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Justification and Eschatology in Luther's Thought

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  • American Society of Church History

    Justification and Eschatology in Luther's ThoughtAuthor(s): George Wolfgang ForellSource: Church History, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), pp. 164-174Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of ChurchHistoryStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3162704Accessed: 09/01/2009 08:21

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    GEORGE WOLFGANG FORELL, Professor of Religion, The University of Iowa

    The juxtaposition of "justification" and "eschatology" in Luth- er's thought seems at first strikingly inappropriate. Justification is undoubtedly the central concern in Luther's theological effort. It was to Luther "the master and prince, the lord, the ruler and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doc- trine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness. No error is so insignificant, so clumsy, so outworn as not to be supremely pleasing to human rea- son and to seduce us if we are without the knowledge and the con- templation of this article."' Earlier he had written, "This article is the head and the cornerstone, which alone begets, nourishes, builds, serves and defends the church of God. Without it the church of God cannot exist for even one hour."2 In his commentary on Galatians he could say about this same article, "Whoever falls from the doctrine of justification is ignorant of God and is an idolater. . . . For once this doctrine is undermined, nothing more remains but sheer error, hypocrisy, wickedness, and idolatry, regardless of how great the sanc- tity that appears on the outside. The reason is this: God does not want to be known except through Christ; nor, according to John 1:18, can He be known any other way."3 It is this article which in Luther's judgment makes the theologian a judge of this earth and, indeed, of all things. He added, however, that only few people had given this article sufficient attention, had thought it through and thus were able to teach it correctly.4

    Luther was quite aware of the fact that it was his emphasis on doctrina and especially the centrality of justification by faith rather than questions of moral corruption which constituted the central is- sue of the Reformation. He saw the difference between his own ef- forts and those of Wycliffe and Hus quite clearly. They had at- tacked the moral decay in the church. Luther knew that, "Doctrine and life must be distinguished. Life is bad among us, as it is among the papists, but we don't fight about life and condemn the papists on that account. Wycliffe and Hus didn't know this and attacked [the papacy] for its life. I don't scold myself into becoming good, but I fight over the Word and whether our adversaries teach it in its purity. That doctrine should be attacked-this has never before happened. This is my calling."5 For Luther, if only the word remained pure, there was always the hope that the life would also be straightened out 1. Weimar Ausgabe, 39, I, 205, Promotionsdisputation von Paladius und Tilemann, June 1,

    1537. 2. WA, 30, II, 650, Vorwort su In prophetanm Amos Johannis Brentii expositio, 1530. 3. Luther's Works American Edition, 26, 395f., Lectures on Galatians, 1535; WA, 40, I, 602. 4. WA, 25, 375, Isaiah, Scholia, 1532/34. 5. AE, 54, 110, Veit Dietrich, Fall, 1533; WAT, 1, 294.



    through the power of this word. But if the word was missing there was also no hope for a changed life.6 He said, "If the teaching (doctrina) remains pure there is hope that life could easily be improved. The rays of the sun remain pure and shine brightly even if they fall on excrement. Thus God maintains something pure among us through which we readily condemn the error committed. The Lord magnifies this word and loves it."7

    In view of the centrality of this doctrine of justification by faith for Luther it is not surprising that it has been both a central object of study for all Luther scholars and the subject of considerable con- troversy in the history of Luther research, involving practically every scholar in this field up to the present time. This very debate has been an indication of the general awareness of the centrality of the doctrine of justification for all of Luther's thought.

    Eschatology, on the other hand, has been a most neglected aspect of Luther's theology. In his description of this theology Johannes v. Walter pointed out in 1940 that in spite of the attention given to all the details of Luther's thought there was then no monograph deal- ing with Luther's eschatology, and even more significantly, the ma- jor efforts of interpreting Luther's theology either avoided the topic entirely (Th. Harnack and E. Seeberg) or dealt with it in a most cursory fashion and more for the sake of completeness than because of any awareness of its significance for an understanding of Luther's theology (J. Kostlin). This, as Walter pointed out, was the more as- tonishing since Calvin's eschatology had received a great deal of at- tention. He added that the meditatio futurae vitae seemed to him at least a far more central part of Calvin's theology than of Luther's. Indeed, Walter suggested the reason for the relative neglect of Lu- ther's eschatology himself by saying, "In the end isn't this the deepest and final reason for this state of affairs, that, according to Luther's last utterance, 'Heaven and earth have become one in faith,' that, therefore, the blessedness of faith cannot be essentially surpassed even in the next world, but rather only in so far as the human boundaries to complete communion with God will be lifted?"8

    Since 1940 the significance of Luther's eschatology has received more attention. The way was prepared by Paul Althaus in his seminal work, Die letzten Dinge, which focused attention on the problem of eschatology in general and took Luther's own contribution most se- riously.9 Carl Stange entered the discussion of Luther's eschatology by opposing Althaus, especially in his interpretation of Luther's un- 6. AE, 54, 110, Veit Dietrich, Fall, 1533; WA T, 1, 294. 7. WA, 13, 688, Proph. Min, 1524. 8. Johannes von Walter, Die Theologie Luthers (Giittersloh, 1940), p. 230. 9. Paul Althaus, Die letsten Dinge, 5th ed. (Giitersloh, 1949). It is, however, remarkable

    that the same Althaus gave so little consideration to the central significance of Luther's eschatology in his Die Theologie Martin Luthers of 1962. In sixteen pages (pp. 339-354) he deals with this issue as the final locus in Luther's theological system.



    derstanding of the immortality of the soul.?1 Walter Koehler insisted in his Dogmengeschichte als Geschichte des christlichen Selbstbewus- stseins, which appeared in 1951, five years after his death, that Lu- ther's eschatology was the mirror of his faith and that Luther's thought was relevant to one of the most acute modern issues since he had bridged the tension between axiological and teleological eschatology. He said,

    Modern dogmatics (E. Troeltsch, P. Althaus) speaks of axiological eschatology and understands by this the experiencing of final, uncondi- tional values here on earth. Luther experienced this in faith; faith is axiological eschatology. One could also say, conscience; out of its terror came the call. But the final values were not immanent but rather tran- scendent-values 'in hope.' In this way the bridge was built from axio- logical to teleological eschatology, which asks about the goal, purpose and end of all being.... Thus alongside of the eschatology already com- pleted in principle he knows the drama of the end of history in the suc- cession of scenes, untroubled by the fact that both trains of thought sub- mit to a unification only partially, especially since biblical eschatology itself is not homogeneous.ll Since that time there have been a number of studies which have

    attributed to Luther's eschatology a central place in his theological vision. Wingren showed in 1942 that Luther's eschatology is the key to the ultimate hope that upholds the Christian in his vocation.l2 In 1954 this writer tried to show that it is Luther's eschatology which constitutes the limiting principle of his social ethics and the source of his efforts to find a temporary and pragmatic solution to the great social problems of his time.13

    In 1956 T. F. Torrance surveyed the eschatology of the Refor- mation in his Kingdom and Church and asserted it

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