Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Luther and Lutheran Identity

Trinity Lutheran Seminary is now on the semester system! This has meant that some courses have been combined with others. One example of this is "Lutheran Identity in America" which I am teaching this semester. This new 14 week course is a combination of "Lutheran Identity" (known as "Lutheran Confessions" in many seminaries) and parts of "Being Lutheran in America" -- the parts that treated theological issues and debates over the Confessions in the U.S., especially in the 19th century, as well as contemporary challenges to American Lutheran identity. To put all this together in one semester has been challenging!

One of the perennial complaints about such a course is that we do not read enough Luther. We do read some Luther! We read his writings that appear in the Book of Concord: the Small and Large Catechism, and the oft-overlooked Smalcald Articles, which, according to William Russell, provides a "neglected key to the theology of Martin Luther." Those who took Systematic Theology with me last year read "On the Freedom of a Christian," and I think it is the goal of the new Church History II class for students to read all three of Luther's 1520 treatises. But to read more Luther at Trinity, one also needs to take an elective class such as "Readings in Luther" (which many students do).

Of course, in "Lutheran Identity in America," I remind the students that when they are ordained or commissioned, they will promise to teach and preach in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions, and not Luther's corpus. Helmut Lehman (one of the translators of Luther's Works: American Edition), in a piece he wrote several years ago entitled "Luther on the Study of Luther," reminds us of Luther's own estimation of his works and thus suggests a perspective to keep in mind when we study them:
In a variety of formulations and settings Luther speaks of wanting his books to perish lest they, like previous works, detract from studying the Holy Scriptures. Because all sorts of writings by church fathers, councils, and teachers have been collected and stored in libraries, “the divine Word is lost,” and the “Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench.” Already in 1528 Luther said he had sought to accomplish nothing else with his writing than to bring Holy Scripture and divine truth to light. He thought he had succeeded in this endeavor to such a degree that divine truth “praise God, shines forth so brightly and powerfully everywhere” that one could now get along without his writings and those of others who shared his views. John the Baptizer is Luther’s model. Through his writings Luther wants to “point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’” [John 3:30]. Thus the purpose of the study of Luther’s writings is to point to the study of the Holy Scriptures and to Christ.

32 comments:

Kevan D Penvose said...

Amen to this hermeneutic for Luther studies.

Scott Swix said...

Luther's reservations about Luther's writings, especially how they may become a point of unhealthy attention and focus, strikes me as a useful illustration for preaching and teaching on this upcoming Reformation Sunday. We are not just a church that was reformed, but a continuously reforming church.

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