Heidelberg, Luther and the cross: the critique of reason and experience

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26 April 2018 marks an undervalued milestone in Reformation history. We are familiar with Luther’s ninety-five theses posted in October 1517, and his passionate defence at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. However, the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place on April 26 1518, is less well known, though its significance could not be more relevant. Allow me to fill in the background.

Luther was growing in fame (or notoriety) as a preacher following the events of October 1517, and Pope Leo X wanted him disciplined by the Augustinian order to which he belonged. The man tasked with this challenge was his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who famously had already heard Luther’s endless confessions of numerous sins, and who had guided him along his spiritual journey. Staupitz wanted Luther’s discipline to take the form of a public disputation. So the Augustinians gathered in Heidelberg to hear Luther present forty-two theses. (This was the age of the list!) Two theses in particular set out the key principles of what has come to be known as Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’:

  1. He is not worth calling a theologian who seeks to interpret the invisible things of God on the basis of the things that have been created.
  2. But he is worth calling a theologian who understands the visible and rearward parts of God to mean suffering and the cross.

The reference to the ‘rearward’ parts of God is an allusion to Exodus 33-34 where Moses hid in the cleft in the rock and glimpsed just the rearward parts of God as he passed by in all his glory. There is so much of God that cannot be comprehended merely on the basis of human reason. For Luther, medieval theology was a theology of glory, but it did not comprehend what God had done for us in Christ at the cross.  The church buildings of the medieval Catholic Church still stand across Europe. Whether it is the Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame in Paris or St Peter’s in Rome, they stand as a testimony to Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on the glory of worship. These great structures are human achievements, the epitome of human glory and effort offered up to God. Yet their glory is at variance with the way of the cross, where God reveals himself in his Son, through suffering, rejection and death.

The Renaissance period, that preceded the Reformation, placed a high value on human reason. In scholarship their watchword was ‘back to the sources’, going back to the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew classical texts, and in art they studied form closely in a more realistic way (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci). They called their movement humanism, because it was about valuing human reason, and believing that human reason could in the end study, understand and explain anything. Does that sound familiar? Although Renaissance thought was not atheistic, it marked the beginning of the intellectual process, traced through the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which has led to the cold certainties based entirely on human reason that we see in the New Atheism today.

In Heidelberg, Luther contended that when you come to the cross of Jesus, reason fails. There is a hidden revelation of God in the cross, and you can only grasp it by faith. God told Moses to hide in the rock, because he could not see his face and live; he would just glimpse his back as he passed. Luther said that the cross is likewise a glimpse of the ‘rearward’ parts of God that can only be seen by faith, which itself is given by God. The cross is the biggest, most glorious revelation of God, the heart of human history and the centre of all theology, and yet at first sight its glory is veiled. ‘The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18). If you look at the cross with only human reason to guide you, it will offend you. Why would God send his own Son to die? Why would be punish his own Son? Isn’t that child abuse? How can God possibly be revealing himself in this dreadful event, this shambolic slaughterhouse? These are the questions that our secular world throws at us for believing in Jesus. They put us on the back foot, because we think we ought to give some intellectually respectable answer that will satisfy the proud demands of human reason, but the cross defies human reason. God’s purpose in the cross of Christ was to expose the limits of human reason. We expect God to reveal himself in some vision of glory, power and majesty, but he humbles himself even to death on a cross, in shame and weakness. Why? Because he has to teach proud human beings to be humble, and admit our weakness and sinfulness. Luther knew well the life of the medieval academy, where they valued human reason so highly, but he could see how man-centred it was. The scholastics had argued about so many things in theory in their ivory towers. Catholicism was built on human reason, and its whole theological system put its trust in human ability and merit. All of that has to die when we come to the cross. At the cross we realise that our wisdom is folly, and we must learn from Christ.

But Luther was also undermining another great theme in medieval theology: mysticism. The cross teaches us not to trust human experience. There was a strong strand of mysticism in Catholic belief. You could trust experience, and my spiritual experience is valid for me just as yours is for you. The disciples all had their experience of Jesus, and they thought they knew who he was. They had seen his miracles, listened to the Sermon on the Mount and talked with him while walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but then they had to face this terrible day when their master was betrayed and crucified. Even Jesus himself, in his great cry of dereliction on the cross, cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34 CSB). Similarly, we can look at our own experience of suffering and conclude that God has abandoned us. So many people have logical reasons for not believing in God, because in their desperate experiences they cannot find him when they want him. The cross tells us not to place our confidence in our experience, but to trust God in the darkness, for the abandonment of that bitter day, when Jesus bore our sins and carried our sorrows, is gloriously answered by the resurrection. Suddenly on Easter morning the meaning becomes clear. God has accepted the sacrifice of his Son, and vindicated him by raising him for our justification. Reason fails at the cross, and experience fails as well. Both of them are shown up in this much bigger revelation of God in Christ, dying and rising. If we will come and surrender to the crucified God, our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will put reason in its place, and experience in its place, and worship Christ, and begin to find the meaning and purpose of our lives in his world.

Luther’s theology of the cross is essential for every Christian, and should get much more attention than it does. It also speaks to two pressing issues in our generation. First, the cross-currents of contemporary biblical scholarship among evangelicals are in danger of leading to a new age of scholasticism, in which extra-biblical sources carry almost more weight than the text of Scripture itself. We think we know what Scripture means because we have analysed the writings of other authors of the period, we have inhabited their world, seen how the phrases and genres of Scripture were used elsewhere, and then allowed the extra-biblical material to have a greater validity than Scripture itself. On this basis, evangelicalism is in danger of slowly placing itself above Holy Scripture, and failing to sit under its complete authority.

Second, in an age of prosperity and individualism, Christians have succumbed to the guidance of their own experience. Society says that we have a right to be healthy and wealthy, and that above all we should do what feels right. The prosperity gospel is simply offering back to society its own expectations and experiences. The whole drive of the church gathering is to provide an experience that feels good, and that people go away moved, though that feeling is based entirely on individual experience (and may have a lot to do with the lights, the music and the coffee!). It is also worrying to consider how often, when churches have to make great decisions, it can be that what feels right wins the day. We are far more led by experience than we are by Scripture itself.

This Easter, remember the great anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation at the end of April, and the way in which Luther called the world back to the theology of the cross. Ask yourself how much your understanding of God is based on your own human reason, and how much it is surrendered to the Christ of Scripture and is humbled at the foot of the cross. Ask yourself how much you lean on your own subjective experience, and how often you find the limits of your own understanding. Then step beyond them to the glory shrouded in shame that is the revelation of God in Christ at the cross, and there you will begin to grasp the depths of Christian theology.

 

Image: Memorial Plaque for Luther Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in University Place, Heidelberg, Germany. Anneyh/Wikipedia.

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Martin Luther’s masterstroke

wartburg-castle-2269144_1920Martin Luther left the Diet of Worms in a wagon, guaranteed safe passage home to Wittenberg by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He needed a pledge of safe passage. The diet (the occasional session of the Parliament of the empire) declared him to be a heretic, and there was a price on his head. As the wagon passed through a forest near Eisenach, several knights appeared on horseback, surrounding the wagon, and challenged the terrified men to reveal which one was Luther. His companions, dumbstruck, pointed to Luther immediately, and he was snatched away on horseback. By nightfall, he was safely installed in the Wartburg, the castle of Frederick the Wise, his royal protector. Here Luther was able to lay low, growing a beard and becoming known as ‘Junker Jorg’ (Knight George), though he did not enjoy the rich food and copious wine of the Knights among whom he lived, or their more worldly attitudes. Yet it was in this mountaintop hideout that Luther was able to deliver his most subversive masterstroke.

As he had been taken from the wagon in the forest, Luther had managed to grab his Hebrew Old Testament and his Greek New Testament. Hidden away in his castle garret, he set to translating the Bible into German from the original languages. This was radical in several ways. First, any previous translation had been from the Latin Vulgate, not directly translated from the original languages. This had led to several mistranslations, especially in the understanding of justification. The Vulgate translated it as ‘make righteous’, rather than ‘declare righteous’, thereby confusing the forensic acquittal that is justification with the ongoing process of inner transformation that is sanctification. Second, Luther honoured the people’s language when he translating the Bible directly into German. His translation not only reflected the vernacular; it shaped and standardised it. This is normal in many Bible translation projects. Where literacy is low, giving people the Bible in their own language gives the literate the opportunity to read it to the illiterate, and the written language begins to shape the oral use of the language across the whole national conversation. Just as Tyndale was doing the same for the definition and standardisation of English, so Luther’s Bible shaped the language and conversation of Germany. It is only as secularism has moved people away from the Bible, a movement that coincided with the broadcasting revolution, that language has become anchored elsewhere, or, should I say, swept along in the currents of the mass media.

Luther’s Bible translation was radical for a third reason. In his early books, especially his Address to the German Nobility, he had taught the priesthood of all believers. The Roman Catholic Church focussed all power in the local priest, above him the bishops and Cardinals, with the Pope having ultimate authority. In the lives of everyday people, the priest held an unchallengeable position. He heard your confession, administered the sacraments, and read the Bible in Latin in Church, thereby keeping it from being understood by the common people. The priest stood between God and the people, those in monastic orders were near him in spiritual importance, while the laity was kept at a distance. But if every believer is a ‘royal priest’ (1 Peter 2:9, Rev 1:6) then we are all equal, and what Luther called ‘little Christs’ to one another. This means that the Bible is not to be locked up in Latin so that only an educated priest could understand it. It belongs to everyone, and should not just be read in church but studied personally at home. The Church had been keeping the Bible from the people. Now it must be read and taught everywhere.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this masterstroke. Across the Protestant parts of Europe, societies and systems of government were massively changed by the truths contained in the Bible. On my summer holiday this year, I read Vishal Mangalwadi’s brilliant book, The Book that made your world, a fascinating study in the way western culture at its height was shaped by, and produced by, the truths of the Bible. While it contains one or two glaring historical inaccuracies, the central argument is brilliantly made, and carries more weight coming from someone who was converted from an Indian Buddhist background. It is worth reading in the year of the Luther anniversary.  Our culture was shaped by the Bible, leading the West to value humanity, rationality, technology, language, literature, science, morality, compassion, and so much more. The very roots of modern democratic, parliamentary government owe their existence to the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that brings down tyrants, elites and special interests, and empowers the everyday people of society, holding to account those in power. As our society increasingly seeks to drive the Bible out of our everyday life, to plaster over any hint of its influences, and to take for granted the institutions and values it has given to us, so we head back into a world of class divides, elitism and oppression at the hands of the new priesthoods: the secular humanists, the academics in their exalted ivory towers, and the media moguls and famous celebrities who live in a world above us and hold such huge influence over our lives. Without the Bible, truth, rational thought, and the needs of the soul rather than just the body, are all endangered and steadily being eroded.

This leaves me wondering: why do so few churches go out of their way to give away Bibles? Some do well in giving out gospels of Mark, Luke or John, but most just wait for people to enter their building before they get near a Bible. UCCF has done some sterling work in getting the ‘Uncover’ gospels out into the hands of thousands of students. Great work is still done by the Gideons. But we are not keeping up. Britain is going backwards into biblical illiteracy, and fast. I may be wrong, but I suspect that the panic on a train in Wimbledon station recently when a Christian started reading the Bible aloud may have been partly caused by the fact that most people wouldn’t recognise the difference between the Bible and the Koran, or indeed any other religious Scripture, so ignorant are they of the Bible’s content. Christians need to rediscover confidence in the Bible as God’s Word written. We should have the passion and determination of Luther to see the Word of God in the hands of everyone, in their own vernacular language. If we do, it will transform the moral and spiritual malaise of the West.