{Dr. Alister McGrath, Kings College, London, recently presented a paper to the 120 attendees of the International Conference on Confessional Leadership. Hosted by the LCMS, this conference focused on whether or not Lutheranism remains relevant in today’s culture and climate. Due to its length, Dr. McGrath’s keynote presentation, titled “Luther’s Witness and Its Continuing Value in the Global Church: A View from Outside Lutheranism,” will be posted in three parts. The first follows.}

Dr. Alister McGrath, Kings College, London

Well, let me begin my apologizing for the change in accent. It’s a huge pleasure to be with you today, and what I want to do is to talk with you as a member of the Church of England about why Luther is of such fundamental importance, whyhe is a resource to all of us as we think about the future of the Church, the future of the Gospel, and I find this a great privilege to be able to address these themes. The Church of England doesn’t really have many great theologians so we tend to borrow other people’s, and Luther really is a remarkable example.

I would struggle to find anyone who stands up to [Luther] in any way as a liturgist, as a theologian, as a Bible translator, as all these things, and as a hymn writer as well.

And that’s what I want to do is try and unfold why I think Luther has so much to say to us. I’ll be working through a number of topics, and I hope you’ll find these seem to you to be relevant to be the themes of this conference.

My own background is, of course, in the Church of England, which is a church that is deeply rooted in the heritage of the Reformation and which maintains those connections regarding Luther to this day with great respect. I want to explore some of the areas in which it seems to me that Luther continues to challenge the global Church on the one hand and offers encouragement and theological resources on the other. I think I need to begin by explaining how I came to discover Martin Luther. I grew up in northern Ireland in the 1960s, and I was an atheist. In fact, I was quite an aggressive atheist. In fact, I have to say to you when I read the works of Richard Dawkins, I sometimes feel a bit nostalgic because I was like that back in those days. And it just seemed to me that Christianity was of the past; it had no significant future, it didn’t really engage with the way the world was, and I was a scientist, and it seemed to be science simply eroded the conceptual space that God hadn’t once been thought to occupy. And it just seemed to me that the future was God-lessand that within a generation religion would simply fade away.

Then I went up to Oxford and began to think about these things in more detail, and I discovered to my surprise that Christianity had this immensely rich and resilient intellectual vision. And I began to realize that I had rejected something over caricature of the real thing, and I began to realize that atheism itself was far less evidentially rigorous than I had expected and that the Christian faith had this remarkable ability to make sense of things, to bring stability and meaning to life. And so I began to rethink everything: what life was all about, what the future of my own life would be. And although I was a scientist, I decided I would bring my study of the sciences to an end after I had done my doctorate and shift into the area of theology. And I knew I’d be interested in the relation of science and theology, so I decided to do a degree in theology and then move to Cambridge in East Anglia to try and begin to look at the relationship of science and religion.

I needed somebody to help me think about what to study so I thought I would study the Copernican prophecies of the 16th century. I needed someone to guide me, and Gordon Rupp, whom you may know better asE.G.Rupp, had just retired as DixieProfessorof Ecclesiastical History. And he said he’d be delighted to help me wrestle with Copernicus. At our first meeting, he said I would probably do well if, before looking at Copernicus, I just spent a short time looking at Luther, and to cut a very long story short, I never got on to Copernicus. Actually, with Rupp as my guide, I began to discover Luther and began to appreciate something of his rich and dynamic intellectual vision. But it was a complex business because I find Luther to be a challenge as much as a resource.

I began to study theology with a mindset that was shaped by the Enlightenment, that was shaped by modernity, and as I read Luther I constantly found him saying things that I couldn’t make sense of, assuming this meant Luther was wrong, but gradually began to realize that the reason I couldn’t make sense of him was that he was offering me a different, and, I subsequently discovered, a better vision of how to do theology. And it seems to me that Luther is a remarkable catalyst, particularly through his theology of the cross, to thinking about the way we engage with the world today.

Luther, it seems to me, is indeed a voice from the past, but he’s a voice from the past who speaks powerfully to us today. We don’t hear him as a past voice, but rather as a prophetic voice who challenges us and resources us to think how we do things.

This is one of the quotes from Luther I discovered early on in my engagement with him: “Living, even dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating.” You all know those words very well. And the first time I encountered them I found them baffling because surely theology was about reading books and trying to make sense of things, and I think looking back on those days, my reaction to Luther was not so much “He’s wrong” as “He’s incomprehensible.” I checked my translation of the Latin, and that’s what Luther had said. So, what was going on is either he knew something I didn’t, or else he was just all but on a different planet. And as I began to think more, Luther planted seeds in my mind, which helped me to challenge the prevailing paradigm of how we do theology.

Other phrases challenged me, particularly those I found in his writings from 1517 to 1521. Here’s one: “The cross alone is our theology.” Here’s another: “The cross puts everything to the test.” Using my somewhat rationalist approach to theology, I could make some sense of what Luther was saying. He seemed to me to be saying that theologies of the atonement were really important, and I agreed. Yet, as I read Luther more closely, he seemed to be saying something rather more than that. Luther seemed to be saying that the cross itself took priority over any attempt to interpret it, and again the seeds were sown by which I was able to begin to develop a deeper and richer understanding of theology.

As I look back on my own theological reflections of the early 1980s, I think I can see two fundamental convictions that Luther helped to undermine, not initially by demolishing them, but more by eroding them from within. First of all, being a very rational person, I tended to think of Christianity and its relevance to life primarily in terms of its ideas, and perhaps this was shaped by my own conversion, which was very rationalistic, very intellectual. For me, I discovered Christianity makes sense of things, and that remains central to my thinking to this day.

But Luther helped me discover that there was rather more to Christianity than just making sense of things and helped me open up a deeper and richer vision of what theology was all about, discovering its emotional, relational and aesthetic dimensions as well. Luther helped point me to discovering a richer vision of theology.

And secondly, I bought into—I fear a little uncritically—the essentially Cartesian idea that knowledge has to be expressed in clear and distinct language. Reality according to the Cartesians was not to be understood as unfocused or fuzzy or ambiguous, and so for me any suggestion that we had to cope with only partial out-of-focus glimpses of reality seemed to call into question the validity of Christian theology. I took the view that human reason was able to put nearly everything neatly into its correct ontological place. But as I saw things, those who spoke of the mystery of God were simply descending into a rationality, yet Luther held my attention at this point. He seemed to be suggesting that the price you pay for rational neatness is a smaller, diminished world, a world that doesn’t really bare much relation to the one that we experience and observe.

Maybe that’s why the Enlightenment values reason so highly, because by rationalizing reality, we create a diminished and manageable world that is so much less threatening than the chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable world in which we live. Now, there’s much more I could say about these themes, and I intend to speak about some of them more in my second lecture this morning, but what I want to do now, if I may, is begin to focus on some themes that seem to me to be relevant to our agenda. Obviously, the whole theme of the centrality of Scripture is going to be of major importance. Luther is one who encourages, demands theological attentivenesstowardsScripture, seeing as this is the God-given way in which God’s promises are passed on from one generation to another. It enables us to remain in contact with the apostolic Church, ensuring that the message we proclaim is not one of our devising, but rather one that has been entrusted to us and which we have the privilege to pass on to others, and I will speak more of that later on.

I want to begin with a major theme, which seems central to Luther’s way of thinking: justification by faith alone. And we know how this came to be of such central importance to Luther. We know that the young Luther was deeply concerned about his own standing in the sight of God. Convinced of his own sinfulness, Luther entertained what he regarded as entirely reasonable and justified doubts about his own ability to do whatever it took to gain favor and acceptance in the sight of God. And we find hints throughout his early writings of his profound anxiety about his hopes of salvation and his constant frustration at his own inability to break free from what he regarded as sinful actions and thoughts. It’s too easy, I think, to describe Luther as a perfectionist with an excessively sanitized theological conscience. There’s something deeper here: the question of how fundamentally unrighteous human beings can ever find acceptance in the sight of a righteous God.

And, as you all know, Luther entered the Augustinian Monastery at the University of Erfurt in 1505. And although he was meticulous in confession of his own sins, he felt profoundly ill with himself. His conscience was troubled by those sins, which he felt he was personally incapable of overcoming. How could a righteous God overlook such sin? Luther tells us of his enormous difficulties with the notion of the righteousness of God, especially as used by Paul in Rom. 1:16–17. How could the revelation of the righteousness of God be Gospel when it seemed simply to mean the just condemnation of sin and sinners? And Luther describes how he wrestled with this passage wondering what on earth it meant, feeling that there was a key to something here that he had yet to discover and use to unlock the secrets of the Gospel.

In a piece of writing dated 1545, a year before his death, Luther recalled the agony that gripped him during his earlier period. “I hated,” he wrote, “that phase ‘the righteousness of God,’ by which God is righteous and punishes sinners. Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience in the sight of God. I was angry with God, saying to myself it’s bad enough that miserable sinners should be condemned forever by original sin with all kinds of extra burdens laid upon us by the Old Testament law, and God makes things even worse through the Gospel.”

But then Luther began to realize there was another way of looking at things. God was indeed able to forgive Luther’s sins. Luther began to read Scripture in a completely new light. No longer did themes such as the righteousness of God cause him to panic; they now resonated the theme of the grace of God. The righteousness of God was not the righteousness by which God punished sinners, but the righteousness that God gave to sinners is a totally unmerited gift, in order that they might find solace and peace in Him. As Luther later recalled, it was as if he had entered into paradise. Let me read to you from him: “I began to understand that righteousness of God as the righteousness by which righteous people live by the gift of God, in other words faith, and the sentence the righteousness of God is revealed to mean a passive righteousness by which the merciful God justifies us by faith. This immediately made me feel as if I’d been born all over again and entered a paradise through open gates. From that moment onwards, the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light and where I had once hated that phrase the righteousness of God, I now began to love it and praise it as the sweetest of words, so as this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise for me.”

Now that discovery of a gracious God, I suggest, is of central importance to Luther’s theological transformation and also his theological vision. Graceful Luther came to refer to a cluster of related ideas all with a direct relevance to live. Above all it refers to the astonishing fact that God loves sinners. Our status before God is something given by God, not something that we earn or achieve. As Luther later put it, sinners are attractive because they are loved. They are not loved because they are attractive. And the amazing grace of God is shown in that we are loved before we are made lovable.