What follows is Luther’s take on the four sources of Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, reason and religious experience, as it is presented by Paul Althaus in The Theology of Martin Luther (1966).
Luther’s whole theology is according to Althaus an attempt to interpret Scripture. Thus it presupposes Scripture’s authority. According to Luther, both the New and the Old Testament preach Christ (35). The word as we speak and hear it is however not supreme in itself, but as we hear it, the Holy Spirit descends and by it God speaks His truth to our hearts. This doesn’t happen automatically, but by the free will and judgement of God, so that sometimes the word is spoken without God’s presence. The Holy Spirit will not however come without the means of the word for the word has not been given the power of the Spirit but the spirit works through the word. Luther takes this point very seriously as it would otherwise mean that some other type of salvation than that through Jesus Christ may be thought available through revelation. The Holy Spirit is bound to the word, which is bound to the salvation of Jesus Christ. Because the Spirit is bound to the word, the word can authorise itself. There is no need for the church to formalize it (37ff).
Luther saw the Scripture as the only authority in the church, everything else is valid only by its conformity with Scripture, nothing new can be established outside of this (5f).
Reason can according to Luther say nothing about theology as Gods relationship to an individual. It may establish that God is great or that God cares about others, but it can give no religious experience nor establish that God cares about me. Since to Luther theology is only concerned with the relationship between God and man where one cannot be understood without the other, he concludes that reason has nothing to do with theology. A person dependent on reason lives in constant doubt because he has by himself deduced a superficial knowledge that there is a God whilst one who has experience has no reason to doubt since God‘s purpose has been revealed to him from above. Luther also connects reason with the law, as different from the gospel. It is reasonable to believe in sin and judgement, but unreasonable to believe in the happy tidings of the gospel. Thus reason limits a man to pride and guilt, a do-it-yourself religion, and hinders his salvation because Christ, the giver of salvation, is an example of God exceeding even His ability to create from nothing to create something from its opposite. In Christ He hides His glory under weakness, which is beyond reason. When the unreasonable promise of Christ is grasped, faith is both that which is received and the receiving. (9ff, 16, 19, 34, 46f)
As opposed to reason which is legalistic, certain, theoretical and static, based upon speculation or law, faith is experience that is always moving into new phases, is evangelical and is based upon the word of God (33, 43).“Theological knowledge is won by experiencing it.” (8) The only certainty here is that of God’s word, faith is not certain of its own existence (60). Luther accepted that the propensity to worship God, to seek religious experience, is a God given gift present in the heart of every human being (15). But without Scripture to guide it remains a natural religion: a person believes in that which he needs and that which pleases him, leading him to idolatry (17). Faith on the other hand is the experience of God, it creates the deity not in God’s person, but in us (45). Natural religion has misused the knowledge gained from seeing God‘s works, the theology of glory, and by it dishonoured God. So God comes again in another form, the form of Christ. Luther’s theology of the cross shows a God who has hidden Himself, showing us His back side, as he showed Moses (25f). And we need to experience that back side, which is suffering and death, to win an inner theological knowledge with depth. For that we have to leave the moralistic activity of reason and be purely receptive in faith (28). We must, however, take care that we are receptive to the Holy Spirit through Scripture so that we may not be mislead by experiences and revelations that come from elsewhere. Thus when our outer experience contradicts our faith, we must know that our inner believing is an experience in itself. Faith is not bound by experience and does not seek experience, rather it is not true faith if it believes that which it has been shown. While we have faith in God’s word of salvation and redemption as it is given to us in Scripture, up until the last day reason will say that our experience show differently. Experiencing this conflict is true religious experience (60-63).
Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!