“Martin Luther: The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings” ed. William R. Russell
In late 2017, the Penguin Classics series published an edition of selected writings of Martin Luther, featuring the Ninety-Five Theses. Lutheran pastor and scholar William Russell freshly translates and edits several of Luther’s writings on a wide range of subjects and genres, showing the depth and breadth of Luther—the man, the theologian, and the reformer. I recommend this book to the modern Christian reader as a front door into the mansion of Luther’s writings.
My chief complaint, however, is that the editor’s introduction incorrectly defines Luther’s “Law and Gospel” distinction (xxvi–xxvii). Citing Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, he defines “law” in existentialist, therapeutic categories—that is, how we are wronged. For that reason, he paints the gospel in terms of how we’re rescued from the harms done to us. I will first show that Luther’s law-gospel distinction is misrepresented in the introduction by showing from the same book—from Luther’s own words—how he understood the law-gospel distinction. Next, I conclude from this that the book should be on the bookshelf of every Christian. As a professional translator, I commend this genuine, plain-English translation of Luther.
From an editor’s perspective, the volume contains a number of formal errors. First of all, on several occasions the translator places a colon after something other than an independent clause (i.e., after a phrase or dependent clause; e.g., xxiv, 11, and 115; cf. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., 6.65). Another weakness is the format of the translations, which is usually not explained and thus hard to follow. For instance, the translation of the “Heidelberg Disputation” omits the numbers from the theses that Luther prepared for the disputation (15–29), and the same is true of the translation of the Small Catechism (88–105). Finally, the translator includes Latin words and quotations in the course of the English text, which seem out of place and are occasionally spelled incorrectly (e.g., 34, 51, 108, 136, 180, and 221 ). Yet the volume’s most material error lies in its definition of law and gospel:
He begins with “the law,” a faithful and authentic description of the realities facing every human being. Death, meaninglessness, and guilt threaten all people, regardless of their location. (xxvi)
At the heart of his understanding of the Scriptures is this gospel: God in Jesus Christ has acted to rescue humankind and the whole world from the painful realities exposed by the Law. (xxvii)
Conspicuously absent from these descriptions of law and gospel is the doctrine of sin—that the law condemns our transgressions and lack of conformity to the law, and that the gospel saves us from their penalty. But the reader who pushes on beyond the introduction will find the comforts of Luther’s own distinction between law and gospel.
One of the selections Russell includes is Luther’s preface to his commentary on Galatians (149–59). Here Luther clearly distinguishes between law and gospel: The law exposes our sinfulness so that we must look only to the gospel of Christ for salvation.
It is a marvelous thing and unknown to the world to teach Christians to ignore the Law and to live before God as though there were no Law whatever. For if you do not ignore the Law and thus direct your thoughts to grace as though there were no Law but as though there were nothing but grace, you cannot be saved. “For through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). On the other hand, works and the performance of the Law must be demanded in the world as though there were no promise or grace. This is because of the stubborn, proud, and hardhearted, before whose eyes nothing must be set except the Law, in order that they may be terrified and humbled. For the Law was given to terrify and kill the stubborn and to exercise the old being within us. Therefore, the Apostle says law and grace need to be properly distinguished (2 Timothy 2:25ff.). (153)
For Luther, the believer’s heavenly comfort derives from a conscience at rest in the righteousness of Christ. When the believer is tempted by the condemnation of the law, Luther says,
Give no more to the Law than it has coming and say to it: “Law, you want to ascend into the realm of conscience and rule there. You want to denounce its sin and take away the joy of my heart, which I have through faith in Christ. You want to plunge me into despair, in order that I may perish. You are exceeding your jurisdiction. Stay within your limits, and exercise your dominion over the flesh. You shall not touch my conscience. For I am baptized; and through the Gospel I have been called to a fellowship of righteousness and eternal life, to the kingdom of Christ, in which my conscience is at peace, where there is no Law but only the forgiveness of sins, peace, quiet, happiness, salvation, and eternal life. Do not disturb me in these matters. In my conscience not the Law will reign, that hard tyrant and disciplinarian, but Christ, the Son of God, the King of peace and righteousness, the sweet Savior and Mediator. He will preserve my conscience happy and peaceful in the sound and pure doctrine of the Gospel and in the knowledge of this passive righteousness.” (158)
These are but a few gems from this new translation of Luther. Although I caution the reader to take the translator’s introductory remarks with a grain of salt, I guarantee that the Christian will find other treasures in this Penguin Classics edition of Luther, which has appeared at last. I heartily recommend the volume as an introductory Luther reader.
Casey Carmichael holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Geneva. He works as a freelance translator in Saint Louis, Missouri.