The Heidelberg Theses with Carl Trueman

Stephen J. Nichols (SN): We are again visiting with our friend Dr. Carl Trueman. We had previously left him on a deserted island, but we’ll try to be a little more kind to him this time. We’re going to talk about our mutual distant friend, Martin Luther. One of Luther’s crucial texts is known as the Twenty-Eight Theses, or the Theses for the Disputation at Heidelberg. It’s a text from April 1518. It’s very crucial to understanding Luther, and it’s a text that Dr. Trueman has spent a lot of time with. Dr. Trueman, why is this an important text?

Carl Trueman (CT): The Twenty-Eight Theses is a crucial text for a number of reasons. First, these theses are Luther’s first opportunity to showcase his new theology after the crisis of 1517. The end of October 1517 sees his more famous Ninety-Five Theses published against indulgences, the text of which is relatively dry. The amazing thing is that this rather dry and academic text becomes the rallying cry for what would become the German Reformation. The church doesn’t take significant or swift action against him at that point. He’s left relatively free, and so in April 1518, he travels to Heidelberg for a regular chapter meeting of the Augustinian Order, to which he belongs. And he presides over debates where he has written the theses to be debated. The debate is actually led by a man called Leonard Baier. But Luther wrote the theses that were to be disputed at this chapter meeting. And it’s the first time that he gets to showcase the theology that underlies the protest of October 1517, which was very much focused on indulgences. But at the Disputation at Heidelberg, he gets to point to the more theological foundations of that protest.

SN: So, the first thing we need to see here is that these Twenty-Eight Theses are not a “discounted version.” That is, it’s not the Ninety-Five Theses are the luxury model and the Twenty-Eight Theses are the economy model. This is a different text altogether, right?

CT: Right, they’re a different text altogether.

SN: You’re talking about the importance of this to showcase Luther’s theological contribution. So, what is this theology that emerges from the Twenty-Eight Theses?

CT: It’s very rich, but perhaps the major focus might be the distinction that he draws between what he calls a “theologian of glory” and a “theologian of the cross.” We might summarize it by saying that a theologian of glory is somebody who assumes dramatic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is. So, God essentially thinks like a human being, only in a much greater and more perfect way.

SN: Usually, when we talk about glory in theology, it’s a good thing. So, we have to understand Luther contextually, in terms of the contrast Luther is describing.

CT: Yes—”glory in oneself,” one might say. So, for example, if I want you to like me, I’m going to do nice things for you. I’m going to compliment you on your tie or your dress sense—these kinds of things. And you’re going to like me by way of response. Your love for me is going to be responsive because of the nice things I’ve done for you. And Luther sees that as the heart of the human problem—that we think of God like that. According to this line of thinking, how do we get right with God? We do nice things for God, and He’ll like us in return. Luther contrasts the theologian of glory with the theologian of the cross. He says true theology is seeing how God has revealed Himself and building our understanding of God on the basis of that revelation. For Luther, that revelation is intensely focused on the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ as crucified at Calvary. And that involves an inverting of our expectations. Where do we see God’s power? We see it in the weakness of His Son hanging on the cross. Where do we see God’s righteousness? We see it in the wrath that is poured down upon His Son as He hangs upon the cross. And how do we, therefore, get right with God? We don’t present God with the filthy rags that are our own righteousness. We need to despair of ourselves, to become weak, and to look to the righteousness and the strength of God as manifested in Christ as the basis for our standing before Him.

SN: That seems to get right at the heart of the solas—solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia—and there it is right in Luther’s Twenty-Eight Theses. Thank you for drawing out attention to this text.