Luther’s Revolution

For those just joining, I’m doing a blog series on Christian paradigms using the paradigm framework established by Thomas Kuhn. In an earlier post, I explained the phases in paradigms—pre-paradigmatic phase, normal, crisis, and revolution. The first blog post gives an overview of Kuhn’s paradigms as it applies to science and how I connected his framework to Christianity. The second looks at the pre-paradigmatic phase of Christianity, and the third examines the crisis that led to the Protestant Reformation. Today I am continuing the series with the revolution phase of paradigms as it applies to the Protestant paradigm.

The Revolution Begins

In Kuhn’s framework when anomalies within a paradigm arise, they are usually resolved in time through further research and testing. When anomalies continue to grow beyond what scientists are able to solve within their shared framework of background knowledge, a crisis erupts, leading to the edge of a new world of ideas, thus creating a revolution and the beginning of a new paradigm. Excluding the scientific methods of testing hypotheses and replicable experiments, this general structure is in view when examining other disciplines, including the religion of Christianity. A hundred years after the crisis noted by the pre-Reformers Wycliffe and Hus, the revolution begins.

During this turmoil of ecclesiastical abuse, Martin Luther, a young German monk nailed ninety-five discussion points to a church door on the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517 and sent copies to the archbishop and bishop over Wittenburg’s jurisdiction. In caring for the church and those under his care, he sought to open a dialogue for an academic debate regarding the selling of indulgences for the laity to lessen their time in purgatory. He viewed these indulgences as being theological, pastoral, and economic abuses. Luther did not intend to start a political or religious revolution. It would be more appropriate to think of him as pointing out issues with “normal religion,” with the hope to restore the church to its original teachings.

Luther’s Gestalt Shift

Before that infamous day in 1517, Luther went through his own crisis of trying to please God through penance and good works. Through his reading of works by Augustine and by  nominalists who taught that the will of God was the sole basis of salvation, Luther became convinced that salvation was grounded solely in God’s mercy and absolute faith in His promises and not of anyone’s works. Luther’s gestalt shift was in seeing salvation as completely an act of God, which became the new lens for how he studied the Bible. Luther began to teach that in faith, Christians act out of love towards God and their fellow man, not to obtain salvation but because salvation has already been procured, and faith working righteousness into the Christian is what enables them to do righteous works. Roman Catholic theology taught that love is the most important of all virtues and that it binds man to God and that the other virtues follow from it. Luther taught that faith is what unites man to God and that love flows from faith. Through faith, Luther taught that Christians have “Christ’s own righteousness imputed to us and, in faith, enter into a lively union with Him.” The teaching in the Roman Catholic paradigm that God infuses grace into a person as an aid to surpass what is in their natural power became absurd to Luther because any mention of merit with justification denied the sufficiency of Christ’s redeeming work in man. As such, man is justified by faith alone apart from his own works because he is completely dependent on God for forgiveness and for working righteousness in him.

The Core of the Paradigm

Sola Fide became a central theme in the Protestant paradigm as part of the Five Solae—Salvation is by grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Christ alone(Solus Christus), according to Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), for the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). These five statements provide the framework and sum up the heart of the Protestant paradigm. The most fundamental difference between the Catholic and Protestant paradigms lies in the sufficiency of Christ. His Word is sufficient. His grace is sufficient. The faith that He grants is sufficient. Christ alone is sufficient for salvation and as the high priest of His church.

Regarding scientific paradigms, Kuhn wrote, “Though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis.” I have come across Lutherans who deny being Protestants and correctly point out that Luther did not set out to create a denomination separate from the Roman Catholic Church. While Luther’s initial intent was to create a dialogue to discuss the abuses in the Church and to see the Church of Rome reformed, Luther, like scientists in his same position, eventually renounced the paradigm because of the crisis, even though he at first hesitated to do so. For the emerging Protestant movement, Luther’s lens was better than the more conventional understanding because he recognized the sufficiency of Christ and His Word in all matters relating to the church and Christian life. Those creating the new paradigm do not have designs on thwarting the old system but simply to add to it, shed new light, or even overhaul it. It is only later through the lens of history that we can see the shift from one paradigm to another.

I am tempted to go more in depth into both the history of Protestantism spreading and the debates that it engendered and the philosophical connections between scientific and religious paradigms, but I must remember that this is a blog and not a journal. Because of that, I will pause here and wrap up this series Friday with a discussion of Luther’s influence on Calvin.

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