Martin Luther is perhaps the single most important thinker for Protestants. Not that he is the greatest theologian, exegete or even role model. There are other, more qualified candidates for each of those titles. He is, however, the original agenda setter for Protestantism: his focus on justification by faith, his critique of papal authority, and his prioritizing of Word over sacrament have all set basic trajectories for subsequent generations.
Nevertheless, Luther is a complex thinker whose writings in the hands of the inept enthusiast fulfill a function analogous to that of a cut-throat razor in the hands of a child who wants to emulate his father’s morning routine ‘so as to be just like daddy.’ The result can be messy and sometimes dangerous. After all, Luther is a man who can be quoted positively by godly Lutheran pastors, shaven-headed neo-Nazi sociopaths and forty-something representatives of the Beautiful People. Luther is indeed more easily quoted than actually understood.
It is this quotable quality of Luther that makes him both so attractive (and often so much fun) and also such a liability.
James Swan has significantly taken care of the “liability” part in our day, having responded to most of the major “misrepresentations” of his works that have been floating around since the days of the Reformation.
Martin Luther, the “paradigm breaker”
On the positive side, there are caveats as well. Trueman notes:
…there have on occasion been some truly important periods in church history which have really changed things. The fourth century, the Aristotelian renaissance of the late Middle Ages, and the Reformation are three more likely contenders … Luther, however, was the genuine article, one of the greatest paradigm breakers of them all.
By moving the word to the centre of ecclesiastical life and faith to the centre of salvation, Luther articulated a theology which demanded a new form of church, generated new experiential expectations, and thereby created new pastoral problems. The crucial thing for today’s reader to realize is that Luther’s initial theology demanded all this without necessarily providing the answers in an obvious form. Indeed, how could it do so? The development of Luther’s thought and practice were therefore ongoing. Between 1520 and 1546, he had to develop new liturgies, catechisms, forms of church government and pastoral practice not only to embody to his new theological insights but to inculcate them in the people and, most importantly, to handle the situations, questions and difficulties which those same insights caused.
In other words, Luther asked a lot of questions, and he tried to provide answers, but in many respects, many of us are still asking the same kinds of questions.
We can learn a lot from Luther’s questions, and the answers that he gave, and the answers that others gave as well.
My thought is that, given our historical perspectives, such an investigation will yield much fruit.
Trueman’s article gives some good foundational information about “reading Luther well”, and I highly commend it.
Reading Luther is rewarding and important. We can learn from his strengths, from his sins and from the sheer experience of wrestling with a great and exuberant mind in action. He is also a true paradigm shifter, who continues, for good or ill, to inform modern Christianity. But such reading must be done in a way that appreciates he lived in a time before Twitter, when the great one-liners rested upon pages of elaborate argumentation and were first and foremost actions of their time.