By Michael J. Scanlon, O.S.A., S.T.D., '6O
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
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
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
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
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.
The 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.