- Beyond Indulgences: Luther's Reform of Late Medieval Piety, 1518–1520 by Anna Marie Johnson
This book began as a Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary. Johnson examines Luther's early pastoral writings and thereby sculpts an alternative narrative of the early years (1517–1521) of the Reformation. Scholarship has traditionally focused on documents and events such as the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), and theological issues such as indulgences and papal primacy. In contrast, Johnson understands these years by analyzing Luther's reform of traditional Christian practices and focuses on twenty-five pastoral writings between 1517 and 1520. While treating a wide range of practices, these writings had a consistent focus on "sincere faith, trust in God's grace, and the willingness to suffer" (183).
Chapter one examines relevant scholarship, the scholarly focus on the so-called "reformation discovery" and polemics, and recent interest in Luther as a pastoral theologian. It also provides background on late medieval Christian practices. Chapter two reviews the two years before the indulgence controversy (1516–1517), looking at, among others, the lectures on Romans and early comments on indulgences, as well as the Ninety-Five Theses. Johnson highlights Luther's "central concern for proper repentance" (57) and notes that "Luther's seemingly disparate conflict with Scholasticism and his protest against indulgences are woven together by his concern about the effects of Scholastic doctrine and Christian practice on the faith of believers" (59). Chapter three, on Lent 1518, examines how Luther [End Page 207] reformed Penance by emphasizing proper preparation—faith and a recognition of one's inclination to sin—rather than false confidence in successful completion of the work of Penance. It also examines Luther's criticism of relics, veneration of saints, and medieval prayer practices. Luther's emphases on the importance of faith, the need to recognize one's sinfulness, and the view that suffering is an essential part of Christian life are themes that also were important at the Heidelberg Disputation. Far from a sidelight, Luther's "concerns about practice appeared repeatedly, corresponded to themes he reiterated in other settings, and were woven into the fabric of his protest" (93).
Chapter four, on summer 1518, discusses three pastoral writings produced between the Heidelberg disputation and Luther's meeting with Cajetan. While polemic and academic works, such as the Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, focused on penance and indulgences, these pastoral writings (a preface to German Theology, The Ten Commandments Preached to the People of Wittenberg, and an explanation of Psalm 110) took up less controversial themes. Johnson asserts that Luther's approach to questions of piety remained the same and no "seismic shift in Luther's thought" (110) occurred during summer 1518. Chapter five covers early 1519 to the Leipzig Debate. Issues of papal authority and indulgences were the major polemical issues in this period. But Luther also produced a work on the Ten Commandments and one on the Lord's Prayer, as well as five sermons and treatises on "a broad range of ecclesiastically endorsed devotional practices" (115). While offering instruction on such matters as contemplating Christ's passion, prayer, marriage, and good works, Luther articulated a litmus test for Christian practice "Anything that increased trust in God and service to the neighbor is proper Christian practice, while anything that diverted energies away from this goal and made one self-focused is to be discouraged" (140). Chapter six, fall 1519 to summer 1520, examines the period from the Leipzig Debate to Luther's excommunication, including sermons on Confession, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, as well as A Sermon on Preparing to Die, a sermon on usury, and a sermon on good works. Johnson notes that in these months "Luther began to include intense criticism of the church hierarchy in his pastoral writings" and "began to criticize practices of enormous importance to the hierarchy" (178). [End Page 208]
Johnson makes a convincing argument that practical issues played a foundational role in Luther's...