What is theology? – Martin Luther

Martin Luther what is theology
The great German reformer and university professor Martin Luther.


Martin Luther

It is always enriching reading Martin Luther and imagining how he would answer the question ‘what is theology?’ His character and imagination are just so rich and deep that it always provides one with some food for thought.

Theology is active!

In an attempt to grasp at this depth using Luther’s own words (conflating for a moment theology and his notion of faith) we could say that for Luther theology “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” It is a task impossible for armchair theologians. Instead theology is a call, the call of God in Jesus Christ. To use the language of the 20th century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theology makes demands of you, it bids you to come and die. Hence, for Luther, theology is not a cartographers map, rather, it is a picture painted with vivid existential strokes and colours.

Luther’s historical struggle

How is Luther’s conception of theology formed? Like all of us, God’s providential action through history affected Luther deeply. As many know it was he who reacted to the Roman Catholic church in the sixteenth century and protested vigorously its sale of indulgences (letters of remission for temporal punishment of sin). In Luther’s struggle involving the permissibility of indulgences and the Catholic notion of penance more generally he was overcome with great guilt. He spent hours in prayer and confession. After years agonizing over this, through the help of his superior Johann von Staupitz and the reading of Augustine and Paul Luther gained a new understanding of righteousness: the passive righteousness that is imputed to the believer by means of grace on account of faith.

Henceforth Luther answers the question ‘what is theology?’ by stating: “our theology is the distinction between two types of righteousness: active and passive.” It is passive righteousness, according to Luther, wherein the believer stands before God and is saved.

Theology done coram deo

This leads to another important point about Luther’s theology: it was always done coram deo, or before God. The reformed theologian R.C. Sproul recalling his childhood talks about his mother standing in front of him with eyes like burning coals, hands on her hips asking him “just what is the big idea, young man?” Perhaps the stern countenance of a parent is an appropriate image to reflect what Luther means to say. Or we might think for a moment about Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon title “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” These are situations in which we cannot simply ‘opt out’ as it were.

Luther certainly felt the ineluctable nature of God’s watchful gaze. In his early years as a monk he hated this God who always damned and never saved. Even as he came to know the peace and joy of the gospel after leaving the monastery he certainly did not feel any less distanced or abstracted from God’s immediate presence. The German Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer is correct to say that for Luther theology is not talking about God, but to God, and more precisely, about answering him and the demand that he makes on our lives.

Theology is not abstract speculation

Now, if Luther was somewhat of a pioneer in this regard it seems to imply that those who came before him felt not the fire in their bellies. This is not fair to say. Theologians of varied temperaments and personalities populated the middle ages, many with a zeal rivaling Luther’s (I think here of someone like Bernard of Clairvaux). That said, broadly speaking, it was customary for scholars in the middle ages and those of the renaissance and later humanism to write in a more abstract, objective manner. The possibility of ‘studying’ God held greater promise.

Luther rejected theology that erred heavily in this direction  because it was entirely too speculative and disconnected from history and the natural world. For this reason we might say that the question ‘what is theology?’ is too abstract. Instead we might replace it with ‘who is God?’ or better yet, with the direct address ‘who are you God?’ His theology was never performed coldly, unless of course he was kneeling next to his bed on the cold hard floor asking God for forgiveness and mercy.

In his own words regarding his theological journey, Luther quite expressively states:

I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations took me…

Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living—nay, dying and being damned—make a theologian.

If this is the case, then is Luther only concerned about experience, feelings and the subjective?

Luther’s objective aspect

No! Instead we need to know where to look for Luther’s ‘objective’ aspect. In order to do this we must make recourse to Luther’s ‘theology as grammar’. On this topic he notably (and rhetorically) asked “What is theology but grammar applied to the text?”

Now this can take us down the rabbit hole of early twentieth-century philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein and grammar and essence. We mustn’t go too far a field. Any fleshed out philosophy of language was surely not Luther’s understanding. And yet for Luther, our knowledge of God, the world and the things in it, was dependent upon God’s words given in scripture and our response to God, our theology.

And so by combining God’s word in scripture and the heart that responds corum deo in faith, Luther marries the objective and the subjective in theology. In the Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology we see that on the one hand all things including us are constituted by God, suggesting a realist take. And yet, for Luther, this constitution isn’t a sufficient definition. It is also our awareness of being constituted outside of ourselves that defines our existence and defines the existence of a theologian, the state in which a theologian does theology.

Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio

I want to end this summary of Luther’s answer to the question ‘what is theology?’ with Oswald Bayer’s list of the three parts to Luther’s theology. Bayer goes into detail about the scriptural proof in Psalm 119 for Luther’s move here, but I want to just spell it out plainly and simply. For Luther, theology consists of oratio, meditatio and tentatio. Rendered in English as prayer, meditation and spiritual attack. Prayer is one’s standing before God responding to him in prayer and praise. Meditation here is not a Buddhist meditation, but rather a prayerful reading of scripture, reading scripture from the heart, as if your whole life depended on it. And finally spiritual attack is the encountering of enemies to one’s faith. This attack includes doubts, demons, and even God himself. For Luther, the life of a Christian, and hence the work of theology, is one of moving in and out of these three states in a life grounded in faith.

And so Luther’s definition of theology is anything but boring. It is dynamic and yet constrained by God’s word. It does not live merely in the minds of scholars in the academy but poses the question back around to you, and asks ‘what is theology?’ If you have not read Luther I encourage you to pick up a book of his, perhaps a good place to start would be his famous treatise, On the Freedom of a Christian.


A sliding scale attempting to rate Martin Luther's theology in a number of different categories!

I wanted to have a bit of fun here first of all. I have rated Luther according to three primary categories in order to have a visual as to how he might answer the question ‘what is theology?’ His scores are 68, 75, and 70 respectively. If you have a different opinion on where he belongs please leave your ratings in the comments section. If you can make a good case I might change the slider. Enjoy!


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