Martin Luther’s Disputations
Summary and Keywords
Academic disputations were a fixture of university life throughout Martin Luther’s lifetime. Luther participated regularly in various sorts of disputations, first as a student at the University of Erfurt and then as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. Although the disputation represents an important aspect of Luther’s indebtedness to late medieval scholasticism, the disputational form was not simply a matter of convention to Luther. It became one of the major communicative vehicles through which he developed and expressed his theological ideas. The 95 theses are a well-known case in point, but Luther’s prolific career as a disputator had already begun prior to the eruption of public controversy in October of 1517, and would continue at regular intervals (with the exception of one conspicuous hiatus) for several decades afterwards.
Although several of Luther’s most influential sets of theses were explicitly intended for the consideration of his academic and ecclesiastical colleagues (e.g., the “Heidelberg Disputation”), the majority of his disputations took place as a curricular exercise within the University of Wittenberg. As such, most serve a purpose, which is simultaneously pedagogical and polemical. Luther viewed the disputation as a crucial opportunity for students both to observe and to practice the utilization of logic and dialectic for the refutation of theological error. He deployed and recommended those same tools for the defense of proper doctrine in the face of objections. In many cases, the specific topic under consideration was furnished by contextual stimuli and accordingly reflects particular sites of disagreement between Luther and his variegated array of theological opponents. This naturally includes many of the neuralgic points, which stand at the center of the Protestant reformation (e.g., original sin, the doctrine of justification, free choice, church authority, etc), but it also includes a range of contested topics between Luther and other reformers (e.g., disputations against the antinomians, against the Christology of Caspar Schwenckfeld, and in response to anti-trinitarianism, etc). Several of Luther’s disputations also treat the relationship between theology and philosophy, and reflect at some length upon what he refers to somewhat provocatively as the “new language” of theology. Taken cumulatively, Luther’s disputations encompass a broad and diverse theological terrain. Indeed, there is hardly an aspect of the reformer’s theology, which fails to appear within this extensive corpus. As such, the disputations provide an essential resource for the study of Luther’s thought and its development over time.
Martin Luther’s career as a theologian is permeated by the practice of public disputation. From the earliest days of his formal training at the University of Erfurt (1501), until the penultimate year of his life and professorship in Wittenberg (1545), Luther was a regular participant in public disputations of various kinds. The sets of theses for which he is best-known tend to be those that played a decisive role in the escalation of controversy between Luther and the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the late 1510s.1 The historical significance of these early disputations is beyond question. They represent, however, only a small fraction of Luther’s contribution to the genre. The critical edition of Luther’s collected writings contains no fewer than fifty sets of disputational theses composed by Luther over the course of his lifetime.2 Texts associated with the late disputations alone (i.e., 1533‒1545) fill a pair of volumes in the Weimar Ausgabe, which together comprise nearly 1,000 pages of material. In many cases, individual sets of theses (early and late) are accompanied by various sorts of complementary texts (e.g., prefaces, promotion speeches, student transcripts, explanations), which shed additional light upon the content and style of Luther’s argumentation, and the historical events with which that argumentation is associated. These materials cumulatively represent a formidable corpus in their own right and bear strong testimony to the importance of the disputation throughout Luther’s career. Indeed, the scope of that importance extends beyond even what the extant documentary records can indicate. The critical edition does not include documentation for many other disputations over which Luther did not preside, but in which he was otherwise a participant or observer. In many cases, this is because no such documentation remains extant.3 In this sense, the disputation is more than just a genre of textual composition, which Luther occasionally employed. It represents a culture and practice of discourse in which he was continually immersed.
The importance of Luther’s disputations for the advance of ecclesiastical reform in the 16th century was recognized by his contemporaries from an early juncture. Collected editions of disputations conducted in Wittenberg (not all of which belong to Luther) appear in print already by the early 1520s and are distributed well beyond the borders of electoral Saxony.4 The broad geographical dissemination of these texts is a telling, material indicator of the prominent role Luther’s disputations exercised in extending the influence of Reformation theology outside of Wittenberg. Instances abound of prominent reformers within 16th-century Protestantism (e.g., Martin Bucer, Johannes Brenz, Nikolaus von Amsdorf, etc.) having been converted to the Reformation cause largely as the result of witnessing Luther’s performance in public disputational settings.5 Those same disputations simultaneously galvanized prompt resistance to Luther’s theological program on the part of his Roman Catholic critics.6 In any case, the ascent of Luther to the status of a public figure within late medieval Europe had much to do with his prolific activities as a disputator. The disputations represent a unique resource for the modern student of Luther’s theology. The collected disputations constitute a laconic compendium of Luther’s theological interests, encompassing nearly all of the major themes, which predominate within the rest of his massive corpus. In some cases, the disputations probe familiar issues (e.g., the nature of faith) with a degree of nuance and specificity unparalleled elsewhere. In other instances, they deal with theological topics and questions (e.g., the Trinitarian relations ad intra), which Luther does not address extensively in other sorts of texts. Moreover, there is good reason to suppose that Luther himself viewed the disputations as paradigmatic elucidations of his Reformation theology.7 The chiefly pedagogical aim of the late disputations (1533‒1545) suggests that Luther viewed their respective themes as representing those doctrines most essential to pass on to the next generation of reformers.8 Thus, in addition to their immense socio-historical importance, the disputations provide a distinctive vantage point from which to assess the cumulative shape of Luther’s theological vision.
The Disputation: Origins and Forms
Despite modern sets of connotations, which may intuitively associate the composition of “theses” with a distinctively Protestant theological style, the disputational form through which Luther articulates his (in)famous critique of indulgences is typical, in many respects, of the decidedly medieval, scholastic training that he received as a student at the University of Erfurt during the early decades of the 16th century. For centuries prior to Luther’s birth, in fact, the academic disputation (or “scholastic quaestio”) had served as a primary form of instruction and inquiry within the medieval university.9 Luther’s composition of theses in the mid- to late 1510s is therefore not the innovative act of a religious revolutionary.10 It is an attempt to initiate a public exercise in critical, theological reasoning, and Luther submits that attempt in a form, which was then regarded as a conventional, communicative means for doing so.11 The much-debated question of whether Luther truly posted his ninety-five theses on the doors of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg is thus relatively moot from a historical point of view.12 Neither the composition of disputational theses nor their public dissemination would have been regarded in the 16th century as an extraordinary event. The disputation was an established fixture of formal inquiry in late medieval Europe.
More than simply a literary style, the academic disputation epitomizes a determinate culture of public discourse.13 It is a traditional practice of inquiry, which is regulated by a relatively stable canon of established norms. Its style of argumentation, for instance, is governed by the discipline of dialectic (or logic), whose increasingly sophisticated, medieval permutations stipulate, among other things, which sorts of inferences may be regarded as valid.14 The ceremonial procedure of disputation (i.e., the public event within which this regimented argumentation is deployed) is likewise structured rather strictly by clearly defined roles, which prescribe, in effect, what is to be expected of each individual participant or group of participants engaged in the debate.15
In these two respects (i.e., analytical method and performative roles), the scholastic disputation instantiates a complex matrix of shared assumptions, which govern its mode of discourse. These assumptions are not typically rendered explicit within the context of a disputational event itself, nor in the surviving, textual documentation thereof. To be sure, some are clarified in various sorts of contemporaneous texts (e.g., university statutes, medieval treatments of the so-called ars disputandi, commentaries on Aristotle’s logical works, etc.).16 There is also an important sense, however, in which the fundamental rules governing the discourse of disputation are simply embedded within the social and institutional fabric of medieval university life. These considerations pose difficulties for the modern interpreter of Luther’s disputations, for whom the practice of disputation may usefully be compared to the grammar of an ancient language, whose widespread usage has long since expired. Thus, an introduction to Luther’s disputations necessarily requires some preliminary reflection upon what a disputation is and a brief history of its medieval development.17
Scholars typically point to the early 12th century as the period of time when scholastic disputations first emerge.18 In its mature, institutional form, which takes shape in the early to mid-13th century, it functions as a fixed method of pedagogy, public inquiry, and debate. A disputation’s object of focus is determined by a disputed topic (or question), which is then examined by a group of participants through a rigorous application of logical analysis.19 As a result of the exercise, those involved are afforded an opportunity to think through various sides of a controversial issue, gain practice in the use of dialectical tools, and accrue expertise within a specific disciplinary purview.
Although the scholastic disputation first emerges as a discrete form in the early 12th century, many of its constitutive features are not new. The use of dialogue for purposes of inquiry or pedagogy, for example, enjoys numerous precedents deep within the philosophical texts of classical and late antiquity.20 By the same token, the application of dialectical tools of analysis to theological questions is hardly a medieval novum. Dialogical presentations of Christian doctrine (presupposing the application of logic) are well-represented already in the patristic period, and achieve a rekindled prominence in the early to mid-11th century, largely as the result of Lanfranc and Anselm, widely celebrated teachers at the Abbey of Bec.21 The emergence of the “disputed quaestio” as a reality distinct from these preceding strands of discourse is tied to its formalization as a pedagogical exercise within new, institutional contexts of higher learning. Already in the early 12th century, the various sorts of extant schools (i.e., monastic, cathedral, and private) were increasingly characterized by a “renewed focus on the seven liberal arts,” including the trivium of which dialectic (along with grammar and rhetoric) comprises an essential part.22 The increasing emphasis upon dialectic as a primary instrument of formal inquiry was augmented in the mid-12th century by the recovery of key works on logic by Aristotle.23 Aristotle’s Topics and Sophistical Refutations, for instance, deal “directly with the dialectical process of forming and refuting arguments” and are thus significant because they furnish sophisticated, analytical tools for the practice of disputation in polemical and pedagogical settings.24
By the mid-13th century, the practice of disputation had become an essential element within the university curriculum, and an established fixture of medieval society.25 Alex Novikoff helpfully summarizes the far-reaching significance of the scholastic disputation’s formal institutionalization during this period:
The importance of disputation as an essential ingredient in the university culture can hardly be overstated. It played a determining role in the oral methods of teaching and learning, it impacted the literary form … of a range of scholastic texts, and it crossed the threshold of popular culture when it became absorbed in contemporary musical, poetical, and polemical genres.26
In addition to its implementation within the life of the 13th-century university, the disputation also exercised an important role within the recently formed mendicant orders, many of whom regarded expertise in dialectic as a necessary preparation for “face-to-face confrontation with heretics.”27 It should also be noted that the relationship between mendicancy and university scholasticism is, from the 13th century onward, an increasingly porous one, thus accelerating the ascent of the disputation as a conventional feature of medieval society in general.28
From the 13th century onward, then, the academic disputation functioned in a progressively broader range of contexts. It is, as Graham White summarizes, a “formalized logical argument,” which enables the rigorous, public examination of disputed topics.29 Within its various settings, there is naturally a considerable amount of contextual adaptation, which characterizes the long history of the disputational form. Despite this diversity of form, it is possible to provide a general sketch of how disputations typically function. An important feature of the disputation resides in the fact that argumentation takes place among a plurality of active participants, and that each of these participants relates to his counterparts via carefully prescribed roles and expectations. The respondens (or respondentes) is tasked with the exposition and defense of determinate theses or assertions, which pertain to the overarching theme or quaestio under discussion. In fulfilling this role, the respondens is obligated to respond to objections and counterarguments, which are set forth by the opponens (or opponentes).30 For his part, the opponens is tasked with the presentation of arguments, which are designed to back the respondens into some kind of logical contradiction, thus effectively refuting a thesis, which the latter is supposed to defend.
During the public event itself, the respondentes and opponentes would challenge one another via precise forms of dialectical argumentation. As Ignacio Angelelli explains, however, the two roles are asymmetrically related to one another. The respondens is not required to prove or demonstrate any of his propositions or assertions. He is obliged merely to respond to objections and avoid falling into a contradiction in doing so.31 White provides an illuminating (while conjectural) reconstruction of what this procedure is likely to have involved during Luther’s lifetime:
A person (the respondens) would undertake to defend a set of propositions, or theses, against challenges by other people (the opponentes). These challenges probably took the form of arguments against one or more of the theses; the arguments would have to be logically valid ones, but would not necessarily have to be syllogisms. The respondens would have to show how these challenges were not valid; either because their premises were false, or because the arguments had some formal defect or other (an equivocation, or such like). It was not the role of the respondens to argue on behalf of his theses, merely to show that arguments against them were invalid.32
In cases where both of these roles are occupied by students, Jacques Bougerol notes that the master’s task would be to intervene “at times to correct dialectical mistakes.” He also explains (of 13th-century practice) that the master would conclude the session by “[clarifying] what [had] been said, [establishing] the order of arguments pro and con, [proposing] the definitive solution, and [answering] the opposite arguments.”33 The disputation in the 13th century was also typically succeeded at a later date by another formal occasion in which the master would render his determinative verdict on the original question in dispute (i.e., the determinatio).34
The form of the disputation varies in relation to three, principal variables: (1) shifting sets of analytical “tools” and argumentative “strategies”; (2) various possible “goals” to which a disputation may be ordered (e.g., probative, pedagogical, or polemical); and (3) the diverse “settings” in which a disputation can take place.35 Three major “types” of disputations are most prominent throughout its medieval history: the disputatio ordinaria, the disputatio privata, and the disputatio de quolibet. The first two types both refer to disputations in which students occupy the roles of respondens and opponens. In each case, the disputation “was presided over by a master who announced beforehand the question that would be asked. A bachelor, the opponens, supplied arguments against the thesis, while another, the respondens, attempted to answer the objections that were raised and to demonstrate their weakness.”36 The crucial difference between the disputatio ordinaria and the disputatio privata has to do with setting and audience. Whereas the former exercise is “public in the sense that it was open to bachelors and students from different schools,” the latter is held by the presiding master “in his own school and only for his own pupils.”37 The disputatio de quolibet refers to a very different practice, in which the master serves as respondent, and the topics under discussion remain indeterminate in advance of the public event. Intended to test (or showcase) the intellectual competence of the presiding master, topics and questions were determined extemporaneously by members of the audience, and could extend across a variety of subjects and disciplines. Although apparently very popular in the late 13th century especially, the disputatio de quolibet declined in usage shortly thereafter and eventually dropped out entirely.38
Luther participated in various types of disputation at the Universities of Erfurt and Wittenberg, where he labored first as a student, and then as a professor, respectively. Four varieties of disputation were especially common during his lifetime, though not all of these forms were practiced for the entirety of Luther’s tenure at the University of Wittenberg. First, circular disputations were held as a consistent component of the curricular cycle at many universities, sometimes on a weekly basis.39 This later instantiation of the disputatio ordinaria is designated “circular” because of the physical shape in which groups of students (functioning as respondentes and opponentes) were typically arranged during the disputation. The theses for these disputations were furnished by the presiding master of record.40 The disputatio privata also continued during this period, though in many respects it may be categorized as a variation of the circular disputation. Its primary function seems to have been preparatory, furnishing students with an opportunity to practice the art of logical argumentation within a less public setting. Private disputations were accordingly restricted to the students of a particular school, or the residents of a college house or bursa.41
The second major type of disputation was the disputatio pro gradu (or “promotion disputation”), which was stipulated as a requirement for receiving an advanced, academic degree. On this more festal occasion, the degree candidate would be supplied with disputational theses by a supervising master and would then serve as the respondens, addressing objections from those in attendance. Promotion disputations were important public events in the life of the university and were often well attended.42 Luther supervised at approximately twenty such disputations over the course of his career. In several cases, such as the promotion disputation of Jakob Schenck and Philipp Motz in October of 1536, the event would include more than one degree candidate, and several sets of theses were therefore provided.43 Although it was principally the student’s responsibility to respond to objections, Luther was also heavily involved. He often composed the doctoral candidate’s formal address and also participated frequently as an authoritative respondent in relation to key objections. Existing transcripts of these proceedings evince far more interest in recording Luther’s contributions to the debate for posterity, and generally neglect the student’s oral responses by comparison. The result of this propensity is a fairly extensive documentation of Luther’s argumentation, but a fragmentary record of the disputation as a whole.44
The tables were turned, in a sense, for the event to which the University of Wittenberg statutes of 1508 refer as a “quarterly disputation,” in which a presiding master would compose and defend theses in response to audience objections.45 As Gerber suggests, this third major type may represent a vestigial form of the disputatio de quolibet, since it furnishes the master with an occasion publically to demonstrate the extent of his academic acumen.46 Luther was a supporter of quarterly disputations and served as the respondent for several over the course of his career.47 His “Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’” is a representative example of this disputational type, and its preface provides a useful window into his positive appraisal thereof.
Finally, there were also exceptional forms of disputation in the early 16th century, which were typically linked with special occasions of various kinds. For instance, public disputations were sometimes held in conjunction with the regional meetings of mendicant religious orders.48 Such was the case, for instance, at the assembly of observant Augustinians at Colmar in 1503 and would transpire again with Luther’s so-called “Heidelberg Disputation” of 1518.49 As with promotional disputations, these events were typically adorned by festal ceremony and were often well attended.50
Luther was first exposed extensively to the practice of disputation as a student at the University of Erfurt, where he matriculated in 1501. After receiving the master’s degree in philosophy in 1505, he “became part of the teaching staff,” whose responsibilities included both the delivery of formal lectures and the leading of public disputations.51 In addition to familiarizing him with the process of disputation as a pedagogical exercise, it is important to recognize that the University of Erfurt furnished Luther with a sophisticated set of analytical tools, which would underwrite his argumentative style for the remainder of his life. The prominence of dialectic within Luther’s formal education reflects what E. J. Ashworth describes as the “dominant position,” occupied by the study of logic in the early 16th century.52
As a student at Erfurt, Luther interacted extensively with important texts from within this discipline and was well versed in the literature of scholasticism, which was characterized above all by the rigorous application of logical tools to theological questions. He studied, for instance, “the Summulae Logicales of Petrus Hispanus, the four books of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Aristotle’s works (principally the Organon, the Physics, and the Nichomachian [sic] Ethics) and William Ockham’s commentaries on them, commentaries on the Sentences of Gabriel Biel and Pierre d’Ailly, and the major works of Augustine.”53 In addition to these texts (which represent an incomplete list), Luther learned directly in Erfurt from two relatively prominent logicians and representatives of the Ockhamist tradition; namely, Bartholomaeus von Usingen (d. 1532) and Jodocus Trutvetter (d. 1519).54 Luther’s exposure to the intricate complexities of late medieval logic is significant for the interpretation of his disputations. It is this tradition and corpus, which furnished him with the primary analytical tools, which he would consistently apply within the context of disputational argument over the course of his life. It is therefore a communicative grammar with which the modern interpreter must become familiar in order properly to grasp the nature of Luther’s material claims.55
Luther often expressed fondness for the practice of disputation. As Ernst Wolf has observed, this esteem may sprout, in part, from Luther’s ample self-confidence in his abilities as a disputator, which seem by eyewitness report to have been formidable.56 In addition to favoring the disputation as a medium for critical, theological discourse, Luther also extolled the pedagogical usefulness of disputation as a fixture within the established university curriculum. Holger Sonntag helpfully summarizes:
Not only did [Luther see disputations] as an ideal means to “humble the proud”; he saw their dynamic give and take especially well suited to train the students, based on what they had heard in the lectures, to defend the rediscovered truth of the doctrine of the gospel and to defend thereby the church of Christ.57
Luther’s pedagogical goals are often stated explicitly in the prefatory remarks, which accompany many of the existing disputational records. In the preface to his first disputation against the antinomians in December 1537, for instance, Luther announces: “These disputations … are held for your benefit, my dear brothers, that you might be confirmed in sound doctrine and might receive a certain method of teaching it to others, which would not allow you to err or fail.”58 Luther’s preface to the “Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’” of 1539 (which reflects the resumption of quarterly disputations at the University of Wittenberg by directive of elector John Frederick) is likewise very positive in its appraisal of disputation, and enumerates several reasons why the practice is important for the formation of students:59
You know that at the command of the most illustrious prince, the elector, each field of learning has been ordered diligently to treat its own pursuits by lecturing, exchanging views, reflecting, and disputing. This is what the theologians, the jurists, the physicians are doing, in order that they may search out and set forth for their followers those matters which can most effectively be applied in life; and, by learning, they practice their art lest they turn out to be completely inept in the management of their affairs. Although this order of the most illustrious prince, the elector, is a human one, nevertheless, since we theologians are, besides this, all debtors, we ought to discharge our office before others with the greatest fidelity, and labor in the vineyard of the Lord, as Paul also gives the command to show concern, so that the word of God may abound among us. It is therefore fair that we obey this ordinance of the most illustrious prince, the elector, sincerely and gladly. There are also other reasons which ought to encourage us theologians to engage in disputations of this kind. For since we have become a spectacle throughout the whole world [1 Cor. 4:9], and are accused of heresy and of being the authors of a new doctrine, we ought to burn the more with zeal for the word of God so that we ourselves may be certain about our doctrine and faith and that we may be prepared to respond. We ought not only to be opposed to our reason but also to the devil and the gates of hell, and, contradicting them, to expose them and to offer conclusive proofs. Peter also commands that we should be prepared to give an answer to all who seek it from us concerning the hope which is in us, and to do this with gentleness and reverence [1 Peter 3:15]. This is something no one can do unless he is practiced in this arena and has defended himself against these monsters from his youth. Therefore, if the strength of my body should prove adequate, I, too, would debate on all the principal articles of doctrine in order every week, and make you more alert in opposing the adversaries and arm you against future heresies, of which there will be many after our death.60
The chief point of emphasis within these two representative prefaces rests upon the necessity of disputation for the preservation of true doctrine. As Christine Helmer points out, this is a task that requires proficiency at both the circumference of orthodox teaching (i.e., an ability to refute heresy and respond deftly to critical arguments) and its center (i.e., an ability rightly to articulate pure teaching with laconic precision). Luther regards the disputation as valuable, to a large extent, because it provides an occasion for sharpening a student’s capabilities in both of these respects.61 The preface of 1539 also notes the usefulness of disputation as a practicum or laboratory for experimenting with disciplinary tools of analysis (i.e., dialectic), and for testing whether a student is capable of interacting competently with logical arguments. Finally, Luther stresses the utility of the disputation for the more probative task of searching out the truth of a theological question, which is distinct from more didactic applications in which the disputation is used primarily as a participatory means for the distribution of settled teaching. Naturally, the heuristic borders, which distinguish between probative, polemical, and pedagogical uses of the disputation, are deeply porous. In most cases, Luther’s disputations reflect some combination of these three goals.62
Luther’s career as a disputator at the University of Wittenberg is typically divided into two major periods: (1) 1516‒1521; and (2) 1533‒1545.63 These periods of activity fall under two sets of university statutes, the first set originating in 1508 and the second in 1533. In between, there is a conspicuous decline in the practice of disputation in Wittenberg, which is due, in part, to the fluidity of curricular reform in the aftermath of the Edict of Worms in 1521.64 As compared with the statutes of 1508, the university statutes composed by Philip Melanchthon in 1533 represent a significant reduction of the disputation’s regularity within the curricular cycle at Wittenberg, a fact that seems to have displeased Luther.65 For instance, the circular disputations, which were once held on a weekly basis, were required only quarterly by the newer statutes.66 The official record, documenting each disputation’s occurrence, appears in the Liber Decanorum (i.e., the deans’ book). Since Luther served for some time as dean of the theological faculty, many of the late entries are in his own handwriting.67
Although Luther’s well-known theses on indulgences (and subsequently church authority) catalyzed his public controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, the axis of his theological program, as expressed in the disputations between 1516 and 1521, resides elsewhere. It is primarily the doctrine of sin—and original sin especially—along with its entailments for human capacities, free choice, grace, repentance, and salvation, which constitute the thematic core of the early disputations. Luther himself indicated as much in the year 1525, when he praised Erasmus for being his only critic, who had identified the true root of contention.
I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles (for trifles they are rather than basic issues), with which almost everyone hitherto has gone hunting for me without success. You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot; for which I sincerely thank you, since I am only too glad to give as much attention to this subject as time and leisure permit.68
Luther had already devoted a significant amount of thought to these topics in several of his early disputations. In the promotion disputation for Bartholomäus Bernhardi in 1516, Luther explicitly rejects versions of late medieval scholasticism, which view the sinner outside of grace as capable, at least in part (i.e., congruently), of turning himself toward God.69 The same fundamental critique predominates within Luther’s “Disputation against Scholastic Theology” of 1517, which focuses especially on the teaching of Gabriel Biel.70 Luther flatly denies that human beings remain capable of even the slightest turn toward God, so far as their own natural powers are concerned. “On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.”71
Along with his lectures on Romans of 1515‒1516, these disputations reflect the conspicuous influence of Augustine’s late anti-Pelagian writings, to which Luther had access via the so-called Amerbach edition of 1506.72 Among other things, these texts by Augustine convinced Luther that human activity outside of grace is uniformly tainted by a fundamental misalignment of inclination (i.e., concupiscentia), which prioritizes the prerogatives of selfish desire over against the will of God. This meant that even those actions, which might seem by external measures to uphold the divine law were, in fact, nothing more than spurious manifestations of a self, irrevocably turned in upon itself.73 “Man is by nature [i.e., nature as tainted by sin and outside of grace] unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.”74 To the extent that this is true, Luther reasoned, it is outrageous to suggest that the sinner could merit grace (albeit congruently) by loving God above all things, even if only according to the substance of the act.75
By intensifying the doctrine of original sin along late Augustinian lines, Luther accordingly swept aside any possibility of the sinful human subject performing an act, which could be considered congruently meritorious of grace. At the same time, however, this deepening of the doctrine of sin also necessitates a far more radical account of repentance; that is, the process in which God accomplishes in human beings what they cannot accomplish for themselves. In supplying this account, Luther borrowed extensively from several key figures from the tradition of German mysticism, but especially Johann Tauler and the author of the so-called theologica deutsch.76 A key theme in these sources, which is mirrored in Luther’s early theology, is a pronounced emphasis upon the invasive nature of God’s involvement within the Christian’s life. Luther’s mystical sources take it for granted that only a pedagogy of profound disruption—often centralizing the role of suffering and askesis—will be sufficient to remedy the disorder of fallen human proclivities.77 It was this heightened theology of repentance, above all, which sparked Luther’s ire against indulgences in the late 1510s.78 In addition to promising all sorts of benefits, which Luther regarded as beyond the appropriate jurisdiction of any human authority, the Summary Instruction associated with St. Peter’s indulgence also indicated that none of these benefits required contrition or even the confession of sin.79
It is therefore no coincidence that the Ninety-Five Theses are bracketed by assertions urging the need for authentic repentance and askesis, for which the Christian should not seek a less costly substitute.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].80
Somewhat paradoxically, then, Luther’s early disputations criticize late medieval theology and piety simultaneously for asking “too much” (i.e., its doctrine of congruent merit) and “too little” (i.e., its promotion of indulgences as a less invasive alternative to what Luther regarded as the work of true repentance). These themes coalesce in rather magisterial form in Luther’s “Heidelberg Disputation” of 1518, which emphasizes the inability of human beings to turn toward God by way of their own resources (theses 1‒18), insisting instead that God effects His will within them by way of the cross (theses 19‒28).81
The focus of Luther’s late disputations (1533‒1545) is somewhat more eclectic. Several sets of theses continue the themes, which are prominent in his earlier works. Such is the case, for instance, in the five sets of theses devoted to Romans 3:28, which articulate Luther’s understanding of the law, justification, and saving faith.82 The Disputatio De Homine (1536) similarly takes up important aspects of Luther’s earlier reflections on theological anthropology and advances them with further nuance and rigor.83 Quite a number of the late disputations are directed against particular figures or contemporaneous views, which Luther deemed heretical and therefore deserving of public refutation. He composed six sets of theses and conducted four public disputations in opposition to the antinomians in the late 1530s, for example.84 In 1540, he also prepared a disputation against Caspar Schwenckfeld, who had espoused deviant, Christological teaching.85 Several of Luther’s latest disputations (1543‒1545) focus upon technical issues within Trinitarian theology, which seem at least partially to have been provoked by the rise of anti-Trinitarian groups within Europe. Finally, quite a number of Luther’s disputations within this later period are devoted to ecclesiological concerns, which may reflect the looming possibility during this period of an ecumenical council.86 In many cases, these late texts provide a window into aspects of Luther’s theology, which are not extensively developed elsewhere within his corpus.
The Mother of Errors
One important theme, which surfaces consistently across the gamut of Luther’s disputations (early and late) is his acute concern to guard against the inordinate encroachment of philosophical reasoning onto theological subject matter. For Luther, the wide road that leads to heresy is usually paved by the uncritical application of philosophical assumptions to doctrinal realities. In particular, problems arise when theological terms are surreptitiously vested with an unaltered philosophical sense. Luther interprets many of the classical heresies along these lines.87 He regards Arianism, for instance, as a system of thought in which generally valid, philosophical entailments are mistakenly applied to Christologically significant terms. Because those entailments dictate that those things which are “born,” “begotten,” or “generated” must necessarily have a beginning, Arius concludes that “there was a time when the Son was not.”88 The inference is mistaken, however, because terms behave differently when applied to theological subject matter. In this particular case, the problem arises from the uncritical “imposition of temporal categories onto the theological region,” and the result is an assortment of erroneous conclusions.89 Heresy, in other words, is the byproduct of a clumsy and undifferentiated use of language. Or, as Luther is fond of asserting: “Equivocation is the mother of errors.”90
The disputations furnish a veritable catalog of instances in which Luther traces various kinds of theological error to the fundamental problem of terminological confusion. In his disputation De Fide, for instance, he labors to differentiate faith in the proper theological sense from mere assent to a historical fact.91 In De Homine (1536), he insists upon a fundamental distinction between philosophical and theological accounts of “humanity.”92 The “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518) emphasizes a broad range of contrasts, which insist that concepts such as “righteousness,” “the law,” “free will,” “good works,” or even “love” receive a new normative sense within a theological framework.93 In each case, Luther’s main concern is to oppose instances of what he takes to be the uncritical adoption of non-theological definitions as normative within a theological context. The central problem with terminological confusion is that it opens the door to misguided inferential reasoning. Terms are laden with philosophical premises, and those premises give way to erroneous, theological conclusions.94
The solution, of course, as Luther routinely asserts, is to allow theological sources (i.e., Scripture and the Christian tradition) to specify the determinate sense of theological terms. As Bruce Marshall has observed, this implies a conscientious reordering of “epistemic priorities,” in which philosophical assumptions are relegated to a subordinate and subservient position.95 Luther summarizes this point rather memorably in his “Disputation Concerning the Passage ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’” (1539): “St. Ambrose has rightly said that the dialecticians have to give way where the apostolic fishermen are to be trusted.”96 The result of this reordering is a reconfigured use of concepts and terms, to which Luther cumulatively refers as the “new language” of theology.97 According to Luther, the language of theology is “new” because it behaves differently, in many ordinary respects, from the “old” language of philosophy, within which “relations” cannot be “persons,” “mothers” cannot be “virgins,” a “man” cannot be “God,” and so forth.98 These various proscriptive entailments are perfectly acceptable within a philosophical frame of reference, which is derived from rational reflection upon general experience. And yet, relations of implication (i.e., the assumption that a mother cannot also be virgin) must be reconfigured when applied to theological subject matter.99 The result is an entirely new way of speaking.
Luther’s notion of the nova lingua is clearly a counsel of discontinuity. It calls attention to the insoluble dissimilarity, which distinguishes theology from philosophy. As has been shown, there is an important sense in which Luther regards all theological error as proceeding at root from a failure sufficiently to respect this fundamental distinction. And yet, there is considerable disagreement within modern scholarship when it comes to specifying the precise sort of discontinuity that Luther envisions between these domains. In what way is the “new language” of theology different from the “old language” of philosophy? Or, as White helpfully inquires: “What makes [these] two languages the same, and what makes them different?”100 This identifies a crucial question for the interpretation of Luther. Because Luther’s view of the relation between theology and philosophy conditions his treatment of every other doctrine, there is an important sense in which the diversity represented within modern readings of Luther’s theology can be traced back to this one seminal issue. As the disputations cumulatively testify, there is hardly a point of doctrine, which is not affected by it. Limitations of space preclude a comprehensive presentation of the various interpretive options available within modern scholarship on this issue. Instead, the following sections will cursorily outline two heuristic options and illustrate a few ways in which the interpretation of the nova lingua leads to a particular construal of Luther’s theology in relation to other topoi.
A Discontinuity of Displacement
Some interpretations of Luther’s theology construe the discontinuity between theology and philosophy as a discontinuity of displacement. Although the terminology deployed in theological and philosophical discourse may coincide, the objective reality to which overlapping terms refer is not the same. This implies that theology and philosophy are, at best, incommensurably related to one another.101 In its most severe forms, this construal describes Luther as espousing some version of a double-truth theory, in which theology and philosophy are regarded somehow as simultaneously true, despite the fact that they contradict one another.102 More typical, however, is the view that Luther sees theology and philosophy as referring to two, irreducibly distinct domains, whose discourses simply cannot be merged. Theology necessarily uses terms drawn from the philosopher’s lexicon (we have no language but our earthly one), but those terms are populated by a fundamentally new meaning. Theology is neither the extension of philosophical discourse, nor does it attempt to subsume that discourse within a higher integrative synthesis.103 The two meanings of a term (i.e., philosophical and theological) always constitute an “either-or.”
In some cases, the “either-or” requires that the philosophical meaning of a shared term be rejected simply as false. A good example of such a conclusion is available within passibilist interpretations of Luther’s Christology. On these readings, Luther criticizes late medieval Christologies essentially because he rejects the philosophical conception of God on which those Christologies are based. Of particular importance here are the attributes of divine immutability and divine impassibility, which Luther putatively maligns as foreign to the thought-world of Scripture, and opposed intrinsically to the doctrine of the incarnation. According to the intuitions of a Greek philosophical inheritance, it seems patently absurd that God should suffer and die. By retaining that inheritance, the scholastics are forced to engage in all manner of conceptual obfuscation and equivocation in a futile attempt to render the phrase “God is man” intelligible. Far better, Luther seems to suggest, simply to embrace the fact that theology operates with a definition of God and man, which contradicts the received verities of philosophical reasoning.
1. Although the saying, “Every truth is in agreement with every other truth,” is to be upheld, nevertheless, what is true in one field of learning is not always true in other fields of learning.
2. In theology it is true that the Word was made flesh; in philosophy the statement is simply impossible and absurd.
3. The declaration, “God is man,” is not less but even more contradictory than if you would say, “Man is an ass.”
4. The Sorbonne, the mother of errors, has very incorrectly defined that truth is the same in philosophy and theology.104
The critical question here is why something which is “true” in theology is viewed as “impossible and absurd” in philosophy. On the passibilist reading, it is because the God of the philosophers is characterized by perfect-making properties, which render the incarnation unthinkable. The biblical Christian, on the other hand, worships the God who takes on flesh, is rocked on Mary’s lap, endures hunger and thirst, and ultimately dies a gruesome death on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The fact that both theology and philosophy make use of the same term (i.e., “Deus”) is purely incidental, for the intended referent could not diverge in a more fundamental way. For the Christian, the term “God” does not denote a static, metaphysical being of maximal perfection, but rather the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; a God whose being is in His becoming.105 The philosophical definition of the term must be displaced as false.
In other cases, the philosophical meaning of a shared term may be acknowledged as true, but only as restricted to a parallel domain, which has nothing to do with theology. The binary of the “either-or” remains intact in such cases, but unlike the previous example, both meanings are allowed peacefully to coexist because they occupy non-overlapping fields of discourse. Luther’s teaching on two kinds of righteousness is often interpreted along these lines. Whereas Augustine and much of medieval scholasticism sees grace as a strengthening of human agency unto the genuine fulfillment of the law, Luther apparently relegates the human agent’s adherence to the law (whether divinely enabled or not) to a horizontal plane, which has essentially nothing to do with the imputed righteousness that comes by faith.106 In the “Heidelberg Disputation,” for instance, Luther states in thesis 25: “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”107
The perpendicular relation between these two kinds of righteousness is accentuated in Rudolf Hermann’s influential reading of Luther’s simul doctrine, which states, according to Hermann, that the Christian remains righteous (in the theological and imputed sense), even if she actively consents to sin.108 In no way, then, does the appropriation of divine pardon entail that a Christian is simultaneously one in whom the law is constantly in the process of being fulfilled. Unlike Augustine, for whom there is genuine moral progress and growth in a spiritually significant sense, Luther allegedly dismisses all such progress as relegated entirely to the “outer man.” From a theological vantage point, the Christian always remains totally a sinner.109 This implies a strict separation between grace and the moral law. As David Yeago helpfully summarizes, for many Lutheran theologians (and interpreters of Luther):
morality and grace are disjointed and even opposed themes; even when a normative moral order is affirmed—and most Lutheran theologians have in fact affirmed a normative moral order—that order is viewed as having nothing to do with the gospel. Moral order is necessary where grace is absent: it subjects the unruly flesh to a needful rough governance, and prepares the heart for grace by the stringency of its demands. But when grace arrives on the scene, moral order has reached its limit and termination; the gospel initiates a relationship between God and human beings which is not only more than moral, but altogether other than moral.110
On this characterization, the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of the law are not merely distinct; they belong to incommensurate spheres of description, which do not intersect.111 Unlike passibilist readings of Luther’s Christology, the philosophical definition of a shared term (i.e., “righteousness”) is not rejected as false. It is still displaced, however, in the sense that it refers only to a partitioned sector of experience, which resides outside the domain of theology. In either case, whether by rejection or partition, the old and new language are interpreted as using the same terms to talk about fundamentally different things.
A Discontinuity of Depth
Others interpret Luther’s concept of the nova lingua as denoting a discontinuity of depth, in which the philosophical meaning of a shared term remains valid, but does not penetrate to the most fundamental layer of the reality to which it refers. In this sense, the knowledge of God and the world, which is accessible to human beings via their natural powers of sense and reason (i.e., philosophy) need not be displaced. The deliverances of that knowledge must instead be resituated within a more comprehensive framework, which theological sources provide. As White has argued, the salient discontinuity, which distinguishes the “old language” from the “new” does not reside at the level of contrary meaning. Philosophical and theological terms both describe and refer to the same objects. The difference consists rather at the level of determining the valid inferences, which those terms allow.112 Theological language behaves in unique ways, because the implicit relations of entailment, which are ordinarily attached to the terms it appropriates from philosophy are reconfigured within a new and broader context. So, for example, although the basic philosophical definition of a “relation” does not undergo substantive change when applied to Trinitarian theology, the typical entailment that relations cannot be subsisting things (and certainly not persons!) is no longer valid, because relations, in this unique context, identify processions, which constitute eternal relations.113 Similarly, as Bruce Marshall observes, Luther insists that the doctrine of the resurrection alters the configuration of entailment relations, which are typically bound up with the term “corpse.” The term itself refers in both theology and philosophy to a shared mundane reality; namely, a previously sentient, corporeal body, which decomposes over time. And yet, whereas natural philosophy can only infer, on the basis of this available data, that human life ends at physical death; the theologian resituates that data in light of her belief in the resurrection of the dead, and infers otherwise.114 In either case, the shared term denotes the same referent (i.e., the philosophical meaning remains true), but does so within a very different configuration of allowable inferences.115
This account of discontinuity suggests a very different construal of Luther’s Christology, and his understanding of the two kinds of “righteousness.” The philosophical absurdity of the incarnation, which Luther asserts in his “Disputation Concerning the Passage ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’” (1539) is not the result of his rejection of the metaphysical commitments of late medieval scholasticism. As White observes, Luther continues to affirm the analytic judgements, which his interlocutors associate with terms such as “God” and “man.” He agrees, for instance, that there are certain characteristics, which belong to divinity and humanity per se.116 These intrinsic properties function, for Luther, as truth conditions even for theological statements. For instance, if Christ is a man, then it must be true that Christ is a “rational animal.”117 By the same token, Luther shares the assumption that divinity (per se) is impassible, and thus incapable of suffering or dying.118 Therefore, if Christ is God, it must also be true that Christ is impassible.
The “impossibility” of the incarnation is not therefore because Luther evacuates the term “God” of its philosophically prescribed meaning, but rather because the hypostatic union brings about a radical reconfiguration of typically valid inference entailments. As with the prior example of a “corpse,” philosophy is right to assert certain key data. For example, human beings are passible, and God is impassible. It is wrong, however, to conclude that there cannot be a context in which these two sets of essential properties subsist within a single subject (i.e., the hypostatic union). In that very unique case (to which the natural philosopher has no epistemic access), the allowable inferences are significantly rearranged. It cannot be concluded, for instance, that because Christ is passible, He is therefore not divine. Rather, Christ is impassible according to His divine nature, and passible according to his human nature.119 There may be all sorts of ways in which Luther’s Christology differs in other respects from the views of his scholastic interlocutors. According to this interpretation, however, the difference does not reside in the fact that he imports some new definition of divinity, which eschews a classical account of the divine attributes. The philosophical determination of terms such as “God” and “man” remains valid, but its typical configuration of allowable inferences does not apply to the person of Christ because He is uniquely one who is simultaneously “true God” and “true man.”
The relationship between grace and law is also interpreted differently, when Luther’s distinction between “old” and “new” is viewed as a matter of depth rather than displacement. On this reading, Luther’s critique of moral righteousness (i.e., the righteousness of the law) is not intended to supplant the importance of a Christian’s alignment with the law in thought, word, and deed. It is intended rather to insist that such alignment is trivial from a theological point of view, unless it is rooted at the core of a person’s agency, from which all outward actions emanate. In the absence of faith (i.e., deep alignment), the acts of civil righteousness remain condemnably tainted by the corruptions of original sin. In this sense, the legal conception of righteousness as “outward alignment with the law” remains valid, but only superficially so. One may not infer, for instance, that righteousness according to external praxis sufficiently constitutes “uprightness” in the most crucial, theological sense of the term.120 Such alignment may suffice within a horizontal set of criteria, but the divine law calls for the love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. And yet, there nevertheless proceeds from faith and its concomitant gift of the Holy Spirit a thorough and gradual alignment of the believer’s thoughts, speech, and conduct with the law of God. As Yeago suggests, Luther’s proposal should be regarded as securing the “thorough integration” of grace and moral order, rather than eventuating their diametric “separation.”121
It remains true, on this alternative account, that the human sinner stands constantly in need of forensic pardon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The fomes peccati remains even in the baptized Christian, and this means that even her noblest acts are tainted by contrary impulses (an imperfection of love), which are rightly condemnable by God. Thus, there is no thought here of a perfectionism in which the Christian could outgrow the need for forgiveness (i.e., the non-imputation of sin and the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness).122 And yet, the “cleansing of imputation,” as Luther describes it, is never separated from the “cleansing of substance.”123 The Christian is therefore always one in whom the law is being more and more perfectly fulfilled. Luther states as much in the twenty-third thesis of his “Disputation Concerning Justification” (1536): “For we perceive that a man who is justified is not yet a righteous man, but is in the very movement or journey toward righteousness.”124
The same integration of grace and law is expressed within the first disputation against the antinomians (1537). Luther explains:
The law, therefore, cannot be eliminated, but it remains, prior to Christ as not yet fulfilled, after Christ as to be fulfilled, although this does not happen perfectly in this life even by the justified. For it requires that we love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:37, 39). This will happen perfectly first in the coming life.125
For advocates of a “depth discontinuity,” it is significant that quotations of this sort identify justification as part of a larger movement unto “righteousness”; a process, which is defined to a large extent by an ever-increasing obedience to the law. It remains true, of course, that Luther denies that a believer’s status before God is determined by that obedience.126 This is not the same, however, as asserting that the righteousness of the law has nothing to do with the righteousness of faith, as if the two were located on incommensurate planes, which never intersect. On this alternative reading, it seems more appropriate to conclude that both occupy important stations within an integrated, theological whole, in which the latter (depth righteousness) is ordered intrinsically unto the former (moral alignment).127
It should be emphasized that the two heuristic alternatives explored in this section do not represent pure categories. There exists a complex spectrum of interpretive options available within contemporary scholarship in relation to specifying the precise sort of discontinuity, which Luther asserts between theological and philosophical speech. This complexity of the ongoing conversation cannot adequately be encapsulated by two “types.” The previous survey does not intend to suggest that every scholar can be shoe-horned into either a “discontinuity of displacement” or a “discontinuity of depth,” and neither has it attempted to provide an extensive argument concerning which of these heuristic types is closest to the truth of the matter in question. Nevertheless, what should be clear is that varying interpretations of this seminal issue lead to very different readings of Luther’s theology as a cohesive whole. The disputations are therefore an invaluable resource, not only because they deal extensively with the relationship between theology and philosophy but also because they do so in relation to nearly all of the major topics, which comprise Luther’s theological program.
Review of the Literature
Scholarship pertinent to the study of Luther’s disputations falls into a number of major categories. The researcher will be helped considerably by texts, for instance, which illuminate various aspects of the medieval milieu in which the disputation originated and developed. This naturally includes texts that focus on the history of the disputation itself, such as Alex Novikoff’s The Medieval Culture of Disputation, Brian Lawn’s The Rise and Decline of the Scholastic Quaestio Disputata, Georgiana Donavin, Carol Poster, and Richard Utz’s Medieval Forms of Argument and Ignacio Angelelli’s “The Techniques of Disputation in the History of Logic.”128 Similarly helpful are works that provide an overview of the history of logic in the medieval and early modern periods such as Philotheus Boehner’s Medieval Logic and E. J. Ashworth’s Language and Logic in the Post-Medieval Period.129 Important contextual information is available in texts that explore the dynamic and porous relationship between scholasticism and humanism during the period of the reformation, such as James Overfield’s Humanism and Scholasticism in Late Medieval Germany, Maria Grossmann’s Humanism in Wittenberg, and Erika Rummel’s The Humanist-Scholastic Debate.130 As Rummel demonstrates, ongoing tensions between these various intellectual currents play an important role in the curricular reforms of early modern, university life and exert a significant influence over how various reformers come to view the place of logic and the disputation within theological study. Finally, because the disputations identify an important way in which Luther creatively appropriates his scholastic training, it is important that the researcher be familiar with major studies on the complex relationship between Luther and late medieval scholasticism. The list of sources pertaining to this last aspect of contextual background is too extensive to enumerate here. A good place to start would be the essays and respective bibliographies provided in chapters 7 and 8 of The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, by Gerhard Müller and Volker Leppin.131
A second major category of useful studies includes texts that focus directly upon Luther’s disputations, or upon some theme that is developed extensively therein. There are surprisingly few secondary resources that attempt an overview of the disputations as a whole. This apparent lacuna may reflect the predominating biases of 19- and early-20th-century Luther scholarship, which sometimes tended to minimize aspects of Luther’s corpus, which were perceived as excessively indebted to scholastic modes of thought or methodology. The preference expressed within these sources for texts from Luther’s early theological output may also have compounded the ostensible neglect, at least so far as the reformer’s late disputations are concerned. Of those texts that do provide the reader with an introduction to Luther’s disputations, the most significant include Paul Drews’s Disputationen Dr. Martin Luthers, Bernhard Lohse’s “Luther als Disputator,” E. Wolf’s “Zur wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Disputationen und der Wittenberger Universität im 16. Jahrhundert,” Uwe Gerber’s Disputatio als Sprache des Glaubens, Graham White’s “Luther as Nominalist,” and Reinhard Schwarz’s “Disputationen.” White’s account is unique among these resources in the extent of attention it allocates to specifying the logical tools of analysis, which Luther appropriates and applies from late medieval scholasticism, and therefore holds particular importance.
Studies that focus upon particular disputations, or prominent themes within the disputations, are far more prevalent. Treatments of the Ninety-Five Theses and the indulgence controversy are available in any of the major biographies of Luther, for which Brecht’s three-volume opus remains the standard resource.132 Recent studies on the indulgence controversy on the part of Leppin and Hamm (among others) have also increasingly emphasized the relationship between Luther’s theology of repentance and medieval German mysticism.133 Luther’s developing critique of scholasticism, as expressed in a cluster of disputations between 1516 and 1518 has been thoroughly explored in a pair of monographs by Leif Grane.134 The literature on the “Heidelberg Disputation” is extensive. The most up-to-date edition of the original texts is provided by Helmar Junghans in LSA 1: 186‒218. An overview of the historical background surrounding the disputation appears in essays authored by Karl Bauer, Heinz Scheible, Karl-Heinz Zur Mühlen, and Gottfried Seebaß.135 A useful overview of the argument and thematic organization is to be found in two essays by Jos Vercruysse and another by Heinrich Bornkamm.136 Also significant here is Theodor Dieter’s magisterial treatment of Luther’s relation to Aristotle, as articulated principally in the “Heidelberg Disputation.”137
Texts focusing on the late disputations tend to cluster around key themes represented therein. For instance, Reinhard Schwarz, Axel Schmidt, Graham White, Athina Lexutt and David Luy interact extensively with Luther’s Christological disputations of 1539 and 1540, and so do the essays within Oswald Bayer and Benjamin Gleede’s Creator est creatura.138 Other important themes in the late disputations have similarly attracted their own constellation of helpful secondary studies. These include, for instance, Luther’s doctrine of the Trinity (e.g., Christine Helmer’s The Trinity and Martin Luther, Graham White’s Luther as Nominalist, Dennis Bielfeldt et al’s The Substance of the Faith and Simo Knuuttila and Risto Saarinen’s “Innertrinitarische Theologie in der Scholastik und bei Luther”139), Luther’s view of the law as expressed in the antinomian disputations (e.g., Martin Brecht’s “Luthers Antinomerdisputationen, ” Holger Sonntag’s Solus Decalogus est aeternus, and Philip Anderas’s “Renovatio”; with helpful background information supplied in Timothy Wengert’s Law and Gospel140), and his theological anthropology as articulated in De Homine (Gerhard Ebeling’s Lutherstudien and Hermann Dembowski’s “Martin Luthers Disputatio De Homine von 1536”).141 Luther’s understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy remain an important object of scholarly interest, as is the related issue of theological language. Key studies on these issues include (but are not limited to) Bengt Hägglund’s Theologie und Philosophie bei Luther und in der Occamistischen Tradition, Stefan Streiff’s Novis Linguis Loqui, Graham White’s Luther as Nominalist, Theodor Dieter’s Der junge Luther und Aristoteles, three essays by Dennis Bielfeldt, Bernhard Lohse’s Ratio und Fides, Bruce Marshall’s “Faith and Reason Reconsidered,” Joachim Ringleben’s Gott im Wort and Reijo Työrinoja’s “Nova vocabula et nova lingua.”142
Despite the many helpful studies mentioned in this overview, the disputations remain an underutilized source in Luther scholarship. By virtue of their distinctive genre, the disputations provide a concise distillation of terms, concepts, and themes, which are central to Luther’s theology as a whole. This laconic quality suggests that Luther’s disputations could profitably function in futures studies as a hermeneutical key for the elucidation of specific doctrines (e.g., justification, ecclesiology), which are articulated in a more baroque and tangential manner elsewhere. As Bernard Lohse notes, the disputations also call attention to a pervasive “disputational style,” which characterizes Luther’s mode of theological expression in other sorts of texts such as sermons and treatises.143 In this sense, they provide hermeneutical guidance not only for clarifying the substance of Luther’s theology but also for navigating its distinctive, communicative style. Finally, the breadth of topics addressed in the disputations suggests that cumulatively they represent a text source, from which a coherent presentation of Luther’s theological program might be drawn.
Table 1. Primary Sources, 1516‒1522
English (if available)
September 25, 1516
De viribus et voluntate hominis sine gratia (Promotion disputation for Bartholomäus Bernhardi)
Contra scholasticam theologiam
October 31, 1517
Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum
April 26, 1518
Disputatio Heidelbergae habitab
(Probationes for the philosophical theses)
LW 72 III
(Probationes for the philosophical theses)
Pro veritate inquirenda et timoratis conscientiis consolandis conclusionesb
Late June and early July 1519c
“The Leipzig Disputation”
De lege et fide
An libri philosophorum sint utiles aut inutiles ad theologiam
De naturali potentia voluntatis hominis
February 3, 1520
De fide infusa et acquisita
July 27, 1520
De fide et ceremoniis
De sacramentiis in dist. Lib. 4 sententiarum
De signis gratiae
De baptismate legis, Iohannis et Christi
De non vindicando
Utrum opera faciant ad Iustificationem
Themata de votis
Notes: a Published in late August of 1518. See LW 31:79–80.
b It should also be noted that I follow Schwarz in the dating of the disputations, which differs in a few cases from the dates indicated in the corresponding WA entries. Reinhard Schwarz, “Disputationen,” in Lutherhandbuch, 2d ed., ed. Albrecht Beutel (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 328–340.
c Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 78–79.
d The English translation in LW 31 includes a number of other materials beyond merely Luther’s list of theses. For the location of these materials in the critical edition, see Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 332.
e The editors of LW locate this disputation in 1520.
Table 2. Primary Sources, 1533‒1545
English (if available)
June 17, 1533
Contra Concilium Constantiense
September 11, 1535
WA 39/I:44–48; 53–59
WA 39/I:48–53; 59–62
October 16, 1535
Disputation concerning Daniel 4:24
WA 39/I:64–75; WA 59:705–707
October ??, 1535
Disputation concerning 1 Corinthians 13
WA 39/I:77; WA 59:708–711
Disputation concerning Luke 7:47
January 14, 1536
January 29, 1536
Contra missam privatam
WA 39/I:138–173; WA 39/II:402–407
De potestate concilii
WA 39/I:184–197; WA 59:712–716
October 10, 1536
(promotion disputation for Jakob Schenck and Philipp Motz)b
June 1, 1537
De operibus legis et gratiae
(promotion disputation for Petrus Palladius and Tilemann von Hussen)c
June 15, 1537
De veste nuptiali (on Matt. 22:1–14)
WA 39/I:265–333; WA 39/II:407–414
December 18, 1537
Disputation against the Antinomians (first set of theses, and first public disputation)
WA 39/I:345–347; 360–417; WA 39/II:414–419
January 12, 1538
Disputation against the Antinomians (second set of theses, and second public disputation)
WA 39/I:347–350; 419–485; WA 39/II:419–425
Disputation against the Antinomians (third set of theses; not disputed publically)
Disputation against the Antinomians (fourth set of theses; not disputed publically)
September 6, 1538
Disputation against the Antinomians (fifth set of theses, and third public disputation; promotion disputation for Cyriacus Gerichius)
WA 39/I:354–357; 489–584; WA 39/II:428f.
January 11, 1539
“The Disputation concerning the Passage: ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’ (John 1:14)”f
May 9, 1539
Disputation on Matthew 19:21
February 28, 1540
De divinitate et humanitate Christi
September 10, 1540
Disputation against the Antinomians (6th set of theses, and fourth disputation; promotion disputation for Joachim Mörlin)
WA 39/I:358; WA 39/II:124–144
LW 73 Sonntag, 199–216
February 3, 1542
(promotion disputation for Johannes Machabäus Scotus)
July 7, 1542
Disputation on Hebrews 13:8
(promotion disputation for Heinrich Schmedenstede)
Contra Satanam et synagogam ipsius
[LW 72 III]
February 16, 1543
(promotion disputation for Johannes Marbach)
April 24, 1543
De fide iustificante
(promotion disputation for Friedrich Bachofen and Hieronymous Nopp)
August 24, 1543
De unitate essentiae divinae
(promotion disputation for Erasmus Alber)
Bielfeldt, Mattox, and Hinlicky, 191–197i
May 23, 1544
December 12, 1544
(promotion disputation for Georg Major [theses 1–26] and Johannes Faber [theses 27–47])
Bielfeldt, Mattox, and Hinlicky, 197–204
July 3, 1545
De distinction personarum in divinitate
(promotion disputation for Petrus Hegemon)
Bielfeldt, Mattox, and Hinlicky, 204–209
Notes: a These comprise two of five sets of disputational theses that have Romans 3:28 as their principal focus. See also numbers 30 and 31.
b The third and fourth set of theses on Romans 3:28.
c The fifth set of theses on Romans 3:28.
d Holger Sonntag and Martin Luther, Solus Decalogus est aeternus: Martin Luther's Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations (Minneapolis: Lutheran Pr, 2008).
e Schwarz does not specify a date for Luther’s third and fourth set of theses against the Antinomians. Reinhard Schwarz, “Disputationen,” in Lutherhandbuch, 2d ed., edited by Albrecht Beutel (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010): 336. The date indicated here relies upon Holger Sonntag and Martin Luther, Only the Decalogue Is Eternal, 14.
f I depart here from Schwarz’s nomenclature in order to align with the title used in LW 38:235.
g Christopher Brown has provided a publically accessible translation of this disputation at http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/luther-divinity.txt.
h Mitchell Tolpingrud, “Luther’s Disputation Concerning the Divinity and the Humanity of Christ,” Lutheran Quarterly 10 (1996): 151–178.
i Dennis D. Biefeldt, Mickey Leland Mattox, and Paul R. Hinlicky, The Substance of the Faith: Luther's Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
Tables 1 and 2 provide a list of primary source materials for Luther’s disputations in chronological order. It has been adapted from Reinhard Schwarz’s essay, which appears in the second edition of the Luther Handbuch from 2010.144 Schwarz compiles more information than appears in the table provided. He includes, for instance, the location of pertinent entries in the Liber Decanorum, which contains the official university record of public disputations in Wittenberg. Some information, which is absent from Schwarz’s table, has also been added. The final column provides the location of English translations in various sorts of available resources. Many of Luther’s late disputations are scheduled to appear in the forthcoming new volumes of Luther’s Works from Concordia Publishing House. Since exact bibliographical references are not available at the present time, the anticipated volume numbers (i.e., LW 72 or 73) have been provided.145 Finally, it should be noted that the table departs, in a few instances, from the title assigned to various disputations by Schwarz. In most cases, the adaptation is intended to align more closely with the corresponding entries provided in LW.146
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(1.) Chief among these are four disputations in particular: (1) Luther’s “Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum” of 1517 (never disputed publicly); (2) the “Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam” of 1517 (also never disputed publicly); (3) the “Heidelberg Disputation” of 1518; and (4) the “Leipzig Disputation” of 1519.
(2.) Bernhard Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” in Evangelium in der Geschichte. Studien zu Luther und der Reformation, eds. Leif Grane, Bernd Moeller and Otto Hermann Pesch (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988), 250.
(3.) This list would include what is likely to be scores and scores of disputations in which Luther participated (sometimes as master) as a student at the University of Erfurt. See Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 29.
(4.) Reinhard Schwarz, “Disputationen,” in Lutherhandbuch, 2d ed., ed. Albrecht Beutel (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 331. Collected editions of the late disputations were also circulated, though many of those editions are no longer extant (ibid, 335).
(5.) Karl-Heinz Zur Mühlen, “Die Heidelberger Disputation Martin Luthers vom 26. April 1518: Programm und Wirkung,” in Semper Apertus: Sechshundert Jahre Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg 1386–1986, vol. 1, ed. Wilhelm Dörr (Berlin: Springer, 1985), 199–202. Bernhard Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 253.
(6.) The ninety-five theses are the most obvious example here, but other disputational theses of the same general period were also met with critique. The promotion disputation of Bartholomäus Bernhardi in September of 1516 (“De viribus et voluntate hominis sine gratia”) is a case in point. See Bernhard Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 253.
(7.) This is certainly true for the “Heidelberg Disputation” of 1518.
(8.) Bernhard Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 263.
(9.) For more on the history of the disputation, see Alex J. Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice, and Performance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); and Brian Lawn, The Rise and Decline of the Scholastic Quaestio Disputata: With Special Emphasis on Its Use in the Teaching of Medicine and Science (Leiden, The Netherlands: New York, 1993).
(10.) On the prominence of disputations in Wittenberg during this time, see Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 61.
(11.) In a text composed in 1518, Luther defends his right as a doctor of theology to dispute theological topics and questions. WA 1:528, 27ff. This not necessarily to deny that Luther chose to exercise this right with an unusual degree of vigor, which may very well have been perceived by his critics as “speaking out of turn.”
(12.) See, for instance, Joachim Ott and Martin Treu, eds., Luthers Thesenanschlag: Faktum oder Fiktion (Leipzig: Evangelische Veranstalt, 2008).
(13.) I depend for this language entirely upon Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation.
(15.) One such instance of role expectation is expressed in the concept of “obligation,” which refers to the “respondens’ commitment to avoid falling into a contradiction once he has accepted or denied an initial sentence proposed by the opponens.” This description is taken from Ignacio Angelelli, “The Techniques of Disputation in the History of Logic,” Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970): 803. See also Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther: A Study on the Relationship between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works, 1523–1546 (Mainz: P. von Zabern, 1999), 47.
(16.) For a discussion of important early texts on the “art of disputation,” see Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation, 109–110.
(17.) Graham White stresses the necessity of familiarity with what I am here calling the “depth grammar” of disputation, especially as it pertains to the history of logic. He asserts an appropriate, methodological axiom to express this point: “one must know about the rules of disputation, in order to interpret the disputations correctly” (Graham White, Luther as Nominalist: A Study of the Logical Methods Used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of Their Medieval Background [Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Society, 1994], 25). White is highly critical of modern treatments of Luther’s disputations on this score, claiming that most suffer the fundamental and egregious deficiency of neglecting Luther’s extensive deployment of late medieval, logical analysis. For White, this neglect is comparable to a person writing a history of the game of chess without knowing the rules by which chess is played.
(18.) Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation, 100; and Lawn, The Rise and Decline of the Scholastic Quaestio Disputata, 100.
(19.) In many cases, the quaestio emerges directly from the identification of competing, interpretive authorities in relation to the interpretation of authoritative texts (Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther, 49). See also Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation, 133.
(23.) The application of dialectic to theological inquiry was not without its significant detractors during the medieval period, though no one seems to have advocated a complete renunciation of the discipline’s utilization in theology. For a helpful introduction to various instantiations of controversy, see Clare Monagle, Orthodoxy and Controversy in Twelfth-Century Religious Discourse: Peter Lombard’s ‘Sentences’ and the Development of Theology, Europa Sacra, 8 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2013).
(25.) Already in the late 12th century, Peter the Chanter lists disputation as an essential feature of theological training, alongside “lectio” and “predicatio” (Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation, 101).
(28.) Donald Prudlo, The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011).
(29.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 20–21.
(30.) For a helpful overview of disputational procedure, albeit drawn mostly from post-medieval and post-Reformation sources, see Angelelli, “The Techniques of Disputation in the History of Logic.”
(32.) White, Luther and Nominalist, 21.
(33.) Jacques Guy Bougerol, Introduction to the Works of Bonaventure (Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press; distributor: Desclée, 1964), 73.
(34.) Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation, 141.
(35.) For a parallel list of variables, which overlaps in certain respects with my own, see Uwe Gerber, Disputatio als Sprache des Glaubens: Eine Einführung in das theologische Verständnis der Sprache an Hand einer entwicklungsgeschichtlichen Untersuchung der disputatio und ihres Sprachvollzuges, Basler Studien zur historischen und systematischen Theologie, 15 (Zürich: EVZ-Verlag, 1970), 115. Gerber lists “location,” “goal,” and “audience,” but does not call attention here to the different sets of analytical tools, which may be enlisted.
(36.) Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation, 141.
(39.) Reinhard Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 328. See also Ernst Wolf, “Zur wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Disputationen und der Wittenberger Universität im 16. Jahrhundert,” in Peregrinatio, vol. 2, Studien zur reformatorischen Theologie, zum Kirechenrecht und zur Sozialethik (Munich: Ch. Kaiser, 1960), 40; and Gerber, Disputatio als Sprache des Glaubens, 201–203.
(40.) Bernhard Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 251.
(42.) Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 329; and Wolf, “Zur wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Disputationen und der Wittenberger Universität im 16. Jahrhundert,” 40ff.
(43.) WA 39/I:82–126.
(44.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 91.
(46.) Gerber, Disputatio als Sprache des Glaubens, 203–204.
(47.) WA 39/II:6–7.
(48.) Schwarz refers to individual instances of this type as “eine auβerordentliche Disputation” (Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 329).
(49.) Karl-Heinz Zur Mühlen, “Die Heidelberger Disputation Martin Luthers,” 189.
(50.) Many of the disputations for which Luther is best-known belong to this final, heuristic category.
(51.) Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 29. Schwarz notes that these would remain Luther’s principal duties as a professor over the entire course of his career (Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 328.
(52.) E. J. Ashworth, Language and Logic in the Post-Medieval Period (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1974), ix.
(53.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 26–27, some italics added. White notes Melanchthon’s subsequent observation that Luther knew the works of Biel and D’Ailly so well, that he was able even late in life to recite significant passages from memory.
(54.) Ashworth, Language and Logic in the Post-Medieval Period, 5; and White, Luther as Nominalist, 26.
(55.) To a large extent, this observation encapsulates the central, methodological burden, which animates White, Luther as Nominalist (see, for instance, 23‒25). For more on the history of logic in the medieval period, see Philotheus Boehner, Medieval Logic: An Outline of Its Development from 1250 to c. 1400 (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1952); and Ashworth, Language and Logic in the Post-Medieval Period.
(56.) Wolf, “Zur wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Disputationen und der Wittenberger Universität im 16. Jahrhundert,” 44–45. See especially WA Tr 4:5047.
(57.) Martin Luther, Solus Decalogus est aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, ed. Holger Sonntag (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008), 16.
(59.) For more background on this disputation, see Martin E. Lehmann’s introduction in LW 38:237–238.
(60.) LW 38:243; WA 39/II:6–7.
(61.) Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther, 46 and 50.
(62.) For more on the appointed goals of the disputation in the medieval context, and in Luther’s estimation, see Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 251; and Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 328–330.
(63.) Sources differ from one another in slight respects concerning the precise window of time for each “period.” See, for instance, Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 252; and Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 331–337.
(64.) Lohse notes that at least one disputation took place during this period as a means of preparing for the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 (Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 255–256). See also Wolf, “Zur wissenschaftsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung der Disputationen und der Wittenberger Universität im 16. Jahrhundert,” 41. For more on the role of humanism in relation to curricular reform, and especially debates concerning the centrality of dialectic within theological study, see Erika Rummel, The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance & Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
(66.) Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 256.
(67.) Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 330ff.
(68.) LW 33:294; WA 18:786.
(69.) WA 1:145–151. In his second conclusion, for instance, Luther denies that a human being can do anything outside of grace to prepare himself for receiving the grace of God: “Homo, Dei gratia exclusa, praecepta eius servare nequaquam potest neque se, vel de congruo vel de condign, ad gratiam praeparare, verum necessario sub peccato manet” (WA 1:147).
(70.) WA 1:224–228. For a thorough analysis of these early disputations, and their sustained critique on scholasticism, see Leif Grane, Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam 1517 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962).
(71.) LW 31:11; WA 1:225.
(72.) Phillip L. Anderas, “Renovatio: Martin Luther’s Augustinian Theology of Holiness (1515/16‒1535‒45)” (PhD diss., Marquette University, 2015), 326.
(73.) Luther sharply asserts this point in thesis 17 of the “Disputation against Scholastic Theology.” “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” (LW 31:10; WA 1:225).
(74.) “Disputation against Scholastic Theology,” LW 31:10; WA 1:225.
(75.) Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 188.
(76.) For a discussion of this important influence, see Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 109‒229; Erwin Iserloh, “Luther’s Christ-Mysticism,” in Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), 37‒58; Volker Leppin, “‘Omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit’, Zur Aufnahme mystischer Tradition in Luthers erster Ablaßthese,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 93 (2002): 7–25; and Volker Leppin, “Luther and John Tauler: Some Observations about the Mystical Impact on Reformation Theology” Theology & Life 36 (2013): 339–345.
(77.) See, for instance, Volker Leppin, “Omnem vitam,” 15‒17; and Volker Leppin, Die fremde Reformation: Luthers mystische Wurzeln (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016).
(78.) See, for instance, Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 63–64.
(80.) LW 31:25, 33; WA 1:233, 238.
(81.) For a helpful outline of Luther’s argument in the “Heidelberg Disputation,” see Jos E. Vercruysse, “Gesetz und Liebe: Die Struktur der ‘Heidelberger Disputation’ Luthers (1518)” Luj 48 (1981): 7–43.
(82.) WA 39/I:44–62, 82–126, and 202–263.
(83.) WA 39/I:175–180.
(84.) WA 39/I:345‒584; WA 39/II:414ff.
(85.) WA 39/II:93–21.
(86.) For a helpful overview of themes in the late disputations, see Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 339.
(87.) See, for instance, Luther’s “On the Councils and the Church,” in WA 50:509–653.
(88.) See, for instance, Luther’s “Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’,” in LW 38:261–262; WA 39/II:29.
(89.) Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther, 56.
(90.) See, for instance, WA 39/II:28 (the “Disputation Concerning the Passage ‘The Word Was Made Flesh’”; and WA 39/I:446–447 (Luther’s second disputation against the antinomians).
(91.) Joachim Ringleben, “Wort und Rechtfertigungsglaube: Zur Horizontauffächerung einer Worttheologie in Luthers Disputation De fide,” Zeitschrift Für Theologie Und Kirche 92.1 (1995): 29ff.
(92.) LW 34:137–144; WA 39/I:175‒180.
(93.) For example, those actions, which may appear “good” when measured by horizontal criteria, are actually mortal sins from a theological perspective. By the same token, the acts of God will likely appear distasteful to human beings (e.g., the cross), but are, in fact, the means through which God effects salvation.
(94.) For a succinct example of this critique, see Luther’s commentary on the errors of Caspar Schwenckfeld in his preface to the “Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ” (WA 39/II:97–100).
(95.) Bruce D. Marshall, “Faith and Reason Reconsidered: Aquinas and Luther on Deciding What is True,” The Thomist 63 (1999): 24–25.
(96.) “Disputation Concerning the Passage ‘The Word was Made Flesh,’” in LW 38:239; WA 39/II:4.
(97.) For an example of how Luther deploys this concept, see the “Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ,” in WA 39/II:92–121.
(98.) Indeed, as Sonntag helpfully observes, Luther rarely corrects the form of a heretical syllogism, but mostly focuses upon the presupposed definition of terms, which comprise it (Luther, Solus Decalogus est aeternus, 18‒19).
(99.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 155; and 332–344.
(101.) For more on the concept of incommensurability, see Dennis Bielfeldt, “Luther and the Strange Language of Theology: How ‘New’ is the Nova Lingua?,” in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2002), 223–225.
(102.) This appears to be the implicit view of Theobald Beer, Der fröhliche Wechsel und Streit: Grundzüge der Theologie Luthers (Leipzig: St. Benno-Verlag, 1974). See also Axel Schmidt, Die Christologie in Martin Luthers späten Disputationen (St. Ottilien: EOS Verlag, 1990), 210ff.
(103.) Texts, which develop some permutation of this more modest version of displacement include Bengt Hägglund, Theologie und Philosophie bei Luther und in der Occamistischen Tradition: Luthers Stellung zur Theorie von der doppelten Wahrheit (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955); Stefan Streiff, Novis Linguis Loqui: Martin Luthers Disputation über Joh 1:14 ‘Verbum Caro Factum est’ aus dem Jahr 1539 (Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993); and Bielfeldt, “Luther and the Strange Language of Theology.”
(104.) “The Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word Was Made Flesh,’” LW 38:239; WA 39/II:3.
(105.) I am borrowing this last phrase from Eberhard Jüngel and J. B. Webster, God’s Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth: A Paraphrase (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001). For more on the history of passibilist interpretations of Luther’s Christology, see David J. Luy, Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
(106.) Leif Grane, Contra Gabrielem, 373–374.
(107.) LW 31:41; WA 1:354, emphasis added.
(108.) Rudolf Hermann, Luthers These “Gerecht und Sunder zugleich” 2d ed. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1960). For a helpful engagement with Hermann and others who adopt a similar line of interpretation, see Philip Anderas, “Renovatio,” 219ff.
(109.) Leif Grane, Modus Loquendi Theologicus Luthers Kampf Um Die Erneuerung Der Theologie, 1515–1518 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975), 59–60.
(110.) David Yeago, “Martin Luther on Grace, Law, and the Moral Life: Prolegomena to an Ecumenical Discussion of Veritatis Splendor,” The Thomist 62 (1998): 163–164.
(111.) This same sort of “either-or” is applied by a number of interpreters to Luther’s anthropology. On this account, Luther displaces an ontological account of human existence (i.e., the enumeration of faculties and constituent parts) with a relational-historical understanding, which sees the human person as a unified totality. It should be additionally noted that this narrative of displacement comports well with the claim that Luther views the Christian as always, totally a sinner. See, for instance, Gerhard Ebeling, Lutherstudien II: Disputatio de homine: Text und Traditionshintergrund, 3 vols. (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1977–1989); Hermann Dembowski, “Martin Luthers Disputatio De Homine von 1536,” in Die Welt des Menschen, die Welt der Philosophie: Festschrift für Jan Patočka, ed. Walter Biemel (Haag: M. Nijhoff, 1976), 177–201; and Wilfried Joest, Ontologie der Person bei Luther (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967).
(112.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 332–344.
(113.) See Luther’s De distinctione personarum in divinitate (1544) in WA 39/II:339–340.
(114.) Marshall, “Faith and Reason Reconsidered,” 24–28.
(116.) White, Luther as Nominalist, 158–159.
(117.) LW 38, 271; WA 39/II:10c.
(118.) He affirms this presupposition, for instance, in his “Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ” (WA 39/II:101–102).
(120.) “There are upright persons in theology and there are upright persons in philosophy” (“The Disputation Concerning the Passage ‘The Word Was Made Flesh,’” LW 38:259; WA 39/II:26–27.
(121.) Yeago, “Martin Luther on Grace, Law, and the Moral Life,” 164.
(122.) “The Disputation Concerning Justification” (1536), LW 34:180–183; WA 39/I:110–114.
(123.) “[God] begins in reality to cleanse. For he first purifies by imputation, then he gives the Holy Spirit, through whom he purifies even in substance. Faith cleanses through the remission of sins, the Holy Spirit cleanses through the effect” (“The Disputation Concerning Justification” (1536), LW 34:168; WA 39/I:199.
(124.) LW 34:152; WA 39/I:83.
(125.) Luther, Solus Decalogus est aeternus, 35; WA 39/I:363.
(126.) As Yeago puts it in relation to the relation of the law to Adam: “The commandment is not given to Adam so that he might become a lover of God by keeping it; Adam already is a lover of God, ‘drunk with joy towards God,’ by virtue of his creation in the image of God, by the grace of original righteousness. The commandment is given, rather, in order to allow Adam’s love for God to take form in an historically concrete way of life” (Yeago, “Martin Luther on Grace, Law, and the Moral Life,” 181).
(127.) For a more thorough presentation of such a reading, see Anderas, “Renovatio.”
(128.) Georgiana Donavin, Carol Poster, and Richard Utz, eds. Medieval Forms of Argument: Disputation and Debate (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002).
(129.) Philotheus Boehner, Medieval Logic: An Outline of Its Development from 1250 to c. 1400 (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1952); and E. J. Ashworth, Language and Logic in the Post-Medieval Period (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1974).
(130.) James H. Overfield, Humanism and Scholasticism in Late Medieval Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); Maria Grossmann, Humanism in Wittenberg, 1485–1517 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1975); and Erika Rummel, The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance & Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
(131.) Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomir Batka, The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
(132.) Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols. (Stuttgart: Calwer Verl., 1981–1987); and English trans. J. L. Schaaf, 3 vols. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1981–1993).
(133.) Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 109–229; Volker Leppin, “‘Omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit’, Zur Aufnahme mystischer Tradition in Luthers erster Ablaßthese,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 93 (2002): 7–25; Volker Leppin, “Luther and John Tauler: Some Observations about the Mystical Impact on Reformation Theology,” Theology & Life 36 (2013): 339–345; Volker Leppin, “Luther’s Transformation of Late Medieval Mysticism,” Lutheran Forum 44 (2010): 25–28; and Leppin, Die fremde Reformation.
(134.) Leif Grane, Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam 1517 (København: Gyldendal, 1962); and idem, Modus Loquendi Theologicus Luthers Kampf Um Die Erneuerung Der Theologie, 1515–1518 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975).
(135.) Karl Bauer, “Die Heidelberger Disputation Luthers” ZKG 21 (1901): 233–268; 299–329; Heinz Scheible, “Die Universität Heidelberg und Luthers Disputation” Zeitschrift für die Geschichte Oberheins 131 (1983): 309–329; Karl-Heinz Zur Mühlen, “Die Heidelberger Disputation Martin Luthers vom 26. April 1518: Programm und Wirkung,” in Semper Apertus: Sechshundert Jahre Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg 1386–1986, vol. 1, edited by Wilhelm Dörr (Berlin: Springer, 1985): 198–212; and Gottfried Seebaß, “Die Heidelberger Disputation” Heidelberger Jahrbücher 28 (1983): 77–88.
(136.) Jos E. Vercruysse, “Gesetz und Liebe: Die Struktur der ‘Heidelberger Disputation’ Luthers (1518)” Luj 48 (1981): 7–43; and Heinrich Bornkamm, “Die theologischen Thesen Luthers bei der Heidelberger Disputation 1518 und seine theologia crucis,” in Luther: Gestalt und Wirkungen, SVRG 188, ed. Heinrich Bornkamm (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1975): 130–146.
(137.) Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: eine historisch-systematische Untersuchung zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie, Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann, vol. 105 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001).
(138) Reinhard Schwarz, “Gott ist Mensch: zur Lehre von der Person Christi bei den Ockhamisten und bei Luther,” Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 63 (1966): 289–351; Axel Schmidt, Die Christologie in Martin Luthers späten Disputationen (St. Ottilien: EOS Verlag, 1990); Graham White, Luther as Nominalist; Athina Lexutt, “Christologie als Soteriologie: ein Blick in die späten Disputationen Martin Luthers,” in Relationen: Studien zum Übergang vom Spätmittelalter zur Reformation, Arbeiten zur Historischen und Systematischen Theologie, vol. 1, eds. Athina Lexutt and Wolfgang Matz (Münster: LIT, 2000): 201–216; David Luy, Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014); and Oswald Bayer and Benjamin Gleede, Creator est creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2007).
(139.) Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther: A Study on the Relationship between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther's Works, 1523–1546 (Mainz: P. von Zabern, 1999); Dennis D. Bielfeldt, Mickey Leland Mattox, and Paul R. Hinlicky, The Substance of the Faith: Luther's Doctrinal Theology for Today (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008); and Simo Knuuttila and Risto Saarinen, “Innertrinitarische Theologie in der Scholastik und bei Luther,” in Caritas Dei: Beiträge zum Verständnis Luthers und der gegenwärtige Ökumene, eds. Oswald Bayer, Robert W. Jenson and Simo Knuuttila (Helsinki: Luther Agricola Gesellschaft, 1997), 243–264.
(140.) Martin Brecht, “Luthers Antinomerdisputationen: Lebenswirklichkeit des Gesetzes,” in Martin Luther: Biographie und Theologie, Spätmittelalter, Humanismus, Reformation, eds. Dietrich Korsch and Volker Leppin (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011): 195–210; Holger Sonntag and Martin Luther, Solus Decalogus est aeternus: Martin Luther's Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008); Phillip L. Anderas, “Renovatio: Martin Luther’s Augustinian Theology of Holiness (1515/6–1535–1545)” (PhD diss., Marquette University, 2015); and Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon's Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben Over Poenitentia (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster, 1997).
(141.) Gerhard Ebeling, Lutherstudien II: Disputatio de homine: Text und Traditionshintergrund (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1977); idem, Lutherstudien II: Disputatio de homine: Die philosophische Definition des Menschen (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1982); idem, Lutherstudien II: Disputatio de homine: Die theologische Definition des Menschen (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1989); and Hermann Dembowski, “Martin Luthers Disputatio De Homine von 1536,” in Die Welt des Menschen, die Welt der Philosophie: Festschrift für Jan Patočka, ed. Walter Biemel (Haag: M. Nijhoff, 1976): 177–201.
(142.) Bengt Hägglund, Theologie und Philosophie bei Luther und in der Occamistischen Tradition; Luthers Stellung zur Theorie von der doppelten Wahrheit (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955); Stefan Streiff, Novis Linguis Loqui: Martin Luthers Disputation über Joh 1:14 'Verbum Caro Factum est' aus dem Jahr 1539 (Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993); Dennis Bielfeldt, “Luther and the Strange Language of Theology: How ‘New’ is the Nova Lingua?” in Caritas et Reformatio: Essays on Church and Society in Honor of Carter Lindberg, eds. Carter Lindberg and David Mark Whitford (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2002): 221–244; idem, “Luther on Language” Lutheran Quarterly 16 (2002): 195–220; idem, “Luther, Metaphor, and Theological Language,” Modern Theology 6 (1990): 121–35; Bernhard Lohse, Ratio und Fides (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1958); and Joachim Ringleben, Gott im Wort: Luthers Theologie von der Sprache her (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010).
(143.) Lohse, “Luther als Disputator,” 250–251. Lohse points specifically to Luther’s writings on monastic vows in 1520. One might also point to Luther’s more general tendency to represent his theology initially in sharply-hewn assertions, followed by an accompanying elucidation unfolding their substance and nuance. Luther’s extensive career as a disputator is also significant for the interpretation of his polemical writings. He tends, for instance, to interpret his opponents according to what he perceives as the logical entailments of their views; rather than according to their intent as expressed by their respective authors. See, for instance, Luther’s presentation of the 5th-century heretic Nestorius’s Christology, as detailed in Luy, Dominus Mortis, 174–178.
(144.) Schwarz’s presentation of this information is divided into two lists. Schwarz, “Disputationen,” 332‒333 and 336–337.
(145.) Several additional texts (which do not appear on Schwarz’s itinerary) will also appear in vols. 72 and 73 of LW. For instance: De digamia episcoporum propositiones (WA 26:517‒527); Propositiones adversus totam synagogam Satanae et universas portas inferorum (WA 39/II:420‒424); De potestate leges ferendi in ecclesia (WA 39/II:681‒690); and “Promotionsdisputation von Stanislaus Rapagelanus” (WA 39/II:262‒283). I am grateful to Benjamin Mayes for his willingness to share an advanced copy of the table of contents for these forthcoming volumes.
(146.) It should be noted that I follow Schwarz in the dating of the disputations, which differs in a few cases from the dates indicated in the corresponding WA entries. The reader should also be aware that several of the disputations listed in the following table appear in volumes of the Studienausgabe (StA).