Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Martin Luther's Views on Art - Part 1

Martin Luther von Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 1532 in Regensburg

One of the goals for the first couple weeks of the study was to try to get an understanding of where Martin Luther sits with this idea of "Why not the image as a source for theology?" As my background is Lutheran, it would make sense that I would know Luther's position on this subject. I know this appears to be far off-base from where this study is eventually going, but it is important to me to have questions of theological aesthetics running throughout the course of this conversation. It is helpful in this case that I get a sense of the history of the theological debate about images to better appreciate the current context in which I freely say, 'Of course sci-fi films can engage me theologically.'

For starters, I read the three brief passages of Luther's in Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen's Theological Aesthetics: A Reader and read her introduction to the section on thinkers from the Reformation. Thiessen notes that "for Luther visual images are a 'small matter'"1 Luther does not write a classic treatise on the subject, and only in his Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments does he go into any depth. Carl C. Christensen notes that Luther's writings on art are scattered across occasional writings, biblical commentaries, and didactic sermons or tracts.2 My first response in reading this was disappointment. Scattered references? Is art really such a small matter for theology?

In reading the passages themselves, I have a few observations.

1. Luther seems profoundly ambivalent about art. For example:

"God grant that [images] may be destroyed, become dilapidated, or that they remain. It is all the same and makes no difference, just as when the poison has been removed from a snake. Now I say this to keep the conscience free from mischievous laws and fictitious sins, and not because I would defend images. Nor would I condemn those who have destroyed them, especially those who destroy divine and idolatrous images."3

But then later:

"Of this I am certain, that God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?"4

2. Despite the negative first quote above, Luther is not so concerned about the idol worship of images as he is about people believing that placing images in churches are in some way a good work and service to God. This worry must be framed in terms of Luther's larger theology of justification by grace and not by works.

3. Positively, we have the following in these passages: works of art can be used for pleasure and decoration; images of the saints and of Christ and crucifixes may be used for memorial and witness; and pictures of biblical characters and stories can even serve as a teaching tool for better understanding. These examples demonstrate a very tolerant view towards art (even though there are counter-examples elsewhere). Much more tolerant, I gather, than Luther's fellow reformers, Zwingli and Calvin.

However, ultimately, Luther does not seem very concerned with spelling out a systematic theological aesthetics. He is drawn into speaking about the issue due to accusations and misunderstandings about his view on images. Additionally, he spends a good deal of his time addressing extremists such as Karlstadt who were destroying images in Wittenberg when Luther was absent. So, we don't get a proper laying out of theological or biblical support for images. We get informal, pragmatic comments about their use and misuse.

1Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ed. Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 126.
2Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979), p. 43.
3Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments. In Luther's Works, vol. 40, Church and Ministry II, trans. Bernhard Erling and Conrad Bergendoff, ed. Conrad Bergendoff, general ed. H.T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1958), pp. 90-91.
4Ibid., pp.99-100.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's important to remember that Martin Luther was first and foremost a pastoral leader, so that our attempts to claim him as a systematician (in the mode of current systematic theology) are probably not very constructive. It might be fun for you to ask people like Jim Boyce (and I know I sent some citations to you) for ideas. Luther was definitely a biblical scholar, a person engaged with biblical theology, and so asking some of our biblical/pastoral people for ideas -- even informally -- might be very fruitful!