“We run after the odor of your ointments” - The reformer Martin Luther - The Heidelberg Disputation

Martin Luther – Heidelberger Disputation – Gedenktafel in Heidelberg, Universitätsplatz, Foto: Heinz Janssen

Reformation – “We run after the odor of your ointments” – The reformer Martin Luther – The Heidelberg Disputation

By Heinz Janssen, Heidelberg Dedicated to the Cambridge Community on the occasion of their visit to Heidelberg on 30 September 2016

There’s a plaque on the grounds of the University Square in Heidelberg, where the former Augustinian monastery used to be – often covered by dust and fallen leaves of the nearby trees – which reminds us of an important day in church history. The inscription (in grand letters) of the plaque is: “Martin Luther 1483 (-) 1546 zum Gedächtnis an seinen Aufenthalt im Kloster der Augustiner und an seine Heidelberger Disputation am 26. April 1518 – im Lutherjahr 1983”.

What led to this event? On the 9th of April 1518 at the age of 34 Martin Luther, a well-known pastor and professor of theology, set out on foot from Wittenberg. He got a hitchhike all the way and arrived 14 days later in Heidelberg with 2 friars he met on his road, who were heading for the same destination as he was. Martin Luther was welcomed by Count Palatine Wolfgang, brother of the Elector Palatine. The official reception program has included as it still does the visit to the castle and its chapel.

I. Martin Luther in the Augustinian monastery in Heidelberg

Martin Luther came on duty as district vicar to the overdue chapter of the Saxon reform congregation in the Augustinian monastery in Heidelberg. The essential “Luther Affair”, which was trying to find its way to the ecclesiastical public since his theses six month earlier at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, was not on the agenda. Nonetheless, the 26th of April 1518 became an important date for Martin Luther`s reformative concerns. The “Heidelberg Disputation” took place in public in the lecture hall of the Augustinian monastery. There were significant theologians like Martin Bucer, Johannes Brenz, Eduard Schnepf, Martin Frecht in the auditorium and Martin Luther succeeded to win their interest for his concern. Luther submitted 40 critical theses on theology and philosophy. He justified his theses with quotations from the Bible and gave review on the ideas of the Apostle Paul and his significant interpreter the church father Augustine. Count Palatine acclaimed Martin Luther for his skillfulness and the fact that he brought honour on Wittenberg.

As we learn from a report of Martin Bucer, who was a Luther supporter and the Dominican and later Strasbourg reformer, Martin Luther’s theses have left a deep impression on many students of theology in Heidelberg. Bucer referred to Luther as “astute like Paul…concise and with a great knowledge of the Bible”. Martin Luther’s whole attention was focused on the Gospel. He wanted to rise “the true treasure of the Church” (Thesis 62 of the 95 Th.) from the “mineral resources” of the Bible and bring it to light. Messages like “See, your salvation comes”, taken from announcements of biblical Israel in the 6th century BC in view of the destroyed Jerusalem, the God City which was believed to be indestructible, were not outdated historically in Martin Luther’s mind. These messages stayed over Israel, being proclaimed by the church and kept in force. God names vigilant men and women as his guardians. For God’s and mankind’s sake they no longer remain silent. They want all to hear the Gospel’s Voice, the “Gute Nachricht”, they don’t rest until the big day of salvation comes (Isaiah 62,6 to 12).

II. The Gospel – a word of consolation

During Martin Luther’s time no one seemed to know or hear the voice of the Gospel. The church tradition has overlaid it with human wisdom, its own gain for power and questionable interpretations, has perverted it beyond recognition. “But the Gospel is a word of consolation and of joy, the voice of the groom and bride … a word of blessing and peace” says Martin Luther. According to Martin Luther`s researches of the bible and convictions, mankind is not able to open to it. Therefore his new insights regarding contemporary theology and philosophy view mankind in a very critical way. In the Heidelberg Disputation he summarizes his reformatory ideas: the focus being on 28 theses regarding theology (1-28), followed by 12 minor theses on philosophy, which will not be brought up here.

III. Martin Luther’s theological thoughts

Let us join Martin Luther’s theological thoughts: – Resist false self-awareness In his first theses (1-12) Martin Luther denies Man’s ability to contribute to their own salvation. Man’s and God’s doing are in opposition. Neither do divine commandments nor his own natural drives enable Man do right to himself or the people around him or to God. He never gains fulfillment this way. All his efforts to please God lead him to failure and self-righteousness. God’s Thora reveals his inadequacy, showing him his sins and how far he is from his goal, the Hebrew word חטא [ḥt’] means “miss his goal / his target”. That’s why Martin Luther considers Man being completely dependent on God’s mercy. – “God alone makes me good and just. The result of this justness is love, joy, peace passion, kindness …” (Galatians 5:22) – Searching for grace In the second part of his theses (13-18) Martin Luther is focusing on Man’s freedom of will. His thesis is still controversial. What serves as a basis for man’s acting? How can I please God? Are my reasons of acting and the result of it in accord with each other? What is right and what is wrong? What characterizes Christian ethics? “I urge to do well, but I am not capable… “(Romans 7). Martin Luther did not at all intend to discourage people of acting; he simply exposes Man’s disability to fix their troubled relationship to God. People must get desperate in order to be able to attain God’s grace. – Speaking of God In his third series of theses (19-24) Martin Luther picks out the action of God as a central theme. How can people understand and spread around God’s work and influence? What does it mean to talk about God, what is in fact Theo-Logie. 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 that have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. – The theology of the Cross (“theologia crucis”) is a term coined by Martin Luther to refer to theology that posits the cross as the only source of knowledge concerning who God is and how God saves. It is contrasted with the theology of Glory (“theologia gloriae”), which places greater emphasis on human abilities and human reason. Suffering is not contradictory to believe in God, no sign for being left by God.

IV. The true treasure of the Church

In his last series of theses (25-28) Martin Luther concentrates on the relation between faith and works, of faith in God and human activity. The righteousness of God is one of his most important topics. He refers to the gospel, especially after studying the Psalms, the Roman epistle and Hebrew epistle. For in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith – as it is written. (Habakkuk 2:4): “But the righteous shall live by faith.” He resumes “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.” Human good work is a result of this faith. The law says: “You must”, but God’s mercy says: “You can”.

The church is built by men as a human institution but in its core it is the materialization of God’s Word. By performing God’s Word the church gets its spirit.

V. What can we learn from Martin Luther?

Martin Luther verbalized with courage and quite freely all the things that went wrong in church. He translated the gospel in a tongue intelligible, so that the people could understand it. In a letter written 1522 he mentioned that no one should see itself a Lutheran but a Christian, because the teaching, the Christian doctrine is not by him nor is he the one who has been crucified. He wants to live by the teachings of Jesus Christ and hopes to appeal to Him.

I like walking through the University Square, having a look at the plaque and pondering about how I can keep the Luther’s theses alive and pass them on. As given by God, they mark my way in life to “belief, hope and love”.


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Vielen Dank.
Heinz Janssen
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