We learned about the Luther-mystics connection from Prof. Dr. Volker Leppin, Professor of Church History at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany. So we asked him to say a bit more on the subject.
You have written about the influences of the mystical tradition on Luther. Who were these mystics and which of their works did Luther know?
The most important mystics that Luther engaged with were Bernard of Clairvaux and Johannes Tauler. Above all it was Tauler, who followed in the tradition of Meister Eckhart, that most heavily influenced him: Luther kept a volume of his sermons that he marked up with his own handwritten notes—you can see them still today. They show how intensively and even enthusiastically Luther dealt with these late medieval mystics during the period of his first academic lectures.
What in Luther’s own writings shows the influence of mysticism?
There are many signs of influence. When Luther wrote in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520) about the soul as the bride of Christ, he was speaking from the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux. You can also see the influence in one of the most important foundational ideas of Lutheran theology: the distinction between law and gospel. The law (in the Lutheran sense) reveals the sin of humankind, and the gospel speaks God’s grace. In this you see the effects of a mystical concept as found in Tauler and Eckhart: in humans, everything that comes from their own will must first be made nothing, so that there is room for Christ in them. So much in us stands against God—but God comes to us anyway and gathers us in. The mystics saw this, and Luther gave the insight to us once again.
What part do you think the mystical tradition could play in the lives of Lutherans today?
Once again following in Tauler’s footsteps, Luther opened the way for mystical experience and living to be found not only behind cloister walls; God’s nearness can also be experienced in the everyday life of the world. As Lutherans we should take seriously this promise of God: He is near to us—and whoever lives with this promise can achieve a new distance from all the pressures and demands of a performance-oriented society. It’s not our status in our career, not our salary, not our external successes that determine who we are, but God alone.