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]

Philipp Melanchthon and Forensic Justification in Protestant Orthodoxy

In this post, I would like to offer some historical exposition that sheds light on the reasons for which we in the Protestant tradition tend to interpret biblical teaching on the atonement and its effects, particularly in relation to justification, in a primarily if not exclusively forensic-legal manner in contrast to the Thomistic notions of created grace and infused righteousness characteristic of medieval 0940_Cranach_nR 001Catholicism. I do not want to imply that the Protestant tradition is wrong to emphasize the forensic-legal aspects of salvation inasmuch as Scripture does utilize these categories. But I do think that it is important to understand where this emphasis comes from, and why it should not be absolutized as though it were the only way of understanding Christ’s atoning and justifying work.

In the following description of the genesis of the traditional Protestant doctrine of forensic justification in the theology of Philipp Melanchthon, it should become clear why Scripture’s teaching on the incarnational and ontological aspects of the atonement seem so strange, and perhaps even dangerous, to Protestant ears. It should help us to realize that a purely ‘extrinsicist’ understanding of the atonement – one that frames it exclusively in legal or transactional terms of ‘merit’ or ‘remission of sins’ or ‘payment’ or ‘satisfaction’ – may not be as thoroughly biblical as we suppose. Here I would like to quote (at length) Stephen Strehle, whose illuminating work on The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel (Leiden; New York; Köln: Brill, 1995) provides an incisive look into how certain aspects of Melanchthon’s thought that would exert a decisive influence on later Protestant orthodoxy sprouted and grew from seeds planted by medieval Catholics. Here is Strehle on the origin and development of Melanchthon’s understanding of justification and atonement (pp.66-73):

Through the exegetical analysis of Erasmus, the great Catholic scholar, and certain theological concepts, inspired by Nominalism, Melanchthon began to promote in his Römerbrief-Kommentar of 1532 a more forensic understanding of justification. While this doctrine might not be without some antecedents in Protestantism and Melanchthon’s earlier writings, it was here for the first time under the inspiration of Catholic sources that a pronounced emphasis appeared upon the forensic terms “imputation” and “acceptation,” along with a clear demarcation between justification and any “newness” or “quality” in the believer…

The Franciscan and Nominalistic tradition in the middle ages used this term [acceptation] to speak of the divine will as the ultimate arbitrator in the matter of justification. For them “nothing created or creaturely must be accepted by God.” This meant that the person, his merit, and even the grace that had been created in him, the so-called created grace, had no inherent claim upon divine favor but were subject to the unconstrained verdict of God’s most free will or acceptation. God when it came to justifying man merely accepted what was not acceptable or made acceptable (righteous) through a simple act of the will. Melanchthon by invoking this watchword of their theology certainly could not have been totally unaware of the import of such a well-established theological term…

There are in fact striking parallels between the concept of justification in Melanchthon and his medieval forebears that bear witness to a most decided influence. Both speak of God as accepting what has not been made acceptable through his grace (regeneration), and both separate the forgiveness of sin from an infused state of grace or what God does in us. While it might be objected that the Nominalists did make grace a necessary component of salvation, this was only because God had decreed by his ordained power (de potentia ordinata) to make it a part. It was not because there exists an intrinsic relation between that grace and our justification. It was not because the object of divine grace was somehow made worthy through an infused righteousness as in the Thomistic tradition. The infused state, whether in Catholicism’s created grace or Melanchthon’s newness, is merely concomitant with our justification but not an intrinsic cause of it. Justification remains fundamentally for both a voluntaristic act of God…

The connection with the Franciscan/Nominalistic tradition is important because it helps to interpret the overall theological matrix out of which such a doctrine could be formulated and to decipher some of its most basic themes, especially its voluntarism or fixation on the divine will. This doctrine can then be seen as a product of Nominalism and interpreted in accordance with its belief that the will of God is the ultimate arbiter in all things, especially in regard to our salvation. According to this tradition God from his absolute power (de potentia absoluta) is not so much indebted as in the Thomistic tradition to a priori standards of righteousness but can exact or accept pretty much whatever he pleases. In Ockham, an extreme example, this means that God de potentia absoluta…could justify us or condemn us, with or without Christ, with or without the atonement, and with or without grace, especially created grace. The fact that he decided to act in a certain way is not to be attributed to the inherent rightness or necessity of that way but to his unconstrained decree to do such or to act thusly in accordance with his ordained power (de potentia ordinata)…

Luther and his theology cannot be considered its primary inspiration, even if the doctrine [of forensic justification] comes to be interpreted within his thought. Luther in fact considered it most improper to so accentuate divine “imputation” – a term he also connects with Nominalism – as to turn God’s work into “nothing but shadow-boxing and a devilish trick.” If God could perform such tricks, Luther argues, he certainly would never have sent his Son to die…For Ockham, of course, there really is no need for Christ to suffer, at least, de potentia dei absoluta, and even de potentia ordinata his death does not strictly satisfy the demands of justice…

However, for Melanchthon who above all the Reformers renders testimony to the Anselmic theory of satisfaction – a theory that views the atonement as the necessary and only way – the answer is not so simple. How can one consider the atonement in terms of the exacting standards of Anselm with its need for a perfect Savior (a God-man) and a perfect sacrifice (an innocent death) and then around and make justification a pure voluntaristic act? Melanchthon is clearly caught in a dilemma between Anselm’s theory of atonement and Ockham’s doctrine of justification, between a God who has righteous and narrow and exact ways and a God who can do as he wills.

This can readily be seen in almost any of Melanchthon’s discussions. Typically Melanchthon will speak of justification with the following words and phrases: “remission of sins,” “acceptation before God,” “imputation and righteousness,” and, of course, “to repute or pronounce as just in a forensic manner.” All of these phrases speak of justification as a disposition that the divine will has assumed on our behalf. And yet, in order not to lapse into utter voluntarism, Melanchthon invariably inserts as an addendum to such phrases a reference to the work of Christ (proper Christum). It is the obedience or merit of Christ that is said to be somehow imputed to us and to reconciled the demands of divine justice, even if it is also said that this work does not materially touch us in any substantive way. The decree is then said to be separated from any quality or newness produced by divine grace within the soul of man and is even unrelated to the gift of the Holy Spirit that lives in our hearts. It is related to neither created grace nor uncreated grace, but the free acceptation of God to reckon what is not righteous as righteous or what we did not do (i.e. Christ’s work) just as if we had done it. This in brief is the position of Melanchthon – a position caught between Anselm and Ockham; it is this position, with all its tensions, that will eventually gain ascendancy and become the confession of all Protestant orthodoxy.

Strehle’s account provides an important look into how Protestant orthodoxy came to emphasize the forensic-legal dimension of salvation to the neglect of other important elements of the biblical witness. Drawing from Erasmus and the Nominalist (in contrast with the Thomist) tradition, Melanchthon defined justification and the work of Christ in such exclusively forensic terms that he effectively dissolved, as Strehle points out, any inherent or organic connection between Christ’s work and our justification. Although Melanchthon certainly did not go to the voluntaristic extremes of someone like Ockham due to his desire to retain Anselm’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of Christ’s work within the redemptive economy, the influence of Nominalistic concepts such as ‘acceptation’ led him to separate Christ from justification in such a way that the only link connecting the former as cause to the latter as effect was simply God’s decision that it should be so.

To provide some contrast, Calvin insisted (rightly in my view and in keeping with Paul’s ubiquitous emphasis on salvation ‘in Christ’) that we are justified only insofar as we are ‘engrafted’ into Christ, as a branch into a vine, such that his righteousness becomes ‘imputed’ (if we want to retain this language) to us due to the inextricable and intimate union that obtains by the Spirit between Christ as our head and we as his body. This, of course, enabled Calvin to evade the charges that his doctrine of justification by faith alone encouraged licentiousness, for he could coolly respond that we do not have the righteousness by which we are justified in ourselves and separate from Christ but only in intimate union with his very person. Since Christ cannot be divided, Calvin argued, we cannot separate his righteousness that justifies us from his holiness that sanctifies us (duplex gratia), for sum total of our salvation is found in Christ himself. Therefore, it is absurd to think that we could be justified without also being sanctified, for these salvific benefits are not gifts distinct from Christ but only inhere in Christ himself and become ours through union with him by the Spirit. For Calvin, union with Christ was a truly unitive theme that permitted him to hold together all the various strands of biblical witness regarding the full spectrum of our salvation in Christ. Calvin was certainly not opposed to emphasizing the forensic aspects of atonement and justification, yet he saw these aspects as subsumed under the comprehensive category of union with Christ in whom alone are all of the benefits of salvation.

According to Strehle, Melanchthon, by contrast, came to teach that we are not justified so much because of an incarnational-spiritual union that we share with Christ by the Spirit (an internal, organic, realist soteriology) but simply because God, by a sheer act of will, simply predetermined the set of conditions upon which Christ’s righteousness could be legally ‘imputed’ to our account, almost as though Christ’s righteousness were a ‘substance’ or a ‘merit’ that could be distanced from his person and ‘transferred’ to us. This may not be a fully adequate characterization of Melanchthon’s position, but I think that it captures the overall spirit of what he was saying. Thus, whereas Calvin articulated, we could say, a more incarnational, internal, and organic relation between Christ’s work and our justification, Melanchthon formulated a view, (which as Strehle points out was to become characteristic of Protestant orthodoxy) that was primarily forensic, legal, and external in that he did not see Christ’s righteousness as the “intrinsic cause” of our justification (as when a vine organically gives life to a branch engrafted into it) but rather as a form of merit that only becomes imputed to us by a purely voluntaristic decision of God to do so on condition of faith (which hypothetically could have been different). Although he viewed, following Anselm, Christ’s work as necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, he understood its application to sinners in justification, following the Nominalists, to depend entirely on a voluntaristic decision of God that could have been otherwise, for hypothetically, God could have decided, according to his absolute power, not to impute Christ’s righteousness to sinners even if they repented and believed, or he could have required humanity to fulfill a completely different set of conditions above and beyond faith and repentance in order for him to impute Christ’s righteousness to them. In such a purely forensic scheme, there is no intrinsic, incarnational, or necessary link between Christ’s work and the justification of sinners.

In conclusion, this shows us once again why historical perspective is important, because it helps us realize just how beholden we can be to interpretive frameworks and theological presuppositions, such as those of Nominalism, of which we may be totally unaware and, in my view, do not accurately reflect the full scope of biblical teaching. Strehle helps us to grasp, by tracing the origin of Melanchthon’s views to Erasmus and the Nominalists, the importance of not naively thinking that our understanding of Scripture is what we simply read of its pages without any external influences. He helps us to see the necessity of being intentional about not only examining our interpretations of Scripture but also in examining the theological and/or philosophical apparatus which conditions our interpretation of Scripture. Ultimately, it should inspire us to move ever deeper and ever higher in our knowledge of the gospel that we might truly come to understand the full scope of all that Scripture proclaims concerning the beauty and glory of who Christ is and what he has done to redeem us. It is true that Christ has delivered us from the penalty from our sin and that we are legally declared righteous on the basis of his righteousness. But there is also so much more! For in making himself bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, Christ came not only to free us from our guilt but also to recreate us from within.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for directing me to Strehle.)