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Luther's Mystical Theology
Swensson discusses 'the believer's participation in the life of God'.

By Eric Jonas Swensson



Many before Martin Luther (1483-1546) attempted to reform Church structures and teaching, yet he alone is credited for ushering in a movement whose effects were so widespread that it is known as the Reformation. Since Luther is the subject of so many books, is there really the need for more research on his theology? There is, as we believe that a crucial aspect of his theology has been misunderstood or neglected. "For Luther justification involved not only a 'declaring righteous,' but also a 'making righteous.'"[1]

This is a paper on historical theology looking at Luther's life and teaching, and examines the influence mysticism had on his theology. The core meaning of "mysticism" is union with Christ. Prayer and meditation are the usual means to that end. Since Luther taught that faith is the primary means to union with Christ, it is possible to miss seeing his theology as mystical. There are actually many reasons why most Luther scholars have not classified him as such and this will be critiqued throughout the paper. There is an undeniable connection between Luther and mysticism, and this side of Luther is a bridge to the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant communions. There is potential for unity as the aforementioned communions teach that believers are made righteous in faith, as do Protestants who follow Wesleyan teaching.

In light of the new Finnish Luther research on the teaching of theosis in Luther's writings,[2] we need to ask how his teachings relate to this basic Orthodox teaching that God became man so that man might become divine.[3] As Orthodox theology is mystical theology[4] we need to compare representative eastern theologians with Luther, as well as Medieval Catholic theologians who taught unio mystica.[5] The thesis of this paper is that Luther was well aware of deification and was influenced by the teachings of the mystics of east and west. However, Luther was a brilliant theological innovator, and his version of theosis has much to recommend and may well be the basis for a theology with the potential to bring unity both within the west and between the west and the east.[6] We will call this aspect of his theology the believer's participation in the life of God.

The full potential of Luther's teaching has not yet been realized. His theological insights do not come to their own because his powerful language has been understood to be much more "poetic" than he meant. When Luther used the words in ipsa fide Christus adest (in faith itself Christ is present) was he talking about moral affect, an affective sensation, or did he mean an effective change in the believer as Tuomo Mannermaa states, a "real-ontic" change?[7] Have we indeed failed and continue to be unable to hear the dynamism inherent in Luther's theology? Few western theologians prior to Karl Barth described the power of the Word to conform our lives to Christ as dynamically as Luther, who maintained that the Word had the power to do what it declared. If Scripture says that believers are "in Christ," these are not mere words only describing a concept, but they actually meant that believers were somehow actually in Christ.

A corollary to Luther's language on presence is literal would be his teaching on the Eucharist: namely, his assertion that the bread and wine do become the body and blood of Christ, though the 'how' of this occurrence is a "mystery." However, Luther stated that the most accurate way of speaking of this truth was that Christ was present "in, with and under" the bread and wine. Luther taught that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine as his tradition said and as he believed Scripture maintained yet his teaching was "reforming" his tradition's doctrine of transubstantiation, but he did this with an alternative explanation so fresh as to be considered a "new" teaching.

As Luther developed as a theologian and was rejecting much of scholasticism, he championed a move back in time, primarily to the Bible, and secondarily to the Early Church Fathers. In 1517 he wrote from Wittenberg, "our theology, and that of St. Augustine reign."[8]

Luther's appeal to the Fathers and Scriptures was a sincere attempt to reform the Church by removing unbiblical developments, but we can understand how Catholics of that day saw it as a radical new teaching: Luther saw himself going back to the roots of faith, but his enemies saw only a radical. A quick glance shows many fresh points of departure in his teachings such as: what makes for a sacrament; alien righteousness; the depth of the bondage of human will; simul iustus et peccator; his theology of the cross; his hermeneutic of law and gospel; his "two kingdoms" theory; the centrality of the need for education of clergy and laity alike.

In Luther's reformations he championed Augustine and other Church Fathers yet criticized them when he thought they did not go far enough in the direction he wanted to go. Luther did the same critique with the writings of the mystics, by denouncing the mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius as being too speculative, and lifted up Johan Tauler as someone to be read. Luther actively promoted mystical theology by his 1516 and 1518 work in the publication of Theologia Germanica, a work whose subject is union with God. We can see how Luther is himself a mystical theologian through the similarity of his approach to that described in Vladimir Lossky's The Mystical Theology of the Eastern, a highly referenced authority on mystical theology.

Since at least the time of Tertullian, who was a lawyer before he became a theologian, the west was captivated by Roman legal terms. Augustine, Anselm and other western theologians taught salvation as justification and explained it with the concept of merit. Christology overshadowed other aspects of theology in the west, while in the east the concept of merit is never used. While the west were skeptical of descriptions of the cooperation between the human and the divine in the actualization of salvation, the idea of synergy of divine and human will is embraced in the east as there was never a battle between Pelagius and Augustine in the east.[9] "The eastern Church never developed the interest in Roman law which is so characteristic of the early theologians of the Latin west, which, coupled with the character of the Latin language itself led to the western commitment to justification as the fundamental soteriological metaphor." [10] McGrath makes a somewhat controversial point, for Lutherans at least, but with potential for unity, contending that justification was seen by Luther as a process that begin with God's declaration of righteousness which is carried through in sanctification. [11] It is McGrath's finding that Melanchthon authored the split between justification and sanctification which became and remains one of the main issues of the Reformation.

Returning to Lossky's presentation of eastern theology, there are several potentially important lessons for the west. For one, the east has a fuller trinitarian theology and speak of the work of all three Persons consistently, never truncating one at the expense of the other. Another is the understanding that mystical theology makes for good theology:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church?Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone. Outside the truth kept by the whole Church personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, of all objectivity. It would be the mingling of truth and falsehood, of reality and of illusion: ?mysticism' in the bad sense of the word. On the other hand, the teaching of the Church would have no hold on souls if it did not in some degree express an inner experience of truth, granted in different measure to each one of the faithful. There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but above all, there is no theology without mysticism.[12]

The above is a helpful correction to some aspects of western theology. It was the way Luther approached it. Perhaps the key to a healthy understanding of mysticism as well as appreciating how Luther was a mystic is in the use of the word "experience" above. If we see theology as both dogma and experience, it is important to know that the Reformation came about on account of Luther's experience of seeking a gracious God. Secondly, Luther continued to teach justification as an extremely personal experience, something his followers did not as they turned an experiential theology into an academic science.

Luther taught that a theologian was one who could hold two opposing ideas in tension and "rightly divide them." He held dogma and experience in a dialectical tension. The reason Luther attacked the "enthusiasts" Andreas von Carlstadt and Thomas Munzer so mercilessly is that at times they seemed to claim direct knowledge of God's will unmediated by the Word or any doctrine of the Church. He taught that all the faithful needed both objective truth and personal experience, study and prayer, theology and mysticism, that is, mystical theology.

The Spiritual Formation of Luther

A more personal look of Luther and his teaching is necessary before examining the issue of theosis further. Martin Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483 and baptized in the Roman Catholic Church the following day. His parents had been able to move from the prospects of peasants to some prosperity through mining, leasing iron pits and smelting. They had hopes that their eldest son Martin would become a lawyer and sent him away for education at an early age. Much has been made of the severity of the discipline of his parents and teachers, but this is based on a few remarks Luther made in his later years. Eric Ericson made a sociological study of this in Young Man Luther. Steven Ozment gives an interesting analysis of Ericson in The Age of Reform: 1250-1550, An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe as well as his own conclusions about young Luther. Jared Wicks, S.J. makes a case for not writing history taking Luther's autobiographical remarks uncritically in Man Yearning for Grace in which he put a boundary around all of Luther's remarks and attempted to find Luther solely in his writings. This led him to the surprising conclusion that Luther never posted the 95 Theses on Indulgences on the Wittenberg Chapel door because he never wrote of the nailing but only of his mailing of them to the Archbishop of Mainz!

Luther seems to have had a conventional upbringing and his life can be seen as a type for the transition his culture was going through. Europe was already moving out of the Middle Ages as a mainly agricultural economy was giving way to a more commercial economy which led to an emerging middle class. On every front, the world of young Luther was changing. It had great hopes. It had great fears. New Worlds were being discovered as witch hunts and inquisitions raged throughout Europe. New developments were also taking place also in the intellectual arena. A prominent humanist figure like Erasmus broke new ground, but was careful not to create waves.

The year 1505 was an important year for young Luther. In May he graduated from the University of Erfurt, and a few weeks later entered a monastery of the Observant Augustinians, an order founded a century earlier to reform the Augustinians. Much is made of a certain lightening storm in which he feared for his life and made a vow to St. Anne that if he lived he would become a monk. We might wonder about the timing of this storm as it occurred just at the time that Luther was supposed to enter law school. Nevertheless, Luther was at a crossroads and he took the turn towards the Church. Luther might have made a vow to St. Anne to become a monk, but his superiors discerned his gifts of intellect and speech and decided he should become a priest, the same way that they decided a few years later that he should prepare to teach.

Luther was ordained in 1507 and celebrated his first mass on May 2. He related that the day was one of fear. He was afraid because he had entered a religious vocation against his father's wishes. Hearing that his father was coming with many men on horseback, how could he know whether they meant to carry him off or congratulate him? However, Luther said that his primary fear was how a sinner such as himself could perform the mass. Indeed, he said he barely made it through, and this seems to be emblematic of how he understood his own salvation before his reformation discovery.

Another formative event took place in 1510 when Luther was chosen as one of two monks to take a petition to Rome for the reform of their order toward a stricter way of life. For Luther it was also a pilgrimage, and in Rome he went earnestly from one site to another hoping to gain indulgences. Luther's piety was in contrast with the worldliness of the Italian clerics. This period in Rome prepared him for his battle over the sale of indulgences in 1517.

Luther returned to his academic work in Wittenberg. He was becoming a prominent, young theologian learning to flex his theological muscles.[13] Johann von Staupitz was instrumental in this development, as the following words indicate:

von Staupitz had persuaded Luther to pursue advanced studies to qualify for the degree of Doctor in Biblia and had moved Frederick the Wise to provide funds for promoting Luther's doctorate on the promise that Luther would be a great asset to the University of Wittenberg as lecturer on the Bible. Staupitz himself had held this position with distinction but was now vacating it because of his duties as vicar general of the Augustinians. On October 22, 1512, the new doctor was with appropriate ceremony received as a colleague by the faculty senate and apparently immediately began his preparations for lectures on the Psalms.[14]

Luther started seeing new meanings in Scripture as he began preparing lectures. His first lectures were on Peter Abelard's Sentences, followed by a series on Augustine, but he especially exerted himself in his first series as a professor of Scripture. This was his Lectures on the Psalms which exist today as compilations of his lecture notes, with his accompanying glosses and scholia to study. Editors compiled these even carefully gleaning the notes of student, so it is even possible that some of his extemporaneous thoughts are included.

Luther's Lectures on the Psalms

In this lecture series preceding the Lecture on Romans, Luther already showed himself to be a bold interpreter of Scriptures. Luther's theme of the power of God's Word to create faith is central as it remained throughout his career. He began the lectures by teaching that the Psalm should be read "prophetically." Luther held that the Psalms are Christ's prayer book,[15] that Christ himself is the main actor, and is often the person being spoken of and the one speaking. Luther uses a half-dozen texts in the preface to his lecture:

" I am the door; if anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture." John 10:9. "The words of the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens." Rev. 3:7. "In the roll of the book it is written of Me." Ps. 40:7, "Even what I have told you from the beginning." John 8:25. "Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I"? Is. 52:6. "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." 1 Cor. 2:2.

Luther sets forth his Christological/prophetical path to understanding Scripture:

From these we draw the following guideline for this dark, yet holy labyrinth; Every prophecy and every prophet must be understood as referring to Christ the Lord except where it is clear from plain words that someone else is spoken of. For thus He Himself says: "Search the Scriptures ? and it is they that bear witness to Me" (John 5:39)... And at the same time this must be understood tropologically of any spiritual and inner man against his flesh and the outer man [emphasis added].[16]

Luther works with the traditional categories of the historical, allegorical, tropological, anagogical sense of the text. However, he is most interested in the Christological sense so his primary interest is the tropological. Tropos means "way" or "manner," therefore tropological is the way or manner of the Christian life, and Luther's fresh insight here was the centrality of the idea that God uses the Word to conform the believer's manner of life to Christ. While Luther was influenced by the Latin mystics, chiefly Bernard of Clairvaux, and the German mystics, chiefly Johan Tauler and the author of Theologia Germanica, the aforementioned spoke of the practice of imitating Christ, while Luther used the term "conform" exclusively. Imitating could imply seeking to attain righteousness through one's own performance while "conforming" makes room for God to be the actor. Luther maintained that it was the power of the Word that could bring about a conformity between the believers and the image of Christ.

Luther wrote that once the believer understands the method of determining the tropological meaning of the text for one's faith and life, then the meaning of the biblical text concerning the Church (the allegorical) and the coming King (anagogical) "arise of themselves."[17] Luther uses the literal, allegorical and tropological sense of the texts to point out the "threefold opus Dei" in Christ, the Church and the Christian.[18] One of Luther's basic theological concepts is that our basis for certainty of salvation is that it is God who chooses to act to save; it is God who makes humanity righteous and does so by creating faith in men and women through His Word. Humanity either chooses to be obedient or disobedient to this free offer. In faithful obedience, believers are conformed to Christ by the Word, and so, Christ's Prayer Book becomes our prayer book.

Luther used the tropological to develop the idea of the spiritual battle between God and man which he would develop later into his Theology of the Cross:

this means that the spirit of man did not accede to the persuasions and suggestions of the inimical flesh and of the ungodly stirrings of the body of sin. Thus also Ps. 2:1 says: "Why do the nations conspire, etc."? Tropologically it has to do with the tyranny, temptation, and tempest of the carnal and outer man who provokes and torments the spirit as the dwelling place of Christ. Thus, Ps. 3:1 reads: "O Lord, how many are my foes." ?tropologically it is a complaint, or prayer, of the devout and afflicted spirit placed into trials. In their own way we must also judge in other places, lest we become burdened with a closed book and receive no food.[19]

As Luther develops as a theologian he spoke less and less in Medieval terminology, but he continued to develop the concepts he found in the tropological. In Luther we see someone driven to expound the benefits received on account of Christ through faith created by the Word.

Is the core of Luther's teaching akin to the core of Orthodox spirituality?

A look at what Luther wrote in his lectures on Psalm 45 gives a clue to his mystical theology. Since this is a royal psalm about the marriage of the king, if Luther's exegesis was mystical, he would have developed the themes of Christ and his Church with the theme of Christ as bridegroom. That is indeed what we find:

This psalm is for triumph, or a triumphal song, about Christ and the church, which are roses or lilies, a song of the beloved, Christ and the church, which are loved by each other. So we read in Song of Sol. 2:16: "My beloved is mine, and I am his."[20] "See, then?the same psalm is instruction for us and a song for Christ and the church, so that in the same one we are instructed and they are praised. But note this, too, that it is an instruction about roses. For Christ and the church are lilies and roses for us, they afford us a scent and an example, but are beloved for themselves."[21] "Finally, they have a song "for the beloved" in the singular. This seems to signify that these Jedidiah, Christ and the church, are one body, two in one flesh, two beloved and one beloved. For by its very nature love makes lovers one, so that they are one in love. Therefore the Lord and the church are one body, head and body one Christ in a mystical sense and thus one beloved [22]

Luther is indeed speaking in the language of mysticism: the bride and bridegroom and mystical union. The point to be made here is how early on Luther's concept of mystical union is part of his evangelical breakthrough, the importance the Word acting on the innermost heart, and how for him the Christological is pneumatological. The proof of this lies in how easy it is to find the seeds of his evangelical theology, etc. in his commentary on the Psalms:

It is as if he were saying: "I purpose to speak about the works of righteousness, by which we are justified, and not of the Law, since (according to Isaiah): "Lord, Thou hast wrought all our works in us' (Is. 26:12). Therefore the works which I have done and which He has done for me, I will relate to the honor of the King." Augustine puts it differently. It can also be thus: "I speak my works to the King, that is, I confess the King, Christ, as my Lord. Or, "Of my works, that is, the works of Christ, which by participation are also mine, I will say, that they are not mine but that they are for the King."[23]

We see that Luther is already dealing with works-righteousness versus imputed alien righteousness. Also note the above use of the concept of participation in the divine life. The following words of Luther point to the pronounced Pneumatology in his conception of the Word: "For wherever the Word of the Spirit is preached, it is not preached without result."[24] It cannot be overstated how often Luther uses heart as a concept, consistently referring to the life that comes out of the heart of God into the heart of the believer: "Thus He alone, because He did not produce the Only-Begotten from another person, like a man from a woman, but from His heart. . ."[25] Even as Luther writes allegorically about Ps. 45 he is connecting the power of the Word and the Spirit.

The church is called the robe of Christ ? the saints are his palace. The palace, he says, is of ivory. Ivory is the bones of dead elephants, and so the holy souls are the residue of the mortified body, which was an animal while it lived in vices. Therefore the ivory palaces are the souls crucified in the flesh ? And it is the most suitable material for ointment bottles, just as the soul alone is capable of graces and virtues, since new wine must not be poured into old wineskins (Matt. 9:17), that is, the grace of the spirit must not be given to the flesh, but to a new wineskin, namely, to the spirit, after the flesh has been put to death. Thus when the soul is refined and shaped by the Word of God, it is made ready to be a perfume bottle of the Holy Spirit and a house of Christ. For what skill produces by shaping, the preaching of the Gospel does by instructing. Knowledge indeed gives form to the soul, but the Holy Spirit alone gives grace and ointment, that is, growth."[26] [emphasis added]

The last two sentences above were emphasized to show how in the same breath Luther expounds a theology that is profoundly Christological and pneumatological, both evangelical and mystical, speaking of the power of the Word to shape us so that we might be vessels for his indwelling Spirit.

A Comparison of Symeon and Luther's Mystical Theology Luther's Works contains the 1518 edition of Theologia Germanica and an editor's disclaimer below holds a clue as to why Luther has perhaps been misinterpreted:

Like the mystics, Luther was most concerned that the sinner should find a way out of sin and to salvation in communion with God?in other words, that he should annihilate his own personality and substitute God's. He agreed, for example, with Tauler's instructions that the sinner should be humble, faithful, penitent, joyful in poverty, and eager to return to God by whom he had been created. Yet one looks in vain in Luther's writings for doctrines of the mystics. Unlike these, he never became subjective in his approach, but continued to emphasize at every step the doctrine, which had resulted from his own experience and study, namely, justification by faith. Christ's redemptive act always remained for him a reality appropriated by a sinner solely by faith through the mercy of God.[27] [emphasis added]

The editor expresses the predominant view that while Luther often wrote like a mystic, and quoted mystics favorably, he was not a mystic. Why Luther scholars say, "Yet one looks in vain in Luther's writings for doctrines of the mystics," or that he was not even subjective in his approach means that Luther has been taught wrongly.

This is not to say that Luther did not have his doctrines as a priority, but it is to say that if one in anyway discounts the experiential aspect of Luther's faith, one does violence to Luther. It is true that Luther never writes on "doctrines" of mystics, but Luther commonly wrote using all the usual mystical themes and language such as Christ as Bridegroom, unio mystica, etc. Luther's redemption-reality was an experience, and to remove the subjective experience from the total experience is to seriously misunderstand Luther.

For many who are familiar with the writings of Luther but have never considered him a mystic, a comparison of what Luther wrote in his 1535 Galatians commentary (Gal.2:20), with the writings of known mystics should reveal the mystical referents. There are common themes to all Christian mystics, the chief being perhaps the Bridegroom and His Bride, the term 'Bride' here is to be understood as the Church or the Christian. Luther uses these themes not only in devotional material but throughout his writings, because his theology is thoroughly mystical.

But faith must be taught correctly, namely, that by it you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to Him forever and declares: "I am as Christ." And Christ, in turn, says: "I am as that sinner who is attached to Me, and I to him. For by faith we are joined together into one flesh and one bone." Thus Eph. 5:30 says: "We are members of the body of Christ, of His flesh and of His bones," in such a way that this faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife.[28] [emphasis added]

This is fairly typical of Luther's writing, but one in which mystical theology is so interwoven with his basic message that these two aspects of his theology are not easily distinguishable from each other. To remove the aspect of spirituality or spiritual experience from the total texture of Luther's theology would do irreparable damage to his theology. One does not have to search for such passages. The above quote is from the version of Luther's Commentary on Galatians issued in 1935. That is significant for two reasons. First, Luther called Galatians his "Katie von Bora," in other words, he was married to it! This book is central to his person and teaching. Secondly, an argument is put forward that mysticism is something Luther flirted with as a young man but outgrew as he became a mature theologian. The Galatians commentary is proof that Luther taught union with God into his later years.

In this same passage Luther uses the language of light, terminology of the mystical theologians of the Eastern Church, especially as found in Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), another reform-minded theologian. Our comparison begins with Symeon:

The remembrance of Christ brings light to one's mind and drives away the demons, and the light of the Holy Trinity which shines in a pure heart lifts it away from the whole world. When a man participates in this, though he is still on earth, he has a taste of the glory to come, at least in so far as he can, for although he is moved by heaven's grace he is still wrapped in the veil of flesh.[29]

A comparison of Luther's treatment of the motif of light with Symeon's:

This is why he says: "Not I, but Christ lives in me." Christ is my "form," which adorns my faith as color or light adorns a wall. (This fact has to be expounded in this crude way, for there is no spiritual way for us to grasp the idea that Christ clings and dwells in us as closely and intimately as light or whiteness clings to a wall. [emphasis added] "Christ," he says, "is fixed and cemented to me and abides in me. The life that I now live, He lives in me. Indeed, Christ Himself is the life that I now live. In this way, therefore, Christ and I are one." Living in me as He does, Christ abolishes the Law, damns sin, and kills death. Abiding and living in me, Christ removes and absorbs all the evils that torment and afflict me. This attachment to Him causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ and His kingdom of grace, righteousness, peace, joy, life, salvation, and eternal glory.[30]

In Symeon, the light shines in, and in Luther the light shines on --slight difference in pronoun, and we do not want to build a case on one example, nevertheless it is a clue to Luther's fresh insight that God's power is alien. Below Symeon gives what is the very typical eastern exposition of theosis:

120. What is the aim of the incarnate dispensation of God's Word ?? The only aim is that, having entered into what is our own, we should participate in what is His. The Son of God has become Son of Man in order to make us, men, sons of God, raising our race by grace to what He is Himself by nature, granting us this kingdom of heaven within us (Luke xvii. 21) in order that we should not only be fed by the hope of entering it, but entering into full possession thereof should cry: our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3: 3).[31]

Compare with Luther's commentary on Ps 82:7:

As we have often said, the Word of God hallows and deifies everything to which it is applied. Therefore those estates that are appointed in God's Word are all holy, divine estates, even though the persons in them are not holy. Thus father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, servant, maid, preacher, pastor?all these are holy and divine positions in life, even though the persons in these positions may be knaves and rascals[32]

Luther was not interested in theosis as an end to a richer spiritual life, he carried it through to include vocation and the priesthood of all believers. Our comparison concludes with a quote from the Sermon on the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul::

For it is true that man helped by grace is more than a man; indeed, the grace of God gives him the form of God and deifies him, so that even the Scriptures call him "God" and God's son. Thus a man must be extended beyond flesh and blood and become more than man, if he is to become good. And this begins when a man acknowledges that of himself this is impossible, humbly seeks the grace of God, and utterly despairs of himself; only then do good works follow. Thus, when grace has been obtained, then you have a free will; then do what in you lies.[33]

We would not want to leave this section without stating clearly that there are other differences between Luther and Symeon. A Protestant's first reading of Symeon shows dissimilarities to "grace alone," that adding anything to grace is a work. Below we see an example of a thought in harmony and disharmony with Luther's teaching:

76. The grace of the Holy Spirit is given as a pledge to souls that are betrothed to Christ; and just as without a pledge a woman cannot be sure that her union with her man will take place, so the soul will have no firm assurance that it will be joined for eternity with its Lord and God, or be united with Him mystically and inexpressibly, or enjoy His unapproachable beauty, unless it receives the pledge of His grace and consciously possesses Him within itself.[34]

We see in the following the eastern inclusion of "the practice of commandments," that Luther would have objected to. Though we must remember that the east views cooperation differently from the west, the eastern teaching of theosis always includes this assertion of living out the law, which is a stumbling block for Protestants:

77. just as an engagement is not binding unless the documents of the contract bear the signatures of trustworthy witnesses, so the illumination of grace is dependent upon the practice of the commandments and the actualization of the virtues. What witnesses are to a contract, the virtues and the practice of the commandments are to spiritual betrothal: through them everyone who is going to be saved secures the consummation of the pledge.[35]

Two Luther scholars' review: was Luther a mystic? In a Luther Colloquy at the Gettysburg Seminary on October 31, 2001, Prof. Birgit Stolt gave a lecture entitled "Joy, Love and Trust -- Basic Ingredients in Luther's Theology of the Faith of the Heart." Prof. Stolt gives a succinct answer to the Was Luther a Mystic? question. "Yes and no?But again it seems to me to be a case of "testing it all and keeping what is good." Arguments for the "No" position include:

In a temperamental Table Talk he criticized Bonaventura´s and Dionysius´ "speculative scientia theologum:" "He [Bonaventura] has almost made me mad when I tried to experience God's union with my soul as a combination of intellect and will, as he babbled." The mystical theology of Dionysius he called "purest nonsense" (mystica theologia Dionisii sunt merissimae nugae). They were just fanatics, Luther said, the true speculative theology was more practical: "Believe in Christ and do your duty"(TR 1, nr 644) He had himself experienced something of the raptus, the rapture of the mystical union (unio mystica), so that he recognised what the apostle Paul calls "being called up as far as the third heaven" (2 Cor 12, 2ff.), and alluded to it (WA 11,117, 35-36; WA 4,265,30f.), but seemingly without attaching much importance to it. Above all he did not make this rapture an aim in itself, to be sought by spiritual exercises, as the speculative mystics did. He claimed that rapture was evoked by Christ, not by spiritual techniques and endeavours.

Birgit Stolt quoted the following in support of the "Yes" position:

"... in the concrete experience of Christian faith in the innermost recesses of the soul, in Luther's terminology the heart, there are great affinities. Luther talked of a "raptus mentis," enrapture of the soul, "in the clear knowledge of the faith, as the true extasis." The claim: "Experience alone makes a theologian" (sola experiencia facit theologus TR1, nr.46), and the definition of mysticism as a "wisdom of experience and not of doctrine" Luther borrowed from Bernard de Clairvaux.[36]

Birgit Stolt refers her listeners to Bengt Hoffman, and says correctly that Hoffman is the one person who gives a compelling answer to the question why Luther scholars state that Luther did not value the subjective faith experience. She writes, "He makes outstandingly clear that in Luther research mysticism has not been properly recognized as a creative force in Luther's thought. In Luther and the Mystics Hoffman includes a critical examination of earlier research in this field."[37]

Bengt Hoffman (1913-1997) was a professor of ethics and ecumenics at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1976, he published Luther and the Mystics which argued for a fuller understanding of the faith experience Luther had and taught. This was followed by a work in Swedish in 1989, Hjärtats teologi and the recent posthumous release, Theology of the Heart: The Role of Mysticism in the Theology of Martin Luther. Hoffman writes that Luther was immediately misinterpreted by a Melanchthonian logical-intellectualism, Confessional-Orthodoxy's return to scholasticism, anti-Roman prejudice against mysticism, and the influence of a Newtonian, mechanistic world-view. Hoffman also shows how 19th century Lutheran-orthodoxy was as negatively prejudiced against mysticism and any interpretation with a supernatural element as their 17th century counterparts. The former shared the burden of the 20th century Neo-orthodox, liberal theologians.[38] The thesis of Luther and the Mystic is:

Martin Luther's faith-consciousness was significantly molded by mystical experience and that western dependence on rationalism has obscured or eclipsed this mystical light. This is to say that the rational attributes of trustworthiness and loving care ascribed to God and the corresponding realities of faith and trustworthiness found in man, are shot through with non-rational intimations, experiences of fascinating, awe-inspiring and bliss-giving presence. His language about God living in the heart was not only figurative. It was based on actual experience. The rational terms for God-man union were underpinned by mystical knowledge. [39]

Hoffman explains the forces which led to this neglect of Luther's subjective side of theology:

As we have seen, various presuppositions in both confessional-orthodox and liberal-critical theology have almost obscured the experience aspect of Luther's gospel apprehension. Experience is Luther's word for an immediate God-relationship through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Forces shaped a Luther image and a Lutheran kind of theologizing which lacks dynamics. First, soon after his death there was a return to scholastic-rationalistic orthodoxy where the Word became the focal point to the exclusion of all Roman Catholic tradition. That was and is the line of Lutheran orthodoxy. Second, theology borrowed its apologetic frame of reference from modern Newtonian science, which was making rapid advances. That which was explainable and scientifically verifiable, according to the codes of exact science, became theology's sole methodological norm. Luther was brought before the tribunal of modernity's sober causality thinking and, like biblical events and personalities, found either wanting or profoundly modern. The mystical life was judged to be of no essential concern to him. Third, theologians representing a wide range of theological opinion have, through their attempts to systemize Luther's thought, have been governed by a desire to prove that every important point of the Lutheran evangelical faith is diametrically opposed to its Roman Catholic counterpart. The result is that Luther's affinity with some mystics and his belief that the Christian life is in part an immediate experiential life in God has been disregarded.[40]

In his redemption-reality Luther held the objective dogma in dialectical tension with the subjective experience. When Lutherans follow the path outlined above, they lose that tension.

No look at Luther and mysticism can skip over the question of how much Luther was influenced by the German mystics.[41] There is a fair amount of research into this and Hoffman and another Swede, Bengt Hägglund are the experts. "Why was Luther drawn in a special way to Theologia Germanica, Johann Tauler, and Staupitz? His answer: they confirmed and supported Luther's own discovery of the biblical message?doctrines of piety not theoretical speculation? When they said ?Come to God' they meant it as personal invitation from a personal savior."[42]

Perhaps Hoffman would agree that to be entangled in the question on whether Luther was a mystic or not is to miss the point. Luther was pointing to something, "When we say Luther was mystical in the sense that he recognized the presence of spiritual friends among mystics, we are actually saying - and this bears repeating - not that he owed conceptual debts to mysticism but that he found some of its expressions of immediate divine presence congenial with his own deepest experience.[43] Luther's experience was of a saving faith, and the technical category of "mysticism' played only a small part in this thought. When he wrote his introduction to Theologia Germanica in 1518 he referred to its content as a "German theology," not as a German mysticism."[44] Luther wrote theology as Vladimir Lossky described it earlier, "In the West theology means ?systematic theoretical knowledge relating to God,' where in the Orthodox tradition it means ?a gift of the Spirit, the gift of speaking about God with deep insight and with powerful winning words.'"[45]

Reading Hoffman is for his insights into the heart of Luther, which is indeed one of the keys to Luther's thoughts. Hoffman spells out the heart of Luther's innovation of theosis: "Faith to Luther, Rudolph Otto reminded us, was ?the Holy Spirit in the heart, the mighty creative thing.' Participation in God transforms, conforms, and unifies for it implies a sharing in something which is more than, and beyond, man. This was, it would seem, Luther's thought on participation in God."[46]


This is historical theological research on the teaching of Luther, and it should be interesting to note that the word "justification" was used rarely. That only leads to conclude the word justification is not required for Lutheran theology. We can use terms of union such as grip, cling, adhesion, as well as nearness, relation, presence, living with, loving, or even marriage. If there is something even more basic than justification or theosis to bring unity, it is a term that describes both, participation. "Christ and the church, are one body, two in one flesh, two beloved and one beloved. For by its very nature love makes lovers one, so that they are one in love. Therefore the Lord and the church are one body, head and body one Christ in a mystical sense and thus one beloved."[47]

Was Luther a mystic? Is there a convergence between Luther's understanding of justification/sanctification and Orthodox theosis? We must answer both questions, "Yes, and no." There are convergences in all important respects, but it is better to hold up Luther's fresh insights and points of departure to the light than to try and cover them up. We would not want ecumenics to rule historical research. Besides, Luther himself needs a little reformation. No one, including Luther, said he was perfect. But what better foundation for ecumenics have we than this neglected side of Luther to build upon?

There is a clear need for more research, especially around questions raised by Dennis Bielfeldt about the Finnish Luther research[48] and by Kerry Robichaux concerning the misappropriation of the term theosis.[49] However, we must remember that what was Christological in Luther and the west, was Pneumatological in the east. Both, however, had a common soteriological basis. One of the two primary texts used to spell out theosis - II Peter 1:4 - reads: "For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature." This is a mystery that is objective and subjective, doctrinal and experiential, an interpenetrating unity of external history and internal event. [50] That interpenetrating unity, or perichoresis, describes the life of the three Persons and our life as they bring us into their energy. The key to unity between East and West is a sharing in the things of the Spirit until both sides have a full Trinitarian theology. As Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen writes,

Ecumenically in general and with regard to, e.g., Pentecostal-Lutheran relations in particular, it is extremely significant that it seems to be possible to express the classical Reformation doctrine of salvation and justification in pneumatological terms. This is especially significant when we take into account the fact that traditionally Reformation theology, especially in its Lutheran form, has been so slow to adopt pneumatological orientation in its emphasis on forensic-juridical approaches both in Christology and soteriology. Luther's original writings, however carry a clear pneumatological potential.[51]

Common ground is found in Luther's idea of the believer's participation in the life of God.

Sources Consulted

The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal Charismatic Movements. Burgess, Stanley, ed. Grand Rapids:Zondervan, 2002.

Union with Christ: the New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Braaten, Carl and Jenson, Richard, eds., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation. Available at accessed 7/14/2003.

Bielfeldt, D. "Deification as a motif in Luther's Dictata." The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 28 28(2), 1997.

Burgess, Stanley. The Holy Spirit: Ancient Christian Traditions. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1984.

________The Holy Spirit: Eastern Christian Traditions. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989.

________The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1984.

Maximus Confessor. Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

Edwards, H. "Justification, Sanctification and the Eastern Orthodox Concept of Theosis." Consensus 14(1): 65-80, 1998.

Florovsky, G. Christianity and Culture. Belmont: Nordland, 1974.

Fragapane, C. "Salvation by Christ: A Response to Credenda / Agenda on Orthodoxy's Teaching of Theosis and the Doctrine of Salvation." Available at Accessed 6/14/2003.

Hinlicky, P. "Theological Anthropology: Toward Integrating Theosis and Justification." Journal of Ecumenical Studies 34(1): 34-73, 1997.

Hoffman, B. Luther and the Mystics. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976.

________ Theology of the Heart: The Role of Mysticism in the Theology of Martin Luther. Minneapolis, Kirk House Publishers, 1998.

Irenaeus. Ancient Christian Writers. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952.

Karkkainen, V.-M. "The Ecumenical Potential of Pneumatology." Gregorianum 80(1): 121-145, 1999.

________ "The Ecumenical Potential of the Eastern Doctrine of Theosis: Emerging convergences in Lutheran and Free Church Soteriologies." Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Toward Healing Our Divisions: Reflecting on Pentecostal Diversity and Common Witness 1(27), 1999.

________ Toward a Pneumatological Theology. Lanham: University Press of America, 2002.

________ "Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous: The Ecumenical Promise of a New Interpretation of Luther." One in Christ 37(2): 32-45, 2002.

________ "The Holy Spirit and Justification: the ecumenical significance of Luther's doctrine of salvation." Pneuma 24(1): 26-39, 2002.

Lindberg, C. The Third Reformation? Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983.

Lossky, V. The Mystical Thelogy of the Eastern Church. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1952.

Luther, M. Luther's Works. [CD-ROM] Minneapolis, St.Louis: Fortress Press/Concordia Publishing, 2002.

Macchia, F. D. "Justification through New Creation; The Holy Spirit and the Doctrine by Which the Church Stands or Falls." Theology Today: 202-217, 2000.

McGrath, A. E. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Ozment, S. The Age of Reform: 1250-1550, An Intellectual and Religious History of Late medieval and Reformation Europe, Yale University Press, 1980.

Palamas, G. The Triads. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Peura, S. "The Essence of Luther's Spirituality." Seminary Ridge Review (winter): 16-33, 2000.

Pelikan, J. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Rakestraw, R. V. "Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis." Journal of Evangelical Theology 40(2): 257-269, 1997.

Reu, M. Luther's German Bible. Columbus: Lutheran Book Concern, 1934.

Robichaux, K. S. "Becoming like Theosists: A Critique of Robert V. Rakestraw's "Evangelical Doctrine" of Theosis." Affirmation and Critique April: 53-59, 1989.

Rupp, G. The Righteousness of God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1968.

Stolt, B. "Joy, Love and Trust -- Basic Ingredients in Luther's Theology of the Faith of the Heart." The Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, Luther Colloquy Lectures, 2001.">

Symeon, Saint the New Theologian Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Practical and Theological Precepts. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.

________ On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses Vol. 1: The Church and the Last Things. Crestwood: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995.

________ Practical and Ethical Texts, The Philokalia, Vol. I. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Wicks, J. Man Yearning for Grace. Washington: Corpus Books, 1968.

________ Luther and His Spiritual Legacy. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983.


[1]Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953) 182, quoting Karl Holl, Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Kirchengeshichte, 3 vols., Tubigen, 1948, 123.

[2]For an introduction in English to the Finnish school of Luther research, see Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, Carl E. Braaten and Robert Jenson, editors (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998). The dean and leader of these Finnish scholars, Tuomo Mannermaa of the Systematic Theology faculty of the University of Helsinki acknowledges that the dialogue between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church begun in the early 1970s gave birth to these "new" Luther studies. The real presence of Christ in the believer is seen as the core of Luther's theology and a central feature of his doctrine of justification. Real presence becomes connected with an "ontological" understanding of theology. This becomes an important addition to future work on the Word and eschatological Spirit. The Finns see that the Christian message deals with the concrete reality. The Finnish approach is often very critical of earlier research paradigms, claiming that the post-Enlightenment Luther research has been seriously burdened by confessional and philosophical pre-conditions.

[3] For an introduction see Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976).

[4] Ibid, 8-9.

[5] Space allows only for a look at Tauler, Theologia Germanica, and Bernard of Clairvaux as representing German and Latin mysticism.

[6] See Veli-Matti Karkkainen, "Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous: The Ecumenical Promise of a New Interpretation of Luther," in One in Christ, 37:2, (April 2002)

[7] Mannermaa, Union with Christ, 15.

[8] E. Gordon Rupp, Righteousness of God, 194.

[9] For a Lutheran perspective on the non-meritorious synergy of the east see Paul Hinlicky's article," Theological Anthropology: Toward Integrating Theosis and Justification," Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 34:1, (Winter 1997): 51-53.

[10] Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A history of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), 182.

[11] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 4.

[12] Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 8-9.

[13]Jared Wicks, S.J., Man Yearning for Grace (Washington, D.C.: Corpus Publications, 1968)

[14]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol.10,First Lectures on the Psalms I: Psalms 1-75, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann [CD-ROM]( Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1974).

[15]Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy (Michael Glazer, Inc: Wilmington 1983), 62.

[16]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol.10.

[17] Wicks, Man Yearning for Grace), 45-51.

[18] Ibid.

[19]Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol.10.

[20]Ibid, 207.

[21]Ibid, 207.

[22]Ibid, 207.

[23]Ibid, 212.

[24]Ibid, 214.

[25]Ibid, 217.


[27]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 31, 73-74.

[28]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 26, 168.

[29] St. Symeon the New Theologian, "The Practical and Theological Chapters"

[30]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 26,167.

[30]St. Simeon the New Theologian, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Practical and Theological Precepts, 120, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983) 126.

[32]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 13, Selected Psalms II, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1956), 70.

[33]Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 51, Sermons I , ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press.,1999, c1959), 58.

[34] St Simeon the New Theologian, Practical and Ethical Texts, The Philokalia, Vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber 1995), 120.

[34] Ibid.

[36] Birgit Stolt: "Joy, Love and Trust -- Basic Ingredients in Luther's Theology of the Faith of the Heart," Luther Colloquy Lectures 2001 October 31, 2001 available at">

accessed 6/21/03.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Bengt Hoffman, Luther and the Mystics (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), 19.

[39] Ibid, 18-19.

[40] Ibid, 101.

[41] I wrote about this in an unpublished paper, "Just What Did Luther Discover." The most exhaustive research has been done by Hoffman in the works cited above and in his Introduction in the Paulist Press edition of Theologia Germanica from The Classics of Western Spirituality Series.

[42] Hoffman, Luther and the Mystics, 160.

[43] Ibid, 121.

[44] Ibid, 121.

[45]from the translator's notes to the Philokalia found in Hoffman, Theology of the Heart, 11.

[46]Luther and the Mystics, 177.

[47] Luther, Luther's works, vol. 10, First Lectures on the Psalms I , 207.

[48] See Dennis Bielfeldt, "Deification as a motif in Luther's Dictata," The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 28, no. 2, (1997).

[49]See Kerry Robichaux, "Becoming like Theosists: A Critique of Robert V. Rakestraws ?Evangelical Doctrine' of Theosis" Affirmation and Critique, (April 1998).

[50] Hoffman, Luther and the Mystics, 121.

[51] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, "The Ecumenical Potential of the Eastern Doctrine of Theosis: Emerging convergences in Lutheran and Free Church Soteriologies," in Toward Healing Our Divisions: Reflecting on Pentecostal Diversity and Common Witness. It is an address to the 28th Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Springfield, MO, March 11-13, 1999 (Vol. I, 27).

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Date Added: 1/5/2005 Date Revised: 1/5/2005 2:53:58 PM

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