Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer, reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

[1] Martin Luther’s Theology, a masterly and mature summary by the grand old man of Luther studies in Germany, is not just a review of the reformer’s thought across the doctrinal loci: it is a handbook for life. This is quite deliberate on Bayer’s part. “Intellectual knowledge about faith,” he writes in the Preface, “is not separated from the affective experience of faith; the art of disputation serves the task of caring for souls” (xvi). Bayer consistently refuses the “God’s-eye” approach to theology, which looks down from heaven upon a complete and seamless whole. Instead he, with Luther, with all sinners struggling toward faith, looks up from the midst of the struggle, sorting out the interplay of human hope and doubt surrounding the promise of Jesus Christ. A theologian is not ontologically other than and certainly not superior to any other Christian. Rather, “[a] theologian is one who, driven by agonizing struggle, enters with prayer into the Holy Scripture and interprets what is set forth within it, in order to give insight to others who are engaged in agonizing struggle, so that they in a like manner — with prayer — can enter into the Holy Scripture and interpret it” (19; his italics, as in all quotes from Bayer in this review). The “experience” with which theology deals is not motley sensory input or one component among many in defining God: it is specifically experience with Holy Scripture, which is in turn experience with the Holy Spirit, Who through the word (which includes the sacraments) does something to people, “those elementary speech acts in which law and gospel happen in a concrete way” (41). Theology is about life and the living of it.

[2] That Bayer takes this approach to a review of Luther’s theology has, of course, its benefits and drawbacks. For those so familiar with Luther’s theology that some of its immediacy and applicability to a much-changed twenty-first-century world has been lost, it makes for bright and inspiring reading. (Certainly it is more engaging than the usual summaries assigned to students, Paul Althaus’s The Theology of Martin Luther and Bernhard Lohse’s inversely titled Martin Luther’s Theology.) Bayer’s purpose is to articulate Luther for today, as the subtitle — A Contemporary Interpretation — admits from the get-go. In practice, though, it means that Bayer’s voice, speaking Luther-ly rather than presenting Luther’s thought, often dominates the text. This is most evident when Bayer takes swipes at theological developments since Luther’s time, from dialectical theology under the auspices of Barth to the charismatic movement to the Joint Declaration, not all of which hit the mark. To be fair, Bayer frequently takes swipes at so-called Lutheran churches too, and his aim in these cases is, as a rule, painfully accurate.

[3] The centerpoint of Bayer’s reading of Luther in this book and elsewhere is promissio. He refers to the performative language theory of J. L. Austin in explicating Luther’s conviction of the efficaciousness of the sacraments (including absolution) as performed and spoken. In Luther’s own words, “The philosophical sign is the mark of something that is absent; the theological sign is the mark of something present” (52). The theological signs that are the word and sacraments are efficacious because God is truly present in them. The Reformation breakthrough, in Bayer’s account, happened in Luther’s 1518 recognition that the efficacy of absolution hinges not on the worthiness of the priest or the sincerity or exhaustiveness of the sinner’s confession but on the verbum efficax issued by Christ himself: ego te absolvo does not announce a pre-existing fact or general principle but actually creates a new reality in the speaking. Promises cannot be turned into either declaratives or imperatives and still remain what they are are: this is why the gospel is the gospel and not the law, and why the church is the church and not the whole human race or all of creation. “Nothing can be abstracted from this concrete activity to concoct a statement that supposedly has general applicability” (137). “I cannot say it to myself. It has to be spoken to me” (53). (A good reason for pastors not to commune themselves.) Justification happens in real time.

[4] Perhaps the most outstanding contribution Bayer makes in his interpretation of Luther is to call attention to the reformer as a First Article theologian. This is not normally what your average Lutheran — or any other Christian, for that matter — takes to be Luther’s big contribution to Christian theology. But the doctrine of creation is intimately linked to the doctrine of justification. Both profess the unmerited, unexpected gift of God. If justification is the article on which the church stands or falls, creation is the doctrine on which the universe stands or falls.

[5] Bayer explores all of these interconnections in his wonderful commentary on a Luther sermon on Mark 7, the Ephphatha story. It is the redemptive address of Jesus to the man’s, and our, deaf ears and mute tongues that bestows a renewed knowledge of, even interest in, the natural world. The others around me, human and otherwise, are no longer my enemies but my fellow creatures. The recognition of this and of all that I have been given, not only food and clothing but wonder and delight in the creation itself, marks also the beginning of gratitude. Luther issues a stinging critique of covetousness, linking the last two commandments back to the first. For him, greed is fundamentally and literally unnatural: it is destructive of the natural. Here Bayer’s intention to speak to today is particularly successful. “They cannot hear the Creator any longer from within the things of the world, because they no longer use them in a communicative way that involves thanking, receiving, and distributing to others” (111): an apt description of the current environmental and economic breakdown if ever there was one. But this attitude toward creation is not something self-evident or demonstrable. It is not a vote for “natural theology” of the sort that could be universally accepted. “Luther’s view does not allow one to perceive it as creation in a pristine way; the article on creation is an article of faith” (116).

[6] The doctrine of creation raises the question of the two realms — and Bayer quickly, thankfully, snuffs it. It is not only that this doctrine has given rise to endless dissent among successive generations of Lutheran interpreters, not to mention its exploitation in the hands of evildoers; but the claim for its centrality in Luther’s own thinking, Bayer argues, is wildly overplayed. In point of fact, Luther’s teaching on the three estates was far more important and central to the reformer’s thought than on the two realms (124). This opens up exciting possibilities for contemporary churches’ appropriation of Luther’s doctrine of creation. The two realms are only provisional, an interim arrangement between the Fall and the eschaton. But two of the three estates are of everlasting significance, existing before sin and extending into the life to come. These are “the church” and “the household” — or, more simply, the estate of being addressed by God and the estate of being addressed by and addressing other creatures. (The third estate, government, Luther takes to be a provision for sin, and as such it will have no place in the life to come.) Especially for American Lutherans, who tend to harp on the two realms doctrine to distinguish ourselves (supposedly) from Calvinistic takes on church and world, this is a timely corrective. And the three estates actually give form and content to our life in the world — which a mere distinction between types of power could not very easily do — inviting further investment in the doctrine of creation against gnosticizing tendencies to live by principles alone.

[7] Further, a strong doctrine of creation, with a right understanding of the Creator-creature relationship, undergirds a healthy doctrine of the authority of Scripture. One cannot hope to be a faithful reader of the Scripture without the foundational work of study — learning the languages, reading the Bible diligently, research of all kinds — yet there remains the essential and uncontrollable factor, namely “the gift of the Spirit over which we have absolutely no control.” We circle back here to Bayer’s notion of experience: in reading, in the action of the Holy Spirit, I the reader discover that the stories of Scripture are about me. But “I appear in them long before I obey them” (69). And yet obedience is not a sacrificium intellectus. “In that I myself am addressed, I am freed at the same time to listen, even if it means to listen critically, with all my powers, with my body and soul and all my thinking ability. One is not kept from interpreting just because he is being interpreted at the same time” (69). There is an organic connection between God as Creator and the human creature as interpreter: it is much easier to take one’s own rational powers seriously, to develop and stretch them and put them to the test, when one is confident of the gift of creation itself, the invitation issuing from God Himself to dialogue through the Scripture.

[8] But why, if God is interested in dialoguing with me, through this particular Holy Scripture and not some other means? Could one not grasp the hidden message, “distill the quintessential” behind the text, and then leave it behind? This too runs counter to the doctrine of creation. It is because we are creatures of flesh and blood and history and stories that God speaks to us in a stubbornly specific text (prone to the same blurry edges and occasional wounds as the rest of creation) with stories about flesh and blood people in history. It is a Gnostic impulse to look for the “real” meaning behind the Scripture. The encounter with Scripture is to be as real as with any person: as Luther said, “the power of Scripture is this: it will not be altered by the one who studies it; instead, it transforms the one who loves it” (71). In this connection, Bayer offers a helpful corrective to a popular notion that runs through Lutheran circles, that Luther denigrated the written word in favor of the spoken, a notion that seems chiefly to defend a fast-and-loose use of the scriptural texts. In fact, Luther had a quite a high estimate of the written Scripture. At issue is not the medium but the hearer and reader: “[F]aith enlightens both and unfaith darkens both” (79). (Likewise, Bayer corrects half-baked Lutheran ideas about the uselessness of reason. Reason is only useless in one very specific domain: it “can never make its way to the gospel on its own.” “It is only in this respect — in the soteriological realm, in regard to salvation — that Luther denies that reason and philosophy are competent” [161]).

[9] Despite the enthusiasm of this review so far, not all of Bayer’s interpretation of Luther sits entirely easily with this reader. At first glance, the problem seems to be with Bayer’s take on the doctrine of the Trinity as set against the Deus absconditus. This latter is not the hidden God of the Heidelberg Disputation, God hidden under the sign of His opposite in the sense of the “theology of the cross.” Rather, it refers to “God’s all-consuming, terrifying hiddenness, in which his incomprehensible wrath works, in which I cannot hear him any longer, or at least cannot ‘understand’ him any longer, but can ‘hear’ only in terror and experience him as oppressive, fearsome, sinister. This aspect of the hiddenness cannot even be conceptualized and described in an orderly way at all. Because of this, Deus absconditus (hidden God) is not one name or attribute for God among others, never one of the personal names of God, but is always a problematic concept and a concept that talks of what is on the edge” (198). This seems to suggest a kind of Manichean split between the God of the promise and the God Who “works life and death and all in all” (Luther in The Bondage of the Will). It takes on a modalistic cast when Bayer writes, “A God whom I do not understand — not just in every aspect but also in this painful aspect — is no subject who can offer proof; he is an anonymous power, who oppresses me, from whom I flee away — right to the shining face of the Father who is revealed in Christ” (213). Are we to take the “hidden God” to be the real thing, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be merely masks in the ancient sense of “persona”?

[10] Though it could be read this way, Bayer clearly does not intend to affirm either of these ancient heresies. He’s after other enemies when he insists on maintaining this dual reality of the Trinity and Deus absconditus. In keeping with his sinner’s-eye view of reality, Bayer is not making ontological claims here — which Manicheism and modalism both entail — but epistemological ones, in sympathy with the genuine Anfechtung of life in this creation for fragile sinners at the mercy (!) of countless forces beyond their control, subjecting them to suffering that cannot be reasoned away.

[11] Thus the hedges around the doctrine of the Trinity are to fend off a kind of philosophy that, quite apart from the soteriological content of the gospel, sees “trinitarian-ness” as a natural principle that can be read off the structure of the world or its history. When Bayer goes to great lengths to insist on the inconceivability of the Trinity’s costly decision to save fallen humanity, it is chiefly to reject a ho-hum, indifferent assumption of salvation as the human due, such as expressed in the words attributed to Heinrich Heine on his deathbed: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job.” But “[t]he one who has escaped from judgment and death cannot be sufficiently astounded about this” (228).

[12] As for the Deus absconditus, the great amount of space Bayer dedicates to this topic is to fend off theoreticians of theodicy who all too fatally compromise God’s Godness in the process. There is no escaping this hard fact: God “accomplishes evil as well as good (Lam. 3:38), life as well as death, light as well as darkness (Isa. 45:7), happiness as well as misfortune (Amos 3:6). For us, beauty and cruelty are inextricably intertwined in nature and history” (202). So Bayer rejects the notion that God only “permits” evil, or that God is “love” and thus has nothing to do with all the world’s evils, or that God is the author of “double predestination.” “Each seeks to hold onto God as one who is understandable, and thus each comes to a theologically questionable definition of the relationship between God’s omnipotence and goodness” (210).

[13] So although the Trinity-Deus absconditus distinction at first suggests a modalism or division in God, actually its purpose is to stress, with Luther, the unity of God. Bayer explains: “Luther holds tightly to God’s goodness, to his almighty power, and at the same time to his unity — and this precisely because of the certainty of salvation. He would have sooner allowed for logical inconsistencies that weaken the might and goodness of God or even go further yet and deny his unity… if one denies to the generic name (nomen appellativum) ‘God’ the dark power of that terrifying hiddenness, then God would no longer be God; then a power would be next to him or opposite him that would have no master. Because of God’s unity, one cannot avoid speaking about the Deus absconditus — only this is not yet for us the triune God” (205–6). “For us” is the key in that last sentence: the issue at stake here is epistemological, not ontological. Precisely because of the limitations of our knowledge — and because of the unity of God — in the face of the inexplicable and the horrible, we can flee “to the shining face” of the Father in Christ. “For Luther the unity of God is not a matter of thinking but of confession” (213).

[14] There is much to commend here; Bayer’s rejection of cheap and easy theodicy solutions is most welcome. But it is in following the trail backward from the Trinity-Deus absconditus distinction that we finally land on the serious weak point in Bayer’s reconstruction of Luther, oddly inconsistent with nearly everything else he says.

[15] Bayer, as we have noted, is little impressed with theologies that name God as “love” and so refuse to saddle Him with the responsibility for evil. But in his own way, Bayer falls into this same trap in his account of the distinction between law and gospel. Trying to shake off the legacy of Greek metaphysics (one begins to think this will be a neverending task of Euro-American theology!) and armed with Hosea 11:8, Bayer emphasizes the “overthrow” within God Himself (215). But it is curious that he locates the overthrow in the breach between verses 3 and 4 of Luther’s hymn, “Good Christians, One and All, Rejoice.” The first three verses are from the sinner’s-eye point of view, lamenting the wretched state of being condemned by God’s judgment on sin. Afterwards, the voice of God picks up, declaring the intention to save. Surely there is an epistemological break — as noted before, Bayer will not permit forgiveness and redemption simply to be assumed as the logical outcome of human sin. But is the “overthrow” actually within God? As Luther sings it, there is no intra-trinitarian dispute. God “before the world’s foundation” had seen my “wretched state” and “mindful of His mercies great / He planned for my salvation.” So “He turned to me a Father’s heart” and “said to His beloved Son / ‘It’s time to have compassion'” (215). How does Bayer find an “overthrow” in what appears to be a harmonious trinitarian intention to save?

[16] The problem, as it turns out, lies in Bayer’s shifting definition of the law. Within his analysis of the hymn, the law is only seen from the sinner’s-eye perspective, thus comes to be defined as how God “speaks against me” (220). The result is to turn the law into a permanent condition of God’s wrathful attitude toward me, rather than a situation created by my sin but never originally intended by God’s law, which is “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12, where Paul is dealing with the very same issue of how the good and godly could come to accuse him and so be an enemy). This suspicion is confirmed a few pages later when Bayer writes: “Teaching about the Trinity concentrates on nothing but the gospel, on how liberation took place: the freedom that Christ acquired and brought to us, which he promises and imparts to us through the Holy Spirit by the Word. If teaching about the Trinity concentrates on the pure gospel and nothing but the gospel, one cannot attribute the law that kills to the triune God, pure and simple.” Note the definition of the law here again: it is what kills. Bayer continues, “Whoever confesses that the one who speaks against me in the law and the one who speaks for me in the gospel, in fact who intervenes on my side, is one and the same, utters the paradox of a miracle that cannot be robbed of its power by articulating the assumption that God is sufficient in and of himself. Luther’s hymn of liberation, as it depicts the rupture between stanzas 3 and 4, points to an unprecedented issue with which theology must grapple” (224).

[17] In this respect, Bayer joins his voice with many other Luther interpreters who have taken the distinction between law and gospel to be something more like an enmity. But a heavy cost is paid for making the law into something that solely accuses and kills, something that ultimately becomes so foreign to God that an “overthrow” must be posited and in the “new” God, trinitarian and redeeming, the law has no place whatsoever because it is something that kills. Not only is Paul’s struggle with the law in Romans 7 completely lost, not to mention Pauline and other New Testament paranesis, but so is much of the Old Testament where the law is experienced not only as an accuser but also as a protector of life, a testimony to God’s character, and a liberation from false laws that are enemies of creation itself. Bayer insists that “the gospel is absolutely, completely incomprehensible. That God rescues one from, and brings one through, the deserved judgment is a miracle. Law and gospel cannot be plausibly intertwined together; their existence is hard and fast in opposition to each other. The gospel is literally a paradox: it stands against that which the sinner can reasonably expect; it stands against damnation” (228). As far as the epistemological question goes, about the sinner’s-eye view, we can accept this; but Bayer implies something far more, that “the triune nature of God can be comprehended only as unfolding of the pure gospel” with no place for the law within the being of God, such that “one must distinguish a ‘generic’ doctrine of God and anthropology from a doctrine of the Trinity and that neither can be allowed to intermingle with the other” (224). We come back not only to the earlier whiffs of Manicheism and modalism but also the much-despised theodicy of God as only love — here, He is only gospel.

[18] Is the gospel actually meaningful, can God’s action to save have any content at all, if the law is only what accuses and kills? It is not clear in Bayer’s reading how the law is ultimately any different an enemy from sin, death, and the devil — even though the law is itself the enemy of sin and thus of the devil, with death as the resulting punishment for violations of the law. But if the law is only what accuses and kills, and so is fundamentally other than the redeeming Trinity, there is no reason why redemption should have to take place at all. Why should it be astounding at all that the gospel-God wills to save if He has no holy law that makes His decision to save so costly to Himself? Why not a fiat of love instead of a crucifixion? What part could God’s own propitiating death play in any of this? Bayer’s division of law from gospel means that he cannot account for Romans 3:25, either, where the very issue at stake for God in sending His Son to the cross is the injustice of forgiveness (ironic, because Luther capitalized the words SVNDE VERGJBT, “forgives sins,” in this very verse and nowhere else in the Bible, a fact Bayer mentions twice [6, 76]).

[19] Not only what God saves from but also what God saves for is left murky by Bayer’s take on the Trinity’s relation to law and gospel. If I am to be redeemed by this merciful Trinity, what is the character of the life I can expect with Him and my fellow redeemed? Even in the life to come, when sin has been defeated, the character of the life without sin is a life in keeping with God’s law, “holy and righteous and good,” where sins like rape and torture and murder have no place precisely because they are at odds with God’s law. Redemption into a place where the law cannot accuse and kill me because God wills me to live with Him forever is good; but redemption into a place where there is no law at all, because God is for and against nothing at all, is a contradiction in terms.

[20] The problem, then, is not the distinction between law and gospel, but how Bayer allows the first term to be defined by the sinner’s relation to it only, while the latter is understood both from the perspective of God’s own being and our human reaction. (It is worth noting that the sinful human’s reaction to the gospel is not always positive either — the Gospels explore this terrible reality at great length.) In so doing, Bayer cannot give a coherent account of the basis for Luther’s ethics — strange, since his chapter on this subject is quite beautifully insightful, like most of the rest of the book. And it stands in glaring contradiction to one of his own best insights gleaned from Luther: “The first commandment, in the strict sense, ‘You shall have no other gods besides me,’ is not a commandment in and of itself, but is the flip side of the pure gospel, which states the promise as it frees one from self-glorification and assures one in the midst of doubt: ‘I am the Lord, your God!'” (307). The slippery polyvalency of the word “law” in Bayer’s treatment reveals itself here, for he actually has to assign a different genre to the First Commandment in order to shift it from law to gospel!

[21] Bayer has forgotten, it seems, that in no less exulting an exposition of the gospel than Luther’s 1535 Galatians commentary the reformer was able to say that “the Law is the best of all things in the world” (LW 26:5). How much better Bayer could have done in his own exposition, then, to follow Luther’s stricter definition of the distinction of law and gospel: “God speaks through the law, saying, ‘Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.’ The gospel, however… reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, ‘This is what God has done for you'” (“How Christians Should Regard Moses,” LW 35:162). The law is what God requires; the gospel is what God gives. The latter is the greater, surely, the reality on which the universe, the church, and the sinner stand or fall, epitomized in the doctrine of the Trinity, which, as Bayer rightly says, is a “theology of categorical gift” (254). But it is no small part of the good news that the God Who gives Himself, the world, and our own selves to us is the same one Who condemns all that would destroy His gifts.

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)

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the Editor of Lutheran Forum.