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Heidelberg Disputation Theses

Heidelberg Disputation (Thesis 2)

The showdown with Aristotle continues. The good, the bad, and the ugly have just been told that keeping the law will not advance them towards righteousness, rather, it will hinder them and make them worse. Luther follows with some more shots in quick succession, with a rifle on loan to him by one Chuck Connors – a winchester lever action:

Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.

LW 31:39

 Luther explains:

Since the law of God, which is holy and unstained, true, just, etc., is given man by God as an aid beyond his natural powers to enlighten him and move him to do the good, and nevertheless the opposite takes place, namely, that he becomes more wicked, how can he, left to his own power and without such aid, be induced to do good? If a person does not do good with help from without, he will do even less by his own strength. Therefore the Apostle, in Rom. 3[:10–12], calls all persons corrupt and impotent who neither understand nor seek God, for all, he says, have gone astray.

LW 31:43

Seeking to obey the external law of God does not make us righteous – it only proves us more unrighteous. How much less can any of our internal aids – our own strength, ability and work – advance us to righteousness? Aristotle taught that we become righteous by doing righteous deeds – God teaches us that no one is righteous and no one can do righteous deeds, and furthermore, our righteous deeds are filthy! With this, Aristotle’s gun hand starts to shake…

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Heidelberg Disputation Theses

Heidelberg Disputation (Thesis 1)

Good citizens are those that keep the law right? Those who don’t speed, don’t shop lift, and do look after the property of others. Well that is how we as humans look at each other and judge whether we are good citizens, or ‘righteous’, according to our laws. From a human perspective, there is much truth in this because our legal system is actually based on these very principles. Aristotle taught this principle in his Ethics: one becomes righteous by doing righteous things.

The problem is, when this principle is applied to God – on the basis of analogy (i.e. the assumption that what is true of God must also be true of man etc.) – we run into a false and errant gospel.

No human being can be declared, even to the smallest decree, righteous by obeying the law. Luther rightly argues three things in this first thesis: first, the law is good; second, despite it’s goodness it does not help us become righteous before God; and three, the law actually hinders us from advancing to righteousness! The law gets in our way! In the medieval period Aristotle’s ethics became a manual of how to become righteous before God: do keep God’s law, don’t break God’s law…and you will be righteous.

Martin Luther in his cloister days…

Thankfully, Luther challenged that way of thinking through a good old time fashioned duel. He called out Aristotle into the barren and dusty street of False Christianity saying…’Aristotle, (Luther spits some lumpy black saliva onto the ground, a smidgen being caught in his moustache) I’m calling you out you dirty son of a philosopher!’…in a deep southern drawl…ok, with a slight German accent. The only onlookers were the unshaved, unwashed cronies of the Pope’s posse – who were actually kind of distracted stumbling their way out of Madame Venus’ ‘hotel‘…

This was the first shot:

The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.

Luther’s Explanation: This is made clear by the Apostle in his letter to the Romans (3[:21]): “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” St. Augustine interprets this in his book, The Spirit and the Letter (De Spiritu et Littera): “Without the law, that is, without its support.” In Rom. 5[:20] the Apostle states, “Law intervened, to increase the trespass,” and in Rom. 7[:9] he adds, “But when the commandment came, sin revived.” For this reason he calls the law a law of death and a law of sin in Rom. 8[:2]. Indeed, in 2 Cor. 3[:6] he says, “the written code kills,” which St. Augustine throughout his book, The Spirit and the Letter, understands as applying to every law, even the holiest law of God.

LW 31:42-43
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Heidelberg Disputation

Heidelberg Disputation (Introduction)

Following the turmoil that posting the 95 theses instigated in October 1517, Luther’s own monastic order (the Augustinians) was pressured to investigate and critique Luther’s ‘new’ teaching. This occurred at the city of Heidelberg in Germany and Luther was asked to present his theology. This he did in the form of theses for academic discussion in April 1518. This disputation is what I am doing my dissertation on so it is worthwhile to share it with you because the more I study it the more I think we need to hear it afresh today. The version of the disputation I will post is an early English translation from the Luther’s Works (LW) volumes.

The introduction to the disputation introduced some of the important themes that would arise during the course of the debate. First, medieval theologians (yes I said theologians) relied on their own wisdom instead of Scripture; second, Luther’s ‘new’ theology is actually not new but old – from Paul and substantiated by Augustine. This final note is particularly ironic because as members of the Augustinian Order, many monastics really couldn’t have understood much of what Augustine said when it turns out they were so off kilter with their gospel and theology. Here is the introduction:

Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, “Do not rely on your own insight” [Prov. 3:5], we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter.

LW 31:39