The Heidelberg Disputation is one of the earliest reformational writings from Luther with its presentation occurring just six months after the famous posting of the 95 theses. Where the 95 theses is a pointed attack on a handful of misdeeds from the Roman church, Heidelberg is a sweeping offensive meant to restore the foundation of all Christian doctrine. The presentation of doctrine found within its theses is referred to as the “Theology of the Cross,” named after Thesis 21 where Luther states, “A theology of glory declares evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross declares the thing to be what it truly is.” Luther argues that the cross is the lens through which we can understand all Christian doctrine because the cross alone stands as a corrective to the ideas and philosophies we try to force on the Word of God. To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, we are happy to introduce this special series of reflections on the theses and proofs of the Heidelberg Disputation. Each week, we will reflect on a few of the theses leading up to this year’s Here We Still Stand Conference in October. Each post will also include a new translation completed by Caleb Keith.
1. The Law of God, which is the most beneficial doctrine of life, is not able to advance man toward righteousness but rather speaks against him.
This statement is made apparent by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 3, “The righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law.” Augustine explains this in his book on the Spirit and the Letter, “Apart from the law means apart from its support. Then in Rom 5, “The Law came so that sin might increase.” And in chapter 7, “When the command came, sin came back to life.” This is why in chapter 8 Paul calls the Law a “law of death” and a “law of sin.” This goes even further in 2 Cor 3, “The letter lays slaughter,” which Augustine understands throughout the entirety of the Spirit and the Letter to apply even to the holiest Law of God.
2. Much less could the work of men, that is to say even works which are done over and over again with the help of natural law, move someone toward righteousness.
The Law of God is given to man as holy, spotless, true, just, etc. for the purpose of assisting man beyond his own natural abilities in order to illuminate and move him toward goodness. However, the exact opposite happens in that man steps up to become even more wicked. In what way is man able to advance toward goodness when left to his own might apart from such outside help? If he is not able to move toward goodness with such outside help he will do even less when left to his own means. Thus the Apostle Paul in Rom 3 declares all men are corrupt and weak, neither do they know God nor do they ask for him, instead all turn away from Him.
The first thing to note about the Heidelberg Disputation is that the theses do not stand alone, but rather work together in pairs or groups to drive home a particular point. In this way, Theses One and Two function as a unit describing the goodness of God’s Law while simultaneously explaining how sinners misuse this good gift. Luther holds nothing back in the introductory article of this Disputation. In part, this is because he is defending the principles which led him to post the 95 theses. You can imagine that Luther has been under a lot of criticism for the six months between these two disputations. Now, he is taking the opportunity to approach fellow friars and clergy from the Augustinian Order with a clear presentation of the doctrine which he saw revealed in Scripture.
The first Thesis lays the foundation for his entire disputation with the reality that God’s Law is powerful, efficacious, and works to our utmost benefit. This is something that all late medieval theologians would have ascribed too. Yet while opening up with a point of agreement, Luther also indicates where the doctrine of the Law has been misused. Luther sees that the Law has been turned into a checklist of saving works. But Scripture tells a different story: the Law is perfectly beneficial, but its benefit is not the ability to save sinners. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The Law is the greatest good in this life because it relentlessly accuses the sinner even when his actions seem naturally or civilly good. Luther’s accusation removes the works of the sinner from the salvation equation, leaving room for Christ alone.
In Thesis Two, Luther recognizes that most people appear to do good regularly in their lives. Most of us could claim to be “good people” perhaps giving back to charity or offering a kind word here or there to our neighbor. However, following the Law is not simply about external actions but about human nature, the will, and the heart. In reality, this apparent good is void of true righteousness. It is not only our works which are wicked but our hearts and our minds, something Luther will address more thoroughly later in the Disputation.
Luther has often been accused of turning the Law into something bad which ought to be avoided. This is because Luther emphasizes the accusing and killing power the Law has over sinners. However, this accusation is simply untrue: the Law is praised and highly regarded by both Luther and later Lutheran teaching. The Law is part of God’s redemptive plan yet it is not the redeemer. Luther clearly and consistently distinguishes the attributes of the Law - that which is good, perfect and holy - with the purpose of the Law. The Law, he asserts, was not meant to save but rather to turn the sinner away from relying on himself for salvation and towards the works of God. This contrast between the good works of God and the wickedness of men is at the core of every thesis. The Law is a warrior sent to strike down proud sinners; it paves the way for Christ who by His death and resurrection brings life to those who have been struck dead by the Law on account of their sin.
The Theology of the Cross begins with the Law because this doctrine was thoroughly misunderstood by the semi-Pelagian teaching of Luther’s time. The Law reveals the depths of our sin and thus, our great need for a mediator in the presence of the Almighty. The Law simultaneously elevates the goodness of God as it unmasks the wickedness of man, even when we think we are at our best. In light of these truths, our only hope for salvation is Jesus Christ who suffered the consequences of sin and death that we might be freed and have eternal life. Theses One and Two of the Heidelberg Disputation start the journey toward a Cross-centered approach to Christian doctrine that we will continue to study in the coming weeks.