Would Martin Luther—given his personality and prejudices—be acceptable on any modern university faculty?
Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman raised this interesting question in the conclusion of his work on the heralded reformer, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Oberman’s conclusion is that Luther would not stand a chance, because many of his late medieval values, such as his strident belief in the realities of the unseen, would be viewed as archaic and nonsensical to a postmodern audience. Furthermore, a psychological battery of tests would have eliminated any vestige of chance. His fear of the Lord and a very real perception of the realities of the demonic would lead to a diagnosis of either neurosis or psychosis caused by childhood trauma.
With this said, is there anything in Luther’s career that would offer the portent of a successful faculty career or pastoral position today? Can this sixteenth century individual offer us insights for life in the twenty-first?
1. A Lesson of Transforming Grace
Martin Luther offers insight into the wonder of the transforming realities of the gospel when the claims of Christ are understood and embraced. It would seem that human nature has not been altered through what historians frequently have called centuries of progress. (In fact, advances in technology seem only to have brought into vivid relief the barbarous potential of human ingenuity.) The recognition of human blight is revealed frequently in the endless quest to dull tarnished dreams and painful memories.
[Luther] discovered that God through Christ was not a wrathful judge,
but a compassionate redeemer.
Though Luther’s struggles had more to do with a troubled conscience preventing acceptance by a holy and just God, he, like many today, found that the advice and instruction of his teachers did little to assuage the emptiness felt in the depths of his soul. When Luther prepared lectures at the University of Wittenberg, the light of the gospel gradually flooded his heart and mind.
An accomplished monk, a devoted follower of the Christian disciplines, he discovered that God through Christ was not a wrathful judge, but a compassionate redeemer. Freedom from a guilty conscience was a gift purchased by Christ and granted as a gratuitous gift. And that forgiveness could not be earned or merited but was granted because Christ stood alone as the sinner’s substitute and advocate. This is the old, old truth that is forever new to those who experience it for the first time (and return to it many times).
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