What Luther Said Before His 95 Theses

Almost two months (Sept. 4, 1517) before posting his famous 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, Luther released a lesser known but even more radical statement called the Disputation against Scholastic Theology.

By “scholastic theology” Luther was referring mainly to the late Medieval nominalism proposed by some Roman Catholic scholars, in particular William Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Nominalism’s motto was Facere quod in se est, or “do the best that lies within you.” In response to doing the best one could (congruent merit), God would grant grace, namely through the sacraments. Through cooperation with this grace, one could perform fully meritorious deeds (condign merit) that could merit/earn salvation. Clearly such teaching is not only unbiblical (i.e., not found in scripture) but even anti-biblical by its complete reworking of the relationship between grace and works (e.g., Rom 4:4-5; 11:16).[1] Nominalism is what Luther had been trained in; and to this errant theology Luther was reacting. It should also be noted that in these statements Luther believed that he was stating “nothing that is not in agreement with the Catholic church and the teachers of the church” (final statement in his Disputations).

So, what did Luther have to say before his famous 95 Theses? He had a lot to say, and in fact, he was probably more extreme here than in his more controversial 95 Theses.[2]
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Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton


The New York Times called Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton, “Excellent . . . illuminating and eloquent” and “The most readable Luther biography in English.” Echoing this, I found this book to be incredibly interesting and a rather easy and enjoyable read. Bainton fused scholarly with pleasurable. It is obvious that he both knew Luther and Luther’s historical setting extremely well. The book is filled with pictures of wood carvings from the time period as well as other art pieces such as musical scores which provide an interesting as well as helpful learning aid. Bainton organizes the book in a largely chronological fashion, yet at times diverts from this pattern with some occasional topical sections when deemed helpful (and it is). One of my favorite aspects of the book was the frequent quotes from Luther himself. Luther’s own words are worth the read. He is incredibly challenging, inspiring, witty, and quite humorous. At times I even found myself laughing audibly.

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