Luther and Liberation

by Frederick Herzog

Dr. Herzog was professor of systematic theology at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, at the time this article was written.

This article appeared in the Christian Century October 29, 1980, pp. 1035-1038. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Luther struggled to bring all of life under the rule of God. There is no lesser task for us. Our drive for world peace needs grounding in a deep spiritual commitment similar to that of the Reformation. Money needs to be dethroned as god and brought under control for just uses in peace.

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth -- November 10, 1483 -- is still three years off; yet it is not too soon to begin pondering and reconsidering Luther in anticipation of that half-millennium celebration.

The Christian Century earlier this year (June 4-11 issue) noted that Communist Party chief Erich Honnecker will officially chair the 1983 Luther celebration committee of East Germany. There will also be a Luther committee constituted by the churches of the German Democratic Republic.

In a June 13 speech in East Berlin, Honnecker called Luther one of the greatest sons of the German people and one of their outstanding humanists. Luther, he suggested, did much to shape the leading notions of the 16th century, a time in which the greatest progressive transformation of human history took place. The Reformation and the peasant wars together are said to have brought about the first middle-class revolution in Germany. The tragedy of Luther, in Honnecker’s view, consisted in his getting caught between his role as the initiator of a revolutionary movement and his inability to recognize that revolution’s sociological necessity. Honnecker added that on the whole he could still appreciate Luther’s social ethics, as his was an ethics of the people. He had praise for Luther’s role in providing inspiration for creative and meaningful activity in socialist Germany -- an impetus for Christians and non-Christians alike in the upbuilding of a socialist state.

This is a remarkable revision of the GDR’s official Luther image of, say, ten years ago, when he was still viewed through Marxist lenses as mainly a reactionary in the 16th century peasant wars. Will there be other surprises awaiting us in connection with the November 10, 1983, celebration? One thing we can certainly learn from Honnecker’s Luther image: the great reformer was unafraid to tackle the whole range of life among his people, so that today his influence can still be detected even among those who do not count themselves as his followers.

If Luther were among us today in the United States, what problems would he tackle? How would he relate to the American way of life? The question seems a pertinent one for a people so strongly shaped by the various Reformation traditions. Certainly he would plunge into concrete .church ‘dilemmas, as he did in the 16th century. But he would do so on a premise widely foreign to us -- the holiness of God. North American Christians who recall Jane Russell’s description of God as a "livin’ doll," who have suffered through the death-of-God debate, who are now puzzling over the "process" God, and who are generally confused by God with a body, God without a body, or God as eternal spirit, are no longer close to the place where Luther was in his God-walk. Everything spiritually real is as grown over by God-talk as trees grown over by kudzu vines. Yet a clear experience of the Otherness of God is the premise of everything important the church knows of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments. Without reverence of God, there can be no reverence of life.

Holiness in a New Dimension

How does one get this awe? Luther sensed it in the whole historical existence of the church, especially in the sacraments. One instance was the celebration of his first mass:

Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround God. At God’s nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pigmy, say "I want this, I ask for that"? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal, and the true God.

Roland Bainton offers this contextual perspective: "The terror of the Holy, the horror of Infinitude, smites him like a new lightning bolt, and only through a fearful restraint could he hold himself at the altar to the end." Bainton goes on to observe that we in "our secularized generation may have difficulty in understanding the tremors’ of our medieval forebear.

That’s the point: we have a difficulty here, but God’s holiness has not changed. We in our generation experience that holiness only in a different dimension of history. It is at this point that today’s great struggles over the place of the poor in our experience become all-important. God is Other. God does not surrender the divine into the hands of. human shapes to be molded according to our whim. That’s why Luther was outraged at the "buying" of salvation through financial contributions to the money-Vatican. God indeed wants all human beings, rich and poor, to be saved. That happens, however, only through God’s reaching out to the poor and oppressed whom no one wants to save. We are learning God’s holiness today especially in regard to. Matthew 25. In the least of human beings God wants to be found -- in those who are in prison, hungry, thirsty, naked. Inasmuch as God is God together with the poor Jesus, the poor have become inescapable for us. On the basis of the divine justice toward the least, God is just toward those of us who are materially not poor. Here we see God’s face, God’s essence. Whenever we fix our eyes on this God, we see also the poor.

Don’t many of us today expect God to be unbiased, neutral, equidistant from the poor and the rich? But there is no circumventing of God’s Otherness breaking through to us in the poor Jesus and, because of him, in all the poor. Here God is at work in eternal holiness. If we do not experience awe here, reverence of God, God will indeed be dead for us. Luther reminds us that an alive Christianity depends on the holiness of God as an elementary premise. We experience that holiness today in a new dimension.

Justification and Justice Teaching

If one attends closely to Luther’s tackling of concrete issues, another important point in the learning process emerges. The experience of God’s holiness makes us sensitive to the importance of Christian teaching. Luther did not set out to develop a peculiar theology. One concrete dilemma after another demanded his attention. In the process he reshaped Christian doctrine in an elementary way, more as a by-product of his other work than as an intentional project. Luther’s thought as a whole is much more the sum of his various responses to concrete demands than a purposely designed system.

While he . . . obviously does not lack a uniform grasp of the whole, he does not build it up from abstract terms in the form of our modern scientific systematics, but everywhere in terms of the concrete and real conditions he has to deal with; . . . nowhere does he present an overview systematically summarized [Luthers Theologie, by Theodosius Harnack]

Theologies today come cheaper by the dozen. We have so many that we can scarcely keep track of them. In the pluralistic religious context, one comes to think of theology more and more as the legitimation of a religious prejudice by some Absolute. Luther remembered that Christianity is not prejudice-legitimation. He viewed it instead as a divinely grounded doctrine, and so he battled over the doctrines of the church and held high the evangelical belief in justification by faith. Luther points to many things in terms of the teachings of the church -- the importance of Scriptures, the priesthood of all believers, and the freedom of the Christian, to name a few. But it all hinges on the premise that Christianity is justification-teaching accountably presented by the church.

Here, for some, the issue will loom large as to whether there is also a collective legitimation of a religious practice. The teaching which the church accountably seeks to represent is always viewed as God’s own truth among humankind. The issue is what God offers personally as divine truth. The veracity of the divine self-offer is something that can be checked out by any conscience: "By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God" (II Cor. 4:2).

Luther ultimately staked his life on making the whole church struggle over the truth of its teaching. There are tremendous difficulties with such a stance in the pluralistic North American faith system. But nothing less than Luther’s Reformation stand will do to call the churches to move forward to sound teaching. The human being needs to be freed today as much as in the time of the Reformation. Luther freed the individual from the grip of a feudalist hierarchy. Today we need to be liberated from a technological hierarchy that floods us with material things. But especially do the poor stand in need of liberation from oppression. The situation is much too serious for us to expect individual theologies to make a dent and to bring liberation. It is time to declare a moratorium on the word "theology," for it is less and less clear what creative function more new theologies might serve.

Luther struggled over the doctrine of justification by faith. We today struggle over God’s justice teaching. We are fundamentally still dealing with much the same issue: In what sense is God just? In what sense are we human beings made just? The just shall live by faith alone, said Martin Luther. Only the just shall live by faith, we hear ourselves saying today. God as justice in Jesus creates the just person. We are called to give each other human rights to exist as full human beings. Whenever we fail, God justifies us. That justification makes us just again to act in keeping with God’s justice. Only the just shall live by faith. Only for the just does faith make sense. Apart from justice, faith is only a heap of religious mumbo jumbo.

My point is not to develop a new doctrine of justification. No individual can do that by herself or himself alone today. The challenge is to make churches everywhere accountable to each other in struggling over God’s justice teaching. This is not an abstract issue. It comes down to plain reality -- for example, to the use of wealth by the churches. The paper of the World Council of Churches’ development commission, submitted to the WCC’s Central Committee in August, is a big step for the churches toward becoming accountable to each other in regard to God’s justice teaching. The recent book by Ulrich Duchrow, Konflikt um die Ökumene (Munich, 1980), radically raises the matter of the use of financial resources in worldwide church organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation. The struggle over God’s justice teaching, however, will not get anywhere without the premise of a new experience of the holiness of God.

Reformation and Money

Luther’s contributions to present-day Christian witness cannot be fleshed out in a brief article such as this. One also has certain reservations about Luther. A few things I cannot forgive him -- e.g., his brutally biased view of the Jews. There is also the hiatus between his aspiration and his achievement -- as in all human projects. But on balance, what we can still learn from this giant is a steeled determination not to be satisfied with the way things are in the church. He staked his whole life on the Word of God as renewing power in the church. Today our churches are vast beehives of activity, but we lack the power to move mountains. For Luther that power sprang from God’s holiness and was transformed into rational discourse in the justification doctrine. Throughout his life there was in Luther a quiet (and at times not so quiet), prevailing will -- the will not to abandon the great discovery.

We today make up our minds much in terms of ecclesiastical expediency or academic opportunism. Luther struggled to bring all of life under the rule of God. There is no lesser task for us. There are giant competitors against God’s rule. One does not have to be an especially keen observer to come up with a roster of the idols that are competing with God in North America. But it does take some analysis to understand why these idols can act so powerfully. In commenting on the 1980 presidential campaign, George F. Will writes:

Republicans see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify; no connection between the multiplying evidence of self-indulgence and the national decadence (such as pornography, promiscuity, abortion, divorce and other forms of indiscipline) and the pursuit of ever more immediate, intense and grand material gratification.

It is not only the Republicans who do not see the connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture. The remarkable point is this: the issue that triggered the Reformation was indulgences, and we today are up against self-indulgences. Both indulgences and self-indulgences are intimately connected with the problem of money.

There were no easy answers in the Reformation -- and there are none today. The monk Tetzel was selling indulgences: "As soon as the money clinks in the chest, the soul will fly up to heavenly rest." The Reformation had to disengage itself from the money-Vatican. No Tetzel is running around today -- but don’t we have to disengage ourselves from the Wall Street Vatican? The situation is complex. The jingle today might well be: "As soon as the money clinks in the chest, your conscience can sleep on a Beautyrest."

The spiritual threat of money today is little understood. It is because of money that we are able to indulge ourselves. Many "prophets" attack the symptoms of the disease but not the disease itself. One can speak out against "pornography, promiscuity, abortion, divorce and other forms of indiscipline," but unless one also tackles the cause of these dilemmas, one adds only to innocuous rhetoric.

George Will zeroes in on the cause in no uncertain terms: "Karl Marx, who had a Reaganesque respect for capitalism’s transforming power, got one thing right: Capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values; it is a relentless engine of change, a revolutionary inflamer of appetites, enlarger of expectations, diminisher of patience." Luther clearly grasped how the money-Vatican in his day was undermining the traditional social structures of Christianity. He had the courage to tackle the cause. We had better understand what today is undermining the traditional Christian structures. The "relentless engine of change" itself has to be changed. That process does not take place overnight. There are decades ahead of us, generations perhaps. But we at least ought not to blind ourselves to where the problem lies; we need to begin turning things in a new direction.

Protestantism Without Reformation

We all know that mere preachments retain only a yawning audience at best. My purpose is to nail down bluntly three areas where we Christians in North America are not doing much reflection these days: God’s holiness, sound teaching, and capitalism in the church. During this past decade some of us experienced these issues as growing out of the challenge of liberation. That seemed to identify us immediately with violence and bloodshed. For that reason, objective observers claimed to detect resistance to the basic thrust of the new struggle: "The American laity resist liberation theology and advocacies of involvement in collective struggles elsewhere because they are more open and frank . . . about the violence and bloodshed it takes to reach a new social system" (Martin E. Marty in Theological Education, autumn 1979).

But it is also possible to take the route of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- that of nonviolent involvement in collective struggles. Some North Americans have been on that road for some time in personal commitment. In any case, there is no way of dodging the painful agonies of our time simply because of the tactics a few people use in trying to redress them. Luther did not give up on the Reformation just because Müntzer was taking the route of force. And we need not give up on liberation, just because some want to achieve it by violence.

These are unusual times, and they call for unusual measures. Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping has declared that World War III is inevitable, possibly within the next ten years. Shortly before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned from the United States to Germany. In August 1939 he produced an essay on the North American churches titled "Protestantism Without Reformation." Too little known, this essay in many ways belongs to the most important part of the Bonhoeffer legacy. He saw more clearly than most how North American Protestantism, while "banking" on the Reformation, was stymied by the lack of a "personal experience" of Reformation. As we move toward the 1983 Luther celebration, not only North American Lutherans but all of North American Protestantism and perhaps also Catholicism could rise to settle a few accounts.

Since history does not repeat itself, Protestantism without Reformation on this continent will never know 95 theses, Worms, or the Bible’s translation into the vernacular. But Protestantism in North America can tap the power of the Reformation to move toward church revitalization. To bring all of life under God’s rule through a new experience of God’s holiness in sound teaching is primal. The use of money is the first test. It is clear that in the state capitalism of the socialist societies as well, the spiritual threat of money has not been solved, Money is abused in societies of both East and West, for purposes more "clandestine" than pornography or abortion. Third World people, women, blacks, native Americans, Chicanos -- whole hosts of human beings are witnessing to how our financial system is crippling them.

Only the just shall live by faith? Only the just shall live? At the hub of a concerned effort among Protestant churches for revitalization is the struggle for a just peace among the nations, It is the false use of money that continues to make the nuclear arms race possible, now again under the new nuclear doctrine. We seem to believe that our lives will be saved by military hardware and the taxes we pay for it.

Writes Alan Geyer in reference to Presidential Directive 59: "There has never been a greater opportunity for churches to share in the nongovernmental sector’s responsibilities for disarmament -- but it is sad and shameful that the opportunity remains so largely neglected" (Century, September 10-17, p. 835). Our drive for world peace needs grounding in a deep spiritual commitment similar to that of the Reformation. Money needs to be dethroned as god and brought under control for just uses in peace. Inflation is making the throne a bit shaky. But inflation is part of the problem, not the solution. Even the shrinking dollar is still competing with God. Only the just shall live by faith? Only the just shall live? Churches struggling for justice will subject money to God’s just work for peace. A gargantuan task? Luther did not back away from it.