Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation
Dr. Phillip Cary is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, where he is also Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College. After receiving his B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy from Washington University in St. Louis, Professor Cary earned his M.A. in Philosophy and Ph.D. in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale University. Professor Cary is a recent winner of the Lindback Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching at Eastern University. He has also taught at Yale University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Hartford. As the Arthur J. Ennis Post-Doctoral Fellow at Villanova University, he taught the nationally recognized undergraduate Core Humanities seminars on ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and modern thought. As a scholar, Professor Cary's specialty is the thought of Augustine, but he has also published scholarly articles on Luther, the doctrine of the Trinity, and personal knowledge. His most recent books include two on Augustine, Inner Grace and Outward Signs, both published by Oxford University Press in 2008, as well as a commentary on the book of Jonah, also in 2008, published by Brazos Press.
01: Luther's Gospel
Luther's Gospel is essentially something all Christians believe: the story of Christ dying for us sinners. What was new and controversial is Luther's doctrine about the Gospel—about how we are changed simply by believing it. Professor Cary tells a parable to illustrate the experience of faith in the Gospel as Luther understood it.
02: The Medieval Church—Abuses and Reform
Clerical abuses, most of which involved money, were prevalent in Luther's time. At its worst, the late medieval church funded itself by claiming authority over individuals' consciences and exploiting their anxieties about the next life.
03: The Augustinian Paradigm of Spirituality
At its best, the medieval church promoted a broadly Augustinian notion of an earthly pilgrimage leading to eternal happiness. But late medieval Christians were tormented by a question that disrupted the pilgrimage: How can I stand before God's judgment? Luther's Gospel addresses this question.
04: Young Luther Against Himself
In his early doctrine of justification, Luther concluded that the way to become truly righteous is to hate oneself and wish to be damned, agreeing with the righteous God who condemns sinners. This promoted an experience of deep terror from which only the Gospel could rescue him.
05: Hearing the Gospel
For the mature Luther, the Gospel includes a divine promise of forgiveness that forbids us from regarding ourselves as God's enemies. In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther described this as a wedding vow that gives us a divine bridegroom, together with all that is his. Unlike Augustine's paradigm, Christ is not just the road we take, but is God coming to us and making himself ours.
06: Faith and Works
Luther distinguishes Law and Gospel: One is God's commandment telling us what to do, the other is His promise of what He does for us. Because salvation comes simply by believing the Gospel, a question arises: What need is there to do good works? Luther answered this in The Freedom of a Christian and in other writings such as his Treatise on Good Works.
07: The Meaning of the Sacraments
For Luther, the Gospel is an external word that gives believers what it promises. Like a sacrament, it is an outward sign that gives the inward gift it signifies. This sacramental concept of the word of God can be found in Luther's earliest treatises on the sacraments, dealing with penance, baptism, and the Eucharist.
08: The Indulgence Controversy
The Reformation began with the indulgence controversy, when Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. The controversy exploded when Luther's earliest papal opponent labeled him a heretic because he questioned practices approved by the pope. This turned an academic disputation about the theology of indulgences into a Europe-wide controversy over papal authority.
09: The Reformation Goes Public
Protected by his prince, Frederick "the Wise" of Saxony, Luther developed a program of reformation. His address "To the Christian Nobility" backed the German aristocracy in age-old complaints against the clergy. He was tried as a heretic on German soil at the Diet of Worms in 1521 before the emperor of Germany, not the pope of Rome. The Lutheran Reformation was ever afterwards tied to the protection of the state.
10: The Captivity of the Sacraments
Among the world-changing works Luther published in 1520 is The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In it, Luther criticized the Catholic sacramental system. He recognized baptism and the Lord's Supper (and in a way, penance) as sacraments, but dismissed the rest of the traditional seven sacraments because they did not contain a sign and a divine promise.
11: Reformation in Wittenberg
The Reformation began in Wittenberg, Luther's hometown. This is where he learned to make the reforms work. This is also where his own life was drastically changed when he married an ex-nun named Katherine von Bora. We know a great deal about Luther's home life because his dinner guests often wrote down his table talk.
12: The Work of the Reformer
Luther left an indelible mark on German culture. He translated the Bible into German. He composed catechisms that are still used today. He wrote deeply sensitive letters of spiritual counsel. And he wrote music designed to fill people's hearts with the Gospel, including such famous hymns as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
13: Against the Spirit of Rebellion
Luther opposed both spirituality and rebellion, which he found often went hand in hand. Although sympathetic to peasant grievances, he was appalled by the Great Peasant War of 1525. In "Against the Robbing and Murdering Horde of the Peasants" he insisted that Christians in good conscience should "stab, smite, and slay" those rebelling against legitimate authority.
14: Controversy Over the Lord’s Supper
The differences between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation are best understood by their views on the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. The leader of the Reformed, Huldreich Zwingli of Zurich, argued that the Eucharist symbolized Christ's body, but did not make it really present. Luther found this view literally devilish.
15: Controversy Over Infant Baptism
The Lutheran and Radical wings of the Reformation disagreed, above all, about baptism. Called by their opponents Anabaptists (i.e., rebaptizers) the radicals regarded infant baptism as invalid because infants could not believe, and therefore baptized only adults—even those already baptized as infants. The Anabaptist position forced Luther to explain how infant baptism, which he defended, was compatible with his emphasis on faith alone.
16: Grace and Justification
The doctrine of justification (how one becomes righteous before God) is the most characteristic legacy of the Reformation. Luther's position can be contrasted with both the Catholic doctrine of sanctifying grace and the Reformed emphasis on forensic justification. Luther's large commentary on Paul's letter to the Galatians (1535) is the gold standard on his mature doctrine of justification.
17: Luther and the Bible
Luther initiated the Protestant tradition of emphasizing the literal rather than allegorical sense of Scripture. To read the Bible literally, for Luther, is to find Christ in it. But as early as Calvin, critics wondered if Luther's biblical interpretation was too narrowly focused on the doctrine of justification. Luther's reading of Paul's writings in the New Testament is a test case for this kind of criticism.
18: Luther and Erasmus
Desiderius Erasmus, a contemporary of Luther's, was a famous humanist, renowned scholar, and the leading Christian moralist of his day. Though sympathetic to Luther's criticisms of the Catholic Church, he never joined the Reformation and ended up in a fierce controversy with Luther over the role of free will in salvation.
19: Luther and Predestination
How is it that the lovely notion of grace seems to turn into the horrifying notion of predestination? The deep concept here, as Calvin realized, is the doctrine of election; i.e., of God's choice to be gracious to some undeserving sinners rather than others. Theologian Karl Barth has argued that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin mistakenly made election into bad news, as if it meant some were chosen instead of others, rather than some for the sake of others.
20: Luther and Protestantism
Luther is more "Catholic" than most Protestants. The best way to see this is to clarify the anxieties characteristic of each theology. Catholics worry about mortal sin, Luther worries whether God aims to condemn him, and Calvinists worry whether their faith is true faith.
21: Luther and Politics
Like other Reformation theologians, Luther made a sharp distinction between the powers of church and state, which he described as "two kingdoms." This meant in practice that the Reformation sided with the state in its struggle for power against the church. The Reformation's appeal to the patronage and protection of Protestant rulers led to ongoing religious warfare, but eventually to an ideology of religious toleration.
22: Luther and His Enemies
Luther's abusive language toward his theological opponents is graphic and unforgettable. Did he simply become bitter in old age, or should we take him at his word that his fierceness was not about personalities but about the Gospel? This lecture suggests that only the latter interpretation makes sense of Luther's theological polemics.
23: Luther and the Jews
The most vulnerable targets of Luther's polemics were the Jews. In 1523, in "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," he argued that Christians should cease persecuting the Jews and be content to argue about Scripture with them. But two decades later, in treatises such as "On the Jews and Their Lies" (1543), he insisted that they were as devilish as his other enemies.
24: Luther and Modernity
The modern era can be traced to the split in Christendom that began with Luther's break from the pope. The Protestant tradition thus stands between the Catholic tradition going back to antiquity and the modern traditions of secularity and liberalism. But Luther's insistence on faith in God's word has much to contribute to Christianity even after modernity.