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The Annotated Luther: Editor interviews

See what the volume editors have to say about their work on The Annotated Luther series!

Q: What do you think is distinctive about The Annotated Luther series?

Timothy J. Wengert:The Annotated Luther series offers Martin Luther's most important writings to the broadest possible English-speaking audience. By updating translations, providing more extensive introductions and marginal annotations, as well as pictures and maps, this series will allow readers insight into one of the most important theologians of the past five hundred years. The Reformation that his writings sparked continues to influence many churches to this day.

Kirsi I. Stjerna: The Annotated Luther series is modern, in many senses of the word. It has a global intent and is prepared with global horizons in mind. It is the result of a highly collaborative enterprise. It is the result of loving care for the subject and careful planning that took years. This series is international, involving scholars around the world. It is methodologically exciting and ground-breaking: contributors bring in their own specialties, and the introductions and annotations are crafted in novel ways that breaks the mold of how Luther research is done. It is unique in its layout, design, and pedagogical vision. This work is unique being a US-based, ground-breaking work that invites the whole world to work with Luther with new questions and methods. The series beautifully values and highlights the importance of continued linguistic study of Luther and shows the relevance of constructive theological reflection with Luther. The volumes with their critical introductions and annotations build bridges between historical and theological study, and include in essential ways the best of social studies and gender studies. The series features Luther research that is both critically classical and creatively cutting edge.

These volumes are utterly unique in this regard: they present Luther's text in English that is modern and critical and inclusive. The unnecessary gender-exclusive language and the unnecessary he-pronouns cultivated in the previous translations have been replaced, fairly and on the basis of careful analysis of the original text and intent.

Paul W. Robinson: As the name of the series suggests, the notes are the distinctive feature. Because Luther wrote for specific occasions and against specific opponents, the main points of his writings can be lost without an understanding of the time and the individual situations he is addressing. Yet the main points still have tremendous value, and Luther is still very much worth reading. These texts will make it possible for today's readers to have a richer experience when they interact with Luther via the printed page.

Hans J. Hillerbrand: It offers in six volumes the most cogent of Luther's writings, in revised English translations and enhanced by a rich plethora of annotations.

Euan K. Cameron: The Annotated Luther series will occupy a place in between the relatively short, highly edited single-volume collections of Reformation sources, and the very large and expensive multivolume editions of (nearly) complete works. It will also comprise six volumes that are organized thematically, allowing those who are not already familiar with the key works of Luther (and there were many of those!) to explore selectively major issues in his huge body of writing. 


Q: How would you describe the process that has been used to develop the volumes of the series?
Timothy J. Wengert: Starting with a team of general editors (Timothy J. Wengert, Kirsi I. Stjerna, and Hans J. Hillerbrand), with the assistance of Fortress Press Reference Editor Scott Tunseth, the team chose the topics for the six volumes and then solicited the help of three other volume editors (besides themselves): Paul W. Robinson, Mary Jane Haemig, and Euan K. Cameron. The topics include the basic Reformation writings (Volume 1), doctrine (Volume 2), church and sacraments (Volume 3), pastoral ministry (Volume 4), ethical issues (Volume 5) and biblical interpretation (Volume 6).  For each volume, a team of translators were assembled to edit the translations of Luther's Works and provide new introductions and notes, with suggestions for illustration.

Kirsi I. Stjerna: This series is a result of a long process and years of reflection and studying the pros and cons and the different models for such a massive enterprise. The conversation started years ago, by Fortress Press's initiative, during a roundtable in Minneapolis. Some of us stayed long-term, some left, some new participants joined. It's almost like we created a team or a family for the longterm. We spent a lot of time and care in selecting the volume editors and the contributors for each volume. It was a very thoughtful and earnest process, where decisions were made together, through conversation and, at times, even debate. We did not just pick favorites or friends to contribute but looked at the needs of the volume and the specific gifts of the Luther scholars out there. We made an explicit effort to create a team that consists of the best of the best—a team that is professional, diverse, interdisciplinary, and energetic. Every single person who joined has demonstrated passion for Luther and the issues at stake. This passion unites the contributors and will show in the work. Also for the longterm, this networking sets promise for future collaboration and created a community among the otherwise often dispersed and sometimes disconnected scholars. Denominational divisions were easily overcome when coming together with Luther. Luther brought us together, and Fortress Press gave us a home base and a project to pull together with. This series is a demonstration of unity and, I know, will also foster unity.

Another important development was choosing the team of general editors: early on it became clear that a project like this does not and cannot rely on any one individual. The fact that we have three general editors and six volume editors tells a lot about the foundations and the vision of this collaborative project that seeks to draw from diversity rather than dictate forced uniformity. Luther's theology and Lutheranism have many dimensions, and no one perspective should dominate. A shared editorship was thus a brilliant move.

In the process of designing the series, choosing contributors, and selecting Luther's texts, we did a lot of listening of one another. This was a very special process and project in that regard as well. We honestly and genuinely listened to one another and talked through everything, in personal meetings and in emails. Those emails sent over the years would make a fantastically entertaining book and a piece of history, actually. . .

Hans J. Hillerbrand: To some extent, the past five hundred years have determined the selection process by identifying those writings that have been deemed to offer Luther's deepest insights. At the same time, the three editors have been cognizant that the current conversation with Luther has brought different writings of his to the fore.

Euan K. Cameron: It has been a collaborative project involving the editorial team, with conversations along the way with Fortress, and with the contributors. We constantly have to make small adjustments to the choices of texts in order to achieve the best results within the constraints of page- and word-limits.

Q: What has been the most challenging part of working on this project? What has been the most exciting part?
Timothy J. Wengert: Martin Luther's German and Latin pose certain challenges and demand a good knowledge of biblical, patristic, and classical sources, as well as of German adages and technical Latin expressions from humanism and scholasticism of the time. When the proofs first arrived and I got to see how the marginal notes, pictures, and introductions flowed together to produce a completely unique approach to Luther's writings, I realized just what a contribution these volumes will make, not simply to present scholarship but also for readers at every level.

Kirsi I. Stjerna: Perhaps the hardest decision was what to include—which texts from Luther to dare to leave out. It was also a positive challenge to identify contributors who would know the original languages and who would be able to participate. The idea to include pedagogically helpful annotations and visuals proved a challenge in practice: we had to think again, what is important enough to include in the notes, what would the readers need and want to know, what helpful pieces can we offer, and then the visuals! That was perhaps one of the most time-consuming parts, and also a challenge that required us to expand our traditional ways of conducting and presenting research. The very idea of including visuals in theological research and teaching is still quite new.

I personally found it most rewarding and exciting that we had an opportunity to inclusivize Luther. So many people have found the he-language of the previous translations offensive and have perhaps been under false impressions on the potential of Luther's theology, or lack of it rather. Luther in new language features the emancipatory power his theology has had and continues to have. The new or revised translations in this regard bring forth a Luther whose insights continue to be incredibly relevant and powerful. My hope is that especially young people will get excited with these volumes and fall in love with Luther, and become motivated to study him more, critically and compassionately.

Paul W. Robinson: One challenge has been to decide which notes to leave out. So many fascinating connections can be made both to the sixteenth century reformations and to the life of the church today from Luther's writings that it's hard to decide when to stop annotating. The most exciting part for me has been finding an enlightening explanation for something that Luther says or refers to and placing it in a note for another reader to discover.

Euan K. Cameron: The most challenging task was the decision to eliminate so many important and revelatory texts, in favor of others that were even more helpful and characteristic. At times one also has to consider the context in which Luther wrote, and his rhetorical traits. Much of what Luther wrote was written in haste and in some degree of frustration or anger: one has to address the polemical fire in his work without either excusing it or censoring his distinctive voice. The most exciting thing is rediscovering the extraordinary power of Luther's mind. He could sustain a large and complex argument through many pages of exposition with subtlety as well as fervor.


Q: How do you envision The Annotated Luther volumes being used?
Timothy J. Wengert: One of the most inviting things about this project is the wide scope of the audience. Scholars, undergraduate and seminary students, pastors, and interested laypersons—including congregational reading groups of not only Lutherans but other interested parties—will find a wealth of information and insights as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Kirsi I. Stjerna: This series will find many uses: obviously it will be in high demand in classrooms in different settings—in addition to seminary education—but it will also become an indispensable tool for parish pastors and congregation members, and, for their youth. I could see pieces of the series used in confirmation classes, as much as in a variety of Sunday school setting. Pastors and teachers looking for a companion in Luther have here a portable and affordable tool for the long run. Scholars who wish to study Luther in detail will find the volumes helpful. There is a new generation of Luther scholars in formation, globally speaking, and these volumes will serve as a delicious bait and an instrument to join the fun.

Paul W. Robinson: I think these volumes will be an invaluable resource for the classroom. I had a great experience teaching one of the texts I had edited, and the students found the in-depth interaction with Luther extremely helpful.

Hans J. Hillerbrand: Anyone: pastors, seminary students, college teachers who want to have the "essential" Luther easily accessible.

Euan K. Cameron: We hope that a relatively compact series of volumes with clear thematic identities will be useful for project work by students at all levels in universities and theological schools; and that pastors and interested laypeople will wish to have this affordable series on their shelves to consult and use for educational and sermon-writing use, as well as just for interest and engagement.

Q: What do you think is the most important part of Luther's ongoing legacy?

Timothy J. Wengert: The Reformation began with a series of ninety-five statements designed to criticize certain church practice (the sale of indulgences) and, even more importantly, preaching. Luther's goal was not to overthrow the existing church but to renew its commitment to preaching the gospel, that is, the message of God’s grace and glory received by faith alone and not works. If this set of his writings influences even one pastor or student to refocus their preaching and teaching on God's unmerited grace in Christ, it will have served its purpose.

Kirsi I. Stjerna: Luther's unflappable love of God and his compassionate love of the fellow human beings. His passionate searching for the truth and for experiencing and intentionally seeking to acknowledge God's presence here and now.The nimbleness with which he drew from his biblical interpretation, and the liberties he took in that for the sake of the gospel, which for him was the ultimate message of liberation.

Luther's theology, just as Luther's spirituality, is about liberation and emancipation by the power of God and God's word. His vision of human life is based on an instinctive sense of equality, per his creation theology, and he applies that in his advice for how to organize human life here in this time and place. His promoting equal opportunity for basic education and his concern for social justice in the form of stressing the importance of taking care of the poor, for instance, is remarkable and something we can—should—pick up today.

Luther is a powerful teacher of spirituality of the daily life, just as he is a sophisticated theologian on the matters regarding knowledge of God. This made him a powerful preacher. I think we can learn from him about how to relate to the tradition, how to stand on it, claim from it what speaks to us the gospel of liberation, and dare to reform what needs reforming. I think we can learn from him about the power and importance of experience in faith matters. I think we can learn from him about compassion, and with his failures we can also learn about the human fallibility. I think we can learn with him a critical perspective for assessing human traditions and rules and to seek for godly eyes with whatever it is we do.

Luther's unfailing trust in God's love and presence, for everyone. Radical love, Luther teaches that. Studying Luther intently with this project, I must conclude: Tuomo Mannermaa was right!

Paul W. Robinson: Of all the contributions Luther made to society and theology, the most important is perhaps also the simplest—his relentless focus on the centrality of Christ and his word for the life of the church and the life of the world.

Hans J. Hillerbrand: Offering a new Christian self-understanding.

Euan K. Cameron: Luther's basic message teaches that the Grace of God reaches out to us and makes us welcome and beloved of God, even when our inner nature does not begin to deserve such a welcome. Luther reminds us of the huge distance between our efforts to live good lives and the standard of perfect righteousness set for us by Jesus Christ. However, he then reassures us that in Christ, God bridges that distance and comes close to us. Whether one reads that message in a traditional way in terms of sin and redemption, or in a more modern way in terms of rescuing us from creaturely limitations or existential angst, it still says something very important.

Luther was the first leader of the church to realize that once we take seriously the scope and generosity of God's grace, then we have to strip away from our religious lives all the clutter that stands in the way of recognizing and giving thanks for that generosity.

Q: What is something new you discovered as you were researching and writing for The Annotated Luther series?

Timothy J. Wengert: While editing the 1520 tract, Freedom of a Christian, I discovered that in 1521 the printer in Wittenberg published a revised copy with helpful marginal notes which, for the first time ever, will be included in the present translation. Thus, readers will not only be able to hear Luther's voice in this document but also an early reader and supporter, who grasped the essence of Luther's arguments and passed them on to the present. Also, the 1518 Sermon on Indulgences and Grace marks the first time that that important document is available in English. It, and not the 95 Theses, made Luther into a household name and best-selling author. Here we see Luther take a complicated theological argument and communicate it to the common people in ways that they could readily understand.

Kirsi I. Stjerna: There were so many discoveries, on a daily basis. Most importantly: the incredible relevance of many of Luther's insights and statements. That this sixteenth-century man continues to speak to me, a twenty-first-century woman, is quite amazing. My friendship with Luther only became stronger through this intimate study. We became quite close! I find him at times so irritating and out of line, and offensive, especially when he utters anti-Jewish words. And then on the next page he softens my knees with his compassionate words aimed to offer consolation for people suffering from different kinds of Angst. I have become even more convinced that Luther was a very special human being. A genius, in some regard—which does not make him perfect or object of idolation, of course. His genius shows perhaps more in his reading of the human nature than in his reading of the Scriptures. He understands what we humans are made of. He knows deeply about the sorrows and joys and temptations and adventures of being a human. He also knows about God in quite holistic ways, in earthy ways and in mysterious ways. He applies a biblically founded diagnosis and a remedy for the issues we humans do share, regardless of our time and place, age and race, gender and orientation.

Also, his love of Mary and his endless curiosity about the female nature and bodily wonders related to pregnancy and childbirth are notable. Related, his understanding of human sexual relations and of the nature and purpose of marriage is very progressive and applicable, with some fine tuning regarding the "what's legal and socially acceptable" today in comparison to his sixteenth-century world when the rules were quite different. Luther's words can truly be employed in favor of promoting the right to marry for everyone.

Paul W. Robinson: I rediscovered the depth of Luther's interaction with the historical sources that recount the first few centuries of church history. He read many texts that had only recently been published and put them to use in his writing on the nature of the church. Not only did Luther read widely, but he made sophisticated and judicious decisions about the reliability of his sources. 

Euan K. Cameron: One discovers (or rediscovers) just how rich the corpus of Luther's writings is. He is also many-faceted: radical at times, assertively conservative at others. As we all know, he was also a reactive writer: so much of the energy in his writing came from responding to a challenge or a provocation. In the case of the biblical writings, one sees development and variety in his prose: he could virtually dismiss the Book of Revelation in 1522 and then find it much more helpful in 1530, when circumstances changed. Luther could be radically critical: he read the apocryphal books essentially as imaginative fiction, years before such readings were conventional. Unsurprisingly, moreover, Luther finds Scripture inexhaustibly rich and deep—as we all should. (These are not "new discoveries" but they are the most important things that surface every time one looks at the material.)