Gerhard Forde argues that the Heidelberg Disputation is Martin Luther’s public account of God’s “attack” via the cross on the sinners’ understanding of how they:
1) objectively value good deeds [Thesis 1-12],
2) subjectively desire to do good deeds [Thesis 13-18],
3) see the way out of not doing enough good deeds [Thesis 19-24], and
4) perceive God’s role in this way out [Thesis 25-28].
Forde notes that the Disputation’s paradoxical format itself is meant to reflect this irreconcilable and inevitable “combat” between the worldviews and operations of the theologians of the cross and the theologians of glory (4).
I. Bad works disguised as good works (Theses 1-12):
According to Forde, these Theses assert that sinners fail to recognize – to their peril – that their good works are bad when these works act as a defense against trusting in the grace of God (27). Forde comments: “A human work . . . is deadly sin because it in actual fact entices us away from ‘naked trust in the mercy of God’ to a trust in self” [Thesis 4 proof cf. Theses 25-26] (37). The key assumption here is that sin for Luther is fundamentally unbelief. Accordingly, the most basic factor for what makes a deed objectively good is not what a person does, but even more decisively, what the person believes. For any work that derives from a belief in the value of one’s own efforts is essentially idolatrous [Thesis 7], and any work that presupposes independence from God is by nature rebellious [Thesis 8]. Forde captures this point well when he observes that a person may satisfy the second tablet of God’s Ten Commandments and yet as a tragic consequence violate the first tablet (58). Luther implies that the only way to overcome the problems of self-assurance and self-reliance in relation to works is by honestly acknowledging that they cannot humanly be overcome. Hope comes only when “the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work” [Thesis 11] (46) such that only “humility and fear of God are our eternal merit” [Thesis 4 proof] (34).
II. Bounded will disguised as free will (Theses 13-18):
Such humility comes when it is presupposed that humans may do good only in a passive capacity, that is, “only by divine power” (55), or conversely, that they may always do bad in an active capacity due to a fallen will held captive and subject to sin [Thesis 14] (53-4). Forde argues that the undercurrent here is Luther’s opposition to the medieval conception of facere quod in se est (cf. Thesis 13 “does what it is able to do”) because it too acts as a defense against God’s gift by denying humanity’s total dependence on divine power. For Luther any acknowledgment of independence from God even in the realm of the will would give ground for the “sin of unfaithfulness parading as piety” [cf. Thesis 16] (58). Thus Forde emphasizes in Thesis 15 that even “before the fall Adam and Eve were upheld in the state of innocence not by their own power but from [God]” (57). Forde notes the vigorous opposition to this section in the Roman Catholic bull “Exsurge Domine” as well as Luther’s belief that it was “the highest and most important issue of our cause” (53). The will is where God’s attack and humanity’s defense comes to a climax. If people can or are allowed to take final refuge in the knowledge that they at least tried (i.e., exercised their free will) to do their best, then, as Forde puts it, “doing our best becomes a defense against the totality of grace” (54). But if God’s attack succeeds in leaving no room for human merit, false security, or false hope even in the bunker of best intentions, then there is true hope in this despair. For “the remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it” [Thesis 22].
III. Being crucified with Christ (Theses 19-24):
The extinguishing of the fallen will requires “seeing what a thing is” (including God and oneself), which in turn requires revelation, not Scholastic-like speculation [Thesis 21]. For example, theologians of glory have a tendency of extrapolating ideas about the invisible attributes of God from visible creation [Thesis 19]. Consequently their God tends to be just like them: reasonable, caring, and just; and their anthropocentric apologetics thus tries to “explain away the problem of objectionable attributes” that seem to infringe on human freedom and responsibility (73-4). But as Forde states, “such pious speech simply robs God of the right to be God” (91). This includes God’s right, as Luther boldly puts it elsewhere, to be the devil [LW 14.31] (90). Because of humanity’s fallen tendency to try and dictate and distort who God is and how God must act, God has seen fit not to reveal God’s unveiled self to humanity. Instead, as Forde brilliantly unpacks, God has chosen to be revealed only in the “visible and manifest [posteriora or “hindparts” cf. Exodus 33:18f] things”, specifically, in the crucified Christ [Thesis 20] (78). In a key interpretive (and in my view, correct) move hinging on Galatians 2:19 (nowhere mentioned in the Heidelberg Disputation), Forde asserts that people come to know God truly when they identify themselves with the crucified Christ [cf. Thesis 24 proof] (90). Such identification renders us passive (lit. suffering) through “God’s alien work of killing, afflicting, and bringing down to hell before [G]od does his proper work of making alive, comforting, and raising to new life” (90). This process of being painfully humbled by God at the cross presupposes one’s union with Christ at
IV. Sacramental work of Christ (Theses 25-28):
Luther concludes that God’s righteousness creates human works and not vice versa [Thesis 27]. The order is key for Luther because only when the works “flow from righteousness” and are done not to become righteous can one do good works without boasting in oneself (cf. Two Kinds of Righteousness, LW 31:298). Forde insightfully reinforces this point by noting the sacramental language in Thesis 27 (“Christ must first be a sacrament for us before he can be an example”, 112). In sum, what the cross has changed in regards to works is the motive (love of God rather than fear of law, Thesis 27), origin (God rather than self, Thesis 25), and telos (God’s glory rather one’s own).
Forde seems to have an overriding concern for preserving God’s sovereignty whether it be in matters of salvation, worship, or the presence of suffering. Thus Forde has a palpable disdain for anything that might undermine that sovereignty. This is evident in his comments on the “saccharine love piety” and “positive thinking” of much contemporary churches, which he finds contrary to the humbling fear of God in Thesis 7 (42). Forde also objects to the presumptuous theodicies that seek to “justify” God by robbing God’s right to enact suffering without having to explain God’s self (91). However, here Forde’s analysis of suffering in general distracts him from Luther’s more specific focus on suffering at the cross vis-à-vis Galatians 2:19. Also, Forde focuses much attention on the free will objection (i.e., it would be unfair to hold people responsible for their sins without any active capacity of free will on their part, 58) even though this objection is only briefly alluded to in Thesis 15. Because of his heavy emphasis on sovereignty, Forde seems to have read Luther’s more lengthy discussion on this topic in De servo arbitrio (1525) back into the Heidelberg Disputation (1518).
Forde demonstrates the possibility of applying Luther’s theology and methodology to current manifestations of robbing God’s right to be God in a way that enlightens how Luther deftly handled similar theological challenges in his own day. Forde’s work also serves as a warning of the dangers of mistaking one’s own theological problems as those of the historical figure. Fortunately Forde minimizes this danger by usually specifying in the footnotes the historical basis for his remarks thereby distinguishing them from his contemporarized analysis (e.g., p. 18 when he uses Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death in his diagnosis of the theology of glory).