[W]e now turn to the holy sacraments and their blessings to learn to know their benefits and how to use them. Anyone who is granted the time and the grace to confess, to be absolved, and to receive the sacrament and Extreme Unction before his death has great cause indeed to love, praise, and thank God and to die cheerfully, if he relies firmly on and believes in the sacraments, as we said earlier. In the sacraments your God, Christ himself, deals, speaks, and works with you through the priest…. It follows from this that the sacraments, that is, the external words of God as spoken by a priest, are a truly great comfort and at the same time a visible sign of divine intent…. It points to Christ and his image, enabling you to say when faced by the image of death, sin, and hell, “God promised and in his sacraments he gave me a sure sign of his grace that Christ’s life overcame my death in his death, that his obedience blotted out my sin in his suffering, that his love destroyed my hell in his forsakenness. This sign and promise of my salvation will not lie to me or deceive me. It is God who has promised it, and he cannot lie either in words or in deeds.” –Martin Luther [Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 397-398.]
It is often assumed by Catholics and Protestants alike that Martin Luther’s reformational “discovery” of justification by faith alone grounded in the supreme authority of the Word of God represented a radical innovation within the stream of Western Christianity, almost as though these ideas suddenly struck him ex nihilo, like the famous lightning bolt that initially prompted him to become a monk. Thus, Luther is often depicted as either a heresiarch (by some Catholics) or a genius (by some Protestants). Even though it would be difficult to deny Luther’s intellectual gifts and linguistic skill, such caricatures do not withstand the scrutiny of careful historical research that seeks to interpret Luther within the medieval context and intellectual history to which he belonged. On the Protestant side, perhaps no scholar has demonstrated the significant continuity between medieval scholasticism and Reformation/post-Reformation theology (see for instance his four-volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics). This is not to deny, of course, that fundamental differences and conflicts did emerge. However, profitable discourse between Catholics and Protestants today will not be possible by simply repeating the polemically-charged historiography and categorize-and-dismiss approach to which many of us are heir.
Historical theologian Stephen Strehle helps to do this very thing by reconstructing a contextually-informed account of how Luther arrived at the convictions that fueled his reforming efforts. Although we may quibble with Strehle at certain points, we will nevertheless discover that Luther’s commitment to faith alone and the Word of God alone developed out of the sacrament of penance as conceived by a school of thought rooted deeply in the medieval Catholic tradition. I quote Strehle at length here because it requires a bit of time for him to unfold the argument:
[Martin Luther] often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts… Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were to great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness….
Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament… Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest…. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.
This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther…. While this might not satisfy those scholars who prefer a more specific doctrine of justification and thus a more precise moment of his “turn,” there exists, particularly in his early writings, evolving, not static concepts, and certainly no qualitative leap from darkness into light…. He merely considers his Gospel now complete by the addition of this new element. As Luther says, he “lacked nothing before, except the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” And so, his tower experience is best understood as adding another element to his overall maturation rather than a radical departure from the other aspects of his Gospel already evolved.
There are other testimonies that merit as much attention… One such testimony … refers to a “certain older brother,” who is never mentioned by name but is often credited by Luther and his followers for directing him toward faith and assurance. While Luther was in the midst of his trials at Erfurt in 1507, this brother, it is said, helped to console Luther’s conscience by pointing him to the words of the great symbol, “I believe in the remission of sins.” These words were interpreted by him, not as a general statement of faith or a simple assent to what God can do through his church but were interpreted as a direct command from God to believe that one’s own sins had been forgiven. For confession this meant that the words of absolution spoken by the Priest are to believed as a personal word from God concerning the forgiveness of one’s sins….
Another set of testimonies concerns John Staupitz, Luther’s beloved mentor and vice-general of the Reformed Augustinian Order, who brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508 when he was only twenty-six years old. Luther credits Staupitz with rescuing him from hell, fixing his eyes upon Christ, bringing the light of the Gospel into the darkness of his heart, and being his father in Christ and the teaching in which he now stands…. According to Luther, the word “penance,” which had so distressed his conscience, became a word of consolation through Staupitz. In the writings of Staupitz we find traces, in fact, of the same exhortations that we saw earlier in Luther. In confession, we are told to trust (Vertrawen) in the mercy of God and believe the grace that is being offered to us in the words of absolution. We are told to disregard our contrition and good works, for such would lead to despair, and trust in the mercy of God offered to us through the priest for our own personal consolation. While these admonitions are not directly cited and attributed to Staupitz in Luther’s own writings, they still reflect the very essence of what Luther came to believe and must have facilitated his discovery of the Gospel….
More important than whatever influence … any other person might have exerted upon Luther in his maturation is the prominence of a larger tradition out of which Luther and these persons probably emerged. There is a wide-spread, although little known, tradition before and after the time of Luther which contended like Luther that assurance could be obtained in the sacrament of penance through faith. The founder of this tradition was Duns Scotus. Duns had taught that a mere “disposition” or “unformed act,” i.e., not formed by grace, is all that is necessary for the penitent to receive absolution. One is simply beholden “not to place an obstacle” (se non ponere obicem) in the way of its reception. No merit, not even “congruous merit,” and no attrition, not even a “good inward motion,” are considered absolutely necessary. Such a minimal requirement was designed to exalt the mercies of God, who rewards his people freely and graciously (ex pacto), above the more exacting demands of Thomistic theology and thus produce more certainty in those who seek his grace. The Scotists, we know, during the time of Gabriel Biel (ca. 1410-1495) continued this tradition of their beloved Doctor and contended even more boldly that one is able to know through the sacrament of penance whether he is currently in a state of grace. All that is necessary is not to place an obstacle in the way of its reception….
This requirement again was meant to provide a bare minimum on the part of the penitent that anybody can fulfill and know that he fulfills, in contrast to the more exacting demands of heart-felt contrition in Thomism. Eventually, the requirement of “not placing an obstacle” will become merged with the more positive condition of faith, as we have already seen in the “older brother” and Staupitz and which we will now see again in the Council of Trent.
While it is well attested, it is not generally known that the majority of the Council of Trent, by a majority of twenty-one to fourteen, actually favored the Scotist position of certitude during much of its proceedings before a new commission was appointed, changing the balance of power. The Scotists, led by Ambrosius Catharinus and Johannes Delphinus, contended that “through faith” the one who does not place an obstacle is able to receive grace and know assuredly that he stands within that grace. According to Catharinus a perfect conversion is unnecessary for the “certitude of faith.” According to Delphinus doubt only arises when one looks to his own merit or contrition and neglects the grace offered to him ex opere operato in the sacrament. He who believes has no doubts, for the testimony of the Spirit drives them away. The Scotists, of course, looked back to their beloved Subtle Doctor, Duns Scotus, for much-needed authority and inspiration in this regard. They argued that the certitude of grace through the sacrament of penance was the Subtle Doctor’s most fundamental position, and the council could not in all good conscience condemn such an illustrious doctor of the church.
The Scotists did, however, find it necessary to distinguish their position from that of the heretics, Luther and his followers, due to the obvious similarities between the camps. The first difference was that they, unlike Luther, did not demand certitude of those who are genuinely remitted of their sins but only felt that such certitude is possible for those who do not place an obstacle in the way and exercise faith. Both the Thomists and Scotists were at least unanimous in this: Luther’s contention that those who are truly justified know of their state most assuredly must be outright condemned. The second difference which they put forth was that the faith which they so strongly inculcated is never “alone” but involves love and other works of sanctification. This time, however, the differences were not so apparent, since Luther himself never contended that true faith in actuality could be separated from the works thereof and the Scotists themselves tended to isolate faith when it came to the reception of grace and certitude, in order to dissuade the penitent from trusting in the works of contrition. This time the differences, of course, were much more subtle, and the Scotists had considerable difficulty in distinguishing themselves from the position of the heretics….
[T]he evidence is clear that Luther’s primary impulse in his reformational turn was not so much inspired by Paul, nor did it require a rejection of his Catholic roots, but involved an acceptance and furtherance of what was already prevalent in the Scotistic doctrine of penance.
To briefly summarize Strehle’s argument, we come to understand Luther’s “discovery” or “tower experience” less in terms of a lightning bolt from heaven and more as a development and refinement of his own Catholic and Scotist influences. Luther’s belief in “justification by faith alone” was rooted in the sacrament of penance. The purpose of the sacrament, at least in the Scotist understanding, was not to direct the penitent to his or her own repentance or good works as the basis of assurance of forgiveness and right standing with God; rather, such assurance was granted simply on the basis of the unobstructed word of absolution pronounced by the priest. Since this word of absolution was not pronounced according to the merits of the penitent, it could only be received by faith. The words “I absolve you” placed the penitent (“you”) in an exclusively receptive position; all that one could do was simply give ear to these words, and then accept and believe that they were true. Hence, justification by faith alone.
That this was in turn grounded in an understanding of the Word of God as possessing the supreme authority in the church is evident from the fact that the subject of the sentence “I absolve you” had to ultimately be God himself in order to have any validity. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). Luther rightly understood that the sacrament of penance could grant the forgiveness that it promised only if the word of absolution was pronounced by the priest on the basis of the supreme authority of God himself. Was this not the reason why such a word could be pronounced only by a priest who had been properly ordained? Indeed, were the priest simply speaking, as any other non-ordained individual, of his own accord and on his own authority, what assurance could he provide? Divine forgiveness could only be validly proffered by the priest if his word was uttered in the full power and authority of the Word of God. Thus, Luther realized that what ultimately mattered was not the authority of the priestly word considered in and of itself, but the supremely authoritative Word of God which alone (sola!) rendered the sacrament effectual. From here, it was a small step to a recognition of the supreme authority of the Word of God attested in inspired Scripture.
Again, I do not want to imply that Luther’s teachings did not represent a significant departure from certain aspects of medieval Catholic theology (though perhaps not as radical as we might think!), yet understanding the elements of continuity that did exist should help us to realize that 1) contrary to anti-Protestant polemics, Luther’s reformational discovery can be viewed as a coherent development along the trajectory of an established school of thought accepted in the medieval Catholic tradition (represented, in fact, at the Council of Trent!), and that 2) contrary to anti-Catholic polemics, medieval Catholicism was not the black abyss that some Protestants make it out to be.
 Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 8-10, 18-20, 22-26. Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle’s work.