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NAZARENE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

Word of God

Table Talk #2: Individual Paper


submitted to Dr. McCormick
Life and Thought of Martin Luther

by Jeff Anglin

Kansas City, Missouri


March 26, 2012

Scripture, Martin Luther believed, spoke the Word of God. Luther, as a biblical scholar
himself, highly regarded the canon of scripture. What is surprising, however, is that in
his writings, Luther can have high praise for the whole of scripture, calling it, the loftiest
and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently
explored,1 while also suggesting certain books for suspension from the canon proper.
Why is it that Luther can esteem the Bible so greatly and yet feel justified in suggesting
some renovations? What is Luthers canon or standard for scripture?
The revolving theme of the theology of Martin Luther is his emphasis upon the
gospel, the grace of God which is received only through faith justifying the one who
rightly believes. It is only fitting to recognize, then, that the Word of God plays an
important role in the new birth of a believer. How could a person know of the great and
glorious acts that God undertook and subsequently receive them in faith if not by hearing
the Word of God? Without the Word of God, faith would mean nothing, having no
foundation upon which to remain. For Luther, only the Word of God is adequate to
engender faith in the heart of a believer.
This paper will outline that in Luthers thought the Word of God is absolutely
necessary to the salvation of believers. In order to show how the Word of God works in
Luthers understanding in engendering faith in the believer, a short treatment of what the
Word of God is and where it comes from will be set forth. Then, its relationship to its two
primary interrelated components, Law and Gospel, will be examined. Finally, the paper
will show how the Word of God communicates the truth of justification through grace

Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress,
and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 236.

and functions as a source for the ministries of the Church--specifically in regards to the
sacraments, scriptures, preaching, and the creeds.
Defining the Word of God in Luther
From the vantage point of one who has been raised in a 21st century evangelical
tradition, it can be quite difficult to assess what exactly Luther means when he uses the
phrase Word of God. For others, this phrase can connote a variety of meanings ranging
from purely the canon of scripture, at one end of the spectrum, up to a particular person
of the Godhead. When Luther uses this phrase, however, his meaning touches upon both
while suggesting a significant role which the Word of God particularly fulfills.
The Word of God is, broadly put, the whole message which God has spoken
throughout all time to the world. This message is the message of salvation which God has
spoken concerning both the law and the gospel of Christ. Luther explains;
Now, the things which lead to eternal salvation I take to be the words and works
of God [] By the words of God, moreover, I mean both the law and the gospel,
the law requiring works and the gospel faith. For there is nothing else that leads
either to the grace of God or to eternal salvation except the word and work of
God, since grace or the Spirit is life itself, to which we are led by Gods word and
work.2
Gods Word tells of His law, His just standards and commands. It also tells of all His
works and the works of His Son. Gods Word also tells the promises of Gods gospel as it
was acted out in history which saves women and men from their sins.
As the Word of God, this Word carries with it all of the surety, authority, and
sufficiency of God, Himself; it is a faithful message, guaranteed by its sender, uttered and
preached by the Holy Spirit.3 Without this Word, faith and salvation would be
2

Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Pages 3-296 in vol.33 of Luthers Works, American Edition. 55
vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St.
Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 105.
3
Martin Luther, Two Sermons at Weimar, Pages 103-118 in vol.51 of Luthers Works, American Edition.
55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St.

impossible. In numerous places Luther repeats that if the Word were not present, faith
would be nonexistent; instead, people would rely on their works, For where there is no
promise of God there is not faith. Where there is no faith, there everyone presumptuously
undertakes to better himself and make himself well pleasing to God by means of works.4
Without the promises of God, one would have to settle for the impotent works of ones
self or another. These works, as well as anything opposed to the gospel, are nothing,
however, and are nowhere near efficacious for the removal of sin.
In Luthers literary confrontation with Karlstadt and those whom he called the
enthusiasts, he maintained that in spite of every sacrament and every meditation, one
thing was still necessary for faith to be engendered within a person. Luther writes:
Our teaching is that bread and wine do not avail. I will go still farther. Christ on
the cross and all his suffering and his death do not avail, even if, as you teach,
they are acknowledged and meditated upon with the utmost passion, ardor,
heartfeltness. Something else must always be there. What is it? The Word, the
Word, the Word. [] Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand
times, it would all be in vain if the Word of God were absent and were not
distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.5
In this Christ offers the Word of God, the promises of the gospel that are abundantly
given to whoever would believe them in faith.
If the life-giving aspect of the Word of God was unexceptionally significant to
Luther, then its living quality was likewise significant. This Word was not a dead
writing, but a living proclamation. In his Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter,
Luther writes that the gospel, the ultimate message of the Word of God, is not what one
Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 111.
4
Martin Luther, Treatise on New Testament, Pages 79-111 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American Edition.
55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St.
Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 92.
5
Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, Pages 73-224 in vol.40 of Luthers Works, American
Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress,
and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 212.

finds in books and what is written in letters of the alphabet; it is rather an oral sermon and
a living Word, a voice that resounds throughout the world and is proclaimed publicly, so
that one hears it everywhere.6 The Word of God is not merely, as some might suggest,
the canon of scripture contained within a medium of hardcopy literacy. The Word of God
is conveyed through the medium of orality, and yet, because it is preached and uttered by
the Holy Spirit, it never dissipates nor dies.
Word of God: Law and Gospel
As Luther writes, the Word of God is of two persuasions, the second of which
supersedes the first. The Word of God has both the Law of God, which are His commands
and charges unto humans and the world, and the Gospel which is the happy promise of
Gods mercy through the merit of Christ. In general, the Law is found primarily in the
writings of the Old Testament of Scripture while the Gospel is primarily found in the
writings of the New Testament.7
The Law even though not the Gospel, remains the Word of God for Luther. And
even though the Old Testament scriptures were held in low esteem by some for its
simplicity, Luther exhorted:
I beg and really caution every pious Christian not to be offended by the simplicity
of the language and stories frequently encountered there, but fully realize that,
however simple they may seem, these are the very words, works, judgments, and
deeds of the majesty, power, and wisdom of the most high God.8

Martin Luther, Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter, Pages 3-148 in vol.30 of Luthers Works,
American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg
and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 3.
7
Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition. 236. Understandably, the Gospel can still be found in parts of the Old Testament and while Law
remains on in the New. God made a promise that Abraham accepted by faith, while the example of Jesus
calls Christians to a higher standard of love.
8
Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 236.

The Old Testament remains alongside the Gospel as the divine Word of God. This is true,
because the Old Testament, though demanding works, still sprang from that source which
gave utterance to the Gospel, the Word of God.
As the Word of God, the Law was intended for Gods purposes to not only
prevent anyone from choosing ways of his own for doing good and living aright, 9 but
also to inexorably impress upon the conscience ones own desperate incapacity to do
anything good. This would force the conscience to seek salvation outside of the Law and
outside of itselfthat is the grace of God found in Christ. In this way, the Law and the
Gospel mirror each other as they work towards Gods purposes as the Word of God.
It can be further seen that since the Law comes from God, the qualities of Gods
Gospel can also be glimpsed within the laws of the Old Testament. In explaining the
primary theme of Deuteronomy, Luther notes that what it really contains is:
nothing else than faith toward God and love toward ones neighbor, for all Gods
laws come to that. Therefore, down to the twentieth chapter, Moses, in his
explanation of the law, guards against everything that might destroy faith in God;
and from there to the end of the book he guards against everything that hinders
love.10
As the Word of God, the Law maintains Gods purpose; through its insurmountable
demands, the Law points to a humble Gospel of grace. When writing concerning the Old
Testament Scriptures, Luther presses,
[Think] of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of
mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that
divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench
all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ
lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds [Luke 2:12]. Simple and lowly
are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.11
9

Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 244.
10
Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 238-9.

In making its grave demands upon the humanwhich no one could ever hope to fulfill in
their depraved stateroom is made upon the stage of the heart for the disguised savior to
arrive. So the Gospel begins to beckon to the sinful heart through the demands of the
Law.
The Word of God: Gospel and Law
What the Word of God begins through the Law it resolves with the Gospel.
Where the Law demanded works of righteousness from its hearers, the Gospel now
imparts the merit of Christ in satisfaction. This is a promise from God, and any who
believe it, have put their trust in God and taken Him at His Word.
The Gospel is the second half of Gods salvation story for the world. Most simply
put, the Gospel is, as Luther put it, a discourse about Christ, that he is the son of God
and became man for us, that he died and was raised, that he has been established as a
Lord over all things [] There you have it. The gospel is a story about Christ, Gods and
Davids Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a
nutshell.12 The Gospel reveals Christ to its hearers, the one who shares His life with
them as a gift of grace for their very selves.
The Gospel is the holy vessel that God uses to communicate His message of
grace. Luther writes that before any works or transformation occur, you hear the Word
of God, through which the Spirit convinces the world of its sin (John 16 [:8]). When we
acknowledge our sin, we hear of the grace of Christ. In this Word the Spirit comes and

11

Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 236.
12
Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels, Pages 117-124 in
vol.35 of Luthers Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T. Lehman,
(Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 118.

gives faith where and to whom he wills.13 Upon this message of the Gospel, as well as
Law, everything rests for the believer. No other message gives the opportunity for faith as
does the Gospel. No other message shows any sinful person how one can be saved.
Where the Law hinted, the Gospel now exposes the reality that Christ is for
humanity. God speaks a Word to disclose to all who He is and what He has done. As Paul
Althaus paraphrases:
God enters into a saving encounter with man only by clothing himself and
causing himself to be found at a place he himself has designated. This particular
place is Christ. Where, however, can we find Christ? How is he present with us
and known to us? No one will find him any place except in Gods word. He
comes to us only through the gospel which testifies to Christ.14
The Gospel, unlike the Law, shows how God has drawn closer to humanity. The prior
half of the Word of God has commended to humanity the holiness of God, His otherness
that demands righteousness. The Gospel, in its essence, is a story of Christ coming low,
drawing near, becoming human, and giving Himself to humanity.
The Gospel is a message to all humanity, but as Luther points out, the Gospel
message is deeply personal to the believer who has faith. Luther challenges his readers:
When you open the book containing the gospels and you read or hear how Christ
comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein
perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are
being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ
coming to us, or we being brought to him. When you see how he works, however,
and how he helps everyone to whom he comes or who is brought to him, then rest
assured that faith is accomplishing this in you and that he is offering your soul
exactly the same sort of help and favor through the gospel. If you pause here and
let him do you good, that is, if you believe that he benefits and helps you , then
you really have it. Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift.15
13

Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, Pages 73-224 in vol.40 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 149.
14
Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
1966) 35.
15
Martin Luther, Treatise on New Testament, Pages 79-111 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 121.

The Word offers Christs very self to the faithful believer. The believer places his or her
trust in the promises of the Gospel and thereby receives the promises through the Word.
As such, the believer should accept not only Christs righteousness as imparted to him or
her, but should also receive all of Christs activities as done unto or for his or herself. The
Word, thereby remains the necessary vehicle through which people are justified and
saved.
Outward and Inward Work of the Word
It is understood, then, that the Word of God is absolutely integral for Gods plan
of salvation for humanity. Without it, it is impossible to be saved and justified, because
this is the only Word that God has spoken. Even so, it is important still to understand how
it is that the Spirit brings the living Word of God unto human beings.
At this juncture, Luther strictly rejects that the Spirit ever presents the Word to
humans in a purely extra-sensory way. God instead interacts with humans in what he
calls a twofold way, both inwardly and outwardly. Outwardly he deals with us through
the oral word of the gospel and through material signs, that is, baptism and the
sacraments of the altar. Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other
gifts.16 As Luther continues, the inward must always be accompanied by the outward.
Gods Word does not communicate His Word except at some point through aspects of His
sensible creation. According to Luther, faith needs a tether given by God to which it can
tie itself.
The written scriptures, oral proclamations, sacraments, and gifts of the Spirit
function as these outward signs of spiritual truths. The outward and inward aspects are

16

Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, Pages 73-224 in vol.40 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 146.

not separate, as Karlstadt and the enthusiast attempted to make them. In their desire to
emphasize the impotence of human effort in salvation, the enthusiasts limited Gods
connection to humanity in the sacraments to a purely interior one. Luther, knowing
humans to be physical creatures, saw that the soul would be left crippled without
acknowledging the way the Word manifests its truth in the material world.
Do you not see here the devil, the enemy of Gods order? [] he tears down the
bridge, the path, the way, the ladder, and all the means by which the Spirit might
come to you. Instead of the outward order of God in the material sign of baptism
and the oral proclamation of the Word of God he wants to teach you, not how the
Spirit comes to you but how you come to the Spirit. They would have you learn
how to journey on the clouds and ride on the wind. They do not tell you how or
when, whither or what, but you are to experience what they do.17
God has provided these reference points for faith to grab hold. They encourage the body
and soul through a physical, sensible manifestation of Gods Word in the world, whether
sacrament or scripture.
The Word does not come to Christians through any inward or any outward work
of the Spirit alone. Faith must be placed in the heart of the believer, and the believer must
be reminded physically of the truth of the Word that is audibly spoken to them. The
inward can be deceived without the outward, and without the inward, the outward does
not automatically set faith in the heart of the human. Through the outward, however, the
Spirit convinces the inner man that Gods grace is real, more than spiritual, and that
Gods promises are really true.
As Luther puts it, Christ has given us His will and testament in the form of the
scriptures,18 the mass, and the sacraments. Just as people record promises in the presence
17

Martin Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, Pages 73-224 in vol.40 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 147.
18
Speaking of the Old Testamentthen later the NewLuther writes, "It is a testament because in it God
promised and bequeathed to the people of Israel the land of Canaan, if they would keep it. He gave it to
them too, and it was confirmed by the death and blood of sheep and goats. But since this testament did not
stand upon God's grace, but upon men's works, it had to become obsolete and cease, and the promised land

11

of notaries, so that the promises can be sealed until death, Christ has done in this
testament. He has affixed to the words a powerful and most precious seal and sign: his
own true flesh and blood under the blood under the bread.19 These are a promise and a
guarantee that He is good on His Word; with a physical sign, He gives a seal to
accompany His promises.
The sacrament does not take the place of the Word of God. No, the sacrament
serves as the table upon which the feast for faith is set. God has here prepared for our
faith a pasture, a table, and a feast; but faith is not fed except on the word of God
alone.20 He continues that partakers of this mass should therefore highly treasure the
words of Christ in the mass. They are true and the Word of God, communicating the
essence of Gods Gospel to the believer. If the believer holds Christs words in this way,
then she will have not simply the little drops of blessing that drip from the mass, but the
very fountainhead of faith, from which springs and flows every blessing.
This promise is based upon scripture, and scripture, likewise, functions in this
way. If scripture did not have the Word of God, it would have remained a dead work of
literature. But as was said earlier, the Word of God is a living Word. The Word of God
empowers the scriptures, and moreover, preceded them, so that even the words of Christ,
the good news, in scripture are invigorated and made alive for every believer, as the
Gospel enlivens them.

had to be lost again--because the law cannot be fulfilled by works. And another testament had to come
which would not become obsolete, which would not stand upon our deeds either, but upon God's words and
works, so that it might endure for ever. Therefore it is confirmed by the death and blood of an eternal
Person, and an eternal land is promised and given." Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages
235-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American Edition, 246.
19
Martin Luther, Treatise on New Testament Pages 79-111 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American
Edition, 86.
20
ibid, 92.

Through scripture, Christ instituted the Lords prayer. God provided His Word
which was formatted into creedal form for the Church at Nicea. Through the spoken word
in pulpits, God has spread His Word to groups of believers. Through all these outward
works of the Spirit, God has preserved His Church and His Word through to Luthers
time.21
All of these are under the influence of the Word of God. How does Luther know
this? He knows the standard by which all of these are measured, the Word of GodHis
Law and Gospel. He notes how clear the subject matter of the Word of God is.22 The
message of scripture is clear, because it is all one single message being sent out. Luther
even exclaims on many occasions how inaccurate it is to claim the scriptures to have four
gospels when in fact they only have one.23
All of scripture, as well as every rite and teaching of the Church, can and should
be measured against the Gospel of this Word of God. This is how Luther is able to claim
that Romans, an epistle of Paul, can show forth the gospel better than an account of Mark
or Luke. The Gospel message is what saves someone. This message is presented in
various ways throughout scripture, but it is most important that this Word of God is heard
over all the stylistic differences and methods. The Church has been given just one Gospel
that it can teach, one canon that can save.
The Gospel of the Word of God is the standard for scripture and all teaching. In
fact, by this Gospel any believing Christian can interpret scripture, and without it no one
can understand it rightly. Luther noted of St. Peters epistle that, [St. Peter] teaches the
21

Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels Pages 117-124 in
vol.35 of Luthers Works, American Edition, 201.
22
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will Pages 3-296 in vol.33 of Luthers Works, American Edition,
26.
23
Martin Luther, A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels Pages 117-124 in
vol.35 of Luthers Works, American Edition, 117.

true faith and tells us that Christ was given to us to take away our sin and to save us []
On this basis you can now determine concerning all books and doctrines what is and what
is not gospel [] All Christians have this power to judge, not the pope or the councils,
who boast that they alone have the power to judge doctrine.24
In contrast, without understanding this Word correctly, one can never interpret any
of the scriptures accuratelyno matter ones mastery of Latin, Greek, or Hebrew.25 The
canon of scripture, for Luther, is the Gospel message, the Word of God, that Christ
became human, died and was resurrected, so that any who would believe in Gods
promise through Christ will be justified before Him. Therefore, even in interpreting the
scriptures, the Word of God protects its proper meaning and message, the Gospel of
Christ.
Conclusion
The Word of God plays a central role in how people are justified before God.
Without the Word, the recorded scriptures would not be possible, having nothing of Gods
disclosure to record. The rites of the Church would be emptythe Church itself would
not exist; faith would have nothing in which to place its trust.
The Word is Gods own Word, the commandments and promises, the Law and
Gospel that He has spoken through all time. At its climax and its aim is Jesus Christ, the
good news that God is gracious and gives Himself for everyone who believes. This is

24

Martin Luther, Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter, Pages 3-148 in vol.30 of Luthers Works:
American Edition, 4.
25
Martin Luther, Prefaces to the Old Testament, Pages 235-333 in vol.35 of Luthers Works: American
Edition, 249.
Martin Luther, On Translating: An Open Letter. Pages 175-203 in vol.35 of Luthers Works,
American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman, (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and
Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86) 194.

why Luther understood that it is only the Word of God that has been, is, and will ever be
adequate to engender true faith in the heart of a believer to be justified before God.

Works Consulted
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Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T.
Lehman. Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia,
1855-86.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Pages 3-296 in vol.33 of Luthers Works,
American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman.
Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86.
Luther, Martin. A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels.
Pages 117-124 in vol.35 of Luthers Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by
Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T. Lehman. Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and
Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86.
Luther, Martin. How Christians Should Regard Moses. Pages 155-174 in vol.35 of
Luthers Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T.
Lehman. Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia,
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Luther, Martin. On Translating: An Open Letter. Pages 175-203 in vol.35 of Luthers
Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman.
Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86.
Luther, Martin. Prefaces to the Old Testament. Pages 35-333 in vol.35 of Luthers
Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust T.
Lehman. Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia,
1855-86.

Luther, Martin. Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter. Pages 3-148 in vol.30 of
Luthers Works, American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmust
T. Lehman. Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia,
1855-86.
Luther, Martin. Treatise on New Testament. Pages 79-111 in vol.35 of Luthers Works,
American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman.
Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86.
Luther, Martin. Two Sermons at Weimar. Pages 103-118 in vol.51 of Luthers Works,
American Edition. 55 vols. ed by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman.
Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1855-86.
Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. trans. by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1966.
Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luthers Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development.
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