Beyond the Mind
by the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
In 1517 Martin Luther felt emboldened to publish his 95 Theses – which challenged the confused, human centred theology of the mediaeval church. Luther was bold in accusing his superiors of cruelty and unfaithfulness in their religious teachings. Before long he was hiding in fear of his life. What was it that led him to become the kind of person willing to take such a stand, and able to bear the opprobrium that followed?
The answer to a large degree is hinted at in a little known treatise Luther published earlier that same year. Titled ‘Disputation against Scholastic Theology’ it revealed that Luther had come to view a specific part of mediaeval religious teaching as dangerously flawed. The ‘scholastic’ theologians were those of the mediaeval era – they used the methods of the ‘schools’ to codify and teach theology. This method involved considerable reliance upon reason to order and analyse doctrine – and crucially it usually embraced views of human reason that were dependent upon the ancient philosopher, Aristotle. The core of Luther’s first published writing was a rejection of the role Aristotle had played in mediaeval schools.
Luther wrote: ‘It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. This is in opposition to common opinion. Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.’
Aristotle’s most famous book had been entitled ‘Ethics.’ Much used by theologians such as Lombard and Aquinas, Luther decisively rejected it, saying: ‘Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This is in opposition to the scholastics.’
Theology shaped by Aristotle had come to view people as primarily rational thinking beings. Creatures shaped by their logical evaluation of evidence and arguments. Sin was thought to have affected much in the world- but the Fall had not damaged all aspects of the mind. Reason was at some level undamaged by sin – and so the schools taught that people could use reason to understand and agree with numbers of things about God they needed to embrace – and after having thus got started, God’s Spirit would send his grace to finish the work. Grace then built upon reason and added to that which was begun by intellectual effort. All this Luther rejected when he rejected Aristotle’s role in theology. Luther began to become the kind of man who would boldly preach justification by faith alone when he wrote beforehand, ‘the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness to light. This is in opposition to the scholastics.’
Luther realised as he searched the Bible and his heart, that he was controlled not by reason – but by his heart. His heart’s desires and longings shaped his life – and as his heart’s desires were bound by sin and could not naturally embrace Jesus – He needed grace to be poured out at that point of need. Luther realised he needed a new heart and only grace could grant that. So his treatise against the scholastics proclaimed the need for more than a mere information transfer – a new heart was needed. He wrote ‘It is by the grace of God that one does not lust or become enraged.’ His rejection of Aristotle’s view of reason helped form Luther into the kind of person who knew he needed grace at a deeper level – the level of the heart’s desires and longings. This he found in the reformation gospel. Have we got to the point where we know we need for Jesus more than mere information – but we need something that will genuinely change us – a new heart?
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon is minister of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk