Studying Luther in Wittenberg 2014



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Profs. Dieter and Wilson led the 10
th seminar hosted by the LWF Center in Wittenberg on Luther’s theology, November 8–22, 2014. Our 20 participants came from every corner of the globe, representing the nations of Australia, Botswana, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, the Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Africa, Taiwan, and the United States.

As usual, we began in the first week with an intensive review of Luther’s foundational teaching on the gospel and justification, as well as its implications for preaching and the sacraments. Together we worked carefully through the Ninety-Five Theses, the Sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness, the 1518 Theses on the Remission of Sins, the Freedom of a Christian, What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels, and excerpts from the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Large Catechism, and Concerning Rebaptism.

In the second week we turned to this year’s special topic, namely “The Christian and the Government: Luther’s View of Temporal Authority.” Given the enormous political changes that have taken place over the past five hundred years, it was necessary to set Luther’s writings within their historical context even more than is usually the case. From this perspective we turned to his treatises on Temporal Authority, Admonition to Peace, Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved, and On the War Against the Turk. Luther discusses intensively the tension between the command of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount not to withstand evil (Matt. 5:29) and the charge laid by God upon state authorities to overcome the evil with force or “the sword” when necessary (Rom. 13:1-7). He seeks a solution by introducing various distinctions. One distinction is between two groups of people: the true believers who do not need any authority over them, and unbelievers who need to be protected from one another by state authority. A second distinction is between the activity of a Christian on his or her own behalf and that done on behalf of others in a particular office. In both cases, love takes a different form depending on the circumstances: enduring injustice vs. combatting injustice. A third distinction is between the two ways that God reigns: the worldly way, which includes the body and material things, and the spiritual way, which deals with the soul or more specifically the person in relationship with God.

Luther thus creates a foundation for both obedience to the authorities as well limits to such authority, so that he can supply a theological basis for nonviolent resistance and the right to religious liberty (even though he did not follow his own best insights later in his dealings with the Anabaptists). Luther discusses the conditions for a justified war and the conditions under which military service must be refused. War against the Turk may in no case be conducted as a war in defense of Christendom, as a religious entity; rather, it is a war of the emperor and princes in defense of their subjects just like in any other case when one’s subjects are threatened.

After this we needed to address the question of the difference between the state in the early modern period and the constitutional democracies of today in order to see what, if any, meaning Luther’s insights could have for Christians engaged in political issues today. Democracies take seriously the insight of the inherent sinfulness of human beings (as Thomas Hobbes put it, homo homini lupus: “man is a wolf to man”), especially in the recognition that it is not only the citizens but the leaders who are potential wolves, and they more power they have the more dangerous they become. To prevent the leader from becoming the worst wolf of all, power is divided; in a constitutional democracy, there is no sovereign with unlimited power but assorted authorities with carefully demarcated powers.

In addition to the intensive course of study, participants enjoyed trips to the Lutherhaus, Melanchthonhaus, Torgau, Erfurt, Eisenach, the Wartburg, and local congregations. A unique feature of this year’s gathering is that it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the group was able to participate in the commemorations of that event in nearby Berlin during the first weekend of the Seminar. Each day’s work concluded with a delicious meal prepared by the participants, so we feasted our way around the world. Daily morning prayer and a closing Lord’s Supper service knit us together into a Christian fellowship and served as a foretaste of all the nations gathered together before the heavenly throne.

Next year’s topic will be “The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Luther’s Theology.” Visit the LWB-Zentrum website for more information.