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Free Ebook Friday- Luther: Lectures on Romans

“ONE OF THE MOST THOROUGH OF LUTHER’S MODERN interpreters, Karl Holl, a scholar who was not readily given to exaggeration, regarded Luther’s exposition of the letter to the Romans as a work of genius, “an achievement that remains unsurpassed even today.”[1] This judgment appears to be supported by the fact that in recent Luther research the lectures on Romans are treated as one of the most important works of the Reformer.

Yet these lectures were published for the first time only in 1908.[2] Until then, they had been unknown to the readers of Luther’s works and the students of his thought. But as soon as they became generally available, they were treated as the chief source of the knowledge of Luther’s theological development. And, indeed, they show that the basic ideas of the Protestant Reformation were formed in Luther’s mind before he began his career as a reformer. They also furnish clear and impressive proof that the man who, two years later, on October 31, 1517, was to publish the “Ninetyfive Theses on the Power of Indulgences” and who thus chanced to begin the Reformation, was spiritually and theologically mature and resourceful (he was then thirty-four years old). One can understand why the author of these lectures could not be forced, by the mere assertion of authority, to recant his views and why it was impossible to silence him by the conventional means of dealing with a heretic. Whoever would oppose him in order to refute him would have to meet him on the ground of that understanding of the gospel which he had slowly achieved by conscientious study and spiritual struggle.

This evidence of the direction of Luther’s thought and of the power of his mind is all the more impressive because he wrote the documents that contain it for his own personal use and not for publication. He that reads them now encounters Luther as he got ready to teach an academic course on Paul’s letter to the Romans. To be sure, he himself seems to have attributed considerable significance to this work of his, for his own manuscript (which has come down to us) is written with great care. The major part of it appears to be the final clean copy which Luther himself prepared from notes that he had put on loose slips of paper (called by him schedae or schedulae). It was this carefully prepared manuscript which he used in the classroom.

According to the custom of the times, he dictated to his students the substance of what he wanted them to know. Some of the notes that the students took down in Luther’s course on the letter to the Romans are still in existence. Prof. Johannes Ficker, who discovered and first published Luther’s lectures and finally edited them with admirable care in the Weimar Edition of Luther’s Works, succeeded in locating several sets of them. Not all of them are complete, and not all of them represent the notes that were directly taken down in the classroom (a few are copies of such notes), but altogether they give a vivid picture of Luther’s teaching. They show how carefully he dictated (he repeated difficult words or pronounced them syllable by syllable) and how he spoke (his pronunciation was that of a Saxon and as such he tended to pronounce b as if it were p, and g as if it were k, etc., just as the Saxons do today).

A comparison of the students’ books with his own lecture notes shows how he used his manuscript: he dictated its philological parts almost verbatim, but he greatly abbreviated the theological exposition he had written out; he left unmentioned most of those sections which, from our modern point of view, are the most interesting and important ones, namely, those where he sharply criticizes the church and its theological teachers and administrative leaders, and especially those where he struggles for the understanding of the gospel and for the clarity of his own thought about it.”

Download Luther’s: Lectures in Romans here. (Pdf)


[1] Karl Holl, Luthers Bedeutung filr den Fortschrift der Auslegungskunst (Gesammelte Aufsatze, Vol. I: Luther [sd ed., Tubingen, 1923], p. 550).

[2] Johannes Ficker, Luthers Vorlesung iiber den Romerbrief 1515/1516 (Leipzig, ed. 1908).

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