As we enter this 500th year celebration of the Reformation, the danger is that we might read about Martin Luther. However, how refreshing it might be to read what Luther actually wrote. Obviously Luther wrote more than most of us read even in a year. So let’s narrow down the list of writings that will expand our knowledge about Luther as a writer.
One invention, the printing press by Gutenberg, appeared ~70 years prior to Luther beginning to write for others. The printing press allowed the rapid spread of Luther’s writings, not just books but especially pamphlets. Thus, instead of what took weeks, months, or years for hand written copies of what he wrote, the speed of the printing press drastically shortened the time from writing to distribution, not just for one copy but many copies.
What should I read?
As Lutherans we do not follow Martin Luther, rather we confess the same Christian faith that he did. Our public statements of faith are compiled in The Book of Concord, dated in 1580. Surprisingly, Luther only wrote three parts of the book: Small Catechism (1529) Large Catechism (1529) and Smalcald Articles (1537). However, his influence on the others confessional writings is evident. He reviewed and approved of the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession (1531). Further the next generation of theologians who wrote the Formula of Concord (1580) borrowed heavily from Luther, quoting some passages in length.
So a starting point for reading Luther is to read his three writings in the Book of Concord. If you have been raised in a Lutheran church, you are very familiar with the Small Catechism. Luther wrote it to help parents teach the Christian faith to their families. In addition, Luther wrote sermons for pastors to teach the congregations, published as the Large Catechism. Thus, the two catechisms complement each other. Reading both will enhance your understanding of the key topics of the Christian faith.
The 500th celebration of the Reformation highlights one of his earliest writings (Oct. 31, 1517): “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” better known as the “Ninety-Five Theses.” You can search online for this document. Luther’s direct approach to false teaching emerges in this document and continues in his later writings. He also wrote “An Explanation of the 95 Theses” in 1518. Even in this early period, Luther focused on the Church and the individual Christian. Here is the first thesis:
Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said “Repent,” willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
Other early works worth reading: “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518) and “Two Kinds of Righteousness” (1519). In 1519 the Leipzig Debate presented a theological disputation originally between Andreas Karlstadt, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johann Eck [papal expert]. The topics were originally to be: free will and grace. However, Eck and Luther met and expanded the topics to purgatory, the sale of indulgences, the need for and methods of penance, and the legitimacy of papal authority. In the debate Luther claimed that sola scripture (Scripture alone) as the basis for Christian beliefs. In June 1520 Pope Leo X banned all Luther’s views from writing and preaching.
There are three significant writings from 1520: “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning The Reform of the Christian Estate,” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and “The Freedom of a Christian.” These three have significant influence on the public life of the 1500s and lead to the Peasants Rebellion and later to the nobility responding to control the masses.
Other Important Writings
Because Luther wrote doctrinal statements and discussed what is commonly called systematic or doctrinal theology, we have to realize that his other writings were more closely related to his specialty, namely exegetical theology, particularly the Old Testment. Thus, as you begin to search his exegetical writings you discover his series on Genesis (8 books in English translation), his commentaries on the Psalms, and his commentaries on the Minor Prophets (1524-1526). Perhaps the premier commentaries include his ones on Galatians (1535 ed.) [vol. 26 and 27 in English] and his commentaries on the Gospel of John (1537) [vol. 22, 24 in English].
This list is only a sampling of what Luther wrote. But your time will be well spent reading some of these books and articles. And there is no need to rush through them. Take time to understand the key points, to appreciate his writing style (even in Enlish), and to give thanks that God used Luther who dedicated his life to teaching the Christian faith.
For Further reading:
Here is a web site that provides a chronological list of Luther’s writings with the English volume references.