Martin Luther Against Scholastic Theology

We saw that Martin Luther began his rediscovery of the Gospel during his lectures on Romans in 1515-16 (Cause of Salvation). Although Dr. Luther became famous because of the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses in November 1517, his scholarly activities since 1514 had led him to refine his understanding of theology already.  After completing his lectures on Romans, Luther lectured on Galatians and Hebrews.  However, in September 1517 Dr. Luther had already published the “manifesto of the new reform movement.” [Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (New York 2015), 51.] This document contained a series of theses against medieval scholastic theology.

In the theses Dr. Luther demonstrated his new concentration on the Bible and the writings of Augustine of Hippo. This publication represented a definitive, public refutation of the late medieval scholastic theologians’ emphasis on the ability of human free will to seek God and act lovingly toward Him.   He rejected the idea that sinners could prepare themselves to receive God’s grace through any actions.  In fact, because of sin, fallen humans have no desire for God or his precepts.  The Law exposes evil attitudes and coerces toward certain outward action, but only God’s grace justifies and changes the sinful will. [Martin Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, 9-16.]

Luther clearly rejected the integration of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian theological concepts of grace, justification, and good works. Dr. Luther argued specifically against the application of Aristotle’s ethical teaching to theology. Aristotle taught that humans become more just by practicing justice.  Scholastic theologians integrated this idea with Christian theology through teaching that God created a habit of love in the believer’s soul by which the Christian could exercise his will and perform good works to make himself righteous.  Luther explicitly rejected this notion when he wrote, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds, but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.” [Luther, Disputation, Thesis 40, LW 31:12.]






About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


Martin Luther Against Scholastic Theology — 6 Comments

  1. Dr. Matthew, are you referring to the impact of humanism on doctrine / theology? Just trying to zero in on what you are hinting at. Thanks.

  2. Sean,

    Dr. Luther was addressing the late medieval scholastic theologians’ use of Aristotle’s ethics to explain the theology of justification. Many sixteenth-century humanists agreed with Luther’s attack on the scholastics. However, most humanists did maintain an optimistic view of human nature’s free will.

  3. Gotcha, essentially you are referring to the debate with Erasmus and his publishing of On the Bondage of the Will, correct? I think he also addressed this issue in many of the Table Talks that were recorded. Seems like the Catholic Church has flipped away from Augustine toward the spectrum of Pelagianism. Are you also referencing the works of St. Thomas Aquinas when you refer to the scholastic theologians? Just curious.

  4. Scholastic theologians included theologians from mid-12th century to early 16th century. They sought to explain theology by using philosophy, especially, Aristotle’s writings. Thomas Aquinas was a significant representative of this group from the 13th century. Dr. Luther was trained in late medieval scholastic theology that emphasized the natural, human abilities to turn toward God.

  5. Understood. Seems like you see a lot of this in the Table Talks where he emphasizes the role of faith ruling over reason, then you also see elements of this in his correspondence with Erasmus. There is a book by Joel Biermann I also want to get that sort of touches on this subject, I believe it was called A Case for Character. I want to say that he refutes Aristotelian views of Ethics where the role of reason becomes the arbiter or right and wrong. It almost sounds like a continuation of some of Bonhoeffer’s work in Ethics.

  6. I always felt it would be interesting though to see if an of Averroes still influenced the Protestant desire for “sola Scriptura” or… Aquinas’ almost Quran view of scripture caused it as a reaction. The magisterium made it so “magic” that Luther’s thesis it could be read and understood was very radical.

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