Luther as Spiritual Adviser

I am taking a look at Dennis Ngien’s volume, LutherLuther as Spiritual Adviser: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings (Paternoster, 2007). Ngien focuses on Luther’s devotional writings, emphasizing the material in volumes 42 and 43 of the American edition of the works of Luther. In his own words, “The aim…is to unfold the pastoral, not the polemical, side of the Reformer, drawing on the spiritual insights he offered to people of high and low estate. These writings are devotional and catechetical in shape and intent, yet not devoid of rich theological substance, the fruit of his rigorous reflections. They are the exercises of Luther’s basic calling as a theologian-pastor, and are concrete illustrations of the interface of theology and piety, the former being the abiding presupposition and logical cause of the latter” (xvii).

In a quote that reminds me of many posts on this blog, Ngien claims that, for Luther, “The theological curriculum ought to be taught differently, that is, in a way that takes seriously the spiritual formation of a theologian, since his primary vocation is to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus” (xix). Likewise, in advice to young theologians, Luther suggests prayer, meditation and struggle as rhythms of life. Ngien offers interpretation:

This triad – prayer, meditation, and struggle – when properly used, would enable a theologian to preach and teach a practical theology of justification” (xxi).

Ngien begins by looking at Luther’s Meditation on Christ’s Passion, where Luther himself starts by positing three false meditations. First, there are those who meditate on Christ’s passion and focus on the Jews and Judas. Second, some people falsely meditate on Christ’s passion to acquire protection for themselves. Thirdly, others meditate for sentimental reasons, “nourishing an emotive piety dominated by pity for the crucified” (3). Therefore, it is “Only when believers realize that Christ had been given for them have they discerned the import of Christ’s accomplishment.” God is not merely God, he is God for me, and his dying is not just an event in history, but is an event for me.

Luther characteristically orienting all things to the cross, focused meditation not on the physical sufferings of Christ but on the salvific reality of his work (5). The mirror of the cross exposes human sin, and it is a terrifying sight because of your own participation in the event. This does not lead to despair because it was done for us, in our stead. Luther’s focus here is on Christ as sinner rather than merely Christ as sin. In a letter to his Friar Luther states,

Therefore my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him, and despairing of yourself, say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and you have given me what is yours. You have taken yourself what you were not and have given me what I am not” (11).

I just went back and read the actual work, Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519) and it is a great little work. I haven’t read much of Luther, and it was interesting to see his appropriation of Bernard. Has anyone used any of Luther’s devotional works personally or in an ecclesial setting? I would be interested to know.

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One thought on “Luther as Spiritual Adviser

  1. I’m interested in the contrast between what seem to me to be two very different, even opposite sides, to being a religious leader: 1) being pastoral; which more or less seems to be about making troubled people, feel good. Vs. 2) serious theology; looking for the truth about God, whether it feels good, whether it is consoling, or not.

    Most practical ministers today teach “feel good” “spiritual” lessons; but is this honest? Is it really enough?

    Luther, I would hazard to say, was not a “feel good” minister. Here, even his most pastoral lessons, seem to emphasize “struggle.”

    What is the resolution of these two conflicting aspects? Personally I am attracted to the kind of sermon that seems to find a compromise between the two: to teach a somewhat consoling, mildly content fatalism, say. Or (with biblical reservations about the term), teach a sort of … mildly hopeful philosophicality.

    Maybe Kent would also like to comment on this style?

    As for Luther? It’s hard to see him being even mildly consoling; his most influential work was all about an increasingly deadly struggle against an oppressive Church.

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