The Annotated Luther

The Roots of Reform, Volume 1

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Timothy J. Wengert
The Annotated Luther series
  • Minneapolis, MN: 
    Fortress Press
    , September
     592 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 theses around the corner, one can expect a certain inundation of Reformation publications. For those looking for an up-to-date, well-informed, and accessible resource for early texts of the Reformation, Timothy J. Wengert’s edited volume, The Roots of Reform, would be an excellent choice in a field of many good options. This is the first volume in Fortress Press’s The Annotated Luther series, edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Wengert. According to the series introduction, the primary goal of these annotated volumes revolves around communication that “reflect[s] human being’s lived experience, benefits from up-to-date scholarship, and [is] easily accessible to all” (vii). From this reader’s perspective, Wengert’s volume meets the latter two goals exceptionally well. Key challenges arise, though, in aiming to reflect human being’s lived experience, given the tradition’s continued Euro-American orientation. Rather than the shortcoming of any particular scholar, these challenges are symptoms of more systemic concerns that the Reformation tradition will increasingly face in its next 500 years.

In this series, each of Luther’s writings is introduced and annotated by a noteworthy scholar who has particular expertise pertaining to the text. In addition to Wengert, in this volume texts are introduced by Dennis Bielfeldt, Suzanne Hequet, Dirk G. Lange, and James M. Estes. Even though each text is introduced by a different scholar, a sense of continuity is maintained so that the introductions seem to serve as a nearly continuous narrative of historical and contextual background linking Luther’s writings. This achievement is clearly the result of impressive planning, coordination, and editing. Throughout the texts, generous footnotes translate all foreign language words and phrases, give definitions of unfamiliar terms, provide important historical background information, and explain the theological concepts Luther is dealing with. The introductions and annotations make for an approachable reading of Luther not yet provided—certainly not by the expansive 55 volumes of Luther’s Works, nor even by more recent condensed and edited collections of Luther’s key writings that have become seminary and undergraduate classroom standards. The selection of texts in this volume makes it particularly well suited for the seminary classroom. In addition to such standards as the “The 95 Theses” and “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s reforming thoughts on the sacraments are also included in sermons on penance, baptism, and the eucharist.

In addition to achieving an extraordinary level of accessibility, the volume also does an excellent job of highlighting some of the most recent scholarly insights about the texts and the context in which Luther wrote. Wengert, for example, emphasizes the mundane or routine nature of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses—an act commonly portrayed as a conscious or deliberate rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church. Wengert and Lange also consistently emphasize the emotional, affective, and rhetorical side of Luther’s writing. Such interpretations, due in great part to the scholarship of Birgit Stoltz, counteract consistent post-Cartesian readings of Luther whereby a text is read primarily for its reasoned argument. By highlighting affective and rhetorical elements these authors emphasize the fact that Luther, like his contemporaries, was well trained in the classical art of rhetoric. Such readings acknowledge both that Luther did not see rhetorical means of persuasion as competition with the power of the Word of God to move people and that he sought to engage all aspects of human existence rather than merely a person’s intellect. Consequently, one gets a clear sense that Luther viewed faith as more than a matter of rational assent to a set of doctrine but as something that encompasses the whole of human existence. Conversely, there is also a perceptible attempt among the authors to resist the opposition of faith to reason by nuancing Luther’s views on the proper use and role of reason and philosophy. Such emphases reflect current scholarly attempts to correct certain modern interpretations of Luther.

What this volume does most successfully is give context to the writings and explain unfamiliar references and concepts. And while the volume contributors clearly aim less to interpret than to present these texts clearly and accessibly for a twenty-first century reader’s own application, it seems that in order for the text to meet the series’ third goal of truly reflecting current lived experiences, some contextualization and application to current concerns from diverse perspectives would be important. By leaving contemporary application of Luther’s work entirely to the reader, the editors miss an opportunity to engage current scholars of more diverse cultural and experiential backgrounds. Such scholars are today dealing with Luther’s works both critically and constructively, and referencing their work would seem to offer a more accurate reflection of lived experience today. One could imagine, for example, an added dimension of commentary in footnotes or introductions highlighting ways Luther’s thought is being engaged in the lived experience of people in Palestine, Tanzania, Brazil, Malaysia, India, South Korea, or global LGBTQ communities. These comments notwithstanding, The Roots of Reform is likely to serve as a valuable introduction to some of Luther’s key works in many and diverse locations. Yet as Reformation scholars turn toward the next 500 years it will be increasingly imperative to give new students of Luther a broad sense for how current scholarship is constructively engaging Luther’s work with current concerns and diverse experiences in mind. In doing so, texts such as this will come even closer to the overall aim of the series—to “offer a compelling invitation” (x) to engage Luther’s works.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Terra Rowe holds a PhD in Theological and Philosophical Studies from Drew University and is adjunct professor at Marist College.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy J. Wengert is emeritus Ministerium of Pennsylvania Professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Wengert is a representative for the ELCA on the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches.


Barbara Pitkin

Thanks for posting this excellent review of this important new edition.


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