Philosophy, Reason, And Righteousness In The Thought Of Martin Luther -- By: James E. Dolezal

Journal: Reformed Baptist Theological Review
Volume: RBTR 06:2 (Jul 2009)
Article: Philosophy, Reason, And Righteousness In The Thought Of Martin Luther
Author: James E. Dolezal


Philosophy, Reason, And Righteousness In The Thought Of Martin Luther

James E. Dolezal

James E. Dolezal is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. The author is grateful to Professor R. Emmet McLaughlin of Villanova University for his many useful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

It is not surprising that many Reformation historians, when seeking to explain Martin Luther’s reform motivations, give the lion’s share of attention to the 95 theses of his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (October 1517). After all, the 95 theses captured the imagination of the German populace and provoked the ire of the papal curia against the Wittenberg monk. But we would be mistaken to think that Luther’s reform efforts were fueled primarily by his opposition to indulgence abuses. A month before his theses against indulgence abuse were posted Luther issued 97 theses for his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (September 1517). In these theses, which were prepared in the course of Luther’s attempt to write a commentary on the first book of Aristotle’s Physics, the reformer attacked the scholasticism of William of Ockham, Peter d’Ailly, and Gabriel Biel.1 Though Luther was trained in Ockham’s nominalist tradition, as filtered through Gabriel Biel, he concluded after extensive reading in Aristotle that scholastic theology had been thoroughly corrupted by a misuse and misappropriation of Greek philosophy.2

We may helpfully depict the reformer’s opposition to scholasticism as a quest for a new theological grammar. Luther himself certainly seems to conceive of his task in this way. For instance, regarding the Christian doctrine of works and morality he insists that all biblical passages “are to be explained according to a new and theological grammar.”3 Regarding explanations of the incarnation of Christ, Luther avers, “philosophy has nothing to do with our grammar.”4

Luther’s quest for a new theological grammar set him on a course of new discoveries. Heiko Oberman observes that Luther became increasingly aware that God revealed himself to the apostles and prophets in ways and through words not commonly found in the medieval scholastic vocabulary with its definitions drawn from Aristotle. In fact, he had dismissed Aristotle as unreliable (fabulator) as early as 1509. He contended that only the Scriptures can introduce the grammar that God exp...

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