Book Review: Luther’s Basic Theological Writings
Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, Second ed., ed., Timothy Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
Martin Luther is perhaps the most popular figure of theological study, outside secondary literature on the life of Jesus Christ. As the foundational character of Protestantism, to control Luther is to control the reformation. For this reason, some historians have done their best to create a Luther after their own theological image. Today it seems the Luther of faith governs the Luther of history seen with the Luther Renaissance and the Finnish School of interpretation. The former made Luther the German idealist and the later the product of Eastern Orthodoxy. Both camps removed Luther from his actual writings and the 17th century confessional scholastics, who carried on his reform.
Modern schools of interpretation fail to understand that Luther’s theology developed over time. He was an “occasional theologian.” He did not write a single summary of theology but wrote as he had “concrete struggles for the gospel in the context of the sixteenth century church and society.” No single tower experience caused Luther to pen, “If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost”—such conclusions came after years of study. Reading Luther’s early works may impress a medieval mold. Further reading, however, produces the Protestant Luther. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings 2nd Edition was “prepared with the special hope that it might be useful in making the writings of Martin Luther available as a resource for contemporary work in theology,” and in so doing will allow the real Luther to stand up. This book comes highly recommended for those who want to know the man and not the myth.
Before diving into the Lutheran waters, it is critical for one to have a basic understanding of medieval theology. I would encourage reading The Dawn of the Reformation by Heiko A. Oberman first. This will give the reader the basic social and theological categories needed to understand Luther. In addition, one should read Historical Fallacies by Carl Trueman to learn basic historiography. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings also offers helpful introductions you will want to read. In addition, it provides a chronological list of the writings in this volume so you can keep up with the dating of each writing.
It is important to understand that Luther’s theology was far more mature after 1521. The maturation began with the doctrine of imputation that followed his studies in 1515–16, where afterwards he wrote, “[We believe] that faith such as this is our righteousness before God, for the sake of which God justifies us, imputes us, and regards us as godly and holy apart from all works and merit.” Then in 1516–19 after studying Galatians and Hebrews he redefined faith from hope to certainty in which he wrote, “Through this faith, God rescues us from sin, death, and hell. By grace, God receives and saves us for the sake of his Son, in whom we believe. Through the righteousness of the Son of God, we enjoy and participate in life and all good things.” Luther gradually understood the doctrine of sola scriptura and wrote, “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word. Otherwise, who would preach or hear it preached, if there were no people of God? And what could or would God’s people believe, if there were no word of God?” There is nothing in the statements to which the Reformed would disagree. This book presents Luther’s most basic writings, which will allow the reader to see the Protestant Luther. In addition, there is a select bibliography toward the end that one can search to do further study in secondary literature.
Fortress Press has wonderfully included an electronic resource with this volume. It works with Libronix. It also works with Logos 4, but you will have to call Logos to have them install it. It is my hope that Fortress Press with other publishers will make this a standard practice for our digital age. I take no pleasure in buying two copies of the same book (print and digital).
I do not recommend reading books on the computer. However, digital searches are extremely helpful. When it comes to having a digital library, Logos 4 cannot be beat. Logos will even help with exegetical research. If you are a missionary or plan on going to the mission field, Logos 4 would be an invaluable asset. Warning: Logos 4 comes with many unhelpful books in their base packages. The beauty of Logos 4 is that you can easily rid yourself of the books you do not want. If money is no option, I would recommend starting with the Gold package with a simple upgrade of HALOT and BDAG. Before buying online, call to see if you can get a discount.
Reviewed by Jared Beaird, MDiv