Monday, June 20, 2011

Luther: A Short Historical Write-Up

For my History of Christianity II class I took this past semester, we had to write a series of short write-ups on various subjects. I thought I might share some of these (which, as you might be able to tell, I did not in fact proofread). The first I did was on Luther:

The connection between Luther’s soteriology and his religious experience seems, unsurprisingly, to be reminiscent of Augustine’s, at least in certain respects. Both had profound experiences of the depths of their own sin and unworthiness before God – their own inability to come to God on their own power – and developed a soteriology correspondingly focused on the grace of God as sole initiator of salvation. Luther’s slightly different context, though, resulted in some different emphases. In a system of religious thought where the view was that one, in addition to God’s grace, had to perform meritorious works in cooperation with that grace in maintaining and earning a place in heaven, Luther correspondingly focused on faith alone as what sustains, all merit or requirements having been taken care of on our behalf by Christ (Luther seems to have a view similar to what I have seen among many Reformed thinkers, that of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, whereby Christ’s meritorious work is imputed to us on conversion). Christ has done all the work for us and has died on our behalf to take care of our sins and all that is left for us to cling to on our own side is faith in Christ and trusting in this great work whereby we are counted righteousness and he is counted sinful on the cross.
As Luther works out these ideas, it basically explodes the Medieval system of Western Christian soteriological thought and piety. It had been thought that grace was dispensed through the institutions of the church in the form of seven sacraments, the giving of which was under the complete discretion of the institutional leaders (and hence the receiving of grace could be subject to the whims of one’s religious superiors). It had also been thought that the saints had in their persons exceeded the amount of merit required for their own immediate entrances into heaven, the excess being laid up in a treasury of merit which, again, the institutional church was in control of and which could be dispensed at the discretion of the church leaders in order to lessen the time someone had in purgatory, the place after death where one made up the deficit in one’s merits to get into heaven through additional meritorious suffering. The church leaders could then sell parcels of this merit in the form of indulgences which one could buy for oneself or for a loved one (or someone else as, say, an act of charity to the dead). Maintenance of grace in life through the sacraments and progress to heaven in death through indulgences provided a religious structure to the daily life of the community and illustrate the monopoly and strict control on issues of salvation and the hereafter possessed by the church hierarchy and which, inevitably, was the subject of much abuse by those in religious power over others.
For Luther, however, our depravity as human beings negates our ability to merit anything at all – if we as Christians do good at all, the place of honor is to God’s grace, not to us, who would do evil if left to ourselves. And the work of Christ negates our need to merit anything at all – Christ through his life has already merited heaven for us in his life and paid the price for our sins in his death. There is no room for merit in the system of grace. Faith is the saving appropriation of the word of God, through grace, and hence neither the sacramental system nor any kind of pious deeds are to be thought required to maintain the grace of God or salvation in one’s life. These, Luther insists, are still good things in that pious deeds can help us to drive out the “outer man” and hence to make our external selves conform to what, as those who now have faith in Christ and thus want what Christ wants, our internal selves truly want. They also help us to do good to our neighbor (which, again, in virtue of the faith within us, we truly want to do anyway), but apart from these there is no other real reason to do such things.
Luther’s logic, then, quickly leads to a rejection of purgatory, the sacramental system as it had been practiced, indulgences, and the whole economy (spiritual and material) of merit which the church had built up. For those who, like Luther, may have felt such systems spiritually abusive or subject to the abuse of capricious or corrupt religious leaders, such teachings must have been freeing indeed. Not everyone would be happy to leave the comforts of a system that may have indeed worked for them in giving meaning, purpose, and organization to their individual and communal lives, but it seems that enough people would likely have felt similar enough to Luther to rally behind him. And because the church hierarchy pushed back and Luther refused to back down, gaining political support from some German princes, a decisive division within the Western church was the almost inevitable result – a division which has never been healed and in some ways only gotten wider (though certain points of contact have, of course, been made through the various ecumenical movements).
Those of us who are Protestants and theological heirs of the likes of Luther and the other Reformers can certainly be thankful for Luther, whether Lutherans or not, as Luther seems to have been the successful trailblazer who opened up the religious scene for a variety of Protestant religious options, whether Lutheran or not (and whether Luther himself or others liked it or not).

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