Friday, May 10, 2013

Notes on Luther 1

Some day I would like either to blog or write through church history. This was my last week doing the Bible-theology-church history for a leadership class and we ended with a recap of Luther.  I haven't done nearly enough research on Luther for it to count fully, but I thought I would put down some notes from today that I could pick up at some point in the future.

1. In hindsight, we tend to see the factors leading up to a major event out of proportion to their significance at the time. If we are involved in an event, we may get some hindsight. If we are outsiders, we will tend to see the lead up to an event in a skewed way. For example, was there truly any failing in not catching the Boston Marathon bombers beforehand? There may be room for improvement, but was the process of vigilance at the time normal and appropriate? After all, we have to balance the free life we all enjoy as Americans with threats like these.

So it surely could not even have occurred to Luther that he might start a new church or a movement of withdrawal from the Roman Catholic Church. It simply wasn't even conceivable, surely. Luther thought a number of things were wrong with his church--his church, the church, the only church. He hoped they could be corrected. He was not trying to leave. That simply wasn't on anyone's radar.

2. Luther was a medieval person.  He was a decidedly pre-modern individual.  When there was a thunderstorm, he didn't think of barometric pressure, electric charges, or condensation. He thought of spirits and demons. The line that we may draw so solidly with Luther is hindsight.  He was not born in the modern age.

He committed to become a monk in a bad thunderstorm, calling on St. Anne for protection.

3. I imagine Luther's brief encounter with Rome in 1510, before that fateful day in 1517, had a major effect on him. What he saw in Rome was a world that seemed to have little to do with the kingdom of God. He saw the resources of peasants being spent on opulence. He saw a materialistic world that was not focused on spiritual things. Perhaps he saw immorality.

Basically, he saw a building project (St. Peter's) supported by the doctrine of purgatory and indulgences.  You pay money, the Pope gives you time out of purgatory. Our ideas rarely exist in some Platonic vacuum. This experience no doubt had a major impact on Luther's drive to find a way theologically to do away with indulgences. We shouldn't think that his ideas of "faith alone" and "Scripture alone" came out of nowhere. They followed naturally from his concrete hatred of the injustice he saw in papal indulgences.

3. In Luther's own words, he hated the idea of the idea of "righteousness of God" in Romans 1:17 because he heard in it the "justice of God" (iustitia dei).  Perhaps his hatred here also related to his hatred of the idea of purgatory, the place where God's justice was allegedly satisfied. He kept his monastic vows.

It was perhaps somewhere around the year 1516 that he had his breakthrough.  What if Romans 1:17 isn't talking about the justice of God being revealed in the gospel but a righteousness that God gives us, a righteousness from God.  What if the gospel is about God declaring us righteous even though we are sinners?

This was the ideological breakthrough that would allow him to undo purgatory. God is not looking for moral perfection but for repentance, and nothing but individual repentance is required, not some penance administered by a priest. Rather, God justifies us by faith alone.

We should not think his theology was fully cooked at this time.  It is really in his commentary on Galatians in 1531 that his theology here reaches something like its mature form. And of course most Paul scholars would say Luther was wrong on Romans even if mostly right on Christian theology.  The righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 is God's propensity to save his people. And the gospel is the fact that God has enthroned Jesus as king by raising him from the dead, along with all that entails.

4. If you read the 95 Theses he nailed on October 31, 1517, they overwhelmingly address the question of indulgences.  They are not the grand "five solas" of the Reformation. While Scripture played a major role in Luther's argument, we also find an acceptance of the Pope's authority in general. Sola scriptura would evolve later in the fullness of his defense. Again, most of our arguments follow our intuitions, to justify them. Most people do not move from ideas to reality but the other way around.

We can see Luther's hatred of the doctrine of purgatory standing behind his explusion of the "deuterocanonical books" from the Bible. What Protestants now call the Apocrypha had been quoted and used extensively from the very beginning of Christianity. Jerome in the 400s called them a "second canon," not quite as authoritative as the "protocanonical" books but still with some authority.

Luther would demote them, then the RC Council of Trent in 1545 would upgrade them to protocanonical status. Why did Luther not like them? Because 2 Maccabees had the proof-text used to justify purgatory. It may seem nonchalant for Luther to take these books out of the mix, because as Protestants we are used to them being out.  In Luther's day, it reflected that 1) he did not view the canon as strongly as we think he did and 2) it was in the spirit of the same striking freedom he felt not to include James initially in his translation of the Bible into German.

5. October 31, 1517 was the tipping point.  Contrary to Brad Gregory, Luther was not the primary cause of secularism.  Luther could only happen because the church had undermined its own spiritual authority for years and its political power had been waning for years.  Luther represents a critical mass of protests that had gone on for centuries and the Protestant Reformation is part of the Renaissance, which had been going on for a couple centuries as well.

The Reformation is part of the Renaissance.


Anonymous said...

I had just finished "Luther's Theology of the Cross" by McGrath and he makes many of the same points. Your blog on/thru Church History would be interesting whenever you have time which I am sure you just have loads of.... :)

Anonymous said...

As for fully cooked, I had I guess always assumed his theology was basically formed by the time he posted the 95 Theses. It wasn't till McGrath this past week and your blog that I realized it hadn't been fully cooked.