Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Nailing the 95 Theses: Legend or Fact?

This year we hear repeatedly that it was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  But did he?  Where is the proof for this?  I remember the first time I encountered skepticism about this claim — I found it intriguing and, the more I looked into it, I became skeptical too.  I’m currently reading Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina & Martin Luther and she mentions this question as well.  Here’s what she writes on page 92:

Interestingly, Reformation scholars today still debate whether or not Luther actually posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Martin Brecht notes that the posting of the Theses on the church doors was first mentioned well after Luther’s death by his friend and fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon, who wasn’t even living in Wittenberg in 1517, the time of the alleged posting.  In his thousands of Table Talk entries Luther never told the story of posting the Theses, nor did he mention it in any of his own writings that detail the beginnings of the reform movement.  Brecht guesses that Luther probably did post the Theses, as nailing a notice on the church door was standard protocol for academics who wished to engage in a public debate, but the truth is, no one knows for sure if Luther stood before the doors of Castle Church with a hammer in his hand.

There’s a bit more information about this matter here.  And over here at the Heidelblog is where I first read about the skeptical approach (thanks, Scott!).


The Eve of the Reformation: Staupitz

As noted several times already on this blog, this year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  Today I want to look at a figure from the period right before the Reformation:  Johann von Staupitz.  I first became interested in Staupitz because of his portrayal in the 2003 movie, Luther.  Bruno Ganz warmly played the part of Staupitz and gave the impression that he was influential in Luther’s life, but also flawed in some ways.  As it turns out, this is not far off the mark.

Johann von Staupitz (1460/69-1524) was Martin Luther’s spiritual father, his mentor.  Without a doubt, Staupitz left his mark on Luther.  While Staupitz himself never broke with the papal Catholic church, he surely did have a hand in the Reformation ignited by his spiritual son Martin Luther.

The Life of Staupitz

There is some uncertainty about his exact birth date — it was sometime between 1460 and 1469.  His family were German nobility and so study was within his reach.  He obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1485 and then went on to a master’s degree right afterwards.  By 1500, he had obtained a doctorate from the university of Tubingen.  At some point in his university years, he took vows and became a member of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.  This was a highly educated Catholic order which emphasized many of the key teachings of Augustine.

Staupitz quickly distinguished himself as an Augustinian monk.  While serving as a prior in Tubingen, he preached 34 sermons on the book of Job.  While they were appreciated by those who heard (and have thus been preserved), Staupitz himself felt that “he had afflicted Job with a worse plague than boils.”  Despite his humble self-assessment, Staupitz was becoming recognized as a careful expositor of the Bible.

In 1502, he was appointed to be the first professor of biblical studies and the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg.  However, because of his growing responsibilities amongst the Augustinians, he spent limited time in Wittenberg and only lectured occasionally.  Much of his time was taken up with travelling and preaching in other places.  For example, in 1516, he was in Nuremburg where he preached a series of Advent sermons.  These became a little book on predestination, first published in Latin, and then later translated into German.

Staupitz and Luther knew each other already in 1511.  Luther was drawn to Staupitz — in fact, Staupitz became his father confessor.  As such, Staupitz tried to help Luther with his spiritual struggles.  In 1511, it was Staupitz who urged Luther to become a doctor and preacher of the Augustinians.  The following year, after Luther achieved that goal, Staupitz vacated his position at the University of Wittenberg and had Luther succeed him.

In 1518, he began hearing reports about his successor in Wittenberg.  Staupitz had mixed feelings about what Luther was saying, writing, and doing.  Some of Luther’s concerns resonated with him, but Luther also frightened him somewhat with his boldness.  When it became clear that Luther was in danger of being arrested, Staupitz made the strategic move of releasing him from his vows to the Augustinian order.  This gave Luther more freedom to speak and act.  After this, Staupitz and Luther would only meet one more time, but they continued to exchange letters.

The papal Church put enormous pressure on Staupitz to bring Luther to his senses.  The pressure was applied through the General of the Augustinian order.  Eventually, in 1520-21, Staupitz resigned his position within the order and even left it altogether.  He became a Benedictine monk instead, trying to retire to a peaceful life within a monastery.  When Luther heard of this, he wrote to Staupitz and rebuked him for his cowardice.  Staupitz replied with a letter in which he reaffirmed his love for Luther, but also insisted that he could not break with the papacy.

He became sick in the spring of 1524 and, after languishing throughout that year, died on December 28.  He died as a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, but one always under suspicion.  In fact, in 1559, the writings of Staupitz were put on “the index,” the Roman Catholic list of banned books.  One might say that this makes Johann von Staupitz an honorary Protestant.

The Theology of Staupitz

When we look at his theology, we start to see that even in the late medieval period, there were theologians who were almost getting the gospel right.  Because of his work in biblical studies, Staupitz was on the right track, even if he still missed some key elements.  His theology was erroneous in maintaining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  He believed that the Virgin Mary was born without original sin.  He held to some unhealthy and unbiblical mysticism.  He still spoke of the mass as a sacrifice.  Yet he was getting closer to the truth than almost anyone before him.  I’ll briefly mention his doctrine of the covenant, his view of human nature, the doctrine of election, and justification.

Staupitz taught a doctrine of the covenant in which God not only establishes the conditions, but also meets those conditions.  God does that through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work.  Everything in this covenant is offered to the elect unconditionally.  Unlike many medieval theologians before him, Staupitz taught a covenant of grace where the faithfulness and grace of God were strongly emphasized.

When it came to human nature, Staupitz had a dim view.  He rejected the Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism of other medieval theologians.  After the fall into sin, the will of man is in bondage.  Man is a prisoner of himself and of self-love.  Therefore, fallen man cannot do what is pleasing to God.  Staupitz wrote, “…man’s nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good.  For this barren man God is sheer fear.”

The biblical doctrine of election also comes out in Staupitz’s theology.  Many medieval theologians taught that election is based on the foreseen behaviour of individual human beings.  Not Staupitz.  Rather, for him, election is based on God’s sovereign good pleasure.

On justification, Staupitz was almost there.  He did not see justification as a process, but as an event.  But whereas many medieval theologians confused justification and sanctification (hence describing it as a process), Staupitz confused the events of justification and regeneration.  In the event of justification, he said, God becomes pleasing and desirable to man.  It happens by the grace of God and through faith, but justification is not a legal event where God the Judge declares the sinner to be righteous.  Instead, Staupitz viewed justification in more relational terms.  Whereas fallen sinners are enslaved to self-love, through justification sinners are freed to love Christ.  In our Reformed theological terms, we would say that this happens in the event of initial regeneration.

Conclusion

There can be no question that Staupitz influenced Luther in his theology, perhaps more than any other individual.  But it’s also important to realize that God worked through Staupitz to put Luther right where he needed to be:  at the University of Wittenberg.  When Luther was under attack, Staupitz was one of the instrumental forces protecting him.  Luther therefore owed a lot to Staupitz, not only personally and theologically, but also academically and strategically.  This friend and ally was weak in some ways, but without him, there could have been no Reformation.  For this reason, the Lutheran Church honours him with his own day on their Calendar of Saints (November 8).  We Reformed do not follow such a calendar, but we can and still should praise God for what he did through this man.


What Caused the Reformation?

presswork

This year we’re celebrating the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  This “birthday” places the birth of the Reformation on October 31st, 1517 — the date Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  One might quibble about the dating.  The Reformation can’t really be compared to a baby being born.  There were a string of events and historical processes that contributed to the movement, and some of these predated 1517.  But, for the sake of convenience, we can run with the 1517 date and celebrate God’s goodness in bringing his Church back to the gospel.  Over the coming months, I hope to have a number of Reformation-related posts.

I want to begin today with considering the question:  what caused the Reformation?  Someone might say, “It’s obvious:  God caused the Reformation.”  As true as that is, it is not a very helpful answer.  We know that God uses various means to accomplish his purposes.  So, what means did God use to bring about the Reformation?

When it comes to such questions, historians sometimes refer to sufficient and necessary causes (or conditions).  Sufficient causes produce the event.  They inevitably cause the event to occur.  Necessary causes are things that had to be present in order for the event to occur, but by themselves don’t produce the event.  The illustration often used is of matches and fire.  What caused the fire?  The necessary causes would be the presence of the match and the presence of a surface on which to strike the match.  The sufficient cause would be a person taking the match and actually striking it.  I want to focus on three necessary causes of the Reformation.  These were things that had to be present before the Reformation could really ignite and set Europe aflame with gospel renewal.

The first is printing technology.  The movable-type printing press appeared in Europe in the fifteenth century, but it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that this technology came into its own.  Printers finally became proficient at producing mass quantities of books.  Moreover, on the eve of the Reformation, a process for manufacturing paper in a cost-effective way is perfected.  Potential for mass quantity plus cheaper paper equals the possibility of literature available to a wider scope of the population.  Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers produced literature that took advantage of this technology.  Their writings went far and wide, spreading the gospel hope.  Without advances in printing technology, the Reformation would not have occurred.

But these advances would have meant nothing if people continued producing literature in Latin.  The second necessary cause is the proliferation of literature in the native tongues of Europe.  Even outside of theology, writers started putting out books written in German, French, English, Dutch, and so on.  Works were still written in Latin (even into the eighteenth century), but these were specialist writings geared to academics.  Right before the Reformation, however, books were being written in the vernacular for non-academics.  The Reformation became a populist movement by capitalizing on this development.  For example, the 95 Theses were originally written in Latin — after all, Luther desired an academic debate.  However, they were soon translated into German.  Eventually, many of Luther’s writings were first written solely in German.  The Reformation took off because of people like Luther writing in German, Calvin writing in French, and so on.  Of course, of all writings appearing in the vernacular, the most powerful of all was the Word of God.  Finally, people could read for themselves what Scripture says in their own language — and that was gospel dynamite.

However, that assumes that people can read.  That brings me to the last necessary cause:  the rise of education and literacy in Europe.  Prior to the 1500s, literacy was reserved for a select few.  Stories are told of royalty that did not know how to read.  There were parish priests who were functionally illiterate — they would have memorized just enough Latin to carry out their duties.  But coming into the 1500s, this begins changing.  By 1517, literacy was still not what it is today, but it had improved and it continued improving.  In fact, because of the Reformation emphasis on the importance of reading the Scriptures, wherever the Reformation took hold, educational improvements followed.  Schools were established and literacy was expected to be the norm rather than the exception.  Without improvements in literacy, however, we would not even be talking about the Reformation as one of the great events in history.

I have described three necessary causes for the Reformation:  printing technology, vernacular literature, and literacy.  Yes, there are more necessary causes that could be mentioned, but those three are among the most important.  Without them, there would have been no return to the Scriptures, no return to the gospel.  In his providence, at just the right time, our sovereign God brought these developments into being and thus prepared the way for a recovery of his saving truth.  We see his hand in it all and praise him for it!

 


Luther: Baptizatus sum (I am baptized)

martin_luther_by_cranach

I have heard and read it several times:  when Luther was tempted by the devil, he would look at the words written in chalk on his desk: “baptizatus sum” (Latin for “I am baptized”).  In connection with my upcoming catechism sermon on Lord’s Day 26, I decided to look into this a little more.  I have been unable to find an exact reference for the words being written in chalk on his desk.  However, I did find several other references which I find rather interesting.

In his biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Heiko Oberman quotes Luther:  “The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.”  The endnote refers to the source of this as WAT 6. no.6830; 217, 26f.

A blog entitled Liber locorum communium provides a few relevant quotes from Luther, including this one:  “I am a child of God, I am baptized, I believe in Jesus Christ crucified for me” (translation mine).  The source is given as  TR 5658a, WA TR 5, p. 295, ll. 27-30.

Finally, there is Because of Christ, the memoirs of the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten.  In a footnote, he says that the full quote from Luther is:  “Behold, I am baptized, and I believe in Christ crucifed” (translation mine).  Unfortunately, he does not provide the source.

The intriguing thing about each of these quotes is that baptism does not stand alone — it is joined to faith.  Was Luther always consistent in maintaining the appropriate connection between baptism and faith?  Patrick Ramsey says no.

 


Book Review: Prayer

Keller Prayer

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Timothy Keller, New York: Dutton, 2014. Hardcover, 336 pages, $31.00.

There is a disturbing phenomenon we’ve seen in the last few years. It involves celebrity pastors and their fans. It seems these pastors can teach, write and do anything they want and their fans (let’s call them “fanboys”) will defend them come what may. Certainly Tim Keller is a celebrity pastor with a “fanboy” following as well – there are some for whom the man can do no wrong. This is a dangerous way to regard sinful and fallible fellow human beings. However, one can also react wrongly in a different direction. Seeing a few significant problems with a popular writer, one might be inclined to write off everything he says. It’s true that some “Christian” celebrities are so far gone that they should be written off – they are false teachers with a false gospel and believers need to be warned to stay clear, lest they be deceived and led astray. However, I am not convinced that Tim Keller falls into that category. Keller does have significant problems in some areas – I’m thinking especially of his openness to theistic evolution and his approach to apologetics – but he has also made helpful contributions in other areas.

This book on prayer is the best Keller book I’ve read so far. Prayer is a very easy thing to talk about (“I’ll pray for you”), but an incredibly challenging thing to practice, particularly to practice biblically. Keller breaks down the topic in an easily understandable fashion. Undoubtedly one of his greatest strengths is a clear writing style and Prayer fully capitalizes on that strength.

Keller wrote this book to help people understand and practice Christian prayer. His aim was to explain the theological, experiential, and methodological aspects of prayer and, for the most part, he succeeds. He draws from the Scriptures and especially from the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms (“the prayer book of the Bible”). However, he also builds on what previous generations have taught on prayer. This book is notable for its extensive use of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Owen. Keller persuasively shows how these godly men of the past can still teach us today a lot about “experiencing awe and intimacy with God.”

I especially appreciated Keller’s emphasis on prayer as a response to God. In fact, he defines prayer as “personal communicative response to the knowledge of God” (45). Christians should listen to God speaking in his Word and then prayer is the appropriate response. One’s devotional life is therefore a two-way street. Though Keller himself doesn’t say this, I would compare it to the covenantal dialogue we experience in public worship: God speaks through his Word and his people respond. It’s the same with our private worship or devotions – it should have a conversational nature reflecting the relationship between you and your God.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is Keller’s critique of contemplative spirituality and mystical prayer practices. He is rather vocal in criticizing those who would teach that prayer involves emptying the mind and escaping rationality. So, for example, he spends several paragraphs explaining how Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton contradicts biblical teaching on prayer (see pages 56-59). Practices like mantras, centering prayer, the Jesus prayer, and lectio divina are all censured to varying degrees by Keller. That does leave one a bit baffled, however, by the fact that the church that Keller pastors, Redeemer PCA in New York City, promotes lectio divina on its website. In the past, Redeemer has also offered classes in some of the practices that Keller warns readers about in this book.

Somewhat related to the foregoing, I also want to express some concern about a quote from Martin Luther. Luther wrote a little booklet entitled “A Simple Way to Pray” and Keller makes extensive use of it. Near the end of chapter 6, he mentions that Luther taught that one should always be alert and ready to hear the preaching of the Holy Spirit within. While in prayer, a believer can suddenly be overcome by good and edifying thoughts and then he or she should sit still and listen. Says Luther, “The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.” This is one of the most abused quotes of Luther. Authors like Sarah Young (in Jesus Calling) appeal to this quote to justify their belief that God has spoken directly to them. Luther was often given to very expressive and over-the-top language and I doubt that he wished to provide support to the modern-day descendants of those Anabaptists who claimed to receive direct revelation from God. Instead, Luther’s intent was to remind Christians of how we may sometimes receive illumination from the Spirit – he can sometimes enlighten our hearts and bring us to breakthroughs in our understanding of spiritual truths found in God’s Word. I’m convinced Keller knows this too: “Luther is talking about the eyes of our hearts being enlightened (Eph. 1:18) so that things we know with the mind become more fully rooted in our beings’ core” (96). Yet, because this quote is so easily misunderstood with its use of the word “preach,” I wish that Keller had explained more clearly that this is not speaking of extra-biblical revelation and gives no support to those, like Sarah Young, who claim that the Lord spoke to them in their quiet time.

This volume will answer a lot of the common questions that believers have about prayer. For instance, there is a solid biblical answer for the oft-discussed question of whether we have the freedom to pray to our Lord Jesus or to the Holy Spirit (see pages 125-126).  Another question: does prayer change things? If so, how does that relate to God’s sovereignty? (see pages 223-225). Unfortunately, there are other questions that are left unanswered. I would have liked to see some discussion of the mechanics of corporate prayer. How exactly do we pray together in a group, such as in public worship? This is not often given much thought.

Keller’s book on prayer is both readable and practical. Readers will come away with a good grasp of how to improve this aspect of their personal devotions so that they grow in their relationship with God through our Saviour Jesus. Remarkably, I found this book at my local Chapters bookstore – not at a Christian outlet. Though I’m still not a big fan of the author, I’m thankful that Keller’s celebrity status helps books like this get out to a wider audience and I do hope that it will bless many readers with a better and more biblical understanding of this vitally important topic.