Faith Matters

Rev Brian Kennaway: Martin Luther and his arguments against Catholic Church teaching and practice

Having sparked the Reformation in 1517, Martin Luther continued to argue against Catholic Church teaching and practice of the time. This included a debate with fellow Augustinians in a seminal, though now little known, event 500 years ago this month, writes the Rev Brian Kennaway

Rev Brian Kennaway


NEXT Thursday, April 26 2018, marks the 500th anniversary of an event known as the Heidelberg Disputation.

The 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, which was signalled by Martin Luther's publication of his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31 1517, was to the fore last year.

Yet it was disappointing that so little attention was given to the seminal debate in Heidelberg, not least because it reveals the depth of Luther's spirituality.

Also at Heidelberg, Luther advanced his growing realisation that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.

This discussion, organised by Luther's Augustinian Order, is therefore in many ways more significant than the Ninety-five Theses.

Luther's theological disputes with the Catholic Church, particularly over its system of indulgences, was highly controversial and he was called upon to defend his position.

An advert placed at the time read: "Brother Martin Luther, Master of Sacred Theology, will preside, and Brother Leonhard Beyer, Master of Arts and Philosophy, will defend the following theses before the Augustinians of this renowned city of Heidelberg in the customary place, on April 26th 1518."

Luther set out his position in a 'disputation', which contained a total of 40 statements for discussion: 28 were theological and 12 were philosophical.

"It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work," says Jonathan Kleis, an evangelical missionary working as a church planter in northern Italy.

"In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther's comprehensive vision for the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God."

At the Heidelberg meeting, Luther put forward a 'theology of the cross' as opposed to a 'theology of glory'.

A theology of glory, according to Luther, always leaves the will in control. The theology of the cross, meanwhile, assumes that the will is bound and must be set free.

The 28 theological statements are much more cogent than the Ninety-five Theses and obviously represent a reflection of Luther's Biblical study. They also reflect Luther's personal spiritual journey.

The Ninety-five Theses from Wittenberg were concerned purely with the sale and misuse of indulgences and therefore contained a strong element of 'Pope bashing'.

When Luther visited Rome in 1510, on behalf of his Augustinian Order, he was shocked by the immorality and corruption of the Church. This experience influenced his approach.

There is a progressive nature to the 28 theological statements discussed at Heidelberg, with the later ones take us to the heart of the Gospel.

The Ninety-five Theses from Wittenberg were concerned purely with the sale and misuse of indulgences and therefore contained a strong element of 'Pope bashing'… At Heidelberg, Luther takes us to the heart of the Gospel 

The 18th, for example, says: "It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ."

The Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde comments: "For the alcoholic the humility to confess, 'I am an alcoholic,' is not a mark of despair but of hope... Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so leads to life."

In many respects this statement is the key to the entire discussion, and is what Luther has developed in the previous 17.

There is nothing good in us because of sin, and any trust in our own abilities or our own works, is damning.

We must be brought low before we can be exalted, we must be put to death before God makes us alive.

Luther's 21st statement at Heidelberg says: "A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is."

In proof of this Luther quotes Philippians 3:18 - "enemies of the cross of Christ" - and says: "It is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.

"Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.

"These are the people whom the Apostle calls 'enemies of the cross of Christ', for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works.

"Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good."

This affirmation of Luther is a reminder that it is only through suffering and the cross that sinners can come to know God.

The 25th statement declares: "He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ."

This thesis is simply nothing more that the Reformation affirmation that justification is by faith alone, without the deeds of the law.

Luther quotes Romans 3:20 in support: "Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in God's sight by the works of the law."

He stated in the debate: "Therefore, I wish to have the words 'without works' understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works.

"For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted, the works follow."

In his 26th statement, Luther states: "The law says, 'Do this', and it is never done. Grace says, 'believe in this', and everything is already done."

In the debate Luther pointed out: "For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfil everything through him since he was made ours through faith."

As Gerhard Forde put it: "That is why he can make the claim that faith doesn't have to be prompted to do good works because in faith everything is already done."

This is reflected in Philip Doddridge's hymn, O Happy Day: "'Tis done - the great transaction's done; I am my Lord's, and He is mine."

Luther's 28th statement was: "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."

The proof of this thesis, Luther says, is found in Matthew 9:13: "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

In defending this particular thesis, he stated: "Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive."

Here Luther takes us to the very heart of the Gospel of salvation. We cannot make ourselves acceptable to God - all our works are of no value whatsoever; we do not make our peace with God - God has made peace with us via the cross of Christ.

As Luther - who was first and foremost the 'theologian of the cross' - said: "That is the way things are... The cross shuts down all alternatives."

In the marking of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, much was made of the five 'solas' - 'sola scriptura', or 'scripture alone', as well as 'faith alone', 'grace alone', 'Christ alone' and 'to the glory of God alone'.

But perhaps, in line with the Heidelberg Disputation, we should add a sixth: sola crux, the cross alone.

  • Rev Brian Kennaway is a Presbyterian minister, a former convenor of the education committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, a former member of the Parades Commission and former president of the Irish Association.

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