The Medieval Luther
edited by Christine Helmer

Staging a conversation among distinguished Luther scholars, historians of Christianity, and philosophers, The Medieval Luther makes the case that it is impossible to understand Luther’s most important doctrines without exploring his philosophical inheritance. After all, Luther was an ardent participant in and contributor to the philosophical disputes of the late Middle Ages. By situating Luther’s theology in relation to medieval healing practices, mysticism, biblical interpretation, and politics, this volume blurs the historiographical line between the medieval and early modern periods. Offering an expansive appreciation of the Middle Ages for his thought, The Medieval Luther is indispensable for any future study of the Reformation’s leading figure.

The Middle Ages and a New Direction in Luther Research
An overview of the volume by Christine Helmer

Scholarship on Luther has been primarily the prerogative of German theologians and historians for more than a century now. This began to take shape around the Luther Renaissance that church historian, Karl Holl (1866-1926), initiated in Berlin at the turn of the twentieth century. Holl established a new way of studying Luther as a historical figure with a distinctive religious biography. In particular, Luther’s experience of God, according to Holl, was so dramatic, and sui generis, that it inaugurated a new era in western history. “Here I stand,” Luther defiantly declared before Charles V at the imperial Diet of Worms in 1521. With these words that were never in fact spoken, Luther ushered in the modern age.

Christine Helmer, ed., The Medieval Luther (Mohr Siebeck, 2020)

The contemporary world is currently in a profound state of disruption. The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by four white police officers outside a bodega in Minneapolis catalyzed anti-racist political action on a global scale. Memorials of brutal colonizers, such as the utterly demonic King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909), have been torn down, along with statues honoring men (always men) who made their fortunes in the slave trade. Mass protests risk Covid-19 transmission, although images and videos make it clear that the vast majority of protesters are respectfully wearing masks; such physical danger is compounded by violent police response. Both of these risks — of the virus, of the police — are especially exigent in the United States, which has failed as a nation to respond effectively to the virus, for political and religious reasons, and where police forces carry a terrible inheritance of racist violence and violence against the working-class that continues to shape their actions. Still, the protests persist.

Theologians and sociologists have for decades used the term “systemic evils” to diagnose the racism that is inextricably bound together with the modern world. Progressive politicians today are advocating the dismantling of systems of oppression built on centuries of the exploitation of living creatures and of nature by the agents of capitalism, an economic structure long deemed, by Christians among others, best suited to facilitating human progress. Academics are organizing conferences and rewriting their syllabi as they work to decolonize their disciplines. The modern world is again, as it did a century ago, showing how its ostensible successes have come with almost unbearable costs, even as it appears to be rushing towards its end in climate catastrophe.

The Medieval Luther not only appears in this challenging and dangerous moment, but in ways that are cryptic, perhaps, or ironic, it is also born of this time. As it has at once both inherited a story of modernity’s origins and contests it, The Medieval Luther also speaks to the hopes of this time. If Luther is the progenitor of modernity, then he is in some way or other responsible for modernity’s horrors, which now stand revealed with such finality, just as he was once said to be the origins of its glories, among them democracy, individualism, self-determination, and religious critique. But if such a claim about Luther was at best a polemical historical overstatement, at worst, a historical deformation, as the contributors to this volume believe, then a deep and fundamental revision of Luther’s story, as we propose, holds resources for another, unpredictable, and as yet elusive narrative of modernity and its oppositions.

The modern world is again, as it did a century ago, showing how its ostensible successes have come with almost unbearable costs, even as it appears to be rushing towards its end in climate catastrophe.

The aim of The Medieval Luther, an edited collection of essays published with Mohr Siebeck (2020), is to demonstrate just how indebted Luther was to the medieval world. Contributors discuss Luther as a medieval thinker. They assume that he inherited ideas, questions, and concepts from the centuries known as the “Middle Ages,” rather than assuming that he thought forward, thinking the modern into being. They show how Luther’s reflections are consistent with thinkers in this tradition and how he retrieved concepts from earlier thinkers — Giles of Rome or William Ockham figure significantly — to articulate his theological, liturgical, and political ideas.

While the book’s authors concur that the Luther they study is not the “Protestant Luther” of German twentieth-century construction, they seek to move beyond the contesting designation of Luther as “Catholic.” This Catholic Luther was the subject of scholarly study by German Catholic theologians working in the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II. Joseph Lortz, Peter Manns, and Otto Hermann Pesch assigned the term “Catholic” to Luther for the purpose of retrieving him as a figure committed to preserving the one catholic church from error and corruption. According to these scholars, Luther was a Catholic priest and theologian whose reforms were to be viewed as “not incompatible” with Catholic doctrine. Nor was Luther to be caricatured as a sexual deviant, as the early twentieth-century Dominican and Luther biographer, Heinrich Suso Denifle, had done, but was to be taken seriously by Roman Catholics as a theologian committed to doctrinal truth as any Catholic doctor of the church and a reformer determined to uproot Catholicism’s sexual hypocrisies and misbehavior.

Regarding Luther as “Catholic” has had significant implications in the fields of religion and intellectual history. Once Luther’s theology was regarded as acceptably Catholic in terms of commitment to the doctrines of original sin and salvation in Christ, then its coopting for Protestant triumphalism could no longer stand. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues that took place in the decades following Vatican II ended with an official rapprochement in the text of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed on October 31, 1999. With Luther’s role as instigator of modernity rendered ambivalent, historians pressed the concept of continuity, or at least denied a historiographical rupture between medieval and early modern periods. The implied association of modernity with Protestantism quintessentially was also contested. Catholics had not disappeared when Luther took his stand. In fact, Catholics continued then to constitute the Christian global majority, and still do, in spite of vigorous and explicitly or implicitly anti-Catholic efforts by evangelicals or Pentecostals to call attention to what they represent as their world-historical missionary successes. Finally, Luther could no longer be easily mustered for Protestant polemic against the Catholic use of philosophy in theology. Protestant theologians, beginning with Albrecht Ritschl at the turn of the twentieth century, had polemically constructed philosophical usage as an identity marker for Catholic theology, in contrast to experientially and Biblically grounded Protestant thinkers. If, on the other hand, Luther could be shown to be philosophically sophisticated, rather than dismissive of his philosophical inheritance as Protestants such as Ritschl had maintained, then he could be called upon to legitimate the use of philosophy by Protestant theologians.

The Medieval Luther takes the consensus regarding the Catholic Luther one step further. Decisively turning away from documenting any Protestant/Catholic questions of confessional identity that have for centuries been pinned on Luther, it instead takes up the historiographical position of continuity between medieval and early modern period and urges philosophers and theologians to investigate, precisely, continuity. It is to make continuity itself the object of sustained critical inquiry that The Medieval Luther exists. This is significant as philosophers and theologians tend to approach their subject matter from logical and analytical perspectives, thereby downplaying continuity in favor of conceptually crisp (and allegedly ahistorical) distinctions. Philosophers of the Middle Ages, for example, regard Ockham and his followers as the chronological terminus of their research. They see a shared world extending from the High Scholastics to the nominalists. Because Luther and the Reformers adopt a discourse that appears to be alien to this philosophical trajectory, one that is biblically-oriented and demotic, they are represented as occupying a distinctive semantic world.

In chapters written by distinguished scholars and theologians, The Medieval Luther invites philosophers to extend their conceptual analysis over the threshold of what has been deemed “early modernity.” Richard Cross and Marilyn McCord Adams trace key Christological concepts — the communication of attributes and the real presence — from the thirteenth through the early sixteenth century. They use analytic philosophy to comprehend key medieval thinkers, as well as Luther and Zwingli, drawing them into a unified conceptual framework. By translating the Reformers into the terms of this conceptuality, they comprehend Luther’s alleged innovations as developments along a medieval trajectory.

The priesthood, a topic that Luther struggled mightily with, remains an area that poses ecumenical challenges between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

Graham White’s article on modal logic in Luther’s 1525 text On the Enslaved Will (De servo arbitrio) demonstrates another way in which Luther’s theology and biblical interpretation can be analyzed from philosophical perspective. A brilliant logician, White is known for his foundational scholarship from 1994 on Luther’s use of nominalist logic in the disputations. In The Medieval Luther White uses logical categories to show how Luther’s understanding of divine power can be understood in terms of its underlying philosophical concerns.

While the philosophers of the Middle Ages were asked to move their pegs forward, Luther scholars were given the opportunity to push their research back. David Luy clears the way for Luther scholars to approach the topic of Luther’s Christology from medieval philosophical perspective by correcting insidiously anti-Semitic philosophical errors perpetrated by theologians following the German Luther scholar Reinhard Schwarz. Working with the scholarly and denominational consensus that Luther understood the words of the institution as effective in changing the eucharistic elements into the body and blood of Christ, Aaron Moldenhauer demonstrates that the concept of “efficacious words” was not novel to Luther but was already a topic of theological discussion among medieval theologians, particularly Thomas Aquinas and Gabriel Biel. Candace Kohli queries the later Luther, who is commonly understood as an older and more curmudgeonly version of his earlier self. She explains that Luther returned to a medieval idea found in Anselm, among others, regarding particular emotional connections to the practice of contrition and the willingness to obey the divine law after justification. The later Luther developed a theology of good works, Kohli argues, and did so precisely by retrieving an earlier medieval tradition. In my contribution to the volume I show how Luther approaches the reform of the priesthood by taking up a particular text that William Ockham wrote during his later exile, “On the Tyranny of Government,” in which Ockham addresses the question of who has the competence to interpret the Bible and the authority to correct the papal priesthood when it errs. Needless to say, Luther’s own position on these topics is very similar to Ockham’s.

After this Christological opening section, The Medieval Luther goes on to draw systematic connections from Luther’s Christology to his understanding of the work of Christ — soteriology — and of the way in which Christ’s benefits are distributed — the priesthood. Soteriology in Luther scholarship is usually assumed to connote the doctrine of justification by grace alone and its related law/gospel dialectic. Inquiries from the Middle Ages forward offer an alternative approach, in particular by focusing on Luther’s concern with healing, which included body and soul. Alice Chapman traces the theme of the Christus medicus, Christ the Physician, from its early treatment by Hildegard of Bingen through the Scholastics and then to Luther. Jennifer Hockenbery shows how Luther retrieves Augustine’s idea of inner illumination as inner healing in order to work out a theological epistemology. Both Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen and Volker Leppin show how Luther’s focus on the experience of salvation is informed by medieval mysticism.

The priesthood, a topic that Luther struggled mightily with, remains an area that poses ecumenical challenges between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The essays in the section on the priesthood demonstrate Luther’s evolving thought as he works out the ecclesial implications of his understanding of the gospel in a late medieval context in which both spiritual and temporal authorities oversaw daily life. The timely essay by Dean Phillip Bell on pandemic addresses the administrative and pastoral concerns of mortality in an age in which pandemic was a frequent occurrence (perhaps like our own?). G. Sujin Pak asks the question of how the Reformers developed a teaching office that was responsible for biblical interpretation ministry and Christopher Voigt-Goy discusses how Luther works out of a notion of priesthood — ordained and common — in relation to medieval ecclesiological models navigating between ordained and juridical powers.

The Medieval Luther puts an end to any assumption that Luther’s innovations must be regarded as a decisive break with the Middle Ages. Its chapters demonstrate how Luther is not only familiar with medieval theological and philosophical debates but deploys them in creative and generative ways in order to answer the questions of his own day. Sometimes he recuperates an early medieval idea that had been dismissed by a later tradition; at other times he critically builds on his predecessors. Importantly this book proposes new historical and philosophical possibilities in making sense of Luther’s theology. Christ’s real presence and bodily healing, metaphysics and logic, the common priesthood and the responsibility of ordained clergy to preach and teach, are important themes to continue exploring today as we try to make sense of what is good and right and true in our world today. ♦

Christine Helmer is Professor of German and Religious Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She is a theologian whose areas of research, teaching, and publication include Luther and Schleiermacher as well as historical and constructive theology. Her recent monograph is How Luther Became the Reformer (Westminster John Knox Press, 2019).

Recommended Citation

Helmer, Christine. “The Medieval Luther – The Middle Ages and a New Direction in Luther Research.” Canopy Forum, August 3, 2020.