In 1517 an obscure Augustinian monk nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany and sparked an accidental reformation which would echo down through the halls of time. Later in his life Martin Luther would claim that he did not mean to start a reformation, but was merely intending to begin discussion regarding the selling of indulgences in the church. It was this incident which etched his name on the pages of history books and into the hearts and minds of Lutherans everywhere.
Hans-Martin Barth, having grown up in a Lutheran state church, has written The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment, as a reader into the lifetime study of Luther which he has undertaken. Lecturing on Luther in various locations around the world has prepared Barth for this text and has furthered his enjoyment, according to his own statements, of the theology of this German reformer.
It’s almost impossible to cover the compendium of Luther’s work today. Written in various articles and publications, Luther’s works spread through unceasing pages of text. It would certainly take a lifetime of learning on the subject to even wade into the depths of the life of Luther. A brief overview of history is even more than most care to take of this man. I find myself at an odd place regarding Luther. My passion for historical knowledge and my love for Protestant theology have met head on in this text by Barth.
Writing from a unique perspective, Barth takes on the “and” perspective. Instead of trying to single out topical studies of Luther he takes on subjects together as a part of the whole. For example, he surveys the work done by others and praises them for the contributions but it seems as though he want’s to say, “That’s not good enough”. Singling out only a portion of Luther would give someone a misguided and incomplete view of what Luther was all about. Barth take subjects like Gospel AND Law, Both Sinner AND Justified, The Secular AND Spiritual, and shines light on them as a part of each other instead of two individual pieces of theology. As said before, though, it’s almost impossible to compile a complete work of Luther from an outsiders perspective. We can only know, as Barth says, “Those who occupy themselves with Luther get to the center of Christian theology”. A lifetime of getting t the center of Christian theology is hardly an easy task but one many have taken up with great results.
Therefore just as a rope holds a furious and untamed beast and keeps it from attacking whatever it meets, so the Law constrains an insane and furious man lest he commit further sins.
Perhaps one of the most known areas of Luther’s theology is his discussion on the Gospel and Law. Luther has laid out for us two overall uses of the Law; the social function (usus oliticus) and the spiritual function (usus theologicus). Luther explains that the social function of the law belongs to the broad spheres of life in which human existence develops and is sustained. The law, according to Luther, must require both a clear prescription in its content and authorities who execute the law. Luther would be quoted as saying that even capital punishment may be necessary, not as an act of vengeance or expiation, but only for the restraint of evil.
In speaking of the use of the Gospel Luther distances his thinking from the Law but never separates the two. We see that Luther thought of the Law, in modern-day terms, a CAT Scan, in that it only diagnosed the problem but could not heal the disease. “The function and use’ of the law is thus, not only to disclose the sin and wrath of God but also to drive us to Christ”. Here we find the clearest link for Luther between the Law and Gospel. Only when the dire situation we are in has been placed on us by the sickness of sin can one truly take advantage of medical aid. I would take it a step further, and maybe I’m misunderstanding Luther at this point, but I would say that we are not able to take hold of medical aid, for we are utterly dead in our sins and must have something outside of us breathe life into our dead souls.
The Law discovers the illness, and the Gospel gives the medicine
This text has been a most helpful study, not only on the life and theology of Luther, but as a hardening agent for my own theology. I appreciate the critical view Barth takes and the views of others he incorporates into this study. This study of Lutheran theology has led me to the Bible to search out the exegesis Barth has placed forward to seek for myself the truthfulness of his claims. I would not agree with every point of this assessment of the great reformer but I do plan to return to this study in my search for a greater understanding of the thoughts and theology of the great reformers who helped to lay the foundation for the faith that we proclaim today.
By Hans-Martin Barth / Fortress Press