Home // Book Review including my Notes: Volker Leppin, The Strange Reformation: Luther’s Mystical Roots.

Book Review including my Notes: Volker Leppin, The Strange Reformation: Luther’s Mystical Roots.


Book Review and Notes by Peter D.S. Krey

September 16, 2017

Volker Leppin, The Strange Reformation: Luther’s Mystical Roots. (A translation of the title) Die fremde Reformation: Luthers mystische Wurzeln, (München: Verlag C.H.Beck, oHG, 2016), 247 pages with endnotes, index of the pictures and an index for persons mentioned.

I first thought Volker Leppin over-emphasized the impact of mysticism upon Luther or perhaps, that Leppin may have thought of his work as a corrective. That was my take because Luther was also influenced by Augustine: having read all the works of the founder of his order; and by William of Ockham’s Terminism or otherwise called Nominalism: for example, his emphasis on experience and sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia, i.e., seeing them in almost separate particulars rather than in universals; and, of course, by Humanism: his return directly to the scriptures in the move ad Fontes. But in making this list of influences upon Luther, we have to realize that he transcended all of them, even mysticism: if we define it in the most commonly held view of it, which champions a solitary and vertical relationship ascending to God in a completely internal way. After reading Berndt Hamm, I can now understand that Luther developed a different, more particular and intense form of mysticism, a mysticism of the word that ultimately relied on the external word of promise.[1] Thus externally, Luther also featured a renewal of the church, including a sacramental emphasis, that previous mystics often disparaged.

Some notes:

On page 92-93, Leppin explained that Prierias already held the pope to be infallible, which had not at all yet become an official teaching of the church and thus he should not have argued that whoever contradicted the pope’s teaching and even his action, whatever action the pope undertook in Rome, was already a heretic. Prierias’ using this teaching against Luther also helped split the church, according to Leppin, because it was only in 1870 that Vatican I declared papal infallibility. This Luther opponent also asserted that the pope had jurisdiction over purgatory. Leppin writes, “Prierias had an unfortunate radical position.”

On page 114, Leppin writes that Luther stood before the mighty emperor Charles V upon whose empire the sun never set and did not seem to show fear. NB: Opponents usually argue that Luther always stood protected by the Elector and in one sense, it is, of course, true. Luther, however, like he later assured Frederick the Wise, felt that he did not need to fear an earthly ruler, because his Christ, who ruled the universe, might well have Luther protect and safe-guard a ruler rather than vice versa. I am alluding to Luther’s letter to Frederick the Wise on his return from the Wartburg against the Elector’s wishes, where he wrote, “I have no intention of asking Your Electoral Grace for protection. Indeed, I think I shall protect Your Electoral Grace more than you are able protect me.”[2] When considering the stature of Luther, it is a little like Kaiser Wilhelm II feeling like an underling of Bismarck. Something along similar lines could be said about Pope Leo X and Luther. I believe it was Joseph Lortz who said, “When the Church needed a Hildebrand, it had a Medici!” The monk Hildebrand became the fiery papal reformer Gregory VII (1073-1085). But the church did have a Hildebrand and his name was Martin Luther, the fiery monk, who reversed Gregory’s legal revolution by the German Revolution.[3]

Page 116: the press helped Luther because he had fed it richly, i.e., with pamphlets that brought them abundant sales and rich rewards. NB: When Luther translated the New Testament, he received no honorarium for all his work, although the printing houses sold thousands of copies. “Luther to his irritation did not even receive enough free copies.”[4] Luther never received compensation for all his publications, even though many of his works became best-sellers. The reason was, most certainly, his vow of poverty.

Page 117: I wonder if the way Leppin calls Luther an edifying or devotional author (ein Erbauungsschriftsteller) is slightly pejorative. Leppin does not stand for the truth of Luther’s writings. He is trying to be objective between the positions of the papacy and Luther. But although it is right to be ecumenical today, especially with Pope Francis, in that time authenticity was on Luther’s side and the Roman Church remained unreformed in head and members. I believe it is fair to say that Luther also instigated the later Catholic Reformation.

Leppin also speaks of Luther’s experientially related language (erfahrungsbezognene Sprache) and does not relate it to his Terminism or Nominalism, the way Heiko Oberman does, but writes as if mysticism were the only root and source of Luther’s experiential theology.

Page 119: Leppin writes that Luther read the scriptures as a mystical magnitude, (eine mystische Grösse). Perhaps that explains how Luther could see the climax of the whole Bible in Romans 3:21-24: where “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so that they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” His Christological mysticism may have made it possible for him to read all the Old Testament books and the Gospels and letters of the New in a unitive way.

Page 120-121: Leppin writes of Plato’s influence on Meister Eckhart: that like the things of the world are copies of the spiritually things, which alone are real; one lived through solitude and resignation (Gelassenheit) in those spiritual realities. (Could Gelassenheit be described as being laid back in the spiritual?) One’s center of gravity was in being rather than seeming, that is, in spiritual realities and not in the mere material appearances of them in the world. In studying the German Theology, Boethius, and Luther, I have touched on these matters.[5] Leppin, however, really emphasizes Johannes Tauler’s influence on Luther, which I did not include.

NB: In terms of political science: I believe that because the papacy remained strong vis a vis the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the latter remained weak. With the monarchical pope, who, in the HRE, had a corridor of 55 prince bishops and abbots, who ruled by law; the papacy retarded the nationhood of Germany, not to mention, Italy. Ominous for modern times, Germany and Austria also had antecedent European empires, making them distinct from England, France, and Spain. Thus, with Bismarck, Germany crowns a Kaiser, an emperor, after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and that right in Versailles, where Napoleon III wanted an emperor’s coronation. (How to start another war!) But when Charles V was elected emperor over King Francis, no French King had ever been emperor, until Napoleon Bonaparte, conquered most of Europe, of course.

I believe that therefore the papacy kept Germany and Italy divided by its universal claim, so these countries remained particularized, e.g., Germany was composed of 300 little states or principalities for centuries. Napoleon deposed many of the prince bishops from their ecclesiastical principalities from Germany and Italy in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Now consider Luther’s actions for reforming the Teutonic Order in Prussia already in 1523: at that time, he met secretly with John Oeden, the counselor of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1568) in order that Albrecht could secularize his monastic principality. Luther emphasized the high honor and chastity of marriage and encouraged the celibate knight to marry. “On the 26 May 1525 he could congratulate the now Duke Albrecht of Prussia on the secularization of his ecclesiastical state.”[6]

NB: This Duchy under Albrecht was the first to become Lutheran and in a way, Luther set the stage for the Hohenzollern, whose emperors or Kaisers under Bismarck unified Germany in 1871!

NB: The Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges was worked out by Charles VII of France on July 7, 1438. It was annulled in the Fifth Lateran Council in 1516 by Leo X. But France still had a strong influence over the church, while the German nobility had far fewer lucrative benefices than the French. It also stands to reason that if France, Spain, and England could thwart some of the revenue that the papacy could take out of their countries, more would be taken out of the HRE, i.e., the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Hence the Gravamina or the constant list of German grievances that came up in every diet, but were never ameliorated.

Page 122: Leppin argues that Luther’s Theology of the Word did not stand in opposition to mysticism but developed it further. Later Leppin will argue that mysticism will experience a reductionism into politics. NB: I would argue that tragically its impulse may have entered nationalism.

Berendt Hamm goes beyond Leppin by showing how Luther’s mysticism developed in a unique form of his very own. Berndt Hamm writes:

where a mystical relationship of God with humanity is invoked, it always has to do with the personal, direct, and holistic experience of a blessed nearness to God that reaches its goal through the inner union with God.[7]

But as opposed to traditional mysticism, Luther rejects the mysticism of only a few exceptional people by affirming a democratization of mysticism in the priesthood of all believers.

Interestingly, Hamm points out the way Luther relates firstly, in his Christology, the union of the two natures of Christ, human and divine; secondly, the divine nature of Christ with the human nature of the believer, in the marriage union with its marvelous exchange; and thirdly, the divine body and blood of Christ received in, with, and under the ordinary elements of the bread and wine. NB: Thus his mystical Christology encapsulates a mystical anthropology as well as a mysticism of the sacraments. One could add that in a mystical hermeneutics, the scripture can also be read as the divine word in union with it as a human writing.  Perhaps what is concerned here is not so much the coincidence of opposites as much as the one or the other found under the form of its opposite.

According to Hamm, Luther’s mysticism becomes one of the word, an immediacy related to the word rather than a direct experience of God. Thus in the Freedom of a Christian, to use a translation, “One who hears the word becomes like the word, pure, good, and just.”[8] NB: Luther in his mysticism could also recognize Christ in the Word become flesh.

Traditional mysticism that featured love in the marriage of Christ with the believer’s soul for Luther became a mysticism of the word that featured faith, because the believer trusted the promises of God, which Luther identified as the Gospel.[9]

NB: Luther’s Theology of the Word is his theology of the concrete spirit (Hegel). For Luther the word is the sheath of the spirit.[10] But again the Word for Luther can also be embodied, become flesh, meaning, become the human being. In the words of the Prologue of John, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) In Hebrew “flesh” is idiomatic for “human being.” Thus, “The word became a human being and dwelt among us.”

Page 147. In graduate school, we had a controversy about whether there was co-terminality between the principality and the diocese ruled by the prince bishop. Leppin notes that there was no co-terminality, but the bishops acted as if there was, i.e., as if his ecclesiastical diocese and territorial holdings were one.

Luther did not feature the ladder mystics climbed up to God, but the grace of God that came down to the sinner. Where mystics thought to enjoy complete loving union with God, Luther introduced several fractures. His experience of episodes of severe spiritual attack, which he called Anfechtungen, made a blissful ecstatic union with the Godhead seem remote.  Then the reality of Christ’s passion and crucifixion got in the way, and finally, his conviction that God’s presence was hidden under its opposite, God’s terrifying divine distance. Thus, he could not affirm a blissful Platonic ontological union with God, but bound that communion with God to Word and faith.[11] Despite these disruptions, Berndt Hamm argues that Luther still intensified a mysticism of his own with that new particular form.

Page 158. Concerning Luther’s affirming the Christian’s conscientious objection to fighting in a war, Leppin argues that where one draws a line in life is determined for Luther by conscience. So in the “Temporal Authority and to what Extent it should be obeyed” he sees conscience operating out of the regiment of the proclamation of faith as opposed to the rule of the government. He sees the two kingdoms in the background, that of the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of the world (like Augustine’s city of God versus the world opposing it). Leppin argues that conscience for Luther comes from his mystical understanding of synderesis. He must be thinking that synderesis or the divine spark within, which mystics underscore, grounds the conscience in the ultimate. In Luther’s holistic anthropology, he sees conscience as one aspect of the total person. Spirit, soul, body, flesh, etc., are all other aspects, like conscience, from which the whole person can be perceived.

Now if the forensic theory of justification by faith is held, there would be no Christ within; but if the effective justification theory is held, then one could speak about synderesis. For some mystics the mere spark could be expanded to the birth of God within the person.

Leppin argues that the mystical emphasis in Luther continues throughout his career, because he allows conscience to determine if a person should be a conscientious objector to fighting a war, if the person considers the war unjust, despite the order of the government.

Page 127: ex opere operato: If a person is completely passive, then the Latin term to use could still be ex opere operato.[12] What if the subjective, faith, is taken into account? Still Luther ends up seeing even faith as God’s work. So Luther’s position vis à vis the sacrament empties the subjective completely, so that God alone is active, doing it all. Thus, it would not be ex opere operantis. To refresh our minds, because the Latin often now seems so alien: ex opere operato: when the sacraments in and of themselves effectively impart grace, simply by the use of them, apart from any act of the soul.

Thomas Aquinas presupposed faith in the receiver. But because faith was made supplementary, it could become expendable. Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel began to speak of negative passivity. Thus, positive faith was not required, but merely the negative absence of any impediments.[13] But ex opere operantis did not refer to the receiver of the sacrament, as I was just doing, but to the performer, when the priesthood understood it as their sacrifice, an officium. Luther, however, declared that it a beneficium, a gift. Steven Ozment defines these Latin concepts concisely: “Later scholastics described the sacraments as working ex opere operato, that is, simply by virtue of their sheer objective performance, not ex opere operantis, because of the personal character or contribution of the agent who performed them.”[14]

Page 170: NB: It is telling that the different interpretation of the sacrament by Zwingli in the Marburg Colloquy of 1529 brought a tear in the fabric of the community. I believe that the controversy about Holy Communion was one about the religious essence of the community, where for a long time our controversy was about its economic essence, that is, capitalist or communist. Perhaps this capitalist-socialist analogy can help us understand the vehemence of the controversy in Luther’s day. The interpretation of the sacrament in a positive way constituted the community, while excommunication, obviously shut people out of the community.

Interestingly enough, we call the heart of it, Jesus’ Words of Institution. Understanding this utterance through the Philosophy of Language, it could be considered performative and thus constituting or originating all institutions, like the church, schools, hospitals, courts, etc. from these words. A theology of performative speech acts is outstanding.

Page 174: Philipp of Hesse had all the goods of his monasteries inventoried, but then did not confiscate all their wealth for his royal coffers like Henry VIII of England, but partly converted them into hospitals. NB: If the monasteries were converted into schools and hospitals and their wealth used for the poor, then perhaps it could be referred to as their “reformation”. In the Scandinavian countries, however, the wealth of the monasteries was confiscated by the kings in order to decrease the wealth and power of the church and increase that of the civil government. When I interpreted this confiscation of the monasteries as corruption, a Norwegian theologian contradicted me. The powerful church should not have been able to rule their countries by the canon law. When the kings stripped them of their wealth and power, it empowered the civil government in its rule over their countries. Thus he interpreted the Reformation as one of the whole society, like a butterfly, one wing, the newly reformed church, the other, a newly empowered civil government.

The bottom of page 179: Leppin implies that the concept of the priesthood of all believers was rooted in mysticism. Now that I have read Berndt Hamm, I can agree and find that the term “democratization of mysticism” coined by Heiko Oberman, seems to be apt here. For example, where merely the nuns considered themselves the brides of Christ, Luther has Christ be the righteous bridegroom marrying his bride, the sinful soul of every believer. In this marriage spirituality, to coin a term, the marvelous exchange takes place, where the righteous Bridegroom Christ exchanges his blessed righteousness and innocence for the sinful soul, which Luther depicts as a whore. (In a feminist description, we might have the righteous Bride marry the soul, described as a pimp, in order not to feminize evil and sin.) Nevertheless, the marvelous exchange is another way of describing the justification by faith of the sinner.[15]

Page 181: Leppin writes: The visitation of the churches by John the Steadfast complemented or even replaced the former visitation of the churches in their dioceses by the bishops. Let me continue with Leppin, before I partly disagree with his criticism of the Reformation. “Because the bishops could not do visitations the rulers were to do it, which placed the Reformation into their authority and expanded their powers. The church system became part of their political jurisdiction.” (In German: “Die Kirche wurde dadurch in das fürstliche Herrschaftssytem einbezogen und die Macht des Landesherrn ausgedehnt….”)

Page 182: “The visitations, which were now carried out, integrated the nascent evangelical church into the newly unfolding early modern state.”

NB: My critique: That the magistrates became emergency bishops in accordance with the priesthood of all believers, does not really exonerate this aggrandizing of temporal with ecclesiastical power. After all it is just the other side of the coin from ecclesiastical power aggrandizing itself through temporal power, which Luther decoupled in the monastic principality of Prussia.  On the other hand, no German bishops became reformed the way they did in Scandinavia. And in England, the Reformation was even spearheaded by the bishops, who became martyrs for the renewal of the faith, hence the Episcopal or Bishops’ Church. None of the German bishops joined the Reformation. The closest bishop in Germany (in 1547) to go over to the Evangelical side was the Archbishop of Cologne, Hermann von Wied (1477 – 1552), whose holdings were immediately taken away from him. Then what Leppin does not take into account was the neglect by the absentee bishops of their dioceses, because they resided in Rome for the sake of its wealth and power. Very few bishops remained in their bishoprics and cared enough to do visitations. But Leppin is right in the sense that in the future development the spiritual power of faith somehow became divided and then infused and subsumed into nationalism. In World War I German Christians killed British Christians and their Protestant faith was completely divided and negated by the power of the nations. A personal note: my father was a machine-gunner under the Kaiser in World War One. He had been drafted right out of the seminary and out in no man’s land, he heard the dying Tommy, as they called the British soldiers, screaming to Jesus. Here he was killing brothers in the faith merely because he was German and they were British. Nationalism negated our Christian faith.

Page 183: Leppin makes Luther foster individualism by quoting the famous Large Catechism passage about whom your heart clings to is really your God. It is hard to see how Leppin makes that connection with this passage. But really, Luther always orients the believer to God and the neighbor, which is far from individualism. Luther’s language of address speaks to the heart of the believer. The heart is the center of the responsible self. Speaking to and about the heart does not have to entail individualism. From my point of view, a sound and strong individual needs a good and solid community; both are important. Individualism does not see the forest, because the trees block the way and a collectivist does not see the trees because the forest is in the way.

On page 184, Leppin qualifies the latter passage, about how trust and faith make your God, a passage which comes from Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in his Large Catechism.  Leppin explains that Luther does not have a modern subjectivist theory that finally makes the existence of God dependent on the consciousness of people. Perhaps Karl Barth took offense because he took Luther’s making of a god or idol by faith in this modern sense of subjectivity. Leppin explains that Luther’s assertion stems from his mysticism: “God cannot be grasped speculatively in an existential form apart from persons, but always in God’s relation to believers. God realizes [the divine] self, in the being-there (the Dasein) of Christians; and indeed, in the inmost center of the person, that is, the heart, that clings to God.” Leppin continues that Luther remained convinced that nothing exterior affected faith, except one’s innermost relationship with God.

Again page 184: Leppin returns to his critique about how the magistrates now took over the church: the evangelical movement did not adhere to the old medieval tensions, but set the switches for churches opposing each other. He asserts that the new evangelical church was not guided by genuine church institutions, but by political authorities. My critique: Leppin should be more nuanced and admit that the churches’ institutions were far from genuine, because the church refused to reform in head and members. Prince bishops wielded temporal power mostly neglecting their spiritual office. The pope was a territorial monarch of the papal states and the king of Rome, and often steeped in the conflicts of the Italian city states in order to enhance the interests of his family, to the neglect of his spiritual office. The problem of absentee bishops who avoided their bishoprics while residing in Rome was not confronted until the Council of Trent. Luther held that the spiritual and temporal offices were not compatible with one another.[16]

     Leppin seems to argue that the development of territorial churches made mysticism lose its strength and direct efficacy. He speaks of the norming of the social process that undid the mystical and made the following course political. Apart from the universal aspiration of the church, the Catholic and Evangelical churches opposed one another and the priesthood of all believers lent itself to the nobles and rulers, who could determine the faith of their territories. NB: In the future that spiritual power over the people by the magistrates developed into nationalism, which, from my point of view, could be described as a heretical faith, because the impulses of mysticism became infused and subsumed into nationalism. My theory certainly needs further historical investigation for more evidence in its behalf. It just occurred to me that religion in Luther’s day used to be the chain that unified the society (religio catena societas), which now might be the division of labor (Emil Durkheim), allowing for the pluralism of religions.

Leppin finishes with the evangelical sense of vocation, a result of the democratization of mysticism, which brought about an inner worldly monasticism. NB: He could have brought up Max Weber’s inner-worldly asceticism, with which Protestantism penetrated the society. Luther did not abolish the priesthood, according to Weber, but universalized it.[17]

Let me finish by translating his Luther citation on page 192:

The bodily birth of Christ means in everything his spiritual birth, in which he is born in us and we become born in him, about which Paul says in Galatians 4(:19), Dear children, for whom I again feel the contractions of childbirth, until Christ is formed in you. Now what is necessary for such a birth is two things, God’s Word and faith, in which two ways the spiritual birth of Christ becomes accomplished.[18]


I read the following book, but the library recalled it and I have not yet been able to get it back:

Volker Reinhardt, (A translation of the title: Luther, the Heretic: Rome and the Reformation) Luther, der Ketzer: Rom und die Reformation, (München: Verlag C.H.Beck, oHG, 2016), 352 pages with a chronology, endnotes, biography of literature consulted, index of the pictures and an index of persons mentioned.


This book review will be next. In it Reinhardt writes a very harsh account of Luther, but also of Rome, where in its revival of Paganism, Leo loved to attend feasts costumed as Orpheus.



[1] More on Luther’s particular mysticism later from Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, (translated by Martin J. Lohrmann), Lutheran Quarterly Books, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), pages 190-232.

[2] Luther’s Works, Letters I, vol. 48, page 391.

[3] See Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983) and Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the West Legal Tradition, (Cambridge, Mass: the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2003).

[4] Martin Becht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532), vol. 2, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), page 47.

[5] Peter Krey, “Martin Luther, the Theologia Germanica and the Philosophical Influence of Boethius” in Scholardarity website’s scholarstore: http://www.scholardarity.com/?page_id=4067#wp_cart_anchor

[6] Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, Vol. 2, pages 78-79.

[7] Berndt Hamm, page 196.

[8] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: the Paulist Press, 2007), page 268, footnote 18.

[9] Berndt Hamm, page 214.

[10] To quote Luther precisely, “The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained.” Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 717.

[11] Berndt Hamm, page 222.

[12] I first did not realize that the Latin term refers to the priest performing the sacrament rather than the believing or non-believing recipient.

[13] Timothy Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), footnote, 39, page 257.

[14] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250-1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), page 28. To translate the Latin literally: Ex opere operato: worked by the work. Ex opere operantis: out of the work of the performer.

[15] Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther, footnote 23, page 198.

[16] In Article 21 of “Why the Books of the Pope and his Disciples were Burned,” LW 31:390.

[17] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), page 40. On page 142 Gellner writes of “individualism which makes each man his own priest,” ascribing that position to Protestantism. But Luther declared each person his neighbor’s priest. In Luther’s famous conclusion of his popular German pamphlet, Freedom of a Christian, he writes:

The conclusion follows that Christians do not live in themselves but in Christ and in their neighbor – in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith one ascends above oneself into God. From God one descends through love again below oneself and yet always remains in God and God’s love.” Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, page 90.

[18] That is, of course, my translation of Galatians 4:19.

loading comments...

Password Reset

Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.