Great Courses: Luther: Gospel, Law, And Reformation: Part 1, taught by Professor Phillip Cary
As someone with a considerable interest in the Protestant Reformation and as someone who wishes to better understand it in light of the approaching 500 year anniversary of the posting of the famous 95 theses , I thought this particular course would give me a moderately sympathetic viewing of Martin Luther. And so it did. It did something else, though, worthy of interest, and that was showing just how Nathanish of a person Martin Luther was, someone whose characteristic response to problems and issues was to write about them at length. Luther was an anxious soul, and one who found life to be a good deal more complicated than he would have wished it to be, and sought to simply that existence through setting up an influential false dilemma between law and grace that still greatly affects Christian discourse to this day. This particular course excels in putting Luther’s actions into a context of late medieval Christendom that is both sympathetic as well as revealing. We see Luther as a man, as a complicated but often fundamentally decent man, struggling to deal with the consequences of a complicated personality as well as a particularly difficult time, and we see how the papacy contributed to the division of the Reformation through its intransigence and strident appeals to authority.
This particular course is made up of twelve lectures that provide a great deal of context to Luther and to the Lutheran Reformation. Beginning with a look at Luther’s gospel, the professor then turns to the medieval church and to its abuses and to efforts at reform. Then there is a lecture devoted to the Augustinian paradigm of spirituality that would have been at least a little bit foreign to Luther’s approach, which was based on his times. The fourth lecture looks at young Luther against himself with a harsh view of God and of the word of God that we are to believe about ourselves. After this we look at how Luther heard the gospel and sought to define the relationship between faith and works based on his own anxious lifetime of attempts to appease God through his own human efforts. The professor then discusses the meaning of sacraments, the indulgence controversy that really started the Protestant Reformation, the way that the Reformation eventually went public, Luther’s writing on the captivity of the Sacraments during the so-called Babylonian captivity, and closes the first part of this course on Luther with a look at the Reformation in Wittenberg as well as the work of the Reformer.
The professor of this particular course has a great interest in the philosophy of Augustine, and one gets the feeling that he has a strong ecumenical spirit as well. In his discussions about Luther’s approach to abuses of power within the Catholic Church of his time, he notes that while Luther called the Roman Catholic Church the Antichrist, not an unfair description given the biblical record, contemporary Lutherans have not been so harsh, leading to a kind of identity crisis given the relative moderate position of Lutherans compared to the more radical denominations that sprang from the Reformed tradition. In many ways, Luther’s status as a follower of Augustine in many aspects and his high view of the sacraments kept Luther close to the Catholic tradition even after departing it, and led to a certain incompleteness about the Reformation when it came to restoring apostolic purity of religion. Too much human tradition came along, with a lot of its baggage, and it should therefore not surprise us that the Reformation is discussed here in such ambivalent terms. What we have in this course is a praise of Luther that comes off as a lament that it had to divide the Christendom of his day, and even a hope that Hellenistic Christendom may yet reunite.
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