Monday, August 16, 2010

The Forgotten 97 Theses

W. Robert Godfrey, Insights Into Luther, Calvin, and the Confessions: Reformation Sketches, pp. 35-38:

The year 1992 was the 475th anniversary of Luther's nailing of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. The posting of those theses on October 31, 1517, is usually looked to as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther's attack on aspects of the sale of indulgences captured the attention of many people -- common and noble -- who were tired of the greed and corruption in the church of their day. Through the 95 Theses Luther became a public figure and the leader of the Reformation.

The 95 Theses, however, were not the only theses that Luther wrote in 1517. In September of that year Luther wrote 97 theses that are largely forgotten but are known to historians as the Disputations Against Scholastic Theology. These 97 theses are much more interesting and important from a theological point of view than the 95 Theses.

In his 97 theses Luther shows how critical he had become of central aspects of medieval theology and how he had become convinced that the church needed more of Augustine's theology and less of Aristotle's.

Luther's first thesis must have stunned many who heard it: "To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere." Augustine's teaching on sin, grace, and predestination was so clear and uncompromising and Augustine's authority as a theologian was so great that the only way that medieval theologians could disagree with him was to declare that he had exaggerated some of his teachings in confronting heretics. This softening of Augustine had been widely accepted in the Middle Ages. For Luther to attack this approach was remarkable.

This attack reflected the extent to which Luther's theology had become Augustinian. As we read on in the theses, we see Luther's specific concerns to maintain the pure Augustinian heritage. His first concern was with the nature of the will in fallen people. Luther stresses that the human will is in bondage to a corrupt nature and can do only evil. "4. It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil." The desperate condition of man is summarized: "17. Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God."

Luther stresses that only grace can rescue humanity from its fallen condition. Man can do nothing to prepare himself for grace. Only God's electing love can prepare man for grace. "29. The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God." Luther had recovered from Augustine not only the biblical picture of man's lost-ness but also the biblical truth of predestination as the source of redemption. Man cannot merit grace. All goodness comes from God: "40. We do not become righteous by righteous deeds, but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds."

Luther sees Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, as the prime destructive influence that undermined Augustinian theology in the Middle Ages. "50. Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light." Luther attacks the method of Aristotle as relying too much on reason....But even more he attacks the impact of Aristotle on the content of theology. From Aristotle flowed ideas about the goodness of man, the ability of his will to choose the good, about freedom and merit.

Goodness and freedom were key theological concepts in the medieval church. The Reformation began when Christians like Martin Luther came to see the goodness and freedom of man as teaching opposed to biblical religion.

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