The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology

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Editor(s): 
Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, L'ubomir Batka
Oxford Handbooks
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2016.
     688 pages.
     $50.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198766476.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Oxford University Press’s series of handbooks has established itself as a go-to resource for high-quality, up-to-date treatments of scholarly topics across a wide range of academic disciplines, and this volume on Martin Luther’s Theology is a worthy edition to the series. Each of the forty-seven essays in the volume—along with an introduction and conclusion—is authored by a well-qualified specialist in some aspect of Luther’s thought or its reception, and there is significant generational and geographic diversity among the contributors. The Handbook is divided into five parts, reflecting both the traditional loci communes of Luther studies in the last generation, as well as signaling the priorities of the guild moving forward. Thus, we have sections of essays analyzing Luther’s thought in relation to its late medieval intellectual background and his elaboration of the traditional topics of Western theology, as well as sections focusing on literary genre and the reception of Luther’s thought across a wide range of later contexts. In keeping with the format of the series, each essay ends with a short bibliography of essential reading, balanced fairly well between publications in German and English, the two primary languages of Luther scholarship in the last century.

One of the most interesting features of the volume—and one with which it departs most clearly from other volumes in the series—is the inclusion of parallel essays offering different perspectives on two critical topics which remain hotly contested in the field of Luther studies: the question of continuity and discontinuity with late medieval thought, and the ever-contentious matter of justification by faith. The former pair reflects the lingering tensions in German scholarship over the distinctiveness of Luther’s thought and its implications for national identity, while the later pair reflects the continued vigor of the debate over the “Finnish school” and its implications for ecumenical dialogue. All four essays are worthy contributions by eminent scholars, each of whom has played a significant role in advancing the debates in question, yet the inclusion of these essays seems to signal a certain lack of clarity as to what exactly a volume like this is intended to achieve. Simply put, it is not entirely clear whether this Handbook is supposed to be a collection of secondary or tertiary writings. Many of the essays in the volume are focused on the interpretation and evaluation of the primary sources of Luther’s thought and legacy, and many—the four essays on late medieval legacy and justification in particular—advance distinctive interpretations aimed at making a direct contribution to scholarly debates already underway. Other essays, however, focus on tracing the contours of contemporary Luther scholarship, distilling a generation’s worth of research, setting scholarly debates in a broader intellectual context, and highlighting directions for further engagement. Of course, there’s no reason to draw the line between these two kinds of scholarly writing too rigidly. And yet it seems fair to observe that, in a field such as Luther studies, which has never suffered from a dearth of vigorous secondary interpretation, the need for timely and reliable guides to the state of the art in the field is all the more acute. The present volume succeeds unevenly in that task, even as it bears compelling witness to the continuing ability of Luther’s thought to generate debate in a new century and capture theological imagination in new global contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Fink is assistant professor of religion at Furman University.

Date of Review: 
May 10, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Kolb is Professor of Systematic Theology emeritus at Concordia Seminary.

Irene Dingel is Professor of Church History and the History of Dogma at Johannes Gutenberg University.

L'ubomir Batka is Dean of Lutheran Theological Faculty at Comenius University.

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