With the obvious exceptions of Jesus Himself and the authors of the biblical texts, few figures in the Christian tradition have been subject to such divergent theological interpretations as Martin Luther.
Might Luther have actually been the devil’s secret weapon? In his recent doorstopper America On Trial: A Defense of the Founding, Catholic author Robert R. Reilly presents a variation of this familiar Catholic take on Luther. Following Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation—to say nothing of generations of Catholic thinkers before them—Reilly lays at Luther’s feet virtually all the historical blame for the rise of modernity and contemporary secularity. On this rather familiar account, Luther’s petulant defiance of the Roman Church’s unitary authority tore apart the fabric of Western Christianity and ushered in an era of theological subjectivism, skepticism, and ultimately total unbelief. (The problems of clerical corruption and papal power politics, of course, never really enter the picture.)
Reilly’s volume presses this argument further still, holding Luther’s theology ultimately responsible for not only the dissolution of Christendom, but also the rise of the twentieth century’s distinctive totalitarianisms. According to Reilly, Luther was the philosophical nominalist par excellence, committed to following William of Ockham in uncoupling God’s will from God’s rational ordering of the cosmos. And this, in turn, set Western political thought on a fatal trajectory: by allegedly extolling absolute divine power as its own justification, Luther’s theology paved the way for modern “irrational” authoritarian systems committed to the worship of power qua power.
But is Reilly correct? Was Luther instead, perhaps, attempting to recapture a vision of Christian life dating back to the earliest days of the faith? Recent decades have witnessed the rise of a school articulating almost precisely the opposite reading of Luther’s philosophical theology—specifically, Tuomo Mannermaa and the proponents of what has become known as the “New Finnish Interpretation of Luther.” Forged in the crucible of ecumenical dialogues between Finnish Lutheranism and the Russian Orthodox Church, the New Finnish Interpretation finds in Luther’s works (particularly the early ones) a robustly historical conception of justification by faith—understood not as merely a forensic declaration, but as a genuinely ontological union of Christ with the believer.
This sort of philosophy is the farthest thing from any late-medieval “nominalism” that would deny that things in the world have objective natures: grounded firmly in Platonic and Neoplatonic cosmological principles, such a “metaphysical realist” reading of Luther stresses above all the human being’s genuine participation in objective divine realities, and conceives of salvation as a movement of ever-increasing closeness to God.
But consider a third, drastically different interpretation of Luther—that of the “Radical Lutheranism” movement that I’ve previously written about here. Relying chiefly on close readings of Luther’s seminal The Bondage of the Will, advocates of the Radical Lutheran perspective see Luther neither as the architect of contemporary totalitarianism nor as a premodern traditionalist with a mystical bent, but instead as the herald of the Gospel’s emancipatory power, declaring the believer ultimately liberated from any natural or divine Law. Thus, the Christian life cannot ever involve any struggle toward conformity to the moral law, but is only properly about coming to terms with the free gift of the Gospel.
Over against Reilly, these theologians would argue that Lutheran theology is not the foundation of totalitarianism, but rather the deconstruction of the claims of all possible totalitarianisms. Relatedly, the metaphysics stressed by advocates of the New Finnish Interpretation never really enter the picture here; on the Radical Lutheran view, Lutheran theology is understood in a profoundly existentialist sense, oriented toward the individual human being’s experience of sin and alienation.
There are countless other readings of Luther, of course. But the three approaches I’ve sketched above are notable because they are completely incommensurable with one another—and yet each claims to be the “true” interpreter of Luther, over against the existing mainstream of the Lutheran tradition as lived out in thousands of churches around the world. Yet each of these “esoteric readings of Luther,” though creative and thought-provoking, is problematic, because each only offers a partial picture of a complex and unsystematic thinker.
It takes only a cursory (albeit good-faith) reading of Luther to dispel Reilly’s claims. Whatever Luther might’ve said in defense of Ockham and against the Aristotelian tendencies in the Catholicism of his day, Luther’s actual theological project—in particular, his sacramental theology—was even more “realist” than some of his Catholic contemporaries. (What nominalist worth his salt would ever stress the real presence of Christ’s human nature in the Eucharist?)
For their parts, defenders of the New Finnish Interpretation tend to draw on the “early Luther” to support their arguments, with a tendency to interpret him against his later self and against the confessional tradition developed by his successors. But notwithstanding the early Luther’s obvious interest in mysticism (as evidenced by his substantial praise for the anonymous Theologia Germanica, which bore strong similarities to the work of the controversial German mystic Meister Eckhart), Luther regularly stressed that human beings cannot ascend to God by their own power (the crux, as it were, of his dispute with Aristotelian theologies). Luther derogatorily labeled this tendency as “enthusiasm,” a conscious search for the divine within the self.
And finally, contra the Radical Lutherans, Luther and his followers never denied the enduring reality of the natural law. Else, what could Romans 1 possibly mean?
At bottom, this interpretive pluriformity likely stems from the reality that Luther was not a systematic theologian, and (similarly) from the fact that his theological views evolved during his lifetime (hence the rise of “Luther studies” as a distinct discipline in its own right). And so, for almost any theological claim one wishes to make, one can probably wrest a passage of Luther from its context and marshal it as support. But that is simply prooftexting—the very hermeneutical approach so often decried in the context of biblical interpretation.
No doubt it is always highly tempting to draft a giant of the Western Christian tradition into one’s distinctive theological or intellectual project. And no doubt there is a distinctly transgressive appeal to thinking of Luther as an oracle of theological truths forgotten (or suppressed?) by the Christian tradition as a whole.
But that is a sentiment that would likely have proven alien to both Luther and those who came after him. Taking them at their word, they sought to be faithful to the tradition they had received against those who were exploiting it—suggesting that they understood their theology as a project of reclaiming the past, not thrusting the faith forward into an unknown future. Novelty, after all, was never the point of the Reformation.
John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.