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Advanced Historical Theology - The Theology of Martin Luther - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 19 – Advanced Historical Theology – The Theology of Martin Luther

There is no doubt that Luther is the most significant Protestant theologian of the sixteenth century. On his heels runs Calvin. Luther’s theology is so bound up in his practical life that one cannot understand his dogma apart from his devotion.

As a young man, Luther was given to mood swings, leading to depression, and he was more religiously inclined than others his age. He entered the monastery in 1505 after an intense experience in a thunderstorm where he bargained with St. Anne that if he would be spared from being killed he would become a monk. He embraced the monastic way of life and gave himself to it completely, although his father was quite unhappy since wanted Luther to become a lawyer. Luther had a terrible time in the confessional believing that God was always angry with him and he could never rid himself of his guilt no matter what he tried. His spiritual father, Staupitz, sent him to Rome to find some solace, but he only found corruption in the priests and deception in the clergy there. As a result, upon his return (at which time he was most likely converted) Staupitz sent him to Wittenberg to become a Doctor of theology. Staupitz directed him to study heartily and to find solace in the reality that God loved him. Luther, following his advice became a doctor of theology and began lecturing on the Psalms in 1513 and by 1517 had finished lecturing on Romans and Galatians. Luther’s real problem was one of justice and love, and sin and grace, and how these worked together. In Romans he found the answer – that the righteousness of God is given to men through faith, not through works, relics, or penance.

As a result of his newfound hope in Christ, he began sharing his idea in his lectures and with others at Wittenberg. The sale of indulgences that John Tetzle was peddling infuriated him to the extent that he wrote down his complaints on paper and hung them on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517 in order to raise debate on the subject. This 95 Theses became public, was circulated, and ultimately reached the hands of Tetzle, the cardinals, and the pope himself. At first, the pope thought Luther simply to be a drunken monk, and thought nothing of it. Later, though, as Luther’s words and works were hindering the collection of monies in the indulgences sold, he became a problem. Luther was called by the Church to debate John Eck in 1519 at Leipzig, and after burying the Catholic Doctor in biblical arguments, the pope decided to issue a papal bull against him in 1520. Luther was called the “wild boar” who was let loose in the vineyard of the Lord. Luther was also known as a heretic, and the emperor stepped in to put an end of it and called him to Worms in 1521 to stand trial. At this point, Luther’s theology was fully developed and he had written numerous tracts and books of which he was asked to recant. The famous “I cannot recant” statements made by Luther upon questioning have hit the mark of Protestantism for all time, and a return to the true gospel, and the true church.

It is not at this time that a formal history of the Reformation should take place, but an overview of Luther’s theology. In the Heidelberg Disputation Luther responded to basic questions about theology. Luther argues that there is a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. A theology of glory attempts to see God as manifested in His works. A theology of the cross believes that God can only be rightfully seen and worshiped in a theology surrounding the cross of Christ. This does not mean there is no natural theology. There is. Natural theology, though, does not serve us as well as special revelation of God seen in the Scriptures because the fallen mind twists it and worships the creature rather than the Creator. He also calls this legal and evangelical knowledge.

Luther did not accept the Thomistic view of theology and philosophy being linked together as Aquinas had done. All natural knowledge is God’s law, and is true as it comes from God. Reason, then can be used in two ways – as a “whore”, or as a “useful tool.” Reason alone, though, can never attain to special revelation. It certainly knows God exists, but it cannot give the specifics of salvation. This leads one to the Word of God.

The Word is God’s power manifested in creation, and is the proclamation through which the Word in Scripture is actually heard. The eternal Word is the second person of the Trinity who came to earth incarnate and dwelt with men to teach them the law of God and the way of salvation in the Gospel. Tradition (big “T”) must be rejected and the Word of God must be held in it place. Luther rightly rejected the Tradition of the Catholic Church as those things which were secretly orally revealed to certain men through the apostles. Instead, he fought for the simplicity of the Word over the ideas of men.

The proper way to interpret the Scripture is in context, and must be interpreted with the guidance of the spirit. Some “enthusiasts” of the day, as Luther called them, desired to go above Scripture “straight” to the Spirit. This Luther rightly rejected, again, on the other extreme, to hold steadfast to a rightly interpreted Word out of the contexts of the Bible.

Luther did not see the greatest contrast as being between two testaments in the Bible (old and new). Rather he saw the difference between the law and the gospel. The law is the will of God, and it is known in natural law, which is known by everyone. But when human understanding uses the law, it awakens the reality of the wrath of God upon men and becomes a word of condemnation. The law is good when it does this, because it then points to Christ. It points men to Christ because men are sinners in need of salvation because of the Fall of Adam.

Men are bound by iniquity and are in bondage to their depraved wills. His greatest work, according to himself, was his Bondage of the Will that he wrote against Erasmus’ Diatribe on free will. Sin is the transgression of the law of God – anything that goes against it or does not conform to it. Erasmus rejected this and taught that men become sinners when they sin because they were only tainted or mildly affected by the fall of Adam, but not in bondage to sin. Luther accused Erasmus, rightly, of simply not understanding the Gospel at all. Nothing is left in man to boast about. Instead, he is dead in sin and in bondage to his own evil affections. He needs to be made a new creature.

Man is made a new creature through justification. Justification is not something we achieve or merit. It is a decree of absolution that God pronounces upon us, declaring us to be justified in spite of our wickedness. This is “imputed justice.” God then considers the person righteous on behalf of the alien righteousness that Christ imputes to him as a result of his work in his birth, life and death on the cross. Men are then justified by faith. They are justified in no other way. Works do not justify them. The Christian is then, at one time, both a sinner, and justified in the sight of God (simul justus et peccator). It is a work of God that then catapults the Christian into a life of continued sanctification. The law then plays a new role for the believer – one which leads him into a more holy life – and no longer condemns him.

Luther’s doctrine of the church is no less interesting. Since he “rebelled” against the established church, he was seen as promoting individualism and as a proponent of direct personal communion with God apart from the church. But this is not accurate at all. Luther believed in “Mother Church.” He believed there was no salvation outside the church. Luther differed on the definition of the church and the nature of the church. It was not simply a hierarchical establishment. He did not believe that the authority of the pope mattered. He was correct on this. There is no warrant anywhere in the Word of God for a pope, a single pastor that rules over the entire church, except that of the Shepherd and Bishop of Souls, Jesus Christ. This was not new, and others before him had said the same thing, some of them even being popes! However, Luther went further. He said that the supreme authority in the church is the Word of God. The church is nourished by the Word and grows by it. However, he did have a sense of history and tradition (small “t”). As a matter of fact, he said that within the papacy, there were true Christians who administered true sacraments, true keys for the forgiveness of sins, true articles of the creed, and so forth.

Luther’s implementation of the universal priesthood of believers, though, was a difficult pill (an impossible pill) for the pope to swallow. He did not believe that every Christian was his own priest, but that every Christian is a priest to others (i.e. to serve others). He expounded this in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Yet, he did not believe that every Christian could simply open the door and do whatsoever they pleased (as the Anabaptists of his day did in preaching what they wished, and in “making” preachers of their own group). He called self-ordained men “liars and imposters.” There was still a hierarchy to follow, but the church was not simply a hierarchy as an established organization.

Luther had a unique view of the sacraments. Sacraments are connected with faith, and are of no use without faith. They must also be bound by the promise of the Gospel. Baptism is the sign of justification and regeneration. Baptism is the beginning of the Christian life, but also the sign under which the whole life takes place. For Luther, then, baptism is the umbrella under which the believer lives and dies daily before Christ. This is why Luther believed in infant baptism – not because Rome taught it – but because to deny baptism to infants, on the ground that they have no faith, would imply that the power of baptism – and of the Gospel – depends on our ability to receive it. This, in his mind, would simply be a new form of justification by works.

His view on the Eucharist was consubstantiation. He rejected the Roman error of the bread and wine changing into the body and blood of Christ. He also rejected Zwingli’s view in that the Supper was just a memorial. He did believe, though, that the bodily presence was in and around the bread and wine. When he was asked how this was so, he replied that it was a mystery and not his place to ask such questions.

Luther viewed the relationship of church and state in what he called two kingdoms. God had established both. Both are God’s creation and both are under His rule. However, one is under law and the other is under the Gospel. Neither are coextensive with the other though they exist side by side.

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