WAS MARTIN LUTHER A SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGIAN? – The general consensus among historians is no
by Church Militant • ChurchMilitant.com • November 18, 2017
By T. J. Lang
We are hearing more and more about Martin Luther in this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolt. This includes a great deal about what a fine theologian and scriptural exegete (interpreter) he was. It was Luther who discovered/developed the foundational beliefs of Protestantism, beliefs that still separate the Reformation churches from the Catholic Church. Whether they realize it or not, Protestants have pretty much “bet the farm” that Luther was correct in his core teachings and right to oppose the doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church. Simply put, the validity of the Reformation rests on Luther’s shoulders.
But was he the great theologian he is portrayed to have been? Or was he simply another heretic in a long line of heretics, albeit more “successful” than most?
Protestants, and surprisingly Lutherans, are prone to deny that their core theology was developed by Martin Luther. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the first three to four centuries after the Protestant Revolt began, Luther was treated with extreme reverence, that reverence going so far as to proclaim him an Old Testament-style Prophet led personally by God. In fact, that assessment was basically how Luther viewed himself.
As an example of the dozens of outrageous statements by Luther regarding his own personal authority, he wrote in his 1522 work Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called:
Therefore, I now let you know that from now on I shall no longer do you the honor of allowing you — or even an angel from heaven — to judge my teaching or to examine it. … I shall not have it judged by any man, not even by any angel. For since I am certain of it, I shall be your judge and even the angels’ judge through this teaching (as St. Paul says [I Cor. 6:3]) so that whoever does not accept my teaching may not be saved — for it is God’s and not mine. Therefore, my judgment is also not mine but God’s.
Interestingly, during this same time, Luther was criticizing the Bishop of Rome for claiming too much authority. However, no Pope has ever come close to making the kind of overreaching statements Luther made about his personal authority. Claiming that your teaching is directly from God is one thing, but claiming that the salvation of others depends on following your personally developed teaching is a whole different level of arrogance and self-importance.
It was Luther who, for the first time in Christian history, proclaimed Salvation by Faith Alone — Sola Scriptura — and the right of the individual to correctly interpret Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. These doctrines still separate Catholics and Protestants. Given that the validity of the Reformation and its teachings rest on the shoulders of Martin Luther, it is crucial to determine just how good a theologian and scriptural scholar he really was.
The noted Lutheran theologian and historian, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, who later converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, wrote in Obedient Rebels, “The great theologians of the Church’s past and present are usually celebrated for their systematic formulations rather than their exegetical insights.”
What is systematic theology? “Systematic theology is a discipline which addresses theological topics one by one (e.g., God, Sin, Humanity) and attempts to summarize all the biblical teaching on each particular subject,” according to Theopedia.com. “[T]he goal is to present the major themes (i.e., doctrines) of the Christian faith in an organized and ordered overview that remains faithful to the biblical witness.”
No Pope has ever come close to making the kind of overreaching statements Luther made about his personal authority.Tweet
Was Luther actually a “systematic theologian” (like Calvin, Aquinas, or Augustine)? Was his mind structured such that he could “develop” in a coherent manner new directions in theology? Did he have the ability to establish a theology that was orderly, rational, coherent and internally consistent? Was he capable of communicating his theological beliefs such that they could be understood correctly?
“Luther never became a systematic theologian,” writes E.G. Schweibert in Luther and His Times. “He always remained primarily a Biblical exegete.”
According to (then-Lutheran) Pelikan, this means that Luther was not a “great theologian” at all. Another modern-day Lutheran, Hans Hillerbrand, Professor of History and Religion at Duke, confirms Luther as not being a systematic theologian. As he writes in The Legacy of Martin Luther:
Luther was not a systematic theologian in the sense of having a written exposition of theology. He was what might be called a “polemical” theologian — Karl Barth used the term “irregular” theologian to characterize the likes of Luther. His theology was not expressed in works of a systematic nature and character, but in polemical works.
In order to be “systematic,” theologians must be cautious, steady and thoughtful, attributes that enhance the possibility that “their”” theologies will “fit together” as a whole. Luther, on the other hand, was not one to spend much time working on making sure his thoughts were organized and coherent. In describing Luther’s polemical style, Schweibert informs us, “When an enemy attacked him, a reply was off the press in a few weeks. He never rewrote, seldom polished, yet the richness and diversity of thought that came from his productive brain are truly amazing.”
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The True Depiction of the Papacy. Woodcut commissioned by Martin Luther showing the devil excreting the Roman Pontiff
Martin Luther was vehement about his positions against the Catholic Church, but in fact he didn’t understand them very well. Before he was excommunicated in 1521, and in the middle of his conflict with the Church, he didn’t even realize he was espousing heretical or near-heretical views. Richard Marius, author of one of the best and most complete biographies of Luther, wrote in his book Martin Luther, The Christian Between God and Death the following about the Protestant revolutionary during the time prior to his excommunication, specifically about the role of the priest in the sacrament of confession: “Luther was now at the edge of heresy if not beyond, whether he knew it or not, and in Rome the wheels intended to grind heresy to powder now began slowly to turn.”
Interestingly, in Luther’s day when the edge of heresy was being reached, it was Rome that began to turn the wheels to grind it to powder.
Of course, Martin Luther is always defended as being a Catholic priest and monk who had a doctorate in Scripture, which means he should have had a very good understanding of the Catholic faith. If Luther had had a better understanding of Catholicism, however, meaning at the time, of Christianity, he would have realized that his 95 Theses contained the beginnings of heresy, if not outright heresy.
“He committed the mistake of supposing that the radical views reached under the influence of his own religious experience were in harmony with the faith of the church. It is a common mistake,” writes Protestant Arthur Cushman McGiffert in Martin Luther, the Man and His Work. “Luther maintained at Leipsic not merely that his interpretation of the papacy was correct, but that it was orthodox, and in this, as Eck showed, he was wrong.”
The better theologians of the time (and there were many) recognized the 95 Theses as, at best, flirting with heresy, and began to oppose him. Like a true heretic, though, their opposition only caused him to double down. In fact, even after his break with the Church, Luther continued to hold that his views represented historical Catholic teaching. In other words, what Luther revolted against was not the actual teachings of the Church but his misconceptions of those teachings, which makes Luther’s Revolt, by definition, a blunder.
Pelikan writes in Reformation of Church and Dogma:
It had not been his “will or intention” to elevate his own private theological concerns to the status of doctrinal issues affecting the entire church, and he long professed the conviction that what he had “discovered” was something that the best theologians of the church must have known all along. The eventual realization that such was not the case precipitated his theology into the public forum of the church, both through his condemnations of those teachings into official confessional statements during and after his own lifetime
Much of what Luther wrote was written in the heat of battle with his opponents. He was not in any way kind towards them. He may in fact have been the most angry theologian in Christian history.
“Anger he always recognized as his greatest fault, but he believed it a very good thing in its place. He liked to be angry in a good cause, he once remarked. It refreshed him like a thunderstorm, and he could write much better for it. As a matter of fact, he seldom deliberated over his controversial productions, but dashed them off while his wrath was at its hottest, and, printing always as he wrote, he never had the opportunity or took the pains to revise and moderate his language after the first flush of indignation had passed.” McGiffert, pg. 152-3
He may in fact have been the most angry theologian in Christian history. Tweet
One would hope the “theologian” who formed the basic Protestant understandings of the Gospel would have written out or compiled his theology out of love and compassion. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Luther’s theology was established helter-skelter. He never really thought all that much about where his theology was leading him and never really thought about it in any depth, until he was angry — and then he just let the words flow as they came to him in his state of fury, presuming that he was led by the Holy Spirit to correctly represent God’s Absolute Truth.
Luther was warned specifically that his teaching of personal interpretation of Holy Scriptures would lead to doctrinal and communal disunity.
“Men of Eck’s conviction foresaw — rightly, as it turned out — that once the individual conscience was granted freedom to seek its own definition of truth,” Marius comments, “Christian faith would become so fragmented that no consensus would be possible and that the uncertainties in any religion would then become the spiritual equipment of humankind.”
How could Luther’s teaching on the private interpretation of Holy Scripture have led to anything other than the doctrinal confusion and denominalization that we see in today’s Protestantism, with its uncountable number of competing and doctrinally conflicting sects? Unfortunately for Christianity and Western civilization, Luther failed to heed those extremely prophetic warnings and produced a version of Christianity that had doctrinal confusion and uncertainty “baked into the cake.”
It is completely understandable that Protestant versions of history very much whitewash the actual Martin Luther to make him look more like a valid reformer of the Christian Church.
The lesson to be learned from the actual facts of Martin Luther’s Revolt is the need for a centralized Holy Spirit-inspired authority, as is found only in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the Catholic Church seem intent on elevating the status of Martin Luther from his official position of heretic to the point of appearing to actually honor him and even his theological insights. What could their motivation be unless it is to weaken the Church in the same way Luther did so that they can advance their own radical agenda — including on things like homosexuality?
T.J. Lang converted to Catholicism 25 years ago and has been studying the early Reformation ever since. He lives in rural Maryland and has four children and five grandchildren.
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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther
Martin Luther (/ˈluːθər/; German: [ˈmaɐ̯tiːn ˈlʊtɐ] ( listen); 10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546), O.S.A., was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation.
Luther came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the Catholic view on indulgences as he understood it to be, that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money. Luther proposed an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517. His refusal to renounce all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 resulted in his excommunication by the Pope and condemnation as an