Sunday, 15 October 2017

Ad Fontes: Martin Luther and the Source of all Theology

My knowledge of the great reformer Martin Luther is rather limited so I am really enjoying The Legacy of Luther, ed RC Sproul and Stephen J Nichols.   Luther is much maligned and misunderstood, partly because we don't view Luther with 16th century eyes and we don't understand the times he lived in.  Luther could, at times, use extreme language.  When somebody complained about Luther's harshness the Catholic scholar Erasmus replied 'Because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.'  Don't be put off studying Luther by the fog of misinformation that swirls around his legacy, study him for yourself.

I will hopefully blog more about Luther as I try and digest what I am reading but I just wanted to do a quick blog on one passage I came across.  Ultimately, the reformation was about power and authority.  Who saves?  Who forgives?  Who mediates?  Who has the final authority?  This was the battle ground of the reformation.  Is the church and tradition the final authority or is it Christ and His word?  Thankfully for us, under the blessing of God, Luther and his colleagues prevailed and brought Europe out of darkness and corruption.  Luther prefaced his Ninety- Five Theses with these words: 'Out of love for the truth and a desire to bring it to light.'  Luther's allegiance was to God and His word, not a corrupt and abusive church.

When the vicar general of the Augustinian Order, Johann von Staupitz sent Luther on a Pilgrimage to Rome in 1510 he thought it would strengthen and confirm the young monks faith as well as reaffirming the credentials of the monastery in Erfurt.  Far from confirming his faith, Luther's visit to Rome exacerbated his 'Anfechtungen' (the German word for a deeply seated struggle of the soul).  The contest between sins and merits that was meant to lead to Luther's salvation was leading Luther to extreme anxiety and torment of soul.  His worship of St Anne, the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus brought him no peace and comfort.  His visit to Rome compounded the torment in Luther's soul.  As Stephen Nichols says in the first chapter: 'By the time Luther made his way down to the Basilica of St John Lateran, he would have seen enough to make his stomach turn. Prostitutes, public lewdness, and hawkers of all sorts of wares would have pestered him along the cobbled city streets.'

Luther would have queued with others and paid his money to shuffle up the scala santa on his knees.  These were the twenty-eight marble steps believed to have been the steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.  The Emperor Constantine had the steps moved to Rome as a gift to his mother Helen.  When Luther reached the top there was no spiritual awakening, there was no peace of conscience.   Later Luther would say of Rome: 'The city has become a harlot.'

What lay at the very heart or Rome's corruption was the practice of penance.  Original sin was atoned for in Baptism, and all that was left was actual sins and these could be dealt with through the sacraments and penance.  This involved going to confession and receiving absolution (as long as the tasks prescribed by the priest were completed).   Having done penance one could attend Mass and receive the Eucharist.  The other option was to skip these elaborate steps and purchase an indulgence.  

When Luther eventually nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg on October 31st 1517, the process of illumination had started much earlier.  A year earlier Erasmus has published the New Testament in Greek as a parallel text with the Latin Vulgate.  As Stephen Nichols says:

'This was an unprecedented publishing event.  And it led Luther right back to the source of all theology, right back to the original text.  When Luther examined the Greek text, he noticed something striking at Matthew 4 v 17.  The Latin Vulgate translated the Greek word meaning 'repent' as poenitentiam agite, or 'do penance'.  Luther knew this to be a mistranslation.  Penance is about an outward act, or multiple outward acts.  Repentance is a whole-souled heart change that results in outward acts of obedience.  This mistranslation of the Vulgate set up a domino chain that fell  in a tragically wrong direction.  Instead of falling in line in the next domino in the chain, Luther want back to the source and began building his theology from there' Sproul R.C., Nichols S.J. (2016), The Legacy of Luther, Sanford FL, p 24.

This is why the first thesis declares, 'When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said 'Repent,' in Matt 4 v 17 he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.'  He continues with the second thesis: 'This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.'  Luther had just lit the fuse on an explosion that would be felt for many centuries to come.

The great battle cry of the Renaissance was ad fontes, 'to the sources.'  This is what happened at the Reformation.  Men like Luther want back to the fountainhead of all theology, God and His word. Luther want back to the source and saw the error.  He brought truth to the light and it transformed a continent.  That first plank of the reformation sola Scriptura was absolutely critical in exposing a corrupt and abusive church.  As Luther said 'I did nothing, the word did everything.'