Essential Luther - Lesson 3

Luther's View of Theology

Luther has an unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and a unique way of going about it. When discussing sin, Luther says that our problem is not just a moral lapse, but it's our spiritual presumption that is our greatest and worst of sins. Theology for Luther is our being grasped by the Word of God, not just a speculative academic pursuit.

Gordon Isaac
Essential Luther
Lesson 3
Watching Now
Luther's View of Theology

I. Luther's early career
II. Luther's is a theology that gets at the "meat of the nut."
    A. Study of theology in the Middle Ages was a combination of philosophy and theology.
    B. Luther in contrast to Augustine and Aquinas
    C. Luther began to develop his theology based on his comments on Scripture.
    D. Luther's increasing awareness of the presence of sin.
    E. Theology of glory
    F. Heidelberg disputation of 1518
    G. Theology of the cross vs. theology of glory.

  • The joy and promise of reading Luther. Luther has keen theological insights and expresses them using wit and lively word pictures. Luther's innovative thoughts are a result, not only of profound wrestling with theological ideas, but with Scripture itself. Luther uses polemic language, which was common in his time.

  • Some of the historical milestones that took place in the life of Martin Luther.

  • Luther has an unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and a unique way of going about it. When discussing sin, Luther says that our problem is not just a moral lapse, but it's our spiritual presumption that is our greatest and worst of sins. Theology for Luther is our being grasped by the Word of God, not just a speculative academic pursuit.

  • Justification by faith is the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity and is unique compared to other religions. It is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God. To Luther, it is more than just a doctrine, it is a death and a resurrection joining us to the living Christ. 

  • Luther presents his view of the atonement in the form and shape of the theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something new. Christ did not come to give us a new law. Christ came into the closed circle of law and death by being born under the law, then dying and being raised from the dead to redeem those who were under the law. We get what Jesus has to offer by going through the cross ourselves, not just accepting theories about the cross.

  • Luther's treatise on Christ's Passion was used by common people to focus their meditation on the significance of this period of Christ's ministry. Luther urges people to be sensitive to what the Spirit might speak to them as they pray through Scripture passages. Luther's writings are sprinkled with short dialogues that help us deal with everyday matters according to the gospel.

Martin Luther used wit and lively word pictures to communicate his keen theological insights. His innovative thoughts are a result of his wrestling with Scripture as well as thoughtfully considering current theological teachings.

Essential Luther

Dr. Gordon Isaac


Luther's View of Theology

Lesson Transcript


Thank you for clicking on the essential Luther. In this third session, what I'd like to do is take a look at Luther's view of theology. One of the places that I find Luther absolutely fascinating is his unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and how to go about that. So what I'd like to do is take a few moments in order to describe something of that to you. And what we need to do is we need to start out early on in Luther's career. We've already discovered that. And his road to reformation. Luther's experience as an Augustinian friar led him into an intensive academic program where he studied scripture, where he studied philosophy. He read Peter Lombard and the sentences, which was the standard theological textbook of the Middle Ages. And he also, early on in his career, began to read Augustine. And it was as he came into contact with Augustine that his theological point of view really began to mature and to change dramatically, particularly in his reaction and response to his surrounding theological environment. Luther's is a theology that gets at the meat of the nut. In March 1759, he wrote to his friend the Eisenach priest, Yohannes Brown. He said from the outset, I would most rather have exchanged philosophy for theology. I mean, for a theology that gets at the meat of the not at the kernel of the corn or the marrow of the bones. But God is God. Man is often, in fact, is always fallible in judgment. This is our God. He will always lead us in kindness from the outset. So Luther's concern was to get at the meat of the knot. He was quite frustrated in his early training because he had spent a great deal of time studying theology.


And this was something that really concerned him a great deal. The study of theology in the Middle Ages in many ways had been the exercise of bringing together philosophy and theology. According to Augustine, a faith was that which was added to what was already good in human nature to make up the deficit that sin had created. So there was a combination then of human reason, human ability, plus faith in order to achieve the mature Christian insight. What this meant is that from the point of view of many of the medieval theologians, a great deal about God could be determined by using human reason, looking out upon the world. This theological task then was one in which human reason was used in confidence and adding to that, adding insights from Scripture, one then could get the complete picture. So when you come to the theology, for example, as in Thomas Aquinas, he will maintain that it is actually not possible to understand everything there is to know about God. Without without revelation, one needs revelation. But the whole system that Saint Thomas Aquinas sets out is really a combination of biblical truth with philosophical insight drawn from Aristotle. He takes Aristotle and redefines him over and against how some of the Islamic interpreters of Aristotle had taken him during the high Middle Ages. And so Saint Thomas Aquinas establishes, as one Catholic theologian, has described, a great cathedral in the sky. His theological inquiry was the development of a system of Christian thought, which was beautiful in its symmetry, bringing together the best of both philosophy and theology in a harmonious synthesis. What we find in Luther is something very, very different. Luther was not satisfied by a theology in which philosophy still represented the dominant element.


A theology overgrown with philosophy such as was to be found in systematic scholastic theology at least, and in some respects in its most extreme form in late scholastic theology. This statement of Luther's the fact that theology is not philosophy and philosophy is not theology, is a statement that sounds the basic note that can be heard throughout Luther's subsequent work, and which he formulated a few later, a few years later, in a lecture on the Epistle to the Romans. He said this I certainly believe that I owe it as a matter of obedience to the Lord, to Bach. Against philosophy and to speak words of encouragement to the holy Scripture for if perhaps another word to do this, who was not acquainted with philosophy from his own observation, he would not have the courage to do so or would not have commanded belief. But I have worn myself out for years at this and can see quite clearly from my experience and from conversations with others that it is a vain and ruinous study. Therefore, I admonish you all so far as I am able to be done with this form of study quickly and to make it your sole business not to allow these matters to carry any weight, nor defend them, but rather to do as we do when we learn evil skills in order to render them harmless and obtain knowledge of errors in order to overcome them. Let us do the same with philosophy in order to reject it, or at least to make ourselves familiar with the mode of speech of those with whom we have to deal for. It is time for us to devote ourselves to other studies and to learn Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Now, Luther was not anti intellectual.


He has been accused of this in some quarters. Luther praised the human mind and he praised the ability that humans have to do all kinds of different inquiries. He was amazed at some of the advances that were being made in medicine during his time, and he was really very appreciative of mathematicians and their ability to chart things that were of great importance to engineering and other kinds of studies. He was also in praise of such things as music and other kinds of inquiries that the human mind could ferret out. So Luther is not anti-intellectual. What he's trying to do is set the parameters for what is true theology and what is true philosophy. Philosophy has a way of describing things that is reserved for that particular discipline. Theology is a separate discipline, and he wanted to keep those two quite distinct. Notice the last phrase in this quotation I just gave to you. He says that he wants to learn Jesus Christ and him crucified. It's an interesting way of putting the project, isn't it? To learn Christ and him crucified. Of course, we should learn little of Luther's meaning and should certainly misunderstand him. If we look no further than this general affirmation of an antithesis between theology and philosophy. Luther considered himself entitled to adopt such an attitude because he had made a thorough study of philosophy. We, in our turn, ought not to suppose that we can understand his statement on the subject without knowing their historical background. We need to understand, then, that in Luther's time frame philosophy was undertaken first and then theology was added to it. What Luther wants to do, he wants to understand theology from the point of view of Scripture. It was said during his own time that one cannot be a theologian apart from Aristotle.


Luther makes a sharp, contrary statement saying that one cannot be a theologian if one begins with Aristotle. For Aristotle is not a friend of true theology. Luther began to develop his theology on the basis of his comments on Scripture. The pilgrimage back to Scripture is really the place where we need to begin to understand Luther's presentation of the task of theology. In the first Psalms Lecture. Luther statements about sin are clearly more and more radical. Then, in his marginalia notes of 1509 and 1510 Luther, as he is coming into contact with Scripture, is gaining a deeper understanding of the nature of sin and the response, the necessary response to it. Sin and grace then become the important matters that he takes up in his theological exposition. Luther is interested in setting forward a theology that really is based on the text of Scripture, and he is at work to do that. Now, one of the things that it may be helpful for us to do is to talk about Luther's increasing awareness of the nature of sin and its place in one of his early lectures. Luther makes this statement Crookes Sola est Nostra theology. The cross alone is our theology. Now it must be said that the cross in the first instance is God's attack on human sin. Of course, in the second instance. And finally, it is also salvation from sin. But we missed the bite of it. If we do not see that first off, it is an attack on sin. It's a strange attack to suffer and to die at our hands. God's alien work called it as an attack. It reveals that the real seed of sin is not in the flesh, but in our spiritual aspirations or in our theology of glory.


And one of the very potent ways in which Luther describes his approach to theology is this opposition between what he calls a theology of glory and what he calls a theology of the cross. And here at heart, what he is saying is that it's not simply a moral lapse, which is our problem, but it is really our spiritual presumption, which is the greatest in the greatest and worst of sins. It might be precisely our religious aspirations, which are at heart really something that we use in order to keep God off at arm's length. Luther saw a theology of glory as being a particularly pernicious way of trying to handle God in His reality. The Theology of Glory. I think the term itself actually comes out of Luther's monastic context. There were many monks who, in their spiritual exercises would attempt to do their prayers and finally would come to the end of their words. Words no longer could convey their ardent desire for God. And so into the cloud of unknowing, they would go in a place where there no words were capable of expressing their great desire for God. And so in this cloud of unknowing, in this realm, where it is speechless, silence that a negative theology would take place. And it's precisely what one couldn't say about God that would help to fill the monk's mind with the true presence of God. And they would wait for the enlightenment of God to perceive God not as He is here on Earth, but as he is in heaven, in himself, in his essential being. And so Luther used to talk about these monks who attempted to find God as he is in heaven, climbing a ladder into heaven, as it were, in an attempt to escape this world.


And he saw that as a theology of glory, of trying to perceive God as He is, not as he has revealed himself. And Luther, on the other hand, said, No, that's not the way to really understand God. One rather needs to take seriously the words of Saint Paul, as he describes it in First Corinthians chapter one, where he says 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 cleverness of the clever I will thwart. Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world for sense 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 man, and the weakness of God is stronger than man. Therefore, the theology of the cross is an offensive theology. The offense consists in the fact that unlike other theologies, it attacks what we usually consider the best in our religion. Theologians of the Christ do not worry so much about what is obviously bad in our religion, our bad works, as they do about the pretension that comes with our good works. So the theology of the cross can only be spoken of truly in contrast to all other types of theology to express this.


Luther made a fundamental distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. A theology of the Cross does not therefore present itself as one option among many. In fact, in spite of what seems to be an endless variety of religions and theologies, it would be safe to say from this perspective that there are at bottom only two types of theology glory, theology and cross theology. The theology of glory is a catchall for virtually all theologies and religions. The cross sets itself apart from and over against all of these. And that's precisely what Luther attempted to describe in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. It's in that event that Luther began to describe his theology for his own Augustinian order. Luther did this in an attempt to win people over to his side in understanding theology and its call upon the church. Luther puts it this way in the Heidelberg disputation, he says, the theologian of the cross, that is one who speaks of the crucified and hidden God, teaches that punishments, crosses and death are the most precious treasury of all and the most sacred relics which the Lord of this theology himself has consecrated and blessed, not alone by the touch of his most holy flesh, but also by the embrace of his exceedingly holy and divine will. And he has left these relics here to be kissed, sought after and embraced. Many make pilgrimages to Rome and other holy places to see the robe of Christ, the bones of the martyrs and the places and remains of the saints, which we certainly do not condemn. But we lament the fact that we do not at the same time recognize the true relics, namely the sufferings and crosses which are sanctified, the bones and relics of the martyrs, and made them worthy of such great veneration.


Luther, in this. Passage shows that he is still early on in his theology, but he is wrestling with this definition of what true theology is all about. Many students and younger theologians supported Luther's call for a return to biblical theology and to the early church fathers, especially to Augustine. But older theologians did not. Here's Professor Trent Fetter in Erfurt, disassociated himself from his former student, even though Luther had tried to persuade him to join the new theology. So as on April 25th, 1518 that Luther was invited to attend the plenary meeting of the Order of the Augustinian Order in Heidelberg and to prepare a set of theses on sin free will and grace. These theses were Luther's theological and philosophical farewell to Aristotle as the foundation of Christian doctrine. They also foreshadowed the thoroughly biblical foundation for what Luther called a theology of the Cross. He formulated it especially in theses 19 and 20. They read in the following way That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who perceives and understands the invisible nature of God through God's own works. Theses 20. But He deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends what is visible and world oriented in God through suffering and the cross. True theology does not concentrate on human efforts are virtues as godliness, wisdom and justice in order to please God. The recognition of these things does not make one worthy or wise. Luther's theology was an attempt to turn medieval theology on its head and to say, No, it's not a matter of doing satisfaction or pilgrimages or trying to gain merit, but rather we need to recognize God has already provided salvation in the person and work of Christ. The Declaration of Righteousness comes to us in Him because He has fulfilled the law.


We follow after Him and die to sin. And in that manner we enter into vital relationship. This movement of our being united with Christ in faith is the life of the Christian. And so this theology attempts to understand God not as He is in himself, up in heaven, beyond all seeing, beyond all knowing. But rather theology is the process by which we bring to voice again the word that saved us and the word by which God reveals himself in the person and work of Christ, and that centers in the cross. So we cannot think that we have a clear vision of who God is, apart from how He's revealed himself. In Jesus Christ, you remember that passage in John chapter 14. This is one of Luther's favorites. Philip is there with Jesus, and Jesus is talking about how he was going to go to the father. And Philip says, Well, show us the father. And Jesus responds to him saying, If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. You see, the point of Luther's Theology of the Cross is an anti speculative one. He's not interested in trying to find God as he is in our human imagination, or as we think God might exist beyond this world in his heaven somewhere. Rather, Luther is interested in seeing how God has revealed himself on the cross in sufferings and death. And a theologian of the cross is one who has taken up their position with Christ. Or that is to say Christ has grasped the theologian of the cross by bringing us to the point where we meet our crucifixion as well. Our notions of what God is are put to death. We are brought to nothing so that He can raise up the life of faith in us.


Now, it's interesting if we want to try to describe this, and one of the places that I found it most helpful, Gerhard Flaherty, in a little book entitled On Being a Theologian of the Cross Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, sets forward the theology of the Cross and the theology of glory in what I think is really in a quite an accessible way. He says that there are two stories the glory story and the cross story, and then he sets those out in a simple fashion for us. He says this The most common overarching story we tell about ourselves is what we call the glory story. We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed, whether by design or by accident. We don't quite know. But that's only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on the Glory road. The story is told in countless variations. Usually the subject of the story is the soul philosopher speak of the soul being trapped in the world of matter, decay and death through some cosmic misadventure on the part of either the gods or mortals. The basic scheme is what Paul Ricoeur has called the myth of the exiled soul. The soul is exiled from its home. Its slumbering has forgotten its way. Its true destiny is to return. The way of return is by knowledge, gnosis, the awakening of the soul to its immortal destiny, and consequently behavior appropriate to that destiny, which usually means a purging or a shucking off of the flesh and its lusts. But through all its variations, the scheme remains pretty much the same. The exile of the soul from the one and its return.


The glory story. The myth of the exiled soul is a powerful story. Even in a supposedly secular age, the myth continues to appeal to basic religious aspirations. The widespread belief in the transmigration of souls and reincarnation above new age religions and such bears witness to that. Indeed, so seductive has the exile soul myth been throughout history that the biblical story itself has been taken into captivity by it? The Biblical story of the fall has tended to become a variation on the theme of the exiled soul. The unbiblical notion of a fall is already a clue to that. Adam Originally, pure and soul, either by nature or by the added gift of grace, was tempted by baser lust and fell, losing grace and drawing all his progeny with him into a mass of perdition. Reparation must be made, grace restored and purging carried out. The cross, of course, can be quite neatly assimilated into the story as the reparation that makes the return possible. And there we have a tightly woven theology of glory. This fateful amalgamation of the glory story with the cross story is the hidden presupposition for the deadly combat between the theology of glory and the theology of the Cross. Indeed, one of the difficulties in the attempt to set the theology of the Cross apart from the theology of glory, is that the differences between the two are often very subtle. Obviously, they use much the same language in Christian theological circles, and one purpose of talking about the theology of the cross is the attempt to make these differences clearer. The theology of the cross arises out of the realization that it is simply disastrous to dissolve the cross in the story of glory. Jesus was crucified outside the camp, not in the temple, as the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us.


The Cross insists on being its own story. It does not allow us to stand by and watch. It does not ask us to probe endlessly for a meaning behind or above everything that would finally awaken, enlighten, and attract the exiled slumbering soul. The cross draws us into itself so that we become participants in the story. As Paul could put it in Galatians 220. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ, who lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh. I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Just as Jesus was crucified. So we also are crucified with him. The cross makes us part of its story. The cross becomes our story. And that is what it means to say, as Luther did. The cross alone is our theology. This is made quite radically explicit in Luther's little writing a meditation on Christ's passion. Luther there, as he is describing the passion, basically says this as we look on, and it was popular piety in that time to look on the Stations of the Cross and therefore have this meditation of Christ very real before our eyes, and thus to be changed by it. But he says, as we meditate on Christ passion properly, we need to recognize this. You must get this thought through your head and not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ. Thus for your sins have surely wrought this. Therefore, when you see the nails piercing Christ's hands, you can be certain that it is your work. When you behold his crown of thorns. You may rest assured that these are your evil thoughts, etc.. It's in this way that the cross becomes our story.


It presses itself upon us so that it becomes inescapable. It fights to displace the glory story. The cross, therefore, becomes the key to the biblical story and opens up new possibilities for appropriating or better being appropriated by the entire story. It is no wonder that crucial text for a theology of the cross over and against a theology of glory come from the Old Testament. Indeed, one might say that the so called Christological interpretation of the Old Testament over which so much scholarly ink has been spilled is in the end, nothing but the claim that the Old Testament is cruciform in its theology, and most certainly not a theology of glory. You see, what Luther is attempting to do is to cut off every retreat into a theology of speculation or abstraction. Theology for Luther is really the matter of our being grasped by the Word of God. Being pulled into it. You see, it's just not possible to be a true theologian of the Bible and to remain objectively removed from that theology. Theology is not simply an academic enterprise that we enter into saying, Well, these are five interesting propositions, aren't they? And then to discuss their various merits, no, being a theologian of the cross means to be grasped and pulled into the story of Jesus Christ, for we are bound together with Him through faith. Luther's theology of the Cross is a challenge to every theology of glory and every religious presumption that would lead us away from the living Christ and true faith. It's here. I think Luther's understanding of the task of theology where Luther is wonderfully refreshing and he needs to be recaptured by the evangelical community in which we live.