Paul R. Hinlicky’s Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom

See also Response to Bo Kristian Holm by Paul R. Hinlicky

[1] Lutheran theology is in a process of transformation. Perhaps it has always been. The process of transformation moves in many directions at the moment, but several of these try for a variety of reasons to liberate Luther from twentieth-century mainstream Lutheran theology. Paul Hinlicky is one of these transformers, and with Luther and the Beloved Community he makes clear his path into a future of transformed Lutheran theology, at the same time leading us away from the landscape known as Christendom where society and Christianity were inseparable. Should one differ in the understanding of the actual cultural topography in Euro-America, it very well may influence the assessment of Hinlicky’s proposals. Belonging to the Euro-part of Euro-America this reviewer still lives in the midst of a society marked by the era of Christendom (i.e., Denmark). And although tendencies towards ending the era of Christendom are here observable, it is not yet actually the case. This means that in the future I might find myself more comfortable with some of Hinlicky’s many conclusions and solutions, especially concerning the relation of Church and society, than is now the case. This does not mean, however, that Hinlicky’s book is of no help on the way towards the yet unknown future, where homelessness in the actual culture may become acute — although I cannot say that I am longing for it.

[2] As a rule, being critical of twentienth-century Luther research and Lutheran theology involves being critical towards a Lutheranism marked by one or more of the many reductionisms caused by modernity. Hinlicky is no exception in this regard. And if one wonders what a well-argued Lutheran equivalent of Radical Orthodoxy might look like, Paul Hinlicky’s work can serve as a pretty good illustration. Several of Hinlicky’s key opponents are situated in the nineteenth-century liberal tradition, von Harnack and Ritschl in particular, but in some strange way he nevertheless has some similarities with at least the latter of the two, to whom we will later return.

[3] Doing Lutheran theology in the twenty-first century is not a matter merely of repeating Martin Luther verbatim, nor of simply repristinating his thought, which according to Hinlicky is not only hermeneutically impossible but also a morally suspect enterprise (244). Hinlicky’s book distinguishes itself by being freshly and explicitly aware of this. Doing Lutheran theology in our time is much more about reconstructing Luther in ways that make him a fruitful dialogue partner. The Luther we meet in Luther and the Beloved Community is then explicitly Hinlicky’s own. It is therefore difficult to argue with his interpretation of Luther, since it clearly is Hinlicky’s Luther we meet. One must, instead, argue about the specific element that he chooses in his reconstruction of a creedal Luther for the future. In this way Hinlicky invites us to a very fruitful struggle with the past, since it is this struggle that opens new ways for the future, liberating us from the all too familiar perceptions and habits that have grown around the traditional approaches to the sixteenth-century reformer.

[4] Hinlicky’s book is rich in content and perspectives, and it is impossible to pay respect to all the insights and discussions he offers his reader. The book consists of ten chapters with a clear progression of thought, and it is divided into three main parts dealing firstly with God, then with the human being, and finally — according to Hinlicky’s introduction (xxiii) — with objections to his proposal. But it could be equally right to say that the last part deals with the believer’s relation to God (justification), to other believers (Church), and to the world (politics). In the first part, dealing with Luther’s creedal theology, Hinlicky sets the scene by posing the problem of Christian belief in Euro-America today and introducing Luther as a theologian offering another way for doing theology from the one that recent Lutheran theology — mainly liberal — has made him represent. This includes, for example, a reformulation and re-evaluation of the concept of doctrine, following the older Luther’s explicit return to classical Church doctrine.

[5] The second chapter presents the Trinitarian and Neo-Chalcedonian Luther: here we discover Luther the constructive theologian who presents Christ as the center of a “revealed” faith and a relevant figure for today’s theology. Hinlicky thereby highlights the dimensions of Luther’s theology which deliberately have been put on the historical sidetrack in the liberal Luther interpretations of Ritschl and von Harnack, and which we also find marginalized in a great part of twentienth-century Lutheran theology.

[6] Chapter three focuses on the holy wrath of God, emphasizing Luther’s creative dependency on Anselm’s theory of satisfaction. Chapter four offers a Trinitarian interpretation of the dialectic of law and gospel structured around the “Trinitarian advent” of God, seen most clearly in Hymn 299 of the Lutheran Book of Worship (“Dear Christians, one and all”). This hymn locates the law-gospel distinction within the grand Trinitarian narrative, emphasizes the gospel of the merciful God as the precondition for distinguishing law from gospel at all, and therefore leaves Hinlicky’s Luther somewhere between Barth and the usual mainstream Lutheranism.

[7] Part two deals with theological anthropology. Chapter five presents a reading of Luther’s De servo arbitrio (The Bondage of the Will), seeing the work as an example of apocalyptic theology rather than of philosophy — an interpretation in stark contrast to the treatment typically given (according to Hinlicky) by Melanchthon and later Lutherans. It is here that Hinlicky finds a powerful apologetic for an understanding of the self as somatic and ecstatic. In contrast to Ritschl, Hinlicky does not find De servo arbitrio a mere mess of conflicting ideas, but instead insists on taking possible later developments in Luther into consideration in the effort to interpret Luther’s exhortations against Erasmus. According to a paragraph inserted by Rörer in the 1546 edition of the work, Luther would have regretted the use of the term “necessity” in The Bondage of the Will, since it suggests a kind of compulsion. For readers with some sympathy towards Ritschl at this point, Hinlicky surely has something to offer.

[8] Chapter six deals with bodily life in general and married life in particular, arguing for an acknowledgment of the complexity of the matter of sexual ethics. Here Hinlicky offers a sensitive discussion of some of the most divisive issues of our time, including his suggestion that the Church could at the same time restrict the churchly blessing for hetereosexual couples and reasonably give open recognition to the value in committed same-sex relations.

[9] Until now the doctrine of justification has been remarkably absent in Hinlicky’s Luther. This essential core of Lutheran theology comes to the foreground in chapter seven, the opening chapter in the last part of the book. Here we are confronted with a reasoned discussion of the often virulent Paul-Luther debate. Hinlicky’s aim, in this chapter, is to recapture the rhetorical-paradoxical character of this chief doctrine by going beyond the old and new perspectives on Paul. Chapter eight reconstructs Luther’s catholic ecclesiology as something that has been forgotten for all too long, and it manifests a longing for a new Rome. Chapter nine puts the Christian in the midst of the political world but “between the Ages.” The last chapter offers a kind of conclusion via a reinterpretation of Luther’s theologia crucis, trying to liberate it from what he sees as reductionist simplifications. An appendix deals soberly with the problem of Luther’s demonization of his opponents.

[10] By using the Beloved Community as his focal point Hinlicky does more than just reveal his foothold in Western Augustianism as well as his sympathy for the “catholic Luther” and the need for a renewed understanding of the relation between church and world. He, at the same time, emphasizes the social dimension of Luther’s theology, contributing to a necessary re-socializing of the doctrine of justification, not least in front of claims either accusing or praising Reformation theology for having reduced faith to an individualistic, private affair only. To understand salvation as “the inclusion of the excluded into the Beloved Community” (14, cf., 16) seems to be a much more adequate way to grasp the social setting into which justification originally belonged, and to be more nearly in concordance with the social metaphors accompanying this doctrine, than is the mere reduction of the doctrine to what can be grasped by using only its forensic vocabulary.

[11] This social approach corresponds very well with the one positive point Hinlicky is able to find in von Harnack’s Luther interpretation: that Luther was a “restorer of the old dogma” and that the gospel for Luther was “saving doctrine, doctrine of the gospel” (29). Hinlicky reads Luther as one who transforms the old dogma into something quite vivid without leaving its bonds, in so far as those bonds are identified as the doctrine “about the One who gives Himself with all His gifts to those who are otherwise helpless and ‘without merit’, beginning then with the gift of the Spirit of the very faith to welcome him” (38). In condensing Luther’s theology to this, Hinlicky points to the fact that Christian doctrine has to take the form of expressing the renewed fellowship with God in a way that can be grasped by faith in confidence. This is the background for understanding the doctrine of justification.

[12] This relation cannot be reversed without unhappy reductionisms. Hinlicky is therefore right in questioning von Harnack’s dichotomization of contentless fiducia (trust or faith) and impossible notitia (knowledge), since notitia in Luther’s understanding of doctrine is inseparable from fiducia (63). The problem is, however, what does this mean? Does it mean that a specific notitia has to be combined with true fiducia, and that the task for critical dogmatics is to argue for the possibility of giving sense and content to the old dogma, which perhaps then subsequently could be grasped by fiducia? Or does it mean that even notitia cannot be separated from fiducia, so that fiducia always is depending on a notita that is able to create fiducia, and that doctrine itself is judged by this very ability? If the latter is the case, this means that we not only have to “re-socialize” the doctrine of justification, but also that this doctrine itself has to be understood as already being part of a social context, of an actual ongoing communication aiming at spreading saving fiducia.

[13] In discussion of “The New Perspective on Paul” Hinlicky is, therefore, totally right when stating that justification is not introspection, but extra-spection (122). Developing this idea a little, this extra-spection could mean seeing oneself in a new community with God and fellow human beings at the same time, which again could be the criteria of true doctrine in Luther. Theology that leaves human beings anxious and outside of the saving relationship with God is simply false, no matter how much it uses classical dogmas in its argument. This is not a return to the Word-Event Model, which Hinlicky with Christine Helmer criticizes (132), since faith in this preaching’s display of the reopened community with God remains the work of the Holy Spirit in allowing human beings to believe in the merciful intentions of the giving God.

[14] In Hinlicky’s emphasis on the relation between justification and inclusion in the beloved community, I see reasons for reading Ritschl in a more generous way. For example, Ritschl’s stress upon God as love, his understanding of the individual as social,1 and his treatment of religion from the vantage point of sociology — all of which Ritschl viewed as Luther’s most significant contributions2 — seem to me to be more compatible with Hinlicky’s interpretation of Luther than Hinlicky himself thinks. At the same time it is necessary to add that this nineteenth-century theologian’s insights are immeasurably enriched by the addition of Hinlicky’s key elements of “creedal Christianity” — elements that for liberal theology belonged to the past: the understanding of God as Trinitarian community, Chalcedonian Christology as the key to the Christian understanding of God, and the social framing of the renewed fellowship between God and humanity. By placing his chapter on justification after the chapters on Trinity and Christology Hinlicky points to the necessary precondition of situating the doctrine of justification in a social context involving also the relationship to God, and not just to fellow human beings as was the case in Ritschl. In the latter’s thought, the necessity of avoiding all hints of mysticism in Luther required omitting the relationship with God from his concept of sociality.

[15] Hinlicky follows the “new mainstream” of Luther interpretation which gives the concept communicatio idiomatum (the “communication of attributes”) a status far more crucial than the merely verbal one in Melanchthon or the historical one found in Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and twentieth-century mainstream Luther-reception. Instead of Ritschl’s downplaying of the role of satisfaction, Hinlicky emphasizes with Lienhard the wrath of God (69), and thereby follows the path of Luther interpretation set by Theodosius Harnack, Ritschl’s antipode.3 In the attempt not to “over-Anselmise” Luther and make him look too much like Melanchthon, Hinlicky stresses the distinction between Christ’s passive and active obedience (70). Whereas for Anselm satisfaction is equated with payment to the Father, Hinlicky points to Luther’s emphasis on Christ’s passive obedience and the Reformer’s understanding of satisfaction as punishment. But there are other important differences which play an underlying role in Hinlicky’s Luther, although at the same time remaining pretty close to crucial statements within the book.

[16] In spite of Hinlicky’s moderations, I find Anselm’s position in his refigured Luther too pivotal. The Anselmian scheme reduces the incarnation to a precondition for satisfaction. In my reading of Luther, (to some extent influenced by Regin Prenter, who in other matters seems to lie rather close to Hinlicky) incarnation and cross become almost the same thing, both highlighting God as a God giving himself to sinful human beings. This deep incarnational theology builds the background for Luther’s reinterpretation or even radicalization of John of Damascus’ doctrine of communicatio idiomatum.

[17] This leads us to the next point: the difference between Anselm and Luther in their understanding of divine giving. Since Hinlicky generally stresses the self-giving God and, rightly, corrects Anselm at this point (80f.), I nevertheless miss some further reflections on the move from Anselm’s theory of satisfaction to Luther’s grasp of grace as God always giving nothing less than Himself. For Anselm, God through Christ gives merit to the sinner, something outside Himself that has been earned, but not identical to God Himself. In the last part of his On the Lord’s Supper: Confession, Luther, on the other hand, makes it clear that whatever God gives to human beings He always gives Himself.

[18] Christian theology is open for a variety of exchange models: the quadruplet of sacrifice, as sketched by Augustine and distinguishing between 1) Giver, 2) Object of sacrifice, 3) Recipient, and 4) Beneficiaries4; the triad of the gift distinguishing between 1) Giver, 2) Object, and 3) Recipient; and the dyad of love where Giver and Object become identical: 1) Giver=Object, and 2) Recipient.

[19] What is interesting in Luther is not so much his use of Anselmian models of satisfaction following the quadruplet of sacrifice, but his explicit transformation of this model to one of love, emphasizing the aspect of divine self-giving as the core of Christian theology. This move by Luther opens the way for understanding the monotheistic God as Love. If this is the point, one could read Ritschl’s comprehension of Luther more positively, including Ritschl’s critique of Ferdinand Christian Baur’s prioritization of the negative moment as the precondition for expressing the positive. In stressing the aspect of divine wrath, Hinlicky could be seen as following another mainstream in Lutheran theology going back to Baur, who saw Protestantism as the better religion making the negative moment of leaving the sinfulness as precondition for speaking of the positive moment, the entrance in the state of grace, which according to Baur opposes Catholicism’s habit of always beginning with the positive moment.5

[20] But Hinlicky does not follow this main path. Walking close to Oswald Bayer, but not too close, he sees divine wrath as a necessary aspect of God’s love — but not as an unintelligible overthrow in God’s Self as in Bayer. It would, however, be an interesting thought, if Ritschl’s critique of Baur could be of some help in making Luther more Catholic. And it would be even more interesting to see what kind of Lutheran theology would result. That outcome might be a Christocentric ecclesiology of communion anchored in the Eucharist (cf. 289), where God gives himself in Christ ever anew, involving a social “joyful exchange” (cf. 293). As far as I see it, such a communion surely has to be catholic in a broad sense. But this does not necessarily exclude co-existing but different churches recognizing each other, nor does it require opposition between church and world, but rather it leaves the world ambiguous in a positive sense. I find Hinlicky’s use, out of context, of Luther’s rhetorical and polemical statements about the Pope, in order to construct an imagined positive attitude towards papal authority, to be a little daring.

[21] And while making sociality or community the key concept, one could even ask if the recognition of differences by theological opponents is not a vital part of being a community of love, perhaps even a beloved community? And if churchly blessing is a shelter for relationships of love in an ambiguous world, one could ask, why this shelter could not be given by the Church to same-sex unions as well?

[22] As these last remarks show, I am unable to follow Hinlicky in all of his conclusions. But he has surely contributed to an understanding of Luther’s theology as one that invites us to a variety of used and unused and even overgrown paths. In our own efforts to choose the right path for the future, Hinlicky offers a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on the Lutheran heritage and its capacity for helping us find our way within a rapidly changing landscape, a path worth pondering even for those not totally in agreement with all aspects of the Hinlicky guide to the future.

Bo Kristian Holm is an associate professor on the Faculty of Theology at Aarhus University in Denmark, a coordinator of a scholars’ network in “Reformation Theology,” Vice President for Luther-Akademie Sondershausen-Ratzeburg e.v., and a member of the steering committee for the Nordic Luther Network. English translations of his works include: “Luther’s Theology of the Gift” in The Gift of Grace: The Future of Lutheran Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005); “Purified Reciprocity in Martin Luther and John Milbank” in Word-Gift-Being (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), and many other articles in scholarly journals.


1. Cf. e.g. p. 351 for a similar understanding of the human self by Hinlicky.

2. Cf. Albrecht Ritschl, Die christliche Lehre von der Rechtfertigung und Versöhnung III, 4th ed, Bonn: Adolph Marcus 1895, 27–30; 107–109.

3. Theodosius Harnack, Luthers Theologie mit besonderer Beziehung auf seine Versöhnungs- und Erlösungslehre I–II (1862/1885), New ed. Munich 1927.

4. See e.g. Wolfgang Simon, Die Messopfertheologie Martin Luthers. Voraussetzungen, Genese, Gestalt und Rezeption, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2003, where Simon uses the Augustinan quadriga in interpreting Luther’s understaing of the sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper.

5. Ferdinand Chr. Baur, Der Gegensatz des Katholicismus und Protestantismus nach den Principien und Hauptdogmen der beiden Lehrbegriffe, 2. Ed.,Tübingen: Ludwig Friedrich Fues 1836.

Bo Kristian Holm

Bo Kristian Holm is an associate professor on the Faculty of Theology at Aarhus University in Denmark, a coordinator of a scholars' network in "Reformation Theology," Vice President for Luther-Akademie Sondershausen-Ratzeburg e.v., and a member of the steering committee for the Nordic Luther Network. English translations of his works include: "Luther's Theology of the Gift" in The Gift of Grace: The Future of Lutheran Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005); "Purified Reciprocity in Martin Luther and John Milbank" in Word-Gift-Being (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), and many other articles in scholarly journals.