Volume 44 - Issue 1

Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses

By Michael Allen


The essay first seeks to unpack the anthropological and soteriology teaching of Martin Luther’s diatribe “against scholastic theology,” that is, against Semi-Pelagian or Pelagian moral anthropology in his 97 Theses of September 1517. Second, the essay turns to ways in which the theological task is located by Luther in the history of sin and grace, thus connecting his teaching against the anthropology of the scholastics with his methodology for studying theology academically, further clarifying the precise nature of the objections to scholasticism raised by Luther and other reformers (such as Calvin). Third, the essay concludes by charting a set of four protocols for systematic or scholastic theology today, so as to reconfigure the intellectual practice as an exercise in intellectual asceticism or discipleship that is part of the broader process of the sanctification of human reason.

In fall 1517, a German monk offered theses for disputation which would shake the faith and practice of the world around him.1 They cut against the grain of ecclesiastical and theological practice and would set a course for ongoing reform and challenge according to God’s Word. We do well to consider afresh those principal concerns at the root of the Protestant Reformation. So we turn again to Wittenberg, to Luther, and to the 97 theses. That’s right. On September 4, 1517, Luther participated in a disputation regarding sin and the will, nature and the experience of Christian salvation. This academic disputation, (much) later dubbed the “Disputation against scholastic theology,” has not gained the level of acclaim garnered by the later “95 Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but they will capture our attention and prompt some thinking regarding what shape theological practice might take this side of Luther’s witness.2

These theses actually cut right to the heart of so many of Luther’s abiding concerns. Far more than the focus on indulgences to come two months later, these theses turn directly to issues of human nature and divine salvation. They forecast in many ways that great text which would so mark Luther’s legacy, his 1525 response to Erasmus entitled The Bondage of the Will. They thread the needle of assaulting the latent tradition which he finds so marred by hubristic excess without shirking his abiding commitment to learn from Augustine, who had himself been a formative thread of that late medieval fabric.3 In many ways, these theses, like the Heidelberg Disputation of the following year, will do the hard work of beginning to connect the emerging Reformational vision of sin and grace with matters of intellectual authority and theological formation. Here we see the force and the tension of Luther’s theology.

In this essay I want to argue with Luther seemingly against Luther. That is, by tracing Luther’s anthropology and soteriology through, I will seek to show that today a scholastic theology with certain disciplined protocols in place prompts us to lean against our sinful proclivities and to linger longer before the life-giving Word of God. In so doing, however, I will seek to sketch an approach to scholastic theology which ties its task to the pursuit of theological discipleship and even intellectual asceticism. To do so means that the description offered here differs from some lingering assumptions about scholasticism and about the practice of systematic theology today and challenges the disciplinary status quo in some fundamental ways. As much as the argument seeks to argue for the ongoing need for the theological calling, then, it also aims to reorient the way in which that practice follows in much of its modern exercise by reorienting systematic theology as a form of intellectual asceticism.4 In so doing Luther is a genuine prompt, in as much as he not only reflected upon the stranglehold of sin (in the 97 theses) but also sought in multiple ways to orient theology around his account of sin and grace (in various texts). While arguing with Luther regarding our sinful proclivities and our dire need for God’s gracious intervention even in the life of the mind, then, we will also turn beyond and, to some extent, against Luther to espouse an argument for a distinctly scholastic practice of theology so as to further those spiritual ends. Four specific aspects regarding the shape of a sanctifying approach to scholastic theology will conclude the proposal.

Unto those ends, the essay first seeks to unpack the anthropological and soteriology teaching of Luther’s diatribe “against scholastic theology,” that is, against Semi-Pelagian or Pelagian moral anthropology in his 97 theses. Second, the essay turns to ways in which the theological task is located by Luther in the history of sin and grace, thus connecting his teaching against the anthropology of the scholastics with his methodology for studying theology academically and clarifying the precise nature of the objections to scholasticism raised by Luther and other reformers (such as Calvin). Third, the essay concludes by charting a set of four protocols for systematic or scholastic theology today, so as to reconfigure the intellectual practice as an exercise in intellectual asceticism or discipleship that is part of the broader process of the sanctification of human reason.

1. With Luther against Semi-Pelagian or Pelagian Moral Anthropology:
Analysis of the 97 Theses of September 1517

Luther did not pull punches. Whether in woodcuts or theses, homilies or treatises, he was not hesitant to name names and give addresses. So here in his 97 theses from September 1517, he took many luminaries to task: Aristotle and Ockham, the Cardinal and Gabriel, Porphyry and the philosophers, the Scholastics and Scotus.5 Take Aristotle alone as an example. “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace,” Luther claims “in opposition to the scholastics” (Thesis 41). He will specifically oppose the Philosopher’s contentions regarding happiness (Thesis 42), but more often ranges rather widely by saying, first, that “it is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle” (Thesis 43); second, that “no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle” (Thesis 44); third, “briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light” (Thesis 50); and fourth, “even the more useful definitions of Aristotle seem to beg the question” (Thesis 53). He only comes up for air, as it were, to offer Porphyry similar, even if more abbreviated, treatment, saying that “it would have been better for the church if Porphyry with his universals had not been born for the use of theologians” (Thesis 52). Yet “in these statements,” he concludes, “we wanted to say and believe we have said nothing that is not in agreement with the Catholic church and the teachers of the church” (conclusion).6

Knowledge, lies, and exaggeration—these terms frame the beginning of Luther’s theses. “To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere. This is contrary to common knowledge” (Thesis 1). To fall foul of this problem would grant victory to Pelagius and the heretics (Thesis 2) and make “sport of the authority of all doctors of theology” (Thesis 3). While Luther begins widely, using generalities such as “against heretics” or even employing the phrase “almost everywhere,” it becomes plain that his eye is upon the Pelagian controversy, for he shifts immediately and without comment to say, in Thesis 4, that “It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil.” Over against “common opinion,” he adds that “the inclination is not free, but captive” (Thesis 5). Nor can the will regulate or reform itself, as if its ill bent were merely a temporary conundrum, for “it is false to state that the will can by nature conform to common precept” (Thesis 6). “As a matter of fact,” Luther states, “without the grace of God the will produces an act that is perverse and evil” (Thesis 7). Long before Erasmus’s writings on freedom provoke Luther’s 1525 Bondage of the Will, he warns lest the church be tempted into giving any quarter to ideas of innate moral neutrality or goodness. Thus lies the path of Pelagius.

Luther walks a tightrope here in affirming the depravity of the human creature. Over against the Manicheans, he first states that “it does not, however, follow that the will is by nature evil, that is, essentially evil” (Thesis 8). “It is nevertheless innately and inevitably evil and corrupt” (Thesis 9).7 Somehow essential or natural evil is excluded, while innate and inevitable evil is affirmed. A good while later, Luther will speak “in opposition to the philosophers” by saying that “We are not masters of our actions, from beginning to end, but servants” (Thesis 39). He later gives a concrete example, speaking of anger and lust (cf. Matt 5:21–30). “Outside the grace of God it is indeed impossible not to become angry or lust” (Thesis 65), but “it is by the grace of God that one does not lust or become enraged” (Thesis 67). Luther offers a summative remark and then a further clarification. First, the summative remark: “Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God” (Thesis 68). Then the further clarification: “As a matter of fact, it is more accurate to say that the law is destroyed by nature without the grace of God” (Thesis 69). If Thesis 8 said that the will is not naturally, that is, essentially evil, then Thesis 69 plainly must speak of nature in a different vein, circumscribed by the fuller phrase “nature without the grace of God.” This depiction of graceless nature riffs not on that described in Thesis 8 (nature or essence) but on what appeared in Thesis 9 (the innate and inevitable evil and corruption of the will). Luther plainly wants to affirm the created goodness of the human will, as well as its utter derangement and degradation with the onset of evil and the loss of grace.

Where then comes hope? Can such a vivid depiction of sinfulness find its way beyond utter despair and misanthropic despondency? Luther gestures toward grace at this point as a way of pointing ultimately unto God. “The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God” (Thesis 29). Luther not only affirms the divine prevenience here but also goes on to deny certain assumed qualifications or supplements. First, “on the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace” (Thesis 30).8 Second, human struggle does not identify its own need or the divine remedy, for Luther goes on to say that “this is false, that doing all that one is able to do can remove the obstacles to grace” (Thesis 33).9 Our problem is twofold: “in brief, man by nature has neither correct precept nor good will” (Thesis 34). Humans not only walk in what he deems an “invincible ignorance” or perceptional darkness, but they are also disinclined to the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Grace does not come at the prompting of human ingenuity, nor does the human even incline themselves to its provision. But grace does provide. Indeed, over against all the language of inability and of darkness, one must cast Luther’s powerful affirmation of the reality of grace. “The grace of God is never present in such a way that it is inactive, but it is a living, active, and operative spirit; nor can it happen that through the absolute power of God an act of friendship may be present without the presence of the grace of God” (Thesis 55).

Friendship proves to be a central term in the argument here. “An act of friendship is not the most perfect means for accomplishing that which is in one,” nor even “for obtaining the grace of God or turning toward and approaching God” (Thesis 26). Yet “an act of friendship is done,” though Luther is impelled to clarify “not according to nature, but according to prevenient grace” (Thesis 20). And this prevenient grace really affects the will. While “everyone’s natural will is iniquitous and bad” (Thesis 88), “grace as a mediator is necessary to reconcile the law with the will” (Thesis 89). “The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God” (Thesis 90). Luther here notes the shadow side of the bound will, namely, that human distortion can mar even that which is pious. Even love of God can be inflected in such a way that it ceases in so doing to follow the direction of the one whom it is thereby loving.10

Underneath all this talk of willing and of warfare, of friendship and of formation, Luther eventually comes to talk of loves. He does so by asking “what is the good law?” He offers two demurrals. First, “not only are the religious ceremonials not the good law and the precepts in which one does not live (in opposition to many teachers)” (Thesis 82), “but even,” second, “the Decalogue itself and all that can be taught and prescribed inwardly and outwardly is not good law either” (Thesis 83). Human custom nor even divine mandate does not in and of itself constitute the good law, not until one presses further to the true definition. “The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Thesis 84). Love fulfills the law (Rom 13:8), yet law forms love (John 15:7, 10).

Indeed, the need for law from the outside matches disordered love. “Anyone’s will hates it that the law should be imposed upon it; if, however, the will desires imposition of the law it does so out of love of self” (Thesis 86). Indeed, “anyone’s will would prefer, if it were possible, that there would be no law and to be entirely free” (Thesis 85). The human desires to go their own way.11 This waywardness takes a particularly disturbed tack when it comes time to reflect on human efforts to reform or revitalize our problematic proclivities. Even—perhaps especially—in our moral programs, our own self-direction becomes most apparent and harmful.

Luther accents this ironic fate when coming to the conclusion of the disputation where he offers his final two theses regarding the proper relation of our will and God’s own will. First, “we must make our will conform in every respect to the will of God” (Thesis 96, explicitly disagreeing with Cardinal Cajetan). Second, we conform our will unto God’s “so that we not only will what God wills, but also ought to will whatever God wills” (Thesis 97). In other words, it is not enough to bring our questions to the surface and to conform to God’s answers. We must do the difficult work of self-examination and of intellectual and moral repentance such that we trace God’s direction still further unto the very questions up for consideration. God not only answers the need, but God defines the need itself. Not only moral energy but also a distinctly Christian epistemology, swirling round the vocation of theological discernment, marks the dependent yearning of the sin-sick human. God does not merely give truthful answers, but he provides the life-giving questions.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Imagine struggling with a severe course of an auto-immune disease. Months of struggle did not go as one would have expected, for the normal rhythms of palliative and medical care did not offer reprieve from ills. Typical remedies actually worsened the situation, and finally one was shipped to the emergency room in a truly dire situation. When clarity came, the takeaway was rather direct: the immune system is one’s own worst enemy, for its efforts to protect and to strengthen are actually precisely what undercuts one’s own flourishing. So ongoing care requires scaling down the strength of the immense system, a bombardment of force meant to weaken the defenses which themselves weaken the self. What might strike us is the way in which this is true spiritually as well. Not only our moments of utter disinterest in God or even of stick-necked insouciance, but also our pious and zealous attempts at reform actually further our sin-sick struggles. We demand the recalibration of our wills by God’s own will, so that we no longer harm ourselves by inclining toward rhythms of evil excess or of moral malpractice. As Luther says, we need a mediator (Thesis 89). And as he insists, resting on that mediator will involve professing that “to love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God” (Thesis 95). We suffer inability not only in addressing but also in identifying the actual character of our plight.

With that finale in mind, we do well to turn to ask how Luther’s theses might help prompt us to consider the task of academic, that is, scholastic theology today. Luther not only alerts us to the stranglehold of sin and the need for grace, but he gestures toward the way this must shape the practice of theological work also. Because the theologian is a moral agent before God—a sin-sick sinner panged by death, Devil, and the depravity within—his protest of Semi-Pelagian and Pelagian anthropology and his celebration of God’s radical grace must impinge on the process of divine revelation and of God’s sanctification of human reason.

2. With Luther for Scholastic Theology:
Theological Parameters for Intellectual Discipline

Theology does not hold a monopoly on concerns regarding moral formation. In his 1911 Cambridge Inaugural Lecture as Kennedy Professor of Latin at the University of Cambridge, A. E. Housman addressed “The Confines of Criticism.”12 He began with survey, noting the ways in which British and German literary criticism had drifted into non-critical forms of analysis. “In short, while the English fault is to confuse this study with literature, the German fault is to pretend that it is mathematics.”13 Each tendency marked a drift toward an extraneous mode of mental functioning, either that of literary creation or of sequential and numerical method. Both ruin literature in their own way by pressing it into another mission, whether of a socio-political, moral, or scientific tilt. When Housman probes the root of these tendencies, he says “there is a very formidable obstacle: nothing less than the nature of man himself.”14 And “our first task is to get rid of them, and to acquire, if we can, by humility and self-repression, the tastes of the classics.”15 To this anthropological diagnosis, Housman also offered a prescription: “we must be born again.”16 But what hope or future expectation can be offered by this moral critic? Housman concludes only with this offering: “It is well enough to inculcate the duty of self-examination, but then we must also bear in mind its difficulty, and the easiness of self-deception.”17

Luther’s anthropology seems to agree with Housman regarding the “nature of man himself” and the fundamental need to be born again, lest we take up the task of theology and comport it toward the protocols of other fields, whether of the politeia or the psyche. But Luther and the Reformed Christian are not left with mere self-examination, not even primarily with self-examination. In the remainder of this essay, I want to explore the ways, first, in which the divine discipleship of our theological reason is necessitated by Luther’s anthropology and, second, the manner in which a particular form of scholastic theology may help channel such reform and maturation of the theologian.

Martin Luther knew that theological practice must be defined with distinctly theological categories. This could be his undoing, of course, as he sometimes reduced theology to the topics of the justifying God and the sinning human in his extrapolations on Psalm 51.18 In that kind of claim, he clearly locates the theological task within the orbit of sin and redemption; indeed, sufficiently and solely within such an orbit.19 His constriction there—tying theology notably and narrowly to justification—evidences a concern to think the theological task within the matrix of redemption from slothful or hubristic reason. In another notable text, the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, he offered his perceptive vision of the difference between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. Again, questions might be raised regarding whether or not this is an overly constricted breadth—with “cross” standing in for the posture of faith in its full range and perhaps with an overly lush antipathy to the full spectrum of revealed media for theological contemplation—but we can appropriate this approach without falling into any latent historicism. Michael Korthaus has shown this theme to be one that attains any methodological significance only in the twentieth century, as it appears only six times in this small portion of the early Luther’s corpus.20 While it has been cherished by those who have sought to tether metaphysical contemplation rather constrictively to the historically immanent, it need not take such a parasitic approach to the classical tradition of Christian dogma. In a more chastened form focused on the question of the theological practitioner (rather than so much on the object of that theological practice), the theology of cross serves as yet another reminder that we deal here with the sanctification of reason.21 In at least these two ways, then, Luther was committed to locating the practice of theology amidst the valleys of human sin and the vista of divine grace.

Luther sought to address the practice of theology in light of sin and grace in a still third frame. Luther identified three rules for theology in his comments on Psalm 119, where David heralds the law of the Lord as life-giving. Luther identified the call to oratio, first, wherein “you should immediately despair of your reason and understanding.… But kneel down in your little room and pray to God with real humility and earnestness, that he through his dear Son may give you His Holy Spirit, who will enlighten you, lead you, and give you understanding.”22 Luther next summoned us to meditatio, a second action wherein the theologian joins with David to “talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night, and always about nothing except God’s Word and commandments.”23 Oswald Bayer says here that “Luther swims against the tide of common opinion in not seeing the process of listening turned inwards but rather opened outwards.” Rather, “when we meditate,” he says, “we do not listen to our inner selves, we do not turn inwards, but we go outside ourselves. Our inner beings live outside themselves in God’s Word alone.”24 Third, the monk calls us to tentatio that we might find suffering to be our teacher. Spiritual attack (Anfechtung) will come for the little Christian who meditates on God’s Word, for the one who meditates will say, with David in Psalm 119 and elsewhere, that the Word drew enemies of varying sorts. But the student will also be able to say of those enemies what Luther spoke of the papists and the fanatics, namely, that “they have made a fairly good theologian of me, which I would not have become otherwise.”25

Prayer and suffering are worthy topics, yet we will focus our attention now upon meditation as Luther’s second concern for true theology.26 In particular, we want to consider what it means to lead a life ordered to the external Word of God and in what ways this shapes the academic practice of theological contemplation or meditation. In his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, Luther would say: “And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.”27 How do we contemplate these promises and that truth such that we are taken out of ourselves and offered true certainty?

Before we conclude by suggesting four protocols of scholastic reflection and its attention to the external, life-giving Word of God, we do well to linger briefly over the adjective “scholastic.” In either the post-Reformation or the post-manualist moments, for Protestants and Roman Catholics respectively, scholastic can sometimes be taken simply as a prompt for traditional or historic protocols. Along those lines, we do well to observe that the dominant tradition of the late medieval university and the via moderna (Gabriel Biel especially) were opposed ardently by Luther.28 But we dare not read his opposition as a global dismissal of tradition or of medieval academic culture. In a letter penned to Johannes Lang on May 18, 1517, Luther had offered this assessment of changes afoot at the University of Wittenberg: “Our theology and St. Augustine are by God’s help prospering in our university, while Aristotle descends gradually toward a coming everlasting oblivion. The lectures on the Sentences are being despised, and no one can hope to have hearers unless he lectures on Scripture, on St. Augustine, or on some other ecclesiastical doctor.”29

Luther was not assaulting tradition as tradition nor even the protocols of academic theology, but a specific set of anthropological judgments that he deemed to be out of step with Augustine and, more significantly, the soundings he had made in lecturing on Holy Scripture (especially on Romans, the Psalms, and Hebrews at this point). More significantly, though, scholasticism defines a method which is matched to and prompted by the material under examination. As L. M. de Rijk defined it, scholasticism in either its medieval or later Protestant forms is “a collective noun denoting all academic, especially philosophical and theological, activity that is carried out according to a certain method, which involves both in research and education the use of a recurring system of concepts, distinctions, proposition-analyses, argumentative strategies, and methods of disputation.”30 Historiography of scholastic method has taken a markedly contextual turn in the last fifty years, observing ways in which the moniker “scholastic” related to protocols and methods rather than any particular ideological inflection. The methods were meant to vary by way of subject matter, so that the object delimits its approach and defines its analysis.

Particular protocols follow from this material-molded approach to theology. To take but one example: in his forays into assessing John Calvin’s relationship to the practice of scholastic thought, Richard Muller has identified four features of this sort of academic theology in the late medieval or early modern university context: scholastic theology identifies an order and mental pattern suitable to the debate at hand, uses the thesis or questio to frame discussion, orders theses to be discussed by way of thesis and standard objections, and then refutes objections and provides exposition of the correct answer.31 These protocols in varying ways belie a commitment to follow the organization of the subject matter, not one’s own predilections, and to remain alert to opposing viewpoints lest one drift into myopic narrowness or remain in unchallenged confusion. A look to other settings of a scholastic order would accent different protocols, and theological students will rejoice to learn that this need not involve reinstituting the public disputation as the chief protocol for examining students of divinity.

A commitment to tradition will come only indirectly then, to the extent which tradition or traditions are themselves overt prompts from the subject of theology itself, namely, divine self-revelation. In the case of theological contemplation, the triune God upon whose face we seek to gaze and whose name alone we seek to exalt has given birth not only to our wisdom but to a whole host of heavenly confessors and a lively communion of saints, within whose chorus we take our part. So scholastic commitment is not inherently opposed to the textualism of humanistic studies in the sixteenth century, though it would come into conflict with iterations of literary study that refused to read those texts as apostolic scripture and insisted on orienting its focus upon them in the guise of comparative religious literature of the ancient world.32 A fully orbed Trinitarian theology of revelation will insist that the prophet ministry of the Risen Christ involves the unique instrumentality of the words of his prophets and apostles (Heb 4:12–13), as well as the realization that his “Word dwells richly” amidst the testimony of the whole company of the redeemed (Col 3:16–17). Any scholastic or tradition-marked characteristics of theology, then, ought to flow from the entailments of divine action and its promised forms, not from some presumption of the antique or exotic bearing intrinsic force. The rule of faith and rule of love govern the protocols of our intellectual life and the way in which we presently honor the past and look unto the future. In a sense, then, a scholastic bent to theology follows from a spiritual vision regarding the intellectual life. If we are to throw ourselves into the tasks of the academic life, then we want to do so out of an abiding commitment to the cause of intellectual asceticism.33

Without suggesting that disputations or a question-and-answer format is necessary, a scholastic or academic study of theology helps frame and form our spiritual contemplation of the God who has revealed himself climactically in Jesus Christ and in his life-giving Word. While scholasticism defines the procedures and not necessarily any predetermined philosophical results of our academic inquiry, these methods are themselves motivated by certain anthropological and moral principles. Indeed, there are specifically theological reasons for accenting particular academic protocols as they help foster theological virtues, habits, practices, and order that marks the well-equipped man or woman of God (2 Tim 3:16–17). Those working recently in intellectual history and the history of the university have rightly noted that scholasticism does not reduce to a particular philosophical, ethical, or theological commitment, over against some older suggestions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that scholastic method carried with it a full bore commitment to a particular set of material principles. While a scholastic method does not necessarily equate to a full bore philosophy, and while scholastic method is not homogenous, we do well to note nonetheless that intellectual protocols match anthropological and theological principia.

3. Scholastic Protocols for Sanctifying Systematic Theology:
Four Practices for Theology Today Prompted by
Luther’s Reformational Teaching on Sin and Grace

If not quodlibet or recitations of catechisms, then what might scholastic protocols look like today? I conclude by suggesting four patterns of scholastic or systematic theological procedure for our consideration today.34 These principles flow from two realities attested in Luther’s theses: first, that human being is marked by a need for sustenance from beyond and further imprinted by a sinful distortion to close in upon itself and, second, that the triune God acts so as to give and to glorify life in Christ. These are meant to be protocols for theological practice in the land of the gospel and this time of God’s patience, a time which the apostle Peter tells us is meant for intellectual repentance (2 Pet 3:15). Luther’s theses may well fund certain scholastic disciplines, but these protocols and the theology espoused by Luther would summon much common description and practice of “systematic theology” to account. It is not the status quo, but a spiritual quest of intellectual asceticism and theological repentance before God’s life-giving Word that we wish to describe here.

First, a scholastic approach to theological reflection will seek to draw our attention to the breadth of God’s Word. Concern for order and scope matches the Pauline claim regarding the value of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The Marcionite challenge was the first threat to the Christian faith in the post-apostolic era, and it struck at the roots of the canonical form of the Christian way. In that second century challenge, Irenaeus and others had to manifestly demonstrate that the prophetic witness of the Old Testament and the scripturally-infused texts of the apostles were bound together with the witness of Paul and the other evangelists.35 The early theologians commended the catholic faith by attesting the wholeness (lit. kata holos) of Scripture, namely, that the triune confession of one God in three persons was an achievement of a two testament canon and that, apart from the perduring pressure of the prophets of Israel, the doctrine of God would take quite different form.36

Biblical breadth may be lopped off or excised in a variety of ways. Canonical amputation can occur in other areas—anthropological and sexual matters being particularly obvious instances in contemporary discourse37—but this matter of the being of God is surely the most salient and significant. Scholastic theology prompts us to read and then to read on, not to get snagged merely in the genre, corpus, or epoch that transfixes our curiosity or encourages our ecclesiastical niche or comports most with pertinent issues in our cultural moment. Rather, scholastic theology disciplines us to be alert to the whole counsel of God, for “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim 3:16, emphasis mine). In so doing the scholastic prompt of exploring biblical breadth pushes against any parochialism (of the denominational tradition, of one’s socio-political formation, or of personal predilection) and pressures toward a catholic theology of the whole.

Second, a scholastic approach to theological reflection will summon us to fix anew our emphases and priorities in the places where God’s own Word draws our attention. The question of order and sequence, as well as the attendant concern for proportion, helps alert us to another area of biblical formation. Because even our love can go awry by perhaps willing with God though not, as Luther put it, willing “whatever God wills,” we must be reoriented to the north star of God’s own light. Invariably our experience raises questions and our reason sees connections, but our own forays into intellectual reflection must always be taken before the Word’s own self-presentation. What does the whole counsel of God commend? What bears “first importance” (1 Cor 15:3) over against its secondary and tertiary matters? We can go astray not only in misperceiving an element of the biblical tapestry but in failing to distinguish the foreground from the background. Only attention to the whole canonical canvas will bring into relief the relative emphasis and consequent prioritization that best conveys the elements of biblical doctrine.

An exercise in Luther reception can illustrate the point. How might priorities go haywire? One need only prioritize justification as the criterion of the gospel and treat it ahead of the person of Christ, that is, the whole Christ. In the approach of Gerhard Forde and the self-proclaimed “Radical Lutherans” we can see the kind of disorder caused by treating one crucial strand of Christology and soteriology as if it were the leading and lone article of that confession. Christ becomes functionally a cipher for the balm of the conscience. Such approaches may lay claim to following the (early) words of Philipp Melanchthon: “to know Christ is to know his benefits.”38 But Melanchthon presumed a trinitarian and Christological metaphysics—and a contemplative focus in liturgy and theology upon the triune God’s perfection—that his post-Kantian and post-Ritschlian heirs no longer embody. Failing to proclaim Christ in his fullness and eternality before Christ in his justifying capacity leads not only to a misprioritization but an outright distortion of the doctrine of justification.39 The justifying word easily becomes the affirming conscience, rather distant from the concrete life, death, and resurrection of the Redeemer. A response to these “radical” readings of Luther that have flowed from the early twentieth century Luther renaissance need not in any way renege on the sufficiency of Christ or the peace that he brings, but it will take the form of always tethering peace and reconciliation to his concrete action and union with his person. By refusing to sever the person and work of Christ, theology can accent the whole Christ and insist that the gift of his person marks a higher priority than any single blessing found therein, whether justification or sanctification. Only by attending to priorities will we be alert to the manifold principles of divinity.

Third, a scholastic approach to theological practice provokes us to attend to the ways in which the Holy Scriptures take common terms and employ them to fundamentally singular purposes. Luther turned toward the way in which Aristotelian thought had been brought into the fold of Christian divinity in the late medieval period. After running the gauntlet of critical analysis in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (with the input of Averroes and Avicenna, as well as Albert and Thomas), the philosopher’s categories were employed in Christian ethics and theology. Luther retorts: “It is an error to maintain that Aristotle’s statement concerning happiness does not contradict Christian doctrine” (Thesis 42). The notion of beatitude apparently suffered from definitional ambiguity and an overly pacific posture by the schoolmen toward the descriptions of the philosopher. Indeed, Luther says that “it is very doubtful whether the Latins comprehended the correct meaning of Aristotle” (Thesis 51). But the error was not only theirs, for “even the more useful definitions of Aristotle seem to beg the question” (Thesis 53). In challenging reason and its absorption by the contemplation of faith in recent Latin theology, Luther reminds us that terms do not come in self-explanatory, singular fashion. They must be defined, and Christian divinity must turn to the Word of God for such direction in discerning whether the language of the Gentiles can be employed in a given instance or whether there must be a distinction drawn.

Scholastic theology serves a crucial missiological purpose, therefore, in casting light upon the ways in which we have only human words to use in our testimony of God and our pointing to his own Word. Common terms are employed, to be sure, yet the divine communication through ordinary human language transfigures and puts the common to a sacred use, and our own witness must regularly return to reflect on the ways in which latent assumptions about the meaning of stock language can tempt or incline us to misperceptions. Our vocabulary draws on adoption and marriage to convey fellowship with God, though the divine family cannot be construed along sociological lines. We do know the love of God, so rich and full that Song of Songs can employ erotic imagery to convey it, and yet it is qualitatively distinguished from and analogically related to other experiences of love shown and love lost.40 Particularly in a culture marked more and more by biblical illiteracy, we must observe how even colloquial engagement of the biblical writings is cross-cultural. We must be alerted to ways in which God cannot be constrained within the bounds of our terms as common construed. Systematic theology’s scholastic mode serves missiological purposes, in as much as we are increasingly alert to the fact that the claims of the gospel and the categories of the “whole counsel of God” are “foolishness to the Greeks.”41

Fourth, a scholastic approach to theological practice demands of us an accounting for what manner of cohesion may be observed in our pilgrim state, lest we be satisfied with a fragmented witness to the way in which Christ speaks his Word (Heb 1:1–2). We can be tempted perhaps to itemize the themes and the idioms of scripture as an index of distinct topics to be accessed each in their own distinct manner. Perhaps the need to think coherently becomes most apparent when addressing the moral entailments of the way of Jesus. Whereas our contemporaries might be prone to assess the virtues of discipleship as nothing more than social mores or group preferences, these moral entailments extend from basic Christian confessions.42

So Paul’s words in Romans 4 manifest the way in which the posture of faith befits the human creature who has been created wholly by God’s life-giving Word, resurrected in the Spirit’s raising of Jesus from the dead, and now also justified and granted the full rights and privileges as an heir of Abraham. Faith ethically matches the metaphysical frame of these creational and covenantal actions by the triune God.43 Apart from viewing the summons to trustful existence in such a doctrinal frame, the call to conversion becomes something without depth and meaning, a reduction to arbitrary moral posturing. Indeed, apart from a fit with the metaphysical and moral frame of elemental Christian doctrines, the summons to faith actually suggests a potentially misanthropic calling for the human. Such was Nietzsche’s judgment. Yet we do not view the call of Jesus in a vacuum. The one who beckons us to follow is the one who made us, the one raised by the Father’s power, and the one who names us as righteous and well-pleasing in union with him. Thus, his call that we submit our will unto his own and that with him we journey through the valley by faith en route to the paradise of the redeemed is no summons to slavish surrender and no manifesto for misanthropic misery. Rather, the call of Jesus—the morals of life in this one—are the most elemental and glorifying of any humanisms, because the human has been viewed first and only within a theological matrix marked by inflections across the scope and sequence of the divine economy. God gives life. Live by borrowed breath. God raises the dead. Live by his power. God justifies the ungodly and adopts the orphan. Live by his declaration. Appreciating the links between creation and new creation, as well as the delightful news of Jesus’s resurrection that stitches them together, helps grant depth and beauty to his summons to us. Scholastic theology does not tuck items away in boxes, but it does prompt us always to ask how the varied divine works manifest God’s being and pressure us to work by way of reduction (reductio), that is, of tracing all truths back unto God. Scholastic theology will demand of us questions of a metaphysical register, lest morality and the salvific economy flit around like disjointed phenomena.

These comments are mere sketches of four principles for a scholastic theology today. Even when extended more fully, these four moves will not erase questions or remove quandaries. In each respect, these protocols of a scholastic or systematic theology call for us to remain alert and to stay vigilant—indeed, that is precisely the point of scholastic practice as a protocol for pilgrim theology. This attentiveness takes a particular form. We are neither emboldened to spiritual self-mastery nor to intellectual self-defense, as if fear of ignorance or incoherence calls for us to be on guard. Just the opposite. In these ways, we have been sketching how the “fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10) and beginning to tease out protocols by which that fear might take disciplinary shape in our academic enterprises. Luther has reminded us of our terrible need for that formative discipline given our sin-sick and death-doused condition, where even our efforts at intellectual repentance remain hamstrung by self-direction. Affirming that kind of reformational or Augustinian anthropology has prompted an argument for the significance of theological practice taking scholastic shape as a means of turning outward and entrusting one’s intellectual journey unto the source of all wisdom. If we want our theology to be not only a practice of methodological competence and material conversation but ultimately a formation of Christian wisdom, then our alertness to the anthropological condition in Luther’s “Disputation against Scholastic Theology” should be paired with a concerted vision for theological contemplation by also offering a “Disputation for Scholastic Theology.”

[1] This essay was delivered as an inaugural lecture for the John Dyer Trimble Chair of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando on 6 September 2017. Many thanks to Scott Swain and Ryan Peterson for feedback.

[2] Martin Luther, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517,” in Career of the Reformer 1, Luther’s Works 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm, trans. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957), 3–16 (citations of Luther’s Works are hereafter abbreviated LW); see WA 1:221–28 for the German original in the so-called Weimar Ausgabe. Numbering varies in editions as Thesis 55 has been divided into two theses in the work of Vogelsang, leading to a total of 98 theses.

[3] On the complicated legacy of reading Augustine on all sides, see now Arnoud S. Q. Visser, Reading Augustine in the Reformation: The Flexibility of Intellectual Authority in Europe, 1500–1620, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] Sarah Coakley has also sought to reorient the discipline in an ascetic register, albeit in a very non-scholastic fashion (see her God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014]). For interaction with her proposal and an argument that a more focused scholastic protocol might more effectively serve her stated purgative-spiritual goals, see Michael Allen, “Dogmatics as Ascetics,” in The Task of Dogmatics: Explorations in Theological Method, ed. Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2017), 189–209.

[5] On the scholastic backdrop of the disputation, see especially Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963); David C. Steinmetz, “Luther among the Anti-Thomists,” in Luther in Context, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 47–58; Brian Gerrish, “Luther Against Scholasticism,” in Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther (Oxford; Clarendon, 1962), 114–37. Jared Wicks has addressed a “Wittenberg Augustinianism” evident in these early texts (Man Yearning for Grace: Luther’s Early Spiritual Teaching [Washington, DC: Corpus, 1968], 178, 197). Indeed, Luther spoke of a theology shared with Andreas von Karlstadt as “our theology” and of their community as “us Wittenberg theologians.” His first thesis given in this disputation was adapted from a line by Karlstadt (Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet [New York: Random House, 2017], 209).

[6] Unfortunately we do not possess further argumentation or qualification for these theses (as with either the famous 95 theses regarding indulgences or those prepared later for the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518), on which see the helpful assessment of Jared Wicks, Man Yearning for Grace, 372–73.

[7] On the anti-Manichaean and anti-Pelagian readings of Augustine’s corpus, see Steinmetz, “Luther and Augustine on Romans 9,” in Luther in Context, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 21.

[8] Luther consistently reads Gregory of Rimini as the one scholastic theologian avoiding the error of Thomas, Scotus, and Ockham (as in his 1519 “Resolutions on Propositions debated at Leipzig”); see Steinmetz, “Luther among the Anti-Thomists,” 57. Cf. Risto Saarinen, “Weakness of Will: Reformation Anthropology between Aristotle and the Stoa,” in Anthropological Reformations: Anthropology in the Era of Reformation, ed. Anne Eusterschulte and Hannah Wälzholz, Refo500 28 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), 17–32.

[9] Latin: facere quod in se est.

[10] The issue of hypocrisy arises regularly in the theses (see Theses 76–78 especially).

[11] See Theo Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles. Eine historisch-systematische Untersuchung zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie, Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann 105 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2001), 80–107.

[12] A. E. Housman, The Confines of Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

[13] Housman, The Confines of Criticism, 37.

[14] Housman, The Confines of Criticism, 40.

[15] Housman, The Confines of Criticism, 34–35.

[16] Housman, The Confines of Criticism, 35.

[17] Housman, The Confines of Criticism, 43.

[18] Martin Luther, LW 12:305; see WA 40 II:319; see also Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, ed. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 38–39.

[19] Otto Hermann Pesch has argued that this approach to theology varies greatly from that of Thomas Aquinas. One need not affirm Pesch’s distinction to affirm that Luther rightly locates theology amidst the vagaries and valleys of the spiritual journey, the gifts and the grain of the economy of redemption. See Otto Hermann Pesch, “Existential and Sapiential Theology—The Theological Confrontation Between Luther and Thomas Aquinas,” in Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, ed. Jared Wicks (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), 61–81; see also Michael Root, “Continuing the Conversation: Deeper Agreement on Justification as Criterion and on the Christian as simul iustus et peccator,” in The Gospel of Justification in Christ: Where Does the Church Stand Today?, ed. Wayne Stumme (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 42–61.

[20] Michael Korthaus, Kreuzestheologie: Geschichte und Gestalt eines Programmbegriffs in evangelischen Theologie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 405. See Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation, 1518,” LW 31:35–70; cf. Lectures on Genesis 1–5, LW 1:11, 13, 14 (on 1:2), 45 (on 6:5–6), 72 (on 6:18).

[21] John Calvin also offers something of a theologia crucis in his reading of the Corinthians Epistles, on which see Michael Allen, “John Calvin’s Reading of the Corinthians Epistles,” in Reformation Readings of Paul: Explorations in History and Exegesis, ed. Michael Allen and Jonathan Linebaugh (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 175–81.

[22] LW 34:285–86. (translation altered by Oswald Bayer); WA 50:659, lines 5–21.

[23] LW 34:286; WA 50:659, lines 22–35.

[24] Bayer, Theology the Lutheran Way, 53.

[25] LW 34:286–87; WA 50:660, lines 1–16.

[26] See especially Ronald Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), esp. 111–24.

[27] Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 27:387; WA 40 I: 589–90.

[28] On the prevalence of Biel behind the disputation, see especially Leif Grane, Contra Gabrielem: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam, 1517, Acta Theologica Danica 4 (Kopenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962), 371–85.

[29] Letter to Johannes Lang, May 18, 1517, in WA,Br 1: no. 41.

[30] L. M. de Rijk, Middeleeuwse wijsbegeerte: Traditie en vernieuwing (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1977), 25 (cited in Martin Bac and Theo Pleizier, “Reentering Sites of Truth: Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom,” in Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honour of Willem J. Van Asselt, ed. Maarten Wisse, Marcel Sarot, and Willemian Otten [Leiden: Brill, 2010], 36).

[31] Richard A. Muller, “Scholasticism in Calvin: A Question of Relation and Disjunction,” in The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 28. The literature on scholasticism in its medieval and post-Reformation settings has burgeoned in recent years; for introduction and survey, see especially Ulrich G. Leinsle, Introduction to Scholastic Theology, trans. Michael J. Miller (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010); and Willem. J. Van Asselt, with T. Theo J. Pleizier, Pieter L. Rouwendel, and Maarten Wisse, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism, trans. Albert Gootjes (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2011).

[32] On this adaptation of reading strategies, see Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Jeffrey Morrow, “The Politics of Biblical Interpretation: A ‘Criticism of Criticism,’” New Blackfriars 91 (2010), 528–45; Morrow, “The Bible in Captivity: Hobbes, Spinoza and the Politics of Defining Religion,” ProEccl 19 (2010), 285–99. The significant shift here is the tilt toward historicism, on which see now Frederick Beiser, The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[33] Language of intellectual discipleship or asceticism has been helpfully unpacked in Fergus Kerr, “Tradition and Reason: Two Uses of Reason, Critical and Contemplative,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6 (2004), 37–49; Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ, Christian Theology in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 36, 81, 140. Some parallel approaches in medieval literature are thoughtfully analyzed by Peter M. Candler, Jr., Theology, Rhetoric, Manuduction, Or Reading Scripture Together on the Path to God, Radical Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), with regard to the use of the language of ductus, skopos, and an itinerarium, though his theological account fails to press on to offer much covenantal or Christological specificity in its broadly participationist metaphysics and also offers a severely mangled reading of early Protestant theology and the development of sola Scriptura (esp. 13–16); similarly inclined, though overly focused on categories of embodiment, is Nathan Jennings, Theology as Ascetic Act: Disciplining Christian Discourse (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

[34] The concept of systematic theology is not without debate regarding definition either. For a survey of recent approaches and a proposal with which I am largely sympathetic, see John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1–15.

[35] Irenaeus, On the Apostolic Preaching, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 68.

[36] See esp. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 376; C. Kavin Rowe, “Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” ProEccl 11 (2002), 295–312; Christopher Seitz, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[37] Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 70–75; Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 97–127; Sylvia Keesmaat, “Welcoming in the Gentiles: A Biblical Model for Decision Making,” in Living Together in the Church: Including Our Differences, ed. Greig Dunn and Chris Ambidge (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2004), 30–49, for a supposedly pneumatologically-prompted counter-argument to Israelite Scripture regarding same sex unions in Acts 10–15. For a critical reply, see Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 74–78. Such canonical reconfiguration began prior to debates regarding gender identity or same-sex unions, in discussions regarding gender and ecclesiastical office (see, e.g., Mark Husbands, “Reconciliation as the Dogmatic Location of Humanity: ‘Your Life is Hidden with Christ in God,’” in Women, Ministry, and the Gospel: Exploring New Paradigms, ed. Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007], 127–47).

[38] Philipp Melanchthon, Loci Communes in Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck, Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1969), 21.

[39] See the penetrating analysis of David Yeago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal,” ProEccl 2 (1993), 37–49.

[40] Similar concerns could be raised regarding so many other biblical and doctrinal terms, as, e.g., Richard Hays raises the now popular term “liberation” as another pertinent illustration (The Moral Vision of the New Testament [New York: Harper, 1995], 203–4).

[41] See Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 4–5.

[42] See especially Oliver O’Donovan’s repeated argument that moral theology is neither an addendum to nor a mere repetition of Christian doctrine but is a thinking out or unfolding of the moral involvements of various doctrinal claims (e.g., “Sanctification and Ethics,” in Sanctification: Explorations and Proposals, ed. Kelly M. Kapic [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014], 150–66).

[43] See the repeated emphasis on this connection as viewed through three doctrinal lenses (creational, Christological, and eschatological) in David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Michael Allen

Michael Allen is John Dyer Trimble professor of systematic theology and academic dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

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