Theology for Beggars (Part 1)

David Owen Filson

On February 19th the "scrawny shrimp," as he was affectionately called, stood startled, as his lecture on Romans was interrupted by news no one wanted to hear. Hardly able to gather himself, Philip Melanchthon tearfully announced to his students assembled in the great hall at Lutherhause, "Ach, obiit auriga et currus Israel!" (Alas, the charioteer of Israel has fallen!")

Biographer Roland Bainton suggests Martin Luther had done the work of five men in his lifetime. By February 18th, 1546, it caught up with him. Returning from a trip to Eisleben, marked by weeks of efforts to reconcile two brother counts of Mansfeld, his heart was failing him. The weather had been terribly disagreeable. This didn't help. Luther, admittedly feeling his age and frailty, wearily took ill. As the story goes, his companions managed to find lodging for him in a nearby house. His condition worsening, one of them asked, "Dr. Luther, do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught." Breaking his labored breathing of prayer and scriptures, a distinct "Ya!" leaped from his lips. Between 2-3am, Luther died a good death - full circle, in the very town in which he was born 62 years prior.

One of the most telling pieces to this dramatic conclusion to a dramatic earthly journey is a note Luther scratched out just two days earlier. Knowing his dire condition, he penned something of a humble epilogue to his life, churchmanship, the Scripture he adored, and the "doctrine he had taught:"

"No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has spent five years as a shepherd or farmer. No one understands Cicero in his letters unless he has served under an outstanding government for twenty years. No one should believe that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has spent one hundred years leading churches with the prophets. That is why: 1. John the Baptist, 2, Christ, 3. The Apostles were a prodigious miracle. Do not profane this divine Aeneid, but bow down to it and honor its vestiges."1

This note, which Luther wrote in Latin, is concluded by a burst of German, "Wir sind alle Bettler." Then--resuming the Latin--Luther wrote, "Hoc est verum."   ("We are all beggars. This is true.")

2017 is the year of all things Luther, as we mark the 500th anniversary of the day that often ostentatious Augustinian monk walked the better part of a mile, from the University of Wittenberg to the door of the Schlosskirche, and posted his Ninety-Five Theses. The door was often used for making public notice of academic and religious matters. In one sense, this was no different from other such postings. In another sense--as history shows--nothing would ever be the same.

Having traced Luther's steps in Wittenberg on a tour through Germany many years ago, I have often thought about that rather straight mile as just one part of an expansive trajectory of a beggarly theology. Amidst the bustle around various celebratory Lutherpaloozas and conferences, books, t-shirts, and even a Playmobile Martin Luther action figure (yes, I am a proud owner of one), we honor him best by reminding ourselves we are, indeed, beggars, and that true theologians are theologians of the cross, humbled at the surprising notion of God's glory revealed in weakness.

When I went to the sites of Luther's life all those years ago, I took my prized first edition of Bainton's Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. I carried it around, from the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, where monk Luther trembled and stumbled through his first mass, to the Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament from Greek to German and effectively placed the Reformation in the laps of milkmaids and cobblers. I suppose in my mind I was adding to the specialness of my copy of Here I Stand by reading it, town to town, where it all happened.

I want to welcome you to walk with me this year as I share my interest in some of the books that have helped me--select biographies old and new (in which there will be more honesty than mere hagiography), theological analyses (accessible to academic), sources primary and secondary, that give us a taste of the gospel bread for which Luther lived his life learning to beg. We will pause along the way to consider some of the contours of Luther's thought in the context of his own life and ministry. The door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg opened the way to a disputation in Heidelberg some six months later in April of 1518, better showing us the beggarliness of a theology grounded in suffering and the cross. The stand that Luther took at Worms led to the Scripture that he translated at Wartburg. That, quite literally, is just the beginning. There is much more to see along the way!

In the next post, we will consider some volumes that help make up a good "starter kit" for building a Luther library. Until then, if you've already read Bainton, even if not while enjoying pizza at the little cafe across from the Theses-engraved doors at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, then let me suggest you now move on to Carl Trueman's Luther on the Christian Life.

1. See Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) p. 166