Luther

Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague

Here is a must read gem from Martin Luther’s life and ministry. This entire post is taken from T.F. Lull’s book Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.

Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague (1527)

On August 2, 1527 a case of the plague was discovered in Wittenberg. The university was closed and the students sent home, but Luther remained in the city and was busy with the pastoral and practical care of the sick. He was urged by correspondents from various places to give advice on what a Christian’s responsibility is at such a time. In November Luther finally got around to responding to a pastor in Breslau in what was published as an open letter to all.

Luther fought against the notion that faith would protect one against the plague, and he urged those who could rightly do so to leave. But some must stay, including doctors, pastors, public officials, and any person on whom an afflicted person is dependent.

Luther also shows a great deal of interest in practical reforms that could help the situation from locating cemeteries outside the town to the provision of hospitals for the care of the sick to cautious behavior on the part of those who have been exposed to the plague.

But the note that sounds most clearly is his appeal for Christians to care for the sick despite any aversion to them and fear of disease. In his typical blunt way Luther says:

This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running.…If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him….

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The News We Must Laugh and Be Glad Over

You have likely gathered by now that I love Martin Luther. I can’t stay away from his work because he can’t stay away from the gospel. His pastoral approach orbits around the cross and resurrection of Christ. Here is a great quote on what “good news” means and how it must make us laugh with joy.

“For ‘gospel’ [Euangelium] is a Greek word and means in Greek a good message, good tidings, good news, a good report, which one sings and tells with gladness. For example, when David overcame the great Goliath, there came among the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6]. Thus this gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith. This report and encouraging tidings, or evangelical and divine news, is also called a New Testament. For it is a testament when a dying man bequeaths his property, after his death, to his legally defined heirs. And Christ, before his death, commanded and ordained that his gospel be preached after his death in all the world [Luke 24:44-47]. Thereby he gave to all who believe, as their possession, everything that he had. This included: his life, in which he swallowed up death; his righteousness, by which he blotted out sin; and his salvation, with which he overcame everlasting damnation. A poor man, dead in sin and consigned to hell, can hear nothing more comforting than this precious and tender message about Christ; from the bottom of his heart he must laugh and be glad over it, if he believes it true.” (Martin Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960], pp. 358-59)

What Makes a Theologian

Oswald Bayer wrote a fine book titled Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. In this book he summarizes Luther’s thinking on what makes a theologian and what rules should govern the theologian. Luther argued that a theologian is made through six things.

  1. The grace that is worked through the Holy Spirit
  2. The agonizing struggle
  3. Experience
  4. Opportunity
  5. Constant, concentrated textual study
  6. Knowledge and practice of the academic disciplines

Luther goes on to say that three rules should govern the life and task of the theologian.

  1. Prayer
  2. Meditation
  3. Agonizing Struggle

I love the intersection of experience, suffering and study in Luther’s thought on the development of a theologian. It takes more than books and a degree to make a solid theologian. As the quote goes, “a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

One must know the roaring of a condemning conscience and the silencing power of the gospel to bring the good news home to others. One must know the power of the old man, the agony of daily repentance and the sweetness of forgiveness to instruct others in the fray.

The theologian has to know both sides of a theological concept: the objective and subjective. It is not enough to know about the love of God in Christ. By the Spirit he must know what it is to be loved by God in Christ. The theologian must be desperate, humble and dependent. Prayer, meditation and trust in the Holy Spirit are critical elements of theological development and maturity.

The theologian understands the tension that Luther touches here. God alone makes a good theologian and yet the theologian is responsible to study, pray, meditate and agonize. He must hoist the sails and position the mast, all the while trusting that the wind of God will blow on him.

Theologians are limping men and women—men and women who have grappled with God, have been destroyed and been made new. They are people who know the sweetness of the gospel because they know the depths of sin and judgment. They are people who know the landscape of God’s word intellectually and experientially. They are people that know God and you know it when you engage them. God, make me one of these.

Luther on Scripture

Martin Luther developed his theology around the conviction that the Word of God is true and strong. He believed, as do I, that Scripture is the speech of God. It is no different than the speech that brought earth into existence out of nothing. It contains that same power and purpose.

Here are three great quotes that capture some of his thinking on Scripture. We can see hints of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and ad fontes (back to the sources) in the first quote. In the second and third quotes we see Luther’s pastoral approach to Scripture. It is a safeguard against despair and temptation. It is a wellspring of hope and confidence.

“He who has made himself master of the principles and text of the word runs little risk of committing errors. A theologian should be thoroughly in possession of the basis and source of faith—that is to say, the Holy Scriptures. Armed with this knowledge it was that I confounded and silenced all my adversaries; for they seek not to fathom and understand the Scriptures; they run them over negligently and drowsily; they speak, they write, they teach, according to the suggestion of their heedless imaginations. My counsel is, that we draw water from the true source and fountain, that is, that we diligently search the Scriptures. He who wholly possesses the text of the Bible, is a consummate divine. One single verse, one sentence of the text, is of far more instruction than a whole host of glosses and commentaries, which are neither strongly penetrating nor armor of proof. As, when I have that text before me of St Paul: “All the creatures of God are good, if they be received with thanksgiving,” this text shows, that what God has made is good. Now eating, drinking, marrying, etc., are of God’s making, therefore they are good. Yet the glosses of the primitive fathers are against this text: for Bernard, Basil, Jerome, and others, have written to far other purpose. But I prefer the text to them all.”

“Oh! how great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God! With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way. He who loses sight of the Word of God, falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows only the disorderly tendency of his heart, and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.”

“A fiery shield is God’s Word; of more substance and purer than gold, which, tried in the fire, loses naught of its substance, but resists and overcomes all the fury of the fiery heat; even so, he that believes God’s Word overcomes all, and remains secure everlastingly, against all misfortunes; for this shield fears nothing, neither hell nor the devil.”

Luther on Being a Theologian: Oratio, Meditatio and Tentatio

In John Doberstein’s The Minister’s Prayerbook, he discusses Martin Luther’s understanding of the development of a theologian. Luther believed that the “right way to study theology” is anchored in the three rules set forth in Psalm 119: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio. For Luther “Everything centers around the practice of meditation, for prayer prepares for it and its results are confirmed in the experience of conflict. For Luther, meditation is the key to the study of theology. No one can become a true theologian unless he learns theology through it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 142). The discussion that follows is taken directly from Doberstein and explores each of the three dimensions.

  • Oratio (prayer) is grounded in the Word of the Lord. Prayer is the voice of faith. That is to say, that prayer grows out of the Word of the Lord. “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart” (Bonhoeffer, Psalms, 15). Prayer is “responding speech” (Peterson, 5). “Prayer escapes the danger of disorder and confusion only when it is enkindled by the words of Scripture. From the Word proceeds its inner justification, as well as its life-giving power and the clearness of its petitions. A prayer that does not stick to Scripture will soon become poor in ideas, poor in faith, poor in love and will finally die” (Koeberele, 176-177).
  • Meditatio (meditation) is the continual study of the Scriptures. In 1518, Luther wrote “You should not only meditate inwardly in your heart but also outwardly by repeating the words out aloud and rubbing at the written word (like a sweet-smelling herb), by reading and rereading it, carefully, attentively and reflectively, to gather what the Holy Spirit means by them” (quoted in Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”). Meditatio is grounded in the externum verbum. Luther: “Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honor father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook…and their entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments” (AE 3:275). Luther likened meditation to a cow chewing its cud. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 14:1of 1525, he writes: “To chew the cud, however, is to take up the Word with delight and meditate with supreme diligence, so that (according to the proverb) one does not permit it to go into one ear and out the other, but holds it firmly in the heart, swallows it, and absorbs it into the intestines” (AE 9:136).
  • Tentatio (affliction)- God uses tentatio (spiritual trial and temptation) to drive a way from self and to His promises alone. Tentatio happens within the context of a person’s vocation. “Tentatio is testing, temptation, and trial which occurs when God and his word intersect with us and our world” (Pfeiffer, 113). Suffering happens precisely because a person is faithful to his calling. See Luther’s comments on “cross bearing” (see AE 51:195-208). “Peace with God brings conflict and adversity with the world, the flesh, and the devil” (Hein, 33). Pastors are not exempt from tentatio. In fact God uses it to draw us away from our own abilities to the gifts He gives in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Luther is thankful for his enemies: “For I myself…must be very thankful to my papists for pummeling, pressing, and terrifying me; that is, for making me a fairly good theologian, for otherwise I would not have become one…” (Doberstein, 288). “As soon as a person meditates and is occupied with God’s Word; as soon as God’s Word begins to take root in and grow in him, the devil harries him with much conflict, bitter contradiction, and blatant opposition. But these assaults (Anfechtungen) prove to be spiritually counterproductive, for by driving him to the end of his tether, they teach him ‘to seek and love God’s Word’ as the source of all his strength and being. In such a situation of temptation, he experiences for himself the power and truth of God’s Word. Temptation turns the student of God’s Word into a real theologian, because it exercises and reinforces his faith in Christ. He experiences the power of God’s Word in his own weakness. Paradoxically, he sees the presence of God and his grace most fully displayed under its apparent negation in adversity and trouble. Because he bears the word of Christ in himself, he must also bear the cross for it. But, as he bears his own cross, he gets to know himself and Christ whose glory was revealed by his death on the cross. Meditation, then, ultimately elucidates temptation and is itself elucidated by it” (Kleinig, “The Kindred Heart”, 147).

“Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio: A Right Way to Study Theology” (287-289) in The Minister’s Prayerbook edited by John Doberstein is taken (in an abridged form) from the “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings, 1539” (AE 34:279-288).

The Heidelberg Disputation

The Heidelberg Disputation was a significant landmark in Luther’s theology. I personally love this disputation as it captures the heart of his thinking. The Book of Concord explains what the disputation was all about.

“Following Luther’s proposal for a disputation on the subject of indulgences, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, was generally supportive of his views. The head of the order in Germany, Johannes Staupitz, called for a formal disputation to be attended by the leadership of the order, in which Luther would be provided a chance to expand upon his concern. The disputation took place at the meeting of the Augustinian Order, in Heidelberg, in April 1518. Luther’s opponents had been hopeful that Luther would be silenced, but Staupitz wanted to give Luther a fair hearing, since he was generally sympathetic with Luther’s views. At the meeting, Luther put forward a ‘theology of the cross’ as opposed to a ‘theology of glory.’ The disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses, for they advanced Luther’s growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.”

What follows are the theses of the disputation. These points capture some of Luther’s key theological concerns and contributions to Christian thought. You can click the link on any of the theses and you will be taken to a site that has the fuller explanation and defense given by Luther in the disputation.

“Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, Do not rely on your own insight (Prov 3:5), we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter.”

  1. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
  2. Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.
  3. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
  4. Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.
  5. The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
  6. The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.
  7. The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.
  8. By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.
  9. To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.
  10. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.
  11. Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.
  12. In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.
  13. Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
  14. Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.
  15. Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.
  16. The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.
  17. Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.
  18. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
  19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
  20. he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
  21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
  22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
  23. The law brings the wrath of God (Rom. 4:15), kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.
  24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
  25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
  26. The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and everything is already done.
  27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.
  28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

Gospel, Interpreting Genesis, and Luther

These last postings have been a sample of Luther’s thinking on Genesis 1-3. His pastoral heart and keen eye for grace in Scripture is compelling to me as I read him. I really appreciate these last three quotes from him on the gospel in Genesis. Luther was spot on to see God’s grace woven throughout the entire narrative of Genesis 1-3. I think he was right in saying that the the fountain of God’s redemptive promises find their source in Genesis 3:15. The promise of the Serpent Crusher is the heart of all gospel promise. By focusing his reader’s attention on these things he helps us to read the Old Testament with gospel lenses.

In his “Preface to the Old Testament” Luther concludes his discussion on the Old Testament by saying: “Let this suffice for the present as a brief suggestion for seeking Christ and the gospel in the Old Testament.” This was his passion. He saw it as his duty to help his flock see the Christ in the gospel through every portion of the Word. He also saw it as the appropriate and responsible way of handling the Scriptures. In that same preface, he says this of Genesis.

We come first to the books of Moses. In his first book (Genesis) Moses teaches how all creatures were created, and (as the chief cause for his writing) whence sin and death came, namely by Adam’s fall, through the devil’s wickedness. But immediately thereafter, before the coming of the law of Moses, he teaches whence help is to come for the driving out of sin and death, namely, not by the law or men’s own works (since there was no law as yet), but by ‘the seed of the woman,’ Christ, promised to Adam and Abraham, in order that throughout the Scriptures from the beginning faith may be praised above all works and laws and merits. Genesis, therefore, is made up almost entirely of illustrations of faith and unbelief, and of the fruits that faith and unbelief bear. It is an exceedingly evangelical book” 

This is a gospel-centered model of biblical interpretation. It recognizes the various themes in the book of Genesis, but demonstrates how they all flow into the main theme of grace and redemption. Luther is a wonderful teacher here. I am compelled by his example and would very much like to point people to the grace of God when I open the book of books.

Raymond Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 120,131.