The Cross Alone: Martin Luther’s Sixth Sola of the Reformation (The Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Recently I have written about the theologia crucis — the theology of the cross — that constituted in many ways Martin Luther’s most important discovery, a discovery that gave rise to his entire vision for church reform. Although Luther is perhaps remembered more for his doctrine of justification by faith alone or for his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, it is arguable that his understanding of theologia crucis, based largely on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, was a far more significant development in that it funded his entire theological project. Luther publicly put forward the theology of the cross — something that he contrasted with the theology of glory that characterized the theological method of much medieval scholasticism — at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. So what exactly was Luther’s cross-and-bible-1302668theology of the cross, and why was it so significant? The editors of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings [Third edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 14, 24-25.], W.R. Russell and T.F. Lull, explain the background as follows:

In April 1518, the German Augustinian order held its General Chapter meeting in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg. By this time (six months after the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses), Luther was under a great cloud of controversy. When his superiors asked him to present his ideas to the Brothers, he used the form of a modified disputation; he wrote these theses, not for a debate he would chair in professorial style, but rather as a way to present his theology.

Already in this early document, Luther develops some characteristic theological themes as he expands his understanding of sin, grace, and free will. And in doing so, he offers his distinctive proposal for reform of the church—a reform centered in the “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis). Moreover, the Reformer moves beyond the mere content of theological propositions to offer a cross-centered method of theologizing.

Thus, for example, Luther argued in theses 25-28:

25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1[:17]), and “A person believes with the heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10[:10]). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that one’s works do not make him or her righteous, rather that one’s righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Romans 3[:20] states, “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3[:28]). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore, a person knows that works done by such faith are not one’s own but God’s. For this reason one does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. One’s justification by faith in Christ is sufficient. Christ is such a person’s wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1[:30] has it, that we may be Christ’s action and instrument.

26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

The first part is clear from what has been stated by the Apostle and his interpreter, St. Augustine, in many places. And it has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all humans under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies. “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.

27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

Because Christ lives in us through faith so he arouses us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for the works which Christ does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given to us through faith. If we look at them we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” [Eph. 5:1]. Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which Christ has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If Christ’s action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive according to the verse, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4] toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils” [Song of Sol. 1:3], that is, “your works.”

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

The second part is clear and is accepted by all philosophers and theologians, for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good. The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in a person loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. For this reason human love avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Psalm 41[:1] states, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect cannot by nature comprehend an object which does not exist, that is the poor and needy person, but only a thing which does exist, that is the true and good. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.

Russell and Lull helpfully summarize for us what all this means:

Luther had come to think that the main problem with the Scholastic theological tradition was its commitment to philosophical rationalism. Thinkers such as Thomas criticism-ml-hx-pg_1Aquinas unblinkingly followed the rationalistic trajectories of their first principles. Therefore, their opening theological moves tended to dominate the systems they developed.

For example, because the Scholastics believed they could prove the existence of God with philosophical reason, Luther thought they moved too smoothly from what could be known in nature to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Though Thomas himself was clear that reason could not explain the “saving mysteries,” much of the energy of subsequent Scholastic theology went into these foundational questions.

The Reformer thought the Scholastic project obscured what Paul had taught: the cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with conventional philosophy. To reason, the cross is foolishness and offense. The meaning of Christ’s death cannot be explained—that is, without obscuring its scandalous character. Therefore, writes Luther, the true theologian does not build a rational system, based on visible and evident things (following Aristotle). Rather, the paradox of the cross teaches that the ways of God are hidden (deus absconditus), even in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Here Luther provides not only theological and philosophical theses; he also elaborates each thesis as he connects the issues at stake with the Scriptures and various theologians.

Here we see Luther’s radically grace-centered theology, as he sets the righteousness of God not only against philosophical claims of “wisdom,” but also against all the best moral achievement of humanity. Thus, the Reformer appeals to the strong voice of St. Augustine, especially in his controversy with Pelagius, which apparently had become muted even in the Augustinian order.

Here we see the connection between Luther’s theologia crucis and justification by faith alone. Justification by faith alone is offensive to human reason that wants to assert its own wisdom and power instead of being utterly at the mercy of God’s sovereign grace. Thus, before we can understand justification by faith alone, our wisdom and power must be crucified so that we can submit to the “foolishness” and “weakness” of the gospel.

In short, a theology of glory is to be found wherever it is assumed that human beings can reach God through their own wisdom and power (even with the help of grace); the theology of the cross, on the other hand, is to be found only where it is believed, on the basis of the Word of God, that the gospel has nullified all human wisdom and power with the foolishness and weakness of God. To truly know God, we must become fools according to human wisdom; we must be crucified to human power. To truly know God, we must never form any thought or conception of him outside of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross understands that the power of human wisdom need not simply be “elevated” or “perfected” by revelation (according to Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum), but rather contradicted and demolished in order to be wholly reconstructed and set on an entirely new basis. In sum, the theology of the cross teaches that in order to know God, we must be crucified with Christ in order to be resurrected to a new way of knowing in him.

Perhaps to the traditional five Solas of the Reformation we should add a sixth: sola crux, the cross alone.

The Catholic Roots of Luther’s Gospel: The Sacrament of Penance and the Surety of Faith

[W]e now turn to the holy sacraments and their blessings to learn to know their benefits and how to use them. Anyone who is granted the time and the grace to confess, to be absolved, and to receive the sacrament and Extreme Unction before his death has great cause indeed to love, praise, and thank God and to die cheerfully, if he relies firmly on and believes in the sacraments, as we said earlier. In the sacraments your God, Christ himself, deals, speaks, and works with you through the priest…. It follows from this that the sacraments, that is, the external words of God as spoken by a priest, are a truly great comfort and at the same time a visible sign of divine intent…. It points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and in his sacraments he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” –Martin Luther [Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 397-398.]

It is often assumed by Catholics and Protestants alike that Martin Luther’s reformational “discovery” of justification by faith alone grounded in the supreme authority of the Word of God represented a radical innovation within the stream of Western Christianity, almost as though these ideas suddenly struck him ex nihilo, like the famous lightning bolt that initially prompted him to become a monk. Thus, Luther is often depicted as either a heresiarch (by some Catholics) or a genius (by some Protestants). Even though it would be difficult to deny Luther’s intellectual gifts and linguistic skill, such caricatures do not withstand the scrutiny of careful historical research that seeks to interpret Luther within the medieval context and intellectual history to which he belonged. On the Protestant side, perhaps no scholar has demonstrated the significant continuity between medieval scholasticism and Reformation/post-Reformation theology (see for instance his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This is not to deny, of course, that fundamental differences and conflicts did emerge. However, profitable discourse between Catholics and Protestants today will not be possible by simply repeating the polemically-charged historiography and categorize-and-dismiss approach to which many of us are heir.

Historical theologian Stephen Strehle helps to do this very thing by reconstructing a contextually-informed account of how Luther arrived at the convictions that fueled his reforming efforts. Although we may quibble with Strehle at certain points, we will nevertheless discover that Luther’s commitment to faith alone and the Word of God alone developed out of the sacrament of penance as conceived by a school of thought rooted deeply in the medieval Catholic tradition. I quote Strehle at length here because it requires a bit of time for him to unfold the argument:

[Martin Luther] often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts… Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but aac80d1f31a7f56ebb05afa7d4255b8ddespair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were to great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness….

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament… Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest…. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther…. While this might not satisfy those scholars who prefer a more specific doctrine of justification and thus a more precise moment of his “turn,” there exists, particularly in his early writings, evolving, not static concepts, and certainly no qualitative leap from darkness into light…. He merely considers his Gospel now complete by the addition of this new element. As Luther says, he “lacked nothing before, except the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” And so, his tower experience is best understood as adding another element to his overall maturation rather than a radical departure from the other aspects of his Gospel already evolved.

There are other testimonies that merit as much attention… One such testimony … refers to a “certain older brother,” who is never mentioned by name but is often credited by Luther and his followers for directing him toward faith and assurance. While Luther was in the midst of his trials at Erfurt in 1507, this brother, it is said, helped to console Luther’s conscience by pointing him to the words of the great symbol, “I believe in the remission of sins.” These words were interpreted by him, not as a general statement of faith or a simple assent to what God can do through his church but were interpreted as a direct command from God to believe that one’s own sins had been forgiven. For confession this meant that the words of absolution spoken by the Priest are to believed as a personal word from God concerning the forgiveness of one’s sins….

Another set of testimonies concerns John Staupitz, Luther’s beloved mentor and vice-general of the Reformed Augustinian Order, who brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508 when he was only twenty-six years old. Luther credits Staupitz with rescuing him from hell, fixing his eyes upon Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel into the darkness of his heart, and being his father in Christ and the teaching in which he now stands…. According to Luther, the word “penance,” which had so distressed his conscience, became a word of consolation through Staupitz. In the writings of Staupitz we find traces, in fact, of the same exhortations that we saw earlier in Luther. In confession, we are told to trust (Vertrawen) in the mercy of God and believe the grace that is being offered to us in the words of absolution. We are told to disregard our contrition and good works, for such would lead to despair, and trust in the mercy of God offered to us through the priest for our own personal consolation. While these admonitions are not directly cited and attributed to Staupitz in Luther’s own writings, they still reflect the very essence of what Luther came to believe and must have facilitated his discovery of the Gospel….

More important than whatever influence … any other person might have exerted upon Luther in his maturation is the prominence of a larger tradition out of which Luther and these persons probably emerged. There is a wide-spread, although little known, tradition before and after the time of Luther which contended like Luther 220px-JohnDunsScotus_-_fullthat assurance could be obtained in the sacrament of penance through faith. The founder of this tradition was Duns Scotus. Duns had taught that a mere “disposition” or “unformed act,” i.e., not formed by grace, is all that is necessary for the penitent to receive absolution. One is simply beholden “not to place an obstacle” (se non ponere obicem) in the way of its reception. No merit, not even “congruous merit,” and no attrition, not even a “good inward motion,” are considered absolutely necessary. Such a minimal requirement was designed to exalt the mercies of God, who rewards his people freely and graciously (ex pacto), above the more exacting demands of Thomistic theology and thus produce more certainty in those who seek his grace. The Scotists, we know, during the time of Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495) continued this tradition of their beloved Doctor and contended even more boldly that one is able to know through the sacrament of penance whether he is currently in a state of grace. All that is necessary is not to place an obstacle in the way of its reception….

This requirement again was meant to provide a bare minimum on the part of the penitent that anybody can fulfill and know that he fulfills, in contrast to the more exacting demands of heart-felt contrition in Thomism. Eventually, the requirement of “not placing an obstacle” will become merged with the more positive condition of faith, as we have already seen in the “older brother” and Staupitz and which we will now see again in the Council of Trent.

While it is well attested, it is not generally known that the majority of the Council of Trent, by a majority of twenty-one to fourteen, actually favored the Scotist position of certitude during much of its proceedings before a new commission was appointed, changing the balance of power. The Scotists, led by Ambrosius Catharinus and Johannes Delphinus, contended that “through faith” the one who does not place an obstacle is able to receive grace and know assuredly that he stands within that grace. According to Catharinus a perfect conversion is unnecessary for the “certitude of faith.” According to Delphinus doubt only arises when one looks to his own merit or contrition and neglects the grace offered to him ex opere operato in the sacrament. He who believes has no doubts, for the testimony of the Spirit drives them away. The Scotists, of course, looked back to their beloved Subtle Doctor, Duns Scotus, for much-needed authority and inspiration in this regard. They argued that the certitude of grace through the sacrament of penance was the Subtle Doctor’s most fundamental position, and the council could not in all good conscience condemn such an illustrious doctor of the church.

The Scotists did, however, find it necessary to distinguish their position from that of the heretics, Luther and his followers, due to the obvious similarities between the camps. The first difference was that they, unlike Luther, did not demand certitude of those who are genuinely remitted of their sins but only felt that such certitude is possible for those who do not place an obstacle in the way and exercise faith. Both the Thomists and Scotists were at least unanimous in this: Luther’s contention that those who are truly justified know of their state most assuredly must be outright condemned. The second difference which they put forth was that the faith which they so strongly inculcated is never “alone” but involves love and other works of sanctification. This time, however, the differences were not so apparent, since Luther himself never contended that true faith in actuality could be separated from the works thereof and the Scotists themselves tended to isolate faith when it came to the reception of grace and certitude, in order to dissuade the penitent from trusting in the works of contrition. This time the differences, of course, were much more subtle, and the Scotists had considerable difficulty in distinguishing themselves from the position of the heretics….

[T]he evidence is clear that Luther’s primary impulse in his reformational turn was not so much inspired by Paul, nor did it require a rejection of his Catholic roots, but involved an acceptance and furtherance of what was already prevalent in the Scotistic doctrine of penance.[1]

To briefly summarize Strehle’s argument, we come to understand Luther’s “discovery” or “tower experience” less in terms of a lightning bolt from heaven and more as a development and refinement of his own Catholic and Scotist influences. Luther’s belief in “justification by faith alone” was rooted in the sacrament of penance. The purpose of the sacrament, at least in the Scotist understanding, was not to direct the penitent to his or her own repentance or good works as the basis of assurance of forgiveness and right standing with God; rather, such assurance was granted simply on the basis of the unobstructed word of absolution pronounced by the priest. Since this word of absolution Johannes-Bugenhagen-Keyswas not pronounced according to the merits of the penitent, it could only be received by faith. The words “I absolve you” placed the penitent (“you”) in an exclusively receptive position; all that one could do was simply give ear to these words, and then accept and believe that they were true. Hence, justification by faith alone.

That this was in turn grounded in an understanding of the Word of God as possessing the supreme authority in the church is evident from the fact that the subject of the sentence “I absolve you” had to ultimately be God himself in order to have any validity. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Luther rightly understood that the sacrament of penance could grant the forgiveness that it promised only if the word of absolution was pronounced by the priest on the basis of the supreme authority of God himself. Was this not the reason why such a word could be pronounced only by a priest who had been properly ordained? Indeed, were the priest simply speaking, as any other non-ordained individual, of his own accord and on his own authority, what assurance could he provide? Divine forgiveness could only be validly proffered by the priest if his word was uttered in the full power and authority of the Word of God. Thus, Luther realized that what ultimately mattered was not the authority of the priestly word considered in and of itself, but the supremely authoritative Word of God which alone (sola!) rendered the sacrament effectual. From here, it was a small step to a recognition of the supreme authority of the Word of God attested in inspired Scripture.

Again, I do not want to imply that Luther’s teachings did not represent a significant departure from certain aspects of medieval Catholic theology (though perhaps not as radical as we might think!), yet understanding the elements of continuity that did exist should help us to realize that 1) contrary to anti-Protestant polemics, Luther’s reformational discovery can be viewed as a coherent development along the trajectory of an established school of thought accepted in the medieval Catholic tradition (represented, in fact, at the Council of Trent!), and that 2) contrary to anti-Catholic polemics, medieval Catholicism was not the black abyss that some Protestants make it out to be.

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[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 8-10, 18-20, 22-26. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle’s work.

Serving and Suffering Under the Cross: Martin Luther on the Visible Sign of the Militant Church (Reformission Monday)

As I suggested in my post “Rediscovering the Scandalous God“, Martin Luther’s concept of the “theology of the cross”, as opposed to the “theology of glory”, is one that has significant implications for the mission of the church. Luther himself alluded to this in his 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church in which he outlined seven visible marks or signs by which the true church of Jesus Christ distinguishes itself from the world. After explicating the first six marks in terms of 1) the Word of God, 2) baptism, 3) the Lord’s supper, 4) the office of the keys, 5) the ordained ministry, and 6) corporate prayer and praise, Luther sets forth the seventh sign as the one that pervades and conditions all the others:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5[:11], “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” after-lucas-cranach-the-younger-martin-luther-half-length-to-the-left-with-a-book-in-his-handsThey must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. No people on earth have to endure such bitter hate…

In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service. No one has compassion on them; they are given myrrh and gall to drink when they thirst. And all of this is done not because they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there, as Christ says in Matthew 5[:11–12], “Blessed are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.[1]

Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance comments on this facet of the church’s existence and applies it to its missionary calling when he writes:

The Church presents a visible form in this world but of the kind that the world will not accept by its standards, for to it the Church presents a contrary picture as weak and deserted and without sign of power of worth…. The Church is always the Church militant under the Cross (sub cruce) and therefore ‘according to its external aspect’ it appears afflicted by God…. Because the Church in this world always lives [in between the realm of Satan and the Cross], it always presents a [scandalous face]. That may be due to its contemptible smallness in the eyes of the world, but is mostly due to the fact that it suffers and is persecuted and is maligned. God hides the Church, therefore, [under a dark and dreadful cover]. The Church lives in the flesh and in the world but lives there in no other way than by faith in Christ the Son of God who suffered for the Church. The Church for Christ’s sake suffers continuous abuse and vilification, is confounded and rejected by men, is mortified and dies, but it lives in Christ, and therefore all these opprobrious experiences and scandals which the Church has in the World are the precious gems with which God ornaments the Church….

That is Luther’s constant theme that it is only through [agony] and [temptation] that the Church exists and fulfils its mission, and therefore he insists on interpreting the whole idea of the essential form of the Church in history in terms of the Cross…. This argument convinces us that the Church is the Kingdom of God; all other kingdoms of the world fight against the one weak and despised Church but do not prevail at all. But the Church itself conquers at last all kingdoms and converts them to itself, by the very power of God. But before it increases like that its weakness and humility is scandalous.[2]

The theology of the cross, when applied to the church and its missionary vocation, cuts against all human expectations and standards. Whereas worldly wisdom prizes strength, size, status, and success, the wisdom of God reveals itself in weakness, smallness, insignificance, and defeat. We naturally want to imagine that the church of Jesus Christ would go forth into the world with great power and glory, stunning people into the kingdom with an impressive display of eloquent speech and visible wonders. However, as Luther rightly points out, the church of Christ exists only because of the cross of Christ, and thus its clearest mark is the opposite of what anyone would think: suffering, reproach, derision, poverty, contempt, weakness, persecution, and death. If God accomplished his saving victory over sin in the shameful death of his Son on the cross, then the church commissioned to herald this victory should not expect to do so in a different manner.

A couple of biblical examples bear this out and deserve mentioning. First, we should think of Stephen in Acts 7 whose Spirit-empowered, grace-filled witness ended in martyrdom by stoning. It would be easy to compare the outcome of his preaching with that of Peter in Acts 2 and conclude that he ended in utter failure. Such a conclusion would be premature and unwarranted, however, for Acts 8 reveals that his execution instigated a great persecution against the Jerusalem church, the result of which was the scattering of the first Christians into the regions of Judea and Samaria and a greater diffusion of the gospel. According to the narrative, it was not in spite of, but because of Stephen’s death the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1625and the subsequent persecution that the Word of God spread in fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8. In other words, Christ accomplishes his mission through the cruciform suffering of his church.

The apostle Paul knew this as well. His second letter to the Corinthians finds him defending himself against the so-called “super-apostles” who were undermining his apostolic authority on the grounds that he cut a fairly unimpressive figure for one who claimed to be an apostle of Christ. How could one who suffered so greatly as Paul, who was so constantly afflicted and persecuted for the gospel, truly be an apostle of the risen and ascended Christ? Would it not make more sense that the life of an apostle would be characterized by great power and glory and victory rather than abject weakness and shame and defeat? Quite the contrary, Paul argues:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4:7-11).

Far from discrediting his apostleship, Paul contended that his suffering actually validated it! For Paul, it was unthinkable to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) in a way incongruous with the message itself. What credibility could be lent to the gospel of Christ crucified if it were preached by those who only know comfort and ease? How could one who has never known hardship or defeat or pain or weakness or shame ever commend the folly and scandal of the cross as the wisdom and power of God? No, for Paul, it was precisely his cruciform message that gave shape to his apostolic ministry. Only by bearing in his own body the death of Jesus could the resurrection life be manifested as well. Only by despairing of life itself could Paul be forged into instrument fit to reveal the power of God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:8-9).[3]

What Stephen and Paul knew, Luther discovered and handed on to us. The church of Jesus marching forth militant into the world on mission can do so only through suffering, shame, weakness, and death. The cross shows us that God has purposed to accomplish his saving victory not in spite of, but precisely because of a cruci-formed church. While this may appear scandalous and foolish to the world, as well as to other so-called Christians enamored, like the Corinthians, with a theology of glory, it is the means — indeed the only means! — by which the gospel goes forth in power. May we not, therefore, run from a cruciform life as though it were inimical to our mission; rather let us embrace the cross in order that we might, not only in word but also in deed, share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death that we might attain, and lead others, to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11).

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 375-376.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church: A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 66-69.

[3] This is why the theology of the cross, and the mission shaped by it, does not exclude the resurrection. It recognizes that just as Easter Sunday was necessarily preceded by Good Friday, so also the revelation of resurrection power in the life and the ministry of the church can only come about through humble submission to the cross that is laid on it. Resurrection life does not appear prior to or independent of the cross, but through it and in the midst of it.

“I Did Nothing; the Word Did Everything”: Martin Luther’s Second Invocavit Sermon on the True Way of Reform (Preached in Wittenberg on 10 March 1522)

The Second Sermon, March 10, 1522, Monday after Invocavit [Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 292-294.]

Dear friends, you heard yesterday the chief characteristics of Christians, that their whole life and being is faith and love. Faith is directed toward God, love toward others and one’s neighbor, and consists in such love and service for the other as we have received from God without our work and merit. Thus, there are two things: the one, which is the most needful, and which must be done in one way and no other; the other, which is a matter of choice and not of necessity, which may be kept or not, without endangering yhst-81483472662466_2189_36084016faith or incurring hell. In both, love must deal with our neighbor in the same manner as God has dealt with us; it must walk the straight road, straying neither to the left nor to the right.

In the things which are “musts” and are matters of necessity, such as believing in Christ, love nevertheless never uses force or undue constraint. Thus the mass is an evil thing, and God is displeased with it, because it is performed as if it were a sacrifice and work of merit. Therefore it must be abolished. Here there can be no question or doubt, any more than you should ask whether you should worship God. Here we are entirely agreed: the private masses must be abolished. As I have said in my writings, I wish they would be abolished everywhere and only the ordinary evangelical mass be retained. Yet Christian love should not employ harshness here nor force the matter.

However, it should be preached and taught with tongue and pen that to hold mass in such a manner is sinful, and yet no one should be dragged away from it by the hair; for it should be left to God, and his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference. Why? Because it is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of men as the potter molds the clay and fashion them at my pleasure [Ecclus. 33:13]. I can get no farther than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach. And since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith. That is God’s work alone, which causes faith to live in the heart. Therefore we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it. We have the jus verbi [right to speak] but not the executio [power to accomplish]. We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.

Now if I should rush in and abolish it by force, there are many who would be compelled to consent to it and yet not know where they stand, whether it is right or wrong, and they would say: I do not know if it is right or wrong, I do not know where I stand, I was compelled by force to submit to the majority. And such compelling and commanding results in a mere mockery: an external show, fools-play, human ordinances, sham-saints, and hypocrites. For where the heart is not good, I care nothing at all for the work. We must first win the hearts of the people. But that is done when I teach only the Word of God, preach the gospel, and say: Dear lords or pastors, abandon the mass, it is not right, you are sinning when you do it; I cannot refrain from telling you this. But I would not make it an ordinance for them, nor urge a general law. He who would follow me could do so, and he who refused would remain outside. In the latter case the Word would sink into the heart and do its work. Thus he would become convinced and acknowledge his error, and fall away from the mass; tomorrow another would do the same, and thus God would accomplish more with his Word than if you and I were to merge all our power into one heap.

So when you have won the heart, you have won the man—and thus the thing must finally fall of its own weight and come to an end. And if the hearts and minds of all are agreed and united, abolish it. But if all are not heart and soul for its abolishment—leave it in God’s hands, I beseech you, otherwise the result will not be good. Not that I would again set up the mass; I let it in God’s name. Faith must not be chained and imprisoned, nor bound by an ordinance to any work. This is the principle by which you must be governed. For I am sure you will not be able to carry out your plans. And if you should carry them out with such general laws, then I will recant everything that I have written and preached and I will not support you. This I am telling you now. What harm can it do you? You still have your faith in God, pure and strong so that this thing cannot hurt you.

Love, therefore, demands that you have compassion on the weak, as all the apostles had. Once, when Paul came to Athens (Acts 17[:16–32]), a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord, and in consequence the thing fell of itself. Likewise, if I had seen them holding mass, I would have preached to them and admonished them. Had they heeded my admonition, I would have won them; if not, I would nevertheless not have torn them from it by the hair or employed any force, but simply allowed the Word to act and prayed for them. For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.

In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that lutherbier-vierkantno prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.

What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself. Let me cite a simple instance. In former times there were sects, too, Jewish and Gentile Christians, differing on the law of Moses with respect to circumcision. The former wanted to keep it, the latter not. Then came Paul and preached that it might be kept or not, for it was of no consequence, and also that they should not make a “must” of it, but leave it to the choice of the individual; to keep it or not was immaterial [1 Cor. 7:18–24; Gal. 5:1].

So it was up to the time of Jerome, who came and wanted to make a “must” out of it, desiring to make it an ordinance and a law that it be prohibited. Then came St. Augustine and he was of the same opinion as St. Paul: it might be kept or not, as one wished. St. Jerome was a hundred miles away from St. Paul’s opinion. The two doctors bumped heads rather hard, but when St. Augustine died, St. Jerome was successful in having it prohibited. After that came the popes, who also wanted to add something and they, too, made laws. Thus out of the making of one law grew a thousand laws, until they have completely buried us under laws. And this is what will happen here, too; one law will soon make two, two will increase to three, and so forth.

Let this be enough at this time concerning the things that are necessary, and let us beware lest we lead astray those of weak conscience [1 Cor. 8:12].

Augustine Contra Aristotle: The Stimulus for Martin Luther’s Vision for Reform

It is often believed, especially among Roman Catholics, that Martin Luther, and the Reformation that he inspired, set in opposition the individual’s conscience and interpretation of Scripture against the authority of the Catholic Church. Who did Luther think he was, standing against 1500 years of church history and tradition for the sake of his personal innovations? While this reconstruction of Luther’s stance certainly lends itself to anti-Protestant apologetics, it does not present an accurate account of what actually happened.

The late Heiko Oberman, who was a noted professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona, demonstrated from the primary source texts that Luther (misconstruals of his famous speech at the Diet of Worms aside) did not argue in this fashion. As reflected in many of Luther’s early statements, the primary stimulus behind his proposed theological reforms did not arise from “his own personal interpretation of Scripture” versus that of the Church, but rather from St. Augustine’s AN4344_AL948_AL266-AM039_500winterpretation of Scripture versus that of the medieval scholastics who had allowed Aristotelian philosophy to impinge upon their exegetical and doctrinal conclusions.

In other words, the Reformation did not begin as “Luther contra the Church” but “Luther with Augustine contra Aristotle and the scholastics”. Luther lodged his protest, not against 1500 years of church history, but against the Aristotelian encroachments that had recently (relative to Luther’s time) contaminated the Church’s theology and practice. Luther discovered in Augustine a more accurate and reliable interpreter of Scripture than the Aristotle of the scholastics, and it was this discovery that, combined with his university training in the via moderna nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, led him to propose a program of reform aimed at driving Aristotle out of the Church and repristinating the Great Tradition mediated through Augustine. As we will see below, Luther could even refer to his position as a “reformed via moderna” in contrast to the via antiqua represented by Thomas Aquinas. Oberman writes:

The name of Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, is the first definite clue to Luther’s development…. [T]he comments that he wrote in the margins of [his copy of Augustine’s works] in 1509 prove that by studying Augustine he had discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle, and had begun to work out a theological position of his own. The marginal notes do not yet register all the implications of the contrast; they probably only dawned on him gradually. Not until the great disputation against scholastic theology in September 1517 was this early interest in Augustine to bear fruit. That was where the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem,”— against the moderns, against Aristotle—could be heard. But the early notes on Augustine already point out the confusion that arises when the boundaries between scholarship and wisdom, between human speculation and divine revelation, are no longer respected. Then theology and philosophy suffer: “Augustine can even use reason to prove that the whole of philosophy is meaningless. Imagine what that means!”

[I]in the 1509-10 winter semester in Erfurt, Luther annotated Augustine’s two most extensive late works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), about the inner nature of God and the history of the Church. These comments, too, end in critical dismay: “I find it more than astonishing that our scholars can so brazenly claim that Aristotle does not contradict Catholic truth.” Luther immediately integrated what he read in Augustine into the survey lectures in theology he was preparing at the same time. He inveighed against the scholastic doctors, using the Holy Scriptures more pointedly and systematically than had hitherto been the case. Philosophy can never grasp man’s true nature, namely that he is God’s creature. It cannot comprehend the meaning of the biblical definition of the soul as “the image of God” (Gen. 1.27): “There I rely on Scripture against all rational arguments and say with Paul: If an angel—that means a Doctor of the Church—descended from heaven and taught differently, he should be damned.”

What an unknown monk in an inconspicuous monastic cell in Erfurt was committing to paper here would one day lead him to the historic pronouncement on the political stage of the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, God help me, amen”—a statement that was not an affirmation of himself but an expression of his loyalty to the Scriptures, a loyalty conducive from the very start to generating clashes, even with the authorities. Even if an emperor came down from heaven!

The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastics. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own. The question is not as ridiculous as the answer: as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures: “Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation”—unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven years later “against the whole of scholasticism”: “The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light.” Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority int he course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion” of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil. Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509: all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven. Quesitons of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all. The temptation—or compulsion—to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic. When God is silent, man should not speak; and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together….

Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete, who, since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle. The alternative is clear: whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God’s Word or is pure fantasy. As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle: Scripture was being violated by philosophy…. Thus the year 1509 prepared the way for an unusual medieval alliance between Augustinianism and nominalism. Before Luther recognized the Church Father as a fighter against the “enemies of God’s grace” and came to appreciate him as a reliable interpreter of the apostle Paul, the nominalistically trained magister could already welcome him as an ally in the battle against philosophy overstepping its bounds….

Luther laid his exegetical foundations in his first lectures on the Psalms and continued to perfect his interpretations throughout his life. As a good nominalist he first concentrated on the manner of expression characteristic of Scriptures; this enabled him to acquire a grasp of their particular subject matter on the basis of linguistic usage and obviated the alien mediation of Greek philosophy. His criticism of scholasticism did not culminate in the common reproach that its line of argument was too formal, logical, or dialectical. What made his own tradition suspect to him was its belief that Aristotle’s philosophy offered a timeless, comprehensive system of interpretation that even provided a key to the Scriptures. But the Holy Ghost has His own language; one must become His student, learn to spell, and then, going out from the individual word, gradually acquire the whole vocabulary….

One of the Saxon princes once asked Luther to explain what the well-known scholastic “ways” or schools and the “school conflict” were actually about. Luther provided him with a very lucid answer, not missing the opportunity to interpret the “way” of Wittenberg as a reformed “via moderna.” What linked the “terminists,” the old and new nominalists, was attentiveness to linguistic usage.

“Terminists” was the name of one sect of the university to which I, too, belonged. They take a stand against the Thomists, Scotists, Martin_Luther_and_friends_study_the_Bible_1and Albertists, and were also called Occamists after Occam, their founder…. But your Princely Highness must [know]: in these matters those men are called terminists who speak of a thing in terminis propriis [appropriate terms] and do not interpret words in an alien and wild way; and in this way it is called reality speaking of the thing. When I speak to a carpenter, I must use his terms, namely angle bar and not crooked bar, axe and not hatchet. So one should also leave the words of Christ alone speak of the sacrament in suis terminis [his terms], ut “hoc facite” [as “that does”] should not mean “sacrificate” [sacrifice], item “corpus” [likewise, “body”] cannot mean “of both kinds,” as they now torment the words and want to stray from the clear text.

But becoming a “modern” terminist is only one side of translating. First one must become a student of the Holy Spirit and listen with care to His language. Despite all the differences between the Old and New Testaments, between the Evangelists Luke and John, between Paul and Peter, the Holy Scriptures are homogeneous in that they testify to the God who is unknown to philosophers. What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?

The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just “Aristotle” or “scholasticism.” Since the fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.

Even before Luther mastered Greek he took pains to determine the sense of certain key words like “spirit,” “strength,” or “repentance” in Greek. As laborious as the work was, the only way he could get to the core of the New Testament was by cutting through the historico-philosophical and -legal tradition that had for centuries been linked with the Latin “spiritus,” “virtus,” or “poenitentia.” He discovered the verbal structure typical of the Hebrew language: when the Old Testament speaks of “the Word of the Lord,” an action, namely the action accomplished by the Word, is implied at the same time.

The great linguistic event of his time, the rediscovery of the original biblical languages, provided the means to probe the Vulgate and take the first steps toward modern Bible scholarship. Luther seized the opportunity as soon as it arose: the moment Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament became available in Wittenberg in the middle of the summer semester of 1516, he immediately set about familiarizing himself with this new tool, so shocking for Latin-oriented Christians…. Scholars may, and must, argue about whether humanistic or nominalistic impulses were at work here. But Luther’s conviction that the Scriptures contained something radicaly new and contradictory to man’s expectations indisputably went far beyond either of the two movements….

“Today you have the Bible,” source of life, God’s original testimony, and thus both foundation and standard of all ecclesiastical authorities, be they Church Fathers, councils, popes, or learned doctors. Scirpture and Church belong together, but not as though the Scriptures were the letter and the teaching Church the spirit that breathes life into it. The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church. The Scriptures reveal the Word. But that is precisely why they are not the book of truths that might constitute a complete, irrefutable textbook of theology, and why they do not need any further truths added, for example, in the form of new dogmas. The Bible contains only one truth, but it is the decisive one: “that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for the sake of our sins, and was resurrected for the sake of our righteousness.”

Whether from a medieval or a modern perspective, this is a revolutionary reduction and concentration of faith. Comprehensive medieval systems and remarkable speculative models of the modern age seem to know far more and have far more to say about God than the Scriptures. Luther’s reply to Erasmus applies to both: “Through the Crucified One, the Christian knows everything he has to know, but he now also knows what he cannot know.” Concentrating on Christ crucified was directed against the tangle of medieval theology and was at the same time an attempt to reunite what the foundation of the theological faculties at the universities had divided. [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 158-161, 169-172]

“Nothing Other Than Sheer Life”: Martin Luther on Preparing to Die (1519)

In 1519, Martin Luther preached a sermon in which he offered counsel on the importance and manner of preparing to die. This message has become particularly relevant to me in light of the passing of a dear family member. In a day and age in which we try to shield ourselves as much as possible from death and dying, Luther’s exhortation to begin to prepare for death — even at a young age (as Luther was when he preached this sermon) — may seem a bit morbid and morose. I think, however, that Luther’s exhortation is wise counsel indeed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not, we will all die (barring, of course, the return of Christ), and since we know not the day of our death, it behoves us all to prepare ourselves for it. Are we not, after all, called by Jesus to take up cross and die daily as we follow him?

What follows is an excerpt from Luther’s sermon highlighting the centrality that he placed on Christ as our only hope in life and death. When we walk, or prepare to walk, through the valley of the shadow of death, the light of our path will be knowing that in Christ crucified and risen again we find “nothing other than sheer life”. It is Christ’s victory over death, and this alone, that can adequately prepare us for our dying day.

[S]ince everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life [Matt. 7:14]. All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a deathPortraitofLutherwoman is in travail she has sorrow; but when she has recovered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” [John 16:21]. So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow [John 14:2]….

Death looms so large and is terrifying because our foolish and fainthearted nature has etched its image too vividly within itself and constantly fixes its gaze on it. Moreover, the devil presses man to look closely at the gruesome mien and image of death to add to his worry, timidity, and despair. Indeed, he conjures up before man’s eyes all the kinds of sudden and terrible death ever seen, heard, or read by man. And then he also slyly suggests the wrath of God with which he [the devil] in days past now and then tormented and destroyed sinners. In that way he fills our foolish human nature with the dread of death while cultivating a love and concern for life, so that burdened with such thoughts man forgets God, flees and abhors death, and thus, in the end, is and remains disobedient to God. We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move….

You must look at death while you are alive and see sin in the light of grace and hell in the light of heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view. Adhere to that even if all angels, all creatures, yes, even your own thoughts, depict God in a different light—something these will not do…. [Y]ou must not view or ponder death as such, not in yourself or in your nature, nor in those who were killed by God’s wrath and were overcome by death. If you do that you will be lost and defeated with them. But you must resolutely turn your gaze, the thoughts of your heart, and all your senses away from this picture and look at death closely and untiringly only as seen in those who died in God’s grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and then also in all his saints.

In such pictures death will not appear terrible and gruesome. No, it will seem contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise. The more profoundly you impress that image upon your heart and gaze upon it, the more the image of death will pale and vanish of itself without struggle or battle. Thus your heart will be at peace and you will be able to die calmly in Christ and with Christ, as we read in Revelation [14:13], “Blessed are they who die in the Lord Christ.” This was foreshown in Exodus 21[Num. 21:6–9], where we hear that when the children of Israel were bitten by fiery serpents they did not struggle with these serpents, but merely had to raise their eyes to the dead bronze serpent and the living ones dropped from them by themselves and perished. Thus you must concern yourself solely with the death of Christ and then you will find life. But if you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish. This is why Christ says, “In the world—that is, in yourselves—you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” [John 16:33]….

[Y]ou must not look at sin in sinners, or in your conscience, or in those who abide in sin to the end and are damned. If you do, you will surely follow them and also be overcome. You must turn your thoughts away from that and look at sin only within the picture of grace. Engrave that picture in yourself with all your power and keep it before your eyes. The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross and of all his dear saints.

How is that to be understood? Grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you, and destroys it. To believe this firmly, to keep it before your eyes and not to doubt it, means to view the picture of Christ and to engrave it in yourself. Likewise, all the saints who suffer and die in Christ also bear your sins and suffer and labor for you, as we find it written, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the command of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. Christ himself exclaims in Matthew 11[:28], “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will help you.” In this way you may view your sins in safety without tormenting your conscience. Here sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation. Paul states that in 1 Corinthians 15[:57], “Thanks and praise be to God, who through Christ gives us the victory over sin and death.”…

So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [1 Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with that and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let
this be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally…. He is the living and immortal image against
death, which he suffered, yet by his resurrection from the dead he vanquished death in his life. He is the image of the grace of God against sin, which he assumed, 613b7272dfd5cefc7d4e07ea48712bbdand yet overcame by his perfect obedience. He is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe….

[W]hat more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable. And to relieve you of all doubt, he grants you a sure sign, namely, the holy sacraments. He commands his angels, all saints, all creatures to join him in watching over you, to be concerned about your soul, and to receive it. He commands you to ask him for this and to be assured of fulfillment. What more can or should he do?

From this you can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace. Thus we read in Psalm 111[:2], “Great are the works of the Lord, selected according to his pleasure.” Therefore, we ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, “For the sake of my praise I restrain it [wrath] for you, that I may not cut you off.” To that end may God help us. Amen.

[Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition, W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 392-402.]

Rediscovering the Scandalous God: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518)

Although we think of Luther’s famous 95 theses as sparking the Reformation in 1517, it would perhaps be more accurate to accord this honor to the theses that he prepared for the disputation in Heidelberg in 1518. It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work. In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther’s comprehensive vision for csm_luther_in_heidelberg_6ffae26474the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God. This comprehensive vision can be summed up in Luther’s own phrase theologia crucis — theology of the cross — in contrast to the theologia gloriae — the theology of glory — that he vociferously opposed in medieval scholasticism. It was here, not in the matter of indulgences, but between the theologies of cross and glory, that Luther drew his main line of battle. Stated simply, if we do not understand the theology of the cross, we cannot understand Luther. Speaking personally, I find this aspect of Luther’s teaching to be the most significant, most compelling, and most encouraging of everything that he ever said or wrote.

What is the theologia crucis? Entire books deal exclusively with this subject, so a mere blog post can hardly serve to do it justice. However, I think it is possible to get an adequate, if only cursory, sense of what Luther meant simply by sampling a few of the Heidelberg theses. Beginning with thesis 19, Luther argued:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

This is apparent in the example of those who were “theologians” and still were called fools by the Apostle in Romans 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.

20. One deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Corinthians 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering—to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in the Divine works should honor God hidden in suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 1[:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does one no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hides yourself.”

So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeking God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason, true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ. It is also stated in John 10[14:6]: “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door” [John 10:9], and so forth.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for human beings not to be puffed up by their good works unless they have first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until they know that they are worthless and that their works are not theirs, but God’s.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by humans is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

This has already been said. Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: “The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.” The same thought is expressed in Ecclesiastes 1[:8]: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” This holds true of all desires.

Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4[:13], where he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.”

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4:15].

Thus Galatians 3[:18] states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”; and: “For all who rely on works of the law are under the curse” [Gal. 3:10]; and Romans 4:[15]: “For the law brings wrath”; and Romans 7[:10]: “The very commandment which promised life proved to be the death of me”; Romans 2[:12]: “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without law.” Therefore, those who boast that they are wise and learned in the law boast in their confusion, their damnation, the wrath of God, in death. As Romans 2[:23] puts it: “You who boast in the law.”

24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross a person misuses the best in the worst manner.

Indeed the law is holy [Rom. 7:12], every gift of God good [1 Tim. 4:4], and everything that is created exceedingly good, as in Genesis 1[:31]. But, as stated above, the one who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. Such a person thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.

Those, however, who have been emptied [Cf. Phil. 2:7] through suffering no longer do works but know that God works and does all things in them. For this reason, whether they do works or not, it is all the same to them. They neither boast if they do good works, nor are they disturbed if God does not do good works through them. They know that it is sufficient if they suffer and are brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. Christ says this in John 3[:7], “You must be born anew.” To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.[1]

Luther certainly gives us much to chew on and digest here. The theology of the cross is not a theology about the cross (which can often be hijacked and turned into another form of a theology of glory!) but rather a theology through the cross, i.e. formulated from the perspective of Christ crucified as the locus of God’s saving power and revelation. For this reason, it is better, as indicated in the theses themselves, to speak rather of a theologian of the cross, for the theology of the cross simply indicates the point of view that we are forced to assume in relation to all reality on the basis of the scandal and folly of the gospel. The perspective of the cross stains things with the martin-luther-and-frederick-iii-of-saxony-kneeling-before-christ-on-the-cross-german-schoolcrimson color of blood and molds them into a cruciform shape. For this kind of theologian, the cross is more than a religious symbol or mere instrument of salvation, it is the lens through which the entire world is reinterpreted.

Thus, whereas the theologian of glory (i.e. everyone who is not a theologian of the cross!) looks for God in the likeliest places — i.e. where power, glory, and success are visibly seen — the theologian of the cross knows that God actually manifests himself in the unlikeliest and least expected places: in weakness, shame, and defeat. The theologian of glory measures according to standards of strength, greatness, and tangible results, whereas the theologian of the cross is attuned to the ignominy, smallness, and folly with which God reveals and redeems. This is, after all, is precisely what Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

There are so many practical implications of this that it would be impossible to enumerate them all. Let me just suggest a couple. First, a theologian of glory can always be found prefacing statements with things like: “…but it doesn’t make sense that…”, “it seems logical that…”, “it’s unthinkable that God would…”, “surely if God had intended that, then…”, etc. To this the theologian of the cross will respond: “Yes, that does make more sense, and it does seem logical that God would act in such and such a way, but Christ crucified has put an end to all that makes logical sense to the worldly wise, and we can only seek to know the ways and works of God in the folly and scandal of the cross.” To use a biblical example, a theologian of glory stands at Golgotha and snides: “he who saved others could not save himself.” The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at Christ crucified and marvels: “truly this is the Son of God!”

Second, a theologian of glory will become easily discouraged when effort is rewarded with failure, when faithfulness is rewarded with fruitlessness, when good is rewarded with suffering. A theologian of the cross, however, will remain unflappable and unmoved even when assailed by the fiercest doubts, even when experiencing the costliest losses, even when consigned to shame or anonymity. This, not because of an innate inner strength, but because the cross has taught its theologians to expect such outcomes. If the supreme display of the power and wisdom of God was the weakness and foolishness of Christ crucified, then we should not be surprised to find his power and wisdom displayed in our own lives in the exact same way.

Luther’s theology of the cross is a salutary reminder that whereas we are usually looking for God to come as a conquering king, we will only find him as a crucified carpenter. When this scandalous truth becomes the focal point through which we view all reality, then (and only then) we will begin to think, reason, pray, work, minister, and live as true followers of Christ.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 22-4.

The Witness of Martin Luther to the Catholic Church of Today

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As an introduction to this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Catholic Church, under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), prepared and published the following statement [full text here]:

In 1517 Martin Luther raised concerns about what he saw as abuses in the Church of his time by making public his 95 theses. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of this key event in the reformation movements that marked the life of the Western Church over several centuries. This event has been a controversial theme in the history of inter-church relations in Germany, not least over the last few years. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has been building up to this anniversary since 2008, by focusing each year on one particular aspect of the Reformation, for example: the Reformation and Politics, or the Reformation and Education. The EKD also invited its ecumenical partners at various levels to help commemorate the events of 1517.

After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a Celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities.

Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement. The Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has worked hard to produce a shared understanding of the commemoration. Its important report, From Conflict to Communion, recognizes that both traditions approach this anniversary in an ecumenical age, with the achievements of fifty years of dialogue behind them, and with new understandings of their own history and theology. Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a “witness to the gospel” (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.

The particular phrase that caught my attention is the declaration, citing From Conflict to Communion (another document produced by the PCPCU with the Lutheran World Federation), that “Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel'”. This statement is both stunning and exciting. It is true, of course, that those who have kept a close eye on the trajectory of the Catholic Church since Vatican II may not be surprised, as is even evident in the aforementioned From Conflict to Communion [full text here]:

28. In light of the renewal of Catholic theology evident in the Second Vatican Council, Catholics today can appreciate Martin Luther’s reforming concerns and regard them with more openness than seemed possible earlier.

29. Implicit rapprochement with Luther’s concerns has led to a new evaluation of his catholicity, which took place in the context of recognizing that his intention was to reform, not to divide, the church. This is evident in the statements of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands and Pope John Paul II.(7) The rediscovery of these two central characteristics of his person and theology led to a new ecumenical understanding of Luther as a “witness to the gospel.”

Although post-Vatican II Catholicism seems to have been primed for a recognition of Luther as a witness to the gospel, this is without doubt a stunning development when considered from the perspective of the 450 years or so of preceding history. Who could have imagined, after the harsh polemic and vitriol of the 16th century, that the Church which excommunicated and anathematized Luther would laud him as a witness to the gospel nearly a half-millennium later? What can account for this change? It is obviously not because Luther finally recanted! No, it can only mean that something has indeed changed in the Catholic Church itself, a change that, however small, is finally permitting the voice of Luther’s witness to the gospel to be heard on the other side of the Tiber.

To this I can only exclaim “Praise God!” It is undeniable that problems and differences, some of which are staggering in significance and scope, still remain between Catholics and Protestants. Yet as Jesus indicated in his parables, the gospel of the kingdom that will one day fill the whole earth starts, like a seed, with such small beginnings. We should not, as the prophet Zechariah admonished Israel, “despise the day of small things” (4:10), for it is in the small things that God demonstrates the greatness of his power.

As exciting as it is to read an official Catholic document that acknowledges Martin Luther to be a witness of the gospel to whom Catholics today can listen, I believe that it is premature to declare the Reformation to be over on its 500th anniversary. From the perspective of historic Protestantism, much reforming work still needs to be done in order to fully align the Western Church under the banner of Luther’s call to sola gratiasola fide, and solus Christus.

I do not want to sound naive or idealistic, nor do I want to exaggerate what has occurred, but I do want to give full credence to the power of the gospel on which Luther staked his entire life’s work. Who is to say that this day of small things — the Catholic Church’s recognition that Luther is a true “witness to the gospel” — does not mark the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the one Church of Jesus Christ? I, for one, am certainly praying that it is. Only time will tell.

The challenge for many Catholics, however, will be to heed the example and teaching of the Church — whose authority they claim to uphold — by laying down their rhetorical weapons and starting to actually listen to Luther rather than brandishing him as a heretic and schismatic without further adieu. The question that remains in my mind is this: will such Catholics persist in following the example of Charles V at the Diet of Worms in regarding Luther as “a notorious heretic”, or will they be willing to listen to him, indeed as their own Church encourages them to do, as “a witness to the gospel”? My hope and prayer is that they (along with Protestants as well!) will lend an attentive ear to words which preface their own Church’s From Conflict to Communion:

In 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The gospel should be celebrated and communicated to the people of our time so that the world may believe that God gives Godself to human beings and calls us into communion with Godself and God’s church. Herein lies the basis for our joy in our common faith.

To this joy also belongs a discerning, self-critical look at ourselves, not only in our history, but also today. We Christians have certainly not always been faithful to the gospel; all too often we have conformed ourselves to the thought and behavioral patterns of the surrounding world. Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.

Both as individuals and as a community of believers, we all constantly require repentance and reform—encouraged and led by the Holy Spirit. “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Thus reads the opening statement of Luther’s 95 Theses from 1517, which triggered the Reformation movement.

Although this thesis is anything but self-evident today, we Lutheran and Catholic Christians want to take it seriously by directing our critical glance first at ourselves and not at each other. We take as our guiding rule the doctrine of justification, which expresses the message of the gospel and therefore “constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ” (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).

An Ocean of Love Unspeakable: Martin Luther’s Rediscovery of Christ’s Centrality (Reformission Monday)

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It is Martin Luther week here at Reformissio! Last week I had the privilege (and fulfillment of a long-time desire) to visit Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther and the birthplace of the Reformation. Living in Europe has its perks, one of which is the possibility of visiting many significant historical sites. As an avid student of Reformation history, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store as I walked the streets of Wittenberg and envisioned the earth-shaking events that took place there five hundred years ago. I will have more to say about my visit later this week, but the purpose of this post (and those that will follow) is not to provide a travelogue but to examine some of the aspects of Luther’s reforming work that continue to challenge and inspire.

Since this is “Reformission Monday”, it seems opportune to pinpoint what was perhaps the driving force behind Luther’s efforts. We will remember that “reformission” is a shorthand way of referring to “mission as reformation”. Reformission is the form that obedience to the Great Commission takes in contexts where the name of Jesus Christ has once held prominence but has since lapsed into obscurity. In places where the church of Jesus Christ has either ceased to exist or continues to exist only as an empty shell, the need for reformission arises. As I wrote in a previous post on Martin Luther, it is when the church no longer bows its knee in humble submission and confesses with its tongue that Jesus is Lord that reformissionaries are needed to call it back to its first love. This is what Luther, for all his faults and failures, sought to do.

Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh helps us to understand Luther’s work in these terms when he writes:

It is not too much to say that with the Reformation, and especially with Luther, there came into the world a deeper understanding of the person of Christ than had prevailed since the apostolic age…. This was due to religious interest being now simply concentrated on Christ, and no longer dispersed vainly over a multitude of mediators and spiritual exercises. What emerges in consequence is a distinctive type of Christian piety. The Gospel is in the historic Saviour, and it is all there. Theology and Christology are no longer independent aspects of doctrine; they coincide. The Reformers, writes Dr. Lindsay, “knew no other God than the God who had manifested Himself in the historical Christ, and made us see in the miracle of faith that He is our salvation.”

Luther’s system of belief, if system it may be called, rests on and revolves round the person of Jesus Christ. To him faith in God and faith in Christ are one and the same thing. “I have no God,” he exclaims, “whether in heaven or in earth, and I know of none, outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary. For elsewhere God is utterly incomprehensible, but comprehensible in the flesh of Christ alone.” And again: ” Wilt thou go surely and meet and grasp God rightly, so finding grace and help in Him, be not persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ. Let thine art and study begin with Christ, and there let it stay and cling.” Hence the problems of the Trinity and the two natures ceased to be mere enigmas of speculative dialectic, providing the theologia gloriae, as Luther called it, with a field for keen intellectual play; at every point they remained in living touch with religion. Christ is for sinners the one mark on which saving trust must fix; elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.

It was among the rare excellences of Luther’s Christology that he fastened an indissoluble bond, as St. Paul had done, between the person of the Redeemer and His redeeming work. Any view of Christ, therefore, which may be developed in abstraction from what He actually did for men, in His life, death, and resurrection, is but a formal and delusive play of words. To start not from metaphysical presuppositions as to what Godhead and manhood are, and the possibility of uniting them, but from Jesus’ cross and victory and the working of His Spirit in the heart—this is the only true way. These two, the person and the office, are an organic unity, neither being intelligible apart from the other. Both are asserted when faith says “our Lord.” As the work is eternal, so must the person be. On the other hand, none but such a person could have accomplished a work so great. Therefore even in contemplating the passion we ought “mostly to consider the person, and study well quis, qualis, et quantus Christ is….”

Luther is quite conscious of a difference in accent separating him here from the scholastics and even from many of the Fathers; it is indeed his complaint against the Roman Church, that she never dreamt we ought to learn to recognise God in Christ. Too often the Fathers fled from the manhood of Christ to the Godhead, pleading that the flesh profiteth nothing. Whereas the fact is that except as man Christ could never have redeemed us by His cross and triumph. Sinners are guilty; hence none but the proper and true God could “purge sin, destroy death, remove the curse,” and only in flesh could even God Himself do it. Thus it is impossible to draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human. The mere juxtaposition of Godhead and manhood, as Luther never tires of repeating, is of no avail; we must have the Son of God fused and inwoven with humanity, and one person therewith. If Christ were not God, there were no God at all, but in Him God has entered into a bond with sinners closer even than a brother….

It is indeed the fact that acceptance of the deity of Christ had ceased, for Luther, to be a doctrinal preliminary of saving faith; but this is so because Christ, so far from counting for less in personal religion, now counts for infinitely more, and stands in the very centre of the religious experience itself. Belief in His Godhead, in other words, is no mere theoretic approach or avenue to faith; it was a living constituent in faith, to be afterwards analysed out and made explicit by the theologian. Here in Christ, Luther cries, I have the Father’s heart and will, coming forth in love for my salvation; and the heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus. We must not make “a Christ apart by Himself and a God apart by Himself,” but reckon the two all one.[1]

In contrast with medieval scholasticism’s “theology of glory” which sought to gain access to God through the power of human reason, Martin Luther was adamant, like the apostle Paul, that no one can ascend into heaven to reach God, save the only One who has descended from heaven to us in human flesh as the Word of God come near, Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:6-8). It is the “righteousness of the law”, i.e. the theology of glory, by which human beings presume to be able to discover and know God through their own innate capacities. However, only the “righteousness of faith”, i.e. the theology of the cross, is that by which such knowledge of God is truly possible inasmuch as it is the way in which God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. To seek God anywhere else, “whether in matthiasgrunewald_thecrucifixion-detail3heaven or in earth … outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary”, is a rebellious affront to God and a black abyss that will only end in despair and death. Only the God revealed in Jesus Christ (excluding, in Luther’s day and in ours, a God revealed through other mediators, ecclesial or otherwise) is God as he actually is and as he actually relates to us in infinte grace and love. As Mackintosh beautifully put it, “elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.”

Ultimately, the only hope for a lost and dying world, or for a feeble and failing church, is Jesus Christ alone. As Luther would have argued, not even the best efforts of someone like himself would suffice for remedying the sinner’s plight. Only the God scandalously clad in human flesh and crucified on a Roman cross has the power to reconcile and redeem. Despite its folly in the estimation of the world (and of the church that has lost its center), the good news of the gospel is precisely this: we need not, nor can we, go behind the back of Jesus Christ to find another God or Savior or Lord. As irreverent as it may sound, we cannot “draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human.” Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us”, the one who has descended in order to lift us by his Spirit to his Father. Not by looking to anyone or anything else will we find all that we need. Christ alone. Solus Christus.

This is why for Luther, as for us today, the “heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus”. This is far more common that we may think. How often do we tend to think of God in abstraction from Jesus Christ, perhaps as the sum total of a series of attributes derived simply by intensifying or negating the qualities that we ourselves possess? Certainly a God conceived in such a manner cannot be the God who stoops down in grace to reveal himself and reconcile us, for such a God is ultimately a magnification of who we ourselves are. Is there any salvation in such a humanly-devised God? By no means. This is why Luther struggled so mightily, even at great personal cost, to bring reformation to the church that had lost sight of the God revealed in Christ crucified for the God construed along the lines of human aspirations. Insofar as this continues to happen today, reformissionaries such as Luther are still desperately needed in the church.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Who will go? Will you?

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.230-232, 235.

Forgotten in the Dust: Martin Luther, Scripture, and the Insignificance of Theological Writing (Reformission Monday)

This past Friday I had the privilege and opportunity to debate Don Ermis Segatti, an eminent Catholic priest and professor of theology, on the topic of Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation. Although both of our presentations were well received by those in attendance, it was clear that we had both prepared quite differently. Don Ermis spent most of his time addressing the various religious, cultural, historical, and political factors that contributed to turning Luther into the Reformer that we remember. I, on the other hand, endeavoured to spend less time speaking about Luther himself and more time on that which, I am convinced, Luther himself would have wanted: Holy Scripture. Luther, in fact, expressed concern later in his life about the tremendous reception that his writings had received. I find this fascinating. Wouldn’t most people be thrilled if their works were published, let alone achieve the far-reaching influence that Luther’s did? I know I would be!

However, as had happened to many books written in the history of the church, Luther feared that his own works would be disseminated, read, and studied more than the Bible, the very thing to which his works intended to point people. How tragic, Luther believed, would it be for his (or anyone else’s!) writings about Scripture to supplant Scripture itself as the primary school of Christian instruction and discipleship! Thus, in the preface to the 1539 edition of his collected works, Luther wrote:

I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides the Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up, without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is 0000001655Lprecious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah)

Although it has been profitable and necessary that the writings of some church fathers and councils have remained, as witnesses and histories, nevertheless I think, “Est modus in rebus,” and we need not regret that the books of many fathers and councils have, by God’s grace, disappeared. If they had all remained in existence, no room would be left for anything but books; and yet all of them together would not have improved on what one finds in the Holy Scriptures.

It was also our intention and hope, when we ourselves began to translate the Bible into German, that there should be less writing, and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30], in order that each person may drink of the fresh spring himself, as all those fathers who wanted to accomplish something good had to do.

Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done. (We must, of course, also have the Holy Spirit, faith, godly speech, and works, if we are to be saved.) Therefore it behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professor’s lectern, while we, down below at their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.[1]

I am profoundly convicted by these words. How often I (and I’m sure many like me) spend more time reading books about the Bible than reading the Bible itself! How often I tend to overestimate the importance of my own teaching, preaching, and writing in comparison to the inestimable worth and power of Scripture! Would that all of us who are in some way involved in speaking or writing about the Word of God have the same humility as Luther did in relation to his own, far more insignificant words. Luther well knew, as he himself testified, that he had done nothing to spark the Reformation, for the Word had done everything. He would simply drink Wittenberg beer with his friends while the Word was busy toppling kingdoms! Thus, rather than posing any risk to the supremacy of Scripture, Luther hoped that his own works would eventually fall into obscurity. Luther preferred to be forgotten so that the Word of God would not be. Had we the kind of literary output and influence of which Luther could have boasted, how many of us would say the same?

This is the passion of a true reformissionary: the Word of God must increase while my own words must decrease. If all that we say and write does not ultimately lead people to look away from all that we say and write and give ear above all else to Scripture alone, then we have failed in our mission. Jesus did not send us out into the world to make disciples by teaching all the things that we command! Christian mission is witness to Christ and his Word, not to us and our own theological prowess. Of the writing of books there is no end, but only the Word of our God will stand forever.

The famous exhortation of Count Zinzendorf is an appropriate conclusion to this matter: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Even so, amen.

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), pp.39-40.