Revolutionary Thinkers

Powerful ideas that shook the world

Luther the Revolutionary

Mark Ellingsen reflects on the legacy of Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a revolutionary who changed the world. But what did he do? He ushered in the modern world, with its stress on individual autonomy, some scholars say. By contrast, others caution that he was a late Medieval man who maintained fidelity to tradition, a characteristic of early modernity which has impeded the full blossoming of democratic principles. A growing cadre counter that claim by noting that he was the most significant figure in the development of today’s European social democracies and their generous safety-nets, a real economic revolutionary (Marx and Lenin notwithstanding). Others offer the rebuttal that he was the heart of Nazi propaganda against the Jewish community. Many call him the Father of Protestantism, a revolutionary development. Others counter that he wanted to remain Catholic, that his conservative Reformation was not the beginning of Protestantism, that Zwingli and Calvin deserve that honor. Nevertheless his theological convictions divided the Church. And yet today ecumenical scholars and many church leaders find his theology to have rich potential in unifying all Christians. How can the thought of one 16th-century German teaching at an obscure, back-water university have made that much of a difference?             


Palgrave Macmillan has released a book about Martin Luther’s thought, a book that can help you sort out how Luther could change the world in all these ways and still have coherence in his theology. Martin Luther’s Legacy: Reforming Reformation Theology for the 21st Century introduces you to the many sides of the first Reformer’s rich thought. This is not a book about his life. There are plenty of books telling those familiar stories (more than we need). No, this is a book about his theology, because it is his thought, not so much his life, that is in the spotlight when we measure Luther’s revolutionary contributions. 


One of the reasons for Luther’s profound impact in so many different ways is the richness in his thought. Every other book on Luther’s theology minimizes that richness, either critiquing it, neglecting it, or attributing it to development in his thought, that what he says that is friendly to Catholicism or to Tradition is a function of his early thought, later discarded. This is why we have so many different versions of Luther and his revolution.  Martin Luther’s Legacy is the book to prove once and for all that these ways of reading Luther are half-right, and so ultimately wrong! You’ll also learn how, like his spiritual mentor St. Augustine, he could hold all these different ways of thinking together, and that is another way in which the Reformer’s thought may be revolutionary for the Church and scholarship in the field of Religion today. 


Protestant churches in America need Reform, need a revolution. The book’s subtitle promises to sketch an avenue for reforming Reformation Theology. Much has been written about the pronounced growth of the Nones (the religiously unaffiliated) in America. And it is precisely reform that the churches need to stem the growing tide of secularism and religious ignorance.  


A significant factor explaining why the Church in the West is struggling is that the prevailing models for Theology have imposed logical and modern ways of thinking about faith that renders theology academic, and therefore largely irrelevant for daily life. By letting the first Reformer speak for himself, this book shows how Martin Luther’s theological approach can reform the Church’s theology today. The real Luther - not the one taught by his various systematic interpreters - presents Christian faith in its entirety, with all its rough edges, testifying to the whole of the Biblical witness. This Luther was a Pastor. The diversity in his thought is a function of what good pastors do, find which dimensions of the Biblical witness best address the context. The pattern in this diversity that is identified in Martin Luther’s Legacy can help the Church today learn when best to say the things Reformation traditions need to say in the various contexts for ministry. 


We learn from Luther what seems to be common sense – a common-sense academic theology, but the seminaries have not been teaching it. We learn that when  dealing with pride, with someone with a Donald Trump-syndrome who thinks his way is the only way, that you need to stress our sinfulness, God’s Providential control over all things. But Luther reminds us that when ministry is with those with low self-esteem, those getting the shaft in our new economy, unconditional love is the message for them.       


Formulating an academic theology in that way, one with pastoral sensitivity, a theology that affirms the autonomy and individual judgment of modernity along with a late Medieval affection for Tradition, a theology which makes clear distinctions between itself and religious alternatives while still appreciating the morality of the other, a theology which works with the realities of capitalism like Luther did but takes lessons from him about humanizing it with safety-nets and government regulation, would amount to a revolution in  Religious Studies! When we embrace Martin Luther’s full legacy, we hear echoes of the bugle call for this new (really old) revolution in making Theology and Religious Studies relevant for today.


© SpringerMark Ellingsen is a Professor of Church History at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He is the author of 20 books and hundreds of published articles, many devoted to Luther and the Reformation heritage. His most important books on Luther are Sin Bravely and Reclaiming Our Roots: From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr. His book Martin Luther's Legacy is available now.

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