What is Reformation Day?

November 02, 2009

Read "Luther's Theology of the Cross" by Carl Trueman.


"No one could have expected that the Reformation would be launched by Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences in October 1517. The document itself simply proposed the framework for a university debate. Luther was arguing only for a revision of the practice of indulgences, not its abolition. He was certainly not offering an agenda for widespread theological and ecclesiastical reform.

"Indeed, he had already said much more controversial things in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, in which he critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That disputation, however, passed without a murmur. Indeed, humanly speaking, it was only the unique combination of external factors—social, economic, and political—that made the later disputation the spark that lit the Reformation fuse.

The Heidelberg Disputation

"Once the fuse had been lit, however, the church made a fatal error: she allowed the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, to deal with the problem as if it were a minor local difficulty. There was to be a meeting of the Order in Heidelberg in April 1518, and Luther was asked to present a series of theses outlining his theology, so that it could be assessed by his brethren. It was here, then, that the relatively bland Ninety-Five Theses gave Luther an important opportunity to articulate the theology that he had expressed in his September Disputation.

"The Heidelberg Disputation is significant for two things. First, there was at least one other future Reformation giant present. This was Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg, who would end his days as professor of divinity at Cambridge. A man of vast intellect and wide ecumenical vision, Bucer was to have a profound influence on a generation of Reformers, not least John Calvin. And his first taste of Reformation thinking was provided by Luther at Heidelberg in 1517. Yet, while Bucer left the disputation marveling at how Luther had attacked what the church had become, he missed the theological core of what Luther was saying. This is the second point of importance: the theology of the cross.

The Theology of the Cross

"Toward the end of the disputation, Luther offered some theses which seem (in typical Luther fashion) nonsensical, or at least obscure:

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].
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
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 actually encapsulate the heart of Luther's theology, and a good grasp of what he means by the obscure terms and phrases they contain sheds light not just on the doctrinal content of his theology, but also on the very way that he believed theologians should think. Indeed, he is taking Paul's explosive argument from 1 Corinthians and developing it into a full theological agenda.

"At the heart of his argument is his notion that human beings should not speculate about who God is or how he acts in advance of actually seeing whom he has revealed himself to be. Thus, Luther sees God's revelation of himself as axiomatic to all theology. Now, there probably is not a heretic in history who would not agree with that, because all theology presupposes the revelation of God, whether in nature, human reason, culture, or whatever..."

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