He was only one man—a humble monk and Bible professor—yet he sparked a religious rebellion that changed the course of history. Who was Martin Luther? What made his theology so explosive in 16th-century Europe? Was it really his intention to start Protestantism, and with it a new church?
How did this late-medieval man launch the Protestant Reformation and help create the modern world as we know it?
And how should we think of him: hero or heretic, rebel or tormented soul?
Martin Luther is so interesting to study, Professor Phillip Cary believes, because he is so controversial. In fact, Luther may be more interesting to study today because the controversy surrounding him is more complicated—less black-and-white—than when he was alive.
Many Catholics today find things in Luther to respect and admire, while many Protestants reject aspects of his legacy as misguided, embarrassing, or even evil.
Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation will help you reach your own conclusions. This course explores Luther’s theology, the circumstances surrounding his conclusion that the papacy was “antichrist,” and major issues and events in the Reformation as it unfolded in Luther’s life after he posted his famous 95 Theses on the door of the church of Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517.
Professor Cary presents Luther as a multifaceted human being, a man with extraordinary virtues and profound flaws. You will meet an inspiring religious thinker who presented the Christian Gospel as a message of comfort, joy, and freedom; as great good news for sinners and God’s loving promise of salvation. And you will encounter a leader whose unswerving certainty about his doctrines led him to launch vicious attacks against those with whom he disagreed most infamously and malevolently—the Jews.
What makes this course so involving for students is that it is not intended to leave you with a neutral impression of Luther. Professor Cary wants you to use his lectures—supplemented by your own research and reading—to make your own judgments about Luther, the man and his teachings.
In addition, he encourages you to ponder some larger implications of Luther and the Reformation. How should we view argument and disagreement? Are they opportunities to prove we are right or ways to find the truth? Can we find ways to disagree that could improve relations between religions—between Catholics and Protestants, and between Christians, Jews, and Muslims—and strengthen the quest for faith in a post-modern world?
Luther’s Compelling Theology: “Believe It, and You Have It”
This is an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the origin of the controversies associated with Luther: his distinctive doctrine about the power of the Christian Gospel. Throughout these lectures, Professor Cary carefully traces the often subtle and challenging thinking behind Luther’s central theological doctrine of justification by faith alone.
You will see how Luther modified the traditional Catholic notion, derived from St. Augustine, of the relationship between God and man. In this Augustinian paradigm, the spiritual life was a journey in which believers drew near to God through a lifetime of expressing love and doing good works.
Luther felt at the bottom of his heart that his love and good works were never good enough. Schooled by medieval practices of penance and confession that arose long after Augustine, Luther could not escape the thought that he was a sinner who must eventually face the judgment of God, all the while incapable of meriting God’s love and approval.
In the face of that terrifying thought, Luther believed the only possible comfort was the Gospel of Christ, which is not about what we do but about what Christ does. The Gospel, Luther taught, is God’s promise of salvation in Christ (and as Luther insisted, “God doesn’t lie”). Instead of works of love meriting God’s approval, all that is required to be justified in God’s sight is to believe this promise. As Luther often put it, “Glaubst du, so hast du”: Believe it, and you have it.
You will see how this simple concept—to be justified simply by believing God’s promise—exploded like a bombshell in late-medieval Europe. It offered certainty of salvation to ordinary people whose consciences tormented them with the thought of horrific punishment after death. It freed German Christians from financial exploitation by a Roman church that sold Masses, indulgences, and other means of warding off punishment in the next life, and used the profits to fight wars, build ostentatious churches, and keep mistresses.
In addition to this pivotal notion of justification by faith alone, Professor Cary surveys Luther’s whole theology as it is expressed in such works as On the Freedom of a Christian, Treatise on Good Works, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Bondage of the Will.
You will follow Luther from his disturbing early view of justification through self-hatred; to his mature breakthrough in thinking of the Gospel as a sacramental promise; to his later and, once more, disturbing notion of unfree will and predestination, in which a “hidden” God (deus absconditus) chooses, in advance, which souls to save and which to damn.
Throughout, Professor Cary underscores the thought-provoking nature of Luther’s theology by emphasizing not only its details, but its larger implications:
- Why is so much of Luther’s thinking based on the writings of one man: St. Augustine?
- What strengths did Catholicism and Protestantism lose by their separation?
- Why is the Bible—and certainty about what it means—so important to Luther and Protestantism, and how does that relate to Christian fundamentalism?
- And, given recent ecumenical thinking, does Luther’s theology still offer reasons why Catholicism and Protestantism should remain separate?
Medieval Background, Modern Consequences
This course will enable you to understand Luther in context—to grasp the medieval background and modern consequences of his life and thought. These include:
- Circumstances surrounding Luther’s break with the church: his 95 Theses, his trial at the Diet of Worms, and the Edict of Worms, which declared him not only a heretic but a criminal. You will explore a variety of issues that are often misunderstood. What was Luther’s purpose in posting his theses? Was he already a rebel against the Catholic Church, protesting against it? Or was that label thrust upon him by his papal opponents?
- Controversies within the Reformation: Professor Cary examines Luther’s disagreements—on topics such as baptism, the Eucharist, and predestination—with other Reformationleaders: Andreas von Karlstadt, Huldreich Zwingli, and John Calvin. These comparisons will help you appreciate Luther’s distinctive location in the Reformation movement, standing between the more conservative Catholic Church and the more radical forms of Protestantism.
- The Lutheran impact on church and state: For his own protection, Luther aligned himself with local German princes against the authority of the pope. In addition, his “two kingdoms” theology assigned greater authority to the state in protecting the religious life of society. But states that protected rival forms of religion, Catholic and Protestant, were inevitably drawn into bloody religious warfare. The modern principle of separation between church and state emerged as a way for Europeans to stop killing one another in the name of Christ.
Good, Bad, or Somewhere in Between?
This course portrays Luther in a way that is simultaneously critical and sympathetic. Luther offers both wonderful good news and vicious attacks on his opponents. Professor Cary is interested in exploring the connections between these two sides of Luther.
You will learn about Luther the exceptional writer, who did for German what Dante did for Italian by making the deepest concepts of religion accessible to unlearned people in their own language. To translate the Bible, he listened to how ordinary Germans spoke, learning from butchers, for example, the names of animal parts used in biblical passages about animal sacrifice.
In addition, ordinary Christians identified with Luther’s affirmation of the spiritual value of marriage and family life. He saw his own wife and children as gifts of God, even in hard times and bereavement; picking up his crying child, he could say, “These are the joys of marriage, of which the pope is not worthy.”
On the other hand, Luther’s commitment to the certainty of his own beliefs led him to the borders of wickedness and beyond. During the Great Peasant War of 1525, he used his theology to assure German nobility that they could destroy the rebels in good conscience. He refused to retract his views even after the repression led to the killing of women and children.
Luther was given to accusing anyone who disagreed with him, from other Protestant leaders to the pope, of speaking for the devil. He attacked their opinions in harsh and filthy language that his friend Philip Melanchton described as the “rabies theologorum,” or the “rabid fury of the theologians.”
Luther’s fury was at its worst against the Jews, toward whom he was more violent than any other major Christian theologian. Offended that Jews did not recognize the Old Testament as bearing witness to Christ, he came to see them as liars and blasphemers. He called for Jewish synagogues to be burned and property to be confiscated (fortunately, the German authorities ignored him) and rationalized his views by projecting his own hatred onto his victims.
“Indeed, if the Jews had the power to do to us what we are able to do to them,” Luther wrote, “not one of us would live for an hour.” Imagine how unsafe Jews must have felt hearing that!
What should we make of all this? That’s a central question for Professor Cary, for this course, and for you.
What Do Luther and the Reformation Mean to You Today?
In the last lecture, Professor Cary offers his own assessment of the effects of Luther and the Reformation on the modern and now post-modern world. How have they changed the relationship between religion and public institutions? How have they influenced the value we place on tradition? Can religion offer the certainty that Luther sought? Should it even try? And what can we learn from both the “good” and the “bad” Luther that can help religions argue with one another reasonably, without violence and bloodshed?
Then it’s your turn. Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation asks you to evaluate its conclusions and reach conclusions of your own. How do you think Luther fits into the story of Western civilization, and was he in fact good, bad, or a complex combination of both?
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