The reader of these lines is warned, at the very outset of this essay, that he must not confuse the “ninety-nine theses” with the “ninety-five theses”. This warning is not superfluous, for not a few will when reading the title invariably think of the eve of all-saints day, Oct. 31, 1517, when Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. Someone may even say, when reading the title to this writing: Now that is a serious error on either the part of the writer or the printer.
The reason for this is obvious. The “ninety-nine theses of Luther are little known. So little, in fact that librarians at accredited colleges and seminaries told me and wrote me, that they had never heard of the “Ninety-Nine Theses”; that they were very sorry, but they could not give me a copy of the same in full, neither could they give me any critical discussion on them.
However, after some correspondence with the Pritzlaff Memorial Library, St. Louis, MO, they informed me that they only had these “theses” of Luther in Latin. I here wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to them for loaning me the “Works of Luther” (Opera Lutheri) as also to the Rev. Petter for his kind assistance in the translation and for his helpful suggestions in general.
A few remarks concerning the history of these theses may first of all be in order.
It is quite certain, that these were written in the year of 1517, possibly some months before the writing of the ninety-five. At this time Luther was professor in the university at Wittenberg, a man of good standing in the Catholic church of his day. Luther wrote these theses, but did not publish them. He sent them to the theologians at Erfurth to a certain John Lange at that time Prior. He wrote as follows: “My suspense as to your decision upon these paradoxes is great, extreme, too great perhaps, and full of anxiety. I strongly suspect that your theologians will consider as paradoxical, and even as kakodoxical (unsound doctrine, G.L.) what is in my opinion very orthodox (sound teaching, G.L.). Pray inform me as soon as possible of your sentiments upon them. Have the goodness to declare to the faculty of theology, and to all, that I am prepared to visit you, and to maintain these propositions publicly, either in the university or in the monastery” (History of the Reformation, D’Aubigne. Vol. I, p. 245).
Luther never received any notice from the theologians. It was only after publishing the ninety-five theses that the world was set aflame with reformatory fire. The fact that these theses were ignored, and that the ninety-five were the occasion of the breaking forth of the reformation, may be the reasons why these theses under discussion were forgotten through the ages.
Focusing our attention on the theses proper we wish to call attention to three matters.
First of all to: The main subject of these Theses.
The great subject treated of in these theses is: The Bondage of the Will of Sinful, Fallen Man. It is the same subject that Luther later treated in his book “The Bondage of the Will”, written against the Diatribe (abusive discourse) of Erasmus on this subject.
The position taken by the great reformer, is that man’s will is spiritually not able and free to choose the good, but that it is in bondage. To show that this is the teaching of Luther we will quote from the “theses” quite extensively. (For the sake of brevity and clarity we will number them between brackets.)
Luther says (4) “It is true, that man having become a bad tree, is not able to do or to will, except evil.” (Veritas itaque est quod homo arbor mala f actus, non potest nisi malum velle et faciere). Thus also in (5) “It is false that the desire left to itself (appetitus liber) is able to choose in both opposites (the good as well as evil, G.L.) (in utrumque oppositorum) indeed it is not free but in bondage.”
That Luther has in mind spiritual and not physical bondage (the latter would be “determinism”) is evident from the following. In (6) he writes: “It is false, that the will is able to conform itself by nature to right teaching” (se conformare dictamen recto naturaliter). Here Luther speaks of two matters, which merit our attention, (a) He does not say that the will does not conform itself to anything, does not choose at all, but that it cannot conform itself to right teaching. (dictamen recto). And as we shall have occasion to demonstrate in another connection is this essay this “right teaching” is the good Law of God (Lex bona). (b) He says that this is so of man “by nature” (naturaliter). Luther here refers to the spiritual operation of man’s mind and will, as spoken of by the apostle in Eph. 2:1-3. That thus it was before the mind of Luther is evident from what he says in (7) to wit, that the will “necessarily brings forth works deformed and evil, without the grace of God”. But that from this “does not follow (nec. . . sequitur) that the will is naturally evil, that is, that it is the nature of evil, as the Manicheans teach.” (quod sit naturaliter mala, id est, natura mali, secundum Manichaeos). It should not be forgotten, that the Maichaens, sought for the principle of sin and evil in “matter” in the material world. Consequently they did not see the doctrine of the “old man” versus the “new man” as taught by Scripture, but they spoke of the “higher” and the “lower” in man. The “higher” the soul is the good in man, and the “lower” the body is evil. Now Luther warns that this construction must not be placed on the “bondage of the will.”
It is a spiritual-ethical question. That such is the case is most clearly expressed in (17) “Man is not able by nature to will God to be God, yea, rather he wills himself to be God, and God not be God”. (Non potes homo naturalter velle. Deum esse Deum, imo vellet se esse Deum, et Deum non esse Deum). “To assert (18) therefore that man can choose God above all things is a fictitious term, yea, a monstrousity” (terminus fictus, sieut Chimera).
According to Luther the evil of man’s will is brought to manifestation by the good law of God. He stresses that the ethics of Scripture is a matter of love, question of the heart. It is everything or nothing. He writes (64) “But it follows that he sins, not spiritually fulfilling the law” (Sed sequitur, peccat non spiritualaliter legem implendo). Likewise he affirms (65) “he who spiritually does not become angry, neither lusts, does not kill, fornicate and steal”. And (67) “It is the justice of hypocrites not to kill in deed and openly, neither to commit fornication.”
This good law forces the “evil will” to show that it is exceedingly evil. It is (71) as “good law of necessity an evil to the natural will”. For (86) “the will of anyone so-ever prefers if it were possible, that there were no law, and itself altogether free”.
Luther also asserts, that man always sins, and never keeps the law. He writes (63) “He continually sins (Assidue peccat) who is without the grace of God, not killing, not fornicating, not stealing” (qui extra gratia Dei est, non occidendo, non moechando, non furando).
But what must be said of those cases where there is a certain external orderly deportment, and adherence to the law of God? Is there not a certain “inclination of the will” toward the law of God, a certain “relative good”? (The reader ought to compare “De Drie Punten In Alle Deelen Gereformeerd” by Prof. L. Berkhof). To this Luther answers: (77) “All works of the law, without the grace of God, outwardly appears good, but inwardly it is sin”. (Omne opus legis sine gratia Dei, foris apparet bonum, sed intus est peseatum). And here Luther has in mind the virtues of which pagan philosophers sing; the scholastic teaching of the good of man, without the grace of God, following the ethics of Aristotle.
But how does Luther explain this phenomena of “outward righteousness”? He says (79) “a will turned unto the law, without the grace of God, does this for the endeavoring of a kind of advantage of its own”. (Conversa voluntas ad legem sine gratia Dei est commodi sui talis). However, this striving to outwardly keep the law does not have the sanction of the Law-giver, and therefore (8) “Cursed are all who work the works of the law”. (Maledicti sunt omnes, qui operantur opera legis).
How can man come under the judgment (81) “Blessed are all who work the works of the grace of God”? Luther answers (29) “The highest and infallible preparation and unique disposition unto grace, is the eternal election and predestination of God”. (Optima et infallibilis ad gratiam praeparatio et unica dispositio, est eterna Dei electio et Praedestinatio). For (30) “on the part of man, nothing precedes grace, except indisposition and rebellion against grace”.
From the above can be seen the great theme of the Ninety-Nine Theses.
The second matter to which we call attention is: Luther’s Purpose in Writing These Theses.
The doctor of Wittenberg did not intend these “theses” to be against the Catholic church. He “believed an holy catholic church” and was “a living member of the same.” As such his purpose was to save the church from errors, and heresies which had crept into her. The error of Pelagianism was undermining the very foundations of the doctrine of grace. And it is against these errors, that this product from Luther’s pen is pitted. And as we saw above, they were directed to the universities of his day, the theologians who were departing from the faith of the Latin fathers, at whose head Luther places Augustine.
That such is the position of the Reformer is evident from the theses themselves. In (1) Luther writes: “To say, that Augustine speaks excessively against the heretics, is to say, that Augustine nearly everywhere deceives.” And (2) “the same is (the) Pelagian (contention) and concedes to all heretics an opportunity of triumph, yea, indeed, of victory.”
That Luther’s purpose is to maintain the teaching of the Latin fathers, he by implication states in (51) “It is strongly to be doubted, whether the opinion of Aristotle was held among the Latin fathers” and in (99) “In this book (volumn) nothing is said, neither do we believe taught, by us, what is not in agreement with the Catholic church doctors.”
Luther therefore consciously takes position upon the Augustinian tradition in the “Theses.” His purpose is positive, not negative. He wishes to build, not destroy. He is conservative in the good sense of the word. This does not mean that he tolerates what cannot be taken into the structure of Augustinian theology. To the contrary, these must be shown to be false, and as not having a part in the truth of God.
The representative teachers of these heresies, who are attacked by Luther are those standing on the Aristotelian-Aquinian tradition. Sometimes the reformer merely speaks of them all in one breath, and then again he singles out their teachings and calls them by name. Those mentioned are: Aristotle, Porphyry of Tyre (b. 232-d. 804 A.D.) William of Occam (1280-1350?) Duns Scotus (1265?-1308) Gabriel Biel (1425-1495).
These men all have in common, that they teach that man in the way of rational processes and judgements can come to the knowledge of God, apart from revelation. These were the men of the synthesis between theology and philosophy. But as always the latter predominated over the former. The axiom here is: “Intelligemus ut credemus,” we know that we may believe. Luther said following Augustine: We believe in order that we may know.
Of Porphyry Luther writes: (52) “It had been good for the church, if Porphyry with his universals had not been born a theologian.” (Bonum erat ecclesia, si theologus natus non fuisset Porphyrins cum sui universalibus). Of this Porphyry, M. De Wulf “History of Medieval Philosophy” page 140, writes as follows: “The Isagoge (Porphyry’s introductory commentary on Aristotle’s logics—laws of thinking) studies the five predicables: (genus, species, specific difference, property, accident): it served as an introduction to the study of the Categories.”
“In the Isagoge Prophyry does not go beyond the logical aspect of predicables, he does not enquire into the real or ontological significance of the Categories. He merely hints at the great problem of the objectively of universal notions: and his statement of the question later on became the starting point of the “universal” controversy.”
Now it was such men as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel, who claimed that the knowledge of God was possible in the way of reason. This is not merely the opinion of Luther, but also of a scholar such as W.D. Ross. Writes he: “St. Thomas and Duns Scotus expressed themselves cautiously, but tended to interpret Aristotle’s God in a theistic sense” (Aristotle, page 183).
Over against these men, Luther states that this Aristotelian interpretation of God and divine matters, can have no place in theology. Just as it is true, that the will of man cannot find God, so also his reason cannot reveal Him. The one is as absolute as the other, for (41) “nearly the whole Aristotelian ethics is bad and hostile to grace.” And (42) “It is an error (to say) that the view of Aristotle concerning happiness is not in conflict with the Catholic doctrine.” And again (43, 44) “it is error to say that without Aristotle one is not a theologian, yea one is not a theologian, except he become with Aristotle. “And therefore according to Luther the whole matter can be thus stated: (50) “Briefly the whole Aristotle is to theology, what darkness is to light.”
This can only mean that materially Aristotle, (i.e., reason) can give nothing to theology. Luther does, however, attribute a formal value to logics, and the syllogism. Says he: (48) “it does not follow, that the truth of the Articles of the trinity conflict with the syllogistic forms.” (Non tamen ideo sequitur, veritatem Articuli Trinittis repugnare formis syllogistics).
Luther therefore does not deny that logic has a place in theology. The truth of revelation is not irrational, although it is not the product of reason.
Thirdly we wish to call attention shortly to: The Significance of these Theses.
Historically, these theses have great significance for the churches of the reformation. They show that the Reformation was in its birth not merely reactionary against some abuses in the church, but that the deepest questions in life were at stake. It was the question of God or man, grace or “good works,” revelation or reason of man. And the Reformation stands for the former of these alternatives.
Protestantism in distinction from Catholicism follows the Augustinian conception of sin and grace. It was for Luther more than a logical problem of seeking after truth in the abstract; it was for him a question of life or death. Catholicism left the Augustinian tradition, and continued in the Aristotelian-Aquinian error. Even the counter-reformation did not have the spiritual potentiality to retrace its steps. Hence the theology of Roman Catholicism is Pelagian-rationalistic. One has but to inquire into their conception of “man” “image of God” “the fall” and it at once becomes evident that they are Pelagian. Man is “naturally good.” He is good “in puris naturalibus.” What man lost was the “image” which does not belong to man’s essence, for it is some added besides, it is “superadditum.”
Now it is a remarkable phenomena that the theological “issue” of 1924 was centered about the same questions, as Luther is treating in these theses. The question in these theses are of such a nature, that it is “either or”. One must choose for Luther or for the Scholastics. Points II and III of 1924 choose the latter of the two. Now I know, that the approach to the questions in these “points’ ‘is different from that of the Scholastics and Roman Catholicism. Fundamentally there is no difference. Both are Pelagian. The one speaks of the “restraining influence of the Spirit” which is not regenerating, and so man can perform civil righteousness, can live a naturally good life. Rome also teaches that man can live a naturally good life by virtue of his being “in puris naturalibus.” Luther denies both.
That those who maintain the “points” of 1924 must speak of the “mystery” when the error of their stand is pointed out, is due to the fact that they attempt to bring Aristotle and Augustine together. They attempt a synthesis between “natural theology” and the revelation of God, It may be that not all are conscious of this who maintain the theory of common grace. They also do not go as far as Rome does, but that is not due to the teaching of “points II and III” but due to an inconsistency of the defenders, because they hold to Calvinistic tradition.
I am aware that this is saying quite a lot, but the conviction has grown upon me during the past few years, that “common grace” is not an outgrowth of the Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition, but of the Aristotelian-Aquinian synthesis. At least that is the judgment of Luther in the Nine-Nine Theses.