James M. Stayer: Martin Luther, German Saviour

This extremely interesting book does two things. It reveiws and analyzes the interpretations of Luther undertaken in Germany between 1917 and 1933, and it brilliantly places this theological work in its historical and political context. I am, of course mainly interested in the latter, but learned a lot of the former which probably is not too harmful.

After a short presentation of the liberal predecessors, Stayer in turn discusses the three major reactions to the liberal tradition: (1) The so called ”Luther Renaissance” centered on Karl Holl and his students (2) The Dialectic Theologians, Barth and Gogarten and (3) The Confessional Lutherans of the Erlangen School, Paul Althaus and Werner Elert. Holls Students Hirsch and Fogelsang get their own chapter as well.

What makes this so interesting is the way Stayer uncovers how clearly politically motivated all these groups where and how it affected their theologies. The Luther research of this period was essentially a battlefield between different political factions, all concerned with the way Luther was or was not relevant as a paradigm of the german, the truest expression of what made the German people exceptional. Not surprisingly, all of the theologians, except Barth went on to support Hitler.They all, except perhaps the confessionals at times, saw their work as political, either as a part of the ”war effort” (Holl, Hirsch) or as a desperate fight to stop Christianity to being sumsumed under german nationalism (Barth).

It is also interesting that although these theologians had very different methods and focuses, they all seem to equally have read back their own theological and political opinions into the writings of the reformers, and then gone on to fight over which Luther was the truest – the young, the old, or the one that did not change that much.

A fascinating read that clarified the background of many of the most important 20th century theologians.

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