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About Luther and the Reformation - In conversation with Thomas Kaufmann

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Luther's posting of the theses. On the occasion of this event, the Göttingen church historian and chairman of the Association for the History of the Reformation presented himself Prof. Dr. Thomas Kaufmann Ingeborg Lüdtke's questions about Luther and the Reformation.


Ingeborg Lüdtke: The Evangelical Church in Germany is the amalgamation of independent Lutheran, Reformed and United regional churches. They belong to 14,800 legally independent parishes.
What would Martin Luther say about this today? Did the Reformation Fail?

Thomas Kaufmann: Luther thought of the church primarily in terms of the congregation. In this respect, the large number of independently existing communities is not a scandal. Luther tried to strengthen the regional church as much as possible. That was realistic under the conditions of the sixteenth century. The sovereigns then built up an ecclesiastical order within their political area of ​​responsibility, which was uniform for this area. It was important to him that communion should not be celebrated in one village and differently in another. I believe that this function is still very important. Otherwise, this is regularly a cause for nonsensical and unnecessary conflicts. It is difficult to say how Luther would otherwise judge our overall theological or ecclesiastical situation. It is clear that today we have different churches in a city like Göttingen as a matter of course: the Reformed, the majority church: the Lutherans, the Catholic Church, church communities, groups, Baptists, Mennonites, etc. That would have been inconceivable for Luther. In principle, he stuck to the idea that a religion should also rule within a community. We feel that there is a Jewish community in Göttingen today as a great happiness, indeed a blessing. That would have been offensive to Luther.

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IL: When you talk about the Reformation, you can't ignore Martin Luther. However, the view of Martin Luther has changed. Initially, he was almost revered as the Messiah and his contributions to Bible translation were highlighted. Today his anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic sentiments are openly addressed.
How is Martin Luther viewed today?

TK: The image of Luther today is certainly more diverse than ever. I guess at the book market you can study that very different approaches to Luther are being sought. From my point of view, this plural image of Luther is no harm, but in a plural society it is almost inevitable and self-evident. Luther is no longer a clearly heroic figure of identification. This is due to the high degree of ambivalences in the issues that concern us particularly today - multi-religious societies, dealing with Islam, the relationship to Judaism - questions that Luther find answers that can by no means be satisfactory for our time and our society . Different approaches and social developments put us at a distance from Luther. I also think that for an ideologically diverse, pluralistic society, it is not simply sensible and possible to venerate individual individuals as leading icons. This will not succeed with any figure, it would also fail with regard to Goethe and other, so to speak, very strongly accentuated and positive figures in the German past. In this respect, this development does not stop at Luther. Today we also see that besides Luther, a whole range of other actors, who were little emphasized in the past, were important and decisively influenced the process of the Reformation.

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IL: A social and religious upheaval doesn't happen overnight. What changes paved the way for Luther's theology?

TK: On the one hand, Luther's theology developed against the background of an existing theological school system, from which, the longer the more, he separated. We call this school system "scholastic theology". It was characterized by the fact that the logic was based on Aristotle, that a strict logical argumentation was practiced and that written testimonies alongside traditional testimonies were, as it were, leveled out against arguments of reason. Luther wanted to gain access to God and theology exclusively through the Holy Scriptures. This one-sidedness meant that essential parts of scholastic theology or traditions, but also argumentation strategies, no longer came into question for him. In this regard, Luther was definitely a child of his time, for scholasticism was also criticized by other intellectuals. The so-called humanists - Erasmus of Rotterdam, etc. - resisted the dominance of scholasticism, which was characterized by a particularly poor form of Latin. Luther took up these tendencies. There is also another source that is commonly referred to as “German mysticism”. Luther read edifying writings in the German language, and it was very important to him that the same theological thoughts and ideas should be spread not only in school but also in the pulpit, including among the common man. What was characteristic of scholastic university theology, namely to produce a theology primarily for scholars, was offensive to him. He wanted theology to reach the public space and no other theology to be proclaimed from the pulpit than that which is taught in the lecture hall.

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IL: Initially, Martin Luther only wanted to change the Catholic Church. What did he criticize in his 95 theses?

TK: The 95 theses related to indulgences. Indulgence aims to eradicate the sins that are to be compensated for by appropriate penance, i.e. a debt that has remained open, which would have to be compensated by corresponding prayer and by corresponding penance, fasting, etc., through an indulgence. Luther saw in indulgence a flattening of penance. For him, the Christian life was decisively shaped by repentance and therefore geared towards moving in radical following of Jesus. The penitential institute was so close to his heart and indulgences, so to speak, as an erosion, as a weakening of penance meant for him a flattening of Christianity and Christian existence. Basically, he applied to every Christian the harsh standards of a penitential existence that he was used to as a monk, i.e. a radical intensification of the penitential effort, which he compensated on the other hand by giving the Christian the grace of God, i.e. not is considered the result of one's own efforts.

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IL: What made Luther radically turn away from the Catholic Church?

TK: The divergence between Luther and the contemporary Catholic Church was basically a reciprocal movement. I would say: on the one hand Luther was rejected and rejected, on the other hand he affirmed this rejection. The pivotal point is the condemnation by the papal church - in the form of the bull Exsurge Domine from June 1520, which Luther then answered with the burning of this bull and canon law, the legal basis of the Roman Church. Basically, he reacted to the excommunication that happened to him with a counter-excommunication from the papal church. It is a mutual exclusion phenomenon, which is essentially due to the fact that Luther's teaching, as he has repeatedly stated, has not been refuted, but that he was condemned by virtue of an arbitrary legal act and the 40 doctrines that formed the basis of condemnation, thus the basis of Exsurge Domine, were picked out very arbitrarily and questioned facts of which he was convinced - largely with good reason - that they are biblically founded. So this arbitrary act without refutation by the Holy Scriptures brought him into a distance that could not be corrected again from the power apparatus of the Roman Church.

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IL: Why did the Reformation initially have little effect in Göttingen?

TK: Göttingen belongs to the relatively late or phase-delayed Hanseatic North German Reformations. I attribute the relatively delayed development of the Reformation in a city like Göttingen primarily to linguistic and historical issues. Göttingen belonged to the Low German language area and Reformation journalism was largely carried out in the early New High German language. So, Luther's texts were only received in a very low density in a place like Göttingen. We know from the beginnings of the Reformation movement in Göttingen that it was cloth miners, that it was the Reformation songs that led to the formation of identity, that led to the formation of parties and then to confrontations. So against this Bartholomä parade or parade against the English welders on Bartholomäustag stood up, squires singing Luther songs braced themselves. This is a constellation that we have in various Hanseatic cities that speak in favor of a Reformation process that did not originate from the intellectuals and administrative elites, but rather from groups of craftsmen who made people mobile. This is often different in the Upper German Reformations, where it is, so to speak, the elites who take up Reformation content relatively quickly through reading processes. In addition, in the case of Göttingen it is a country town that is ruled by the Calenberg dukes, and so the decision in favor of the Reformation was in open contradiction to the religious-political direction of the sovereign. That released potential for conflict.

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IL: Martin Luther was not the first to translate the Bible into German. What was special about his translation of the Bible was that it also understood the people. It standardized the many German dialects.
Did Luther translate directly from the original languages ​​or partially from the Latin translation of Erasmus of Rotterdam and the Vulgate?

TK: With the translation of the Bible, Luther certainly achieved a particularly significant and to him particularly important achievement. As far as the linguistic-historical dimension is concerned, I would emphasize very strongly that a process of standardizing early New High German in the written language was initiated before Luther, through the Saxon chancellery dialect and the language at the imperial court. This written language already existed. For Luther's translation, the decisive factor was that he thought of the possibilities of the target language - that is, German - that is: “What sounds appropriate? How would you express it in German? ”He breaks with translation theory, which tries to stay as close as possible to the original. Luther used the original languages ​​as a basis for his translation, i.e. the Hebrew for the Old Testament and the Greek for the New Testament. But he was shaped by the Vulgate, the Latin edition of the Bible, which he had in mind. Luther read through the entire Bible twice a year, year in and year out, so he even knew the Bible by heart for a large part. You can often see that in his wrong quotations, he quotes from his head, he usually doesn't look up. As a result, of course, there was always a great deal of Vulgate in his reading and translation of the Greek New Testament. So, you can't separate them.
Erasmus is important - there is evidence that he has used the Erasmus Novum Instrumentum since 1516. Erasmus was important because his Latin translation relativized the dominant validity of the Vulgate as the standard translation - the Latin standard translation in the Roman Catholic Church. So the look at Erasmus ‘Novum Instrumentum was, so to speak, day-to-day business for Luther and was used in many places to clear up a meaning of the Vulgate in German that seemed problematic to him. It is a translation process that Luther carried out in teamwork with regard to the Old Testament. The New Testament was also revised with [Freiherr von] Lanstein, that is, the translation he made. So: he worked in a team. You always have to imagine a reference library where you looked and where you tried, especially with difficult Hebrew vocabulary that was only used once - so-called "Hapax Legomena" - to find out what is actually meant.

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IL: Roland Bainton writes in his Luther biography that Luther translated the Psalms quite freely. He also mentions that he translated “justification by faith” as “justification by faith alone”.
How accurate is Luther's translation of the Bible?

TK: That was a matter of dispute as early as the 16th century. In his letter on interpreting, Luther dealt extensively with this question as to whether it was legitimate that he had justified it in Romans 3:28 “solely” based on faith. It's not in Greek, not even in Latin. It is an interpretation and Luther defended himself by inserting these particles to clarify the meaning of the verse and to clarify the apostle's statement. This is an interpretive intervention, but we all know that translations are always interpretations; H. there is no such thing as a translation that is free of interpretation. Luther wanted to sharpen the understanding of this verse, and so he did in a number of places. Reason for the fact that we theologians are still learning the ancient languages ​​in order to be able to assess translation decisions of this kind and, if necessary, also to be able to correct them.

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IL: Martin Luther emphasized the use of the name of God. In his translation of the Bible, however, instead of the name of God, he writes LORD in capital letters. It was common then to use the name Jehovah.
TK: So the word Jehovah is a special pronunciation of the Old Testament name of God.
It is the tetragram, the unpronounceable name of God with vowel signs - Hebrew has consonants, letters and vowel signs - with the vowel signs of the word Elohim, the generic name for God, which results in this pronunciation. Luther usually writes in the translation where Jachwe or Jehovah stands with the vocalization Adonai, LORD.

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IL: What did the Reformation bring to the Christian world?

TK: The Reformation brought differentiation to the Christian world, a new understanding of its foundations. It has brought salutary unrest into a hierarchical church system, and it is, I would still say, a source of disquiet in the Protestant church that actually exists today, because the recourse to the Reformation, especially the early Reformation, shows how much of possibilities, of fermentation. In this respect, the Reformation has clearly become a development factor that goes beyond itself on the way to western modernity. Western modernity is not only the product of the Reformation.But through impulses that came from the Reformation, in terms of educational history, also with regard to the priesthood of all believers - i.e. participation, cooperation, etc. - impulses were set free in the 16th century, That you remembered in later times, that you took in, that you carried on and that then also led to social changes. For example, through the new acceptance of the priesthood of all believers in Pietism, impulses have been released which have then brought about democratic developments in other social contexts, for example in North America. In this respect, the effects that emanated from the Reformation are very diverse, sometimes diffuse, but still intact today.

You can download the audio file here.

© Ingeborg Lüdtke and Thomas Kaufmann

You can find out more about the anniversary of the Reformation in Göttingen here.