Review: Transfiguring Luther: The Planetary Promise of Luther’s Theology

[1] In Transfiguring Luther: The Planetary Promise of Luther’s Theology, the Lutheran theologian Vítor Westhelle invites us to engage with Martin Luther’s theology in a new way. For those who are not familiar with Westhelle’s work, Transfiguring Luther is an introduction into Westhelle’s innovative and challenging reading of Martin Luther’s theology. For those who are familiar with Westhelle’s work, Transfiguring Luther is a collection of twenty-three of Westhelle’s arguments about and journeys into Martin Luther’s theology and the significance of Lutheran identity in a globalized, post-colonial world. In this review, I will introduce the concept of ‘the figura,’ which Westhelle uses as a conceit in his “transfiguring” of Luther. Then, I will proceed to outline a number of key themes that are present throughout the work. And then, finally, given Dr. Westhelle’s death this spring, I will offer some comments on what he meant to me personally and on the challenge that he left for us to continue.

[2] Westhelle organizes his readings of Luther around the idea of a ‘figura.’ Westhelle borrows the term ‘figura’ from the German literary theorist Erich Auerbach’s study of Western literature. In short, a figura is a trope that enlivens and contextualizes itself through making a dwelling-place in new arenas, be they historical, geographical, or cultural. The figura differs from the allegory in that the meaning of figura changes in each new context by reverberating in its new surroundings.  To say that Luther is a figura, then, is to say that that the meaning of Luther’s theology transforms itself as Luther is interpreted in new historical, political or cultural contexts. In claiming Luther as a figura, Westhelle is claiming that we must contextualize Luther. But more than that, Westhelle is saying that the meaning of Luther’s thought and practice is transformed by its playful interplay in new contexts. The inventiveness of this claim is that we can explicate Luther only by interpreting him from within a certain context or frame of understanding. This is an implicit critique to prior readings of Luther, which by and large have sought first to understand first what Luther meant before then seeking to understand the significance of Luther today.  Hence, Westhelle offers a new interpretation of Luther.  However, unlike other readings of Luther that may work to fix the meaning of Luther’s theology, Westhelle merely sets the parameters for the present meaning of Luther’s theology in the assurance that meaning-making is an ongoing practice.

[3] Lutheran scholarship has historically been completed in academic centers in the Global North, particularly in Europe and North America, by privileged men who have enjoyed the material resources to opine on “what Luther meant” in academic and theoretical language. By arguing that the meaning of Luther’s theology is always already open (and not “settled” or “closed”), Westhelle relativizes this dominant reading of Luther’s theology.  This move provides new space for readings of Luther to come from the margins of the Lutheran church, from people of color, members of the LGBTQIA community and members from “the Global South.” From the ‘Introduction,’ Westhelle writes, “The Reformer’s theology for the last five centuries has been almost exclusively researched and interpreted by German, Scandinavian, and US theologians, while the significance of Luther’s theology for the global South is rising in the very proportion to which Lutheranism is migrating en masse to the south of the planet (4).” As a theologian who had connections to locales in both the global South and the global North, Westhelle worked to bridge the gap between readings of Luther in different places. In providing a template for how Luther may be transfigured in new contexts throughout the chapters ofTransfiguring Luther, Westhelle works to bridge this gap.

[4] The twenty-three chapters of Transfiguring Luther constitute twenty-three different excursions into the heart of Luther’s theology and practice, many of which had been previously published in edited collections or periodicals like the Lutheran Quarterly. As far as I can tell, around half of the essays in Transfiguring Lutherhave never been published. Because of the nature of this collection and the nature of Westhelle’s discourse, I can only attempt to outline Transfiguring Luther by noting some common themes that appear throughout the essays. The first theme is language. For Westhelle, language is both a curse and a blessing. It is a curse because words remain unstable and subject to both misinterpretation and misappropriation. But language is also a blessing because language is the medium for authentic communication, and more importantly, for the proclamation of the Gospel. In Transfiguring Luther‘s opening chapter, “The Quest for Language,” Westhelle likens Luther’s language to that of “the carnival.” By exploring the carnival-like character of Luther’s language, Westhelle shows that Luther used everyday language to communicate with the common people as a means of subverting the scholastic, heady language of the medieval theological academy. Luther’s innovative linguistic style, coupled with the nascent printing press, turned Luther into the world’s first literary phenom. As a result, Luther’s Reformation spread was transformed from an obscure academic debate to a full blown religious, cultural and political movement in only a short number of years.

[5] A second theme of Transfiguring Luther is the Lutheran teaching of justification, a theme that was central to Westhelle’s teaching and scholarship throughout his life. In the essay entitled “On the Playground of God,” Westhelle addresses a dilemma that is central to any framing of Lutheran ethics: how does a sinner/saint respond ethically to the gift of justification? In other words, how should we respond to God’s grace? Westhelle theorizes that the dilemma revolves around the problematics of the gift and the exchange. As many have pointed out, a gift remains a gift only as long as it is not comprehended as such. The moment that an individual receives the gift qua gift, they find themselves in debt—the gift must be reciprocated. The gift, being cancelled out, now belongs to the economic regime. Westhelle argues that this dilemma plays itself out as we receive God’s grace. Westhelle argues that we, faced with the reality of our own sinfulness and finitide, creates structures in the effort to repay the gift that we have been given. In an insightful passage, Westhelle argues that these structures cause much of the pain and sin in the world. “Injustice, prejudice and oppression are not the result of the failure of our efforts to achieve justice and life fairly with one another,” Westhelle writes, “It happens, instead, precisely because we strive so much in being the best at the game and thus destroy the gift that is freely given, forgetting that which we come from and denying that to which we are destined. This is the reason Luther in shocking candidness calls ‘good works’ mortal sins, the end of playfulness (91).” In the end, Westhelle believes that justification is a “habit of learning (94),” by which we learn only to how to receive the gift of God’s grace.

[6] A third theme that comes through in Transfiguring Luther is what we might think of as the asymmetrical nature of the Lutheran confessions. The notion of asymmetry is salient in the last chapters of Transfiguring Luther.  The significance of the notion of asymmetry for Lutheran theology can be understood by keeping in mind that the Lutheran confessions are often understood dialectically, or better, in terms of dyads: saint/sinner, law/gospel, captive/free, heaven/earth, right hand/left hand, etc.  Although the dialectical nature of the Lutheran confessions are critical to understanding the form and content of the Lutheran faith, this dialectical framing of Lutheran theology need not posit an identity between to the two qualities within the dyad in hopes of leading to an Hegelian synthesis in the end (as it so often does by many of Luther’s interpreters). This is where the notion of asymmetry comes into play for Westhelle. Again and again, Westhelle asserts that God’s revelation in Christ breaks up the analogical correspondence between the two realities that are often set up against each other in the Lutheran faith. Consider the following quotation: “It is impossible to read Luther without constantly being faced with ironic moves that break up continuities and systems of correspondences. It is ‘asymmetrical’ because what appears to be the case in one set of categories that belong to one of the régimes (spiritual or eathly) is not simply reflected in the other, but is shaped in it in reciprocal ways (270).” Westhelle argues that God’s revelation in Christ constitutes an “ironic” gesture that breaks up the categories that we construct, which fundamentally alters the way we read the so-called two-kingdoms doctrine and other such dyads of Lutheran ethics and teaching. Further, for Westhelle, this asymmetry ruptures the dominating structures that we construct in order to organize our everyday social and political lives. In the fissures of these structures, we are summoned to the margins to love our neighbor as our self.

[7] If one reads Westhelle’s canon, one will find that he had a strong reluctance to end his books. Often, one will find a concluding section entitled “In the Offing.” From my work with him over the last five years, I know that this reluctance arises from Westhelle’s conviction that meaning is never fully determined, settled or fixed. Meaning is always open, subject to reflection, revision, and renewal. New voices come from the underside, which first challenge the status quo only later to become part of a new status quo. In his final work, then, it is most fitting that Westhelle reminds us that the meaning of Luther’s theology is never fully determined. It will be subject to new voices and new perspectives.

[8] The Rev. Dr. Westhelle passed away on May 13, 2018 from a year-long battle with cancer. As his student, I am still haunted by the void that has been left by his death. Vítor Westhelle’s voice was one of a kind, with his blend of creative theological engagement, sophisticated philosophical analysis and penetrating political analysis. Westhelle lived into his calling of carefully manifesting the myriad connections between “justification” and “justice”—arguing that engagement with one necessitates concern with the other. In his own writing, Westhelle emphasized that the work of morning is also the work of remembrance, which he connects to the practice of the cross, of proclaiming the memory of those who have suffered pain and suffering. In his death, we can proclaim his memory by wrestling with his texts and engaging with the work he leaves behind.

Benjamin Taylor

Benjamin Taylor is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He has studied and worked closely with Vítor Westhelle for the past four years.