The Catholic Roots of Luther’s Gospel: The Sacrament of Penance and the Surety of Faith

[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 aac80d1f31a7f56ebb05afa7d4255b8ddespair 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 220px-JohnDunsScotus_-_fullthat 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.[1]

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 Johannes-Bugenhagen-Keyswas 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.


[1] 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.


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.)