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Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518): Remembering Another Five-Hundredth Anniversary

Andy Wilson

The year 2017 marked the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517, an action that is traditionally regarded as the spark that started the Protestant Reformation. While this was indeed a historic moment, it is more accurate to say that Luther was brought to a comprehension of the issues that became fundamental for historic Protestantism over a period of time. As it turns out, the year 2018 is the five-hundredth anniversary of another set of theses produced by Luther, and they are more distinctively Protestant than the Ninety-Five Theses. It is good for us to seize the opportunity for reflection provided by such anniversaries, especially when we see some Protestants downplaying the doctrinal issues that were at the heart of the Reformation. For example, one prominent Reformed seminary celebrated the five-hundredth anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses by hosting an event in which Roman Catholic and Protestant speakers had a dialogue about how our traditions can give a more credible testimony to Christ by finding common ground and cooperating with each other instead of endlessly rehearsing the reasons why the Reformation took place.[1] It is troubling to see a seminary that is part of a confessionally Reformed denomination asserting that a more effective witness for Christ can be made by setting aside the issues that separate Protestants and Roman Catholics. Such instances underscore why it is so crucial for us to remember that the Reformation was a recovery of the biblical gospel. The fact that this was the case becomes patently clear when we consider the distinction that Luther expressed in the theses that were defended in April of 1518.

The Two Kinds of Theologians

As the Ninety-Five Theses were being disseminated throughout Europe, Luther was asked by his Augustinian monastic order to prepare a set of theses that outlined his developing theology so that it could be assessed by his fellow monks at the order’s regular chapter meeting in the city of Heidelberg on April 26, 1518. This set of theses is now known as the Heidelberg Disputation. Luther’s main concern in these theses was to address the question of how we can attain the righteousness that we need in order to stand before God. He begins by emphasizing that while God’s law is good, it is utterly incapable of advancing us toward salvation. As the first thesis puts it, “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.”[2] This does not mean that the law has no role to play in God’s saving plan. On the contrary, the law plays the vital role of exposing our sin and helplessness. As Paul says in Galatians, the law is the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, driving us to the point of despair over the insufficiency of our works (see Gal. 3:19–26). Unless this happens, we will never cast ourselves entirely upon Christ for salvation. In Luther’s words, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ” (thesis 18).[3]

Luther follows his discussion of the law in the Heidelberg Disputation by setting a contrast between two types of theologians: the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. It is important to understand that he is not using the term “theologian” in a professional or technical sense here. We can all be described as theologians because we all have thoughts about God and his ways. Moreover, in our fallen condition we are all by nature theologians of glory. The only way we can become theologians of the cross is by submitting to God’s revelation in the gospel. Even then, we still have to contend with the inner theologian of glory that continues to reside in our old nature.

Luther differentiates between these two kinds of theologians in this sequence of four theses:[4]

Thesis 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).

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

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

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

These statements are not easy to understand upon first reading, but they are at the heart of Luther’s protest against Rome. When we take the time to unpack these densely worded sentences, we find a wealth of theological insights.

The basic problem with the theologian of glory is that he thinks that he can figure out how God works apart from divine revelation. He thinks that he can rely on his reason to understand God. As two contemporary Lutheran theologians explain,

theologies of glory must write a new script for God on the basis of human observations about the world around them. Human reason must penetrate nature and history in order to perceive the invisible things of God. From these observations and experiences, human beings can draw universal conclusions about God, thereby putting human epistemology in charge of divine revelation.  But in the blindness of their minds they “exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:26).” They rewrite God’s job description! The new job description incorporates human performance into it . . . God becomes someone we can manage.[5]

The theologian of glory assumes that God operates in the same manner that the world operates. He thinks that the principle of reciprocity governs our relationship with God since it governs so much of life in this world. We naturally think that those who do good will be rewarded and those who do evil will be punished, and in a theology of glory we apply this principle to the way of salvation. While the theologian of glory usually acknowledges that no one can be perfectly good, he believes that God’s grace will make up the difference for those who do the best that they can. As one writer puts it, “the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power.”[6] A theologian of glory suffers from a false optimism, thinking that a little boost from God’s grace, combined with our own ingenuity and efforts, will enable us to accomplish great things. He expects God’s work to be manifested in things that are powerful, successful, and attractive in the estimation of the world. This is why Luther used the term “glory” to summarize this theologian’s overall perspective.

The theologian of the cross differs from the theologian of glory in that he looks to what God has revealed in his Word about how he carries out his saving purpose in the lives of the elect. The theologian of the cross understands that in the economy of salvation, outward appearances often look contrary to the true spiritual realities. Instead of conceiving of God in ways that conform to prevailing human attitudes about what is good and powerful and wise, the theologian of the cross submits to God’s revelation and believes that the weak and foolish message of the cross is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. This mindset is encapsulated in the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25: 

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 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.

The theologian of the cross interprets the world through what God says instead of through what man sees. This enables him to understand that God’s favor is not bestowed commensurately, or in response to our obedience. Instead, God’s favor is freely given to everyone who places his trust in Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel. In short, it is not the just whom God justifies, but the unjust. The theologian of the cross understands that the only way into the kingdom of God is to be born again, which entails death and resurrection through faith in the Christ who is publicly portrayed as crucified in the proclamation of the gospel. This is why Luther used the term “cross” to summarize this theologian’s overall perspective.

Near the end of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther shows how the distinction between the two kinds of theologians stands in correlation to the distinction between human love and divine love. While human love is generated in response to things that man deems to be lovely, God’s love is entirely generated from within himself. In Luther’s words, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it” (thesis 28).[7] Here is how Carl Trueman explains the meaning of Luther’s beautiful statement: 

God does not find that something is lovely and then move out in love toward it; something is made lovely by the fact that God first sets his love upon it. He does not look at sinful human beings and see among the mass of people some who are intrinsically more righteous or holy than others and thus find himself attracted to them. Rather, the lesson of the cross is that God chooses that which is unlovely and repulsive, unrighteous and with no redeeming quality, and lavishes his saving love in Christ upon it.[8]

Another writer explains Luther’s point this way: 

God’s love in Christ is a creative act that brings believers into being. When all our human possibilities have been exhausted and we have been reduced to nothing, the one who creates out of nothing does his “proper work.”[9]

Human love is reactive. We love certain people and certain things because we are attracted to them. There is something in those people or things that we find to be pleasing or lovely. But God does not love his elect because we are lovely. Instead, he makes us lovely by setting his love upon us. God calls those beloved who have no loveliness in themselves. He bestows his favor upon those who deserve nothing but judgment.

How the Theology of the Cross Permeates and Informs Protestant Doctrine

In distinguishing the theologian of the cross from the theologian of glory, Luther formulated a biblical concept that would come to permeate many different aspects of Protestant doctrine and practice. One of the most obvious of these is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which Protestants after Luther would describe as the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. This doctrine says that the basis of God’s acceptance of us is not any inherent righteousness that we possess in ourselves, or even any righteousness that God infuses in us. Instead, God only accepts as righteous those to whom the righteousness of Christ is imputed by faith alone. As Luther says in the Heidelberg Disputation, “He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ” (thesis 25).[10] This does not make sense to the theologian of glory, because it is not consistent with what he can see about how the world works. Instead, he agrees with these words from Aristotle:

Anything that we have to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.[11]

This observation makes sense to the mind of fallen man, but it is at odds with the Word of God when it says,

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. . . . Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Rom. 3:23–25; 4:4–5 ESV)

The Scriptures make it clear that if justification is based on anything that God sees in us, it cannot be described as a gift.

Another area of Protestant doctrine in which the theology of the cross is operative is sanctification, which deals with the personal righteousness that God works within those whom he redeems. While it is true that justifying faith produces the fruit of good works in a believer’s life (see Jas. 2:14–26), one of the pitfalls into which we can fall when we are thinking about sanctification is to make God’s continued or final acceptance of us contingent upon our obedience and godly living. This makes sense to the theologian of glory, because it is consistent with how things work in the world. The way to stay in a person’s favor is to keep on doing the things that please that person. But the problem with applying this principle to sanctification is that it overthrows the Word of God, making our sanctification the basis of our justification. The Scriptures declare that we can never make ourselves pleasing to God by anything that we do. As the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in (God’s) sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). This principle is just as true after conversion as it is before conversion, as Paul made clear in the string of rhetorical questions he directed to the Galatian Christians: “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2–3). Sin contaminates everything that we do, even after conversion. This means God will only accept our good works if he has first accepted us in Christ (see WCF 16.5–6). Robert Kolb and Charles Arand offer a helpful illustration of this when they write,

What makes a work good is not how well it is performed or the nature of the work. What makes it good in the eyes of God is that it is done because of a trust that acknowledges God as God and clings to him. When a mother declares her child’s finger painting to be priceless, she does so not on the basis of its intrinsic quality or because she had it appraised by experts. She praises it because of who painted it—her child! So it is with God regarding the works of a believer.[12]

In other words, the only people who can please God are those who are already at peace with God through Christ. Of course, it is true that the sins we commit as believers can bring us under God’s fatherly displeasure and subject us to his discipline (see WCF 11.5). However, if God has accepted us for Christ’s sake, then none of our failures or transgressions can cause us to lose our salvation. In the words of Edward Fisher,

for this is certain truth, that as no good either in you, or done by you, did move [God] to justify you, and give you eternal life, so no evil in you, or done by you, can move him to take it away from you, being once given.[13]

Furthermore, as Luther pointed out in his treatise On the Freedom of a Christian, we cannot even do good works until we are set free from trying to do them to secure or retain God’s favor. Those who do good works in hopes of putting God in their debt are acting out of self-interest, not out of love.

The theology of the cross also speaks to the question of what kind of ministry paradigm the church should employ. In many churches today, the paradigm often seems more reflective of the theology of glory than the theology of the cross. While there are numerous variations of the prevailing model, they can all be subsumed under the category of “culturally-shaped ministry.” In this paradigm, the church’s ministry and worship are shaped by a mostly positive engagement with culture and by an emphasis on core beliefs around which a sizable Christian consensus can be formed in hopes of having a significant cultural impact. The focus in this model tends to be upon human flourishing and cultural transformation, outcomes that are impressive to the human eye. By way of contrast, the theology of the cross finds expression in what can be described as “confessionally-shaped ministry.” In this paradigm, the church’s ministry and worship are shaped in a manner that reflects the structural integrity of its confessional standards and heritage. The focus in this model is on making mature, heavenly-minded disciples through clear instruction in the whole counsel of God and the diligent use of the ordinary means of grace. While this approach to ministry may seem unimpressive, inefficient, and irrelevant, it reflects a willingness to trust in the Lord to accomplish his purposes through the power of his Word. As Luther once noted while reflecting on how the Reformation had taken root in Germany: 

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, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.[14]

This Word-centered way of thinking stems from a conception of the Christian religion that is fundamentally dogmatic, a perspective that stands in sharp contrast to one that sees Christianity as essentially pragmatic.[15] When the church’s ministry is informed by the theology of the cross, the focus of ministry will remain upon “the open statement of the truth” (2 Cor. 4:2).

The theology of the cross brings a helpful perspective to many other areas of Protestant doctrine and practice. It tells us that the unity of the church is enigmatically manifested in those who profess the true religion rather than straightforwardly manifested in a purportedly infallible magisterium or in some kind of revived Christendom or in a religion that is so loosely defined that it tends towards universalism. The theology of the cross says that the Christian life is focused on faithfulness and self-denial in the ordinary aspects of life rather than on radical expressions of discipleship. The theology of the cross helps us to see that worship should be regulated by Scripture rather than by the desire to create an intense emotional, aesthetic, or culturally relevant experience. The theology of the cross teaches us to look to civil government as a preserver of order in this present evil age rather than an instrument for ushering in the age to come. And the theology of the cross calls us to persevere in humble, patient faith amid the afflictions that God ordains for us under the sun rather than expect uninterrupted material blessing in a world that has been subjected to futility.

Conclusion

It is a constant temptation for us to downplay the message of the cross, or at least take it for granted, so that we can focus on doing things that the world values and admires. The message of the cross can seem so negative and depressing. But that, Luther would have said, is exactly the point. The message of the cross will not let us forget the ruinous consequences of sin, or our inability to do anything to escape from our dreadful plight, or the terrible price that had to be paid to secure our redemption. Luther summed it up memorably in a statement that he jotted down two days before he died: “We are beggars! That is true.”[16] Not a glamorous or triumphant sentiment, to be sure. But it is true. And it is the perspective that we need to have if we are going to see the message of the cross as the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

Endnotes

[1] Melissa Morgan Kelley, “Protestant-Catholic Relations on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,” By Faith: The Online Magazine of the PCA, September 21, 2017, http://byfaithonline.com/protestant-catholic-relations-on-the-500th-anniversary-of-the-reformation/. The article describes a 2017 lecture series at Covenant Theological Seminary.

[2] Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 48.

[3] Lull, 49.

[4] Lull, 49.

[5] Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 81.

[6] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 16.

[7] Lull, 49.

[8] Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 67.

[9] Forde, 22.

[10] Lull, 49.

[11] Cited in Forde, 104–5.

[12] Kolb and Arand, 106.

[13] Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2009), 237.

[14] Cited in Trueman, 94–95.

[15] Carl Trueman makes this helpful distinction in his article, “If Only Francis Were Luther!” the website of First Things, May 21, 2018, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2018/05/if-only-francis-were-luther.

[16] Martin Marty, Martin Luther: A Life, (New York: Penguin, 2004), 185.

Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, October 2018.

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