Is it necessary to find Luther in the sixteenth century and leave him there?

Dr. Hinlicky (Ph.D., Union Theological Seminary, 1983) is an internationally-known theologian who has published more than seventy articles and many books. He is an authority on the theology of Martin Luther and how Luther’s theology played out in history since the time of the Reformation. He also works on the re-integration of Reformation and Patristic theology, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and is concerned with the interplay between Christian theology and contemporary, “post-modern” philosophy. He is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America who has served congregations for extended terms in Delhi, NY and Blacksburg, VA.

Dr. Hinlicky came to Roanoke College, Virginia in 1999 after teaching theology for six years at Jan Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. He visited Martin a couple weeks ago as a leader of the group of students from Roanoke College. Him, his lovely wife Ellen and students visited Martin and other special parts of Slovakia and Europe.

1. Since the very early examination of Luther’s life, many have found in it something substantially different from traditional protestant hero legend. Others have found him to be either the author of dubious theory of two kingdoms (empires) or despicable fool. However, there are also those who saw him as innovator, personality or just naive biblical scholar who did not get the role of tradition in the interpretation of scriptures. We Lutherans reject the reasoning of historians who are referring to the claim of the German expert Bernard Lohse on the work of M. Luther saying that it is necessary to find Luther in the sixteenth century and leave him there. What do you think which of Martin Luther’s messages are still relevant for today? How do you see and perceive Martin Luther?

It is important to understand that Luther is, for good or for ill, a cultural icon. That means his image is claimed as an authority by some or despised as a villain by others in contemporary cultural conflicts that may have very little to do with what Luther himself stood for, as that may be determined by careful historical and theological inquiry. For example, in the time of the national awakenings in the early 19th century romantic thinkers in Germany gathered at the Wartburg Castle in 1817 on the 300th anniversary of the Reformation to reclaim Luther as hero of German nationalist unification – kicking off a process that culminated in the use of Luther during the Third Reich. To use another example: Luther was seen by the Enlightenment as a hero of the rights of conscience and of the freedom of religion. German Jews especially admired Luther for these reasons during their own process of emancipation in the 19th century. In reaction to this process of appropriation, critical historical researchers have sought to “find Luther in the 16th century and leave him there.” This is good corrective move. But leaving Luther in the 16th century also cuts the ground out from under what interests us about Luther and motivates us to study him. We want to see how Luther may –or may not—help us today. So, in my book, I try to do both, by identifying my motives and interests in Luther and explicitly owning and/or disowning his teaching, as the case may be. Somewhat facetiously I say at the outset that I am appropriating Luther for my purposes, for which I, not Luther, am responsible. But, of course, I think that I have captured the historical Martin Luther, taking from him what is useful for us today and leaving behind what is not.

So here is how I see Luther. He was and in important respects remained an Augustinian monk, that is to say, someone who vowed to follow Christ His Lord through many trials and testings and thus to enter heaven with confidence, not through the false security of religious deal-making (as in the trafficking in indulgences). With such words he concluded the 95 Theses. I don’t think Luther ever changed in this basic orientation. He was a prophetic critic of what I call the “religion business” (cf. Mark 11:17). He attacked the spiritually smug and self-satisfied, especially when they used God for their own greedy purposes. He wanted us instead to suffer God’s criticism through the preaching of the law and the prophets in order to be comforted and strengthened in God’s merciful act in Jesus Christ. He does not, therefore, ever leave behind the law, the prophets or the experience of Israel in the Old Testament; Israel is for Luther the church before the coming of Christ in the flesh and remains relevant to us Christians who also live between promise and fulfillment by repentance and faith. He believes that true Christianity is in response to the powerful call of Jesus to discipleship, powerful because it is empowered by the Holy Spirit who gives the gift of repentance and faith to receive the gift that Jesus Himself is. Luther left behind the monk’s cowl (but not until 1523!), but he did not leave behind the monastic ideal of discipleship at its best. Rather, he directed discipleship to life in the present world, where the neighbor needs our love. In my book, I especially try to bring this orientation to discipleship to bear on sexual life, which has become so controversial today.

There is also a dark side to Luther that I discuss in my book. Jews (today), peasants (workers, Marxists) and Roman Catholic ultramontanists know this dark side. It has a lot to do with medieval superstition which Luther did not overcome but rather indulged. When the pope did not vindicate him (rather, his Biblical teaching on justification by faith) but condemned it and excommunicated him as a heretic, Luther drew the dire conclusion that the pope must be the long predicted Antichrist and that, therefore, the last days of the world had begun. Shortly thereafter his former student, Thomas Müntzer, left his circle and adopted radical enthusiasm (i.e. new revelations of the Spirit superseding the Bible), and began to agitate violent revolution and holy war (“the godless,” Müntzer said, “have no right to exist” – compare this to the Marxist-Leninist fanaticism which descended from it!). Once again, Luther drew the conclusion: it’s the devil at work! Some years later when Biblical fundamentalists began agitating for the adoption of Jewish law from the book of Leviticus, Luther saw the same Satanic conspiracy inspired by rabbinic commentaries on the Bible. This was the root of the terrible treatises against the Jews at the end of his life. In all these cases, Luther stopped arguing rationally and theologically and instead violently demonized his foes. That is, in my view, a sin and a failing and, in Lutheran history, all too often Lutherans have imitated Luther’s trvdohlavy bombast rather than his insight. Today, Lutherans should correct Luther (he is not our “pope!”) by ecumenical reconciliation with Roman Catholics, by renouncing Christian supersessionism with respect to Judaism, and by witnessing publically for social justice.

2. First centuries of Christianity are characterized primarily by solving the issues in the field of Christology and Trinitarian theology. However, we can already find the first testimony about the mission of Christ’s bride – the Church in apostolic times. One of the results of misinterpretation of Luther and his ideas is underestimation of the importance of the church at the expense of own individuality to the way of salvation. What do you say and how do you understand Luther’s “individualism” in relation to the church?

Luther’s “individualism” has more to do with the way the Pietist movement appropriated Luther (and in the 20th century, the descendents of the pietists, the existentialists) than with Luther himself. He wrote in the Large Catechism that the church is the mother of us all through whom the Spirit begets and bears all believers by the Word of God. For Luther, the Beloved Community is the goal of God’s creation (cf. Ephesians 1 and Formula of Concord XI), and the church is the manifestation of that Beloved Community, so to speak, ahead of time. The tragedy of European Christianity, in my view, is the loss (on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide) of the palpable experience of Beloved Community in the church. I don’t have to make further comment about the experience of Slovak Lutherans today with their church.

3. Slovakia is not a foreign country for you. You used to work here as a teacher of dogmatics and apologetics on the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Bratislava for six years. You are also developing cooperation with Christian Center of Education in Martin where you are participating in several publications and organizing short-term training courses for U.S. students. What do you like most about this cooperation? (You may explain the last projects for example: You new book or conference in Martin for you students).

What some of my former students have accomplished at Martin in the 15 years since I left Slovakia is related to what I am calling the church as manifestation of Beloved Community; thus it is a source of great joy and gratitude for me. Of course, I have former students all across Slovakia who have achieved something for the Kingdom of God — I won’t risk naming names for fear of leaving someone out! When I was in Martin in May with a group of 16 Roanoke College students on a travel course (studying fascism, Nazism and communism as “political religions”), we discussed two new forms of cooperation. At Roanoke College we have a program for youth ministry and we may be able to send our students for a semester of English language study to Martin where, under the auspices of the University of Žilina, accredited courses are offered. Second, my translator, Michal Valčo, expressed interest in my new work, a systematic theology titled, “Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom.” I warned him that it would be a huge project. The English language text is 960 pages! I will let him read it first, and then we will decide if he really wants to undertake its translation. David Jurech in Prague, who published Luther a Milovana Spolocnost, also expressed interest in this project. Tak, uvidime! (we´ll see in Slovak language, note).

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