DON’T TELL ME THAT! Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses. Translated by Paul Strawn
Martin Luther asserted that the doctrines of the Law and the Gospel were the keys to the Holy Scriptures. He was also convinced that the proper distinction of the two was a mark of the Christian reading of God’s Word. Toward the end of his life, Luther had to deal with a controversy that went to the heart of this distinction, known as the Antinomian controversy. Over several years, his friend and colleague, John Agricola, distorted the proper distinction, particularly in the area of repentance. During the final years of the 1530s, Luther wrote six sets of theses for public disputations addressing the distortions present in Agricola’s position.
Agricola’s antinomianism, an ever-present human attitude, provides a beneficial foil for contemporary discussions of the proper employment of Law and Gospel in the Christian life. Paul Strawn introduces his project by suggesting that “there is a general uprising in the Church nowadays against any preaching, teaching, ministering and music which would involve the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, convicting hearts of sin . . . ” (9). However, he adds that there is also a true joy that comes when God’s Word is properly used: “It is the joy that can only follow the confession of sin and the conviction, by means of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, that sin has been forgiven because of the atonement of Christ on the cross for that sin” (11).
Strawn has prepared a skillful and careful paraphrase of Luther’s theses, which flow in a conversational style. Using the Walch edition of the German translation of the Latin originals, Strawn’s English rendition of these important discussions by Martin Luther give a good “feel” for Luther’s concerns without being a wooden translation. For this fact alone, this work is worthy of purchase and continued study. American readers will appreciate the clarity and applicability of Luther’s ideas for contemporary congregational life.
Critical readers and Luther scholars may be dissatisfied with the lack of historical background, except as an “Afterword.” Since the six theses were presented over a period of several years, it would have been helpful to see the contextual development of Luther’s continuing concern with Agricola’s or his students’ antinomian position, although that was not the point of the project. Some historical background is available in volume 47 of the American Edition, which has a translation of Luther’s “Against the Antinomians” from 1539, a document unmentioned by Strawn. Timothy Wengert’s Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997) is also very helpful in providing a broader historical setting for these theses. Basic background to the controversy is available in volume 4 of James Mackinnon’s Luther and the Reformation (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962, pages 161–179).
Helpful thematic sentences appear in bold font on almost every page of this book. These easy-to-read phrases provide a quick reading as well as speedy recovery or review of pertinent insights provided by Luther. In addition, after almost every one of the twelve chapters, Strawn has prepared over a half-dozen leading questions for discussion. These questions should be useful for Bible study and personal and devotional reflection on Luther’s teachings and the biblical basis for his concerns and comfort.
Knowing that these disputation theses were originally written almost five hundred years ago, the obvious contemporary relevance makes this study worthy of continuing scrutiny and congregational study. Antinomianism is never far from the church’s teaching and preaching. These noteworthy theses of Luther appear as timely for the twenty-first century as they were in the sixteenth century. For example, Luther’s harsh words, “Those who want to remove the Law from the Church are totally inexperienced people and deceivers of souls” (56), are just as relevant today.
Experienced theologians will undoubtedly still use the Weimar or Walch versions of these theses for their preparations. The full texts of the Latin theses are available in WA 391:334–358, along with the actual disputations in WA 391:359–584; 392:124–144 (soon to be available in English translation by Holger Sonntag along with historical background also from Lutheran Press at www.lutheranpress.com).
This book will be much appreciated for its continuing usefulness as it is applied to contemporary life in congregational study groups and pastoral conferences. Parish pastors, interested students, or lay theologians will benefit from Strawn’s synopsis of Luther’s concerns. Congregation members and pastoral circuits will benefit from the devotional content of Luther’s theses, thanks to Paul Strawn’s pastoral sensibilities.
Concordia University Wisconsin