Saturday, August 10, 2013

How Important was the Hiedelberg Disputation Really?

There is no doubt that Luther's 1518 Heidelberg Disputation holds a great deal of historical significance in the development of the events that lead to the Reformation.  If nothing else, it was the presentation of these theological arguments that won Luther an invitation to debate Johann Eck at Leipzig.  It is interesting to note that the thrust of the Leipzig Debates centered around matters Luther had brought up in his 95 Thesis (Papal primacy, indulgences, purgatory, etc) and could not really be called any kind of "Heidelberg II: The Legend Continues".

So, as a new Lutheran several years ago, I was tickled to hear from other people that the entire world had got it wrong and that the 95 Thesis, while historically significant as the catalyst for the reformation, did not really hold a candle to the theological importance of the little known Heidelberg Disputation.  The 95 Thesis was really about errors in practice after all while Heidelberg really gets into some doctrinal meat.  Right?  Who doesn't love doctrinal meat!  I fell for this idea because no one really holds the 95 Thesis up as an important doctrinal work in itself... but this Heidelberg Disputation.  Could it really be a theological dark horse that has gotten centuries of short shrift?

Gerhard Forde really did a great job selling me on the theological importance of Heidelberg in his work On Being a Theologian of the Cross.  As a neophyte I clearly missed the word "reflections" in the subtitle of this book and Forde's own admission on page 30 that its purpose was not to explain Heidelberg but rather to expound his own theological impressions with the Disputation as a back drop.  Looking back now I can see that on my first read I didn't really understand what I was reading. It took a second read years later after I had read alot more to see this book and its points more clearly.

And yet there are many Lutherans, particularly among the theological elite in the laity, that puppet the idea that the Hiedelberg Disputation was this unknown theological gem worth in depth study.  I have even heard it (along with Forde's book) called a "must read" for any Christian.

But how theologically important was the Heidelerg Disputation really to Lutheranism?

That's not just a rhetorical question.  It obviously has historical significance.  It is a major event in the timeline of the Reformation and it is a significant window into the mind of what more than a few LCMS pastors and scholars have called "Early Luther".  In a few short years of study in Lutheranism I have gone from "Very Important if not Critical" to "Not all that much actually".  I am open to hear some opinions on this subject.

Here are some of my reasons why I no longer put much theological weight behind Heidelberg:

Lack of Explicit Influence.  I have yet to find a place where Johann Eck challenges Luther directly on his "Theology of the Cross vs Theology of Glory" concept (the reason why everyone loves Heidelberg).  While Luther opposes Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will with themes that appear in the 1518 Disputation, I do not see a robust rehash of Cross vs Glory there.  Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe Luther ever had the Heidelberg Disputation published and I don't think that they appeared before him at the Diet of Worms.  I haven't found the theologia crucis in the Confessions.  While my monolinguistic handicap makes my study of Lutheran theology far from exhaustive, it is hard to find any doctrinal analysis or even mention of Heidelberg until the 20th century.  It would seem that there is scant reference to this work as anything of theological significance until modern times.

Lack of Efficacy.  This goes hand in hand with my theories about it's lack of concrete influence.  It is my opinion that Heidelberg did not receive the broadside that say the 95 Thesis did because the former failed to correctly address the problems it diagnosed while the former was much more successful at dealing with the issue at hand.  There is no doubt that the 95 Thesis identified and directly combated some serious errors.  Did Heidelberg really do this or was it really a first attempt at getting a grasp of the theological mess of medieval Romanism.  The Gospel is badly muted in Luther's argumentation because much of Luther's talk of "grace" and "belief" are still influenced by monastic synergism.  While the Augustinians disapproved of Luthers ideas in 1518, it is unlikely that suggesting that the answer to wrongly trying to do good is for us to suffer more as Christ suffered would have gotten Luther excommunicated.  That conclusion really isn't "Lutheran" in any kind of confessional sense and might not even be all that traditionally "Protestant".

Lack of Transcendent Relevance.  I attribute the rediscovery of the Heidelberg Disputation as a theological work to situational expediency.  Rather than addressing transcendent truths that are timeless and largely relevant to the Christian in all times and places, Heidelberg seems to hit all the right check marks for a certain brand of theologians that did not exist as an organized school of thought in 1518.  As is so often the case, its rising popularity has more to do with its pragmatic usefulness as a theological support for particular ideas and various philosophical approaches.  Like any great man, Luther suffers a high degree of appropriation from later minds.  This "Early Luther" is particularly vulnerable to appropriation because his ideas are still so subjective and vague.  The Heidelberg Disputation is a prime example.  Is it theologically important because its concepts are transcendent and universally relevant?  ...Or is it being made theologically important because its language and argumentation can be used to easily support theo-philosphical ideas that the more robust and developed ideas found in the Book of Concord do not?  This might explain why the rest of the world and 500 years of history have missed the importance of the Heidelberg Disputation and why many of its current greatest admirers and advocates come from relatively new schools of thought:   Christian Existentialism, Hegelianism, Liberation Theology, and Post-Modernity just to name a few.

Thoughts?  Critiques?  Pitchforks and burning effigies?

1 comment:

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I end up using the theology of glory vs. theology of the Cross distinction all the time - of course, this was something my dad taught me well before I read Forde (I think it is something that many just have been emphasized more in the ALC than in Missouri... and I'm sure more Ohio Synod and then later ALC folks would have said that Missouri was a bit too worried about glory).

I do think Heidelberg does undergird much of Luther's thought - even though it doesn't necessarily come out with the same terminology. Partially because it isn't really open to that much debate. "No, I should seek personal glory on earth." "No, I should be a people pleaser!" "No, I should create my own works."

In his approach to Heidelberg, Luther so stacks the decks that you can't effectively oppose him there. What 16th Century theologian in his right mind is going to say, "I want personal glory and that is good"? No one. You don't say, "Man made works are good" - you have to defend something like Monastacism as actually being something given to us by God via the Church. The engagement is never along Luther's terminology in the HD. However, I still think it is very useful as a diagnostic tool -- is what I am seeing a theology of glory or not.

Joel Osteen doesn't use the term "theology of glory", but glory vs. cross makes a ton of sense there.

As for efficacy - it is precisely the HD that really does Luther in -- because it is at this point where he is solidly convinced that the whole Roman system is... glory based, not cross based. It really is the throwing down of the gauntlet (even if his opponents don't use his terminology or hold the fights there on that battleground of his choosing).

Remember, Luther didn't expect the 85 theses to cause that big of a stir -- and they shouldn't have been that controversial. However, it was the *reaction* to them that caught Luther off guard - and the HD is Luther's evaluation of the reaction against the 95 theses.

As for transcendence - well, it's not Luther at his apex. I still do love the HD, and I think you can see the distinction between glory and cross all throughout Luther. But he is still formulating things here - really it's the trio from 1520 that are Luther at his finest, but these still play off of that Glory/Cross theme.

1. Babylonian Captivity of the Church -- which eviscerates Roman Sacraments as ignoring the Cross and focused on glory.
2. Freedom of a Christian -- avoid the glory of wanting to be served, but gladly serve. See in the Cross your freedom.
3. To the German Nobility -- This is a call to redefine service, not in the terms of political power or glory, but to see that the Cross is proclaimed.

Heidelberg doesn't necessarily stand out -- it isn't debated because it's Luther's ground where the game is fixed -- he's defined the terms already so you can't take him on there. However, the distinctions and warnings that are set up there continue to play out later on. Greater Galatians in 1535 is totally this (read it if you haven't yet).