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Luther’s Revolt Against Biel and the Via Moderna

Martin Luther is the subject of the latest issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Contributors include Stephen Wellum, Gary Steward, Robert Kolb, R. Scott Clark, Herman Selderhuis, Michael Haykin, Ray Van Neste, Carl Trueman, David VanDrunen, and many others. Executive editor of Credo Magazine, Matthew Barrett, has contributed an article titled, “Can is Bird Fly? Repositioning the Genesis of the Reformation on Martin Luther’s Early Polemic against Gabriel Biel’s Covenantal, Voluntarist Doctrine of Justification.”

Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by GraceOwen on the Christian LifeGod’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scriptureand Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently, he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at

Here is an excerpt from his article:

Martin Luther’s theological education was birthed out of the womb of the via moderna. While Luther was no doubt influenced by a variety of professors, one of them was John Nathin. Scott H. Hendrix believes Nathin was a student of Biel himself, or at least a student who encountered Biel’s teaching firsthand. It was at Tübingen that Nathin completed his doctoral degree and it is most probable that Nathin listened to Biel’s lectures.

When Luther studied under Nathin, Nathin assigned to Luther Biel’s commentary on the canon of the mass. Like his teacher, Luther absorbed Biel’s soteriology in the process. So influential was Biel via Nathin that when Luther started lecturing on the Psalms (1513-1515), it was Biel’s soteriological assumptions that rose to the surface. For instance, Luther writes, “The doctors rightly say that, when people do their best, God infallibly gives grace. This cannot be understood as meaning that this preparation for grace is de condigno [meritorious], as they are incomparable, but it can be regarded as de congruo on account of this promise of God and the covenant (pactum) of mercy.” Yet Luther wraps quod in se est within the voluntarist framework as well: “Righteousness (iustitia) is thus said to be rendering to each what is due to them. Yet equity is prior to righteousness, and is its prerequisite. Equity identifies merit; righteousness renders rewards. Thus the Lord judged the world ‘in equity’ (that is, wishing all to be saved), and judges ‘in righteousness’ (because God renders to each their reward).”

Progressively, sometimes slowly, Luther started to take issue with Biel, a turn that would occur as Luther transitioned from lecturing on the Psalms to lecturing on Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517), and Hebrews (1517-1518). His lectures at the University of Wittenberg on Romans are the first of the three to signal a shift. The via moderna is not spoken of as favorably as before as Luther sounds considerably more Augustinian. The sinner is not active in the via moderna sense—doing his best or doing what lies within—but passive in the reception of divine grace.

Any hostility to the via moderna that remained in seed form in the years 1515-1516 reached its full potential by 1517. Luther went from skeptical to critical, believing the via moderna soteriology he had been fed was not only incompatible with a Pauline anthropology and soteriology but the root cause of his frustrations with the late medieval system. Although Franz Günther was to defend a set of theses that year as a requirement to earning his bachelor degree, it was Luther who wrote the theses for public appearance at the University of Wittenberg. These theses, which now bear the title Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, were presented on September 4, 1517. Grimm observes that they must have “grew out of” Luther’s “commentary on the first book of Aristotle’s Physics,” which he wrote for the purpose of “dethroning the god of the scholastics.” …

Read Dr. Barrett’s entire article in the latest issue of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is the author of Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Baker), coming this March (2021). He is the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. He is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Canon, Covenant and Christology; None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God; and God’s Word Alone.

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