Carl Trueman at SBTS (1) Theological and Biographical Foundations – Reflections upon Luther

Dr. Carl Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History and Paul Woolley Chair of Church History and he blogs regularly at Reformation21.

See his full bio here

Dr. Trueman’s teaching history:

  • Tutorial Assistant in Church History, University of Aberdeen, 1991–1993
  • Lecturer in Theology, University of Nottingham, 1993–1998
  • Senior Lecturer in Church History, University of Aberdeen, 1998–2001
  • Westminster Theological Seminary, 2001– Currently serving

If you have never read or heard Dr. Trueman, here are some notes from the beginning of this lecture (from the first 18 minutes). Dr. Carl Trueman:

Reflections upon Luther’s life & practice of the Christian ministry

Martin Luther, author of the text of Christ la...

–In the years since the reformation, especially in the last 100 years of scholarship, the categories used to understand him (Luther) have become more variegated and subtle. Amongst many other approaches, he has been studied as the man who brought to a church shattering conclusion, the critical theology of the late medieval nominalists. He’s been the freudian man. (this will be discussed at length in part 2- to be posted tomorrow) projecting unto God his disrupted relationship with his own father.  He’s been the heir of late medieval eschatological expectation. He’s been the quintessential humorist of theological polemics. And, in a darker vein he has been seen as the fountainhead of German anti-semitism.

One area of comparative neglect, however in Luther’s studies is that of Luther’s pastor, and that’s surprising. Prior to the Reformation Luther was not only a monk, he was also a priest. He was ordained in 1507 and that meant that his professional religious life would never simply have been that of a university professor, or the monastic cloister. He was also  involved, on a day to day basis, with the lives of the people in his church. And indeed, it was this pastoral life, this pastoral concern which provided the trigger for the Reformation protest. when he came to see the sale of indulgences as impacting the lives of ordinary men and women of Wittenberg who were wasting their material goods on such counterfeit grace. (8 min mark)

In this 1st video Dr. Trueman lays out the basic theological elements of Luther’s thoughts, which then impacted his pastoral practice, and how Luther regarded the identity of God relative to fallen humanity, and central to this is the crucified flesh of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  • The topic of Luther as pastor is not simply  one of interest to historians, it also makes it significant to those pursuing pastoral ministry today. In the current conservative evangelical climate, much is made often of agreements on necessary theological doctrines in the context of the freedom to disagree over issues of pastoral and ecclesiastical practice. By way of contrast, the life and theology of Luther shows how theology and practice are actually more closely connected  than we might perhaps wish to imagine. Thus, in these lectures I am not primarily advocating Luther as a pastoral paradigm to be followed, although one could surely choose worst examples, but, rather as a test case for showing how theology and practice have certain necessary connections. A point which I believe is absent from major currents of American evangelical life, where a routine separation of theology and method, or perhaps theology and practical ecclesiology is often standard.

1. Theology of the cross

It is an oft repeated cliche that Luther was not a systematic theologian. Luther is in fact a remarkably consistent theologian. His treatise on The Bondage of the Will (1525) is a remarkably consistent exploration of  the theological foundations of justification by grace through faith, both as it relates to the issue of human choice and as it related to the question of Scriptural perspicuity. Similarly, the development of his Christology in relation to the Lord’s Supper between 1520 and 1529 is again a story of the consistent application and outworking of fundamental concern and insight  which are right there at the start of his reformation protest.

One of the foundational insights which emerges in Luther’s early thinking, early in his reformation career and receives dramatic exposure at the Heidelberg disputation in 1518 is the so called Theology of the Cross. When Luther places his 95 Theses on the castle door, in October 1517. In actuality, if you read The 95 Theses, it’s a petty boring document. You need to know quite a bit about medieval theology  even to understand what he’s getting at.

A much more appropriate start for the Reformation is April 1518, when Luther, as a member of the Augustinian order is attending a standard meeting of the order, in Heidelberg and has one of his friends present a series of theses for debate, that he himself had written. These are called the Heidelberg Disputation. It is often said here that he articulates the theology of the cross. In the theses of the disputation Luther himself does not refer to it as the theology of the cross, he refers to a theologian of the cross. And the text has frequently been mistranslated on this point and does not help to convey the richness of what Luther is trying to communicate.

The difference is important. Luther is not thinking of theology in some abstract way, as a technique or a set of rules, or procedures to follow which often lead one to correct theological formulations. He’s rather thinking in holistic terms. A theology as an action, performed by an individual which is intimately related to the nature and status of the person performing the action. Here are the key thesis in laying out the theology of the cross idea in full:

–„That person does not deserve to be called a theologian, who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and the manifest things of God, seen through suffering on the cross. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works, as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded and hardened”.

In short, one might summarize Luther’s basic epistemological points here by saying that theologians of glory  assume that God is much like themselves.  and therefore must conform to their conventions. The theologians of the cross, however, know that God is who He is and to know Him one must look to His revelation of Himself and that, primarily, on the cross. In placing the cross at the center of his theological program, Luther stands in continuity with his preoccupation of certain influential strands of late medieval theology. (16 min mark)


For Luther, the cross becomes the criterion of theology and thus the means for understanding the whole of spiritual reality. This has numerous implications. For example, it points clearly to Luther’s later abolition of the line between sacred and secular callings. What makes the theologian of the cross a true theologian? It’s not that he does theology, that he thinks and talks about God. That is the task he shares with theologians of glory…. Luther is actually making the point that everyone is a theologian. Either of glory or of the cross. What makes the difference is the mode in which the person does theology… The theologian of the cross does theology by faith in God’s revelation alone and based upon God’s revelation alone. (18 min mark)

Theological and Biographical Foundations from Southern Seminary on Vimeo.

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