The Heidelberg Disputation

The 26th April 2018 marks the 500th anniversary of ‘The Heidelberg Disputation’. As we marked ‘Luther 500’ last year it was disappointing that so little attention was given to this seminal event which reveals the depth of Luther’s spirituality. Carl Truman called it: “One of the theologically foundational events for later Lutheranism.”

“Brother Martin Luther, Master of Sacred Theology, will preside, and Brother Leonhard Beyer, Master of Arts and Philosophy, will defend the following theses before the Augustinians of this renowned city of Heidelberg in the customary place, on April 26th 1518.”

This discussion, organised by Luther’s Augustinian Order, is therefore, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses. They advanced Luther’s growing realisation that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.

Jonathan Kleis says of it:
“It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work. In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther’s comprehensive vision for the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God”.

The Heidelberg Disputation contains a total of 40 statements laid out for discussion: 28 were theological and 12 were philosophical.

At this meeting, Luther put forward a “theology of the cross” as opposed to a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory, according to Luther, always leaves the will in control. The theology of the cross: assumes that the will is bound and must be set free.

These 28 theological statements are much more cogent that the 95 Theses and obviously represent a reflection of Luther’s Biblical study. They also reflect Luther’s personal spiritual journey. The 95 Theses were concerned purely with the sale/misuse of Indulgences and therefore contained a strong element of ‘Pope bashing’. When Luther visit to Rome in 1510, on behalf of the Augustinian Order, he was shocked by the immorality and corruption of the Church. This experience influenced his approach.

There is a progressive nature in these 28 theological statements discussed at Heidelberg, the later ones take us to the heart of the Gospel. Let us look at some by way of illustration:

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

The Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, comments: “For the alcoholic the humility to confess, ‘I am an alcoholic,’ is not a mark of despair but of hope. . . Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so leads to life”.
In many respects this statement is the key to the entire discussion, and is what Luther is developing with the previous seventeen. There is nothing good in us because of sin, and any trust in our own abilities or our own works, is damning. We must be brought low before we can be exalted, we must be put to death before God makes us alive.

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

In proof of this Luther quotes Philippians 3:18 – “enemies of the cross of Christ”.
Luther declared: “It is clear:He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the Apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ”, for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good.”

This affirmation of Luther reminds us that it is only through suffering and the cross that sinners can come to know God.

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

This thesis is simply nothing more that the Reformation affirmation that justification is by faith alone without the deeds of the law. Luther quotes Romans 3;20 in support – “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law;”

Luther stated in the debate: “Therefore I wish to have the words ‘without works’ understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted, the works follow.”

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

In the debate Luther pointed out: “For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfil everything through him since he was made ours through faith.”

As Gerhard Forde put it: “That is why he can make the claim that faith doesn’t have to be prompted to do good works because in faith everything is already done.”

This is reflected in Philip Doddridge’s hymn: ‘O Happy Day’:
‘Tis done the great transaction’s done;
I am my Lord’s, and He is mine;

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.
The proof of this thesis Luther finds in Matthew 9:13 “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In defending this particular thesis he stated: “Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”

Here Luther takes us to the very heart of the Gospel of salvation. We cannot make ourselves acceptable to God – All our works are of no value whatsoever. We do not make our peace with God – God has made peace with us via the Cross of Christ.

As Luther said – “That is the way things are. . . The cross shuts down all alternatives”

During ‘Luther 500’ much has been made of the five solas. – “Scripture alone”, “faith alone”,“grace alone”,“Christ alone”,”to the glory of God alone. Perhaps we should add a sixth – sola crux, the cross alone!

This theology of the cross is reflected in many of our Reformed Hymns:

Edward Mote: “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

Augustus Montague Toplady’s Hymns such as “Rock of Ages” and “How vast the benefits divine”:
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;

But not for works which we have done,
Or shall hereafter do,
Hath God decreed on sinful men
Salvation to bestow.

Eliza E. Hewitt “My faith has found a resting place,”
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.

Modern Hymn writers also reflect this core of the Gospel: Keith Getty & Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone’
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

First and foremost Martin Luther was the ‘Theologian of the Cross’. In the midst of all the celebrations of Luther and the Reformation, this should not be forgotten.

This article appeared in the April 2018 edition of The Presbyterian Herald – with some errors.

A shorter version also appeared in the Irish News on Thursday 19 April 2018