Luther, and the beginnings of Protestantism


Because, for some reason when I wanted to write a blog post, Luther was the first person to spring to mind…..

Luther is a theologian that I am generally inclined to like.  He may be inconsistent at times, often angry, and at points frankly unreasonable, but there’s something interesting and exciting about his self-conscious attempt to say something different about the doctrine of justification.  And I like him because he is a Reformer for whom it is clear that the need for reform is driven by a theological motive, for all the problematic consequences this had.  Luther may have started on a campaign against indulgences and corruption, yet he is determined that there is a more fundamental issue with the church and the theology it had endorsed.  Church corruption is a consequence not the cause; the root is the doctrine of justification.  I find the question of what was really distinctive about Luther’s doctrine an interesting one, so would like to lay down some of my impressions, and hope to hear the views of others.  There’s also a broader historical question of how these ideas influence the later development of doctrines of justification, Protestant and Catholic.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why Luther’s views represent something distinctive within the rich and varied thought world of Medieval Theology.  One thing that seems fairly clear is that Luther’s idea that he is standing out against a tradition that has near universally fallen into Pelagianism is inaccurate.  Plenty of Medieval figures took a strongly anti-pelagian line, insisting that salvation was purely dependent on God’s grace.  One of the clearest examples is Gregory of Rimini, whom Luther does acknowledge as a sort of exception, but he was not alone in the Medieval tradition.  Figures like Bradwardine and Von Staupitz hold such strong doctrines of predestination that they cannot really accord man a role in the order of salvation.  And the likes of Lombard and Thomas Aquinas also accord a strong prevenient role to divine grace, seeing any disposition for justification as itself the gift of grace, in line with a strongly Augustinian account of the Fall and redemption.  Even those that Luther deems to be the worst Pelagians: Ockham, Biel and the Nominalists could only fairly be described as semi-pelagian at most (though that’s a topic for another post).

What was the difference, if not the insistence that we are fully reliant on God’s grace?  There are a few places to look.  One is Luther’s account of the Christian who has been justified, and in particular his assertion that we can simultaneously be both sinners and justified.  It’s unclear how to interpret this: in some sense it seems to make the obvious point that even after God’s grace at baptism, the Christian continues to struggle with sin.  It’s an issue for all accounts of salvation to make sense of the gap between future perfection and present reality, and one to which Augustine was very much attuned (following Paul), insisting that concupiscence continues to plague the Christian.  Romans 7 becomes important, with Paul’s description of the conflicted state of the human being who wants to do right but cannot. Augustine originally read this as referring to those still under the law, yet later he instead reads it as the testimony of Paul himself, reflecting the experience of the justified Christian.  Despite continued struggle, the Christian is given the tools to fight sin through divine grace, whilst having confidence in God’s continued mercy in forgiveness of post-baptismal sin.

For Luther, the situation is a little different because his emphasis is on the fact that the sinner is accepted, and must have faith that they are accepted, without doing anything or being transformed.  Justification is a divine verdict, from which faith follows directly, and works follow upon faith.  Heiko Oberman describes this as the coincidence of the iustitia dei and the iustitia christi: meaning roughly that, rather than being granted grace in order to perform the meritorious acts or undergo the transformation required for salvation, the Christian is simply made or counted  just in their original state.  Of course, the Christian will then go on to be transformed in the Spirit and do lots of good works etc, but this should not be taken as a requirement for salvation/ the basis of justification.  Rather, it is something that one is made free to do in the life of faith.  The state of a human being is prior to acts, and it is the state with which Luther is concerned, though he acknowledges that divine acceptance will lead to good acts: “we are not made righteous by performing righteous deeds; but when we have been made righteous we effect righteous deeds”.  The traditional Augustinian picture would place a higher value on freewill and merit in the Christian life after baptism, whilst acknowledging the presence of concupiscence, in the work of perfecting the individual.

And this leads on to another claim that Oberman picks out as distinctive to Luther’s doctrine: the opposition of law and gospel.  Christ is not a legislator: a view sharply opposed to the convenental theology both of the Nominalists and many later Protestants.  It is not that Christ gives us extra powers in order that we can do the things that are required of us, or to do them in the right way, but rather that God in Christ accepts (some) human beings apart from any requirements of the law whether Mosaic or moral.  Luther was concerned by the regulated obligations associated with religious life as he knew it, and sought a conception of God who simply saved on basis of His own mercy in Christ.  His accounts of his own experience and personal realisation that justification is through faith reveal an individual search for a God that is merciful, and concern over his own state of sinfulness.  He sees a form of human freedom in the very denial that humans have a role to play in their own salvation, for only in this way could we trust instead in the much firmer and better established merits of Christ.  And it is here that lies the motivation for the idea of justification by faith, and faith as a form of psychological certainty (an idea that will become crucial in particular to later Calvinist thought).

The emphasis on faith is what I see as one of the primary problems with Luther’s insights, particularly as developed in the later tradition: faith turns into a sort of psychological conviction in one’s own salvation.  In his treatise “On good works”, Luther argues that faith is the greatest of works, where the sinner must overcome all their intuitions of their own worthlessness and have full confidence that they are accepted by God.  Yet, to have such faith is purely a gift of grace, not something that we can ourselves work for.  Seeing where Luther is coming from, it makes some sense, for he wants to seek God beyond the regulated structures and expectations of 16th century monastic life.  It does feel like the recovery of an insight that Christ came to free us from the law by grace, and that before the throne of divine justice the Christian puts their trust in Christ Himself, not what Christ has made them.  However, too easily it turns into a requirement and criteria for who is a real Christian, ignoring the very real phenomenon of self-doubt and uncertainty in the life of faith.  What Luther sees as a comforting and liberating thought often turns out for later Protestants to be an oppressive test, to know that one is saved.  There seem to be plenty of interpretations of the Pauline concept of justification by faith that do not draw on this personal certainty, and Luther seems to have relatively thin ground for seeing this sort of certainty as a requirement for the genuine Christian life.  And for all the talk of certainty, Luther’s personal experience of faith seems to have been far from smooth: one comfort is that he appears to have understood spiritual despair, yet some of what he says only burdens further those in such a place.



See Heiko Oberman’s essay on Iustiai dei and Iustitia Christi in the collection “The Dawn of the Reformation”, which is an attempt to locate the distinctive Luther (and some of the others- the one on Holcot and Luther, and somewhere there’s a comparison with Staupitz).  Also, I find his biography of Luther  (Luther: Man between God and the devil) a fascinating picture.



One thought on “Luther, and the beginnings of Protestantism

  1. Emily – thanks very much for this. I’m fascinated by Luther and am always keen to hear more of what people think of him. My first question (of many potential ones) is, how do you see justification and the sacraments connected in Luther’s theology? What’s the role of Baptism, the Eucharist and Absolution in Luther’s theology according to your reading?


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