10 Things You Should Know about the Theology of Martin Luther
A while back I wrote an article on ten things you should know about the life and ministry of Martin Luther. This was followed by two posts on the life of John Calvin as well as his theology. So it only seems fitting that we should also devote an article to the theology of Martin Luther.
(1) Luther was a strong advocate of the finality and sufficiency of Scripture as the authority by which all others should be judged. It was Luther's insistence on SOLA Scriptura, Scripture alone, that was crucial. Neither church fathers nor papal decrees nor ecclesiastical tradition nor church councils stood on a par with the authority of the Bible. This concept of Scripture has been misunderstood. Sola Scriptura is not meant to suggest that there is no other religious authority, but that there is no higher religious authority.
(2) Luther also believed in the complete inerrancy of the Bible: "It is impossible that Scripture should contradict itself; it only appears so to senseless and obstinate hypocrites" (WA, 9,356).
(3) Luther’s views on the biblical canon have been the focus of extensive debate. He evidently believed the epistle of James to be “an Epistle of straw,” for “it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” He also had reservations about the canonicity of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. Luther basically operated with a “canon within the canon,” that is to say, the criterion by which he determined the usefulness of a biblical book was the degree to which it proclaimed Christ with clarity.
(4) Luther had a keen awareness of the devil's reality and activity. Consider these statements he made:
“It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.”
“When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins – not fabricated and invented ones – for God to forgive for His beloved Son's sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess.”
Luther firmly believed that his days were the last days and that Satan was fast at work to bring the reign of Antichrist to pass and to overthrow the work of the church in general and the reformation in particular.
(5) Luther often used language that sounds similar to the “classic” theory of the atonement so prominent in the patristic age. Yet, foundational to the defeat of the forces of darkness is the penal substitutionary nature of Christ’s death, about which Luther spoke with great clarity:
“But if the wrath of God is to be taken from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, then it must be merited from him by someone; for God cannot be favorable nor gracious toward sins, nor remove penalty and wrath, unless payment be made and satisfaction rendered for them” (Works, 2.137).
“Christ, the Son of God, stands in our place and has taken all our sins upon his shoulders. . . . He is the eternal satisfaction for our sin and reconciles us with God, the Father” (WA, 10[iii], 49; LW, 51,92).
Luther’s most explicit statements are found in his commentary on Galatians:
“And this, no doubt, all the prophets did foresee in spirit, that Christ should become the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, blasphemer, etc., that ever was or could be in all the world. For he being made a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, is not now an innocent person and without sins, is not now the son of God born of the Virgin Mary; but a sinner, which hath and carrieth the sin of Paul, . . . of Peter, . . . of David, etc.” (269).
“So, making a happy exchange with us, he took upon him our sinful person, and gave unto us his innocent and victorious person: wherewith we being now clothed, are freed from the curse of the law. For Christ was willingly made a curse for us saying: As touching mine own person both as human and divine, I am blessed and need nothing; but I will empty myself and will put upon me your person, that is to say, your human nature, and I will walk in the same among you, and will suffer death to deliver you from death” (276).
Commenting on 2 Cor. 5:21,
“This is the mystery of the riches of divine grace for sinners; for by a wonderful exchange our sins are now not ours but Christ’s, and Christ’s righteousness is not Christ’s but ours” (WA 5, 608).
(6) As for the person of Jesus Christ I will mention only one element: the communication of attributes. Luther believed that the divine attributes of the Son of God may be predicated of the human nature (and not just of the person). There is a real transference of properties from the one side (divine) to the other (human). They exchange something of their substance as if by a process of endosmosis. Thus, even in his human nature Christ is almighty and omnipresent. The two natures are mixed, the one interpenetrates the other. Thus the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, has no existence outside the flesh of the man Jesus, nor does the flesh have any existence outside the Logos (logos totus in carne).
The practical implications of this doctrine are seen especially in Luther’s concept of the Eucharist and his dispute with Zwingli.
(7) Whereas all the protestant reformers repudiated transubstantiation as well as the belief that in the Eucharist was a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ for both the living and dead, they could not agree on the nature of Christ's presence in the elements.
Fearing the political consequences if the German and Swiss reformations did not unite, Philip of Hesse, leader of the German princes, issued an invitation to both Zwingli and Luther to meet at his castle in Marburg in 1529 to reconcile their differences on the Lord's Supper. Luther and Melancthon represented the German wing of the reformation, while Zwingli and Oecolampadius represented the Swiss.
The debate proved fruitless. Luther stubbornly insisted on the literal force of the words of Christ: “My dear sirs, since this text of my Lord Jesus Christ, ‘This is my body,’ continues to stand, I really cannot possibly get around it but must confess and believe that the body of Christ is there” (WA, 30[iii], 116, 137). Zwingli, no less stubbornly, pointed to the words of Jesus: "It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit and life." When it was objected that Christ’s body could not be physically present in the elements because locally present in heaven, Luther appealed to the concept of the communication of attributes. By means of this doctrine, omnipresence (or, ubiquity) could be predicated of the human nature (or body) of Christ.
Although they jointly affirmed 14 articles of faith (such as the Trinity, justification by faith alone), they could not agree on the nature of Christ's presence in the elements.
(8) Luther’s views on the bondage of the will must also be noted. His most famous theological treatise was De Servo Arbitrio (1525), or, The Bondage of the Will, written in response to the Diatribe of Erasmus. Luther’s opening comments are worthy of note:
“I have already myself refuted them [Erasmus’s arguments for free will] over and over again, and Philip Melancthon, in his unsurpassed volume on the doctrines of theology (1521 ed.), has trampled them in the dust. That book of his, to my mind, deserves not merely to live as long as books are read, but to take its place in the Church’s canon; whereas your book, by comparison, struck me as so worthless and poor that my heart went out to you for having defiled your lovely, brilliant flow of language with such vile stuff. I thought it outrageous to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung” (62-3).
Luther was a thorough-going Augustinian on the issue of original sin, the will, and thus also election. Commenting on Romans 9:
“God’s eternal predestination out of which originally proceeds who shall believe or not, who can or cannot get rid of sin --- (is) in order that our salvation may be taken entirely out of our hands and put in the hand of God alone.”
(9) Something must also be said about Luther on justification by faith. Roger Olson’s description of the RC doctrine of justification provides a helpful backdrop:
“According to Catholic doctrine --- stretching back at least a thousand years to Augustine --- justification is the gradual process by which a sinner is made actually righteous internally by having God’s own righteousness infused through the grace of baptism, faith, works of love and the entire penitential life. Only when the sinner is so transformed that he or she is no longer really a sinner at all does God justify in the full and completed sense. Baptismal grace that washes away the guilt of original sin must become habitual grace that grows within through sacraments and penance and must eventually become sinless perfection. Justification comes gradually all through the salvation process, but ultimately and perfectly only at its end” (389-90).
Thus, the medieval RC concept of grace was that it was something of a "substance" that could be “infused” in a person by means of the sacraments, something like a “divine vitamin”! According to Luther, grace was simply the unconditional favor of God to hell-deserving sinners received by faith alone. The righteousness of justification, he insisted, is always both alien and imputed. That is to say, it is alien in the sense that it is Christ’s righteousness, not our own, and it is imputed in the sense that it is legally reckoned to us, rather than imparted experientially within us.
Justification, said Luther, is "the cardinal doctrine" of the church. “This article is the head and cornerstone which alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and protects the church; without it the church of God cannot subsist one hour.”
He often insisted on the words, simul iustus et peccator, by which he meant to indicate that the believer in Jesus is simultaneously righteous (legally, through faith in Christ) and a sinner (in himself, experientially).
Luther was criticized by the RCC for inserting the Latin word solum into Romans 3:28 so that Paul would be read as saying that we are justified by faith alone. He responded:
"Here in Romans 3:28 I know very well that the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text; the papists do not have to teach me that. It is a fact that these four letters s o l a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate. At the same time they do not see that it conveys the sense of the text; it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous. . . . [For] when all works are so completely cut away -- and that must mean that faith alone justifies -- whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of works will have to say, 'Faith alone justifies us, and not works.' The matter itself, as well as the nature of the language, demand it" (On Translating: An Open Letter, 1530, LW, XXXV, pp. 188-89, 195.
(10) Having noted Luther’s emphasis on the forensic nature of justification, wherein the ground of our acceptance with God is the imputed righteousness of Christ, mention must be made of what is being called the new Finnish interpretation of Luther (see Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson [Eerdmans, 1998]).
Several scholars in Finland are contending that Luther’s view of justification actually emphasizes and entails the concept of theosis or divinization of man through faith. The key element is that “in faith Christ is really present,” a literal translation of Luther’s phrase, in ipsa fide Christus adest. Their argument is that, for Luther, “faith is a real participation in Christ, that in faith a believer receives the righteousness of God in Christ, not only in a nominal and external way, but really and inwardly” (viii). Thus, justification is not grounded merely on an imputed righteousness of Christ but also on an imparted righteousness by which the individual, through faith, actually participates in the righteousness of God.
At present, the consensus of the best among Lutheran scholars is that there is little if any reason to believe that Luther embraced theosis or divinization in the way these Finnish scholars contend.