{Dr. Alister McGrath, King’s College, London, recently presented twice at the International Conference on Confessional Lutheranism, hosted by the LCMS. The first half of his first presentation can be found here and the second half here. The first half of his second lecture is found below.}

Well, let me say again what a great pleasure and privilege it is to be able to speak to you on Luther’s relevance for Lutherans and the wider Christian community today. And I do feel slightly awkward about talking about Luther like this because there is so much that needs to be said and there’s only an hour and a half in which to say it. So, I’m terrified of leaving out something that some of you will rightly feel to be integral to a right understanding of Luther. But I think it’s important to try and highlight why this great thinker from the past remains a living voice, not simply in contemporary theology, but in the contemporary life of the Church. So, let’s begin to tease out some themes.


The first theme I’d like to tease out is that Luther, I think, gives us very important resources for challenging our way of understanding the Christian faith, which is quite significant, particularly for many modern American evangelicals. But I think it goes wider than that. It’s an individualist reading of things. The Christian faith is about me. I don’t need to connect with a community. I don’t need to connect with the past. The way I see things is the way things are. And I know people like that and most of you will as well. And Luther, I think, challenges that on a number of levels. He makes the point that we are part of a community of saints, that our witness and understanding today is enriched by the vision of those who have gone before us, that those who have journeyed the life of faith before pass onto us insights, ideas and approaches which can help us as we make that same journey. And I think it is important, first of all, it’s about resourcing us. It’s reminding us that there is more to the Christian faith than any one of us can grasp, and therefore to engage with people like Luther is to be challenged, to be enriched and to be opened up to a greater vision of the Christian faith. And that seems to me to be an important point.

Let me add that this does not compromise the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. Luther is not proposing himself as an alternative to Scripture. Luther is simply offering himself as our servant as we seek to make sense of Scripture and to apply it to the way in which we live and the way in which we think. But also, of course, Luther is emphasizing the importance of the Church. I talked about this very briefly in the previous lecture. Luther, like many of those to follow him like Deitrich Bonheoffer, emphasized that the Church is the God-given community in which we grow together by reflecting on Scripture, by sharing our joys and sorrows, by journeying together to the City of God. The weak are being supported by the strong. Those are the firm grasp of their faith enabling those who are struggling to go deeper into their faith. And again I think we need to give careful thought to this whole question of how we interact with culture. Yes, we want to be able to speak to our culture in terms it can understand, but that doesn’t mean we buy into what our culture is saying. There may be some things that need to be said that are deeply countercultural, but nevertheless move us and our society and our churches in a better way. Now, earlier in my first lecture I put Luther in counter position with C. S. Lewis and I’ll do so at one or two points in the second part of the lecture as well. Lewis, as many of you all know, was a powerful critique of what he called “chronological snobbery” by which he meant the idea that simply because an idea is past, its moment is gone, that the novelty of an idea is a guarantor of its relevance. Lewis discovered for himself, and then encouraged us also to discover, that some of the best ideas go back a long way and we need them for enrichment and reflection, and I think that’s right. Luther himself would say much the same thing and although he would never say it, I will say it on his behalf. He is one of those that we can study with much benefit.


A second point I want to make in this second lecture concerns with Luther’s public vision of the Christian faith, and this, I think, remains of landmark importance for all of us. Luther stood at one of those transitional moments in history: the dawn of what we’d called the Early Modern Period. And Luther developed a doctrine of vocation, which in effect was not about leaving the world behind and going into a monastery in order to exercise a proper Christian life, but rather to go into the marketplace, to go into the cities of Europe and be a witness and enactment of the Gospel in those places. And, it’s a very rich vision, which needs elaboration. For example, Luther’s work ethic, which in effect argues that each of us can do what we do and do it well as an act of service and witness for the Gospel, and that seems to me to be very important. But, it seems to me that the key theme that Luther would urge upon us is this: we mustn’t think of the Church as a privatized faith; that is to say a faith that is detached from the world around us. We mustn’t think of the Church as a club that keeps certain ideas alive, but these are just ideas that just distinguish us. There are many other ideas that distinguish other such groups. For Luther, we need to recapture the idea that the Church is a society yes, but one that is grounded on the promises of God made in Scripture and that the Church brings this knowledge to the world in a way that may at times enrich it, but at other times will challenge it and therefore that difficult, though it may be the proper place, for the Church is at interface with the world. And that is uncomfortable, but Luther says that is where the Church needs to be. It has been called by God to be that point of juxtaposition between the Gospel and the secular world, and that means we need to be in the world not distanced from it in some kind of isolated disconnected community.

Now there’s much more we need to say about that. Luther himself found this a very difficult aspect of his own thought and many of us here today might suspect he may have gotten it wrong at points. Think, for example, of the Peasants Revolt of 1525. But even if Luther’s personal implementation of this vision may be imperfect, nevertheless the tasks he identified are right; namely the Gospel makes a difference to society, and the Church must in its life and witness embody, enact and articulate these distinctive and identity-giving characteristics. It is much easier just to withdraw and become a kind of pietistic club that doesn’t engage with anyone else and isn’t bothered by what’s happening around it, but Luther is a witness to the more uncomfortable truth that we need to be there at the interface where yes it is uncomfortable, but there are things that can be done in bearing witness to the Gospel.


That brings me to my third point. We’re talking a lot in this conference about witness and mission. And it may at first sight seem strange to talk about Luther in that specific context. Why do I say that? Let’s go back to early Modern Europe, where much of Western Europe was Christianized. Luther felt it needed to be reformed, but did not in one sense need to be made Christian. Luther’s vision for the Reformation was of a defective version of Christianity he saw around him, but he was always very careful to acknowledge that the Catholic Church was a Christian church. It needed, however, to be reformed. Therefore, for Luther, mission as we would now understand the term wasn’t very high on his agenda at all. Reformation, yes, but mission really did not connect up with the social realities of his day. And that’s why I want to re-emphasize the importance of the point I made in my first lecture. Namely, that to allow Luther to speak to us effectively and powerfully, we need to begin to make those transpositions. That is to say if Luther were here in a North American or contemporary Western European context, what might he have said and done on the basis of his theology? And all my reading of Luther’s theology, which I note is deeply rooted in the idea of witnessing to the Word of God, that faith comes about by hearing and many other themes like that, that Luther would urge us to see mission as a priority. He didn’t do it himself, but we can understand the social situation that has changed. With it, we need to rethink what Luther would say to those who see him as a theological load star in our own day and age. It seems to me that Luther’s emphasis on the role of witness can easily be articulated in terms of the mission of the church, in terms of evangelism, even though Luther himself did not make those theological moves.

In this second lecture, I really want to focus on Luther’s relevance for questions of personal faith and spirituality, because although Luther is a powerful voice to a public articulation of Christianity, he is of enormous importance pastorally, apologetically, spiritually, and we must make sure we do justice to this side of him. My own pastor experience was over a Church of England parish in the east midlands in a city called Nottingham, where I spent 1980-1983 making the transition from being a student of theology to being a pastor.  And, I have to tell you I found that quite difficult, that in many ways being forced into a pastoral context, to where people are asking questions about coping, suffering, the meaning of life and hope in the face of death. Those didn’t really connect up very well with the themes I’d been taught at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. And there was a sense in which a certain degree of theological realignment had to take place. One of those who helped me make those connections was Luther. I was studying him at the time and some of the things he said began to make sense in that pastoral context. Above all of his theology of the cross, which I will speak about in more detail presently, but the point I’d like to emphasize is that Luther is a pastor’s theologian, not just a theologian’s theologian. He speaks as a theologian from one who operated as preacher and pastor and social reformer. This is no academia detached from the life and concerns of the church. It’s a feeling many are worried about in modern day theology, that the theologian may have no personal faith, no ecclesial commitment, and no concern for the issues that so agitate many ordinary Christian believers. Luther is a theologian who theologizes, if I can use that word, from within the community of faith, addressing its issues, speaking its language and trying to build the faith of the people of God. And again that seems to me to be something that we can benefit from.


I’m going to read a short excerpt from the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in which Luther begins to articulate the theology of the cross, and I want to explain to you why I think this theology speaks so powerfully both to the church and to personal faith, and why it is one of Luther’s most interesting and significant contributions to Christian faith. “The man who reflects on the invisible things of God as they are seen through created things does not deserve to be called a theologian, but the one who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross, does deserve to be called a theologian.” Many of you know those words. They evoke the memory of Moses in the Book of Exodus seeing God disappearing into the distance and not being able to see his face. And in many ways Luther’s theology of the cross does speak very powerfully to certain issues in the life of the Church, but also in personal faith. Let me make one point immediately as a very easy one to grasp, Luther’s emphasis on the cross. That the cross puts everything to the test is a very powerful criticism of a type of theology that has gained a lot of influence in North America. And it’s a theology of health and wealth — that God indicates those whom he favors by giving them material and physical prosperity, that blessing is indicated in terms of wealth and health. Luther in effect stands as someone who sees that as completely misguided. For Luther, suffering is the greatest treasure that God can bestow and gives it as a favor to those whom He loves. And again, Luther turns to the image of the suffering Christ on the cross and sees that as an exemplar, a paradigm, of what it means to lead the Christian life. That is not about health and wealth — that is about faithful obedience, accepting whatever God gives. Now, Luther is not saying we must go and actively seek suffering, rather he is asking us to accept suffering if it is visited upon us as a means by which God is able to deepen our faith and commitment. And, many of you will have looked at Luther’s idea of Anfechtung, the idea that God strips away all our grounds of security until only one thing is left and that is God himself. And Luther’s point, which he makes very powerfully in a number of places, is that we trust in lesser things rather than God and sometimes we need to be helped to rediscover where our true treasure and true hope ought to be grounded.

In the Greater Catechism, Luther talks in these terms: “Wherever your heart lies, in whatever your security is grounded, that has become your God.” I think that’s an important point and it reminds us again of how easy it is to absorb our process-of-osmosis culture values, which get in the way of the Gospel. But I think for me part of the theology of the cross that remains most significant and most important is that it challenges the idea that we can somehow understand God, because for Luther to understand is to master, to have control over. I think Luther really does help us think about this in more detail. Luther forced me to realize that trying to be able to pin God down with theological precision in effect was trying to control or master God, and Luther insisted, and this surely is right, that theology is about God’s mastery of us, that our minds and our words are shaped by the Word of God. We bring our consciences captive to that transformative Word of God. Luther is trying to articulate the point that it is very, very easy for us to, in effect, define God in terms that suit us. We try to control Him, but in the end God is uncontrollable and our theological systems are inadequate to contain Him. And that seems to me to be a very significant point, which may cause inconvenience for some, those who want to be able to reduce God to the categories of a philosophy textbook, but nevertheless remain faithful to the biblical vision of God as the uncontrolled, yet faithful God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.


I began to realize through reading Luther that I wanted to imprison God within the conceptual matrix so that I could derive simple and neat answers to the questions that troubled me. Luther reminded me that actually I just couldn’t do that. I would have to engage with God on God’s own terms, and that means that human concepts, human words are going to prove inadequate to do justice to the way in which God actually is. Luther argues that to make legitimate statements about God it must involve submitting ourselves to mystery. And we see this especially in Luther’s notion of the Hidden God, the deus abscomditus, to use the phrase that many of you will come across in the textbooks. This points to a God who can be known yet ultimately is known through a form of unknowing, and I will explain what I mean by that. Luther’s appeal to the image of Moses glimpsing at the departing God from the rear, represents an imaginative critique of the fundamental human desire to seek God’s face and for Luther that quest needs to be checked, challenged, corrected and ultimately purged. And of course, Luther sees the cross of Christ as a central element, not simply in personal Christian devotion, but in theological reflection. I have often found very helpful a phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstein and many of you will know this phrase. I’ll read it to you: “A picture held as captive and we couldn’t get outside it.” And what Wittgenstein means is that very often a picture captivates us and we work its angles. It serves as a symbolic representation of the way the world is and for Luther the cross is the key to the mystery of life, to suffering, to trying to cope with the uncertainty and ambiguities that we see around us. Luther argues that our imaginations must be captivated by the haunting image of the cross of Christ as we work its angles and try to explore its consequences. So, it’s a very significant approach which, in effect, avoids theological abstraction, think of this idea, but rather asks us to look at an event, look here and let that be the gateway for your reflection on your own experience of the way the world is. Thus of course for Luther, a crucifix is of central importance for worship and personal devotion.

Why is this so important? Well, I think there are a number of ways in which this is important and I might open up one or two of them in this lecture. One of them is the insight it brings to the nature of faith. The other of course is the realism it brings to any discussion of suffering. So, let’s begin by looking at Luther on faith. Yes, Luther emphasizes that faith is about trusting a trustworthy God who has made promises to us, which are found in scripture and are proclaimed through preaching and symbolized through the sacraments. It’s a very important theme. But Luther is able to say that though we cling to this faithful God through thick and thin, this doesn’t necessarily mean we can make sense of everything that’s happening around us. And Luther is very good at accommodating spiritual bewilderment in his account of the Christian faith. For Luther, faith can coexist with thought with perplexity. One trusts God absolutely even though we still have difficulty in working out what is going on around us. Luther’s theology of the cross is all about seeing the cross as a lens or a filter which allows us to look at the world around us and even our own experience, and realize that God can be present even in situations of apparent abandonment, of despair, even though we cannot fully grasp what God is doing in these situations.