Augustine Contra Aristotle: The Stimulus for Martin Luther’s Vision for Reform

It is often believed, especially among Roman Catholics, that Martin Luther, and the Reformation that he inspired, set in opposition the individual’s conscience and interpretation of Scripture against the authority of the Catholic Church. Who did Luther think he was, standing against 1500 years of church history and tradition for the sake of his personal innovations? While this reconstruction of Luther’s stance certainly lends itself to anti-Protestant apologetics, it does not present an accurate account of what actually happened.

The late Heiko Oberman, who was a noted professor of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation history at the University of Arizona, demonstrated from the primary source texts that Luther (misconstruals of his famous speech at the Diet of Worms aside) did not argue in this fashion. As reflected in many of Luther’s early statements, the primary stimulus behind his proposed theological reforms did not arise from “his own personal interpretation of Scripture” versus that of the Church, but rather from St. Augustine’s AN4344_AL948_AL266-AM039_500winterpretation of Scripture versus that of the medieval scholastics who had allowed Aristotelian philosophy to impinge upon their exegetical and doctrinal conclusions.

In other words, the Reformation did not begin as “Luther contra the Church” but “Luther with Augustine contra Aristotle and the scholastics”. Luther lodged his protest, not against 1500 years of church history, but against the Aristotelian encroachments that had recently (relative to Luther’s time) contaminated the Church’s theology and practice. Luther discovered in Augustine a more accurate and reliable interpreter of Scripture than the Aristotle of the scholastics, and it was this discovery that, combined with his university training in the via moderna nominalism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel, led him to propose a program of reform aimed at driving Aristotle out of the Church and repristinating the Great Tradition mediated through Augustine. As we will see below, Luther could even refer to his position as a “reformed via moderna” in contrast to the via antiqua represented by Thomas Aquinas. Oberman writes:

The name of Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church Fathers, is the first definite clue to Luther’s development…. [T]he comments that he wrote in the margins of [his copy of Augustine’s works] in 1509 prove that by studying Augustine he had discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle, and had begun to work out a theological position of his own. The marginal notes do not yet register all the implications of the contrast; they probably only dawned on him gradually. Not until the great disputation against scholastic theology in September 1517 was this early interest in Augustine to bear fruit. That was where the battle cry “contra Modernos,” “contra Aristotelem,”— against the moderns, against Aristotle—could be heard. But the early notes on Augustine already point out the confusion that arises when the boundaries between scholarship and wisdom, between human speculation and divine revelation, are no longer respected. Then theology and philosophy suffer: “Augustine can even use reason to prove that the whole of philosophy is meaningless. Imagine what that means!”

[I]in the 1509-10 winter semester in Erfurt, Luther annotated Augustine’s two most extensive late works, De Trinitate (The Trinity) and De Civitate Dei (The City of God), about the inner nature of God and the history of the Church. These comments, too, end in critical dismay: “I find it more than astonishing that our scholars can so brazenly claim that Aristotle does not contradict Catholic truth.” Luther immediately integrated what he read in Augustine into the survey lectures in theology he was preparing at the same time. He inveighed against the scholastic doctors, using the Holy Scriptures more pointedly and systematically than had hitherto been the case. Philosophy can never grasp man’s true nature, namely that he is God’s creature. It cannot comprehend the meaning of the biblical definition of the soul as “the image of God” (Gen. 1.27): “There I rely on Scripture against all rational arguments and say with Paul: If an angel—that means a Doctor of the Church—descended from heaven and taught differently, he should be damned.”

What an unknown monk in an inconspicuous monastic cell in Erfurt was committing to paper here would one day lead him to the historic pronouncement on the political stage of the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, God help me, amen”—a statement that was not an affirmation of himself but an expression of his loyalty to the Scriptures, a loyalty conducive from the very start to generating clashes, even with the authorities. Even if an emperor came down from heaven!

The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastics. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own. The question is not as ridiculous as the answer: as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures: “Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation”—unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven years later “against the whole of scholasticism”: “The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light.” Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology’s great authority int he course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine: God is the “prime mover”; the soul, as “form,” determines the human being; justification takes place through the “infusion” of “the power of grace”; the sacrament of the mass transforms the “substance” of bread and wine; man is “free” to decide between good and evil. Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509: all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven. Quesitons of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all. The temptation—or compulsion—to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic. When God is silent, man should not speak; and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together….

Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete, who, since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle. The alternative is clear: whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God’s Word or is pure fantasy. As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle: Scripture was being violated by philosophy…. Thus the year 1509 prepared the way for an unusual medieval alliance between Augustinianism and nominalism. Before Luther recognized the Church Father as a fighter against the “enemies of God’s grace” and came to appreciate him as a reliable interpreter of the apostle Paul, the nominalistically trained magister could already welcome him as an ally in the battle against philosophy overstepping its bounds….

Luther laid his exegetical foundations in his first lectures on the Psalms and continued to perfect his interpretations throughout his life. As a good nominalist he first concentrated on the manner of expression characteristic of Scriptures; this enabled him to acquire a grasp of their particular subject matter on the basis of linguistic usage and obviated the alien mediation of Greek philosophy. His criticism of scholasticism did not culminate in the common reproach that its line of argument was too formal, logical, or dialectical. What made his own tradition suspect to him was its belief that Aristotle’s philosophy offered a timeless, comprehensive system of interpretation that even provided a key to the Scriptures. But the Holy Ghost has His own language; one must become His student, learn to spell, and then, going out from the individual word, gradually acquire the whole vocabulary….

One of the Saxon princes once asked Luther to explain what the well-known scholastic “ways” or schools and the “school conflict” were actually about. Luther provided him with a very lucid answer, not missing the opportunity to interpret the “way” of Wittenberg as a reformed “via moderna.” What linked the “terminists,” the old and new nominalists, was attentiveness to linguistic usage.

“Terminists” was the name of one sect of the university to which I, too, belonged. They take a stand against the Thomists, Scotists, Martin_Luther_and_friends_study_the_Bible_1and Albertists, and were also called Occamists after Occam, their founder…. But your Princely Highness must [know]: in these matters those men are called terminists who speak of a thing in terminis propriis [appropriate terms] and do not interpret words in an alien and wild way; and in this way it is called reality speaking of the thing. When I speak to a carpenter, I must use his terms, namely angle bar and not crooked bar, axe and not hatchet. So one should also leave the words of Christ alone speak of the sacrament in suis terminis [his terms], ut “hoc facite” [as “that does”] should not mean “sacrificate” [sacrifice], item “corpus” [likewise, “body”] cannot mean “of both kinds,” as they now torment the words and want to stray from the clear text.

But becoming a “modern” terminist is only one side of translating. First one must become a student of the Holy Spirit and listen with care to His language. Despite all the differences between the Old and New Testaments, between the Evangelists Luke and John, between Paul and Peter, the Holy Scriptures are homogeneous in that they testify to the God who is unknown to philosophers. What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?

The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just “Aristotle” or “scholasticism.” Since the fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.

Even before Luther mastered Greek he took pains to determine the sense of certain key words like “spirit,” “strength,” or “repentance” in Greek. As laborious as the work was, the only way he could get to the core of the New Testament was by cutting through the historico-philosophical and -legal tradition that had for centuries been linked with the Latin “spiritus,” “virtus,” or “poenitentia.” He discovered the verbal structure typical of the Hebrew language: when the Old Testament speaks of “the Word of the Lord,” an action, namely the action accomplished by the Word, is implied at the same time.

The great linguistic event of his time, the rediscovery of the original biblical languages, provided the means to probe the Vulgate and take the first steps toward modern Bible scholarship. Luther seized the opportunity as soon as it arose: the moment Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament became available in Wittenberg in the middle of the summer semester of 1516, he immediately set about familiarizing himself with this new tool, so shocking for Latin-oriented Christians…. Scholars may, and must, argue about whether humanistic or nominalistic impulses were at work here. But Luther’s conviction that the Scriptures contained something radicaly new and contradictory to man’s expectations indisputably went far beyond either of the two movements….

“Today you have the Bible,” source of life, God’s original testimony, and thus both foundation and standard of all ecclesiastical authorities, be they Church Fathers, councils, popes, or learned doctors. Scirpture and Church belong together, but not as though the Scriptures were the letter and the teaching Church the spirit that breathes life into it. The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church. The Scriptures reveal the Word. But that is precisely why they are not the book of truths that might constitute a complete, irrefutable textbook of theology, and why they do not need any further truths added, for example, in the form of new dogmas. The Bible contains only one truth, but it is the decisive one: “that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for the sake of our sins, and was resurrected for the sake of our righteousness.”

Whether from a medieval or a modern perspective, this is a revolutionary reduction and concentration of faith. Comprehensive medieval systems and remarkable speculative models of the modern age seem to know far more and have far more to say about God than the Scriptures. Luther’s reply to Erasmus applies to both: “Through the Crucified One, the Christian knows everything he has to know, but he now also knows what he cannot know.” Concentrating on Christ crucified was directed against the tangle of medieval theology and was at the same time an attempt to reunite what the foundation of the theological faculties at the universities had divided. [Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), 158-161, 169-172]

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