Notes #7– Martin Luther
John Wiers PhD 2020
- Martin Luther is one of the greatest theologians– some have listed him in the top 4 or 5– and he is considered the “founder of the Protestant Reformation.”
C. He was a fascinating figure who was passionate, witty, and often paradoxical in his writings.
D. His writings are often bombastic– he called one pope “his Hellishness.”
E, He is certainly a hero for most evangelical Protestants and there are certainly aspects of modern evangelicalism that he would recognize, but there is much that would seem foreign to him.
F. He was a “reluctant reformer” who “stumbled into” reform because of his own troubled conscience and his conclusion that the accepted theology of the church could not calm his troubled soul.
- His life
- He was born in Eisleben in central Germany, the son of a copper miner. Interestingly he would not live there for most of his, but would die there.
- The family name was originally spelled Luder.
- While some have argued that his family was poor, most recent scholarship has concluded that his family had become comfortably middle class and that his father had become the manager of the mine in nearby Mansfeld to where they would move.
- Yet his father’s rise from a poor miner to middle class manager meant that his father had aspirations for Martin. Martin was sent to receive a good education, first at schools run by the Brethren of the Common Life– a lay reform movement within the Roman Catholic church– and then at the University of Erfurt.
- Luther was a devout young man, but he entered the university to study law. His training was under professors mostly committed to philosophical nominalism, in distinction from the realism of Plato– this had to do with whether universals existed or not– and a number of scholars have attempted to discern this as a key influence on his theology. Some of the theologians he studied under when he switched to theology were also nominalists.
- He had an experience of nearly being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm and made a vow to Saint Anne, the patron saint of miners, that he would become a monk. This was likely the pinnacle of a struggle and not the sole factor.
- In 1505 he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt and became a model monk. He also became ordained as a priest in 1507. His father was opposed to all of this and some Freudian tinged historians have attempted to explain everything he struggled with by this disagreement. Most historians have rejected this.
- Luther was a model monk and was troubled in his attempts to find salvation through the monastic system. He often confessed for hours– once for 6 hours– and his confessor and superior, Johann Staupitz, once told him to come back when he had a real sin such as adultery or murder to confess instead of the multitude of sins of the mind he confessed. He suffered from what he called Anfechtungen, which can be translated as anguish, depression, doubt, struggle, terror, or despair.
- Luther was not alone in this. There were numerous pastoral manuals for priests to help those who struggled with guilt and lack of assurance of a gracious God. Monasteries were supposed to be the place where one worked this out.
- Staupitz told him to just relax and love God. Luther said that he hated a god who judged him and that he couldn’t love God.
- Staupitz sent him to Rome with another monk to have Rome settle an ultimately futile debate. While at Rome, Luther was disgusted at the corruption in Rome and disappointed with the many indulgences he expected to get for hearing masses, climbing the Scala Sancta (the supposed steps Christ climbed in Pilate’s hall), etc. He continued to doubt that his sins were forgiven and his time in purgatory was actually shortened. This trip to Rome was probably his greatest disappointment in life. He saw priests mumbling masses as fast as possible to collect money from the tourists and handing out indulgences from those masses as fast as they could collect the money.
- Staupitz’s solution was to send him to grad school to study scripture and theology.
- His theological studies were mostly under followers of Gabriel Biel, but he finished his doctorate of theology at the new University of Wittenberg in 1511 and became professor of biblical exegesis there. We know that his studies included quite a bit of Augustine and some introduction to, but not exhaustive study of Thomas Aquinas. Luther was said to have remarked once that TA was tedious and long-winded.
- His doubts were growing about the inherited medieval theology and some shifts are noted in his lecture notes, but he still was thinking in older RC models.
- The flash point was over indulgences in 1517, but most scholars argue that his theology was not yet fully recognizable as Protestant yet, even when he nailed the 95 Theses to the church door.
- The occasion was the energetic sale of indulgences– official get of or lessened time in purgatory for specially designated payments to the church–by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican super-salesman with the backing of his archbishop and the new pope, Leo X.
P. Tetzel was not allowed in Saxony- Elector Frederick had his own collection of relics (more than 5,000 of them for which veneration of them could get you out of 5,000 years of purgatory), the largest in Europe, and he didn’t want competition– but Tetzel was such a good salesman that Wittenbergers flocked to him. Tetzel said his were so good that even if you had raped the Virgin Mary, you could get out of purgatory. Tetzel had advertising jingles as well: “when the coin in the coffer klinks, the soul from Purgatory springs.’” It rhymes in German as well.
Q. Luther attacked the sale of indulgences on a number of grounds, both biblical and practical, arguing that the doctrine of penance that lay behind it was a misunderstanding of the biblical doctrine of repentance. Luther even suggested that if the church had the authority to lessen time in purgatory– he still believed in it– the Pope should empty it out of pure charity. Pope Leo was said to have said: “what drunken German wrote that?”
R. Luther’s 95 Theses was not intended for popular consumption, but were a call for a scholarly debate. They struck a chord, however, and soon they were translated into German and spread all over Germany, many seeing them as a symbol of resistance to papal draining of German money.
S. The surprising furor over them, lead to his condemnation by the pope– it was greatly affecting money flow into Rome– and it forced Luther into much further reflection.
T, In the disputation at Leipzig in 1519, where he debated leading Dominican theologian Johann Eck for 23 days he began to challenge the notion of papal authority and tradition as on par with scripture and argued for Scripture as his final authority. Luther said positive things about the condemned heretic John Hus.
U. In 1518 at the Heidelberg Disputation, he had argued for the crucial distinction between Theologies of Glory and Theologies of the Cross- the former being man-centered and the later God centered.
V. Somewhere between 1517 and 1520– probably in 1519– he had worked out his revised doctrine of justification by faith on the basis of a new understanding of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17. He found his peace in that doctrine and all of his theology would revolve around it.
W. In 1520 he wrote a series of short booklets: On Christian Liberty, An Appeal to the German Nobility, and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church in which he challenged much of the structure of the medieval theological system of the Roman Catholic Church.
X. He was excommunicated in 1520 and called to appear before the Diet of Worms– the German parliament– where he made his famous Here I Stand speech.
Y. He was whisked away by Duke Frederick and spent nearly a year in hiding at the Wartburg Castle where he translated the Bible into German, only returning when the Reformation had turned chaotic in Wittenberg.
Z. He was confident of the truth of what he was preaching and teaching and joked that he and Melanchthon and Armsdorf simply sat in Wittenberg, drank their beer and the Word did the rest. He also seems to have thought the 2nd coming was imminent as well.
AA. However, the peasant revolt- which he saw as a total misunderstanding of his notion of Christian Freedom– and the somewhat licentious and antinomian (no law) which many gave of his teachings made him rethink the necessity for long-haul instruction and rebuilding of the church.
BB. He became convinced of the necessity to go slowly in reform– German worship services were not introduced in Wittenberg until 1526.
CC. He rethought the subject of clerical celibacy, marrying Katharina von Bora in 1525 and living a happy married life, fathering 6 children. She was a former nun and a gifted woman that Luther adored. He said she made the best beer.
DD. He lectured on scripture at the university– mostly on the Old Testament– preached several times a week at the town church, wrote numerous short treatises, 2 catechisms, a major work on theological anthropology– The Bondage of the Will— in response to the challenge from Erasmus, and had a whole house full of borders and guests– sometime 20-30 at a time.
EE. In 1529 he met with Swiss Reformed Ulrich Zwingli, who claimed that he had come to the same conclusions as Luther independently. They met in Marburg and agreed on 14 of 15 theses, disagreeing only on the issue of the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Luther said he sensed a different spirit there and implied that Zwingli might not be a genuine believer. He also later called Zwingli “a fanatic.”
FF. He died while visiting his birth town of Eisenach after much ill health during his later years– he had been afflicted by many maladies all his life: kidney stones, headaches, constipation, hemorrhoids, and buzzing in his ear were the most well-known.
GG. His last written words, partially in German and partially in Latin, were: “it is true, we are all beggars.”
II. The theological background
- As seen in Anselm and Aquinas, theology had taken a quite philosophical turn in the Middle Ages.
- Both of those men were still quite Augustinian, but by the time of Luther, a rather crass form of Semi-Pelagianism as the norm– God gives grace to those who do the best that they can.
- Luther would react against both, reasserting both a strong Augustinian emphasis on the bondage of the human will to sin and challenging the dependence on philosophy rather than scriptural revelation– he once called reason, the Devil’s whore and that “virtually the whole ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.” He said that the Thomists didn’t take sin seriously enough, but took Aristotle too seriously.
- The church had greatly expanded the ideas of the Heavenly Treasury of Merit where not only the merits of Christ, but the merits of saints who had extra merits due to their works of “supererogation,” were stored to be dispensed by the church as well as the system of penance, and added about the 11th century the idea of indulgences that could lessen the time spent in purgatory for the truly contrite sinner who purchased them.
- The complexity of the system was often lost on most laymen and women, especially when combined with the idea that God gave grace to those who did what was in them.
- Luther was one of the few examples of someone who took the system seriously and he not only spent hours in the confessional, but fasted to almost skin and bones, whipped himself, slept on the floor, all in what, for him, became a futile attempt at doing what was in him to merit grace from God.
- Luther found some comfort in the writings of Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux who emphasized the love of God, but didn’t know how to find it until his thinking about divine righteousness shifted.
- Justification was seen as a process of being made holy or righteous and it took a new understanding of what that doctrine meant to free Luther.
- The church was in a moral mess and many knew that. The pope when Luther entered the monastery– Alexander VI– bought the papacy and his first act was to legitimize his 8 illegitimate children. Many wanted to reform the morality, but few were actually calling for doctrinal reform. Luther came to believe that doctrinal reform was most crucial and would lead to moral reform.
III. Basic characteristics of Luther’s theology
- It was not particularly systematic. He never wrote a large scale systematic theology text, instead writing short treatises and lectures on many biblical books. He also left over 3,000 letters behind, many of which have theological statements in them– and his Table Talk which record his answers to student questions. Some are quite funny such as a discussion of whether it was possible to chase the devil away by passing gas at him. Luther said he claimed one woman said it was successful, but Luther cautioned at trying it because it might backfire because the devil was tricky.
- He is sometimes contradictory, often paradoxical, and his thought does develop.
- He loved contrasts: theologies of glory vs. theology of the cross, law and gospel, faith and works, God as hidden and revealed.
- He said in his later life that all of his theology should be forgotten except for his 2 catechisms and the Bondage of the Will, his reply to Erasmus, whom he said had not addressed trifles such as the papacy, indulgences purgatory, etc. , but the main thing: were humans really in total bondage to sin or was there something in us that could approach God. Luther said that there was absolutely nothing good in us. God was the sole driver of our turning to him. We are turned in on ourselves– his favorite phrase to describe it– and only God’s grace monergistically (without any human cooperation of the will) applied could turn us around. In other words Luther ruled out human free will as playing any role in turning us to God.
- In many ways Luther propounded the strongest version of an Augustinian theological anthropology in the history of the church. His statements are generally far stronger than those of Calvin and his predestinarianism is absolute.
- To Luther, any hint of Pelagianism or even Semi-Pelagianism completely compromised justification by faith and introduced some element of works into our salvation.
- Erasmus’s championing of human free will was an attack on the gospel itself, Luther believed.
IV. Luther’s theology of Glory vs. Theology of the Cross
- Although only specifically expounded at the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, many have seen it as at the heart of Luther’s theology and basic to understanding his doctrine of justification.
- T of Glory is one in which human reason and human effort believes that it can find God. Yet Luther argued that one does not find the God of the Bible, but only a humanly contrived god. To seek God by a theology of glory, a natural theology– the lower story in Thomas Aquinas’s system– was to seek to “snatch from God a knowledge of himself which is not his gift.’
- T of the cross is one which is totally dependent upon divine revelation and is one in which God shows himself in weakness upon the cross. Luther didn’t mean that God lessened his sovereignty, but that he showed himself stooping down to our level to rescue us, something which human reason would never dream up.
- T of the cross shows us the revealed God. T of glory tries to find the hidden God, but can’t and so speculates to develop a God that seems reasonable to humans, one who can be approached through human efforts.
- This was all worked out before Luther’s breakthrough on justification and he tended to emphasize humility rather than faith explicitly in the Heidelberg Disputation, but it shows us that for Luther, faith was at its core a humble trust in the God revealed in the cross, rather than found through our human reasoning and efforts.
V. Luther’s doctrine of justification
- Luther, as in all of his theology, set this up in pairs; 2 kinds of righteousness.
- While he had at first thought of divine righteousness as God’s standard that we were expected to meet, as aided by the gracious sacramental system of the church, he came to see that Paul was speaking in Romans of righteousness as a divine gift.
- He spoke of alien vs. actual righteousness. When Paul said we were justified by faith, this meant that an alien righteousness had been imputed to our account.
- While earlier theologians had spoken of salvation and even justification in medicinal terms, Luther thought of legal terms– we have the righteousness of Christ credited to our account. Yet it was not a legal fiction, because we were really united to Christ.
- He also spoke of the marriage analogy in his little treatise on Christian liberty. Husbands and wives share assets and liabilities. We have nothing but liabilities to share with Christ; he has nothing but assets to share with us. Sola fide was the flip side of solus Christus. It could also be called justification by God’s word of promise.
- This is all linked back to the theology of the cross. Luther thought in strong penal substitutionary terms, although the defeat of the devil was not foreign to his thinking– he was one of the most devil conscious Christians that most have ever confronted.
- Luther argued that our sanctification was not the flip side of our justification, but the response that flowed out of our justified status. He used the analogy that because Christ has given all to us, we can become little Christs to our neighbors out of love.
- Rather than faith being “formed by love” or getting its real thrust from love as most medieval theologians had said and introducing works in the back door for justification, Luther said our faith, our trust that God was truly gracious to us, became active in love. Love to God and neighbor was the active result of a living faith.
- Luther fought against those who tried to turn his doctrine into an antinomian error, by arguing that the law was always necessary, to show us our sin and show us how love should be lived out to God and neighbor, but law was not the basis of our justification, because Christ had paid the penalty of the law.
VI. Implications of Luther’s doctrine of justification
- It was the center of all he taught.
- His doctrine of the sacraments was highly tied to it.
- Although he used the phrase: “it was as if I were born again” when he discovered it, he never seems to have considered this his conversion in a modern evangelical sense.
- Rather he emphasized the sacraments as God ordained tools to convey and reassure us of justification by faith.
- When troubled by doubts Luther would scribble on his desk, “I have been baptized” because baptism was the sign of God’s promise to justify helpful sinners. He said that the Anabaptists had reintroduced works with their doctrine of baptism, because it made people look inside to themselves for the baptism to be of any value and thus turned it into a work because it focused on their declaration of response to Christ.
- Likewise, the Lord’s Supper was the objective literal presence of Christ to reassure us of justification by faith. He believed that Zwingli’s sole emphasis on memorialism turned it back to human effort and robbed the Christian of the comfort from the sacrament that God intended. He believed if Christ was not literally present, we lost justification by faith and ended up trusting in ourselves.
- He reacted to Zwingli’s rationalistic objections to the presence of Christ because Z said it was a “disgusting” idea with classic Luther bombast. Luther said he would eat dung if God told him to do so and accused Z of not taking scripture seriously.
- His main objections to the RC doctrine of transubstantiation was not the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but rather it’s Aristotelian foundation and its claim that Christ was resacrificed in the Mass.
H. His rationale for infant baptism was that they too, since guilty of Adam’s sin, needed to be justified by faith and since the Bible speaks of infant faith in Psalm 22:9 and 71:6, that settled the question. To speculate about ages of accountability and God saving infants without working faith in them through baptism would have been pure human speculation to him and a form of a theology of glory.
- Baptism was God’s tool to awaken faith in us, even in infants, and thus baptismal regeneration was not antithetical to justification by faith in the slightest in Luther’s thinking because it was God’s unwritten promise of the gospel, which took its understanding from the written word. To question how infants could believe was rationalistic according to Luther.
VII. What we can learn from Luther
- Luther said that it was a great danger when pastors think they no longer need to study and he believed catechesis was perhaps the greatest need of the church. He likely would have thought that what so many churches spend their Christian education time focused on: classes on marriage, being a good parent, etc, while not a total waste of time, should take a very secondary role in what the church should focus on– a Christ centered, doctrinal focus on the scriptures. In other words he believed that study of the Bible to learn sound doctrine was the best way to have good practical results.
- He focused on Scripture as the cradle of Christ and believed that all preaching should consist of Law and Gospel and point us to Christ as the center of the Gospel. He would have radically disapproved of the emphasis on “practical” preaching– i.e. how to have a successful life, etc. that is common in some circles.
- He didn’t want his followers to call themselves Lutherans, which they ignored of course, and they modified his theology in a number of ways– many dropping the monergism especially– and saw himself as more of a wandering planet than a fixed star. There is a real humility there, in spite of his real confidence in what he believes that often shows through.
- His sacramentalism, even if we don’t follow him in all the details, should challenge us to retrieve an objective, rather than a subjective notion of the sacraments. Seeing them as what God promises to us, rather than as our action will bring comfort to troubled souls, as Luther wanted.
- His objective approach to the faith is also helpful. When people are troubled point them to the promises of God as found in scripture and the sacraments, rather than to introspection about their faith. In other words really believing that we are justified by faith in God’s promises.
- Of course some can become careless and claim the promises in a mechanical faithless way. Luther said that’s why the Law must also be preached– to bring those who were careless to the despair that the Gospel is the remedy for.