This episode of CS is titled Luther’s Legacy.
Long time subscribers to CS know that while the podcast isn’t bias free, I do strive to treat subjects fairly. However, being a pastor of a non-denominational, evangelical Christian church in SoCal, I do have my views & opinions on the material we cover. When I share those opinions, I try to mark them as such. So >> Warning; Blatant opinion follows.
We live in the Era of the Instant. People expect to have things quickly & relatively easily. Technology has produced an array of labor-saving devices that reduce once arduous tasks to effortless, “push a button & voila” procedures. Sadly, many people assume such instantifying applies to the acquisition of knowledge as well. The internet enhances this expectation with ready access to on-line information, not just thru a desktop computer, but via smartphones where ever we are.
And of course, if it’s on the interwebs, it must be true.
But knowledge and understanding are different things. Knowing a fact doesn’t equal understanding a concept, truth or principle. And many people now want their history in condensed form. They don’t really care to understand so much as to “get an A on the quiz” or, be able to answer trivia game questions. They can answer multiple choice but wouldn’t have a clue how to write the answer to an essay question.
I say all this as we fill in some of our gaps on Martin Luther for two reasons.
First – The very nature of this podcast, short little snippets on Church history, can easily foster a cavalier attitude toward our subject. So I need to make a MASSIVE qualifier and say that if all someone listens to is CS, they must never, ever assume they know Church History. My entire aim is to give those who listen reference points, a broad sweep of history with just enough detail to spark your embarking on your own journey of studying this fascinating subject. Pick one era, maybe just 1st C, and one region, then study everything you can find about it. Become an expert on that one span of history. Press in past the dates and people and places, seeking to truly understand. Then use that to expand your study either backward or forward in time.
Second – When we think of someone like Martin Luther, we tend to make him an index for a certain idea or movement. “Martin Luther: Father of the Reformation.” The problem with this is that we then tend to assume Luther was born with the intent of breaking away from the Roman church, as our last 2 episodes have shown was not at all the case. The evolution of Luther’s thoughts was an amazing microcosm of what was happening in at least hundreds, and probably thousands of people at his time. He just happened to be positioned as the lightening rod of change.
In this episode, I want to fill in some of the gaps the previous 2 episodes necessarily left because of our time-limited routine here on CS. What follows is a bit of a hodge-podge meant to provide a little more context for understanding Luther and how he came to the ideas he articulated and millions ended up embracing.
Martin Luther ranks as one of the most influential figures of the last thousand years. While Marco Polo and Columbus opened up new lands, Shakespeare and Michelangelo produced some of the most sublime art, and Napoleon and Hitler changed the political face of their times, Luther triggered a change in the human spirit that’s reached billions all around the world. The ideas announced in his sermons and written in books have effected virtually every realm and sphere of human activity, from politics to art, work to leisure. Truth be told, Luther’s main body of work was a conscious part of the early American character and continued to play a central role until recently. It was Luther who played wet-nurse to the Modern world’s emergence from Medievalism. We can neither credit nor blame Luther for the whole of what eventually became Protestantism, but as one who played a critical role in the emergence of a new church and a new way of life for millions of people, the influence of his actions and beliefs on the past 500 years is beyond calculating. The modern world can barely be understood without Luther & the Reformation he sparked.
Once Martin Luther was ordained a priest and had settled into his ministry at Erfurt, his superiors in the Augustinian order decided he should continue with his theological studies. Having gained a Master of Arts, he was qualified to lecture on philosophy. But he knew he needed more study to qualify as a lecturer on the Bible.
The first step toward that end was to lecture on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a standard theology textbook of the Middle Ages which collected extracts from Scripture and the early church Fathers, arranged under topical headings to enhance discussion of theological issues. Under the guidance of Johann Nathin, a Professor of Theology & a senior member of Luther’s order, Luther set to work studying texts such as Gabriel Biel’s Dogmatics, a commentary on Lombard’s Sentences. Luther devoured Lombard’s theology.
Meanwhile, Johann von Staupitz had been involved with the German Prince & Elector, Frederick the Wise, in establishing a new university in a small town called Wittenberg, 100 miles NW of Erfurt. In the Winter of 1508–9, he invited Luther to move & teach there. Staupitz was himself Lecturer in Biblical Studies in Wittenberg, so the idea was for Luther to help with the teaching of Aristotle’s Ethics. At the same time, he would work towards his doctorate, the ultimate qualification to teach theology in the church and university. After a single term, he was recalled to Erfurt for a further two years to fill a gap in the teaching program, but eventually returned to Wittenberg in 1512. Luther was placed in charge of the teaching of younger Augustinian friars in the order’s house in town. He received his doctorate in mid-October & enrolled as a full teaching member of the university.
These years also saw the growth of Luther’s profile within the Augustinian Order. In 1510, he was sent with a fellow friar to Rome to try to sort out a complex internal matter connected with the order. They assumed his training as a lawyer positioned him as perfect for the job. The trip proved unsuccessful, but it was Luther’s only trip outside Germany.
The Modern & mostly uninformed view of the Middle Ages is that it was a time when the people of Europe assumed they knew everything, and that the everything they knew was colossally wrong. But Moderns NOW know è WE know everything. It does not take much investigation to realize this image of medieval thought is far from the true. Erfurt, like most German universities of the time, was a place of wide theological variety. For several centuries, theology in the universities of Europe had been dominated by The Scholastics.
A glance at the great Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica gives a hint of his methodology. He states first the proposition or question to be debated, then assembles the evidence against the thesis. Then he puts the other side of the argument and finishes with a conclusion. Students would be guided through the same method in their university classes, sharpening their skills in debate using this ‘dialectical’ method of question and answer, submitting propositions to logical analysis. The typical product of this process was a large tome on theology, called a ‘cathedral of the mind.’ They contained every conceivable question which might be raised concerning the Faith and often times even esoteric issues of philosophy. From questions as obvious as “Does God exist?” to “Can a human being be in several places at the same time?”
By the time Luther came on the scene, there were three main types of Scholastic theology in operation. The first two, following the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus were by then known as the ‘old way’. Alongside this was emerging a new kind of theology, called the ‘modern way’.
I’ve said it before, I repeat it now – this is a history not theology podcast. Good grief, I can barely spell theology, let alone explain it. But we need to go a little deeper here because we find some terms some of our theologically inclined listeners have probably encountered and it’s good to know where they came from.
The main difference between the old and modern ways among the Scholastics dealt with a complex philosophical problem involving the existence of universal concepts. In a nutshell, those of the modern way were called ‘Nominalists’ & did not believe in universal concepts, while the ‘Realists’ of the old way did.
Let’s drill down for a moment on what’s meant by ‘universal concepts’ or as they are often called, simply, ‘universals.’
Take a decent sized group of different people. For convenience sake, we can say all of them share a particular quality called ‘human nature’—though what that is precisely is somehow indefinable & can’t actually be identified in time or space. Yet human nature exists quite apart from the particular people themselves. Such a concept is called a ‘universal’, and in the late Middle Ages, people who believed such universal concepts were real, such as those of the old way, were called ‘Realists’.
It’s possible, however, to deny that such universal concepts really exist. Some would say the individuals themselves are all we can be sure of, and the universal concept “human nature” is irrelevant, unverifiable, unnecessary and non-existent. Such people (and this opinion became more common in Luther’s time) were called ‘Nominalists’, believing that such universals existed in name only, not in reality. Human reason was not sufficient to prove or grasp realities beyond what could be seen and touched—these things can be known only if God chooses to reveal them. This was the modern way.
Nominalists, like William of Ockham were considered by traditional Realists as being dangerous radicals whose skepticism was ready to break out in violent rebellion. Their rejection of universal concepts and insistence that statements be verified by experience and direct revelation from God in scripture, not just by authority from the past was revolutionary. Here was a whole army of radicals willing to cut down the complex philosophical constructions of high scholasticism, with its abstract ideas of universals and rational logic. ‘Ockham’s Razor’, the idea that the simpler the argument, the better it is, is perhaps the best-known legacy of the Nominalist movement. Instead of abstract formulations and what seemed to them purely logical games, they preferred simple arguments that could be tested by scientific proof, direct experience and divine revelation.
By the time of Luther’s arrival at the University of Erfurt, the Faculty there had become something of a stronghold of the Nominalists.
One central question medieval theologians often pondered concerned the parts played by God and humans in salvation. The question of how we can come into a right relationship with God or, as the theologians called it, the doctrine of justification, was a hot topic. Contrary to what we might think, no one in late-medieval theological circles believed that a person could earn salvation purely by their own efforts. All agreed that God’s grace was necessary if salvation was to be had. The point at issue was how much and what kind of help was needed, and what part people played in the process. The Church’s teaching on this question was far from clear, and a number of different positions were held, not least among the Nominalist faction.
One group took their cue from the great 5th C Bishop of Hippo, St Augustine. When it came to the doctrine of justification, they held that humanity was helpless. Only God himself, by his sovereign mercy, could intervene and save people. Another group of Nominalists, the group that had an early influence on Luther, such as William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, thought there was something which could be done to initiate the process of salvation.
When Luther read Biel’s textbook, he was persuaded by the idea that God has entered into a covenant, or pact, with humanity. If the sinner did what lay within him, then God would not deny him his grace. Within the framework of this agreement or covenant, sinners were capable of making a small moral effort on their own, without the help of God’s grace. This initial effort was required before God would respond. This might involve feeling a genuine sorrow for sin, or generating a sense of love for God. In response to this, God would give a supply (‘infusion’ was the technical term) of his grace to help fan this spark into a flame. But this initial gift of grace was not enough to access salvation on its own. The Christian then had to cooperate with God’s grace and, by the exercise of good works done with God’s help, perfect this contrition for sin and love for God, so that salvation could truly be attained.
At the same time 1 group of Nominalists was scratching this out, another movement with its origins a Century earlier scorned all these movements w/in scholastic thought. The Renaissance, which had begun in Northern Italy, spread into Germany. It captured the allegiance of many younger scholars, with its exciting promise of returning to the sources of classical Greece and Rome as a model for literature, art, architecture, law and rhetoric.
‘Humanism,’ as this program was known, isn’t to be confused with modern humanism, that is, secular humanism, which is atheistic. While it did have a high view of human dignity, the 16th C version was mostly religious in character, something most colleges & universities today neglect to mention. Renaissance humanism, or the study of the humanities wasn’t so much a set of ideas or philosophical opinions, as a yearning for all things classical. The great motivating desire was to acquire eloquence and skill with words and language. So, everything was devoted towards a new kind of education, which involved making the study of classical texts possible—as these were thought the best models of eloquence available. These texts could be Greek literature, Roman law, classical poetry or early Christian theology. So, the humanists promoted the study of Greek and Hebrew, alongside Latin, the language of all scholarly work in the Middle Ages, so that these texts could be read in the original, avoiding what they felt was the misleading filter of medieval translations.
Humanists took particular exception to the methods and products of scholastic theology, of every stripe, Nominalist or Realist. They felt that the scholastic method encouraged the asking and answering of a series of irrelevant questions. They also objected to the method of using medieval commentaries, rather than the original texts themselves. For the humanist, lengthy medieval interpretations simply got in the way of the brilliance of the original authors. Humanists wanted a direct encounter with the original text of classical authors, the Bible and the Fathers, rather than have this muddied by an extra layer of explanations made by lesser, more recent scholars, writing in crude and verbose medieval Latin.
So, using the recent invention of the printing press, humanists reproduced of a whole series of ancient Christian texts, which made a new kind of scholarship possible. Three works in particular were important.
First, in 1503, Erasmus published the Enchiridion or Handbook of the Christian Soldier. It laid out a program of reform for the Church.
Second, in 1506, an 11-volume edition of the works of Augustine appeared. For the first time in centuries, it was possible to read the greatest authority in Western theology in full, in context, and without the help of medieval commentators.
Third, and most important was Erasmus’s greatest achievement, his Greek New Testament published in 1516. Although this edition was not as reliable as it might have been since Erasmus had a limited number of texts to work from—it became the first-ever printed edition of the Greek text, so that, for the first time, theologians all over Europe had the chance to compare the standard Latin Bible text with the original. A number of disturbing things emerged. For example, medieval theologians were unanimous in seeing marriage as a full sacrament of the church, alongside holy communion & baptism, on the basis of Jerome’s translation of Ephesians 5:32, which referred to it as a sacrament. When Erasmus’s edition appeared, it became clear that the original Greek word really meant ‘mystery’. The scriptural basis for regarding marriage as equal in value to baptism and Communion was shaken. So, the work of Erasmus and the other humanists played a major part in loosening the hold of the church’s authority in the minds of many educated laypeople.
While they didn’t engage in outright warfare, scholasticism and humanism jostled in the lecture halls and universities across Germany in the early years of the 16th C. Erfurt where Luther was, was no exception. The 2 schools of thought were both present in the university, although relationships between them were, on the whole, fairly good. Luther was known for his knowledge of classical writers. He likely attended lectures by humanist teachers.
This was the theological landscape at the time Luther’s mind was being formed. Taught theology by nominalists, Luther believed as long as he did his best, God would give him grace to help him to become better. Humanist texts allowed him to study the great authorities of the Bible and the Fathers with fresh eyes. From 1509–10, he studied Augustine’s works and Lombard’s Sentences, and some of the notes he made in the margins of these works have survived to this day. They show him to be a not particularly original adherent of the theology of the Modern Way. He’d followed his teachers well, and there was little sign at this stage of departure from them.
Luther was often plagued by bouts of depression. He wondered whether God really did hold good intentions towards him, sensing rather the stern stare of Christ as judge, demanding from him an impossible level of purity. He wondered whether these feelings were evidence he wasn’t chosen at all, but that he was among those destined to be damned to eternal suffering.
On the shelves of the library of the Augustinian friary in Erfurt were copies of several works by Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was something of a hero to monks like Luther, having developed a rich spiritual theology in the 12th C, and lots of advice on the spiritual life. Luther read these and heard them read over meals. Luther noticed Bernard’s close attention to Scripture, and a piety which kept returning to the sufferings and humility of Jesus. Bernard advised his readers to meditate on the cross of Christ, especially when anxious or depressed. One of the virtues gained from such meditation was humility, a virtue greatly valued by God. Bernard said humility’s abiding image was the crucified Christ, and how God used the experience of suffering, even seasons of doubt, to bring humility to the human soul. à This was a tonic to the often tormented Luther.
This emphasis on the Scriptures and pondering the cross, passed on by earlier scholars like Bernard & Augustine plowed & planted the field of Luther’s mind for the fruit it would later produce in the central doctrine of the Reformation – Justification by Faith Alone.
A recent biographer called Martin Luther “A catastrophe in the history of Western civilization.” If we look only at the religious wars which were part of the Reformation, that verdict seems fair. But if we widen the criteria of our evaluation to Luther’s role in calling the church to a simpler, more just and communal vision, in puncturing the conceited abuse of power and hierarchical oppression of a moribund institution which nearly all admit was grotesquely corrupt, not to mention the inspiration which his theology has been to countless people over the centuries since, that judgment doesn’t seem fair.
Luther was a man of immense personal courage, fierce intelligence and furious stubbornness. A mind steeped in the theology of his time, an ability to see thru quickly to the heart of an issue, and an eloquence that enabled him to express his ideas with clarity, was a powerful mixture. He inspired deep loyalty, even ardent love on the part of his supporters. He had a capacity to enjoy life in a huge way. He could be both tender and sharp, and his absence left an irreplaceable gap. As Melanchthon put it at Luther’s funeral, now they were ‘entirely poor, wretched, forsaken, orphans who had lost a dear noble man as our father’. At the same time, Luther was a man with deep flaws, who made enemies as quickly as friends, and whose brilliant language could be used to hurt as much as to heal.
As we end this episode, I wanted to share something I found that I thought was really good in regards to Luther’s Enduring Legacy. It has to do with his doctrine of Justification by Faith. These thoughts are sparked by Graham Tomlin’s Luther & His World.
Our Postmodern culture isn’t concerned with the same questions that dominated the 16th C. People today don’t agonize, as Luther did, over where to find a gracious God. Modern men & women aren’t in the least bit concerned about the demands of a whole series of religious rules. But they do experience the constant demand to live up to standards of beauty set by the glamour industry; to levels of achievement set by business targets, or to standards of talent set by entertainment & sports. How to understand the self is a persistent and difficult problem modern psychotherapy seeks to ameliorate.
While Luther obviously worked before the development psychology, his doctrine of justification by faith has something to say to modern man. It says that human worth lies not in any ability or quality we possess, but in the simple fact that we are loved by our Creator.
At the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther claimed: “Sinners are attractive because they are loved, not loved because they are attractive.” He used to say that our value lies not inside us, but outside us; in Christ himself. The righteousness of the Christian, in which he/she stands before God, is not their own righteousness, but is Christ’s own righteousness, received by faith. They can know their true value is found not in any good quality in themselves, nor any good actions they’ve performed, but in the fact they’re loved by God. Luther’s location of value entirely ‘outside ourselves’, in God’s love manifested in Christ, safeguards a sense that our worth is unshakeable. Whether in work or unemployed, able-bodied or disabled; red or yellow, black or white we’re ALL precious in God’s sight. Even if we experience doubt over our worth through despair at our own capabilities, virtue or reputation, this sense of ultimate value cannot be taken away and can become the foundation of a secure and steady self-image because it’s received rather than achieved.
But there’s more and this is where the doctrine of justification by faith can touch & heal our shattered world. The doctrine reverses the way in which we tend to evaluate other people. If a person’s value lies in a quality or feature which they possess, such as a particular skill or ability or ethnicity, it can make distinctions between people. Some people are more valuable and some are less; and we’re back to Apartheid, slavery, and the Holocaust. If, however, as justification by faith insists, a person’s true value lies not in anything they possess but in something ‘outside themselves’; that they are loved by God—then we can’t make such distinctions. Each person has dignity and value, and deserves equal treatment, regardless of age, skills, social utility or earning capacity.
There is, however, at the same time a sobering honesty about Luther’s doctrine of justification. He insists that the first step to wisdom, or to a rock-solid, immovable sense of self-worth, is to take a good look into the depths of a person’s own soul. It means to face up honestly to the self-centeredness, lack of love for one’s neighbor, cowardice and indifference towards those who are suffering that lurks there. This is no easy doctrine which glosses over the reality of sin and evil in the human heart, the capacity to inflict pain and injustice which lies in everyone. For Luther, God has to help us to look into this abyss before we can go any further. This is far from that pleasant middle-class religion which assumes that everyone is good and nice, and which refuses to look beneath the surface. Luther’s God insists on facing up to the dark secrets inside, the selfish motivations and hidden desires.
But this is only preliminary. Some forms of religion have implied that this is the sum of religion—making us feel bad about ourselves. Luther insists this is merely a necessary first step—a means to an end, but not an end in itself. God breaks up the fragile foundations of a sense of self-worth based in our own virtues, in order to establish a much firmer rock upon which to build. Luther would have been wary of psychological techniques which try to build self-worth by positive thinking & self-talk.
Justification by faith is a reminder to Christians that they approach God not on the basis of who they are, but on the basis of who Christ is. Self-worth, value and forgiveness are gifts, not rights. It’s nothing to do with achieving an elusive goal of becoming the idealized person they might like to be in their most hopeful moments. It is a reminder that it is only when they stop trying to be someone else, and start being honest about who they really are, that they can begin to receive God’s acceptance of them à and here’s the key: In Christ.
It doesn’t get any more Biblical than that!