Two Reviews: Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Third Edition, Fortress Press, 2012), and Treatise on Good Works (Fortress Press, 2012)


[1] Ever since the publication of the first edition of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings in 1989, this one-volume compendium of Luther texts has filled an important need for college or seminary classes focused on the life and work of Luther. In short, the volume has provided the best (and most affordable) access to a wide range of Luther’s theological works that would otherwise require access (by impoverished students!) to the individual volumes of the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Similarly, for anyone interested in sampling Luther’s thought about a variety of issues, or desiring to “get to know” the Reformer directly—letting “Luther speak,” as Timothy Lull suggested in the preface to the first edition—Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings is a gift. This third edition of the book was produced in 2012; William R. Russell served again as the editor for this edition, building on the work he did in connection with the second edition (2005).

Martin Luther's Basic Writings[2] But why a “revision of a revision,” given the prior editions’ usefulness and acceptance? Editor Russell cites in his preface to the third edition “the interplay of technology and text” as a major factor. Keeping up with the technological-Joneses-next-door, so to speak, this edition allows it to be available as a printed book, an e-book, and as a digital download in an age of burgeoning digital innovation. Perhaps more importantly, the new edition has allowed for significant improvements in the arrangement and expansion of the contents, as well as the correction of numerous scanning errors in the second edition that ranged from the mildly annoying to the text-altering. As one familiar with the second edition through classroom use, this reviewer finds all of these welcome fruits of the revision.

[3] It is a “mild” revision, content-wise: the book remains essentially the same as the second edition. All of the sermons, tracts, and other writings familiar to users of the second edition have been retained reflecting the strength of the original content decisions made by Lull and continued by Russell. Edition three is expanded, however, by the inclusion of Luther’s 1539 sermon delivered at the Pleissenburg Castle chapel in Leipzig; his 1519 Meditation on Christ’s Passion; two writings dealing with the sacrament—the 1519 treatise The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body and Blood of Christ and the 1526 sacramentarian controversy polemic, Against the Fanatics;and Luther’s 1542 pastoral tract, Consolation for Women Whose Pregnancies Have Not Gone Well (LW 43’s “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage”).

[4] This last addition highlights the work done in the third edition to update the mildly aging English of the American Edition’s translations. A close reading of the third edition’s texts in comparison with the American Edition’s reveals these emendations. However, the third edition uses fresh, new translations in the case of the Consolation and the seminal 1520 treatise, The Freedom of the Christian. The Consolation translation is Russell’s own; Mark Tranvik prepared the translation of the Freedom of the Christian for the first published volume of Fortress Press’s “Luther Study Edition” series for classroom and parish study of individual writings of Luther. (Scott Hendrix’s translation of the 1520 Treatise on Good Works which he prepared as volume two of this series is reviewed below.)

[5] The third edition’s internal arrangement of its contents has been improved to this reviewer’s thinking over that of the second edition. First, the various titles of the book’s seven sections have been generalized to reflect the collection’s underlying emphasis on Luther as a conversation partner for the whole church. Accordingly, the new titles for the sections are simply “Luther on ______,” without attempting to suggest a narrower focus as before. Thus, the second edition’s “PART II – The Task of Theology” is recast as “Luther on Theology” in the new edition; “The Promise of the Sacraments” as “Luther on Sacraments,” etc. The second edition’s “PART VII – Living and Dying as a Christian” is helpfully re-labeled as “Luther on Ethics,” a change that more adequately captures the breadth of the content of the selections included in section.

[6] Second, the new edition has moved the former first grouping of texts, “Luther the Man,” to last position. In both editions this portion of the book is composed of a potpourri of texts—letters, selections from the Table Talk, etc.—reflecting Luther’s multifaceted tone and approach to life. But when taken logically as the first material read in a course using the book, or when encountering this material early on just by reading the volume, the old arrangement confronted the reader with a jarring spectrum of moods and materials from across Luther’s life without the benefit of first giving wider exposure to Luther’s thoughtfulness, even in terms of his polemics. Most critically, this was the section in which the reader formerly was confronted early on by a selection from Luther’s difficult 1543 polemic On the Jews and Their Lies. Taken in its historical context, Luther’s treatise on the Jews is not the kind of bombshell it appears to be to twenty-first century American sensibilities; it is one of the more distant and remote aspects of Luther’s life and time that need to be considered (not approved of) in their context in the same way as his use of scatology, or his views about science, or gender, etc. The inclusion of the selection is important for any number of reasons to students of Luther and deserves to be in the book. However, placed as it is in the third edition at the end of a journey of reading, the new position of the treatise allows the reader or student to consider this aspect of Luther more fairly and authentically.

[7] Third, the additions to this edition’s selections of Luther’s sacramental writings (see above) help round out this important theological emphasis in Luther. While the questions Russell acknowledges of “Why this? Why not that?” with regard to the book’s content will always remain open, these particular additions are most welcome and properly expand the contours of Luther’s theology on the Sacrament of the Altar.

[8] In other matters, “Luther 3.0” includes the small, but thoughtful revision of listing each individual selection’s location in the American Edition by volume and page in the main table of contents rather than in the chronological list of Luther’s writings. (The chronological list is retained, but reformatted .) This navigational information is especially helpful in directing students to the respective volume(s) of the American Edition which offers more extensive introductions to Luther’s works than can be accommodated in the third edition. In that regard, the introductions in the book have been revised, but not greatly lengthened, and the explanatory notes reduced. The work has been “spruced up” by the inclusion of more reproductions of woodcuts from title pages, etc. culled from the sixteenth century editions of Luther’s works and by a more extensive general introduction to each of the seven parts of the book. Other “student-friendly” improvements include a chronological review of Luther’s life, a glossary of late medieval/Reformation era terms, and a (modest) index. In terms of format, the book now appears in double columns on each page rather than the wide, single-column format of the previous edition. A minor change that is less welcome is the loss of the familiar and iconic Cranach depiction of Luther that adorned the covers of editions one and two in favor of what one student called the “Un-Luther.”

[9] Finally, and most significantly, the third edition represents and presents itself unequivocally as an anthology of Luther’s theological writing. Jaroslav Pelikan noted in his Foreword in the second edition the reasons for this emphasis (while mildly lamenting that Luther’s exegetical work was thereby largely ignored.) William Russell’s introduction strongly sets forth the volume’s guiding principles in this regard. Readers should note these for themselves. The presentation of Luther’s thought in the volume is meant to let Luther speak theologically and pastorally in his own voice to the kinds of issues and emphases that have continued to be points of discussion, debate, and exploration in the present. It is for this that “Luther deserves to be read and not just read about.” And, it is for this that Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition, is commended and recommended.

Treatise on Good Works.

[1] In 1520, in the midst of the mounting crisis between himself and the medieval church, Martin Luther penned three of his most important “Reformation writings”: Address to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of the Christian. Overshadowed by these in history, but of immense importance is the 1520 Treatise on Good Works, Luther’s pastorally-driven expression of “a new piety” that flows from the heart of Christian faith in accord with the guidance of the moral law of God expressed most succinctly in the Decalogue. In the process of creating the original edition of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (1989), Timothy Lull made the difficult decision to include in the volume two of the Reformation tracts, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and the Freedom of the Christian, but not the Address to the Christian Nobility. And, when it came to the “other 1520 tract,” the Treatise on Good Works, Lull noted in his preface that its omission was highly regrettable, but necessitated because of its length.

Treatise on Good Works[2] The American Edition included this important work in volume 44 (1966), the first of the American Edition’s “Christian in Society” volumes. The version used was a revision of W. A. Lambert’s translation prepared for volume one of the so-called “Philadelphia Edition” [PE] of Luther’s works published in 1915. This has been the English dress of the treatise for over forty years.

[3] As useful as the American Edition has been and is, students of Luther can only be pleased by the inception of Fortress Press’s “Luther Study Edition” series which assays to publish significant works of Luther as individual books designed especially for student and parish study using fresh translations, introductions, and explanatory notes. Noted Reformation historian and theologian Scott H. Hendrix prepared the Treatise on Good Works (2012).

[4] The Hendrix volume is an attractive, accessible little book that includes the whole treatise newly translated by Hendrix from the 1982 Delius-Mau edition of the text. In addition, Hendrix notes in his introduction that he also consulted two modern German versions in preparing his translation. The result is a readable, modern English translation that retains the Geschmack (“flavor”) of the sixteenth century original. In this regard, Hendrix operates with Luther’s renditions and paraphrases of the biblical text that could come from the Greek, Hebrew, or Latin as Luther recalled them. Hendrix leaves intact Luther’s citations of the same. Standardized references are placed in footnotes, sometimes with commentary when Luther’s citation wanders from the standardized citation. In following this procedure, Hendrix succeeds in giving the reader a sense of Luther’s use and understanding of the Bible.

[5] The treatise is introduced by an informative introductory essay that sets context and describes Hendrix’s approach to the translation of the treatise without becoming overly involved or weighed down with detail. An abbreviated chronology of Luther’s life is included in the opening pages along with a map of Reformation Europe. At the end of the volume is a list of abbreviations, suggestions for further reading, and a brief name and subjects index. These ancillaries are helpful. The “Suggestions for Further Reading” list includes standard secondary works on Luther; this reviewer would underscore the usefulness of Robert Kolb’s Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith and Timothy Wengert’s (ed.) The Pastoral Luther to readers of the Treatise on Good Works.

[6] This little volume is excellently suited for use as an independent study, as a collateral reading in a course on Luther’s life and theology, or in a Reformation history or other such course. Parish studies of an ambitious nature will also find it worthwhile.

Charles L. Cortright is associate professor of theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, WI.



© January/February 2013
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 13, Issue 1