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Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Part 2

2 July, 2008

Heidelberg Disputation: Background and Precursors

The Heidelberg Disputation grew out of the fertile ground of Luther’s prior theological works and is best understood in light of them. In his Lectures on Romans, of 1515-16, he began his almost obsessive attack on certain forms of scholastic theology, which included his breakthrough understanding of the righteousness of God (in Romans 1:17).[1] Shortly thereafter, in September 1517, Luther defended his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, which represented his incisive contribution to the collective protest at Wittenberg against scholastic theology.[2] Luther had in mind the dangerous philosophical thread that had woven itself through the theologizing of the via antiqua and into the via moderna.[3] While Luther had more sympathy for the latter, both movements held in common a pervasive synergism in the economy of salvation, thus obscuring the foundational revelatory pillars of God’s nature and the sufficiency of faith alone.[4]

Shortly after his controversial dismantling of the medieval theological edifice, Luther penned his better-known Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October 1517. While Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses deals specifically with the danger of being “misled by indulgences and the necessity of sincere repentance,” it does provide a latent ‘preview’ of Luther’s theology of cross.[5]

In April 1518, Johann von Staupitz requested of Luther to prepare theses based on his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, concerning the topics of sin, free will, and grace.[6] Before an assembly of German Augustinians, and what has become known as the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther continued his anti-scholastic barrage.[7]

While Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation contained no scholastic critique that he had not essayed before, his use of the polemical contrast between theologia crucis and the theologia gloriae “succeeded in unchurching the schoolmen to an extent that few critics had ever attempted.”[8] In helping put the thesis for consideration in context, the Disputation can be structured as follows: (i) The nature and worth of human works over against the question of sin (Theses 1-12), (ii) The impotence of the human free will to avoid sin (Theses 13-18), (iii) The great divide – the way of glory and the way of the cross (Theses 19-24), and (iv) the climactic outcome – God’s work in us – the righteousness of faith (Theses 25-28). His theological theses are followed by his philosophical theses (Theses 29-40).[9] In accord with the Disputation, attention is given to the way of glory first, which is the avenue of initial attraction for every man.


[1] Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 371. See also Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986), 25 (hereafter LW). Among other things, in these lectures Luther reveals his break from the nominalist conception of ‘doing what is in one’ (LW 25:497).
[2] LW 31:5-16. Luther shared the view of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, dean of the art faculty at Wittenburg, that scholastic theology was Pelagian (Bagchi, “Sic Et Non: Luther and Scholasticism”, 7). It was here that his earlier interest in Augustine really bears fruit, and the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem” could be heard (Oberman, Luther : Man between God and the Devil, 159.)
[3] Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas indicative of the former, and new-school nominalists such as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel of the latter (—, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough,” 666.
[4] See R. Scott Clark, “Iustitia Imputata Christi: Alien or Proper to Luther’s Doctrine of Justification?,” Concordia Theological Quartelry 70 (2006): 285-87.
[5] See especially Thesis 58 in light of Thesis 15 (LW, 31:22.)
[6] Martin Luther, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, and Helmut T. Lehman, Luther’s Works, American ed., vol. 31 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955), 31:37-70.
[7] In a letter written to one of his mentors, Jodocus Trutfetter, in May 1518, Luther provides a clear statement on his motive for attacking scholastic theology: “I simply believe that it is impossible to reform the Church, unless the canons, decretals, scholastic theology, philosophy, logic, as we now have them, be eradicated completely and other studies substituted; and I proceed accordingly in that conviction, when I pray that this may happen immediately, and the purest study of the Bible and the holy fathers be recalled. You think I am no logician, and perhaps I’m not; but this I know, that I fear no-one’s logic in defending this conviction (Luther to Jodocus Trutfetter, 9 May 1518 (WABr 1:170.33-40, no. 74, quoted in Bagchi, “Sic Et Non”, 8-9.) Like Trutfetter, Luther was only willing to accept the authority of the schoolmen where it was consonant with Scripture and the fathers (Bagchi, “Sic Et Non”, 8.) For Luther, Scriptural revelation must be primary and any common grace gift, such as philosophy, must be secondary and ministerial.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Adapted from Gerhard O. Forde and Martin Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997), v, 21-22.) While I found this work helpful, it lacked adequate contextualization. It failed in locating Luther’s theology of the cross in the philosophical climate of its time as well as analyzing Luther’s developing doctrine of justification. In addition, his volume reads more like a prescriptive systematic theology rather than a more objective historical theological treatment.


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