Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith

Publication: Church History
Author: Kelsay, John
Date published: March 1, 2012

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According to a note on the jacket of this book, the Christian Theology in Context series "aims to provide students and general readers, as well as academics, with a collection of well-researched yet accessible books" on important theologians and theological movements. Kolb's study of Martin Luther certainly fits this description. In just over two hundred pages, the reader is treated to incisive descriptions of the reformer's life and work. The discussions of Luther's doctrine of the Word of God (chapter 8) and of his views on social and political matters (chapter 10) are particularly helpful. With respect to these and other matters, Kolb brings the body of learning developed in earlier studies to bear, so that we see Luther's perspective as a work in progress, developed over time and in relation to changing conditions.

In this presentation, three themes recur, and may perhaps be identified as Kolb's characteristic emphases. These are, respectively, (1) that Luther's theology develops more in relation to pastoral than academic concerns; (2) that the reformer is best understood when one attends to the arguments in which he participated; and (3) that the "breakthrough out of the medieval distinction of sacred and profane realms" (197) constitutes Luther's great contribution to the development of modern social and political life. Kolb draws our attention to Luther's ongoing focus on preaching and instruction aimed at those with troubled consciences. He points to the reformer's association with allied scholars at Wittenberg and elsewhere, as well as to his disputes with Eck, Erasmus, Zwingli, and others. And Kolb develops a line of thought analogous to that of Weber and Troeltsch (though so far as I can tell, the former is not cited), to the effect that Luther's doctrine of vocation emphasized the importance of "ordinary life" in ways that resonate with contemporary values.

This last point leads to some criticisms of Kolb's study. While the book does allude to some of Luther's "warts" (his anti-Jewish rhetoric, for example, is covered at pages 163-4) the tone of the study is somewhat apologetic. Thus with respect to family life, the roles of women, the exercise of political authority, and the like, Kolb's approach trends in the direction of the positive or progressive aspects of Luther's discourse. More generally, one might argue that Kolb overstates Luther's re-evaluation of ordinary life; as Weber had it (for example), it seems that Luther's perspective established the equality of religious and worldly vocations by making them irrelevant in matters of salvation. For the more positive evaluation of ordinary work and life--that is, making worldly vocations into a positive service of God--one needs to move to Calvin and his disciples. In this, it seems strange that Kolb does not even mention the Genevan reformer. The contrast with respect to vocation, as well as on a number of other points, would be of interest to students engaging in a study of Luther. Or so one might think.

Overall, Kolb's study is quite good, and would serve well in particular as a brief introduction. I sometimes teach, for example, a survey of Reformation social and political thought aimed at upper-level undergraduate and beginning graduate students, and can imagine assigning this book, along with selections from Luther's texts. Clearly written and well documented, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith is a fine contribution.

Author affiliation:

Florida State University

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