Part I: Introduction and Historical Context
The Reformation is often said to have begun when the Augustinian canon known as Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche or Castle Church of Wittenberg on the 31st of October, 1517. Yet the scope of the theses was actually quite limited. The full name of what Luther wrote is Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. He was furious when his parishioners claimed no need to repent for their sins because they had purchased the indulgences that the Catholic Church was selling in order to finance renovations to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The parishioners felt no need for compunction, and felt as though they had purchased what (Luther believed) was given to them freely by God. In other words, indulgences spared the faithful from confronting the depth of their sin and thus the magnitude of the grace that forgives it.
Yet the Ninety-Five Theses are less important for what they said than for the reaction they provoked. The Augustinian order was generally supportive of Luther’s position, and Johannes Staupitz invited Luther to explain himself to a meeting of the order on April 26th, 1518. If Luther had not used this opportunity to articulate a more expansive vision of the cosmic drama of grace and forgiveness, and had not set forth a theological method that turned scholastic theology on its head, then he would have been the leader of a minor corrective movement within the Catholic Church and not the leader of the Reformation as we have come to know it. Where Luther began to explain a way of being in relationship with God, and a way of coming to the knowledge of God, that was more fundamentally at odds with the prevailing tendencies in the Roman Catholic Church of his time, was in his Heidelberg Disputation. It was in consequence of the disputation at Heidelberg that Martin Bucer (who attended the disputation and would come to be another of the great leaders of the Reformation) drew near to Luther’s side, and Johannes Eck challenged Luther to the Leipzig debate.
The Heidelberg Disputation is, to my mind, one of the most brilliant pieces in the history of theological reflection. As with the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther enunciated a set of claims that he was prepared to defend at a medieval-style disputation: twenty-eight theological theses and 12 philosophical theses. Together they construct a revolutionary argument that I will examine in the later installments of this series. They convey a “theology of the cross,” a theologia crucis, a way of relating to God first “through suffering and the cross.” Lamentably, this is often forgotten: yes, the Reformers proclaimed sola scriptura and sola gratia, but they also proclaimed the imitatio passionis Christi, that all Christians are called to share in the sufferings of Christ and to know Christ and indeed God through the suffering of the cross.
Before closing, I want to assure you that this series of reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation will not be merely historical and theological; it will be profoundly existential. What Luther espouses is not a new body of theological knowledge, but a radically different way of relating to God. The theologia crucis pronounces a thunderous denunciation over contemporary Christendom; it challenges each of us; it changes the way we live the truth of Christ. I hope you enjoy the series.
As a way of previewing some of my later contentions, I will offer a quotation from Hermann Sasse, “The Theology of the Cross: Theologia Crucis,” in We Confess Jesus Christ, pp. 47-48, 50, 52:
The theologian of glory observes the world, the works of creation. With his intellect he perceives behind these the visible things of God, His power, wisdom, and generosity. But God remains invisible to him. The theologian of the cross looks to the Crucified One. Here there is nothing great or beautiful or exalted as in the splendid works of creation. Here there is humiliation, shame, weakness, suffering, and agonizing death… [That] “God can be found only in suffering and the cross”… is a bedrock statement of Luther’s theology and that of the Lutheran Church. Theology is theology of the cross, nothing else. A theology that would be something else is a false theology… Measured by everything the world calls wisdom, as Paul already saw, the word of the cross is the greatest foolishness, the most ridiculous doctrine that can confront a philosopher. That the death of one man should be the salvation of all, that this death on Golgotha should be this atoning sacrifice for all the sins of the world, that the suffering of an innocent one should turn away the wrath of God—these are assertions that fly in the face of every ethical and religious notion of man as he is by nature… God Himself has sent us into the hard school of the cross. There, on the battlefields, in the prison camps, under the hail of bombs, and among the shattered sick and wounded, there the theology of the cross may be learned “by dying”… To those whose illusions about the world and about man, and the happiness built on these, have been shattered, the message of the cross may come as profoundly good news.
You can read the theses, and their justifications, here.