Luther the Augustinian

The following is the final paper that I submitted to Dr. Dennis Ngien’s Theology of Luther class that I took at Toronto Baptist Seminary in January 2007. I fared quite well in terms of a mark, which was relieving, considering that Dr. Ngien is a published Luther scholar. He has an article in the current issue of Christianity Today called “Picture Christ” about Luther giving counsel on death.
On July 2, 1505 Martin Luther (1483-1546) uttered five words that would change his personal and academic life forever. During a terrible rainstorm, the young Luther was nearly killed by a bolt of lightning. In fear he cried out to St. Anne for help and vowed, “I will become a monk.”
[1] Keeping this promise, much to his father’s chagrin, Luther did become a monk and entered the Order of Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. As a Black Augustinian, Luther was introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. “However, Augustine was the figure who became of utmost importance to Luther.”[2] The purpose of this paper will be to roughly explore Luther’s interpretation of Augustine of Hippo (354-430)[3] in his dispute against late medieval scholasticism. In it the influence of Augustine on Luther in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517)[4] will be evaluated. It is hoped that this exercise will show that the change in Luther’s early theology that lead to his “Reformation breakthrough,” from that of medieval scholasticism to early Reformer, was greatly due to the influence of Augustine’s later thought. The selection of Augustine’s later writings is intentional. To obtain a grasp of Augustine’s theology of grace, one must appreciate the pattern of growth in his thought. Scholars have long believed that Augustine did not fully develop his understanding of predestination and free will until his controversy with the Pelagians.[5] For the sake of this paper, then, it will be the latter Augustine with whom Luther will be compared. As well, this endeavour takes into account David Steinmetz’s observation, “The relationship of Luther to St. Augustine is a far more complicated question to resolve than one might anticipate.”[6]

Augustinian Background
As M.W.F. Stone observes, “During the Reformation the philosophical and theological theories of Augustine loomed large.”
[7] The Reformation erupted while Europe was illuminated with the light of the Renaissance.[8] One of the hallmarks of Renaissance thought was the slogan ad fontes, the principle of going “back to the sources.” The Bible in its original languages was one of the founts to which theologians returned for nourishment, and so were the writings of St. Augustine. The first critical edition of Augustine’s writings were published by Johannes Amerbach in 1506. Because of this, “the Reformers had direct access to the Augustinian corpus.”[9]
Johannes von Staupitz (c. 1465-1524) was the vicar general of the monasteries of the Augustinian Hermits and was the dean of theology in Wittenberg.[10] One of the responsibilities assumed by Staupitz while at Wittenberg was that of confessor to Luther. As the young man with troubled soul wrestled with his status before a holy God, Staupitz offered wise counsel. He referred Luther to the passage in Romans where the apostle proclaimed the “righteousness of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.”[11] Staupitz rightly believed that this referred not merely to God’s righteousness in judging sinners, but primarily God’s gift of righteousness bestowed upon sinners through faith in Christ. Although very little is known about his theology, there is every indication that Staupitz “was highly influenced by Augustine.”[12] And it is likely through him that Luther came to an Augustinian understanding of grace.
Speaking of the whole university in Wittenberg, Luther could triumphantly pronounce in a letter to Johann Lang on May 18, 1517,
Our theology and St Augustine proceed apace and are dominant in our university, by the grace of God. Aristotle declines steadily and is heading for total oblivion. All object to hearing lectures on the text-books of the Sentences, and no one can expect an audience who does not advance this theology – that is, the Bible or St Augustine, or some other doctor with ecclesiastical authority.

Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517)
Martin Luther is likely best known for his disputation entitled The Ninety-Five Theses
[14] that he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. In doing so many believe that the Protestant Reformation in Europe thus commenced. Luther wrote them in protest against the abuses he observed within the Roman Catholic Church, in particular the selling of indulgences. What is often overlooked is the fact that previous to the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther had published an earlier disputation, this time in ninety-seven theses, written in a more academic and polemical fashion. These earlier theses, now referred to as the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, were just as its title indicates, a critique of the thought of the schoolmen, in particular Ockham and Biel. In terms of their importance, David Bagchi suggests, “There is a case to be made for dating the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation not to the ninety-five theses on indulgences…but to Luther’s ninety-seven theses against scholastic theology of a month earlier.”[15]
The medieval scholasticism that Luther critiqued was an inheritor of the realism of Aquinas and Scotus but found its crystallization in Luther’s day with the nominalism of Ockham and Biel.
[16] The former school of thought understood God in terms of the essence of his existence. An example of such thinking may be seen in the so-called ontological argument for the existence of God posited originally by Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), and taken up by Thomas in his so-called “five ways.” The nominalists, on the other hand viewed God in terms of his power and will. They distinguished between the being of God and his acts; his commands were rooted in his will, not in his nature. It is in the writings of Gabriel Biel that a fuller expression of this understanding can be found.[17]
This via moderna, as it was then known, was criticized from all quarters during the Renaissance and Reformation, by both Protestant and Catholic alike. But perhaps one of its most significant critics was Martin Luther in his disputation. It goes beyond the scope of this paper to give a full evaluation of Luther’s critique of scholasticism. It will only serve the purpose to point to Luther’s recruiting of Augustine against his scholastic opponents.
Students must remember that at this point in Luther’s life he had not yet broken with the Roman Church, nor had there been any idea in his mind that he would. His critique was very much from the inside, and his only concern was to bring about reform in terms of the Church’s theological direction.
[18] In fact, Luther concludes his disputation against scholasticism by saying, “In these statements we wanted to say and believe we have said nothing that is not in agreement with the Catholic church and the teachers of the church.”[19] Luther’s education had been scholastic, specifically Ockhamist and his critique of scholasticism was therefore “emphatically that of a scholastic, and not that of a humanist or of an anti-intellectual champion of the ‘modern devotion.’”[20]
It must also be remembered that from its earliest stages, scholasticism viewed itself as theologically Augustinian, though philosophically it was dependent upon Aristotle.
[21] Therefore, Luther did not see himself as breaking the theological mold when he leveled the bishop of Hippo against his scholastic forebears. Instead, Luther was maintaining an important aspect of the scholastic tradition, all the while using this tradition in a critique against itself. In essence, Luther’s fundamental approach was to show that the scholastic theologians were not the thoroughgoing Augustinians that they had thought. Wriedt says,
In his line of argument Luther is exemplary in proving that the theologians of his time have neither worked methodically and cleanly within their system of assumed categories nor proven a solid reference base of appropriate Scripture interpretation, but instead base their conclusions on unproven axiomata.

Against the Scholastics
Luther begins his disputation strongly in the first three theses arguing that the scholastics have deeply misread Augustine. In the first Luther argues, “To say that Augustine exaggerates in speaking against heretics is to say that Augustine tells lies almost everywhere.”
[23] In fact, by contradicting Augustine, the scholastics were “making sport of the authority of all doctors of theology” (Thesis 3). In Luther’s opinion, to deny Augustine was to deny theology itself. In this, Luther rightly saw it was to grant victory to Augustine’s theological opponents, the Pelagians, if one was to argue that Augustine’s soteriology was mistaken (Thesis 2). For Luther, if the Pelagians were right, the whole of Western theology since the fourth century was a waste.
Regarding Pelagianism, it is interesting to note is that Luther believed that it was more dangerous to follow the scholastic line of thinking than the Pelagian. In his later debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/9-1536), Luther could say that the humanist adopted a scholastic semi-Pelagianism
[24] that made the grace of God less valuable than in the Pelagian view. “The latter assert that it is not by a feeble something within us that we obtain grace, but by efforts and works that are complete, entire, perfect, many and mighty; but our friends here [Erasmus and the scholastics] tell us that it is by something very small, almost nothing, that we merit grace.”[25] At least the Pelagians made grace important by striving for perfection to earn it, the semi-Pelagian model only served to denigrate the value of grace. Of course Luther believed that both views were erroneous.
Luther makes a number of soteriological points in the first sixteen theses against the scholastics that resound with the tones of Augustine. They are involved primarily with the issue of the freedom of the will and human depravity. In Thesis 4 Luther argued that man is totally depraved. He alludes to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7, by saying, “It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil [Cf. Matt. 7:17-18].” Continuing the argument in Thesis 5 he said, “It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive.” This understanding of the will echoes the thought of Augustine who could say, “For if the natural power through free will is sufficient for us not only to know how we ought to live, but actually to live well, ‘then Christ died in vain,’ ‘then is the scandal of the cross made void.’”
[26] Luther would later elaborate on this Augustinian view of the captivity of the will in greater detail against Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will.[27]
In direct opposition to Scotus and Biel (as well as Thomas), Luther “attacks the proposition that it is possible to do what is morally good or avoid sin without the help of grace.”
[28] Thesis 6 argues, “It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept.” This point follows logically from Thesis 5 because if the will is captive it can only perform acts according to its captive nature, in this case its sinful nature. “There is no moral virtue without either pride or sorrow, that is, without sin” (Thesis 38). Luther believed that the root of sin was egocentrism,[29] the placing of oneself above God. He found support in Augustine for this quoting the church father as saying, “The beginning of all sin is the love of one’s own self.”[30] Therefore, for the will to do anything good, it is in need of the grace of God (Thesis 7), which is also a major theme found in Augustine.[31] Paul Althaus says of Luther’s theology of sin, “One of the decisive concerns of Luther’s theology is to avoid minimizing the greatness and seriousness of sin as though it did not matter. At no other point has he fought against his opponents, the scholastic theologians, with such passionate seriousness.”[32]
One of the arguments that Augustine’s opponents directed towards him was the accusation that his former Manichaeism influenced his understanding of free will and human depravity.
[33] What his critics failed to understand was that in contrast to Augustine, the Manichees believed that the will was ontologically evil. This evil in the will was not due to original sin as Augustine believed, but was rooted in Manichaean dualism that argued that the material world was evil. In Theses 8 and 9 Luther shows himself in line with Augustine where he argues, contra the Manichees, that the will is bound not because it is naturally or essentially evil (by creation), but because of an innate evil that lies within it (sin). Therefore, “One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good” (Thesis 10), “Nor is it able to will or not to will whatever is prescribed” (Thesis 11; cf. Thesis 88). Luther does not believe that any of what he has argued is in contradiction to Augustine, nor “when one says that nothing is so much in the power of the will as the will itself” (Thesis 12). Again, making the point that the will can only conform to erroneous precept (Theses 14 and 15), Luther then concludes that “since erring man is able to love the creature it is impossible for him to love God” (Thesis 16).
In theses twenty-eight to thirty Luther asserts that God can only be found by grace, and to assert otherwise is to follow the Pelagians. The only “infallible preparation for grace” is the “eternal election and predestination of God” (Thesis 29).
[34] Essentially, the preparation for grace is grace. “On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace” (Thesis 30). Scholastic theologians like Biel believed that by virtue of an inherent good within man, one can do all that one is able to remove obstacles to grace. Luther declares this teaching to be “false” in Thesis 33. Rather, “Man by nature has neither correct precept nor good will” (Thesis 34.) For man to be able to receive grace he must have his nature changed by God; therefore God is the causative agency for man’s reception of grace. “The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God” (Thesis 90).

For Grace
After spending all of this time contradicting the theology of the scholastics, Luther develops his own view in the last third of the disputation “by formulating theses without that philosophic-theological burden of scholastic traditions, but rich with his own understanding of grace and God.”
[35] Of course, this understanding of grace was greatly informed by Augustine.
In this final section of theses Luther’s terminology becomes biblically rooted in the Pauline language of Galatians and Romans. Here Luther takes up the issue of the relationship between the law and grace and argues emphatically, “it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God” (Thesis 68). In fact, “The grace of God…makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law” (Thesis 75). This is compatible with the argument of Augustine who said, “For the knowledge of the law, without the grace of the Spirit, produces all concupiscence in man.”
[36] Indeed, Luther references Augustine in his dispute with Latomus saying, “Yet Paul, and Augustine after him, thundered unceasingly that a man without grace only grows worse through the law.”[37]
Echoing Paul in Galatians 3:2 Luther said, “Condemned are all those who do the works of the law” (Thesis 79), yet “blessed are all those who do the works of the grace of God” (Thesis 80). In Theses 81 to 83 he explains what is not good law (ceremonial law, Decalogue, etc) and concludes in Thesis 84 that “The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hears by the Holy Spirit.” But to reconcile the law with the will, grace is needed as a mediator (Thesis 89). Augustine too recognized a good aspect to the law and said, “In your sweetness teach me your righteousness…so that I am not forced to be under the law as a slave out of fear of punishment but might have delight in a free love in the law.”[38]
Luther then concludes his disputation by explaining the necessity of love, contrasting it with the egocentrism that both he and Augustine believed to be the root of all sin. “To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God” (Thesis 95). He said this in contradiction to Ockham and Biel whom Luther said believed that “the love of God may continue alongside an intense love of the creature” (Thesis 94).

Speaking of Augustine’s influence on the Protestant Reformation, the great Princeton theologian Benjamin B. Warfield once wrote,

It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation. For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church. The doctrine of grace came from Augustine’s hands in its positive outline completely formulated: sinful man depends for his recovery to good and to God entirely on the free grace of God.[39]

This doctrine of grace that came from Augustine’s hands was in turn picked up by Martin Luther not long after his “Reformation breakthrough” and is evident in one of his earliest writings that we have considered here. It is hoped by providing this brief examination of Luther’s disputation against the scholastics, coupled with statements from Augustine’s later writings, that it has been shown that Luther’s doctrine of grace are congruous with Augustine’s. As inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals today are deeply indebted to Reformers like Martin Luther who took a stand for Biblical orthodoxy over against medieval Aristotelianism. But we are also indebted to the one whose shadow Luther and Calvin and the rest of Western Christianity looms, Augustine, the “doctor of grace.”

[1] Martin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Penguin, 2004), 7. See also Roland H Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), 15; Albrecht Beutel, “Luther’s Life” in Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 4.
[2] Beutel, “Luther’s Life,” 5.
[3] For an introduction to the life and thought of Augustine see Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1967).
[4] Martin Luther, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517)” in Timothy F. Lull ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings 2nd edition (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005), 34-39.
[5] Eleonore Stump, “Augustine on free will” in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 130.
[6] David C. Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 12.
[7] M.W.F. Stone, “Augustine and Medieval Philosophy” in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 262.
[8] Paul Johnson, The Renaissance (London: Phoenix Press, 2002).
[9] Stone, “Augustine and Medieval Philosophy,” 262.
[10] Helmar Junghans, “Luther’s Wittenberg” in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 24.
[11] Romans 1:17.
[12] Beutel, “Luther’s Life,” 6.
[13] Letter to Lang, May 18, 1517 cited in D.V.N. Bagchi, “Sic Et Non: Luther and Scholasticism” in Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 1999), 7.
[14] Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses (1517)” in Timothy F. Lull ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings 2nd edition (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005), 40-46.
[15] Bagchi, “Sic Et Non,” 3.
[16] This paper takes for granted that Luther was critiquing the whole of scholastic theology, not just the nominalist tradition, for a defence of this position see Heiko A. Oberman, “Luther and the Scholastic Doctrines of Justification” in Heiko A. Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 104-108. See also Steinmetz, Luther in Context, 56-57.
[17] Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 36-38.
[18] For instance, see his letter to Jodocus Trutfetter on May 9, 1518 where he writes “I simply believe that it is impossible to reform the Church, unless the canons, decretals, scholastic theology, philosophy, logic, as we now have them, be eradicated completely…and the purest study of the Bible and the holy fathers be recalled.” Cited in Bagchi, “Sic Et Non,” 8-9.
[19] Luther, “Disputation,” 39.
[20] Bagchi, “Sic Et Non,” 4.
[21] Atkinson can say, “As a philosopher Thomas was an Aristotelian realist, and as a theologian he had the evangelicalism of Augustinianism with its stress on sin, predestination and grace.” James Atkinson, “Scholastic Theology,” in James Atkinson ed., Luther: Early Theological Works (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 253.
[22] Markus Wriedt, “Luther’s Theology” in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 92.
[23] Martin Luther, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517)” in Timothy F. Lull ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings 2nd edition (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005), 34. From hereon the thesis number will be cited within the body of the text.
[24] That scholasticism was semi-Pelagian see, Atkinson, “Scholastic Theology, 264.
[25] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will: A New Translation of De Servo Arbitrio (1525) Martin Luther’s Reply to Erasmus of Rotterdam eds., J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957), 294.
[26] Augustine, Four Anti-Pelagian Writings: On Nature and Grace on the Proceedings of Pelagius on the Predestination of the Saints on the Gift of Perseverance trans. John A. Mourant and William J. Collinge (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 58.
[27] Luther, Bondage of the Will, 239-320.
[28] Steinmetz, Luther in Context, 57.
[29] Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 144-145. See also Wriedt, “Luther’s theology,” 93.
[30] Martin Luther, “A Brief Explanation of the Ten Commandments” in Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes Volume 1 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1943), 364.
[31] Augustine, Four Anti-Pelagian Writings, 146-154.
[32] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1966), 142.
[33] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 269-271. Cf. James Wetzel, “Predestination, Pelagianism, foreknowledge” in Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman eds., The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 52.
[34] Cf. Augustine, “On the Predestination of the Saints” in Four Anti-Pelagian Writings, 218-270.
[35] Wriedt, “Luther’s Theology,” 93.
[36] Augustine, “Proceedings of Pelagius” in Four Anti-Pelagian Writings, 131.
[37] Martin Luther, “Answer to Latomus” in James Atkinson ed., Luther: Early Theological Works (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 314.
[38] Augustine, De gratia Christi et de peccato orginali 13.14 cited in Stump, “Augustine on free will,” 134.
[39] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Augustine” in Calvin and Augustine ed. Samuel C. Craig (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1956), 322.

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