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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Luther in America


On Thursday October 5, 2017, the Boisi Center hosted Christine Helmer, a visiting scholar from Northwestern University, for a lunch lecture entitled “Luther in America.”

In her presentation, Helmer outlined the history of American study of Luther today. This included an explanation of the renewed focus on the Catholic Luther, to current studies engaging Luther from modern perspectives. 

Helmer recalled how the Catholic Luther approach became a new and revealing way to engage Luther. It became a prominent current in Luther scholarship after the work of George Lindbeck, which took an ecumenical and incorporative approach to Luther, reorienting study to focus on Luther’s Catholicism, including his role as an Augustinian, Catholic friar, trained in theology and heavily indebted to medieval philosophy.  

This final trend in scholarship was a main thrust of Helmer’s presentation and she carefully laid out why this American led effort is important and where it is leading. The main effect of this focus is to take Luther to task for his consistent and often virulent anti-Judaism. Helmer drew attention to the work of Susannah Heschel, who has focused, in her own work, on the Nazi use of Luther as well as how central anti-Jewish sentiment was to his project. Helmer concluded by detailing how studies of Luther that do not take Nazi co-option of Luther and Luther’s own anti-Judaism into account miss a central and important aspect of Luther’s theological and historical significance.