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