Mark D. Tranvik
The treatise or essay has played a key role in the transmission of ideas in the Western intellectual tradition and the Church in particular. Generally shorter than a book or monograph, the treatise attempts to examine a topic in a manner that is thorough yet avoids systematic treatment. The tone of the treatise usually avoids polemics and favors instead a more dispassionate treatment of its subject. In the middle ages, treatises in scholastic theology often became highly abstract and lifeless, focusing more on logical precision designed to appeal to the mind (intellectus). Entreaties to the heart (affectus) were often suspect because they were thought to lack intellectual rigor. Martin Luther’s “rhetoric of faith” results in a different view of the form of the treatise. Luther’s theological revolution centered on justification by grace through faith alone meant that theology was no longer aimed at only the mind. The whole person, mind and heart (intellectus and affectus), was now the proper object of instruction and persuasion. Luther stresses that faith, or pistis in the New Testament sense, involves a trust that encompasses thinking and feeling. Accordingly, Luther’s treatises and essays often exhibit this new rhetoric. The tone is often warm and embracing but certainly not to the exclusion of the mind. Evidence of this can be seen in five treatises he composes in the crucial year of 1520. This is the period just before he is excommunicated. To say the least, his future is highly uncertain. It is not surprising that he turns to the genre of the treatise as a format well suited to his program of reform. The Freedom of a Christian, The Treatise on Good Works, On the Papacy in Rome, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church are the result. Together they comprise a radical proposal for change that envisions a Church grounded in God’s Word and sacraments from which springs forth a people freed to love and serve their neighbors in all of their callings.