The OUP Handbook Interviews: Robert Kolb on Martin Luther’s Theology

The fourth interview in our series on the OUP Handbooks is with Robert Kolb, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, editor of The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. The LAB sat down (virtually) with Prof Kolb to discuss various aspects of the work, including the large scope of the essays and what makes this resource distinct amongst other works on Luther.

book cover of The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology

What is special about the OUP Handbooks, and why should students and scholars use them in their research?

The Oxford Handbook series is designed to offer students and scholars, especially in other fields than that being treated, orientation and basic foundations for significant subjects of academic research. Students in beginning courses on the history of late medieval and early modern Europe or the history of the Christian church can get their feet on the ground of what is being discussed in regard to Martin Luther’s way of thinking and his place in the theological and wider intellectual tradition through these essays. They offer an overview of the basics of individual topics, some glimpse of the critical questions being debated among Reformation scholars in the early twenty-first century, and bibliographies to provide a good start with further learning.

table of contents for The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology

Tell us a bit about what you wished to accomplish as editor of the The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology and how you think that goal was achieved.

My fellow editors and I hoped with the essays we gathered to provide a basis for stimulating interest in Luther’s thought and his impact on the thinking of subsequent generations right up to our own time.  He is one of handful of European figures from the sixteenth century whose works are read and used around the world today.  Others include Desiderius Erasmus and Niccolo Machiavelli, but even they do not command the readership that Luther does, in part because works such as his Small Catechism are used not only by scholars but also by lay people.  

We wanted to provide students as well as our colleagues in related areas of study and associated disciplines who wish to treat Luther some relatively brief but substantial direction for their own further pursuit of what is to be found in Luther’s immense corpus of writings. Our forty-seven surveys of Luther’s way of thinking and its relevance for twenty-first century readers come from forty-four authors from six continents and fifteen nations, representing five Christian traditions, reflecting the place of Luther in our world

parts III through V of The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology in table of contents

For readers unfamiliar with your work, can you tell us about your background and how that prepared you for the role of editor of the OUP handbook?

The three editors represent three geographical regions—Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and North America—and three generations of scholarship. L’ubomír Batka, the young researcher among us, had studied with Oswald Bayer in Tübingen and focused on Luther’s theology. 

Irene Dingel, in the middle of her career, had written her Habilitationschrift under the direction of Gottfried Seebaß at the University of Heidelberg. Her research has examined above all the impact of Luther’s thinking on the next generations. 

As the “retired” senior among us, I still am drawing on my doctoral studies under Robert Kingdon at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which had propelled me initially into probing Luther’s impact as well. But the Luther celebrations of 2017 lured me into more intensive work on the Wittenberg reformer’s own thinking, particularly in the context of his fellow reformers in Wittenberg, also a concern of Professor Dingel’s. 

first page of chapter 12

What distinguishes the collection of essays in the Handbook from other collections of essays on Martin Luther?

The Oxford editorial team conceived of our assignment as specifically concentrated on Luther’s thought, its background and content; its treatment of traditional topics of theological discussion and new themes that grew out of his concept of reform in the context of his new framework for interpreting Scripture; his application of the biblical message to the life of the Christian and the church; the literary genre that he employed as a sensitive linguist and author; and what later generations did to interpret and misinterpret his way of thinking, also in the lands of the majority world today.

first page of chapter 6

Can you briefly walk us through the seven sections that the Handbook is divided into?

The volume begins with a biographical introduction that acquaints readers with the course of his life. There follow eight essays on the medieval background out of which Luther came, for it forms the seedbed of his view of God and what it means to be human. He retained elements of that background, he rejected other elements of the teaching and practice of the church with which he had grown up, and he refashioned and transformed still other elements, building on the past with fresh insights arising out of his use of new tools for biblical studies being developed by the “biblical humanists” of his time.  

The third section explores four aspects of the hermeneutical framework within which he fashioned specific components of his delivery of the biblical message and his call for reform to the public. Twelve essays in Part IV treat individual foci of his digest of Scripture and his public teaching for church and society.  

Part V gives overviews of the reformer’s view of the Christian’s daily life and work and the place of Christians in the European society of his time in seven studies. As a master of both Latin and German expression, Luther made his mark not only with the cultivation of rhetorically-skilled preachers and teachers in his classroom but also through his published writings. His significant impact on European thinking through his artful use of four genre of writing provides the focus for essays on those genre.  

The final section contains twelve essays on Luther’s interaction with his closest supporters, his own team, as well as Roman Catholic and Protestant contemporaries; on his impact in the seventeenth century, in the Enlightenment and Pietism, and the nineteenth century; and on the engagement of modern scholars with his thinking. These latter essays include his use by Marxists, Roman Catholics, the wider Protestant world, and thinkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

first page of chapter 46

What are some of the advantages you see for readers to have the Handbook available digitally in Logos Bible Software?

My students live in a digital world. So do those who want to become acquainted with the thought of Martin Luther in all parts of the globe, including those places that do not have ready access to libraries and hard copies of books. By making the Handbook available digitally, Logos Bible Software will place the book at the disposal of many, many more readers.

first page of chapter 31

Finally, which projects of yours should we look out for in the coming years that also deal with Martin Luther’s theology?

Fundamental to Luther’s thinking was a view of reality that saw the creative and re-creative word of the God who revealed himself as Jesus Christ as underlying all the substantial “things” and persons that exist. This “relational ontology” has been treated by many scholars in one way or another. I hope to join that chorus with an attempt to let Luther address what it means to be creatures of a God who delights in conversation and community.

back cover of The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology

book cover of The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther's Theology

The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology is now available for pre-order on Logos, just one of a fantastic lineup of individual volumes from the Oxford University Press Handbooks series.

In addition, Logos is offering two exclusive collections of volumes from the OUP Handbook series, at special pre-order pricing:

book cover of The Oxford Handbooks Biblical Studies Collection

The Oxford Handbooks Biblical Studies Collection (8 vols.)

book cover of the Oxford Handbooks Religion Collection

The Oxford Handbooks Religion The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s TheologyCollection (26 vols.)

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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