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.