Reading Luther and Drinking Beer is a Dangerous Thing

2 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  Enjoy.

Undoubtedly the most significant name of the Protestant Reformation is that of Martin Luther.  Which is why it may surprise many that the course of Luther’s life changed not by picking up a Bible, but rather by praying to a saint.  Trapped in a field during a severe thunderstorm while travelling from Erfurt to Mansfield on June 30th, 1505, the young Luther cried out to St. Anne, “St. Anne Help me!  I will become a monk!”  Luther’s life was spared and he kept good on his promise.  He left the university where he was training to become a lawyer and enrolled in the strictest of the Erfurt monasteries, the Augustinian priory.  After enrolling in the monastery at Erfurt, Luther began to train as a novice; a period of a about a year where the person to be initiated is prepared before taking vows.  Each novice at the Augustinian priory was given a little, red leather Bible. When Luther received his Bible from Johann Staupitz, the Vicar General of the priory, it was the first time that Luther had ever even seen a Bible.  He cherished it, spending hours upon hours reading and memorizing the Biblical texts.  Years later, reflecting on his time reading and memorizing the Bible during his year as a novice he said:

If I had kept at it, I would have become exceedingly good at locating things in the Bible. At that time no other study pleased me so much as sacred literature. With great loathing I read physics [Aristotle’s Physics], and my heart was aglow when the time came to return to the Bible . . . I read the Bible diligently. Sometimes one statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day.

Unfortunately for Luther, having completed his first year as a novice, the Bible was taken from him and he began to train for ordination in much the same way that his predecessors had been trained, namely by engaging the Latin works of the great medieval theologians such as Peter Lombard, William Ockham, Pierre d’Ailly, and Gabriel Biel.  Luther remarked that at that time it was possible to obtain a Doctor of Divinity without even owning a Bible, much less studying it, as his fellow professor Andreas Karlstadt had done.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Luther dedicated himself to the study of the Bible. His aptitude for reading the Bible and understanding the text marked him as the obvious choice for the Chair of Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg, which he took up immediately after earning his doctorate.  From 1513-1519 Luther lectured on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews to the assembled students at Wittenberg.  By 1519 Luther wrote:  “I had then already read and taught the sacred Scriptures most diligently privately and publicly for seven years, so that I knew them nearly all by memory.”  The Biblical text was woven deep in his bones and eventually, something changed within him.

The date of Luther’s conversion to the Gospel is disputed, as is the mysterious tower (some think it is the bathroom!) that he refers to.  What happened however, is beyond dispute.  Luther turned away from the works righteousness of Medieval Christianity and embraced the Gospel of Grace in the New Testament.  While reading Romans, Luther struggled with the phrase “the righteousness of God.”  He had thought that God’s righteousness meant the justice by which God punished sinners.  Thus Luther was afraid of God, even in one instance saying that he “hated God.”  However, while reading Romans in the tower, Luther learned from Paul that God’s righteousness was a gift from God given to sinful people through Jesus Christ, to be received by faith.  He wrote the following words to describe what it was like for this Gospel truth to dawn upon him:

The words ‘righteous’ and righteousness of God struck my conscience like lightning.  When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified.  If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish.  But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live [Rom 1.17] and ‘the righteousness of God’  [Rom 3.21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy.  My spirit was thereby cheered.  For it’s by the righeousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ.  These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me.  The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in the tower.

It was not long after his “tower experience” that Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, commonly referred to simply as the 95 Theses.  On the eve of All Saint’s Day, Oct. 31, 1517, Luther posted the theses on the Castle Church at Wittenberg.  The action was not nearly as dramatic as it sounds, for the door of the Castle Church functioned in much the same way as a bulletin board at a local school or coffee shop would today.  Nevertheless, the theses were quite controversial.  Luther was writing primarily against the sale of indulgences.  At the time, an indulgence was a written assurance that could be purchased from an agent of the papacy to remit a certain number of years off of purgatory.  The salesman of such indulgences in Luther’s region was Johann Tetzel, who announced upon entering a town “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”  The money collected by Tetzel and others was used to construct the now famous St. Peter’s Basilica.

Luther’s theses begin with an against the sacrament of penance.  Theses one through five read as follows:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4.17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

  4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

  5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

First notice theses 1-3’s dependence upon Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.  Luther flatly rejects penance as a sacrament.  Now notice the connection between theses 4-5.  If penance is not a sacrament, then neither the pope nor his priests has the power to remit sins through penance or indulgences.  If neither priest nor pope can remit sins, where then does Luther say forgiveness of sins can be found?  One must remember the tower experience.  Righteousness, said the Apostle Paul, comes to us as a free gift to be received by faith (Rom 3.22-24).  So Luther declares:

62.  The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory of the grace of God.

This glory of the grace of God is had by any “true Christian” who through faith and repentance shares in “all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted to him by God” (Thesis 37).  This blessing is given by faith alone, even without indulgences, penance, or even the Pope!  Indeed, in light of the Gospel, Christians should be “especially on guard against those who say that the Pope’s pardons are the inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.”  Only the Gospel, the “true treasure of the church” is the means by which we are reconciled to God.

By 1518 the Theses had been translated into most major European languages.  Over the course of the next three years, the Pope sent a steady stream of theologians and cardinals to debate and refute Luther.  By June 15th, 1520, the Pope had warned Luther in a letter, called a Papal Bull, that if he did not recant his beliefs he would be excommunicated.  Luther publicly burnt the bull at Wittenberg on Dec 10th, 1520.  Though Luther had been excommunicated, this did not stop his works from proliferating throughout Europe.  By the 1520’s, Luther was being read in secret at at pub in Cambridge called the White Horse Tavern.  The little group that had gathered at the pub to read Luther’s writings, along with Erasmus’ New Testament, dubbed themselves “little Germany.”

The group meeting at the White Horse was a fairly prestigious bunch.  Those who frequented the Tavern to discuss Luther and the New Testament were such Reformation luminaries as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, Robert Barnes, and Thomas Bilney among others.  Just to put this list in perspective, you have two Bible translators (Tyndale and Coverdale) who have had a direct influence on every English translation of the Bible since the 16th century.  There are two bishops and one Archbishop.  The author of the Anglican prayer books, as well as the architect of the 39 Articles of Religion is in this list.  Of the seven men listed above, six were martyred for the Christian faith.  Reading Luther and the New Testament over ale is not as safe as it sounds.

In 1529, the cause of the Gospel in England suffered under the King’s Chancellor, Thomas More, who ordered that the books propagating the “Lutheran heresy” be burned.  Books were not the only thing More burned.  In 1531, Thomas Bilney, the man initially responsible for convening men to read Luther and the New Testament at the White Horse was lashed to the stake and condemned to die for believing “the Lutheran heresy.”  Foxe records his final moments:

Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.”  He stood unmoved in the flames crying out, “Jesus, I believe;” and these were the last words he was heard to utter.

It is an easy thing to go to the bookstore and purchase a New Testament in English.  A simple and carefree thing to confess salvation through Christ alone.  But these things you and I take for granted were bought and paid for by the blood of men who, to borrow the words of Bishop J.C. Ryle, “were certain they had found out truth, and content to die for their opinions.”  Many of the men of “little Germany,” the men of the White Horse Tavern purchased the privileges of modern Christians with their very lives.

You can learn more about Luther and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.





Martin Luther: Good works flow from love and joy

18 03 2013

For where the Gospel is truly in the heart, it creates a new man who does not wait until the law comes, but, being so full of joy in Christ, and of desire and love for that which is good, he gladly helps and doe good to every one wherever he can, from a free heart, before he ver once thinks of law.  He wholly risks his body and life, without asking what he must suffer on account of it, and thus abounds in good works which flow forth of themselves.

-Martin Luther, Church Postil 2.2 76





Martin Luther: The Great Work of the Christian

14 03 2013

Challenging words from the good doctor:

A truly Christian work is it that we descend and get mixed up in the mire of the sinner as deeply as he sticks there himself, taking his sin upon ourselves and floundering out of it with him, not acting otherwise than as if his sin were our own.  We should rebuke and deal with him in earnest; yet we are not to despise but sincerely love him.  If you are proud toward the sinner and despise him, you are utterly damned.

-Martin Luther, Church Postil 2.261

 





Rob Sturdy: Help me read the Bible! (Martin Luther)

20 12 2011

If you’ve ever visited my office you will have noticed fifty-five red and black volumes to the right of my computer on a bookshelf behind my desk. Those volumes are the American Edition of Martin Luther’s collected works. Of the fifty-five volumes, thirty are dedicated to Martin Luther’s verse by verse exposition of the Scriptures. Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis alone is eight volumes long. Luther’s exposition of the Old and New Testaments fills literally hundreds of thousands of pages, so who better to turn to for help reading the Bible than this German theologian who dedicated so much of his life to understanding it?

First off all, let us start with some practicalities.

  1. Luther would tell us first to buy a good translation that you can read and understand.  One of Luther’s immediate goals was to translate the entire Bible into the language of the people. However, this did not simply mean that Luther translated the Hebrew to the German, but he translated the Hebrew into thepopular German of the time so that it could be easily read by all.  For modern day North America, I would reccomend to you the ESV or NIV.  Sadly, it might be time to hang up the ole’ King James Version until Elizabethan English makes a comeback.
  2. Luther would also tell us to spend a lot of time in Scripture.  It is said that Luther was so saturated in the language of the Bible that he often quoted it without even being conscious of it (Pelikan, Exegetical Writtings, 49).  Luther would be an advocate for spending hours upon hours in the Scriptures.  Maybe you don’t have hours upon hours.  Well, how much time do you have?  Fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes?  Don’t fritter them away by pushing the snooze button for thirty minutes.  Get up early and get in the Scriptures.  Let them saturate you.
  3. Finally, Luther would say if you want to understand the Bible better you need to sit under the feet of a good preacher.  Luther once said, “the church is not a pen-house but a mouth house!,” and also “Christ did not command the apostles to write, but only to preach.”  Luther thought that one could read the Bible many times over and yet fail to understand it or apply it.  But when it is was proclaimed by another, Spirit inspired insight, clarity and personal application followed.

So how did Luther read the Bible?  Of the many things we could focus on, let us look at two that may help you as you read the Scriptures.  These two things have typically been identified as “Law and Gospel.”  To keep it simple, the “Law” is anything in Scripture that brings awareness of sin, fear of judgement, and affliction of conscience.  The “Gospel” is anything in Scripture that causes us to trust in God to forgive sin, forego judgement, and relieve conscience.  In Luther’s understanding, the passages that were “law” were meant to drive us to the promises of the “Gospel.”

Reading the “Law”
For Luther the “Law” accomplishes many things, but I would like to hone in on what it does to the heart while we read Scripture. Luther writes on Romans

“The chief purpose of this letter is to break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh. This includes all the works which in the eyes of people or even in our own eyes may be great works. No matter whether these works are done with a sincere heart and min, this letter is to affirm and state and magnify sin, no matter how much someone insists that it does not exist” (LW vol. 25 pg 135).

Luther understood that as humans we have an aversion to recognizing sin in our life.  We either cover it up or explain it away with weak justifications.  That is why Scripture is so valuable.  It magnifies the hidden sin in our life and shatters belief in our weak attempts at righteousness and justification.  So what impact does this have on our reading of Scripture?  When we come across a difficult and convicting passage (Rom 3.9-18 for example) we do not seek to explain it away or say “that’s not me.”  Rather, we apply that passage to our hearts and let it reveal our sinfulness in ways we had not previously imagined.  In other words, we allow Scripture to magnify our sin, making it both real and known to us.

Reading the “Gospel”
As the reality of sin in our life begins to dawn on us through those passages of Scripture that are “law”, we begin to become fearful before God and in despair over the reality of our sinful nature.  It is at this point of fear and despair that we must intentionally turn our hearts to those passages of Scripture that Luther described as “Gospel.”  Concerning this skill Luther writes:

“When I see that a man is sufficiently contrite, oppressed by the Law, terrified by sin, and thirsting for comfort, then it is time for me to take the Law and active (works) righteousness form his sight and to set forth before him, through the Gospel, the passive (faith) righteousness which exlcudes Moses adn the law adn shows the promise of Christ, who came for the afflicted and sinners.  Here a man is raised up again and gains hope.”  (LW vol 26. pg 7).

How then does this affect the way we read Scripture?  We must not let ourselves stop at the convicting passages and wallow in despair or set forth with a renewed sense of determination.  Rather, as we read convicting passages of Scripture we must intentionally redirect our hearts to Christ on the cross and his saving righteousness.  As we read Scripture and come across especially comforting passages (1 John 4.1-11 or the Doxology of Jude for example) then we must make a great effort to apply them to ourselves and appropriate them to our hearts.  When I come across passages such as these I make a point to memorize them, so that when the knowledge of sin convicts me I might turn as quickly as possible to faith in Christ.

While by no means comprehensive, I believe these are a few of the things near and dear to the heart of Martin Luther and his study of the Bible.  I hope they were a help to you!  More to come soon…





The conversion of Martin Luther in his own words

20 12 2011

Below is the account of Luther’s famous “Tower Experience” whereby he came to understand the Gospel as God’s unconditional mercy towards sinners.  I have emboldened a few phrases that I would like to draw special attention to.  As a matter of curiosity, you might find it amusing that the “heated room” was most likely the toilet.  Even the greatest men have some of their deepest insights in the most humbling of places!

The words ‘righteous’ and righteousness of God’ struck my conscience like lightning.  When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified.  If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish.  But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live [Rom 1.17] and ‘the righteousness of God’  [Rom 3.21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy.  My spirit was thereby cheered.  For it’s by the righeousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ.  These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me.  The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in the tower.”

LW vol 54 pg 193-194





Rob Sturdy: Martin Luther’s Personal Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper

20 12 2011

The essay below is about how Martin Luther conceives of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.

How, if at all, is Christ present in the Eucharist?  The question itself was one of the most hotly contested of the Protestant Reformation.  Though the question is formally a matter of sacramental theology, the answer to the question for the Reformers often rested upon their own Christological presuppositions.  After all, how one understands the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, as well as what limits (if any!) one believes should be placed upon the physical body of Jesus, will influence how one understands the possibility of the presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine.  One could say that Christology sets the ground rules for sacramental theology.

For many of the Reformed, the Christology that sets the ground rules for their sacramental theology has come to be known as the extra-Calvinisticum. Oberman defines the extra-Calvinisticum as the theological conviction “that the immutable God became man without diminution or loss as regards any of his attributes” joined with the conviction that the “existence of the second person of the Trinity et extra cernem.” [1]To put it more simply, the extra holds to the ubiquity of the divine Word and the local presence of the physical body of Jesus contained in heaven, while emphasizing the unity of the two in the person of Christ.[2] The doctrine lends itself to a real, albeit spiritual, presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to memorialism.  Because of Christ’s physical presence in heaven, the doctrine prohibits a carnal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper in opposition to transubstantiation.  It is typically supposed that because the doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum prohibits a true, carnal presence it must then also oppose Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation.  This paper will argue that this is not necessarily so.  Using Luther’s writings from 1520 up until the eve of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, I will argue that the highly nuanced Christology underpinning Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation is thoroughly consistent with the extra-Calvinisticum.  It will be shown that Luther believes that the humanity of Christ is locally present at the right hand of God and that the divinity of Christ maintains a ubiquitous or extra presence in the world.  Furthermore it will be shown that by virtue of the union between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, Christ can really and truly be said to be present in the Lord’s Supper.  This will serve to benefit a larger project of historical theology, tracing the development and significance of the extra-Calvinisticum in Christian thought and practice.

To understand Luther’s Christology one must enter the world of the Eucharistic controversy of the 1520’s.  Luther credits his adversaries for prompting the work that historians widely regard as responsible for initiating a Protestant discourse on sacramental theology.   “Whether I wish it or not,” he writes, “I am compelled to become more learned every day, with so many and such able masters eagerly driving me on and making me work.”[3] The work that Luther refers to here is his famous The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It was The Babylonian Captivity that prompted Erasmus to declare the breach with Rome and Wittenberg “irreparable.”  It prompted Henry VIII of England to write his clumsy, yet nevertheless famous 78 quarto page work denouncing Luther and defending Roman positions on the sacraments.[4] Within a year of Luther’s publication Karlstadt had begun massive reforms concerning the Lord’s Supper.[5] Likewise in the same year Zwingli renounced his own pension.[6] Because of the explosive effect Luther’s work had on Europe, especially in regards to the subject matter, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is the best place to begin an exploration of the Christological presuppositions introduced to the Eucharistic discourse of the 1520’s. Read the rest of this entry »





Martin Luther: God’s grace in forsaking us

20 12 2011

Luther is commenting here on the fear of Abram in Gen 15.1.  Notice Luther’s description of God withdrawing himself and what it is meant to accomplish.  First, when God withdraws himself it is because of His grace, not in spite of.  After all, grace is “truly immovalbe and unchangeable.”  But rather, God will from time to time withdraw himself to humble his people and protect them from grievous sins and at the proper time restore their spirits with a word of comfort.  The pastoral applications of this are immense. Here are some questions to help you tease this out for yourself.  What role does spiritual depression play in formation?  When I feel God’s absence, could there be a good and loving reason behind his absence?  How does being humbled by God help us to rely on his promises and love Him more? 

It is no small comfort, however, to know that grace has not been taken away but is truly immovable and unchangeable, although the awareness and experience of grace is taken away for a time, and dread and fear rush in, discouraging and troubling the spirit.  The man becomes impatient, concludes that he cannot bear the wrath of God, and simply makes a devil out of God.

Christ experienced this trial in the garden (Matt 26.41), where nature was wrestling with the spirit, and the spirit indeed was willing but the flesh was weak, terrified, fearful, and troubled.  No one is truly sorrowful unless God forsakes him, just as, conversely, no one can be sorrowful when God is present.  Therefore sorrow is an indication that God has departed from us and has forsaken us for a time…

When on the other hand, as is written in the Book of Wisdom (3.7), God shines into our hearts with rays of mercy, then it is impossible for our hearts not to be glad, even though we, like Stephen, are being dragged to torture and death.

Therefore it is profitable to consider these examples, namely, that the saints who are bold in the Holy Spirit are bolder than Satan himself.  On the other hand, when they are in the clutches of trial, they tremble so much that they are afraid even of a rustling leaf.  We are reminded of our weakness in order that no matter how great the gifts are that we possess, we may not exalt ourselves but may remain humble and fear God.  From those who do not do this He turns His face away, and trouble and perplexity follow.

I want to preface these remarks to this chapter, in which we learn about what Ps. 4.3 says: “know that God has dealt marvelously with the godly,” that is, that He keeps those who are His occupied in various ways, lest they become heretics, be presumptuous with regard to their gifts, and be puffed up over against those who do not have these gifts.  For those who do this are very close to destruction.

Therefore those who are chosen as teachers of the churches to rule over others should offer special prayers that they be preserved from this affliction as from the greatest and most dangerous evil.

Other sins- such as wrathfulness, impatience, and drunkenness- naturally bring shame because of their foulness.  Those who indulge in them know that they have sinned.  Consequently, they blush.  But vainglory and trust in one’s own wisdom or righteousness is a sin of such a kind that it is not recognized as sin.  Instead, men thank God for it, as the Pharisee does in the Gospel (Luke 18.9-14); they rejoice in it as in an extraordinary gift of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore it is an utterly incurable devilish evil.

From this God preserves saintly Abraham by subjecting the glorious conqueror to such an affliction that it is necessary to comfort him with a divine word…

Luther, Comentary on Genesis vol. II (LW vol. 3 pg 8-9)