Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

RTR: Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517)

It is late in the year, but here’s a short post on the first of the two works of Luther from 1517 that begin the Reading the Reformation with Luther series, “Disputation against Scholastic Theology.”

There are a number of intriguing aspects of this work. I’ll identify just a few and in no particular order of importance.

It is technically a work of scholastic theology. The work is composed of a set of theses (97 of them), defended by a student at the University of Wittenberg named Franz Günther who hailed from Nordhausen. The theses were composed by the scholar presiding over the disputation, in this case, Martin Luther. Here Luther is identified by an older and original spelling of his last name, Luder.

The theses form a broadside against what Luther calls variously the “common teaching,” “common knowledge,” “the opinion of many,” and “common opinion.” Luther also identifies the opponents of some of the theses as “the scholastics,” “the philosophers,” and “the new dialecticians.”

He also names some opponents more specifically. From oldest to most recent: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308), William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347), Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420), and Gabriel Biel (1420-1495). Thomas Aquinas is not mentioned by name. The disputation opens with an invocation of Augustine against the Pelagians, which sets the context for the succeeding theses, which oppose later forms of Pelagianism in the broader tradition as well as represented by specific figures. Luther also deals with Aristotle, Porphyry, and the Manicheans. Luther invokes canon law (specifically the collection attributed to Gratian) at least once and positively, to show “the fact that works outside the realm of grace are not good, if this is not understood falsely” (Thesis 81).

Given the form of this work as a scholastic disputation, Luther’s opposition to “the scholastics” and specific theologians must be taken to be a material concern about the content and in some sense the method (for instance, concerning the use of logic and reason in relation to theology, as in theses 44-49) of medieval scholasticism. It is clearly thus not a rejection of scholasticism as such. The next work we will examine of Luther’s also takes the form of theses intended for disputation, and this was a genre that Luther would continue to make use of, just as he continued to teach in a school throughout the rest of his career. At the very least this ought to complicate a tendency to identify a simple rejection of “scholasticism” in Luther.

The title of this work, “Disputation against Scholastic Theology,” is a later addition. The work itself does not have a title other than the identification of the respondent, the presiding scholar, and the occasion.

The genre of disputation lends itself to pithiness, and many of the later themes of Luther’s writings are captured succinctly here. A smattering of those I found to be of interest include:

Thesis 16: … since erring man is able to love the creature it is impossible for him to love God.
Thesis 17: Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.
Thesis 22: Every act of concupiscence against God is evil and a fornication of the spirit.
Thesis 29: The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.
Thesis 30: On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.
Thesis 38: There is no moral virtue without either pride or sorrow, that is, without sin.
Thesis 62: … he who is outside the grace of God sins incessantly, even when he does not kill, commit adultery, or become angry.
Thesis 63: But it follows that he sins because he does not spiritually fulfil the law.
Thesis 65: Outside the grace of God it is indeed impossible not to become angry or lust, so that not even in grace is it possible to fulfil the law perfectly.
Thesis 72: What the law wants, the will never wants, unless it pretends to want it out of fear or love.
Thesis 84: The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Thesis 85: Anyone’s will would prefer, if it were possible, that there would be no law and to be entirely free.
Thesis 95: To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.