Luther Then and Lutherans Now

For us to learn from Luther it is helpful—perhaps even necessary—to recognize that Luther wrote for a world different from our own and for purposes we modern Americans may occasionally find off-putting.

Martin Luther was a theological genius whose insight has inspired people from his day to the present, through social and cultural changes that Luther himself would probably have deplored (e.g., the transition to democracy and economic liberalism, the gradual development of equality among the sexes, and the rise of countries where adherents of different religious traditions could and do live peacefully together).

We need to honor Luther for his insights without overlooking the ways in which he was a child of his own time, not ours:

  • Luther’s world was authoritarian and hierarchical, and Luther thought God intended it to be that way. Princes properly governed territories, aristocrats properly lorded it over common people, fathers properly ruled their families, men properly dictated to women. Luther's catechisms occasionally reflect this, to us, rather alien conviction. He is a greater advocate for order and obedience than most Americans will find comfortable or agreeable.

  • Luther wrote these treatises to instruct what he saw as an ignorant and unruly folk. Luther did not expect those who read the catechism (or more commonly, those who had the catechism read to them—upwards of ninety-five percent of the people in Luther's day could not read) to pick and choose among the beliefs and practices the catechism set forth. They were to be memorized and strictly obeyed. (In his Preface to the Small Catechism Luther suggested that we “should teach these parts to the young and to people who cannot read in such a way that we neither change a single syllable nor present or recite it differently from one year to the next.”)

  • Luther was not one to encourage anyone to “do your own thing” much less to “do your own thinking.” He thought that he understood biblical faith rightly, and expected others to follow his authoritative lead. We modern American Christians may on occasion wish to differ from his prescriptions.

Despite the distance of Luther’s world from our own, however, he still has much to teach us today so long as we recognize that it is okay to call ourselves Lutherans while disagreeing with some of what he has to say.

And despite Luther’s own zealous hope that his readers would follow his catechism “word for word” and “learn it by heart,” we have the right as Christians to answer in our own way to the promptings of the Holy Spirit within today's church and as experienced in our own lives and our own, quite different time.

— Mark U. Edwards Jr.