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: On skepticism, scripture and Christ

20 12 2011

The following is an excerpt from Martin Luther’s exchange with Erasmus which has come to be known as “The Bondage of the Will”.  If you are lucky enough to have this volume in Martin Luther’s collected works you will find the following excerpt in vol. 33 pg starting on pg 23.  However, the translation below is not what you will find in Luther’s Works but comes from an online edition that you can findhere.  To set the scene Martin Luther wa a reasserter of classic Christian doctrine in the Augustininian tradition, which upheld (among many things, but relevant for this discussion) that the will of a human being was corrupted by sin and therefore sinful by nature.  For the sinful human it is unnatural to do anything in a “Godly” manner, therefore the human’s nature must be changed by “new birth” from above (1 Pet 1.3).  The reassertion of this fundamental truth of the scriptures and of Christian theology caused a massive stir (called the Reformation) in medieval Europe.  Enter Erasmus, who had Reformation sympathies but who also wished to maintain peace within the Roman Catholic Church.  In seeking middle road to stroke his Reformation sympathies while also seeking to appease the Roman Catholic Church he developed a squishy theology which Martin Luther was swift to address.  The excerpt below is remarkable for several reasons and the whole section is really worth a read.  Below Luther deals with the role of skepticism in the life of the believer, the clarity of scripture, and the purpose of scripture.  Enjoy mining these paragraphs.  You could do it for weeks.

In a word, these declarations of yours amount to this—that, with you, it matters not what is believed by any one, any where, if the peace of the world be but undisturbed; and if every one be but allowed, when his life, his reputation, or his interest is at stake, to do as he did, who said, “If they affirm, I affirm, if they deny, I deny:” and to look upon the Christian doctrines as nothing better than the opinions of philosophers and men: and that it is the greatest of folly to quarrel about, contend for, and assert them, as nothing can arise therefrom but contention, and the disturbance of the public peace: “that what is above us, does not concern us.” This, I say, is what your declarations amount to.—Thus, to put an end to our fightings, you come in as an intermediate peace-maker, that you may cause each side to suspend arms, and persuade us to cease from drawing swords about things so absurd and useless.

What I should cut at here, I believe, my friend Erasmus, you know very well. But, as I said before, I will not openly express myself. In the mean time, I excuse your very good intention of heart; but do you go no further; fear the Spirit of God, who searcheth the reins and the heart, and who is not deceived by artfully contrived expressions. I have, upon this occasion, expressed myself thus, that henceforth you may cease to accuse our cause of pertinacity or obstinacy. For, by so doing, you only evince that you hug in your heart a Lucian, or some other of the swinish tribe of the Epicureans; who, because he does not believe there is a God himself, secretly laughs at all those who do believe and confess it. Allow us to be assertors, and to study and delight in assertions: and do you favour your Sceptics and Academics until Christ shall have called you also. The Holy Spirit is not a Skeptic, nor are what he has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.

Sect. 3.—Now I come to the next head, which is connected with this; where you make a “distinction between the Christian doctrines,” and pretend that some are necessary, and some not necessary.” You say, that “some are abstruse, and some quite clear.” Thus you merely sport the sayings of others, or else exercise yourself, as it were, in a rhetorical figure. And you bring forward, in support of this opinion, that passage of Paul, Rom xi. 33, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and goodness of God!” And also that of Isaiah xl. 13, “Who hath holpen the Spirit of the Lord, or who hath been His counselor?”

You could easily say these things, seeing that, you either knew not that you were writing to Luther, but for the world at large, or did not think that you were writing against Luther: whom, however, I hope you allow to have some acquaintance with, and judgment in, the Sacred Writings. But, if you do not allow it, then, behold, I will also twist things thus. This is the distinction which I make; that I also may act a little the rhetorician and logician—God, and the Scripture of God, are two things; no less so than God, and the Creature of God. That there are in God many hidden things which we know not, no one doubts: as He himself saith concerning the last day: “Of that day knoweth no man but the Father.” (Matt. xxiv. 36.) And (Acts i. 7.) “It is not yours to know the times and seasons.” And again, “I know whom I have chosen,” (John xiii. 18.) And Paul, “The Lord knoweth them that are His,” (2 Tim. ii. 19.). And the like.

But, that there are in the Scriptures some things abstruse, and that all things are not quite plain, is a report spread abroad by the impious Sophists by whose mouth you speak here, Erasmus. But they never have produced, nor ever can produce, one article whereby to prove this their madness. And it is with such scare-crows that Satan has frightened away men from reading the Sacred Writings, and has rendered the Holy Scripture contemptible, that he might cause his poisons of philosophy to prevail in the church. This indeed I confess, that there are many places in the Scriptures obscure and abstruse; not from the majesty of the thing, but from our ignorance of certain terms and grammatical particulars; but which do not prevent a knowledge of all the things in the Scriptures. For what thing of more importance can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light, Christ made man: that God is Trinity and Unity: that Christ suffered for us, and will reign to all eternity? Are not these things known and proclaimed even in our streets? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find remaining in them?

All the things, therefore, contained in the Scriptures; are made manifest, although someplaces, from the words not being understood, are yet obscure. But to know that allthings in the Scriptures are set in the clearest light, and then, because a few words are obscure, to report that the things are obscure, is absurd and impious. And, if the words are obscure in one place, yet they are clear in another. But, however, the same thing,which has been most openly declared to the whole world, is both spoken of in the Scriptures in plain words, and also still lies hidden in obscure words. Now, therefore, it matters not if the thing be in the light, whether any certain representations of it be in obscurity or not, if, in the mean while, many other representations of the same thing be in the light. For who would say that the public fountain is not in the light, because those who are in some dark narrow lane do not see it, when all those who are in the Open market place can see it plainly?





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

19 12 2011

The essay below is about how Martin Luther conceives of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Luther’s particular contribution is a Christological contribution, articulating the nature of the “personal” union between Christ’s divine and human natures.

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 Read the rest of this entry »