Steinmetz: Luther in Context

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Puritanboard Amanuensis
Steinmetz does a fine job placing Luther in the complicated context of late medieval theology. He brings out several points often overlooked. The set up of the book is not perfect, though. It was originally a collection of essays and many of the essays repeat main ideas in a juxtaposed manner (e.g., I forget how many times Denis the Carthusian shows up making exactly the same point he did in other chapters).

Steinmetz mostly organizes his material around Luther's exegesis of certain text and compares those offered by other late medieval figures. Per Augustine on Romans 9, Steinmetz notes, "Luther's exegesis introduces a number of themes not found in Augustine: human virtue is a product of divine election (18).Steinmetz draws three conclusions (20):
a. Neither Augustine nor Luther is particularly concerned about the problem which is uppermost in Paul’s mind.”
b. The will of God--for Luther--is the cause of election.
c. While Augustine worries about free will and the justice of God, Luther devotes his attention to certitude of salvation and the understandable fears of the spiritually weak.”

Luther, Abraham, and Romans 4

“The thesis that Abraham was justified by his faith became increasingly problematic in a Church which distinguished between fides informis (a faith that can coexist with mortal sin) and fides formata (faith active in love), fides implicita (a habitual belief in what the church teaches) and fides explicita (the conscious and explicit assent of the mind to Catholic truth), fides quae (the content of faith) and fides acquisita (faith acquired through natural means) and fides infusa (faith supernaturally infused), credulitas (intellectual assent to doctrine) and fiducia (trust in the promises of God)” (33).

Steinmetz surveys three late medieval and early Reformation commentators on St Paul (one of whom was Luther). He notes several competing strands between these exegetes. “The dispute is intense because each interpretation of Paul presupposes, contains, and implies a competing vision of the nature of the religious life” (35).

“If the literal sense of Augustine’s proposition is true--no virtue without charity--then it is impossible for a sinner to earn justifying grace by a merit of congruity (37).

Luther on Faith

“When Luther insists that the object of faith is invisible, he does so for two reasons, neither of which has very much to do with Plato or heavenly archetypes. The object of faith is invisible either because it is future (who of us can see next Wednesday?) or because it is hidden in the present under the form of a contrary and contradictory appearance” (39).

For Luther the New Testament speaks of God who is hidden in the very fact of his revelation (see Bruce McCormack on Barth. McCormack would say that God reveals himself in the flesh of Jesus, but even then he is hiding himself).

Luther and Preaching

“God’s word, according to Luther, is a “Deed-Word,” which not only names but effects what it signifies. Adam looks around him and says, ‘This is a cow and an owl and a horse and a mosquito.’ But God looks around him and says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light.”

“God’s word creates new possibilities where no possibilities existed before. The Word of God is a Word that enriches the poor, releases captives, gives sight to the blind, and sets at liberty those who are oppressed. It is a Word that meets men and women at the point of their greatest need and sets them free” (115).

“Preeminently for Luther it is Jesus Christ who is the Deed-Word of God. It is he and no one else who has been anointed to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (116).


This is a fine intro to more detailed surveys of late medieval theology (Oberman, Muller, etc). There is a lot of new ground covered but also a bit of repetition. The book is short and easy to read.


Puritan Board Junior
Steinmetz is great. My favorite book by him is his work on Staupitz, Misericordia Dei.
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