After I gave a talk on The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther at my church last week, one of our congregants, who is fairly new to Lutheranism, asked me where she should look to learn more about Luther’s theology. Here are a few things that I came up with.
Aside from that talk, I’ve written a couple of other things that are not exactly about Luther but engage with his theology: including this essay on fasting which deals with Luther’s ethics and this blog post which tries to present Luther’s view of baptism. I’m also working on a post on Luther’s Eucharistic theology, coming soon…
If you’re interested in the life of Martin Luther, sort of the standard biography is Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. Some question whether Bainton really understood Luther’s theology, but the history is spot on. And he’s a delight to read—a real wordsmith. Also, PBS produced a really nice documentary on Luther a couple of years ago.
If you’re more interested in Luther’s theology, the best introduction I know of is Phillip Cary’s lectures for the teaching company, but their pretty expensive. If you’re willing to buy it used, you can get a much cheaper copy here. And if you want just a little taste of what Cary will have to say, you can check out his interview on Homebrewed Christianity. Also, there is a series of books called Armchair Theologians which are supposed to be scholarly but easy-to-read introductions to various theologians written for lay people. I haven’t actually read Luther for Armchair Theologians, by Steven Paulson, but in general I’ve liked the series.
Probably the best thing to do, though, is skip the introductory stuff and read Luther himself. Really that’s a good rule of thumb for most great thinkers. Usually their works have stood the test of time for a reason: because they’re a pleasure to read. And when you read the great thinkers themselves, you don’t have to worry about getting caught up in all the debates, which inevitably cloud the introductory works, about how to interpret them. So, start with Luther and use the introductory stuff only if you get in over your head.
Most of what Luther wrote was short little essays or letters or sermons, so you usually find them in collections. The best anthology in English is Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull. Go ahead and read anything in there that strikes your fancy, but here are the ones I would start with:
The Freedom of a Christian
You should start here. This is the probably the fullest and most concise statement of Luther’s theology.
Two Kinds of Righteousness
Luther distinguishes between what he calls “alien righteousness” (i.e. righteousness that is imposed on us from outside of us), and “proper righteousness” (i.e. righteous that we can truly call our own). Later Protestants tend to prefer the words “justification” (for what Luther calls “alien righteousness”), meaning that God imputes to us Christ’s righteousness giving us right standing before God, and “sanctification” (for what Luther calls “proper righteousness”), meaning that after we are justified, slowly but surely, we actually become better people—we have a righteousness that is our own. Even though Luther basically invented this distinction, later Protestants took it much more seriously than he had intended. It turns out that Luther actually thought the two kinds of righteousness were really the same thing, because Christ’s “alien righteousness” is the thing that makes us properly righteous. So this essay is actually more famous for the way it has been used in history than for what it actually says, but it’s still a worthwhile read.
A Brief Introduction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels
This is Luther’s introduction to the Gospels from his German translation of the Bible. It’s where he makes his famous distinction between gospel and law.
The Bondage of the Will
Luther is firmly planted in the Augustinian tradition that God elects some for salvation. This doctrine scares Luther, so he really doesn’t like to talk about it much, but he can’t get away from it because he is convinced that apart from God’s grace our free will isn’t good for anything except sinning—it’s “bound” by it’s falleness, and need to be healed by grace. Toward the end of his life Luther once said that he wished that people would burn all of his books and just read the Word of God, then he said “Well, maybe they would keep The Bondage of the Will.” He really liked this one.
Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day
If you’re like Luther and your tendency is to be terrified of God, then a swaddled baby is the best place to look for a sweet and tender and merciful God. Luther loved Christmas, and it’s when he did his best preaching.
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church
This is a pretty strongly worded critique of the Roman Catholic Church. (It’s one of Luther’s earlier writings. Once the Reformation picks up a little steam, he stops worrying so much about the pope). But it leads into Luther’s early theology of the sacraments. Remember, Luther became reformed by turning to the Catholic sacraments.
This one and the next two were written a little later than The Babylonian Captivity. They represent Luther’s more mature theology of the sacraments. Interestingly, by this time (1528-1529), Luther is no longer debating Catholics about this stuff, but other Protestants. This essay is a critique of the Anabaptists (groups like the Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, etc.) who, like modern Baptists, do not count infant baptism as valid.
Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper
Luther’s mature Eucharistic theology.
The Marburg Colloquy
In 1529 Protestants from all over Europe got together at what was called the Marburg Colloquy to try to codify 6the movement. They ended up agreeing on most things, but Luther got into a famous argument with Ulrich Zwingli over the nature of the Eucharist.
Lectures on Galatians
Luther’s ethics are a particularly interesting aspect of his theology. His Lectures on Galatians, along with The Freedom of a Christian, and the best places to start for that.
That should get you started. Happy reading!