Luther’s Life: Anfechtung

it is only in light of that bad news that the news of Jesus Christ and what he’s accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection can be seen as Gospel.

But it seems that it was not just Luther’s theology that set the direction for what came to be known as evangelical but it was also his life. And in particular there was one aspect to his life, interestingly a part of Luther’s pre-conversion life, that has found a place under the evangelical banner. This is what has come to be known as Luther’s Anfechtung.

 

The name evangelical was early on attributed to the Reformers and to Luther himself, and it was of course a fitting title as it not only grasped their recovery of the gospel, but also their emphasis upon it and the good news it declared. For Luther that good news only made sense in light of the bad news. He described it in terms of Law and Gospel. What the Law, in its holy light, revealed concerning man was the bad news – we are sinners and incapable of pleasing God. And it is only in light of that bad news that the news of Jesus Christ and what he’s accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection can be seen as Gospel.

But it seems that it was not just Luther’s theology that set the direction for what came to be known as evangelical but it was also his life. And in particular there was one aspect to his life, interestingly a part of Luther’s pre-conversion life, that has found a place under the evangelical banner. This is what has come to be known as Luther’s Anfechtung.

This German word doesn’t have a clean English equivalent, but Roland Bainton in his classic biography on Luther describes it as “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.” He goes on to say that “Luther’s tremor was augmented by the recognition of unworthiness; ‘I am dust and ashes and full of sin’. Creatureliness and imperfection alike oppressed him. Toward God he was at once attracted and repelled. Only in harmony with the Ultimate could he find peace. But how could a pigmy stand before divine Majesty; how could a transgressor confront divine Holiness? Before God the high and God the holy Luther was stupefied.”[1]

As we’ve already noted, this feeling of despair, this Anfechtung, occurred in Luther’s life before he heard and believed in the evangel, in the good news. But considering Luther’s later emphasis on the Law/Gospel distinction many have commented on this turbulent time in Luther’s life as what really lay behind his understanding of the Law. His theology, some would say, was only a result of his emotional life. Maybe yes, maybe no. Regardless of how not a few modern commentators have tried to psychoanalyze Luther and thus make sense of his theology, history has born witness that this feeling of despair, doubt, panic and desperation has been a common experience in the lives of many who have come to know the good news of Christ.

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