Martin Luther: the Separated "Son" of Augustine
By Michael J. Scanlon, O.S.A., S.T.D., '60
Editor's Note: One of Augustine's most brilliant spiritual and intellectual "sons" was the German Augustinian, Martin Luther. It is through Luther, some say, that Augustine can be said to be the father of the Reformation or even the father of Protestantism. In recent months, both the religious and secular press have reported that dialogue between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches has reached a new level of understanding, particularly on the issue of justification.
The Rev. Michael J. Scanlon, holder of the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Christian Theology, consented to contribute this article to explain some aspects of Luther's theology and his enormous contribution to universal Christian thought.
Martin Luther became an Augustinian friar in 1505. Later he taught at the newly founded University of Wittenberg as professor of scripture. His study of the Bible, the influence of Augustine and late medieval German mysticism, along with his own experience of the religious life, led him to see an analogy between the religion of his day and the Judaism St. Paul had relinquished. The Pauline doctrine of justification by faith became for Luther the touchstone of reform.
Public controversy, sparked by his 95 Theses (1517), led quickly to a break between Luther and the Catholic Church. Justification by faith alone implied for Luther the freedom of the Christian to dispense with a priestly system mediating between people and God. Marriage of the clergy, restoration of the chalice to the laity, the translation of the Scriptures to the vernacular all pointed to the equality of human beings before God, although, as Luther's opposition to the Peasants' War (1524-25) revealed, this equality had no political consequences. Through his German Bible and hymns, Luther's influence on German religion and the German language has been enormous.
The theological atmosphere that influenced Luther was very confusing. While all of the medieval theologians had affirmed the divine initiative in granting the grace of salvation, the theology Luther received was infected by Nominalism (a problematic form of late medieval philosophy), especially through his teacher, Gabriel Biel.
Interest in the human role in the process of salvation had increased. This interest is evident in the ambiguous interpretations given to the old adage, "God does not deny grace to those who do what is in them." The orthodox interpretation of this adage is that God does not deny further grace to those who do what they can with the grace given to them.
The heretical interpretation of the same adage (a view known as semi-Pelagianism, which was condemned by the Council of Orange in 529 using the later works of Augustine) is that God does not deny grace to those who do what they can on their own. It was this latter, heretical interpretation that Luther received from Biel. The emphasis shifted to what human beings must do to please God, and the "God" of Nominalism was the being of arbitrary omnipotence.
Now this interpretation increased Luther's anxieties because even in the asceticism of the religious life he led as an Augustinian, he could not be sure if he were pleasing to God or not. In his first lectures on the Psalms, Luther blended his later emphasis on "grace alone" along with a subtle semi-Pelagianism. However, in his lectures on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (1515-16), Luther breaks through to the Pauline-Johannine-Augustinian assertion that the fallen person is the slave of sin, for grace alone can save us from egoistic selflove. Without grace, one's natural powers avail only for sin. Indeed Christians sin insofar as they do not act out of faith in Christ. Without faith, the fallen cannot avoid sin by the natural powers alone.
Here, we must be clear on what Luther means by "sin." Luther's view of human nature is relational (not substantialist as in Scholasticism). Human nature becomes corrupt insofar as the divinely willed bonding between God and humans is sundered. So, sin for Luther is alienation from God. Sin does not refer primarily to sinful "acts" but to one's basic condition as turned from God toward one's self. Sin for Luther is primarily "original sin." All human acts flowing from the sinful person are sinful until faith restores the relationship with God, which was ruptured by the fall of Adam. Behind Luther's view is a conviction, inherited from Augustine, that the virtues of the pagans are splendid vices.
In 1517, Luther wrote his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, in which his former teacher Biel bore the brunt of his wrath. Unfortunately, Luther was misled by interpretations of Thomas Aquinas by Biel and others. He thought that Thomas's anthropology was essentially Pelagian, but there is no substantial disagreement between Thomas and Luther on these anthropological issues.
While the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Bible, especially of the Pauline writings, it was even more a rediscovery of Augustine, who had been resurrected in the Renaissance. This was preeminently the case with the young Augustinian Luther lecturing at Wittenberg.
Luther's doctrine of justification was not developed against Roman teaching, for it antedates his violent opposition to everything Roman that emerged following the condemnation of his teaching as heretical on 41 counts by Pope Leo X in the bull, Exsurge Domine, published June 15, 1520.
Luther had reacted against the Dominican John Tetzel (who was preaching on the indulgence to be granted by Leo X for contributions to the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome) by publishing his 95 theses attacking abuses concerning indulgences.
He was opposed on these theses by vested ecclesiastical interests and by several theological faculties. This opposition to Luther focused not just on justification by faith, but also on questions relating to free will; the sinfulness of all good works; the role of contrition, confession and satisfaction in the Sacrament of Penance; the sinfulness of concupiscence; and the worth of indulgences. Increasingly, the debate became linked with the teaching authority of the pope. Luther publicly burned Pope Leo's Exsurge Domine at Wittenberg, and on January 3, 1521, the pope excommunicated him.
For Martin Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith is "the article on which the Church stands or falls." He had been taught that the righteousness (justice) of God was the righteousness whereby God is just and punishes sinners. But how could that be "good news?"
Then he discovered that the righteousness of God, revealed in the Gospel, is a divine gift given to sinners. God is not a harsh judge but a merciful, gracious God who gives us what we can never attain by our own feeble effort. This biblical righteousness is the external or alien justice of Jesus Christ, a justice never our own but always Christ's. Through grace-enabled faith, this justice of Christ is imputed to the sinner, who becomes simultaneously both justified and sinner (simuL justus et peccator).
Here Luther moves away from Augustinian and medieval transformationist models. To avoid the notion of a gradual process of healing and transformation, Luther did not draw a distinction between justification and sanctification. The Lutheran simuL (the Christian is both sinner and justified) is central to his theology.
He described his point in colorful, at times scatological imagery! Ever the passionate preacher and polemical theologian, Luther developed a theology that was essentially rhetorical, given to hyperbole in its attempt to persuade on the basis of experience. Misunderstanding between him and the Scholastic theologians was inevitable.
The Lutheran only's are famous: God only through Christ only (with focus on the Cross) by grace only, received by faith only, disclosed in Scripture only saves sinful humanity. Christ is central because he only reveals the "hidden God." Faith is radical trust in God rather than belief. Luther's theocentrism is Augustinian but his rejection of all transformationist models in describing the Christian is not.
If Roman Catholics recognize an authentically evangelical thrust surging through the more or less adequate formulas of Luther and Reformation anthropology in general, then they must see in it a theology of grace that is a valid complement to their own and other traditional formulations.
Luther was a religious genius and deserving of consideration as a doctor of the Church universal. He accurately theologized the cardinal point of the Christian vision of human existence in its relationship to God at a time when the Catholic hierarchy, caught in the whirlpool of the Renaissance and the real politik of emerging nation states, could not hear him.
he fundamental coherence of Luther's position with Augustine, the Council of Orange and Thomas Aquinas, along with its striking formulation, merit for him pride of place with them in the Western theological tradition. This ecumenical recognition is now evident in recent Catholic publications in Christian anthropology. An excellent illustration of this recognition is work done recently on the differences between Luther and Thomas Aquinas. Needless to say, they are quite different. But while Luther can be described as an "existential" theologian focused on our experience of ourselves as sinners graced through Christ, Thomas can be seen as a "sapiential" theologian focused on God the creator, transforming his creatures into friends.