Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Luther’s Theology Developed Within Disputes

Given that interest in the Reformation is likely to build as we near the 500th anniversary of the beginning of that event, I wanted to talk about Martin Luther’s personal development. Of course, that needs to be talked about in the historical context, and in the context of the historical doctrines as they existed at the time.

As I have noted, Luther was likely one of the most gifted theologians of his time:
We are so accustomed to think of the young Luther as a melancholy monk preoccupied with his own salvation that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that he was the age's most brilliant theologian. He led the revolution against Rome and traditional religion not as a visionary spiritual reformer, but as a skilled doctor of theology (Steven Ozment, "The Age of Reform, 1250-1550" New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980, 231).


Bernhard Lohse, in his work “Martin Luther’s Theology,” (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, translated and edited by Roy A. Harrisville, 1999) traces this “personal development” in the early chapters.

While noting that there have been other, and diverse descriptions of Luther’s theology, he emphasizes that “Clearly, Luther held fast to the conciliar decisions of the ancient church. He affirmed them not only in a formal sense but also with respect to their content” (6). He notes that Trinitarian and Christological questions were in the background. On the other hand, Lohse says that “further development, précising, clarifying, and defining can often be clearly observed in Luther’s work, and that such clarifications almost always came in the context of his polemical disputes:
To a great extent, then, Luther set forth his theology within specific disputes. He was scarcely ever able to outline or compose a treatise apart from the conflicts of the day. He regarded the critical testing of preaching and doctrine as a decisive task of his own theological labors. In describing Luther’s theology as a whole, one can scarcely overestimate the significance of this fact. Never had a theologian dealt so critically with other positions as did Luther in the sixteenth century. The Reformation first made clear that theology exercises a critical function for the church’s teaching and preaching. And in its own way, traditional theology was forced to adopt a position toward this altered situation and take its place in the daily battle of opinions.

It is not enough, however, to describe Luther’s theology within the context of various controversies. We need to be aware that he always developed his view from a standpoint that he had thoroughly thought through and systematically reflected upon. Although he submitted no dogmatics, he did publish a kind of dogmatics in outline, for example, in his Large Catechism of 1529. In writings such as On the Councils and the Church (1539), or in the strictly polemical treatise Against Hanswurst (1541), he more or less exhaustively treated specific points of doctrine. For a reading of Luther’s theology, one must thus attempt a systematic overall view. (9)

The Situation in the Church Around 1500
Before delving into the development of Luther’s theology of the Reformation, though, Lohse begins by describing the environment of that era. He says, “the indisputable decay of essential parts of the church was generally known and that impulses toward reform were not lacking.” For example, Council of Constance saw one of its objectives “to attend to the peace, exaltation and reform of the church,” and the Council of Basel in 1432 called for “the reformation of morals in head and members of the church of God.” The fifth Lateran Council (1512) also “discussed reform but accomplished little” (Tanner, “Councils of the Church,” New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999, pg. 74).

Theologically, Thomism was not popular at the time. “Where the late Middle Ages are concerned, we may speak in some sense of an Augustinian renaissance related to certain aspects of the doctrine of sin and grace. On topics pertaining to this doctrine, theologians such as Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1300-1358) were adherents of Augustine” (13). But during that time as well, “no one could avoid the problems concerning the doctrine of God and the order of salvation resulting from Occam’s distinction between God’s “absolute omnipotence” and his “ordered omnipotence” (13).

This had the practical effect of bringing into view the doctrine of “imputation.” That is, in an older Augustinian view, original sin was inherited in “biological terms.” But for Occam (ca. 1285-1349), there was “the idea that God imputed the sin of the first human to all subsequent generations equally: by virtue of that first offense God willed that humans should not be accepted by him” (19). “Rather, a divine decision of will that is not to be puzzled out lies behind humanity’s fate of sin and guilt” (20).

“Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495), the noted Tubingen professor of theology, adopted Occam’s interpretations but linked them to traditional views. Regarding the doctrine of original sin or sin as such, Biel attached to Occam’s ideas the ancient interpretation of the significance of desire in the transmission of original sin. What was taught at [Luther’s] Erfurt on this question as well was not the ‘real’ Occam but an Occam adjusted to the tradition through Biel’s interpretation. Yet even at Erfurt with its Occamism there were sufficient points at which the perilous explosive force of Occamist theology could do its work.”

Lohse notes that “during this time, “there was greater variety in theology than ever before.” And this is before we speak of the emerging humanism.

20 comments:

Tim Enloe said...

David Bagchi's Luther's Earliest Opponents chronicles in detail how Luther's early works were shaped by the extremists he faced on the papalist side. "Extremists" is not a mere word of abuse, either. These were men who turned propositions of theology which were entirely debatable in the context of that day into unquestionable dogmas, and so vehemently attacked Luther as a "heretic" before any formal examination of the controverted views was even done. This is a very important book for those interested in historical accuracy about the genesis of Luther's polemics, and his supposed "autonomous" arrogation of authority to himself.

John Bugay said...

Tim, are you familiar with Lohse's work?

Tim Enloe said...

I'm not familiar with Lohse, no.

Tim Enloe said...

By the way, the "best" response I've seen from Catholic apologists to the simple fact that Late Medieval theology was a welter of conflicting opinions about all kinds of matters is "So what? The Magisterium figured it all out later, and that's all that matters." Not only do they tend to judge the legitimacy of their own theology anachronistically, but that of others as well. Even though various matters had not been dogmatized when Luther started questioning them, he was somehow still an autonomous rebel super-pope maverick theologian for daring to question them.

When this anachronistic attitude toward historical interpretation is combined with a simple refusal to admit the corollary of authority, namely, responsibility, such that papal authority entails responsibility for the consequences (especially division), the result is an "apologetic" that is a bunch of handwaving, excuse-making, and retreating from reality into a tidy little world of their own making, where everything always counts for Catholicism and nothing ever counts against it.

John Bugay said...

I realize that this "time period" seems to have less of an appeal to Reformed believers than the early church, but I do think it is vitally important, at several levels, to continually tie the theology back to Luther and Calvin. Tim, that's why I thought it was important to bring up Occam's look at "imputation". That is language that puts this into perspective for a lot of folks. As I work through this, I am going to try very hard to keep the language consistent.

As for the "Catholic apologists," I'm not even writing for them any more. I'm simply writing for people who want to understand.

Tim Enloe said...

Yes, the Medieval period should be just as important to Protestants as the Patristic age. When we learn that Luther called Ockham "magister meus" (my teacher), and that he read with great profit Wessel Gansfort, Pierre D'Ailly, and Jean Gerson (the latter two being big figures at the Council of Constance), we ought to be interested in this period. It formed our Reformers, and so it ought to be considered of value to us. Luther's "here I stand" speech, in which he disavows councils, needs to be put in the context of the post-Council of Basel resurgence of papalism, in which the papacy reversed the earlier gains of the conciliarists and began using church councils as mere pawns for their political pretensions.

Also, Luther says somewhere that the papacy really started to go wrong 500 years before his time, which means we ought to take an active interest in the 11th century, too. There is tons of highly interesting material from this period, especially numerous bishops joining with the emperors to fight Pope Gregory VII, whom they claimed was a "dangerous man" and a "false monk" elevating himself to unheard of heights of power and foisting doctrinal novelties upon the church.

The 11th century dispute then takes us back into the 9th, when Hincmar of Rheims argued with Pope Nicholas I about what the difference between "Petrine" power and the power of the church, and that in turn takes us back into the Patristic age, when multiple conceptions of authority vied with each other for supremacy in Christian thought.

Bottom line: we have a LOT more going for us as Protestants than just Gottschalk, the Waldensians, Wycliffe, and Huss.

natamllc said...

John,

I know you are well aware of the point I am going to make. I want to make it to reiterate the broadest scope of Biblical reformation in human history so as to point to a more obvious framework for the term and for the energy that goes into threads like this one when one is producing historical rhetoric in writing about the Sixteenth Century Reformation.

I believe it was Dr. James White that I was listening to recently who made a synonymous expression for the term Reformation. He said it was a period of "rediscovery". Rediscovery means we are coming back into a Biblical understanding of Godly reformation. It is that period of time written about that encompasses that period of time in history before 1517 and Luther producing his 95 thesis and afterwards throughout history following that narrow historical period of time of the "great" reformers, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Beza and others. These men rose up and were counted as participants of those rediscovering the only True Reformation of God that was lost by the practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

I would note the first time any such Biblical reformation was discussed in human history. It was written about historically by Moses, here:

Gen 3:14 The LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
Gen 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."
Gen 3:16 To the woman he said, "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."


Fast forward to the First Century A.D. and consider these writings too:

Heb 9:8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing
Heb 9:9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper,
Heb 9:10 but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
Heb 9:11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)
Heb 9:12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.


Also consider this truth of the power of the Gospel that the Apostle Paul writes about here:

... Col 1:5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,
Col 1:6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing--as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,
Col 1:7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf
Col 1:8 and has made known to us your love in the Spirit. ...


Now with those Words from Colossians I would make a special note of verses 5-6,. What was happening within Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other men of the Reformation period during the Sixteenth Century was happening in the First Century Church. Just as the Spirit was working through the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through the Prophets during the reign of the kings of Israel and through the Apostolic age to bring about more of the same "Biblical Reformation" it is the Spirit who is working today to bring about in our hearts and minds daily reformation!

David Waltz said...

Hello John,

You wrote:

>>As for the "Catholic apologists," I'm not even writing for them any more. I'm simply writing for people who want to understand.>>

Me: To understand, what? What you believe? What conservative (most, but certainly not all) Reformed folk believe? What Luther and/or Calvin believed? What the liberals you cite believe? I gather from your recent posts/writings that you are Reformed, and have not yet been able to move on beyond the Westminster Confession of Faith, which suggests that anyone who understands the Reformed faith understands your beliefs too. Anyway, maybe I have 'missed' something here; if so, perhaps you could clarify.


Grace and peace,

David

David Waltz said...

Hi Tim,

In one of your posts you mentioned an, "anachronistic attitude toward historical interpretation", and applied it "papal authority". I think the vast majority of faithful Catholics are 'guilty' of anachronisism when dealing with history and developed Catholic dogmas; however, I have found Protestant apologists just as 'guilty' when they attempt to find their developed dogmas in the early Church Fathers. IMHO, very few can free themselves from anachronisism when they read the CFs and the Bible.

Grace and peace,

David

Tim Enloe said...

David, perhaps that is true of some Protestant apologists. That is probably more likely the case with untrained laymen than with those who do scholarly work. Most Protestant scholars whose work I am familiar with try carefully to distinguish antecedents of the Reformation from the fully formed Reformation doctrines. While it is possible to incorrectly identify an antecedent, it is not necessarily anachronistic to attempt to do so.

The anachronism about "authority" of which I spoke in Catholic apologists is precisely centered on the term "authority" itself. They imagine that the word only means one thing, and more, that historically it only meant one thing - that one thing being something along the lines of "total submission of heart and mind to the bishop of Rome as the unique representation of Christ on earth." With this a priori (and quite demonstrably false from the records) premise in mind, they interpret all of Church history as a story of "obedient" people and "rebellious" people.

Unfortunately for them, history is not that simple. In the patristic age alone, it has been demonstrated by those who have substantial intellectual preparation to understand different eras of history and who do not use Wikipedia, convert stories, and outdated polemically-based secondary sources as their prime materials that there were at least four distinct conceptions of "authority" in terms of the Church and the Empire in the patristic age. The relations of ecclesiastical and secular politics are of prime importance for grasping what "authority" meant to Christians in any given age.

This multiplicity of views transferred into the Middle Ages and was developed in many fascinating ways - some of them distinctively papalist, others of them not. The Catholic anachronisms arise because, under the specious appeal to having a superior "faith" than that of other Christians, they gratuitously assume that the word "authority" only has one meaning, and from there they paint "Hanna-Barbera" like cartoons of Church history.

David Waltz said...

Good morning Tim,

Thanks much for you concise and cogent response. You wrote:

>>While it is possible to incorrectly identify an antecedent, it is not necessarily anachronistic to attempt to do so.>>

Me: Agreed.

>>In the patristic age alone, it has been demonstrated by those who have substantial intellectual preparation to understand different eras of history and who do not use Wikipedia, convert stories, and outdated polemically-based secondary sources as their prime materials that there were at least four distinct conceptions of "authority" in terms of the Church and the Empire in the patristic age. The relations of ecclesiastical and secular politics are of prime importance for grasping what "authority" meant to Christians in any given age.>>

Me: Without getting into the use of "outdated polemically-based secondary sources" when it comes to Protestant apologetics and the early Church Fathers, I would like to enquire into the "at least four distinct conceptions of 'authority' in terms of the Church and the Empire in the patristic age"; namely, the four you had in mind, and the how/why of "secular politics" and its relationship to church authority. I am aware of the trend in NT studies to identify at least two competing concepts of church authority within the pages of the NT itself, but see little, if any, reflection in the NT on "secular politics" as being significant in any terms in determining ecclesiastical authority; but, I am more than willing to see such matters in a different light, if there is solid evidence for such a correlation between the two.


Grace and peace,

David

Tim Enloe said...

David,

This could be a very interesting discussion, but as I have been writing a response, it seems to me that my response is not related to John's post and will just distract from whatever discussion he wanted to have with the post.

I am extremely busy at the moment, but if you are interested, I will try to put up a post on my blog later today or tomorrow that will allow this discussion to be had.

John Bugay said...

David -- I hope to answer your questions later today.

Tim -- I don't mind if you respond on "authority" here -- either via a link or a response.

Ben m said...

"We sometimes lose sight of the fact that [Luther] was the age's most brilliant theologian."

Afraid that's just wishful thinking, my dear friends! But then, I guess it depends on whom one consults. Consider this for example.

In any event, let us be mindful of these words of St. Augustine.

Peace.

Tim Enloe said...

John, it will have to be a link, as my response grew to 3 pages just considering the biblical data. This forumse is too limited for such length. I'll try to post the link tomorrow.

James Swan said...

Ben m said...Afraid that's just wishful thinking, my dear friends! But then, I guess it depends on whom one consults. Consider this for example.

Hi Ben- I admire Cardinal Cajetan and his intellect very much- so much so that I purchased this book. One thing in particular that proves Cajetan's keen intellect, he denied that the apocrypha (Dueterocanonicals) was canonical scripture, just like Luther.

If you'd like to buy my copy of this book, I'd be willing to sell it to you for $500.00 (that's $50 less than than the cheapest copy on Amazon- a real bargain!).

Ben m said...

Hey James!

One thing in particular that proves Cajetan's keen intellect, he denied that the apocrypha (Dueterocanonicals) was canonical scripture, just like Luther.

Well, nobody’s perfect! LOL.

If you'd like to buy my copy of this book, I'd be willing to sell it to you for $500.00 (that's $50 less than than the cheapest copy on Amazon- a real bargain!).

$500.00? Ouch! Tell ya what,make it $499.00 and ya got a deal! ;)

Later gator.

God bless.

David Waltz said...

Hello again Tim,

Yesterday you wrote:

>>This could be a very interesting discussion, but as I have been writing a response, it seems to me that my response is not related to John's post and will just distract from whatever discussion he wanted to have with the post.

I am extremely busy at the moment, but if you are interested, I will try to put up a post on my blog later today or tomorrow that will allow this discussion to be had.>>

Me: Yes, I am interested. Since you sound very busy, no hurry on this, but please let me know when you have put up the new thread on your blog:

AugustineH354@aol.com


Thanks much,

David

Tim Enloe said...

David,

I'm glad this came up, actually. I have had a post called "Biblical Considerations Concerning Obedience to Superiors" in my drafts for a long, long time now, but have never found the occasion to finish it. Most of my arguments in various places have simply assumed biblical categories and expected biblically literate people to "fill in the blanks," so to speak, in my prose. But in the meantime, I've been accused by both Protestants and Catholics of not caring about what Scripture says (the most colorfully fallacious version of this that I think the Bible can't be understood unless one first becomes an expert in Medieval history), so this will give me a chance to show that I do, in fact, operate well within the thought-world of Holy Scripture.

I was a bit overconfident about my ability to finish the post today, though. Prep work for my teaching job on top of my family moving this weekend has made that impossible. It will be sometime next week before I can get the post up. I'll e-mail you when it is. Thanks for your patience.

James Swan said...

Ben m said... Hey James!

Well Ben, what a pity. I finally had a moment to visit our little chit chat over on the CA forums, and I see they closed the thread and I can't post to it any longer.

I wasn't going to, but I guess I could make a post out of it.