The Heidelberg Disputation was a significant landmark in Luther’s theology. I personally love this disputation as it captures the heart of his thinking. The Book of Concord explains what the disputation was all about.
“Following Luther’s proposal for a disputation on the subject of indulgences, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, was generally supportive of his views. The head of the order in Germany, Johannes Staupitz, called for a formal disputation to be attended by the leadership of the order, in which Luther would be provided a chance to expand upon his concern. The disputation took place at the meeting of the Augustinian Order, in Heidelberg, in April 1518. Luther’s opponents had been hopeful that Luther would be silenced, but Staupitz wanted to give Luther a fair hearing, since he was generally sympathetic with Luther’s views. At the meeting, Luther put forward a ‘theology of the cross’ as opposed to a ‘theology of glory.’ The disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses, for they advanced Luther’s growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.”
What follows are the theses of the disputation. These points capture some of Luther’s key theological concerns and contributions to Christian thought. You can click the link on any of the theses and you will be taken to a site that has the fuller explanation and defense given by Luther in the disputation.
“Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, Do not rely on your own insight (Prov 3:5), we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter.”
- The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
- Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.
- Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
- Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.
- The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
- The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.
- The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.
- By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.
- To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.
- Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.
- Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.
- In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.
- Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
- Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.
- Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.
- The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.
- Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.
- It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
- 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 which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
- he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
- A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
- That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
- The law brings the wrath of God (Rom. 4:15), kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.
- Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
- He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
- The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and everything is already done.
- Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.
- 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.
Isaiah tells us explicitly that God is in the business of hiding (Is 45:15). He conceals himself. This is a fact. Job is one book in Scripture that fleshes out this theme. In fact, we may even walk away from Job convinced that we know far less about God than we did when we began reading. I believe this is one intention of the author. Yes, as strange as it sounds, I am saying that this book was written that we might know less about God. It is paradox for God to reveal to us that he is hidden, but that is exactly what he is doing. In essence he is saying, “I want you to know that there is so much of me that you cannot know.”
This concealment is tied to his glory (Prov 25:2). God alone has an exhaustive knowledge of God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hold the exclusive rights and ability to fully comprehend one another (Lk 10:22, 1 Cor 2:10-11, Rom 8:27). There is splendor in his infinite and incomprehensible nature. There is majesty in a God who can never be totally understood. As creatures it is beyond our capacity to ever know the fullness of God. As creatures any knowledge we have of God is based on his free choice and nothing we do. God chooses the content and limits of his self-revelation. He chooses what to reveal and what to conceal. According to Isaiah and Job, he has left a lot hidden.
Martin Luther spent his entire pastoral career mining the depths of the cross and applying it to his people. He loved to think about, sing about, write about, and preach about the cross. His whole theological program was cross-centered. Listen to a few of these quotes from Luther.
“He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
“Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross…for this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ” (emphasis mine).
“God can be found only in suffering and the cross”(emphasis mine).
“Christ must be apprehended as man, before he is apprehended as God; and the cross of his humanity must be sought after and known, before we know the glory of his divinity.”
“The cross alone is our theology.”
These statements capture the heart of Luther’s theology. The cross alone is the starting point and shape of all theology. Alister McGrath sums up this emphasis in Luther’s thinking.
“For Luther, Christian thinking about God comes to an abrupt halt at the foot of the cross. The Christian is forced by the very existence of the crucified Christ, to make a momentous decision. Either he will seek God elsewhere, or he will make the cross itself the foundation and criterion for his thought about God. The ‘crucified God’ –to use Luther’s daring phrase—is not merely the foundation of the Christian faith, but is also the key to a proper understanding of the nature of God. The Christian can only speak about the glory, the wisdom, the righteousness and the strength God as they are revealed in the crucified Christ…for Luther, the sole authentic locus of man’s knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that revelation” (emphasis mine).
 Martin Luther, The Basic Theological Writings (2nd Edition), ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 49.
 Alberto L. Garcia, The Theology of the Cross for the 21st Century (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2002), 15.
 Ibid, 8.
 Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990), 1, 149.
The cross of Christ reveals the glory of the humble God. The cross is not only concerned with redemption it is also concerned with revelation. God alone knows God. God alone can disclose God. God in his infinite wisdom saw it fit to disclose himself progressively throughout history and this revelation of his person climaxed in the incarnate Son on a cross. The crucified Son of God is at this stage in history (and likely will forever be) the definitive unveiling of the character of God. If the cross is the definitive revelation of himself then the glory of God is to be understood specifically in his humility, self negating service, and dying love. The power of God is demonstrated in weakness. The wisdom of God is seen in folly. The cross turns the world on its head for it is madness to the human mind. But the cross shapes and defines the logic of the Triune God. If we would know God and we would have others know God we must lead them to the bloody tree.