by Rev. Donavon Riley
Although Luther’s comments about the sales of indulgences, capped by his posting of The 95 Theses to the church door, drew plenty of attention, the young professor continued with his responsibilities as lecturer and preacher in Wittenberg. However, since he’d translated his lectures and sermons into German for laity, then back into Latin for scholars, more and more calls came to Luther requesting he expand upon or defend his theology.
One instance occurred in the spring of 1518, when Luther was invited to defend his teaching in Heidelberg. It was the annual meeting of the Augustinians, Luther’s monastic order, and he was sent as a representative of his monastery as well as handing off responsibility for his duties as district vicar to someone else. Likewise, he was chosen to be the “disputant” for the meeting, which meant he’d engage in a debate about the theology of St. Augustine, who most monks believed was the founder of their order.
Luther did not, as many expected, take up the topic of indulgences when he was given the opportunity to talk. Instead, he presented what he believed was Augustine’s theology (and his own). As Luther presented his twenty-eight theses, one after the other, those in attendance bent their ears to him, even though the first ten theses weren’t so controversial as to stir up any excitement. However, when Luther read his thirteenth thesis: “‘Free will’ after the Fall is nothing but a word, and so long as it does what is within it, it is committing deadly sin.” This was a direct attack on what everyone in the room had been taught.
Then, the sixteenth thesis caused even more excitement: “Anyone who thinks he would attain righteousness by dong what is in him is adding sin to sin, so that he becomes doubly guilty.” Luther had now twice asserted that the accepted, orthodox theology of the day led to damnation.
After he’d finished with his theses, and after business was completed, everyone returned home. And what Luther had said at Heidelberg went home with them. It was explosive stuff, the theology Luther presented, and from his Heidelberg Theses the first serious rumblings of reformation began to spread across Germany. But for as many new allies as Luther had won, in time he could as many, if not more, enemies. Now, Luther’s teaching wasn’t only threatening the sale of indulgences, but by saying that following orthodox doctrine led one to damnation, he was attacking the papacy itself.
Next week, we will examine the fallout from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.