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The Luther Letter: Spring 2004

Edited by William Russell



It pays to marry well

Luther once said of Katie: “I would not trade her for Venice or for France, for God has given her to me and me to her.”  I feel the same way about my wife, Ann Svennungsen, who has recently been named President of the Atlanta-based, “Fund for Theological Education.”  This has meant a season of selling and buying homes, moving, finding schools for kids, accepting a new call to congregational ministry, adjunct teaching, etc.  In the midst of all the goodbyes and hellos involved in such a move, The Luther Letter has not appeared.  We are now in Atlanta and I am presently Pastor for Learning Ministries at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta and a Visiting Scholar/Adjunct Professor at The Candler School of Theology at Emory University.  It pays to marry well, but it does not always get The Luther Letter out…



You Read It Here First, Folks

Last November, I delivered a paper to the annual Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, which met last year in Pittsburgh, PA.  My paper, “Luther, Catechesis, and Prayer,” grows out my ongoing research on, Luther, Prayer, and the Reformation (working title).  I want to include a bit of that paper here, so I can get the response of The Luther Letter reader: 


[The 1535 document,] A Practical Way to Pray, for a Good Friend is paradigmatic for the Lutheran reformation.  This also makes an accurate translation of the document into English especially important.  Unfortunately, the received English version of the title obscures both the origins and the content of the document.  The first English edition to refer to the document as, “A Simple Way to Pray,” is John Doberstein’s Minister’s Prayer Book, published in 1959.  Carl Schindler, in The American Edition of Luther’s Works, picked up this usage in 1968.  Now this translation has made its way into wider circulation through separately published booklets, which appeared in 1983 and 2000—as well as in a 2002 compendium of Luther’s writings.  The original German title reads, “Eine einfältige Weise zu beten, für einen guten Freund.”  The most obvious translation issue, therefore, is the translator’s omission of the phrase, “…for a Good Friend” (“für einen guten Freund”).  Clearly, the title Luther originally gave to the work included reference to the friendship he shared with the questioner whose query gave rise to his reflections on prayer.  Such an omission obscures the intentions of the author, as well as the important relational and pastoral dimensions of the work.  Luther writes here pastorally, in response to the question of someone he knew well. 


The second textual issue in the title of this document is the traditional translation of the word “simple.”  This is not an accurate rendering of “Einfaeltig” into current American English.  “Simple” might lead one to conclude that Luther writes here about something that is easy or trite or uncomplicated.  However, what Luther actually describes is a method of prayer that is in many ways complex, requiring the focused attention of the one who prays.  At the same time, the word simple also carries with it connotations of stupidity or dullness.  Luther is not recommending a “dumb” way to pray.  The practice of prayer recommended here is simply not simple, but it is practical and useful.



Theological Formation

At the 2002 annual meeting of the Lutheran Theological Society of North America in Toronto, Canada’s Robert Kelly and I (along with LCMS’ Charles Arend) were part of a panel discussing “The Lutheran Confessions for the 21st Century.”  I have since come across an article by Kelly, in which he writes, “…for Luther, the formation of theologians was an issue of utmost importance for the reform of the church and he dedicated his life to this calling….His favourite piece of advice…was that there were three essentials: oratio, meditatio, and tentatio, by which Luther meant prayer, study, and the experience of the cross.  The formation provided by the Holy Spirit through oratio, meditatio, and tentatio would enable the theologian to preach and teach a practical theology of justification by faith.”



The “Spiritual Luther”

Another Canadian, the University of Manitoba’s Egil Grislis (who gave me much-appreciated cogent advice regarding the above-mentioned paper in Pittsburgh), writes, “The recent use made of the category of spirituality will, no doubt, need to be greatly elaborated and deepened before it is significantly useful.  At the moment, however, without undue enthusiasm, I find it enriching insofar as it warns that theology does not dwell in the abstract, but grows and is nurtured in the concrete pastures of life.  Thus spirituality points not only to Luther’s best accomplishments, but also dwells on shortcomings, and thereby insures that depth can never be measured without the awareness of its limits.”



Luther in the News

Martin Marty’s recent biography of Luther ought to make Luther specialists and Reformationists mad.  Marty, a self-confessed interloper in Luther studies, has written a wonderful book—well-researched, well-written, well done.  Now Marty has written a cover story for The Christian Century, entitled “Living with Luther” (but has the title, “Which Luther?” inside), thereby putting Luther in the News.  Marty writes, “So who is ‘my’ Luther?  I decided there is no point in conversing with and writing about Luther unless one deals with his profound religious experience.  He makes most sense to me as a wrestler with God—indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own.  However you choose to explain his life, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of Wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.”  By way of full-disclosure, I should confess my role as a reader and advice-giver to Marty as he completed his work.




Sources: “Luther, Catechesis, and Prayer” (unpublished); “Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio,” in Consensus; “Piety, Faith, and Spirituality in the Quest for the Historical Luther,” Consensus; The Christian Century (February 10, 2004).




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Document revised, 2004 April 1, ICLnet. Project Wittenberg is coordinated by  Reverend Robert E. Smith.