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Luther's Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther's Theological Breakthrough

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This book presents the most detailed examination in English to date of Luther's theological breakthrough, together with a wealth of information concerning the theological development of the young Luther in its late medieval context. This book presents the most detailed examination in English to date of Luther's theological breakthrough, together with a wealth of information concerning the theological development of the young Luther in its late medieval context.


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This book presents the most detailed examination in English to date of Luther's theological breakthrough, together with a wealth of information concerning the theological development of the young Luther in its late medieval context. This book presents the most detailed examination in English to date of Luther's theological breakthrough, together with a wealth of information concerning the theological development of the young Luther in its late medieval context.

30 review for Luther's Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther's Theological Breakthrough

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nathan

    (This review was submitted as a class project.) McGrath plunges into the formidable mass of Luther scholarship to reach his own conclusions regarding the nature and date of Luther’s theological breakthrough and the relation of that breakthrough to his distinctive theology: the theologia crucis. He concludes that the precise point on which Luther broke past the late medieval theological systems was in his discovery of the new meaning of iustitia Dei. McGrath takes upon himself two tasks in this re (This review was submitted as a class project.) McGrath plunges into the formidable mass of Luther scholarship to reach his own conclusions regarding the nature and date of Luther’s theological breakthrough and the relation of that breakthrough to his distinctive theology: the theologia crucis. He concludes that the precise point on which Luther broke past the late medieval theological systems was in his discovery of the new meaning of iustitia Dei. McGrath takes upon himself two tasks in this regard. First, he seeks to demonstrate that all of Luther’s thought up to this breakthrough fits within the existing paradigms of late medieval theology. Second, he contends that the later theologia crucis was the natural result of working out the implications of his breakthrough. McGrath dates the breakthrough at 1515, and the terminus of his investigation between 1518 and 1519 with the development of the theologia crucis. McGrath details three great influences on Luther’s early thought. The first was the studia humanitatis. This is significant because of its rejection of scholasticism and the insistence on returning to original sources, including Scripture. Also, through their efforts, there was a revival of the study of biblical languages and the publication of critical editions of ancient sources. The second great influence was the via moderna. McGrath demonstrates that Luther’s three great teachers at Erfurt and Wittenberg—Nathin, Arnoldi, and Staupitz—were adherents to this school. Their distinctive contribution to Theology was the concept of the two wills of God, the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinate. From this distinction came the idea that God could impose limitations on himself, particularly important in the establishment of a soteriological pactum with man. This concept of a divine-human pactum framed Luther’s early thought. It meant that God was willing to ascribe merit to human deeds which would otherwise have no merit outside of the pactum. Salvation, then, begins with God who establishes the pactum; then, so long a man does quod in se est, God is obligated to save him. Luther’s existential Andfechtung arises from the inability to know if one has ever truly done quod in se est. Finally, Luther is influenced by the Augustinian Order and the late medieval tendency within that Order to shift back toward the teachings of Augustine himself, such as the depravity of man and the necessity of grace. Following this, Luther’s Dictata super Psalterium is examines with the goal of establishing when it was that Luther actually broke with medieval theology. McGrath places that break near the end of Luther’s lectures on Psalms or at the beginning of his lectures on Romans. His breakthrough comes when he realizes that the mercy of God is evident in the iustitia Dei precisely because its condemnation causes man to cry out to God for mercy, but this can only be perceived by humilitas fidei. Luther comes to see the humilitas fidei as a work of God and not something the sinner can produce. From this, Luther extracts the principle that God reveals his works abscondita sub contrariis. This thought, abstracted from his breakthrough regarding the iustitia Dei, leads Luther to his theologia crucis, where God is most completely revealed in the one event we would be least likely to look for him. Aufechtung must be viewed as ultimately originating from God, and it finds resolution at the cross. Luther’s Theology of the Cross is a valuable addition to contemporary Luther scholarship. McGrath brings together a vast body of specialized literature along with his own understanding of the primary sources in dealing with a very focused and important piece of the theology of Martin Luther, and of the Reformation as a whole. It may be argued that he makes no significant new contribution to the field of Luther scholarship, other than his unique reconciliation of the data that has led to division of opinion as to the dating of his theological breakthrough, but it cannot be denied that his work is a valuable introduction and evaluation of current Luther scholarship. McGrath’s approach is instructive. It is common to take Luther’s later theology and seek to trace it as early into his career as possible. However, the results of this approach can be misleading, since similarities of expression can arise from widely divergent perspectives. McGrath contends that Luther should be studied, not in reference to his mature theology, but in reference to late medieval theology. The burden of the Luther scholar is then to demonstrate at what point Luther broke from that complex matrix. In this endeavor, McGrath shows himself more than capable, and provides valuable insight into the actual state of late medieval theology. Romanticized pictures of Luther’s break with Rome are shown to be based on too great an overgeneralization of catholic thought and at times are simply falsified. Here, also, McGrath demonstrates his own breadth of knowledge, stepping far beyond the suggested scope of his study as he stretches back into earlier eras of the church. Particularly noteworthy here is his development of the impact of Ciceronian thought and Roman Law on the development of ideas related to iustitia and the difficulty arising from imposing those ideas on the iustitia Dei. McGrath’s writing can be highly technical, though he does often and quite helpfully summarize what he has argued. His summaries and recalls are arguably redundant, but nevertheless well-placed and intentional. He is sparse but effective in his use of illustrations and his development of aspects of Luther’s story are helpful as well. In all, he is both a skilled historian and a gifted writer. One point of criticism: while dating Luther’s theological breakthrough to the period toward the end of Luther’s lectures on the Psalter and the beginning of his lectures on Romans, McGrath never introduces the possibility that Luther’s breakthrough at that point could be related to the change in content from one book to the other. It would make sense that his emphasis would be on humilitas fidei in the Psalms, bridging into his theological breakthrough regarding iustitia Dei as he entered the book of Romans. Not only does McGrath not take up this thesis, he, uncharacteristically, doesn’t even address it. It is interesting to this reviewer that McGrath never breaks away from his role as historian and himself becomes a theologian. While keeping with the intention of his book, the theological substance of the material covered must have provided a great temptation in this regard. As a theologian, this reviewer would have liked to see McGrath indulge himself. Since the rise of interest in Luther’s theologia crucis after the First World War, Luther studies have continued to multiply. McGrath may be thanked from bringing a new generation of English-speaking theologians and Church historians up to speed with much of the last century’s work.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Roycroft

    This is an in-depth study of the historical and theological factors which led to Luther’s breakthrough in the early sixteenth century. McGrath is extremely thorough in his research and balanced in his conclusions, demonstrating Luther’s place within medieval theology and worldview. Of particular help to me was the book’s handling of the righteousness of God and righteousness of faith. McGrath also illuminates some of the more troubling aspects of Luther’s later theology. Well worth the time in t This is an in-depth study of the historical and theological factors which led to Luther’s breakthrough in the early sixteenth century. McGrath is extremely thorough in his research and balanced in his conclusions, demonstrating Luther’s place within medieval theology and worldview. Of particular help to me was the book’s handling of the righteousness of God and righteousness of faith. McGrath also illuminates some of the more troubling aspects of Luther’s later theology. Well worth the time in terms of understanding Luther’s methodology and theology.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bryce Beale

    What a fantastic, in-depth look at the development of Luther's thought from 1509 (when Luther began teaching) to 1518 (when Luther presented his "theology of the cross" at the Heidelberg Disputation). This is not an introduction to the Reformation, but rather a fine-tuning of how we understand Luther's "theological breakthrough." Most of us have read Luther's recollection of that breakthrough in his preface to his collected Latin works in 1945, some three decades after the event itself; in that r What a fantastic, in-depth look at the development of Luther's thought from 1509 (when Luther began teaching) to 1518 (when Luther presented his "theology of the cross" at the Heidelberg Disputation). This is not an introduction to the Reformation, but rather a fine-tuning of how we understand Luther's "theological breakthrough." Most of us have read Luther's recollection of that breakthrough in his preface to his collected Latin works in 1945, some three decades after the event itself; in that retelling he says he was wrestling with Paul in Romans 1:16-17, especially in regard to the phrase "the righteousness of God," and then realized this was a righteousness that we receive from God through faith. At that point, he famously asserts, "I felt that I was altogether born again and the very gates of paradise opened up before me." This so-called "Tower Experience" is significant, but McGrath shows that it was part of a process with quite a lot of theological complexity. Luther was, after all, a scholar. According to McGrath, the German Reformer began with concepts of justification that were along the lines of the school of thought called the "Via Moderna," but between 1509 and 1518 he made the fateful leap from a faith originating in the sinner (ala the Via Moderna), to a faith originating in God and freely justifying the sinner. Even Luther's eventual "theology of the cross" seems to have roots in the tradition within the Augustinian order of emphasizing the suffering of Christ on Calvary.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Enderle

    McGrath does a great job tracing the theological context of the late Medieval era. He shows Martin Luther's emphasis on the Gospel was a product of various currents such as the Via Moderna. However, he shows that people around Luther and their personal interaction with him most likely had a more profound influence. And his theological breakthrough wrestling with the "righteousness of God" happened as a process that took place over many years rather than a sudden breakthrough. A short read, but c McGrath does a great job tracing the theological context of the late Medieval era. He shows Martin Luther's emphasis on the Gospel was a product of various currents such as the Via Moderna. However, he shows that people around Luther and their personal interaction with him most likely had a more profound influence. And his theological breakthrough wrestling with the "righteousness of God" happened as a process that took place over many years rather than a sudden breakthrough. A short read, but challenging.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Will N.

    I confess my knowledge of Luther is more popular than scholarly, but I found the pacing and organization of this book made the development of the central idea seem almost an afterthought and rushed near the close. It felt like 75% of the book was setup and then the actual theology of the cross itself was more of a destination to reach than an area to explore. I did not dislike the book, but I felt what it did well was not what the author seemed to see as his desired main focus.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Sverker

    I’m very impressed by this book. As far as I am concerned it has aged very well and it is a bit of a shame that McGrath discovered his knack for writing introductory books. This book is so erudite and clear at the same time and answers many questions that I have had on Luther’s relation to the via moderna and medieval theology for example. Recommended reading!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    This is a detailed study of how Luther's ideas about God's way of working in the world evolved between 1509 and 1519. McGrath's careful work produced fresh results from ground that has been gone over almost ad infinitum by generations of scholars working with a small amount of contemporary testimony.There is a special emphasis here on the link between Luther's revolutionary concept of the justice of God and his theology of the cross. McGrath sees the former as an aspect of the latter rather than This is a detailed study of how Luther's ideas about God's way of working in the world evolved between 1509 and 1519. McGrath's careful work produced fresh results from ground that has been gone over almost ad infinitum by generations of scholars working with a small amount of contemporary testimony.There is a special emphasis here on the link between Luther's revolutionary concept of the justice of God and his theology of the cross. McGrath sees the former as an aspect of the latter rather than as the central feature of Luther's thought.Other themes that I found useful:Luther learned from and retained aspects of the via moderna in which he was educated, while also reacting against it. Reading this section, I was struck by how much Luther's pre-"breakthrough" or "pre-Protestant" concept of salvation by faith alone resembles the modern evangelical concept, where a humble faith and recognition of sinful helplessness is the pre-condition (the only one) for receiving grace.Luther used the concept of Deus absconditus ('the hidden God') in two different ways: God hidden in his revelation --supremely, on the Cross-- and God hidden behind his revelation --the God of absolute predestination. Modern Luther scholars tend to confuse the two, according to McGrath. He also believes that the second way --developed in the later controversy with Erasmus-- amounts to a betrayal of the theology of cross (2004, 167). But he doesn't develop this topic further.For McGrath, Luther's key idea of his theologia crucis --namely, that God reveals himself through opposites (wisdom looks like foolishness, etc.)-- is "the most radical critique of the principle of analogy in theological discourse yet known" (159). At the same time, Luther brought analogy back in when he used marriage to illustrate salvation by faith alone. This was indeed a commonplace salvation analogy used by both Protestants and reform-minded Catholics (for example, it got the Archbishop of Toledo, Bartolomé Carranza, into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition). McGrath rightly points out that this analogy "far transcends any mere external or forensic imputation of righteousness" (174), a conclusion I became convinced of a few years ago while editing an early Spanish version of Luther's Freedom of the Christian.McGrath briefly shows the powerful effect of the theology of the cross on the post-World War Two generation, citing Jurgen Moltmann's testimony: "A theology which did not speak of God in terms of the abandoned and crucified one would not have got through to us then" (180). This made me reflect on my own evangelical generation, which tends to quickly pass by the Cross to celebrate the Resurrection. We mostly have a theology of success, prosperity, and triumph; a "theology of glory", as Luther called it. We can hardly affirm with him: "Crux sola est nostra theologia".

  8. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    I honestly was a little underwhelmed with this work. I began the book hoping that the writer would construct a thoroughgoing theology of Luther in terms of the Gospel and the cross of Christ, but that hope never really came to maturity. This work is more of an evolution of Luther’s thought on various aspects of the Gospel at various points. Much detail is devoted to the discussion of when various breakthroughs occurred in Luther’s life and much less time is spent dealing with the details of thes I honestly was a little underwhelmed with this work. I began the book hoping that the writer would construct a thoroughgoing theology of Luther in terms of the Gospel and the cross of Christ, but that hope never really came to maturity. This work is more of an evolution of Luther’s thought on various aspects of the Gospel at various points. Much detail is devoted to the discussion of when various breakthroughs occurred in Luther’s life and much less time is spent dealing with the details of these various beliefs. I felt like I profited from the work nonetheless. I would recommend this work for students of historical theology or individuals who are trying to understand this oft-misunderstood reformer in greater detail.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Slimak

    A very scholarly but readable account of the development of Luther's Theology of the Cross. The only drawback is that it seems to jump too suddenly from Luther's new understanding of the "righteousness of God" meaning God making sinners righteous to Luther's more developed theology of the cross as represented by the Heidelberg disputation. This wound not be as much of a problem if the author didn't stress that the development of Luther's theology of the cross was a continuous development and not A very scholarly but readable account of the development of Luther's Theology of the Cross. The only drawback is that it seems to jump too suddenly from Luther's new understanding of the "righteousness of God" meaning God making sinners righteous to Luther's more developed theology of the cross as represented by the Heidelberg disputation. This wound not be as much of a problem if the author didn't stress that the development of Luther's theology of the cross was a continuous development and not random fits and starts that don't fit together. The author's insistence on this didn't fit with the way it was presented in that area. Otherwise a fine study.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Радостин Марчев

    Много добро изследване (ползвам редакцията от 2011 - обложката по-горе показва по-старо издание, което е ревизирано в някои аспекти)още повече, че темата е една от по-тесните специализации на МакГрат и той е в течение на цялата сериозна литература в областта. Единственият му недостатък е сухостта на изложението и (поне за мен) прекалената наситеност с латински цитати и изрази - нещо типично за автора. Човек трябва наистина да се интересува от темата, за да се захване с книга като тази. Но за тоз Много добро изследване (ползвам редакцията от 2011 - обложката по-горе показва по-старо издание, което е ревизирано в някои аспекти)още повече, че темата е една от по-тесните специализации на МакГрат и той е в течение на цялата сериозна литература в областта. Единственият му недостатък е сухостта на изложението и (поне за мен) прекалената наситеност с латински цитати и изрази - нещо типично за автора. Човек трябва наистина да се интересува от темата, за да се захване с книга като тази. Но за този, който попада в съответната категория прочита определено се отблагодарява.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Troy Neujahr

    A scholarly study of impressive depth yet of focused breadth. McGrath's research into the development of Luther's Theology of the Cross leads to some unexpected conclusions that challenge the popular notion of what Luther believed and when, but he leaves Luther's theology intact. We come away from this book with a more nuanced understanding of the path of Luther's development without sacrificing the awe and amazement of the final result. A scholarly study of impressive depth yet of focused breadth. McGrath's research into the development of Luther's Theology of the Cross leads to some unexpected conclusions that challenge the popular notion of what Luther believed and when, but he leaves Luther's theology intact. We come away from this book with a more nuanced understanding of the path of Luther's development without sacrificing the awe and amazement of the final result.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sooho Lee

    **true rating 3.5 With historical acumen, Alister McGrath tackles one figure and topic that is filled to the brim with scholarship. He wisely limits himself to Martin Luther’s theological breakthrough: the emergence of the theologia crucis— the theology of the cross. It’s a helpful overview, but it was at times repetitive. Large portions of the later chapters repeats in detail the arguments of previous chapters, which made reading a bit boring.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Hank Pharis

    McGrath meticulously works through the evidence as to when and how Luther "rediscovered" the Gospel. He reflects extensive research, interacts with diverse other similar studies and provides a model of excellent scholarship. One of my friends provides a good review here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-re... McGrath meticulously works through the evidence as to when and how Luther "rediscovered" the Gospel. He reflects extensive research, interacts with diverse other similar studies and provides a model of excellent scholarship. One of my friends provides a good review here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-re...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Josiah Richardson

    Such a good and interesting book. McGrath is very technical and academic in this work, lots of Latin and German Theological terms throughout as it traces luther's breakthrough in his Theology from 1509 to 1518. Such a good and interesting book. McGrath is very technical and academic in this work, lots of Latin and German Theological terms throughout as it traces luther's breakthrough in his Theology from 1509 to 1518.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jarrod Dillon

    Wonderful book. I’ve always been interested in the topic. This book is not for beginners. It’s dense and filled with technical Latin phrases. Very important for those interested in Luther, Medieval theology, or the issue of analogia in theology

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Great author. Great theology. Great topic. Not my favorite book on this topic.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jean-Daniel Veer

    Really interesting. I was honestly more looking for an exposition of the nature of the theologia crusis though I found a more historical approach ; what causes are responsible for the emergence of the theologia crusis. It somewhat helped to understand the nature of it. And, don't get me wrong, it does talk about the nature of the theologia crusis, but it's not a study on that. If you're looking for a great exposition, check this book out: On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther' Really interesting. I was honestly more looking for an exposition of the nature of the theologia crusis though I found a more historical approach ; what causes are responsible for the emergence of the theologia crusis. It somewhat helped to understand the nature of it. And, don't get me wrong, it does talk about the nature of the theologia crusis, but it's not a study on that. If you're looking for a great exposition, check this book out: On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518! Changed my perspective on a lot of things!

  18. 5 out of 5

    James Criswell

    I can't rate this book, since I don't think I was its target audience. It is a scholarly work on Martin Luther, and spends much time in details I didn't really care about. Most of what I enjoyed was in the last couple of chapters. By and large, this book wasn't for me. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be useful for someone interested in some of those scholarly arguments. I can't rate this book, since I don't think I was its target audience. It is a scholarly work on Martin Luther, and spends much time in details I didn't really care about. Most of what I enjoyed was in the last couple of chapters. By and large, this book wasn't for me. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be useful for someone interested in some of those scholarly arguments.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Joshua Hochstetler

  20. 5 out of 5

    Stuart Houghton

  21. 5 out of 5

    Bill Martin

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rob

  23. 5 out of 5

    Cole Andrews

  24. 5 out of 5

    Micah Cobb

  25. 4 out of 5

    Marcia King

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Raines

  27. 4 out of 5

    Luke Bullen

  28. 4 out of 5

    Abe

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Brown

  30. 5 out of 5

    Scott Burton

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