For the last five years, I have been the only Lutheran teaching at my ecumenical seminary. Having taught at a Lutheran seminary prior to coming here, I was surprised by the negative reaction of other Protestants (evangelicals, Disciples of Christ, Reformed, Methodist, Episcopalian, etc.) towards the mention of Luther. This negativity has less to do with Luther’s theology and more to do with how he treated his theological opponents. According to these students, the flaws in Luther’s theology are intimately tied to his intolerance of other viewpoints, which he stretched to the point of literally ascribing the intentions of his opponents to the devil and the devil’s minions.
Luther’s horrific statements late in life about Jews in Germany, as well as his regrettable reaction to the peasant uprising, are well known. While Lutheran apologists sometimes treat these as missteps within Luther’s theology (which they were to a certain extent), we have to be honest and acknowledge that Luther’s harsh rhetorical treatments of his interlocutors in theological matters is of a piece with a number of key trends that underpin not only the reformer’s own theology but his theological milieu as a whole. Luther’s demonization of his theological opponents, in other words, is not a bug but a feature of his theology. Those of us who theologize in his trajectory and in his name need to be honest about that. While scholars such as Mark Edwards and Paul Hinlicky1 have taken great strides in explaining how Luther came by his easily-deployed rhetorical demonology in polemics, the damage of that legacy remains—as my students’ skepticism attests.
The stakes for not being honest are too high. The history of Lutheran theology is littered with writings from his successors in which the harsh polemics that characterized the 16th century bear fruit, in later centuries, of doctrinal rigidity, condescension towards rival viewpoints, and an anti-ecumenical spirit in many quarters. Lutheran theology has rarely been known for being irenic. However, 500 years after Luther, we are also witnessing the fruit of Lutheranism’s engagement with ecumenism, interfaith work, science, and human rights. Even as Lutheran confessional documents continue to identify the office of the papacy with “the antichrist,” in our day global observances of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation are being planned in conjunction with Roman Catholic, Mennonite, and other erstwhile opponents of the Wittenberg theologians. We are in an unsteady but steadily improving territory of theological and ecclesial relationality with formerly bitter enemies. If there is any celebration to be had in this 500th year, surely it is that.
Can Diversity of Theology be of God?
If Lutheran theologians and pastors wish to continue to extend this positive trajectory of drawing on specifically Lutheran resources to foster hospitality towards others, then we must come to terms with the conditions by which Luther felt comfortable ascribing malicious, even demonic, intent to his opponents. What we see when we examine these broader trends is that Luther was, in this respect as in so many others, largely a creature of his age. The key question that separates his time and ours is this: can theological diversity be understood as good-faith disagreement among well-meaning Christians, or must significant theological diversity represent cleavage born of moral weakness at best and demonic influence at worst?
We can notice the following features about Luther’s theological milieu as it relates to the question of how theological diversity was itself theologized:
1). As Heiko Obermann and others have pointed out, Luther (and his contemporaries) lived in a spiritually thick world. While Luther himself might have been a virtuoso in recognizing the fingerprints of both God and the devil in various events and institutions, the notion that the devil actively tries to mislead believers into spiritually disastrous delusions is readily found in monastic literature, spiritual assessment of mystic visions, papal pronouncements (including a number related to Luther himself), and medieval art. The world of the reformers, in other words, was not “disenchanted” in the ways that Max Weber would later diagnose the modern age. But with enchantment comes demonology—positive spirits always have their match in malicious ones.
2). From the patristic era forward, the Christian tradition largely assumed that heresy was synonymous with moral failing. While it was not strictly heresy to teach a theologically non-orthodox idea initially, heresy came in when the teacher refused to submit himself or herself to correction by the church. Such stubbornness (the same argument that Luther would eventually wield against the Jews) was easily elided into demonic influence. Heretics are not simply incorrect, on this count; they are actively at enmity with God, which could of course ultimately only be traced to the direct or indirect influence of demonic/satanic forces. Wrong belief, to the extent that it persists despite the church’s efforts to correct it, is not simply Christians of otherwise good faith agreeing to disagree; it is active capitulation to demonic influence. As stark as that may sound, it is a point that Luther makes consistently.
3). Despite the reformers’ insistence that salvation is a gift from God granted by grace through faith apart from works, the Reformation was caught in a dilemma well summarized by those scholars who point out that, even as the reformers were busy insisting that the Bible is sufficiently clear as to transmit knowledge adequate for salvation to any reader, they were also frantically writing a variety of prefaces and commentaries—“scripture is clear, but make sure that you read it this way.” This and other tensions around the relationship between right faith (orthodoxy) and grace as they both relate to salvation created a difficult instability in nascent Protestant theology: having abandoned the notion that good works have any efficacy in contributing to salvation, the soteriological status of the notional content of “right faith” remained vague. This fuzziness contributed to a difficult emerging situation: how much does “faith” entail right belief? To the extent that true faith in the Lutheran sense and orthodox belief in the classical sense become intermixed in the mechanics of salvation, then any diversity in theological opinion that touches on key matters of orthodoxy becomes so fraught with salvific import that to disturb them—say, by questioning the Trinity—could only detract from salvation, and detracting from salvation is the work of the devil. Thus, Lutheranism, for all its key insights about justification, did not enact as significant a soteriological break from views of salvation centered upon holding to the orthodox faith as even its Roman Catholic interlocutors might have supposed. And this, too, paved the way for Luther’s own ongoing contention that the introduction of significant theological diversity was the work not of the faithful, but of the devil.
4). We need to take seriously the existential and theological violence wrought by church division in the Reformation. Due to the interpretive ambiguity of right faith noted above, the question of which church could assure the anxious conscience that its teachings were sufficiently orthodox to comprise saving faith was thrown into confusion by the split among Western churches. One of the cruelest aspects of this split was this: at no point during the Reformation was the notion challenged that salvation depends upon being in communion with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The question was now, where is this church? In the visible, concrete Roman church—or in the seemingly invisible, purer Reformation church? For a given peasant not trained in the subtleties of debates around ecclesiology, sacramentology, hermeneutics, and so on, the Reformation was experienced largely as existential chaos (that soon became material chaos through iconoclasm, uprisings, and eventual war). While Luther was an apocalyptic thinker in that he expected the world to end relatively soon in or after his time, he was also easily able to attribute this turmoil to demonic influence as well.
For all of these reasons, Luther had at hand a ready demonology to which the theological divisions that he saw as impacting salvation could be indexed. While we should not paint Luther as a modern-day fundamentalist brooking no matters of dissent and disagreement in the faith, when it came to the encounters with true theological otherness—Jews, Zwinglians, the papacy, etc.—his tendency to demonize has deep theological roots.
Can the salutary aspects of Luther’s theology and polemics against what he took to be toxic understandings of the faith be redeemed from what we must surely regard as both a relational and theological failing on his part? As global Lutheranism continues to expand in contexts that, like Luther’s, are thickly “enspirited,” and as Western epistemologies meet genuine (and genuinely Lutheran) otherness in the form of African, Latin American, and Asian theological configurations, this question is particularly vital. If demons are making a comeback in Lutheran theology, then so too could demonization.
To be sure, a return to demonology could in principle have the opposite effect. As Richard Beck has pointed out in his recent book Reviving Old Scratch,2 while a robust belief in Satan can cause thinkers like Luther to demonize opponents, theoretically it could also remind us that demons are demons and people are not—indeed, we are all in sway to demons however we conceptualize them ontologically. A strong demonology could breed compassion and communication among those of us in the sway to forces both of our own making and beyond our control.
And a key ongoing theological task—one that can only be pursued within the ecumenical contexts with which God has gifted us in recent years—is to continue to live in the tension between “the faith that believes” and “the faith that is believed” as regards the trust that Luther and the other reformers saw as having such salvific import. To go more deeply into the radicality of salvation as God’s gift can only, in my estimation, push Lutheran theology in the direction of treasuring theological orthodoxy for its wisdom but also treating it as the contested and diverse field that it has always been, so that fierce trust in God’s saving actions opens us up to seeing beauty in places where our own theological categories must be stretched to find it.
- ^Cf. especially Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) and Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004).
- ^Beck, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).