Luther in America
Searches in the twentieth century for the historical Luther can be seen as a development in viewing Luther from two confessional perspectives. The search for the “Protestant Luther” characterizes Luther scholarship in Germany beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, while the search for the “Catholic Luther” takes the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II as inspiration to see Luther as historically rooted in the Middle Ages. How have American Luther scholars contributed to an emerging understanding of Luther as Catholic theologian who loves philosophy? We will address recent scholarship on Luther in America in order to answer this question.
Christine Helmer is professor of German and religious studies at Northwestern University. She is the 2017-2018 Corcoran Visiting Chair in Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College. In June 2017, Helmer was awarded an honorary doctorate in theology from the faculty of theology at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Helmer’s area of research and teaching specialization is Christian theology from historical, systematic, and constructive perspectives. Her work is focused on German intellectual history with primary interest in the theology of Martin Luther, the philosophy and theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the flourishing of scholarship on Luther and on religion in early twentieth-century Germany, known as the Lutherrenaissance. Helmer is the author of many articles and books, including her monograph The Trinity and Martin Luther (Zabern 1999) and her new book Theology and the End of Doctrine (Westminster John Knox Press 2014).
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.
Granquist, Mark. Lutherans in America: A New History. Fortress Press, 2015.
Heal, Bridget. A Magnificent Faith: Art and Identity in Lutheran Germany. Oxford University Press, 2017.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History. 1st Edition. Viking Adult, 2004.
Marty, Martin E. October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World. Paraclete Press, 2016.
Roper, Lyndal. Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Random House, 2017.
Ryrie, Alec. Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World. Viking, 2017.
Granquist, Mark A. “Martin Luther in North America.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, November 22, 2016. http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-322
Helmer, Christine. "The American Luther." Dialog: A Journal of Theology 47, no. 2 (2008): 114-124.
––––. "The Contemporary Constructive Task." Dialog: A Journal of Theology 56, no. 3 (2017): 218-222.
Keating, Joshua. “Is the Protestant Work Ethic Real? A New Study Claims It Can Be Measured.” Slate.com. Accessed August 29, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real
2003 PBS Documentary Martin Luther: The Reluctant Revolutionary. http://www.pbs.org/empires/martinluther/index.html
In the News
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, begun in Germany by a monk named Martin Luther and his 95 Theses. In February PBS traveled to Germany to explore how the anniversary is being commemorated. More locally, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod maintains a website dedicated to Reformation focused events and resources throughout the year.