Luther On the Psalm 51 by Pless

Editor's Note: This post is a handout from Prof. John T. Pless's class on the Psalms. 

Points from Luther’s Commentary on Psalm 51 (AE 12:303-410) for Pastoral Theology

For background of Luther’s work on Psalm 51 in 1532 see “The Teacher of Justification” in Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521–1532 (Fortress), 451–59.

  1. Luther says that David speaks of a twofold theological knowledge in this psalm, a theological knowledge of man and of God. Hence “The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner. Whatever is asked or discussed in theology outside this subject, is error and poison” (311).
  2. Note Luther’s definition of the knowledge of sin: “it means to feel and to experience the intolerable burden of the wrath of God” (310). Luther writes “. . . the sinful man is one who is oppressed by his conscience and tossed to and fro, not knowing where to turn. Therefore we are not dealing here with a philosophical knowledge of man, which defines man as a rational animal and so forth. Such things are for science to discuss, not theology. So a lawyer speaks of man as an owner and master of property, and a physician speaks of man as healthy or sick. But a theologian discusses man as a sinner” (310). Luther says that David speaks of a twofold theological knowledge in this psalm, a theological knowledge of man and of God. Hence, “The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner. Whatever is asked or discussed in theology outside this subject, is error and poison” (311). Also see Ngien’s discussion of Luther’s distinction between man the “conscious” sinner and man the “unconscious” sinner (Dennis Ngien, Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms, 38). When all is said and done all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That is, there are finally two kinds of sinners, “holy sinners” (those who justify God) and hypocrites (those who justify themselves).
  3. Psalm 51 shows us the depth of sin. Luther observes that the psalm teaches us not to look superficially at the external sins but go deeper to the root of sin, that is, to see “the whole nature, source, and origin of sin.” (305) “Therefore our sin is that we are born and conceived in sin” (310).
  4. The psalm sets forth the two elements in true repentance: recognition of sin and recognition of mercy-fear of God and trust in mercy (305). On the development of Luther’s understanding of repentance, see Korey Maas, “The Place of Repentance in Luther’s Theological Development” in Theologia et Apologia: Essays in Reformation Theology and its Defense Presented to Rod Rosenbladt edited by Adam Francisco et al (Wipf & Stock), 137-154 and Berndt Hamm, “The Ninety-five Thesis: A Reformation Text in the Context of Luther’s Early Theology of Repentance” in The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation (Eerdmans, 2014), 85–109.
  5. Luther uses Psalm 51 to clarify the distinction between deus absconditus and deus revelatus. Deus absconditus is what Luther calls the “absolute God” or the “naked God.” Luther writes “Let no one therefore, interpret David as speaking with the absolute God. He is speaking with God as He is dressed and clothed in His Word and promises, so that from the name ‘God’ we cannot exclude Christ, whom God promised to Adam and the other patriarchs. We must take hold of this God, not naked but clothed and revealed in His Word, otherwise certain despair will crush us” (312).  Also see G. Forde’s discussion in “Absolution: Systematic Considerations” in The Preached God (152–62), noting Forde’s argument that “The only solution to the problem of the absolute is actual absolution” (152). Also see Steven Paulson, “Luther on the Hidden God” Word & World (Fall 1999), 363–71 and Oswald Bayer’s distinction between God’s “understandable wrath” and His “Incomprehensible Wrath” in Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, 196–201.
  6.  Unbelievers speak with God “outside His Word and promises, according to the thoughts of their own hearts; but the Prophets speak with God as He is clothed and revealed in His promises and Word. This God, clothed in such a kind appearance and, so to speak, in such a pleasant mask, that is to say, dressed in His promises — this God we can grasp and look at with joy and trust. The absolute God, on the other hand, is like an iron wall, against which we cannot bump without destroying ourselves. Therefore Satan is busy day and night, making us run to the naked God so that we forget His promises and blessings shown in Christ and think about the judgment of God. When this happens, we perish utterly and fall into despair” (312). Outside the Word and promises of God, sinners devised their own means of accessing God.
  7. David has been crushed by the hammer of the Law (316). His terrorized conscience does not turn back to the Law or flee to the naked God but to the mercy of God. Thus Luther can speak of David’s prayer for mercy “as though he were praying against the whole Decalog” (314). Commenting on verse 1 of Psalm 51, Luther says that “at the very beginning David shows an art and a wisdom that is above the wisdom of the Decalog, a truly heavenly wisdom, which is neither taught by the Law nor imagined or understood by reason without the Holy Spirit” (314). Note the section on “Guilt and Shame” in the PCC: “For the Christian who is driven by the Law to despair of the mercies of Christ Jesus, the pastor ‘must set the whole Decalogue aside’ (Luther) and make the most of the Gospel” (PCC, 307). This is taken from Luther’s letter to Jerome Weller where he says “When the devil attacks and torments us, we must completely set aside the whole Decalogue” (Tappert, Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 86). Without this heavenly wisdom, Luther says that trouble consciences are like geese, they see the hawk coming and they attempt to escape by flying when they should run. They see the wolves threatening and they attempt to run when they would have a better chance of escaping if they were to run (368).
  8. The divine wisdom of the Gospel is that God is merciful to sinners for the sake of Christ Jesus. To pray for mercy as David does is not to trust in oneself or works. “God does not want the prayer of a sinner who does not feel his sins, because he neither understands nor wants what he is praying for” (315). Such praying, Luther says, is to be compared to a beggar who cries out for alms and when offered money begins to brag of his riches (315). “Thus mercy is our whole life even until death; yet Christians yield obedience to the Law, but imperfect obedience because of the sin dwelling in us. For this reason let us learn to extend the word ‘Have mercy’ not only to our actual sins but to all the blessings of God as well: that we are righteous by the merit of another; that we have God as our Father; that God the Father loves sinners who feel their sins — in short, that all our life is by mercy because all our life is sin and cannot be set against the judgment and wrath of God” (321). David is like a beggar, he asks for forgiveness for no other reason than that he is a sinner (334).
  9. The psalm sets forth these two principal teachings of Holy Scripture: First, that our whole nature is condemned and destroyed by sin and cannot emerge from this calamity and death by its own power. Second, God alone is righteous. Political, domestic or ceremonial righteousness will not free us. Even a prince or husband who is righteous in the execution of his office, must confess “Against Thee only have I sinned; Thou only art righteous” (339). Also see The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther by Hans Joachim Iwand.
  10. To confess your sin is to cease the futile attempt to self-justify. Rather it is to join with David in saying to God: “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you might be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). In confession, the sinner acknowledges that God is right. It is to agree with God’s verdict: Guilty. “When sins are thus revealed by the Word, two different kinds of men manifest themselves. One kind justifies God and by a humble confession agrees to His denunciation of sin; the other kind condemns God and calls Him a liar when He denounces sin” (341). Note Johann Georg Hamann: “With respect to my life I have justified God and accused myself, indicated and discovered myself — all for the praise of the solely good God, who has forgiven me, in the blood of his only begotten Son, and in the testimony which the Spirit of God confirms in his word and in my heart" (quoted by Bayer, A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener, 50). Also Elert: “We must agree with the men of the Bible that God’s word concerning the question of guilt (Psalm 51:4; Romans 3:4) is decisive; and this means not only that His decree is infallible, but also that His whole course of action is blameless. The recognition of this fact, despite our inability to fathom all His motives is expressed in the biblical idea of holiness (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). It means not merely that He can stand every moral test, but that His moral quality is an unsearchable mystery and superior to every human judgment” (Werner Elert, An Outline of Christian Doctrine, 40–41).
  11. Luther’s interpretation of Psalm 51 reflects the reality that the whole of the Christian life is lived baptismally, in repentance: The Christian “is not formally righteous” . . . that is, righteous according to substance or quality. Rather the Christian’s righteousness is “according to his relation to something, namely, only in respect to divine grace . . . which comes to those who acknowledge their sin and believe that God is gracious and forgiving for Christ’s sake” (329). The bath or washing of which the psalm speaks in verse 2 is continual as while sin cannot condemn us it continues to vex us and ever threatens to drag us down in unbelief (329).
  12. “Human nature such as it is cannot be without the worship of God; and if it does not have the Word, it invents services, as the examples of both the heathen and the pope show” (361).
  13. Only when the Gospel is preached does the ear of the sinner “hear joy and gladness” and the bones that God has broken rejoice. Luther says that both “the man of thought as well as the man of action” are in error (369). Justification by faith alone brings an end to both justifying thinking and justifying action (see O. Bayer, Living by Faith, 25). Luther: “As far as we are concerned, the whole procedure in justification is passive. But when we are most holy, we want to be justified actively by our works. Here we ought to do nothing but this, that we open our ears, as Psalm 45:10 tells us, and believe what is told us. Only this hearing is the hearing of gladness, and this is the only thing we do, through the Holy Spirit in the matter of justification” (368). Also see “Faith and Promise” in Lutheran Theology by Steven Paulson (114-137)

— Prof. John T. Pless

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

Reformation Reading by Pless

— by John T. Pless

A number of pastors have asked me for suggestions for recent books on Luther as we are now into the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What follows are my suggestions for books that would be valuable in a congregational library and for reading by interested laity. Several of these books would serve well as the basis for an adult Christian education class. Those marked with an * fit that category.

Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and his Career* by James M. Kittelson and Hans H. Wiersma (Fortress, 2016) is an accessible and informative account of Luther’s life and career. The narrative moves at a good pace but does justice to the Reformer’s personality and the critical episodes of his life. Shorter but given to a pointed engagement of Luther’s theology is the fine little book by Steven Paulson, A Brief Introduction to Martin Luther* (Westminster/John Knox, 2017). Paulson is a sparkling writer, and he presents a lively summary of the Reformer’s theology. Also compact but helpful is Thomas Kaufmann’s A Short Life of Martin Luther*(Eerdmans, 2016).  More comprehensive is Martin Luther: Visionary and Reformer by Scott Hendrix (Yale University Press, 2015). Not really a biography, but an interesting look at Luther’s career in light of its impact on the publishing industry is Andrew Pedigree’s Brand Luther (Penguin Press, 2015). The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation by Berndt Hamm (Eerdmans, 2014) traces both the continuity and discontinuity of Luther’s early thought with medieval thought. True Faith in the True God: An Introduction to Luther’s Life and Thought by Hans Schwarz (Fortress, 2015) is a topical approach to Luther with chapters on such items as Luther on marriage and the family, Luther on music, Luther on economics, and so forth. More in depth topical treatments are two books edited by Timothy Wengert, Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church (Eerdmans, 2004) and The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Eerdmans, 2009).

The best single volume summaries of Luther’s theology are Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer (Eerdmans, 2008) and Robert Kolb’s Martin Luther Confessor of the Faith (Oxford, 2009). Bayer’s book has the advantage of using Luther’s catechetical outline as way of viewing the coherence of Luther’s teaching while Kolb goes a bit deeper into historical development. There is also the impressive new study by Kolb of how Luther and his Wittenberg team understood the Holy Scriptures and preaching, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God (Baker Academic, 2016). Shorter recent books by Kolb also include Luther and the Stories of God(Baker Academic, 2012) and his book with Charles Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology* (Baker Academic, 2008).

There are several relatively new books that deal with different aspects of Luther’s life and work. From the perspective of Luther’s care of souls there is Martin Luther-Preacher of the Cross: A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology(Concordia, 2013) as this book deals with how Luther counseled the sick, the dying, the grieving, prisoners, married couples, the anxious, and people in various callings. Stephen Pietsch’s Of Good Comfort: Martin Luther’s Letters to the Depressed and Their Significance for Pastoral Care Today (ATF Theology, 2016) looks at Luther’s strategies for dealing with depression. Dennis Ngien’s Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms* (Fortress, 2015) explains Luther's use of the lament Psalms. Praying Luther’s Catechismby John T. Pless (Concordia, 2016) is a study of Luther’s theology and practice of prayer from the perspective of the Small Catechism. A free, downloadable study guide on this book is available from the Concordia Publishing House website as well. The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther* by Hans Joachim Iwand (Wipf and Stock, 2008) is a fine study of Luther on the doctrine of justification and the necessity of the distinction of the law from the gospel. Carl Trueman’s Luther and the Christian Life* (Crossways, 2015) is solid study of Luther’s understanding of the cross and freedom in the life of the Christian. Gerhard Forde’s The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Eerdmans, 2005) is a brief but finely-tuned and bracing commentary on one of Luther’s most important works The Bondage of the Will. A helpful study of Luther’s doctrine of vocation is Mark Tranvik’s Martin Luther and the Called Life* (Fortress, 2016). Australian scholar, Michael Lockwood, explores Luther’s teaching on the First Commandment in The Unholy Trinity: Martin Luther Against the Idol of Me Myself, and I* (Concordia, 2016). The five-volume set by Albrecht Peters, Commentary on Luther’s Catechism (Concordia, 2009–2013) is a magisterial study of Luther’s catechisms and a “must have” for Lutheran pastors.

Those looking for daily devotional readings from Luther will be well served by Athina Lexutt’s A Year with Luther: From the Great Reformer for Our Times (ATF Theology, 2016).  Good reference works for the study of Luther are The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology edited by Robert Kolb et al (Oxford, 2014) and  A Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions edited by Timothy Wengert et al (Baker Academic, 2017).

Concordia Publishing House continues to publish volumes in the extension of the American Edition of Luther’s Works, the most recent being Volume 79: Church Postils V. Fortress Press is in the process of releasing a nicely done six volume set, The Annotated Luther. Enriched with Reformation art, spacious margins for note-taking, concise historical introductions and generally insightful commentaries this set will contain core Luther texts. Four of the six volumes are now available.

EDITOR's NOTE: All the links above contain Amazon Affiliates link. If you use those links, LOGIA receives a little extra support. 

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

Three Principles of Ecclesiastical Art Production from the Writings of Luther

— by Ted Giese

Art is something that must be perceived. Of course many things in the daily life of the individual are perceivable, but a great deal of things go unnoticed both actively and inactively by the casual observer. There are two kinds of perceivable things in the world: those things touched by human hands and those things that are not. In the case of those things that are touched by human hands, intentionality becomes an essential clue as to the purpose behind their formation, just as Gene Edward Veith suggests in his book Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, when he states that art “brings abstract philosophies down to earth.” H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson in their classic art history textbook History of Art assert that art is the most intentional of humankind's activities, or at least it is the most intentional form of expressing ideas and concepts in nonverbal non-traditional linguistic forms. What has been defined as art has fluctuated over time, and the artisans of one time become the artists of another and vice versa. This is largely due to shifts in social attitudes and tastes.

At the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, art was becoming what people generally understand it to be today: drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. This Renaissance period that coincided with the Reformation period was a great time of upheaval within Western culture, and some scholars like Erik Erikson believed that Martin Luther had little interest in art at all. This is not true. Luther commented and wrote about art many times, yet he did not give a single list of parameters that one could use in the proper production of ecclesiastical art. For this, one must look more broadly at the writings of Luther and deduce from them useful principles.

When Luther was writing about art, he was writing about architecture, drawings, paintings, and sculptures as they could be found in the secular and religious culture of his time. What is measured as art in our current time has widened considerably to include a vast and varied set of interrelated fields and disciplines far exceeding the confines of drawings, paintings, sculptures, and buildings. Conceptual art, performance art, text-based art, textile art, installation art, earth art, photographic art, cinematic art, time-based art, kinetic art, sound-based art, digital art, printmaking, and assemblage all comprise the current definition, along with drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture. These fields will at times intersect with one another, creating complex relationships and systems.

Luther's writings in no way encompass all of these current fields, yet three essential principles can be taken from Luther's writings when it comes to the production of ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

  1. Christian ecclesiastical art must respect the inerrancy of Scripture, that is the Old and New Testaments contained in the Christian canon, and them alone;
  2. Christian ecclesiastical art is to act as secondary instructional materials in the form of memorials and reminders for the Christian, which is to say it must serve a pedagogical purpose;
  3. Contextual matters are to be taken into consideration when producing ecclesiastical art for the divine service.

These principles will all be examined briefly to give a better understanding of how Luther looked at ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.

First, scriptural inerrancy is a key building block of confessional Lutheran thought, second only to Christ himself, for scripture is the infallible word of God and must be respected as such. A great deal of the assurance of the Christian is based on the fact that the scriptures are true and contain no falsehoods or errors. Scriptural inerrancy then becomes the first rule by which Luther discerns art of any kind. If it is in adherence to Scripture, it is good and useful; if it is not, then it is dangerous to faith. Producing ecclesiastical art that is good and faithful can only be accomplished through respect for scriptural inerrancy.

An example of this approach by Luther can be found in his 1539 Lectures on Genesis where Luther notes, concerning contemporary images of the patriarch Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac on mountain of the Lord, that "it was not a sword, and the picture commonly painted of Abraham about to kill his son is incorrect. It was a knife, such as butchers and priests were accustomed to use." (LW 4:110–11). Two very different things are conveyed when the sword of a king is compared and contrasted with the knife of a butcher or an Old Testament priest. The first is a symbol of government and the vocation of the sword, the other is a symbol of the sacrifice, particularly in the case of an Old Testament priest. With the cross of Christ and Jesus' death upon that cross as the center of Scripture and with the account of Abraham and Isaac typologically pointing to the sacrifice of God's only Son, the question can be asked: Which better conveys visually what the text of Scripture teaches? The sword or the knife? Artistic licence in this case can introduce error at worst and theological dissonance at best.

Earlier in 1522 Luther likewise pointed out, in his sermon for the festival of Epiphany, that the common misconception promulgated by artists that there were three Wise Men from the east just because there were three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) was in fact incorrect, because Scripture never numbered the wise men (LW 52:160). These examples may seem nitpicky to some, but they show the serious attitude Luther had concerning the inerrancy of Scripture and the potential pitfalls of bearing false witness in ecclesiastical art production. There is also an element of common sense in Luther's statements: if the text of Scripture does not say it, do not make it so in art. To do anything else would be a lie, as well as subversive. If the intent is to produce faithful ecclesiastical art, then hyperbole becomes a dangerous ground upon which to build, even if it is well intentioned or has become traditional. It should be noted that Luther does not specifically insist on scriptural inerrancy, while at the same time it is important to note that Luther singles out as "incorrect" works of ecclesiastical art that do not adhere to scriptural inerrancy.

Second, ecclesiastical art contains a pedagogical purpose in the form of memorials and reminders. While discussing the use and production of personal prayer books (LW 43:43), Luther advocates the daily remembrance of Scripture through imagery in a similar fashion as he advocates the daily remembrance of baptism in his Small Catechism. Scripturally, Luther accepts the use of images, even including crucifixes and images of saints, based on Joshua 24:26 and 1 Samuel 7:12, because examples of ecclesiastical art such as these serve the same function of memorial and witness as is sanctioned in the Old Testament with the proper use of witness stones (LW 40:87).

For Luther, ecclesiastical art was permissible only when it was not the object of worship. Consider the bronze serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:8–9 under the specific direction of God. It began as a useful object and had a specific pedagogical purpose. It was there to teach the people to trust in God and his promise. When it was being misused later in the time of Hezekiah, Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Ki 18:4) because it was being worshiped (LW 40:87). Between the time of Moses and Hezekiah there was no problem with the bronze serpent because its only function during that time was to serve as a reminder of the grace of God for his afflicted people.

Because of the value of ecclesiastical art as pedagogical, it is necessary at this point to take a short detour into Luther's response to iconoclasm in his time. Luther preferred to avoid the destruction of ecclesiastical art if it did not have to be physically destroyed, or rather he preferred teaching as opposed to hammer, chisel, and torch (LW 40:58). Luther's approach in this regard was much more pastoral. On the one side, the Roman church taught falsely concerning images, claiming that just seeing, and/or praying to, or being in the presences of certain material objects could forgive sin (SA II.23), produce miracles, and be counted as meritorious. On the other side, Luther had the iconoclasts and enthusiasts who wished to strip the world bare of all ecclesiastical art, seeing it as inherently idolatrous. Luther stuck with Scripture and promoted an alternative approach. His main concern was the worship of images, and in his treatise of 1525 "Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments," Luther provides the above discussion concerning the bronze serpent, as well as his philosophy for avoiding idolatry, as he debated the iconoclasm of Karlstadt. He states:

“[I] approach the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God's Word and making them worthless and despised. This indeed took place before Dr. Karlstadt ever dreamed of destroying images. For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from the sight and leaving them in the heart. For he does not preach faith, nor can he preach it; unfortunately, only now do I see that. Which of these two forms destroy images best, I will let each man judge for himself (LW 40:84).”

On the one hand having ecclesiastical art and keeping it present within the worship and devotional life of the Christian provides opportunity for pedagogy. Conversely, on the other hand, the absence of such art will hamper and/or shift pedagogy away from visual learning. The latter was not the intention of Luther. He certainly understood such visual learning as valuable, and made a case that it would be beneficial if images like those printed in his translation of the Bible would find greater uses.

Before leaving this second principle, consider how Luther suggests that such prints as found in books should be painted on walls because, as he puts it, they "do no more harm on walls than in books." He continues saying, “It is better to paint pictures on walls of how God created the world, how Noah built the ark, and whatever other good stories there may be, than to paint shameless worldly things. Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted on houses, on the inside and outside, so that all can see it” (LW, 40:99).

Third, ecclesiastical art best serves the church when context is considered. This might best be thought of as a natural refinement coming out of the first two principles. These principles being a deep and careful regard for scriptural inerrancy and the desire to produce works of art which focus themselves as pedagogical reminder and witness.

The question of context for Luther utilizes the most basic form of common sense flowing from the first two principles. Luther gives a very strong opinion concerning this as he writes about the Sacrament of the Altar on the basis of Psalm 111 in 1530:

Whoever is inclined to put pictures on an altar ought to have the Lord's Supper of Christ painted, with these two verses written around in golden letters: ‘The gracious and merciful Lord has instituted a remembrance of His wonderful works.’ Then they would stand before our eyes for our heart to contemplate them, and even our eyes, in reading, would have to thank and praise God. Since the altar is designated for the administration of the sacrament, one could not find a better painting for it. Other pictures of God or Christ can be painted somewhere else. (LW 13:375)

Luther wishes to reinforce the fact that "the Lord is gracious and merciful" (LW 13:373). The trouble comes when individuals approach the Sacrament of the Altar in confusion, when the recipient of the body and blood of Christ is afraid of Jesus, afraid of God the Father because Jesus has been "painted" either with words or presumably with paint, to varying degrees, as angry or displeased in the institution of his sacrament. Luther assures the Christian that "[Jesus] will not devour you or stand over you with a club when you go to the Sacrament" (LW 13:374).

Here we can see how Luther is making the distinction between what is appropriate and what is not, and how an individual piece of art in the wrong place can bear false witness concerning the true teachings of the church. The preceding block quote provides a positive example of how art can be employed to get the right message across to the troubled soul, becoming that proper reminder and witness. When applied, this third principle would suggest quite strongly that there is a proper place for ecclesiastical art.

For example, one would be encouraged to put ecclesiastical art concerning baptism around a baptismal font. In contemporary art theory, this is called site-specific; the fabrication or production of aesthetic elements that interact with the pre-existing environment. This is most common in the field of installation art where a change in the environment is attempted; the success of such a change is largely determined by how seamless the integration of the preexistent merges with the aesthetic additions. The desire is generally one of two things: either to create unease or inquiry by the use of juxtaposition, or to create harmony by the use of common homogeny or winsomely developed homogeny. Luther appears to desire the latter. Juxtaposition is not generally useful in ecclesiastical art unless it serves the first two principles and is contextually appropriate.

To put a finer point on the necessity of context, consider this example. King David is a prominent individual recorded in holy Scripture. It is entirely possible to produce a painting or sculpture of David that would be faithful to the text of Scripture, an image that contained no spurious errors. Such a work of ecclesiastical art could rightly be understood as serving as a witness to the personage of David and his life lived in the grace of God's promise of salvation, yet it would be contextually inappropriate to place such a work of ecclesiastical art predominantly at the altar. Doing so would be an elevation of David over Christ and would then retroactively break the first two principles. The work of art would, because of its placement, teach falsely and if it taught falsely it would subsequently no longer be respectful of Scripture and scriptural inerrancy.

These three principles for the production of ecclesiastical art give the artist and patron/congregation valuable insight into what best constitutes ecclesiastical art how it can be faithfully utilized by the Christian. In the current milieu, the field of art encompasses virtually all elements of Christian worship. As a result, these three principles may be applied more broadly especially when the entirety of the divine service and its physical setting is deemed to be art. Movement, color, gesture, body language, duration of time, fabric, construction materials, tone, structure, sound, music and all the non-verbal elements are perceivable as art. The principles of respect for scriptural inerrancy, pedagogical reminder and witness, and appropriate context can therefore be applied to an individual element or to the whole of the divine service.

Lastly, because of the common sense nature of these three principles, they have been generally applied by Lutherans, but because they have not been presented as principles formally, their use has been subject to variability due in part to shifts in social attitudes and tastes. As a result the Lutheran church in North America, on the congregational level, has often been influenced more by the artistic principles of other denominations and/or by secular artistic movements than it has been by Luther and its own writers and thinkers. Careful consideration of these three principles from the solid footing of Scripture could provide a way forward toward a comprehensive understanding of ecclesiastical art and its proper function in the church.


Rev. Ted Giese serves as associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina Saskatchewan Canada.

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy.

Book Review: Brand Luther

Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation by Andrew Pettegree (Penguin: New York, 2015), 338 pgs.

The flood of words in books and articles, on blogs, and at conferences commemorating, discussing, and making hay of 1517 is already here. One of the insights of Andrew Pettegree’s new book on Luther and the media of his day is that this flood is nothing new. The German printing market boomed in the first quarter of the sixteenth century in large part thanks to Luther’s very modern ability to write about theology in clear, brief, and convincing vernacular language, and fortunes were made printing and publishing in the German world where each printer could without hindrance reprint the Luther texts from Wittenberg he knew would sell by the hundreds and thousands. Pettegree marshals a very detailed knowledge of that particular story into line with the larger stories of the Reformation and Luther’s life and career.

            Pettegree does not write for the specialist. He uses the word “Reformation” with a capital R and without any discussion of a variety of “reformations,” including a Catholic one. Although the book covers the period from roughly 1480 to 1580, the word “confessionalization” does not appear once even when he is talking about the clarification of confession and political status at events like the Diet of Speyer in 1529 or the publication of the Book of Concord in 1580. Commendably, he wants to make the outline of the history of the Reformation, the biography of Luther, and the role of printing in both comprehensible to someone neither pursuing a degree in or making a living from the subject.

            The narrative heart of the book is the biography of Luther, traced from his father’s investment in copper mines to his death at Eisleben seeking to reconcile feuding brothers. Someone without much or any very clear knowledge of Luther’s life story will gain it from this book. Into the bargain, Pettegree draws Luther without enlisting him as the herald or hero of something much larger than himself. Pettegree’s Luther is not the harbinger of modern freedom of conscience, the German nation, or even of all the Lutheranism that followed him. He was a man of singularly great intellect and facility of expression who was courageously tenacious or foolishly obtuse, depending on one’s sympathies. He was mighty at Worms in defending a conscience captive to the Word of God, uniquely instrumental in the history of the German nation and the German language, and the theological progenitor of what Pettegree calls a new way of being a Christian community instantly recognizable to modern Lutherans in its devotion to Scripture and the primacy of congregational song. Yet Pettegree is careful never to make Luther merely the sum of everything or everyone he influenced, a cipher we fill in for ourselves in commemoration of the great man.

            This is most clear when Pettegree narrates Luther’s two major absences from Wittenberg between 1517 and his death in 1546—his friendly imprisonments at the Wartburg in 1521-22 and at Coburg Castle in 1530. It was during those times that we have the clearest picture of how much Luther was involved in from day to day as he wrote and agonized about all he could not control. He gave detailed instructions to his wife Katie in 1530 about how a manuscript should be yanked from one printer and given to another, even as the first printer sent a beautiful final copy of the book to him, arriving after Luther’s excoriating instructions were already en route home. As he wrote at a superhuman pace in 1520-22 and managed and reviewed everything from university curricula to the placement of pastors in rural Saxon parishes to numerous manuscripts at divers and sundry printers all at once, Luther’s energy is astounding and his very human frustrations and dislikes evident.

            The “brand” the title identifies is the distinctive appearance of Luther’s writings that the reformer promoted after early mishaps with Rhau-Grunenberg, the only printer in Wittenberg when Luther arrived there. There were six other centers of printing in the German world: Leipzig in nearby ducal Saxony with its own university, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Basel, Cologne, and Strasbourg. Wittenberg’s sole printer was terribly backward by comparison, and once the thirty-four-year-old, hitherto obscure professor of Bible began to make a sensation with the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses, which were quickly reprinted throughout the German world, Luther knew that Wittenberg needed a sophisticated, modern look for its German-language Flugschriften, the very brief, very pungent writings so popular across Germany, and for its academic works in Latin and eventually for the German Bible, issued in parts from the September Testament of 1522 to the first complete Bible printed by Hans Lufft in 1534. With the aid of Lucas Cranach and the Lotter printing family, Luther put together a “look” for even the smallest pamphlets that would make his name and Wittenberg’s name sufficiently famous for both “Luther” and “Wittenberg” to be used on writings that were not strictly his and certainly had not been printed in Wittenberg. A specialist in the history of books, especially printed books, Pettegree is at his most detailed when laying out the nature of early modern printing and why, for instance, a Leipzig printer with Catholic convictions would petition his staunchly Catholic ruler for the right to print Luther’s works for sale in his staunchly Catholic territory. The interconnection of Luther with the emerging print media of his time is so necessary to understanding his success in view of his early obscurity and later ignominy, and Pettegree demonstrates the interdependence of the writer and his market masterfully.

            In connection with that central story of Luther and his use of what were then new media in ways before unused by any theologian, Pettegree deftly adds a general sense of the flow of the Reformation (including the humanists like Erasmus and Pirckheimer initially sympathetic to it), political and theological opposition to it (including a very sympathetic portrait of John Eck), and its eventual theological diversity, introducing at least briefly everyone from the more famous Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin to the less famous but important Rhegius, Zell, and Müntzer. He is eloquent obviously on the role of printing and its suppression in markets more highly regulated than Germany’s, like France, England, or the Low Countries, where the suppression of early print media meant the suppression of nascent Lutheran sympathies. In a few paragraphs or a few pages, he covers topics as various as Zwingli’s progression from parish priest to his battlefield death, the relationship between Duke George of Saxony and Jerome Emser, and the southwestern German origins of the Bundschuh cause leading to the Peasants’ War of 1525. He is able to discuss all of this without becoming pondersome or superficial.

            There is much to enjoy here, not least the detailed maps of Luther’s world and well-chosen illustrations of major figures. There is much Pettegree says that is characteristically concise and precise that we cannot here discuss. Amid a flood already begun and perhaps now itself 500 years old of Lutheriana, this new book can retell the story you may already know with accuracy and fresh facts and insights and tell a newer story about Luther’s relationship to media fruitful for reflection on our own time of massive changes in how people come to see what they see and know what they know and finally to believe what they believe.


Rev. Adam Koontz

Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMS)

Lititz, Pennsylvania

Book Review:

Feasting in a Famine of the Word: Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Mark W. Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonathan Mumme. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2016. Xxiv + 299 pages. Click here or here.

Lutheranism began as a preaching movement. While not often given the attention it deserves by scholars, Luther put a premium on his Postille, sermons published to serve as models for preachers and for Christian edification. Doctrinally sound, engaging, and Christ-giving preaching is a non-negotiable hallmark of the Church of the Reformation. This collection of seventeen essays by both younger and seasoned theologians and pastors will strengthen that conviction and provide substantive, meaty reflection on preaching today. It is fair to say that contemporary American society values therapeutic, pick-me-up, inspirational talks but not robust proclamation. Preachers who wish fearlessly to proclaim the truth will find their vocation empowered in these essays.

First in line, John Bombara describes the current milieu for preachers as consumerist. But obviously preaching cannot be tantamount to selling goods if it is to be faithful to the truth. He indicates that sermons can be modeled after a number of different structures, (1) textual (i.e., exposition), (2) thematic (i.e., topics), and (3) dynamic (i.e., narrative preaching style). But the key to Lutheran preaching “is the living dynamic of law and gospel applied to hearers (as primary discourse), which discursive and living dynamic can make use of virtually any type of sermon structure (including dynamic structures) toward the proclamation and application of law-and-gospel” (24). This law/gospel approach pits Lutheranism against consumerism: “Consumerism and Lutheranism are a clash of orthodoxies precisely at the point of justification. Lutheranism, however, is at home in the church as the church, while consumerism must remain alien to the church if the law and gospel are to be efficaciously preached and ‘the whole counsel of God’ broadcast” (26).

Developing a theme echoed by other essayists here, Mark Birkholz grounds preaching in truth. The scriptures upon which preaching is based are reliable. “The preacher’s words are certain, even if they are not judged so by the hearers. The certainty of the message of Jesus is testified to by its coherence with the preceding word of God (fulfillment) and by the witness of those who have seen and heard the events of salvation” (40). Paul Elliot notes that the time-honored approach to the Old Testament through typology, i.e., that the Old Testament throughout mirrors and portrays Jesus Christ, makes it relevant and powerful for Christian proclamation. Christ is the “link” between the Old Testament and today (61). Rick Serina appeals to a late medieval theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, noted for his role in education, theology, and the care of souls, in order to advocate that “the reform of the church—including anything resembling a reformation of preaching—would prove impossible apart from the reform of the clergy. Without well educated, theologically competent ecclesiastics and pastors who can bring their competence to bear upon their responsibilities within the church, there is no hope for changing thought and practice in a healthy, productive fashion. Reformation begins with the clergy” (75). Furthering the theme of truth, Roy A. Coates, appealing to Johann Gerhard, maintains that sound preaching needs systematic content. “Without systematic knowledge, preaching has nothing to instruct or refute, and no certain basis from which to encourage, correct, or comfort” (95).

Jacob Corzine appeals to Johannes Brenz’s articulation of a double faith (fides duplex) in order to help preachers who proclaim to those who oscillate between faith and doubt (as so many of us do) and rightly shows that faith rests on the objectivity of the means of grace (111). Jonathan Mumme builds from the distinction of preachers identifying with their audience (we) and differentiating themselves in proclamation (I and you). Ultimately, in proclamation it is Christ speaking through the preacher, and that is the basis for the preacher’s authority in preaching. That Christ is so present frees preachers from having to “actualize” the text for hearers (137). Steve Paulson notes that the preached word is a verbum reale or efficax, a creating word, and not merely one which persuades or instructs. John Pless similarly underscores the sacramental dimension of preaching in which the preacher “does the text” that kills and justifies the hearers (169). The liturgical undergirding of preaching is precisely sacramental. Countering antinomianism, Hans-Jörg Voigt claims that proclamation is not to be set in opposition to parenesis. Instead, in light of the gospel there is a third use of the law. The Christian is called to struggle against sin in his own life and to seek to better this world.

In light of the fact that the great homilies of the church fathers could be read in lieu of one’s own sermon, then why preaching? David Peterson takes on that question. In a word, the Holy Spirit creates faith for the assembled congregation through preaching. A parish pastor has a word that no one else can say since he is most in touch with the life of the parish. Esko Murto takes on the doctrines of election, the bondage of the will, and original sin that naturally offend all sinners. The answer to the question of election (“am I elect?”) is that preaching frees the conscience, brings the promise home to sinners, secures them in salvation; to the “bondage of the will,” preaching imparts Christ and so frees the despairing conscience; and, with original sin, we can be forgiven that we are unable to offer perfect contrition.

Realizing that many parishioners are in grief, Jeremiah Johnson advocates that we should preach from the lament psalms precisely because “they do not peddle easy answers or seek to resolve the eschatological tension between the present age and the age to come. . . . [T]he laments are also brazenly confident not only in the Lord’s past faithfulness, but especially in his future action” (238). Recognizing that most preachers care for souls, Jakob Appell develops the metaphor of preacher as “physician for the sick in spirit.” Ultimately preachers are not mere healers but share a word that unlocks death and hell (256). Again, appealing to truth, Daniel Schmidt notes that there are many methods for preaching, but ultimately a sermon is not to be judged by its method but its theology. Finally, Gottfried Martens unguardedly shares the exigencies of the preparation process for preaching. With time, the steps can be internalized. Sermons are best when memorized. “In memorizing the sermon the preacher steps, to a certain degree, into the shoes of the hearers, for that which lacks clarity of thought cannot easily be memorized and similarly will have a hard time sticking with the hearers. In being memorized the sermon is honed to a final sharp edge that also makes it better for the hearers to follow” (296).

These essays are of the highest caliber. The only way to have improved this book would have been for each author to have published a model sermon alongside his essay. That is where the rubber hits the road. Not many authors here refer to the “goal, malady, means” approach to homiletics, but I have puzzled over the fact that Luther’s sermons tend to be expository, didactic, personal, and direct. Luther never has a three-point sermon (which I ever heard as a child) nor does he have a sermon proportioned as half law and half gospel. Law and gospel shine through Luther’s sermons, but only as he exposits the word of God. Nor is Luther shy of admonition, as Voigt would remind us, especially when he preaches on the epistles.

Need a recharge in your confidence in the ability of God’s word to “bring home the goods”? Give this book a sustained reading and allow it to unsettle your despondency about preaching and empower you to joyfully proclaim the good news.

Mark C. Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, IA

What was Luther's Best Book? and a Free Reading Plan

Next year, 2016, will be the 470th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther’s “heavenly birthday,” his earthly death. And then in 2017 the whole world will observe the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It will mark just the beginning of the Reformation, since in 1517 Luther certainly had not yet reformed the church. Instead, the posting of the 95 Theses set into motion the events that would lead to a reformation and purification of the public teaching and practice in the Western Church, especially in Germany. At this time, therefore, it is good and right to consider what those writings were which moved the Reformation forward and set forth the Gospel in its purity.

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Hymn Summary: Easter 6

Our Father, Who from Heaven Above (LSB 766)

Easter 6 (1 yr)

This hymn paraphrases the Lord’s Prayer and its seven petitions. This excellent hymn teaches children and all those learning how to pray. It does the same thing as memorizing the catechism, but in the happier and easier way that song provides. Interestingly enough the Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal declares, “We hold this to be Luther’s finest hymn,” placing it above his “A Mighty Fortress,” and his “Out of the Depths.” Of course when it comes to Luther hymns and favorite hymns it is not a contest, but this shows how highly regarded this hymn was by those fathers and mothers in faith who have come before us!

Its place in the Easter season begins the week of Ascension. Because Christ has burst the grave we now have one who is at the right hand of the Father advocating for us and hearing our prayers. In this way the hymn provides a transition and reminds us that Christ’s Resurrection grants us the rich honor of praying to a Father who loves us for his sake. It would be a most excellent hymn to use around the supper table, when beginning or ending the day.

Dear Christians One and All, Rejoice (LSB 556)

Easter 6 (3 yr)

Luther makes a second appearance in the Easter season with this hymn for Cantate. This is one of his earliest hymns, thought to be the second hymn he wrote. Lutheran theologians often like to compare early and late Luther as his theology develops and sharpens with age. This hymn shows a rich and beautiful grasp of the Gospel quite early in Luther’s study. Thus it comments on how fast the Gospel spread, doing its work as it was carried along especially by hymnody.

In Luther’s Law/Gospel fashion, he lays out the impossible struggle of justifying oneself through works before God (vs. 2 – 4). The hymn then follows with life giving relief through the Gospel (vs. 5 – 10). It tells the story of Luther’s own struggle with sin and death. This struggle is now shared by all who sin and try to find any hope in this life apart from Christ. The sung confession of verse five gives the world hope as Christ alone can and does set free from sin and sorrow, Christ alone slays bitter death that mankind may live forever. The whole hymn provides a concise creed on the work of God to save.

Rev. Adrian N. Sherrill serves Trinity Lutheran Church, Denver, Colorado. 

Hymn Summary: Easter 5

Dear Christians One and All, Rejoice (LSB 556)

Easter 5 (1 yr)

Luther makes a second appearance in the Easter season with this hymn for Cantate. This is one of his earliest hymns, thought to be the second hymn he wrote. Lutheran theologians often like to compare early and late Luther as his theology develops and sharpens with age. This hymn shows a rich and beautiful grasp of the Gospel quite early in Luther’s study. Thus it comments on how fast the Gospel spread, doing its work as it was carried along especially by hymnody.

In Luther’s Law/Gospel fashion, he lays out the impossible struggle of justifying oneself through works before God (vs. 2 – 4). The hymn then follows with life giving relief through the Gospel (vs. 5 – 10). It tells the story of Luther’s own struggle with sin and death. This struggle is now shared by all who sin and try to find any hope in this life apart from Christ. The sung confession of verse five gives the world hope as Christ alone can and does set free from sin and sorrow, Christ alone slays bitter death that mankind may live forever. The whole hymn provides a concise creed on the work of God to save.

At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing (LSB 633)

Easter 5 (3yr)

Our victorious King through death and resurrection has caused the angel of death to stand down. You are redeemed by his blood. Paradise is open to you. You are free. These are not abstract thoughts, hopes, or slogans but concrete realities found in the Lord’s Supper and your eating and drinking of Christ. Such is the mighty comfort and preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection, which have been joined to his supper for us sinners to eat and drink. This truth you declare to all who will hear through song.

This hymn is a commentary on what Holy Communion is and does. It is the body and blood of Jesus delivered to you. Both Old and New Testament sacramental themes run throughout. The Lord God brought Israel out of Egypt through the sea into the promised land by the blood of the Lamb. Jesus through his death brings us through this wilderness sustained by this supper into paradise (6). The Passover and the Exodus were the great meal of old (3, 4). The death and resurrection of Jesus are the greater meal that now sustain us as he has put all things under his feet (5). 

Rev. Adrian N. Sherrill serves Trinity Lutheran Church, Denver, Colorado. 

Hymn Summary: Easter

Christ Jesus lay in Death’s Strong Bands — LSB 458

Easter (Main Service) (1 and 3 year)

Luther writes the text and his Kantor Johann Walter the tune to one of the strongest sung confessions of piercing Law and heavenly Gospel ever written. “Death is now dead,” is the theme. The hymn invites the singer to share with Jesus in full-throated rejoicing that our last enemy of ours has been embarrassed and laid waste. A strange and dreadful fight to the death develops through seven verses, with Jesus tearing us free from death’s chains by being captive Himself. He turns the tables and the tide of fallen human history destroying sin and taking death’s crown. You may be confident because, “Holy Scripture plainly saith that death is swallowed up by death . . .”

The first four verses depict Jesus’ entrance, fight, and securing of man’s salvation. The final three locate where we lay claim of this resurrection and how to partake of its benefits. We sing with Luther to eat and drink the Supper is to join Jesus in His reign, transporting us from death’s darkness into the light, made strong and well fed for whatever trouble comes our way. Together in song and meal we brag what Christ has done, “And Satan cannot harm us. Alleluia!”

Rev. Adrian N. Sherrill serves Trinity Lutheran Church, Denver, Colorado. 

Review: Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross

From the Review: "Pless is faithful to Luther’s theology of preaching and pastoral care of the terrified soul. This little book is essential for every pastor because it is nothing if not practical for a variety of pastoral needs. . . . This book will make you a better theologian and a better preacher because it draws you closer to Luther, the Confession, and our Lord Christ Himself as you study Holy Scripture."

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Bibliography to Stephen Pietsch’s “Sure Comfort: Luther on Depression,” LOGIA, 23:1.

Black Dog Institute. Beyond Blue: the National Depression Initiative,

Blazer, Dan G. The Age of Melancholy, Major Depression and its Social Origins. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther, His Road to Reformation 1483-1521. James L. Schaaf, translator. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981.

Brecht, Martin., Martin Luther, Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521–1532. James L. Schaaf, translator. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.

Clebsch, William A. and Charles R Jaekle. Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective. Northvale, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1983.

Foutz, Scott. “On the Life and Mystical Theology of Jean Gerson (1363-1429).”

Gowland, Angus. “The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy.” Past & Present. No.191 (May 2006): 77–120.

Gritsch, Eric W. Martin, God’s Court Jester. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

Haile, H.G. Luther, A Biography. London: Sheldon, 1980.

Headley, Tony. “Luther on Depression.” Light and Life (July-August) 1999.

Hollon, Steven D. and Sona Dimidjian. “Cognative and Behavioral Treatment of Depression.” The Handbook of Depression. Second edition. Ian H. Gotlib and Consyance L. Hammen, editors. London, Guildford Press, 2009: 586–603.

Hummel, Leonard M. “Heinz Kohut and Empathy: A Perspective from a Theology of the Cross.” Word & World. Volume XXI, No.1 (Winter 2001): 64–74.

Hunter, R. Lanny and Victor L. Hunter. What Your Doctor and Your Pastor Want You to Know about Depression. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2004.

Jackson, Stanley. Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times. Yale University Press, 1990.

Kleinig, John W. Grace Upon Grace, Spirituality for Today. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008.

Luthers Werke im WWW Weimarer Ausgabe.

Luther’s Works (American Edition). 55 vols. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman, editors. St Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960–1975.

Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Briefwechsel. 18 vols. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1930–1985.

Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Tischreden. 6 vols. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1930–1985.

Midelfort, H.C. Erik. A History of Madness in Sixteenth Century Germany. Stanford University Press: 2000.

Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man between God and the Devil. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, translator. New York: Yale University Press, 1989.

———. “Teufelsdreck: Eschatology and Scatology in the ‘Old Luther.’” Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol. 20, No.3 (1988).

Palmer, Parker J. “All The Way Down: Depression and the Spiritual Journey.” Weavings: A Journal of Christian Spiritual Life. Vol. 13, No. 5 (September-October 1998).

Pietsch, Stephen. “Depression and the Soul, A Cooks Tour.” Australian Lutheran College opening lecture, 2009.

———. “Seelsorge—A Living Tradition in Pastoral Theology Practice.” Lutheran Theological Journal. Vol. 43, No.1 (May 2009): 49–62.

Posen, M., D.C. Clark, M. Harrow, J. Fawcett. “Guilt and conscience in major depressive disorders.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 1983. Vol. 140: 839–844.

Radden, Jennifer. Moody Minds Distempered, Essays on Melancholy and Depression. Oxford University Press, 2009.

———. The Nature of Melancholy, From Aristotle to Kristeva. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rowe, Dorothy. “Depression's punitive conscience: Robert Enke's tragic death stemmed from a need to self-punish familiar to anyone who's suffered depression.” The Guardian. November 12, 2009.

Stolt, Birgit. Die Sprachmischung in Luthers Tischreden: Studien zum Problem der Zweisprachigkeit. Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1964.

Stone, Howard W. Depression and Hope, New Insights for Pastoral Counseling. Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.

Swinton, John. Spirituality and Mental Health Care, Discovering a “Forgotten” Dimension. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2006.

Thompson, Mark D., “Luther on Despair.” The Consolations of Theology. Brian S. Rosner, editor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2008.

Todd, M. John. Luther, A Life. New York: Crossroad, 1982.

Trader, Alexis. Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds. New York: Peter Lang, 2011.

Wengert, Timothy, editor. The Pastoral Luther, Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2009.

Wilson, Eric G. Against Happiness—In Praise of Melancholy. Farrar: Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Yahnke, Beverly K. “Prescriptions for the Soul: The Taxonomy of Despair.” Doxology Website:

Von Loewenich, Walther. Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1976.

Book Review: The Righteous One

This book is to be praised for offering a new historical examination of the debate surrounding St. Paulʼs soteriology, especially in regard to the early church fathers and Martin Luther. Jordan Cooper engages the Lutheran tradition and catholicity in a spirited, critical way that serves a larger agenda: to critique the New Perspective on Paul by way of the Finnish Lutheran school of Luther research, specifically the work of Tuomo Mannermaa.

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Christ in Luther's Interpretation of the Old Testament

PROPTER CHRISTUM: Christ at the Center

A shift seems to be occurring within biblical interpretation. Some scholars have issued calls to reevaluate the historical-critical method of interpreting the Scriptures. Scholars have become fascinated with "pre-critical" interpretations of Scripture.

John A. Maxfield calls our attention to this shift, but he primarily encourages us to not lose sight of our Lutheran heritage. In this article, Maxfield presents a discussion of Luther's interpretation of the Scripture — particularly the Old Testament — and his thoroughly christological hermeneutic.

The entire essay can be found in the forthcoming festschrift in honor of Daniel Preus: Propter Christum: Christ at the Center. Visit LOGIA’s website to reserve your copy. It is available for pre-order and is scheduled to be released in November.



—by John A. Maxfield

The last words of Bornkamm’s book convey both the problem for the modern reader of Luther’s Old Testament interpretation and its opportunity:

[Luther’s] work has Christianized the Old Testament thoroughly, as we have seen. We cannot use it with a clear conscience much longer if we cannot give clear and new reasons to justify such an interpretation. If we take this task just as seriously as we take the inviolable truthfulness of historical research, then we can let go of the “swaddling clothes” of Luther’s interpretation of the Old Testament and once again salvage the treasure in the manger.1

The late Professor Bornkamm might be surprised by the “clear and new reasons” used today instead to knock historical-critical analysis of the Old Testament off its hegemonic pedestal. In the burgeoning subdiscipline of the history of biblical exegesis in the fields of both biblical studies and church history (as well as historical study more widely cast), it appears that the keenest fascination has been with what might be named the “swaddling clothes” of the so-called “pre-critical” interpretation of the Bible. For example, in a widely-cited article that has functioned as a manifesto for the discipline of the history of pre-modern biblical interpretation, David Steinmetz takes aim at the sufficiency of exegesis that focuses narrowly on the intended historical-literal sense of the human author and asserts boldly:

The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text it is interpreting, it will remain restricted—as it deserves to be—to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.2

A whole genre of studies of biblical interpretation in the early church, the Middle Ages, and the Reformation continues to be the fruit of such appeals to dethrone the sole focus of biblical studies on “the inviolable truthfulness of historical research” as conceived in post-Enlightenment historical criticism. I am reminded here, ninety years later, of Karl Barth’s scathing critique of liberal Protestantism in his preface to the second edition of his Epistle to the Romans, where he did not challenge historical criticism as a tool of the interpreter but asserted boldly that historical analysis is merely the prolegomena to the true task of theological interpretation of Paul’s text, which is in fact the word of God, the sole means (that is, the Bible as a whole) by which God, who is unknowable, reveals himself to man.3

But how fares the biblical interpretation of Luther in this revival of interest in pre-critical exegesis? The current romance of many confessional Lutherans with the early church fathers, often quite ignorant or dismissive of the critical and selective appropriation of patristic traditions in the Lutheran Reformation and its Confessions (and this is especially true in regard to patristic exegesis), suggests that Luther’s approach to the Old Testament in particular is in danger of being lost to a resurgence of allegorizing and typological interpretations, also among Lutherans. The days are apparently long over when John Calvin’s method of typological interpretation of messianic psalms, applying them first and foremost to David and only secondarily to Christ, is rejected by orthodox Lutherans as “Judaizing.”4 Indeed, Calvin’s methods of typological exegesis are frequently celebrated broadly as the vanguard of responsible Christian and yet historically sound exegesis of the Old Testament while Luther’s understanding is rejected on the ideological grounds of it being “supercessionist” (as is also much of the New Testament), and thus responsible for his highly offensive views of the Jews in many of his later writings.5

In contrast to what seem to be the prevailing views today, I view Luther’s distinctive approach to interpreting the Old Testament as Christian Scripture as both historically sound and most fruitful for the church’s theology and preaching. In the remainder of this essay in honor of Daniel Preus, who continues to devote his talents and energies to the theology and life of the Lutheran church throughout the world in its modern context, I would like to describe some of the rather traditional as well as the new ways that Luther kept Christ and the gospel at the center of his interpretation of the Old Testament, focusing especially on his lectures on Genesis. . . .6

  1. Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther and the Old Testament, trans. Eric W. and Ruth C. Gritsch, ed. Victor I. Gruhn (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969 [German orig. 1948]), 266. More recently, Siegfried Raeder also evaluates Luther’s Old Testament interpretation, describing for example Luther’s second psalms lectures (the Operationes in Psalmos, 1519–1521) as “‘evangelio-centric’ rather than christological,” that is, “more in regard to the Gospel of Christ than in regard to the person of Christ.” Luther thus stands in contrast to the psalms exegesis of the humanist Lefèvre d’Étaples, whose “strictly christological interpretation of the Psalter prevented Lefèvre from investigating the historical forms of faith, love and hope in the Old Testament.” Siegfried Raeder, “The Exegetical and Hermeneutical Work of Martin Luther,” in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. 2, From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, ed. Magne Sæbø (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008), 377, 370.
  2. David Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37 (1980): 38. Likewise, Robert Louis Wilken takes up the mantle of Roman Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac and defends the use of allegory (among other meanings) in patristic and medieval spiritual interpretation: “If there is anything that is obvious, it is that the notion of a single sense does not carry us very far in the interpretation of great works of literature, or of the Bible.” “In Defense of Allegory,” Modern Theology 14, no. 2 (April 1998): 197. A significant portion of De Lubac’s magisterial study is now available in an English translation: Henri de Lubac, S. J., Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 1, trans. Mark Sebanc (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998); vol. 2, trans. E. M. Macierowski (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000); vol. 3, trans. E. M. Macierowski (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009).
  3. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 2–15. Note Barth’s response to historical criticism: “I have been accused of being an ‘enemy of historical criticism.’…I have nothing whatever to say against historical criticism.…My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation of the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all, but merely the first step towards a commentary.…Jülicher and Lietzmann know far better than I do how insecure all this historical reconstruction is, and upon what doubtful assumptions it often rests. Even such an elementary attempt at interpretation is not an exact science. Exact scientific knowledge…is limited to the deciphering of the manuscripts and the making of a concordance. Historians do not wish, and rightly do not wish, to be confined within such narrow limits,” 6.
  4. On the charge by the Lutheran orthodox dogmatician Aegidius Hunnius in his book Calvinus Iudiazans . . . (1593), see esp. G. Sujin Pak, The Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  5. See, for example, Eric W. Gritsch, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapid, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), esp. 33–46. Space does not allow an exploration of the significant problem of Luther’s Old Testament exegesis in relation to his so-called “anti-Jewish writings”; however, I would like to suggest that this problem (and it is a problem!) is most fruitfully analyzed not by rejecting Luther’s prophetic-christological and historical but gospel-centric interpretations of the Old Testament, as is often done, but by recognizing that Luther’s error in these later writings had to do with a failure to apply his own principle or overarching doctrine of the two kingdoms (or two realms of God’s governance in the world), and not with his critique of Judaism in relation to its legalism and in response to Jewish unbelief. The latter is, after all, also the critique of the New Testament.
  6. Some of what follows has appeared and is treated more extensively in terms of Luther’s vocation as Professor Reformer in John A. Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies 80 (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2008). Previously published material used with permission of the publisher.

Book Review: Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism

From the Editors: Here's a freebee book review that didn't make it into the upcoming Reformation edition of LOGIA. If you'd like to purchase a subscription, click here.

Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment. By Eric W. Gritsch. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. Paper. 158 pages.

Eric Gritsch, veteran church historian and Luther scholar, is a vivid and articulate author. That attribute is abundantly present in his most recent book, Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment where he describes his undertaking: “The topic ‘Luther and the Jews’ is like a sea crowded with many vessels of various shapes and sizes, ranging from small boats to ocean liners—with an occasional warship! Some are steered well, others sail without reliable navigation, indeed, at times colliding with each other, and a few land on deserted islands sometimes damaged by warlike critique. Studies of the after-effects of Luther’s anti-Semitism disclose a great variety. In the  late nineteenth and early twentieth century, some studies become entangled with ideology, especially during the reign of German National Socialism (‘Nazism’). They then perish like the Titanic, after boasting to be part of a ‘final solution’” (128). Gritsch launches his  own considerable craft into these choppy seas in an effort to both understand and critique Luther. Along the way, Gritsch reveals his own theological presuppositions which form a hermeneutic for appropriating Luther’s theology in the twenty-first century.

Drawing on the work of the contemporary New Testament exegete Leander Keck, Gritsch maintains that Paul opposes any mission to the Jews (11, fn 38), arguing that Jews without faith in Christ share with Christians the same divine promise of salvation. Romans 9–11 is understood as making reference to a single, divine covenant that unites Jews and Christians as coheirs of an eschatological mystery. Any hint of “supersessionism” is dismissed. Here, Gritsch believes, Luther got it wrong: “He could have followed Paul’s advice to live with the divine ‘mystery’ regarding the relationship between Jews and Christians. But Luther did not. Instead, he offered his concluding argument for this divine verdict in 1538 when he heard about Jewsish attempts to infiltrate Christian communities, indeed to proselytize” (71).  In short, Gritsch sees Luther making a theological move that contradicts his earlier assertions in The Bondage of the Will, for example, not to seek after knowledge of hidden God: “[A]fter fifteen hundred years of Christian anti-Semitism, Luther felt obligated to conclude that the existing hatred of the Jews revealed the hatred of God. This conclusion is a violation of his own rule, so vehemently established and enforced against Erasmus in 1525, that to speculate about the hidden God ‘is no business of ours.’ To do so is against Luther’s better judgment (77). Thus the subtitle of the book and Gritsch’s thesis. For Gritsch it is not so much a matter of the early Luther (see “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” 1523) devoted to the pastoral evangelization of the Jews in contrast to the old Luther who was given to hateful polemics (see his writings from 1538 onward, especially “On the Jews and Their Lies” 1543) as it is a tragic failure of Luther to consistently apply his own theological method that distinguishes between God revealed and God hidden. It is from this perspective that Gritsch assesses other interpretations of Luther’s attitude toward the Jews, most especially the work of Walther Bienert (1909–1994) and Heiko Oberman (1930–2001).

Gritsch sees Luther’s “anti-Semitism” as a complexity shaped by historical and theological factors. In appealing to Luther’s distinction between God hidden and God revealed, Gritsch seems not only to underestimate but finally reject Luther’s confession of solus Christus as he sees Luther’s christological reading of the Old Testament as untenable. For Gritsch, it would appear, the only proper posture of Christians toward Jews is one of dialogue that excludes missionary witness.

A helpful feature of the book is the overview and summary of the reception of Luther’s writings on the Jews in the later sixteenth century and beyond.

John T. Pless

Fort Wayne, Indiana


Choosing Hell: A Lutheran View of Free Will

By James Keller

The existence of hell is, for most Christians, an article of faith. Scripture and tradition leave little ambiguity with regard to a place of eternal anguish, one that is populated by those that have made a free, conscious choice for separation from God. Hell is an existential reality even among Christian universalists, who maintain that despite the certainty of hell, all persons will experience salvation due to the irresistible and gracious will of God.[1] The point at issue is free will. Universalists view the freedom of “choice” for hell over heaven as logically incoherent. How, they argue, can persons who repent under the duress of some forcibly imposed punishment be said to have made the choice freely? Opponents of universalism respond that some persons choose to be irrational and dispute even basic laws of logic. Scripture and experience point to continued human rebellion in the face of punishment or threats of punishment.[2] ...




James Keller is Instructor of Theology at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.


[1] Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 9-34; Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 44-47.

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 52-65.

A Lutheran Response to Justification: Five Views

—by Jordan Cooper

 If one were asked to explain the distinctiveness of Lutheran theology within the church catholic, one word would likely come to mind: justification. If one aspect of doctrine defines Lutheran theology over against other theologies, it is the centrality of justification by faith alone. This issue, described by Luther as “the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls,” was the heart of the conservative Reformation and remains so within churches of the Augsburg Confession. This being the case, it is surprising that the recent volume Justification: Five Views,1 neglects to include a Lutheran contributor. The editor explains that this is because Michael Horton’s confessional Reformed approach is thought to encapsulate confessional Lutheran approaches to the doctrine.2 Despite the similarities however, Horton’s essay fails to display the uniquely Lutheran approach to justification as it is expounded upon in Luther’s Galatians commentary and explained and defended in the Lutheran Confessions. This article is an attempt to bring a Lutheran voice into this dialogue, offering a unique and biblical approach to Paul’s theological concerns in Galatians and Romans...




1. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy et al, Justification: Five Views (Westmont, IL: IVP, 2011). Contributors to the volume of essays include Michael S. Horton, Michael F. Bird, James D.G. Dunn, Veli-Matti Karkainen, Gerald O’Collins, and Oliver Rafferty.

2. “Horton’s traditional Reformed view is functionally identical in all the significant theological aspects to the traditional Lutheran view.” Justification, 10.