By Michael P. Knowles
[Editor’s note: The following blog is a shortened version of an article published recently in Post-Christendom Studies 2. This article (and the others published in PCS 2) was presented at our Reformation in a Post-Christian World conference, held in October 2017.]
What lessons for the church of a postmodern, perhaps even post-secular culture, can we take from the early preaching of Martin Luther (1483–1546)? In particular, how can Luther encourage and direct us toward the reformation and renewal of the church in our own day?
First and foremost, we would do well to acknowledge Scripture, as did Luther, as our primary source of theological insight. This does not mean reverting to a simplistic textual or doctrinal scholasticism, or abandoning narrative, ideological, or reader-oriented forms of exegesis. But it does entail submission to the uncompromising worldview of the biblical text, its portrait of God, and its assessment of the human condition. In contrast to the epistemological laissez-faire of postmodernism, Luther reminds us that the biblical text stands over against us with uncompromising assertions of divine sovereignty and demand. Luther contends that in the face of the Gospel, humans are not free, able, or (in particular) willing to perceive and interpret—much less construct—the reality of their situation.
Much of Luther’s energy is therefore directed toward convincing his hearers to come to a complete end of themselves, so as to rely instead on the grace and power of God. Far from consoling former heirs of the Enlightenment who have now lost faith in humanity that things are not so desperate after all, Luther would surely admonish us to abandon whatever human consolations we might still retain. He would no doubt speak out against mis-placed optimism or self-reliance on the part of clergy and congregations today, just as he would likely contradict our discouragement at the church’s loss of face and place within contemporary society. Notwithstanding our wealth of material and managerial resources, and the complacency that these sometimes inspire, he might suggest that our despair for the state of the church is not yet sufficiently deep. We still cling to the hope that we can work out a suitable solution to whatever ails us without casting ourselves headlong before the cross in prayer. As with the church of his own day, our crisis is spiritual and theological rather than social, political, or organizational, and so can only find its answer in conversation with the One who calls us to Himself.
Not least, Luther would call us again to the vital theological significance of preaching itself, which in many Western pulpits tends more to good humour and moral high-mindedness than to forthright conviction and the proclamation of a counter-intuitive gospel. Luther’s preaching reminds us that Scripture has decidedly sharp edges: it stands against us before it draws us near, and bears little resemblance to the moralism that seems to predominate in many of our own sermons. Yet if Luther is correct, preaching for spiritual revitalization does not require homiletical badgering or harassment. Rather, faithful proclamation is a matter of allowing Scripture to speak for itself in its full range of address to our human situation. Convinced that our ministries and sermons are essential to the fulfilment of God’s purpose, we are more likely to assume that pastoral consolation, healing, and comfort are largely human responsibilities. On the contrary, faithfulness in preaching compels radical reliance on God as much for ourselves as for our hearers. As Luther insists, “Where God does not provide the message, a sermon is useless . . . For wherever God does not suggest the words, there is no sermon at all, or it is a vain and pernicious sermon.”1
Because God’s manner of working is often paradoxical, proclamation of the gospel will require humility, patience, and perseverance in equal measure. For, as Luther reminds us, the task is frustrating and the fruit of our labours often hidden; he himself was by no means immune to discouragement. Nonetheless, he insists, “One should not quit simply because so few are changed for the better to hear the preaching of the gospel. But do what Christ did: He rescued the elect and left the rest behind. This is what the apostles did also. It will not be better for you. You are foolish if you either presume that you alone can accomplish everything or despair of everything when it does not go your way.”2
My own guess is that Luther would be dumbfounded at the impact of his preaching and ministry today, five hundred years after the fact. He would be the first to acknowledge his many errors and limitations, as well as the depth of his dependence on Christ. It will not, as he insists, be any better for us. But neither should it be any worse.
1. LW 13:12 (WA 8:12–13), cited in Patrick Ferry, “Martin Luther on Preaching: Promises and Problems of the Sermon as a Source of Reformation History and as an Instrument of the Reformation,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 54 (1990) 265–80; here, 273.
2. LW 15:124; WA 20:144, cited in part by Ferry, “Martin Luther on Preaching,” 277.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*