Three Treatises make up the work of Luther over the course of four months in 1520 and served to solidify the logic and tenor of the reformation. While each treatise addresses a particular topic, they all address the state of the Church and the proper response needed on behalf of the gospel. Together they describe, prescribe, and seek to alleviate the burdens coming from Rome, while seeking to reform their faith by a return to scripture. In the first treatise, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nations, Luther sought to supplant the authority structure of the pope that was used to protect the papacy from any challenge, including those from the political sphere. “The Romanists” he claimed, “have very cleverly built three walls around themselves” (10). The first wall claimed that as spiritual authorities they had power over any temporal or political authority. The second wall was the claim that only the pope can correctly interpret scripture, eliminating challenges from texts themselves and thirdly, should there be a conflict or challenge through a council of the church, the pope reminds all that only he can call a council. By demonstrating the pope having excluded all means of correction, Luther goes on to demonstrate issues and abuses that the papacy needs to address, which Luther is calling the German Nobility to answer. These walls of protection should be torn down, because they are against God’s decreed arrangement of society. Luther sees the Church to function in the spiritual realm and the State, Nobility, to function in the temporal realm (48). Because of the dire situation, which includes both spiritual and physical poverty, Luther calls for action.
The strongest hold Rome had on the people were the sacraments, so it is of no surprise that Luther addresses them two months later in a thoroughly academic work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Here Luther gave a stunning critique of the sacramental system and its abuse of scripture. He focuses primarily on communion and its withholding of the cup to the laity, usurpation of Aristotle to explain transubstantiation, and the conceptual issue of the sacrifice of the mass. In the end, Luther keeps only the table and baptism as sacraments, reworks the role of confession, and eliminates the other four sacraments as ungrounded in scripture. Throughout his description of both the table and baptism, Luther emphasizes personal faith as a necessity. He even goes so far as to affirm faith in infants to legitimate their baptism (197). With the authority of Rome undercut and one’s personal faith affirmed for salvation, Luther makes what becomes a parting shot with Rome in his final treatise of the three, The Freedom of a Christian. Its central thesis is that faith in God through Christ frees the believer from sin and enables them to love and serve their neighbor (277). By addressing this to the pope, Luther’s claim asserts the more egalitarian relationship that the priesthood of all believers results in. These treatises delineate the process and movement of the reformation as it came into being from the criticism of the Romanists.
The passion of Luther is clearly for the gospel and this can be demonstrated in a variety of places. For instance, his problem with Aquinas’ use of Aristotle’s metaphysics was that it became a philosophical adventure in missing the point. He points out the Cardinal of Cambrai wanted to employ Ockham’s razor to address the issue, but could not because the church had decreed likewise and then Luther goes on to say that “what is asserted with out the Scriptures or proven revelation may beheld as an opinion, but need not be believed” (144-145). The gospel then is not subject to a metaphysic, but one can be used to interpret the gospel that is of prime importance. Luther was right to see the predicament in the use of Aristotle, but there is a difference between a rejection of a particular metaphysic and metaphysics in general.
Luther also emphasizes the wholeness of the gospel and its relationship to mass as a good work and sacrifice (152). This was for Luther a corruption of the sacrament itself, because what was sacred became capitol for the church to barter and not the “fountain of love” that he described as it came from Christ (165). This issue is not foreign at all to the church today and it takes only one building campaign to know how quickly the gospel can become a fundraising tool. Beyond its financial manipulation, what Luther is getting at is the idea that one can do something or receive more than the fountain of God’s goodness and love that comes in Christ. There are parts of our own popular piety that seem to think that we can super-size the gospel and somehow get more from God. It could be a TV wealth and health preacher or a random prayer from the Hebrew Bible put on your wall, but there seems to be a suspicion among the church that God has something extra special if one is in the know. Luther is insistent that if one understands himself or herself correctly one will find themselves under the condemnation of sin, and only by God’s infinite grace through Christ can redemption occur. That is not a gospel to be super-sized, but one that recognizes that the wealth and depth of the gospel is the gospel itself.
The relationship Luther creates between Church and State becomes precarious in today’s time. Underneath Luther’s critique of Rome is a vibrant German nationalism, and neither nationalism in general nor Germany’s in particular have been a healthy contribution to the planet. In our country the mixture of nationalism and religion has fueled a number of grievous situations and it leaves one to wonder how to receive Luther’s advice today. One positive contribution Luther makes is the simple distinction between the role of government and that of the church, even if this distinction must be handled differently in a democracy. On the other hand, there is a sense in which this strong nationalism cannot be reconciled with the gospel, at least on this side of the imperial battle line. Perhaps the recognition of the necessity for the civil sword could be met in the Untied Nations or a similar global body. Then the policing necessity of civil life can be met without it contributing to nationalism, the leading cause of death in the twentieth century. Regardless of the situation in the global community, at the parish level ministers must be conscious of the temptation to elevate unhealthy amounts of nationalism. Between veteran’s day celebrations in church, flags in the sanctuary, and the pledge at Vacation Bible School one could get the freedom of a Christian confused with the freedom of an American. In its extreme form the religious rhetoric of freedom is used to gather the church’s support for the agenda of the pax Americana. A challenge to the empire is interpreted as a challenge to God. These possibilities were not present to Luther historically and not consistent to his theological concern for the oppressed German people (80-81). Luther’s heart for the gospel and his passion for its power is something that can come to each generation of the reformation and continue to challenge it. These three treatises function to both give the reader a taste of Luther, the only person I know to compare himself to Balaam’s ass, and to speak the words of the reformation even today (22).
-> All page numbers refer to this edition.