Encounters with Luther

New Directions for Critical Studies

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Kirsi I. Stjerna , Brooks Schramm
  • Louisville,KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , August
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Encounters with Luther: New Directions for Critical Studies, edited by Kirsi I. Stjerna and Brooks Schramm, is a collection of articles which were originally presented at the Luther Colloquy at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, and previously published in the seminary’s faculty journal, Seminary Ridge Review. In this book, nineteen scholars offer their own expertise and scholarly interest on various topics, ranging from Luther’s thought on sacraments, interpretation of Scripture, marriage to violence, the devil, and social care of the poor. While the book offers both historical and primary research of Luther’s theology, its main focus is to demonstrate the relevance and ecumenical collegiality of Luther’s thoughts, both in scholarship and in praxis for today.

Among the numerous books published for the Luther quincentenary in 2017, this collection of essays is outstanding for many reasons. First of all, the book treats traditional topics in Luther’s theology as well as provoking and sensational themes that Luther did not directly address in the sixteenth-century context. Readers can also find common theological topics such as Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and his theology of the cross. These familiar themes of the sixteenth-century Reformation, however, are revisited by established Luther scholars, and they successfully shed a new light on Luther’s thoughts for contemporary ecumenical conversation. In particular, B. A. Gerrish’s essay on Luther and the Reformed Eucharist provides the historical evidence that Luther in 1545 read the Latin translation of John Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, first written in French in Strasbourg in 1541. Based on Luther’s praise for the treatise, Gerrish argues that what Luther assuredly would have accepted is Calvin’s view of the inseparability of sign and reality, and his rejection of Huldrych Zwingli’s position on the Supper as an empty representation for intellectual remembrance. While many Lutherans in the sixteenth century mistrusted Calvin because of his friendly relationship with Zwingli’s successor, Gerrish suggests that Calvin’s emphasis on faith in God’s promise and his conception of the Supper as mystical union with Christ is comparable to Luther’s doctrine of the real presence of Christ.

Mickey Mattox’s essay on warfare and violence in Luther’s exegesis of the Old Testament represents the book’s predominant interest in primary research on Luther’s thought in its original context, and its theological relevance for today. Mattox carefully examines Luther’s 1523-24 sermons on Genesis, his exegesis of Deuteronomy 20 in 1525, the Zechariah lectures in 1527, and Luther’s later Genesis lectures in 1535-45, and suggests that Luther’s development of thought on warfare and violence was influenced by major historical events such as the German Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, the League of Smalcald formed in 1529, and John Frederick’s election in 1532. While Luther’s overarching rule for the use of force is “the law of love” which binds people together in community with peace and security, Mattox contends that the historical trajectory of Luther’s thought is toward support for and endorsement of the secular authorities in their vocation of maintaining order in society, particularly for the protection of the Word of God. Interestingly, Mattox highlights Luther’s perception of Abraham in the Genesis lectures as “a warrior saint” and insists that whereas Luther encourages the reader to appreciate Abraham’s military action for the love of his kinsman, he at the same time warns them not to imitate Abraham’s deeds literally—unless they are officially called to use force. Instead of advocating the inevitability of warfare and violence after the Fall, Luther, according to Mattox, employs Abraham the biblical warrior-saint to epitomize the faithfulness of the pastor and the steadfastness of the secular authority to protect the gospel in society.

While the collection of essays discusses some traditional topics, it also includes unexpected and provocative claims on Luther’s theology, and Carter Lindberg’s discussion of Luther’s view of the government’s responsibility for the poor is one of these. By his careful reading of Luther’s major works on social welfare, such as Brief Sermon on Usury (1519), To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), and Admonition to the Clergy to Preach against Usury (1540), Lindberg disagrees with the views of Ernst Troeltsch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth that Luther was “a social conservative.” Lindberg argues that Luther’s thoughts on economics were probably just too “socialist,” not only for a sixteenth-century people, but also for “us.” Luther’s relentless attack on monastic asceticism and early capitalism, according to Lindberg, is clearly manifested in the Wittenberg Church Order of 1522, which established a “common chest” for social welfare work. Lindberg’s essay sheds a new light on Luther’s clear vision on civic control of capitalism in the sixteenth century, and rediscovers a hidden motto of the Reformation: that “there should be no beggars among Christians.” Finally, the most provocative work in the book is probably Stjerna’s essay, “Luther on Marriage, for Gay and Straight.” In light of Luther’s promotion of clergy marriage over the church’s celibacy rules, Stjerna argues that a priority Reformation concern for today should be the issue of gay and lesbian persons’ right to marry, and the church’s blessing of such unions. Focusing on Luther’s treatise, On Marriage Matters (1530), Stjerna makes clear that Luther conceived marriage as a human contract and a matter of the state belonging to the temporal realm. Since marriage is a matter between two individuals and families on a contractual basis in public, the church’s role, according to Stjerna, is to pray, bless, and support people in this estate. From Stjerna’s perspective, Luther’s theology is fundamentally “emancipatory” and is directed toward the well being of people in their God-given lives.

Like Luther’s claims in the sixteenth century—the claims in this collection of essays—are creative, bold, and provocative. Written by an international group of highly accomplished scholars, Encounters with Luther  is a welcome addition to the scholarship of the Reformation, and will be a stimulating resource for ecumenical dialogue and engagement.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kirsi I. Stjerna is First Lutheran, Los Angeles/Southwest California Synod Professor of Lutheran History and Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and is Docent in the Theological Faculty at the University of Helsinki. She is an internationally recognized scholar of the Reformation and Luther. Among her many writings are Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People, with Brooks Schramm, and Women and the Reformation.



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