Monday, October 03, 2005

Reflections on Luther's Novel Soteriology

A. Ludwig Ott

"While Pelagius denied the supernatural endowment of man, Luther, who strained the doctrine of St. Augustine beyond its proper limits, made grace an essential constituent part of human nature. By its loss human nature was entirely corrupted, as its essential constituent parts were taken away and concupiscence, in which, according to Luther, original sin consists, has ever since ruled man. In Luther's view, therefore: fallen man is, of his own proper power, incapable of achieving knowledge of religious truth, or of performing morally good actions; Man's will is no longer free, and of itself can do nothing but sin; Grace is not capable of saving or intrinsically renewing and sanctifying human nature, since this is fully and entirely vitiated. What justification effects is merely an external covering of man's sinful state but man himself remains unchanged intrinsically. Man's will is purely passive and does not co-operate with grace, grace alone performing the work of justification . . .

"The subjective condition of Justification is fiducial faith, that is, the confidence of man, which is associated with the certainty of salvation, that the merciful God will forgive him his sins for Christ's sake." (pp. 223, 250)

B. Hartmann Grisar

Commentary on Romans (1515-1516)

"The Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans really represents the first taking shape of Luther's heretical views. From the very beginning he expresses some of them without
concealment . . .

"Luther endeavours to show how imputed righteousness is the principle doctrine advocated by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans . . .

"Luther cannot assure us sufficiently often that man is nothing but sin, and sins in everything. His reason is that concupiscence remains in man after baptism . . . Original sin is not removed by baptism, remains obdurate to all subsequent justifying grace, and, until death, can, at the utmost, only be diminished. He says expressly, quite against the Church's teaching, that original sin is only covered over in baptism, and he tries to support this by a misunderstood text from Augustine and by misrepresenting Scholasticism.

"Augustine teaches with clearness and precision in many passages that original sin is blotted out by baptism and entirely remitted; Luther, however, quotes him to the opposite effect . . .

"[Luther]: `As we cannot keep God's commandments we are really always in unrighteousness, and therefore there remains nothing for us but to fear and to beg for remission of the unrighteousness, or rather that it may not be imputed, for it is never altogether remitted, but remains and requires the act of non-imputation . . .'

"He says that the philosophers of olden time had to be damned, although they may have been virtuous from their very inmost soul, because they had at least experienced some self-satisfaction in their virtue, and, in consequence of the sinfulness of nature, must necessarily have succumbed to sinful love of self . . .

"But what place is given to the virtues of the righteous in Christianity? . . . Even when we `do good, we sin' (`bene operando peccamus'), so runs his paradoxical thesis; `but Christ covers over what is wanting and does not impute it.' And why do we always sin in doing good? `Because owing to concupiscence and sensuality we do not perform the good with the intensity and purity of intention which the law demands, i.e., not with all our might (Lk 10:27), the desires of the flesh being too strong.' The Church, on the other hand, teaches that good works done in the state of sanctifying grace are pleasing to God in spite of concupiscence, which, it is true, remains after baptism and after the blotting out of original sin which ensued, but which is not sinful so long as there is no consent to its enticements . . .

"He already denies the merit of good works. `It is clear,' he writes, `that according to substance and nature venial sin does not exist, and that there is no such thing as merit.' All sins, in his opinion, are mortal, because even the smallest contains the deadly poison of concupiscence. With regard to merit, according to him, even `the saints have no merit of their own, but only Christ's merits . . . If it might be done unpunished and there were no expectation of reward, then even the good man would omit the good and do evil like the bad.' . . .

"All the new doctrines we have passed in review may be regarded as forerunners of the great revolution soon to come . . .

"The views formerly current with regard to the origin of Luther's struggle against the old Church were due to an insufficient knowledge of history . . . It was said that the Church's teaching on Indulgences, and the practices of the . . . Indulgence-preachers first brought Luther into antagonism with the Church authorities and then gradually entangled him more and more in the great struggle regarding other erroneous teachings and usages. As a matter of fact, the question of Indulgences was raised only subsequent to Luther's first great departures from the Church's doctrine.

"Then it was said that the far-seeing teacher of Wittenberg had from the very first directed his attention to the reformation of the whole Church, which he found sunk in abuses, and had therefore commenced with a doctrinal reform as a necessary preliminary . . . but the Doctor of Holy Scripture was, as a matter of fact, far more preoccupied with the question of the theology of Paul and Augustine than with the abuses in the Church and outer world, which were, to tell the truth, very remote from the Monk's cell and lecture-room . . .

"Luther's new opinions on doctrine . . . originated quite apart from any attempt at external reform of the Church, and were equally remote from the idea of breaking away from the Pope or of proclaiming freedom of belief or unbelief, though many have fancied that these were Luther's first aims . . ." (Grisar: Vol.1: 94, 98, 100-102, 104-106)

"He was to say to Melanchthon in 1536: `Born of God and at the same time a sinner: this is a contradiction; but in the things of God we must not hearken to reason' (1). His Commentary on Romans prepares us for his later assertions: `The gospel is a teaching having no connection whatever with reason, whereas the teaching of the law can be understood by reason . . . reason cannot grasp an extraneous righteousness' (2) . . . `The enduring sin is admitted by God as non-existent; one and the same act may be accepted before God and not accepted, be good and not good . . . Whoever terms this mere cavilling is desirous of measuring the Divine by purblind human reason and understands nothing of Holy Scripture' (3) . . .

"`God cannot be possessed or touched except by the negation of everything that is in us. Then only are we capable of receiving God's works and plans, when our planning and our works cease; when we are altogether passive with regard to God interiorly as well as exteriorly.' . . .

"`If men willed what God wills, even though He should will to damn and reject them, they would see no evil in that [in the predestination to hell which he teaches]; for, as they will what God wills, they have, owing to their resignation, the will of God in them.' Does he mean by this that they should resign themselves to hating God for all eternity? Luther does not seem to notice that hatred of God is an essential part of the condition of those who are damned . . .

"He even dares to say to those who are affrighted by predestination to hell, that resignation to eternal punishment is, for the truly wise, a source of `ineffable joy' . . .

"According to Luther, even Christ offered Himself for hell whole and entire . . . `He actually and in truth offered Himself to the eternal Father to be consigned to eternal damnation for us. His human nature did not behave differently from that of a man who is to be condemned eternally to hell. On account of this love of God, God at once raised Him from death and hell, and so He overcame hell (4).'" (Vol.1: 216-217, 221-222, 238-240)

Commentary on Galatians (1516-17)

"He continued to rifle St. Augustine's writings for passages which were apparently favourable to his views . . . He certainly did not allow himself sufficient time to appreciate properly the profound teachings of this, the greatest Father of the Church, and best authority on grace and justification. Even Protestant theologians now admit that he quoted Augustine where the latter by no means agrees with him. His own friends and contemporaries, such as Melanchthon, for instance, admitted the contradiction existing between Luther's ideas and those of St. Augustine on the most vital points; it was, however, essential that this Father of the Church, so Melanchthon writes to one of his confidantes, should be cited as in `entire agreement' on account of the high esteem in which he was generally held (5). Luther himself was, consciously or unconsciously, in favour of these tactics; he tampered audaciously with the text of the Doctor of the Church in order to extract from his writings proofs favourable to his own doctrine; or at the very least, trusting to his memory, he made erroneous citations, when it would have been easy for him to verify the quotations at their source . . .

"In his expositions of the Epistle to the Galatians, Luther's antagonism to the Catholic doctrine of Works, Justification and Original Sin is carried further than in any other of his exegetical writings, until, indeed, it verges on the paradoxical . . .

"He goes so far in speaking of faith and grace . . . as to brand the most sublime and holy works, namely, prayer and meditation, as `idolatry' unless performed in accordance with the only true principle of faith, viz. with his doctrine regarding justification by faith alone." (Vol.1: 305-307, 309)

Heidelberg Disputation (1518)

"`The mercy of God consists in this, that He has patience with us in spite of our sins and graciously accepts our works and our life notwithstanding their complete worthlessness . . . All
that a man does is the work of the devil, of sin, of darkness and foolishness.'" (Vol.1: 319 / 6)

Luther's New Doctrine of Justification

"This Evangel, Luther's consoling doctrine, as a matter of fact was simply the record of his own inner past, the most subjective doctrine assuredly that ever sought to enlist followers. As we know, it is already found entire in his Commentary on Romans of 1515-1516 . . .

"It was only in 1518-1519 that he developed the doctrine of the so-called `special faith,' by which the individual assures himself of pardon and secures salvation. Thereby he transformed faith into trust, for what he termed fiducial faith partook more of the nature of a strong, artificially stimulated hope; it really amounted to an intense confidence that the merits of Christ obliterated every sin . . .

"In order to supply a suitable background for his new doctrine, Luther made out Catholic antiquity to have fostered both in theory and in practice a craven fear, of which in reality it knew nothing at all. By excluding the elements of trust and love, he reduced Catholic life to the merest state of fear, as though this had actually been the sphere in which it moved; he charges it with having cultivated that servile fear which would at once commit sin were there no penalty attached . . .

"Luther's attitude here was as ambiguous as elsewhere . . . Everywhere we meet with contradictions, which make it almost impossible to furnish any connected description of his
doctrinal system." (Vol.4: 432, 456-457)

SOURCES
Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, translated by Patrick Lynch, edited by James Canon Bastible, 4th edition, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1974 (first published in German in 1952).

Hartmann Grisar, Luther, translated by E.M. Lamond; edited by Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917.

FOOTNOTES

1. Martin Luther, Martin, Table Talk, ed. K.E. Forstemann, Leipzig: 1848, vol. 2, 148.
2. Martin Luther, Exegetical Works in Latin, Erlangen: 1829, vol. 23, 160.
3. Martin Luther, Werke (Works), Weimar: 1883, vol. 2, 420 (from the year 1519).
4. This and other quotes from Luther: Commentary on Romans (1515-16), from edition by J. Ficker, Leipzig: 1908 / This quote: 218 ff.
5. Letter: Melanchthon to Brenz, May 1531; Luther's Correspondence, edited by L. Enders, Frankfurt: 1907, vol. 9, 18 ff.
6. Luther, Werke, vol. 1, 371, 374.

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