There are a lot of really smart Luther scholars out there. They have read and studied Luther under other scholars and can explain how the dialectic of post-modern deconstructionist literative reflections on the reader-response hermeneutic when engaging Luther’s soterio-morphologic method regarding the existential ontological expression of pre-enlightenment ideology adds important considerations to any reflective substrata theses that are presented in post-graduate treatises.
Such studies are important academic exercises. One might argue that without them, the entire academic enterprise would soon collapse. But all of this argle-bargle doesn’t really add much to the church.
The best way to understand Luther is to read him. There are thousands upon thousands of pages of Luther’s material translated into plain English. Luther was a plain writer. You can go the free-Luther route. These are older translations, and may require a little more work to understand. But they are free, or extremely inexpensive. I recommend HERE, HERE, HERE, or HERE.
If you want a more modern translation, it will cost you a bit. CPH and Augsburg Fortress have 60+ volumes of Luther’s Works. A lot of times, you can find them discounted at places like Amazon. There are other publishers as well. Any search engine can be your friend in this quest. You will find a lot of Luther out there.
What you won’t find in Luther are sentences like the one in the first paragraph. Luther didn’t talk that way. He didn’t write that way. He didn’t think that way. I’ll be honest, I have read very very very very little *ABOUT* Luther’s theology – especially from scholars born after about 1900. (I have read Lutheran theologians from that period, but not ones that are trying to define who/what Luther was.) Instead, I have read Luther’s theology. Ad fontes – back to the source. If you find a spring that produces crystal clear, pure water, you don’t then trek downstream 100 yards to get the water after it has mixed a bit with dirt and leaves and… whatever the bear left by the side of the stream. You get the water itself. To understand Luther, we don’t need 20th or 21st century reflections on who or what he taught. We can read his writings for ourselves.
I wrote this post after watching a beloved professor talk about current controversies in Lutheranism. He referenced and quoted a lot of Luther scholars – some of the best in the world. He was speaking against them and their work, because it distorts Luther’s actual writing. But for the most part I hadn’t the vaguest clue what he was talking about. At first I thought, “Maybe I need to get up to speed on some of this stuff.” And then I realized that this would be a valuable academic exercise, and nothing more. I have not the time or energy to get caught up on the latest heresies just so I can understand a debate that is being had in academia. The in-the-parish version is enough for me. And I am quite competent to address any of those concerns by reading actual Luther. He’s a lot easier to understand.
Now, some may say, why not just return to the scriptures themselves. Indeed. Luther would have approved of that idea. But Luther explains the scriptures in such simple language that any pastor can benefit by reading what he wrote. He sets the standard in “How to preach, teach, or otherwise explain the Word of God to your people.” His writings are not convoluted, or for the really smart scholars. They were written for people who struggle with everyday questions about God and his Word. They are straightforward.
I have tried over the years to engage the writings of modern Luther Scholars. Every time I do I scratch my head and wonder if they are writing about the same guy who wrote the Catechisms and the sermons I read with such zest. It’s as if they are looking to make it harder than it is. In an academic setting, where impressing other scholars is the method, and getting the doctorate is the goal, I suppose they probably are. But that’s not necessary. It’s actually counter-productive in a way. Because the better I learn things like the catechisms, the more quickly I can spot theological frauds no matter what size of words they use. But learning what the latest academic theories are only really helps me know what the latest academic theories are. It bears no relationship to my life in the parish, or the lives of my people.
So, keep your latest Luther studies book, your latest interpretive critique. Sophistry, the whole lot. Put it in a university library where it can gather all the dust it deserves.
I’ll take my Luther like I take my water: Plain and unvarnished.