HEIDELBERG DISPUTATION

[Supplementary to 2nd Corinthian Posts]

Continuing from the previous post concerning the theology of sovereign grace developed by 4th/5th century Augustine of Hippo, reinforced and further radicalized by Martin Luther, the 28 theses formed the basis of what came to be known as the Heidelberg disputation.

Historical background to the Heidelberg disputation

On Halloween 1517 the instigator of the Protestant Reformation posted 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg in the context of a proposed theological debate he wished to organize. It is thought to be around this time that Martin Luder changed his name to Luther, ostensibly so that it might resemble the Greek word for freedom (elutherius), probably also in view of what his original family name meant in his native tongue. The 95 theses had focussed on the practice of clergy selling indulgences, being certificates believed to reduce the temporal punishment in “purgatory” for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones. I won’t expand on that here but in an earlier post I showed that although the burning away of dross for the purpose of purification and punishment is a biblical concept, it cannot be measured in earthly time or degree. The practice of believers doing penance or contributing money to alleviate post-mortem suffering cannot be traced back beyond the beginning of the 2nd millennium. By the middle ages it had become a profitable business: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”, a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, papal seller of such indulgences having been tasked with raising money for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Such practices and their doctrinal/biblical basis were clearly open to question. Dr Luther, by that time a highly regarded monk who had risen to become Professor of moral theology at Wittenberg university believed that at the very least the matter should debated. What further aspirations he had at that point of challenging the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church or breaking away from her are also a matter for debate, but the following year the theological scope of his enquiry was broadened, and that is where the 28 theses come in.

These are set out below (my highlighting) and can be verified HERE , for some may not entirely believe what they are reading:

The 28 THEOLOGICAL THESES pertaining to the Heidelberg disputation – presented by Martin Luther and Leonhard Beyer to a meeting of the Augustinian order at Heidelberg on 26th April 1518:

Introductory Statement: “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”.

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

2 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.

3 Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.

4 Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.

5 The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.

6 The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.

7 The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.

8 By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.

9 To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.

10 Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.

11 Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.

12 In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.

13 Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.

14 Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.

15 Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.

16 The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.

17 Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.

18 It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

19 That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),

20 He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21 A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

22 That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

23 The law brings the wrath of God (Rom. 4:15), kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.

24 Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.

25 He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

26 The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and everything is already done.

27 Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

28 The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it

Context of this post

Before delving into the maelstrom I should explain that the current and previous post are subtitled “supplementary” for they don’t follow the normal pattern of going sequentially through the New Testament making observations concerning the matters set out in my book on divine providence. The subject under consideration here (sovereign grace as Augustine and Luther interpreted it) is nevertheless a spin-off from those recent studies and pertains to matters central to the book’s primary thesis. That is that once God’s providence has been rightly understood the Creator is seen to be comprehensively and comprehensibly admirable to men and women of reason who (after all) were created in His image. So unusually for this post I provide a short testimony concerning the background to this writing.

A brief testimony

There are twenty-eight theses under consideration at the Heidelberg Disputation and I happened to be an Evangelical for twenty-eight years (1970-1998) but in my case knew nothing of these. If I had, I am not sure what I would have made of them, for as a result of (effectively) two spiritual encounters 14 years apart, my theological perspective has been transformed. The first revelation came in late 1998 and resulted in my joining the Roman Catholic Church. Given that I had just that year completed training for the Baptist ministry, that was a shock for many, and I lost a lot of friends. That particularly was the case with those like myself who had been hard-line Calvinists whereas some more liberal, open-minded Evangelicals I had come to know during my time in Wales (1994-2000) still accepted me as a Christian, even welcoming me along to their house prayer meetings and bible studies.

The second encounter that I am equally clear involved the Holy Spirit occurred early in 2013 just after retiring from my job as a London bus driver (having earlier taken voluntary redundancy as a civil servant). That was more emotionally powerful than the first experience resulting in much joy, not primarily for myself but for humanity as a whole. I came to perceive the breadth of God’s benign providence – His loving intentions towards all redeemable humanity [note 1]. With both experiences, the joy was tempered with sorrow, at times anger and on one occasion sheer horror with regard to what I believed the Spirit was revealing to me.  1998 had focussed on Luther, 2013 more on Augustine, in both cases concerning their interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s teachings upon which so much of Western churches’ theology has been based. As is evident from the Heidelberg disputation theses and their supporting evidence (next post), the Augustinian monk Luther relied heavily upon his patriarch’s interpretations to support his own case. That has been an uncomfortable reality for many post-medieval Catholic theologians but is an indisputable fact.

Testing prophetic insights

In terms of the joy I experienced through those two spiritual encounters – I simply want to share it. Regarding details relating to some of the more dreadful disclosures, I remain either silent or cryptic – unless and until the validity of these endeavours has been authenticated, either to myself at the spiritual level or by popular affirmation. But as is always the case, even if such an affirmation were forthcoming, that of itself would not ensure that what is being presented is the Truth. However, if the following principles/outcomes can be shown to apply, it almost certainly will be the truth, a genuine prophetic insight and indicative that certain prophetic scriptures are also about to be fulfilled. For no one in history including the two men under consideration in this post have come close to meeting many, let alone all of the following criteria:

  1. Any new interpretation must be faithful to a highly literal rather than ultra-allegorical reading of the Hebrew/Greek biblical text.
  2. Paul’s teachings as re-interpreted must not fundamentally contradict the New Testament writings of other apostles.
  3. Paul’s teaching itself should become more coherent, e.g. Romans 2 can be reconciled with the rest of his epistle.
  4. Paul’s doctrines should not turn Jesus’ moral or juridical teaching on its head such that the latter can only be understood in the context of being “a preparation for the gospel of Paul”
  5. God’s providential care for humanity as a whole and the eschatological outcomes should accord with what one would expect from a God defined as love personified (1Jn4:8)
  6. The theology presented must accord with the fact that as Jesus declared to disciple Philip, His nature was a perfect reflection of His Father’s even during His earthly ministry (Jn14:9).
  7. What is proposed should not be entirely opposed to reason such as the notion that for much of the Christian era, the Church as a whole was ignorant of the essentials of gospel salvation.
  8. The proposed theology and ecclesiology should bare some resemblance to that of the very early Church, many of whose leaders had received the Faith from the apostles or their near successors. Whilst allowing for legitimate doctrinal development and revelatory insights, the latter if genuine would not have the effect of turning the theology and polity of the churches that had recently received the Faith from the apostles on its head.
  9. The Eucharist/Mass/Divine Liturgy would be central to the life of the Church, just as it has been in all those churches (East and West) that can trace their origins and sacerdotal lineage back to the Apostles. It will be shown to be essential for gospel salvation being the awesome sacrifice entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and forgiveness of their sins.
  10. The Cross of Christ will be revered as the victory of God over evil (Jn12:31), the provision of pardon and propitiation for the sins of the world whilst also providing sanctification and spiritual nourishment for those worthily participating in its sacramental re-enactment (cf., Jn6:53).

I am clear that my new interpretations accord with all the above whereas the distinctive theology of Augustine and Luther’s insights do not; nor would the latter have believed that they should for he regarded the earliest Christian writers as being in utter darkness concerning faith [note 2].

The next few posts will take a closer look at the Heidelberg Disputation theses and the supporting evidence Luther provided. Whilst temporarily interrupting my sequential observations of the New Testament, it will be observed that many of the points raised in the theses relate to matters covered quite recently in the Romans/Corinthians postings.

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Note#1 – The devil’s seed (cf., Gen3:15)

As considered in an earlier post and chapter six of the Little Book of Providence, not all human beings are redeemable or in a sense fully human. They do not reflect God’s image but that of the one who planted them (Mt13:39 & 15:13). The first such was Cain “who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil, but his brother’s were righteous” (1Jn3:12)

Note#2 – Luther’s extraordinary assertion that ALL the known early Fathers of the Church were in darkness concerning faith:

“OF THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH”

Behold what great darkness is in the books of the Fathers concerning faith; yet if the article of justification be darkened it is impossible to smother the grossest error of mankind… Augustine wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith until he was roused up and made a man by the Pelagians, in striving against them. I can find no exposition upon the Epistles to the Romans or Galatians where anything is taught pure and aright. Oh what a happy time have we now in regard to the purity of the doctrine, but alas we little esteem it”. [Martin Luther Table Talk # DXXX Marshall Montgomery Collection – translated William Hazlitt] 

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