Luther and Liberation

A Latin American Perspective

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Walter Altmann
Thia Cooper
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , February
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Fortress Press has recently published a revised and expanded edition of Brazilian theologian Walter Altmann’s Luther and Liberation. The version of Altmann’s book that first appeared in English in 1992 was originally published in Spanish, in 1987, as a compilation of Altmann’s Carnahanlectures (1983) at ISEDET (Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos) in Buenos Aires on the occasion of Luther’s 500th birthday. A separate Brazilian edition appeared in 1994. The new English edition is a translation of the expanded Portuguese edition, prepared for the commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. However, the Brazilian volume, published in 2016, includes a chapter titled “How Free is the Holy Spirit?” that does not appear in the English edition.

Altmann’s Luther and Liberation advances the dialogue between Luther and Latin American liberation theology, producing a view of the German reformer that frees him from the domestication of pseudo-neutrality. While Altmann’s approach takes seriously the historical context in which Luther lived and worked, it also challenges its readers to think about how contemporary questions stemming from the current Latin American context can bear on Luther’s scholarship. This is thus a liberating reading on two levels. On the one hand, it reveals a Luther that can be embraced as an ally of the poor, a meaningful figure for liberation theologies in Latin America and beyond. On the other hand, it raises fresh questions to Luther and to Luther scholars, with a liberative potential also for Luther’s scholarship. While acknowledging substantial differences between the two contexts, Altmann successfully manages to offer a fresh interpretation of Luther that brings him closer to his contemporary Latin American readers.

Altmann does not shy away from asking Luther hard questions, or from acknowledging the limits of his thought and worldview. He addresses a number of critiques of Luther, including the suggestion that his doctrine of the two kingdoms may lead to political passivity. In contrast, Altmann affirms that Luther’s understanding of the two realms of God’s activity neither led him nor should lead his readers to passivity in the public realm. Altmann also addresses other sensitive issues in Luther studies, such as Luther’s role in the Peasants’ War, his views on Anabaptists, and his attacks on Jews. In each of those matters, Altmann takes pains to offer a nuanced and historically responsible picture of Luther. 

A trained systematic theologian, Altmann is particularly interested in uncovering the extent to which Luther’s theological tenets can contribute to or hinder liberation. To what extent can Luther’s theological insights and approaches still be meaningful in contemporary ethical and political conversations, particularly in Latin America?

The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 is a one-chapter overview of Luther’s theology and work that situates Luther’s life and theology at a transitional juncture in history between the Middle Ages and modernity. Part 2 presents Luther’s theology in seven chapters. Altmann not only draws attention to the liberating aspects of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith and of the priesthood of all believers, but he also highlights other essential aspects of Luther’s theology, such as Luther’s view of God vis-à-vis the falsehood of idols, a theme also recurrent among Latin American liberation theologians in their denouncing of the idols of death. Likewise, Altmann correlates Luther’s theology of the cross to liberation theologians’ emphasis on the crucified Jesus and on Jesus’s profound identification with the crucified people. While arguing that the theology of the cross should produce deep solidarity, Altmann rescues the centrality of love of neighbor in Luther’s teachings. The emphasis on putting the Bible in the hands of the people is discussed as another theme shared by Luther and liberation theologians. 

Part 3 focuses on ethical themes, starting with Luther’s view of politics as a call or vocation. Altmann shows how Luther’s early views were consistent with an understanding of political responsibility that takes the reality of the most vulnerable and impoverished seriously, even though he circumstantially moved closer to the princes, developing a naïve trust in their capacity to reform the church that contributed to the establishment of absolutist states. It is important to notice how Altmann approaches all sides of Luther’s thinking and activity to inform contemporary praxis and discernment on how to best exercise political power from the perspective of the poor and weak. 

Altmann’s approach to education (chapter 10) highlights Luther’s work for the education of women, but provides no engagement with the women of the Reformation. A chapter on “economy and the community” places Luther’s critical view of usury and profit in contrast to a market-determined economy, another topic of common interest to Luther scholars and liberation theologians. This part of the book ends with important chapters on war, resistance, and violence, and Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.

The final part of the book focuses on the relevance of Luther’s legacy for liberation theology. Using the epithet “evangelical,” Altmann describes Luther as being concerned with a “constant return to the word of God expressed in the Bible” (337). Altmann’s analysis of the parable of the final judgement (Matt 25:31-46) exemplifies that “evangelical” approach, addressing the ethical imperative to the “little ones” that sheds light on Jesus’s profound identification with them, and on the church’s mandate to identify with both the impoverished and those who stand in solidarity with them. In this section, Altmann also discusses the impact of Luther on Vatican II and on European theologians who were influential for the first generation of Latin American liberationists. He pays particular attention, though, to the reception of Luther among Catholic and Protestant Latin American liberation theologians.The book would have been enriched by an expanded and more robust version of this section, which brought more critical Latin American theological voices to the table, including women, indigenous, and Afro-Latin American theologians.

Altmann’s perspective on Luther gains particular relevance as one takes into account that Lutheranism, like most other Christian churches, grows faster today in the global South than in its Western bedrock. According to the Lutheran World Federation, the two largest Lutheran churches in the world are the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, with nearly 7.9 million members, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania with 6.5 million members.Altmann, an ecumenical theologian and former moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee, therefore, gifts us with a reading of Luther that is not only meaningful to the worldwide Christian community, but which is presented with pedagogical clarity and simplicity. Students, pastors, and scholars will equally benefit from this stimulating reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raimundo Barreto is Assistant Professor of World Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Altmann is professor of systematic theology at Escola Superior de Teologia (EST), São Leopoldo, Brazil. He is the former president of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB) and the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI); he is also the former moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC).



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