capacity to know in a propositional sense” (21). But this appeal to experience is an appeal to an “agonizing struggle.” It was surely that for Luther, and it will be such for readers of Bayer’s most helpful and most challenging work.


1. See particularly Oswald Bayer, “Law and Freedom: A Metacritique of Kant,” 138-55, Freedom in Response: Lutheran Ethics: Sources and Controversies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Oswald Bayer, “Justification: Basis and Boundary of Theology, 67-85, By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, ed. Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 76, where the continuity between modernity and postmodernity is identified: “In both, the concept of ‘creation out of nothing,’ and thus an existence that is unearned and radically unmerited, appears to be totally meaningless, even nonsensical, absurd.”

2. See also Freedom in Response, 202-4.

3. Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), xiv.

4. He closes his discussion of the estates by emphasizing Luther’s point that “over these three estates and orders comes the general estate of Christian love.” See Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 152.

5. Cf. Freedom in Response, 160: “… we ourselves do not build the ‘house’ of the world and our own lives’ we are only, so to speak, ‘interior designers’.”

6. John L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

7. Reinhard Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 84.

8. Ibid., 225, n148.

9. Mark C. Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 164.

10. Cf. the helpful historical summary by Eugene L. Fevold in “The Theological Scene,” chapter 14 in The Lutherans in North America, ed., E. Clifford Nelson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975)

11. Bayer, 59-60, cites from On the Freedom of a Christian Luther’s repeated use of the language of “if you believe.” But of course the passage ends with talk of God: “He alone commands; he alone also fulfills.”

12. See Oswald Bayer, “The Ethics of Gift,” 447-68, The Lutheran Quarterly, xxiv:4 (Winter, 2010), 458.

13. The closest he comes to such a structure is in his use of Aristotle’s four causes, where he grants a pagan access to the material and formal causes, but reserves the efficient and final causes for Christian claims. See Freedom in Response, 114.

14. See Oswald Bayer, “Worship and Theology,” 148-61, Worship and Ethics: Lutherans and Anglicans in Dialogue, ed. Oswald Bayer and Alan Suggate (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996), 160-61, where Bayer rejects the “idea of a unity of history,” insisting instead that “if theology entails knowledge of sin and waiting for the gift of justification, it renounces the concept of a unity and refuses to conjure up a meaning of history.”

Purchasing Information
Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008
398 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-2799-9, $32 (Paperback)

Paul Spondheim

Paul Sponheim is Professor Emeritus of Theology at Luther Seminary.