An Examination of Luther's Theology According to an Existentialist Interpretation

Martin Luther's theology lends itself to certain key existential analyses, making it possible to view Luther in light of existential thought. Luther's theological formulations of justification by faith, the bondage of the will, God hidden and revealed, anfecthung (affliction), and the God - man dialectic invite existential interpretations. Hence, the existential turn of philosophy and theology in the first half of the twentieth century made Luther's theology apropos. From Soren Kierkegaard to Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, Lennart Pinomaa, Gerhard Ebeling, and to some extent Karl Barth, there has been an emphasis on the existential themes in Luther's theology. These existentialist interpreters of Luther have come under considerable pressure from critics. They have been accused of promulgating an anachronistic understandings of the Luther of the 16th century, whom they have understood in 20th century-existentialist categories. But almost any scholar would have to admit at some points that Luther's theology bears a remarkable similarity to the philosophy of Christian existentialism.

Rudolf Bultmann was one such interpreter who was heavily criticized by both existentialists and traditionalists for his theological union of Luther and Heidegger. Concerning Bultmann's critics, Karl Barth said, "Those who throw stones at Bultmann should be careful lest they accidentally hit Luther, who is also hovering somewhere in the background." [1]

The emergence of critical Luther scholarship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of which Karl Holl is a chief example, compounded with the "many affinities between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries," helped bring about a contemporary view of Luther in which, "his person and the central concerns of his theology seem[ed] once again to be especially relevant to the needs of theology." [2] Luther appeared to be answering the questions of the post-WWI generation. Optimistic liberalism seemed too innocuous to apprehend the existential crisis of this period. Accordingly, Otto Piper wrote that "Only after that terrible experience of [World War I]... could the realities about which Luther spoke be discovered. This new knowledge of Luther became of the highest importance." This knowledge gave a "satisfactory and adequate answer to the question and problems of the post-war time." [3]

This essay will detail the key existential themes of Martin Luther's theology as set forth by certain existential interpreters. Luther's significant theological features which lend themselves to existential interpretations will be discussed at length. These themes will be traced according to the existential characteristics of Luther's understanding of: justification by faith, the inability of works to achieve salvation, God as hidden, the anguish of affliction, "the either or" of humanity's existential decision, and Luther's belief in the dynamic relationship of God to man.

Justification by Faith, not by Works

For the progressive school of neo-orthodoxy, Luther came to represent the first individual in the modern era to move the search for authenticity "out of committee and away from ontological metaphysics into the confines of the individual's mind and experience." [4] This does not necessarily mean that Luther viewed persons completely in individualistic or subjective terms, but that for him a person stands in relation to God without the assurance of some outside, justifying principle. In Luther, there was an understanding of the absolute dependence of a person upon God, in which there is no room for a false sense of security. Lennart Pinoma pointed out that justification by faith "does not provide man with positions of security; on the contrary it drives him from them." So for Luther, "man has no human protection or security, only God, to whom he is bound by faith." [5] For those individuals seeking their essence in some external, contingent locale, there would never be relief. Worldly securities would not suffice.

For Bultmann, the crucial criterion for demythologization was the Lutheran "freedom of the Christian proclamation from any taint of worldly security. . . ." In Bultmann's view, the task of theology is to clarify the meaning of faith by purging it of the residue of a self securing work. [6] False assurance can come in many hues. Bultmann believed that whenever there is a move in Protestantism away from the primacy of justification by faith and towards assurance in tradition, doctrine, piety, or slavish belief in historical facticity, there is a move away from the Reformation. [7] In like manner, Paul Tillich considered his rejection of the primacy of external, contingent factors in justification as making his religion primarily Lutheran. Regarding his Lutheran view he commented, "It includes a consciousness of the corruption of existence" and "an awareness of the irrational and demonic nature of existence. . ." [8]

For the existentialist, a person's authenticity is not determined by an external essence. Likewise, Luther asserted that external works are not the source of justification. Of course, this is where certain existentialists (Sartre, Camus, Heidegger) would part company with Luther on the ground that God is just one more external essence which impedes an individual's authenticity. But, for Luther, God is certainly not just another external essence. It is not as if God is contingent or something foreign to the completed individual. In fact, like Luther, Bultmann emphasized the point that God is ultimately the only one who allows for true authenticity.

Assurance can be in nothing but God. Works are of no help. As Bultmann saw it, this means that "no one can come before God with anything at all in his or her hands." [9] It is a leap from those things that provide false comfort. In his Commentary on Galatians, Luther says, "But here the question is, by what means..." are we "justified and attain eternal life[?] To this we answer with Paul, that by faith only in Christ we are pronounced righteous, and not by works of the law or charity. . . ." [10] Works are always external, and will be manifest, but only in the transformed person. Soren Kierkegaard saw this, and agreed with Luther that, "the determination of man cannot be derived from some external feature, and that every work must therefore be preceded by something else which in an absoloute sense can determine man." [11] This is why Luther points out that, "...we are not inquiring what works and what kind of works are done, but who it is that does them, who glorifies God and brings forth the works." [12] For Luther, God's activity in humanity is a continuous, living, and vital activity. His activity has priority over the works of humanity. These works truly exist only in the transformed person, and only spring forth from a right relationship with God.

The Case Against the Works of Reason

As mentioned above, works, regardless of their supposed importance, can add nothing to grace and faith. Reason is misused in such a fashion that it becomes humanities' guide to God. Any attempt to approach God through the works of autonomous reason will end in frustration. Individuals are fundamentally unable to will what they intend to will, and this is a condition of an estranged and fallen humanity. [13] Reason provides no solace in the face of the cross. The offense of the cross, Luther argued, shatters human reason.

Luther was concerned with the infidelity which reason propagates. To Luther, God "speaketh those things which seem both foolish, absurd, and impossible to reason." He concludes, "If reason be not killed, ...[along with] all kinds of" inventions of man's attempting, "to get righteousness before God,... the righteousness of faith can take no place." [14] In his Training in Christianity, Kierkegaard employs Luther's understanding of "Absurd", "Offense", "Paradox", and "Reason". [15]

Similar to how Luther spoke against the rationalistic theology of the medieval period in his own time, Kierkegaard reflects Luther's concern, But what is the offense...? To "prove" is to demonstrate something to be the rational reality that it is. Can one demonstrate that to be a rational reality which is at variance with reason. The proofs which Scripture presents for Christ's divinity... are therefore only for faith, that is, they are not "proofs," they have no intention of proving that all this agrees perfectly with reason; on the contrary they would prove that it conflicts with reason and therefore is an object of faith. [16]

The Living God cannot be reduced to a system. Although it sounds like a truism, Luther was convinced that humankind is not experiencing God in the now when embracing something over and against God.

Faith in God vs Faith in History

Luther guarded against replacing faith in God with faith in right doctrine or faith in an historical fact. For him, this a dead faith bypassed the existential "now" and placed responsibility for the individual outside of self and outside of God. In The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther wrote, "I believe that it is now become clear that it is not enough or in any sense Christian to preach the works, life, and words of Christ as historical facts, as if the knowledge of these would suffice for the conduct of life. . ." [17] History had value for Luther in that it was the stage upon which God executed his judgements, but it was not enough for humanity to submit to the facts of history.

Faith doesn't nullify history, but it is more than history. It is an active dynamic experience of God in the present. Luther's appeal to the "contemporaneous" Christ drew Kierkegaard's attention. Kierkegaard echoed Luther's emphasis on the "lowliness" of Christ and the offense of the Gospel. When the Word was made known, the existential truths of Christ's life was in contrast to the corruption of Church leadership in Luther's time. Just as Luther pointed to the material excess and "loftiness" of the Pope, and the fact that this did not square with the existential reality of Christ, so too did Kiekegaard question the "loftiness" of Bishop Mynster. [18] So for Luther the Word is preached, not so the individual may merely submit to right doctrine or historical fact, but that through faith in Christ it "may be established that he [Christ] may not only be Christ , but be Christ for you and me, and that what is said of him and is denoted in his name may be effectual in us." [19]

The Hidden God and Affliction

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in locating God in history for the Christian existentialist rests in the conviction that, "any attempt to read the will of God directly from history," is hindered while, "in history as in nature we come face to face with the terrible Divine Majesty." Even though God is found only in Christ, in Christ too God is largely hidden. [20] For Luther, the secret will of God, "is not to be inquired into, but to be reverently adored, as by far the most awesome secret of divine majesty." Christ comes to us, "clothed and displayed in His Word. . ." [21] As Otto Piper put it, this means that "His revelation really gives us a true knowledge of the center of God... But God only revealed his heart, and apart from His revelation in Jesus Christ, He remains a hidden God." [22] Accordingly, humanity will never know the meaning behind all events. By this same token, Luther was aware of the absurdity of life from the perspective of the created. [23]

This especially holds true when applied to the meaning or meaninglessness of suffering and Luther's concept of Anfechtung (an affliction that is an assault upon persons from death, the devil, the world, and hell combined).24 When we are afflicted, Luther notes, we look about us to see how we may have offended God. Reason offers us no comfort. When affliction comes it appears that God has forgotten or is hostile to humanity. Reason concludes that God cannot wish humanity well. [25] For Luther, affliction drives out the "old man" along with a person's works. [26] But, we are not able to understand God and seek comfort in external essences. God's hiddenness is strange and beyond reason. But this affliction, ultimately from God, drives us to utter despair of our human resources regarding salvation. We are without anything. We are naked before God. Thus Pinomaa states,

Total helplessness is the characteristic feature of [Luther's] Anfechtung. God alone can help. . . . With God's wrath weighing upon him the afflicted soul, unable to cry for help, tries to run away from affliction. . . . He can find no hiding place, for all creation threatens him with wrath and judgement. [27]

Luther's affliction, full of desperation and terror, bears a close resemblance to the existentialist's Angst. It is little wonder then that Kiekegaard sensed a kindredness with Luther's fear and tremblings. To Kierkegaard the overwhelming onslaught of Anfechtung makes faith not a mere intellectual exercise, but an acknowledgement of the objective uncertainty of the finite. [28] This uncertainty is impervious to human wisdom. If persons are tempted to understand the hidden will of God (i.e. the affliction brought on by contemplation of predestination), they must turn a deaf ear to the devil. God must be allowed to be God. [29]

The Existential Decision

When an individual sees the state he or she is in regarding this onslaught or affliction, there is a new awareness of God within the individual. The awareness brought on by affliction necessitates a decision. Kierkegaard points this out when he asserts, "one is therefore obliged to say that only 'fear and trembling,' only constraint, can help a man to freedom. Because 'fear and trembling' and compulsion can master him in such a way that there is no longer a question of choice. . ." [30]

It is important to note that for Luther, Anfechtung is not a doctrinal concept, but points to that borderland where doctrinal formulations provide no ultimate comfort. [31] Anfechtung thrusts the individual into an existential crisis that demands a decision. Bultmann picked up on this theme using Heidegger to supplement Luther. Bultmann is "concerned with preaching that confronts [persons] with the need to make an existential decision, i.e., a decision upon which they are ready to stake their lives." [32] At this point a brief criticism must be made regarding both Bultmann and Tillich's understanding and adoption of Luther's theology. It seems that to them the decision is brought on by an anxiety that relates more to meaninglessness than sin, as Luther would have understood it. This is not to say that the two are unrelated, but that to Luther it was a problem of sin which is not synonymous with the arbitrary meaninglessness of existence. [33] Perhaps this criticism is related to both Bultmann and Tillich's concern with updating Luther. To both of them, "modern man" is no longer concerned with finding a gracious and merciful God, but is instead concerned with the problem of meaninglessness and anxiety unto death. Even meaninglessness in relation to death cannot be divorced from Luther's notion of sin. Sin is surely not some passe notion that must be discarded. When speaking of a decision for life, in the classical Lutheran sense, it would be very difficult to say it was a decision against some abstract notion of meaninglessness in a "modern," mid-twentieth century fashion.

One can talk about this decision in positive terms as did Karl Barth in his Reformation as Decision. "The decision in contrast with all others is the ultimate decision," Barth argued. Avoiding the decision is not an option, for it can also be expressed negatively in that it is "the decision for death or indeed the decision for God . . ." [34] As mentioned above, standing naked before God, an individual is at his or her limits, and is confronted with the decision. The idea of the boundary situation is employed by Barth to explain the leap that is required of the person, who, ". . . has bound himself irrevocably without any prospect of doing otherwise in the future, without any possibility of overhauling this decision in the future." [35] Tillich also speaks in terms of a boundary situation which calls the individual to doubt the security of personal resources or any philosophical ideology. As James Luther Adams points out, Tillich held that Luther, "stood in the depth of the boundary situation and dared to reject all safeguards that piety and the church wished to extend to him." [36] However, it must be noted that Luther was no victim to an individualistic experientialism, subjectivism, but rather, for Luther, the primacy of the relationship of man to God comes before all else.

The Christian's Life is not Static, but a Living Process

Paul Tillich though that when the reformation principle of fiducia (trust) was transformed into assensus (assent to right doctrine) then Luther's theology was dealt a serious blow. [37] Luther parted with the medieval, static view of man and God. Existentially speaking, for Luther the Christian's life is determined by a living relationship with the God the Ultimate. Locating the life of faith in anything but God is artificial. Existentialist interpreters of Luther esteem him for his break with the medieval exemplary view of Christ as model. Concerning the advocates of the exemplary approach, Luther said, "when they separate him [Christ] from sins and sinners, and only set him out unto us as an example to be followed" they "make Christ not only unprofitable to us, but also a judge and a tyrant," who is unhappy with humanity. [38]

For Luther, we are clothed with Christ's righteousness because we cannot follow his example by ourselves. For Kiekegaard, Luther speaks of this in terms of the problem of the ethical and universal. One cannot achieve that which is in oneself - the ethical universal - when it is not actually within oneself to achieve. Friedrich Gogarten declared that Luther broke the supremacy of the ethical over faith. To Gogarten, Luther took the ethical out of the worldly realm altogether. [39] It is apparent that the universal ethical model fits well with the exemplary view of Christ. To those who stressed Christ as the model, Luther asked how it was that fallen man could follow this pattern. For Kiekegaard the Christ as model approach tended to do away with the importance of the transformation of personal existence by focussing on "singular features of Christ's life, e.g. fasting, 'monkeyshines,' flagellations, care for the poor." [40] In other words, independent works of humanity, which pretend to be the works of Christ.

Luther's break with medieval ontology did damage to unearthly, hagiographic portrayals of saints. To Luther, righteousness was not self-righteousness, "or the delusion of being holier than others." [41] Rather, Luther points to the Psalm's which do not gloss over the imperfect finitude of man when approaching the infinite God. The Book of Psalms doesn't depict static holy men with their tongues tied, like the legends of the saints do, but shows them as true humans, alive and in the round. [42]

As Luther saw it, if human existence is not to be considered static, then the believer is in a relationship with God by which he or she is in a process of becoming. Luther's simul iustus et peccator is evident here. The paradox revolves around the already and the not yet. Bultmann understood this to mean that "Justification by faith does not mean the metamorphosis of a sinner into a saint. Justus does not imply a quality, but a relation and therefore always stands in a paradoxical relationship to peccator." [43] Luther is somewhat responsible for Kierkegaard's notion of becoming in the sense that to Kierkegaard, becoming is very much related to the paradox of man's being composed of the temporal and eternal. [44] Theology for Luther is not about a static description of man and God, but as Gerhard Ebeling indicates, Luther's "theology defines man far more accurately than the traditional definition of man as animal rationale," it does this when, "it defines him with regard to the fact that human existence is a continuous event . . ." [45] Luther broke free from the medieval, static understanding of transactions between persons and God, and moved towards an understanding of persons being in an existential relationship with God.


As seen throughout this paper, in existentialist terms, Luther moved theology from the external to the internal; from the works of persons to the working of God in persons. In existential terms, justification by faith meant that humanity could find no assurance in the created order. An individual must stand naked before God without human works. Ultimately, without God a person has no security in reason, history, or right doctrine. Luther's concept of the Anfechtung from God brought persons to a point of crisis (boundary situation) where he or she was forced to make a decision for life or death. For Luther, in this process of becoming it is evident that the believer doesn't rest in a static reality, but is in a dynamic relationship with the living God.


[1] Roger A. Johnson, "Is Bultmann an Heir of Luther?", Dialog: A Journal of Theology vol.6 (Autumn, 1967): 266.

[2] Lewis W. Spitz, "Images of Luther," Concordia Journal vol.11 no.2 (March, 1985): 47.

[3] Otto Piper, Recent Developments in German Protestantism, (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1934), 82.

[4] Spitz, "Images of Luther," 47.

[5] Lennart Pinomaa, Faith Victorious: An Introduction to Luther's Theology, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 41.

[6] Johnson, "Is Bultmann an Heir of Luther?", 270.

[7] W. Freitag, "Luther in the Thought of Bultmann," in Festschrift: A Tribute to Dr. Walter Hordern, ed. Walter Freitag, (Saskatoon: Univ. of Saskatchewan, 1985),141.

[8] James Luther Adams, "Paul Tillich on Luther," in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of William Pauck, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 306.

[9] Freitag, "Luther in the Thought of Bultmann," 140. Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith acts out just such a break with false comforts.

[10] John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, (NY, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1962), 116.

[11] Regin Prenter, "Luther and Lutheranism," in Kierkegaard and Great Traditions, Niels Thulstrup and Mary Mikulova Thulstrup, ed.s, (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzels Boghandel, 1981), 97.

[12] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 62.

[13] Thomas C. Oden, "Bultmann as Lutheran Existentialist," Dialog: A Journal of Theology vol.3 (Summer, 1964): 214.

[14] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 128.

[15] William B. Bragstad, "Luther's Influence on Training in Christianity," The Lutheran Quarterly vol. XXVIII no.3 (August, 1976): 261.

[16] Robert Bretall, A Kiekegaard Anthology, (NY: Random House, 1946), 389.

[17] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 65. Similarly, a number of narrative theologians also de-emphasize historicity, but for other reasons, namely, narrative integrity. Story, rather than serving a purely referential function, serves primarily a poetic function. Hence, in his The Integrity of the Biblical Narrative: Story in Theology and Proclamation, Mark Ellingsen asserts, "My narrative approach, then, initially brackets questions about the biblical accounts' historicity. The accounts are dealt with first as literature, warranting the consideration on the basis of literary criteria regardless of their historicity or scientific veracity." (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 128. Similarly, Mark Allan Powell suggests that the, "The story world of the [biblical] narrative is to be entered and experienced rather than evaluated in terms of its historicity." What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 99.

[18] Bragstad, "Luther's Influence on Training in Christianity," 264.

[19] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 66.

[20] Lennart Pinomaa, Faith Victorious, 39.

[21] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 190-191.

[22] Otto Piper, Recent Developments in German Protestantism, (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1934), 92.

[23] Spitz, "Images of Luther," 48.

[24] Allister E. McGrath, Luther's Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther's Theological Breakthrough, (Oxford UK and Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1995), 170.

[25] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. I, (St Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1959), 18-19.

[26] Ibid.,16.

[27] Pinomaa, Faith Victorious, 91-92.

[28] Ernest Koeneker, "Soren Kiekegaard on Luther," in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of William Pauck, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 234.

[29] Pinomaa, Faith Victorious, 100.

[30] Bragstad, "Luther's Influence on Training in Christianity," 267.

[31] Pinomaa, Faith Victorious, 90.

[32] Freitag, "Luther in the Thought of Bultmann," 144.

[33] George Lindbeck, "An Assessment ReAssessed: Paul Tillich on the Reformation," The Journal of Religion vol.63 no.4 (Oct. 1983): 384.

[34] Karl Barth, "Reformation as Decision," in The Reformation: Basic Interpretations, ed. Lewis Spitz, (Lexington, MA , Toronto, London: D. C. Heath and Co., 1972), 160.

[35] Ibid., 160.

[36] Adams, "Paul Tillich on Luther," 311.

[37] Lindbeck, "An Assessment ReAssessed," 381.

[38] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 135.

[39] Spitz, "Images of Luther," 48.

[40] Koeneker, "Soren Kiekegaard on Luther," 234.

[41] George Lindbeck, "Modernity and Luther's Understanding of the Freedom of a Christian," in Martin Luther and the Modern Mind, Manfred Hoffman, ed., (NY and Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), 41.

[42] Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, 38.

[43] Freitag, "Luther in the Thought of Bultmann," 143.

[44] Prenter, "Luther and Lutheranism," 147.

[45] Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 164.

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