Martin Luther – Doctor of Theology – Full Article


Five hundred year ago this year in 1512, Martin Luther was awarded a doctorate by the University of Wittenberg. We may not think that this was anything out of the ordinary, but, in fact, this proved to be a catalyst in Luther’s life, and paved the way for his later Reformation discovery. Through this preferment, Luther became a permanent member of the university’s teaching faculty, and succeeded Johann von Staupitz as lecturer in Biblical Studies, a post he retained until a few days before his death in 1546.

As a result of his lectures at the university, Luther discovered the true nature of the righteousness of God, which ultimately led to one of the defining moments in church history. Before we consider how this came about, however, we will think about Luther’s early years, the prevailing theology of the time, and how this affected Luther’s own personal beliefs.

Luther’s Early Years

Martin Luther entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1505, following a somewhat harrowing experience during a summer thunderstorm. By taking holy orders, Luther hoped that his salvation would be assured. Most people of his day considered monastic life to be a positive way of circumventing future judgement, or at least enabling one to accumulate a significant credit balance in God’s sight. Luther’s concern was symptomatic of an age where religious anxiety was overwhelmingly expressed in an existential morbidity about the terror of death and eternal judgment. Luther felt more keenly than most individuals about his need of salvation. He constantly suffered from attacks of insecurity, and a deep seated fear of death and the devil. These insecurities which he described as his attacks or ‘Anfechtung’ had been with him for many years. Tranvik states that ‘Anfechtung points to a profound sense of being lost, alienated, and out of control’. Even the rustling of a dry windblown leaf would unnerve Luther, and torment him with visions of hell, cp. Lev. 26. 36. It would be facile to suggest that Luther was simply an over sensitive individual. He suffered from what John Bunyan would later describe as the ‘bruised conscience’; the intense spiritual battle that ensues in the conscience of an individual who seeks to combat temptation. To continue the analogy with Bunyan, Luther alternated between the ‘Slough of Despond’ and ‘Doubting Castle’, never certain that he would finally attain the ‘Celestial City’. His constant cry was how could he find a gracious God? What better place then to find the assurance that constantly evaded him than the monastery at Erfurt? But, as Lindberg notes ironically, ‘Luther entered the monastery to overcome his uncertainty of salvation, but there was confronted by the very introspection, intensified to a fine art, that had caused his very anxiety before God’ Typical of everything that Luther ever attempted, he completely immersed himself in the process of becoming a monk. If anyone was to achieve salvation through human effort, Luther would set the bar as an ascetic par excellence. He was thorough in all his observances, but became pathologically over-scrupulous in self-confession to such an extent that one of his confessors chided him for being too zealous about the smallest peccadillo. Yet, despite observing canonical hours, keeping masses, reciting rosaries and the endless rounds of self-examination, Luther became more disillusioned, uncertain of his salvation, and even more certain that he was worthy of eternal damnation. Had Luther continued in this state of spiritual despair, he would unquestionably have succumbed to a mental breakdown, or something even worse. But God had purposely brought these trials upon Luther, so that it would lead him to discover the true nature of the righteousness of God, and to protest against a sixteenth century church that had lost its way.

The Prevailing Theology

Luther’s world was influenced by various kinds of scholastic theology. When Luther began his studies at the University of Erfurt in 1503, the prevailing influence was the via moderna. This form of theology had been developed by nominalist theologians such as Gabriel Biel, who taught that in the doctrine of justification, there was something that could be done to initiate the process of salvation. This was expressed in the strap line, facere quod in se est (‘do what lies within you’). This may seem a relatively straight forward proposition, but individuals were continually encouraged by the church to try and do better. This led to an excessive and unhealthy indulgence in introspection, and self-examination. Luther was more directly influenced by this teaching than any other. It seemed quite reasonable to him that God could only reward those who had done something to merit it. Tomlin states that when Luther read Biel’s textbook of dogmatic theology, he came across and was persuaded by the idea that God has entered into a covenant, or pact, with humanity. Within the framework of this agreement or covenant, sinners were capable of making a small moral effort on their own, without the help of God’s grace. An initial effort was required before God would respond. In effect, this quid pro quo meant that God could not deny his grace to anyone who did his best. Such teaching resonated with the earlier views of Pelagius, who had been severely criticized by the early church, especially Augustine. Pelagius had taught that the resources of salvation were within humanity, and salvation could therefore be achieved through human effort. As a result, this placed God under an obligation to humanity, thus the parallel with the via moderna became apparent. McGrath suggests that the writers of the via moderna were simply reproducing the ideas of Pelagius using a more sophisticated covenantal framework. On the other hand, Augustine’s view of humanity was much more pessimistic. He taught that salvation was by grace alone, an unmerited gift from God. Human effort was thus dispensable, but grace was indispensable. Although the theologians of the via moderna tried to play down the effect of their teaching, there is no doubt that most individuals (including Luther) accepted that human effort could be efficacious with God. It was Luther’s dissatisfaction with this works-righteousness system that eventually led to his reformation experience to which we now turn.

The Joy of Discovery – The ‘Righteousness of God'

It is important to understand that Luther’s ‘Reformation Discovery’ did not happen by chance. It was the end of a long and arduous voyage, a passage of time when Luther’s guilt-ridden conscience came into dynamic tension with the Biblical text. Luther’s dissatisfaction with covenant theology gained momentum as he immersed himself in Biblical studies. His first study from 1513-1514 was directed towards the book of Psalms, and was particularly suited to his temperament and spiritual experience. Working through the Psalms, Luther drew down heavily on the parallel experiences of Augustine, mirroring his own theological breakthrough with his. Initially, he still viewed the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ as referring to God’s justice. The question he posed frequently was, ‘Who can love a God who wants to deal with sinners according to justice?’ It was certainly not ‘good news’, as he reminisced many years later, ‘I hated that word “righteousness of God”, which, according to the use and custom of all teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner’. Despite initially maintaining the principles of the via moderna, Luther’s notes on the Psalms disclose a perceptible shift in his theology in terms of the meaning of the phrase ‘the righteousness or justice of God’. He despaired of his own worth, but found in the Christology of the Psalms a new insight into the righteousness of God. As Vogelsang (in Rupp) suggests, ‘in the combination of the Christological and tropological interpretations of the ‘Justice of God’ in the Psalms, we can find the clue to Luther’s salvation. Thus, he came to see the ‘Justice of God’ as a righteousness revealed in Jesus Christ and bestowed to man on the ground of faith’. Luther linked this with the individual’s personal relationship to God. By the end of his studies in the Psalms, Luther became disillusioned with the covenantal theology of the via moderna. What replaced it was a radical understanding of the way in which God justified the ungodly through Christ alone.

The next phase in the development of his new theology brought him into contact with Paul’s letter to the Romans. Armed with his findings from the Psalms, Luther grappled with Paul’s magnum opus. Here, at last, Luther found the answer to the ‘justice of God’ in Romans chapter 1 verse 17. He later recalled this experience, ‘I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly … I was angry with God … Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place (Rom 1: 17), most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live'”. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates’. Luther saw the righteousness of God as the antithesis of human righteousness. Human beings were not active, but passive in respect of justification. Righteousness could not be realized by human effort, thus rejecting the nominalist principle that by doing one’s best one could be in a position to receive grace. The righteousness of God was something alien and extrinsic to humanity, or, as Luther later described it in his sermon on Two Kinds of Righteousness (1519), ‘the righteousness of another, instilled from without’. It came as a gift through faith in Christ alone; it was imputed not imparted or infused, and could not be earned as a reward. Luther no longer remained angry with God because, ‘The great theme of “justification by faith alone" … extols the graciousness and generosity of God’. For Luther the God now revealed in the gospel was a God of grace and mercy, not a punitive judge. George suggests that Luther believed he had recovered the original meaning of the Greek verb used by Paul in Romans. Augustine and the scholastic tradition had interpreted it as ‘to make righteous’, whereas Luther insisted on its legal connotation, ‘to declare righteous’. This implied a once and for all act of appropriating God’s grace, and being declared righteous by faith alone. Luther equated the term ‘gospel’ with justification by faith, and rejected as incompatible any notion of law. He clarified ‘law’ by including ‘whatever is opposed to grace’. This sharp dichotomy between law and gospel features throughout Luther’s writings, and is the key to his theology. Luther concluded that the ‘works of the law’ are inherently powerless to procure salvation. The Pauline expression ‘works of the law’ was interpreted by Luther as applying to any form of works-righteousness, and not simply to Judaism. Westerholm suggests that whilst Luther on occasions does distinguish between the Jews and Paul’s opponents on the one hand and, on the other the proponents of ‘works’ of his own day, in the final analysis Luther considers that the words of Paul applied to both: ‘If the Law of God is weak and useless for justification, much more are the laws of the pope weak and useless for justification’. But if this was Luther’s view, then, what was the purpose of the Law? Luther responded to this question by stating that ‘The Law was laid down for the sake of transgression, in order that transgression might be, and abound, and in order that thus man, having been brought to knowledge of himself through the Law, might seek the hand of a merciful God. Without the Law he is ignorant of his sin and considers himself sound’. Luther also referred to the Law as a ‘large and powerful hammer’, 29 required to break and crush the presumption of righteousness and reliance that a person placed on his good works. Thus, Luther viewed the Law as playing a positive role in pointing people to Christ, but negatively in the sense that it could not justify the individual before God. Although Luther viewed the Law as abrogated in terms of obtaining righteousness, he still regarded the Law as retaining an important function in the Christian life. Luther developed the idea that the Christian remains in this life at one and the same time both righteous and sinner. This he expressed in the Latin phrase, simuliustus et peccator. George states that ‘formerly Luther had understood this term in the Augustinian sense of “partly" a sinner and “partly" righteous, sinners in empirical reality, but justified in hope of the future consummation. Now, however, while retaining the paradox of simultaneity, he sharpened each of the clashing concepts into a sovereign, total realm’. So for Luther, Christians lived simultaneously in two worlds – one subject to the Spirit, the other subject to the flesh. In order to subdue and discipline the flesh, Christians needed to engage with the Law, which brought an awareness of sin. Westerholm states that ‘Luther even claimed that to the extent Christians are “flesh”, they remain “under the law”’

We have reached the critical point in Luther’s life. George indicates that ‘Luther’s doctrine of justification shattered the entire theology of merit and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself’. Paradoxically, though, for Luther, the doctrine that for so long had haunted him now becomes the benchmark by which all other doctrines would be measured. His personal and religious struggles which led to his ‘Reformation Discovery’ provided him with a powerful matrix for the interpretation of Paul’s teaching.

Today’s Relevance

When Paul visited the city of Thessalonica, he was accused of turning the world upside down by fermenting sedition against the authority of Rome, Acts 17. 6-7. In effect, his detractors were suggesting, pejoratively, that he was a bad person!33 Some fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther also turned his world upside down by challenging the authority of Papal Rome when he attacked the sale of indulgences by fastening his Ninety-Five Thesis to a church door in Wittenburg. What began with Luther as an internal matter about the validity of indulgences soon became a devastating critique of the medieval church, and its penitential theology. This subsequently led to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and changed forever the course of church history. What is surprising though about Luther is that he did not, in fact, seek for new truth, but felt that he had been put into the position of defending and recovering truth from an institution that had lost its way. The rest we might think is simply history, but history has a way of revisiting established norms by providing each successive generation with the opportunity to challenge the declared wisdom of the past.

For almost three hundred years, Luther’s interpretation of Paul stood relatively unchallenged, although, in Germany, critics were beginning to sharpen their knives. A more sceptical approach to biblical authority during the nineteenth century brought about a challenge to received tradition, setting the agenda for future Pauline studies by specifically identifying a number of issues that would be debated by later theologians. One such issue was whether justification by faith alone was the central theme of Paul’s theology as advocated by Luther. The concentration of terms relating to justification found almost exclusively in Romans and Galatians suggested to some, including Albert Schweitzer, that it was not a central Pauline theme. It was merely a polemic device to an otherwise irenic doctrine used by Paul in his disagreement with Judaism. For Schweitzer et al, the real centre of Paul’s gravity was found in Romans chapters 5 to 8, which focused on union with Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. This approach intentionally undermined, and attempted to displace, the centrality of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. It also opened up the floodgates for more diverse views being later formulated in the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ (NPP). The NPP has gained considerable momentum during the 20th century particularly in the writings of individuals such as Ed Sanders, James (Jimmy) Dunn and N. T. (Tom) Wright. As Simon Gathercole states, ‘these three figures are considered to be the three musketeers of the so called “New Perspective”’ Sanders led the way with his book entitled Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and Dunn and WRIGHT have followed on, albeit with slightly different nuances of the NPP. Dunn is an influential writer and, as Simon Gathercole observes, ‘Dunn’s (commentary on) Romans has exercised particular influence’. Tom Wright is also highly influential, not only in the academic world, but as a writer of popular Christian material such as ‘The New Testament for Everyone’. Donfried describes Wright as ‘the harshest critic of the inherited “Lutheran” tradition and most adamant in attempting to rewrite Paul according to his own agenda’. But, interestingly, whilst Wright has suggested that Paul should be interpreted in different ways, he is more deferential towards ‘the popular view of “justification by faith"’ than Dunn, indicating that it is ‘not entirely misleading’. One of the problems with Wright’s work is that one is never absolutely certain of his position. Michael Bird suggests that this is due to the fact that Wright has been writing on the topic of justification for nearly 30 years and his emphases have shifted markedly at times. This may be the sign of an exegete with a great deal of integrity or, conversely, someone who, periodically, likes to stir the pot!

The main thrust of both Dunn’s and Wright’s arguments are that Luther allowed his own particular conversion experience to influence his understanding and reading of Paul’s theology. In short, Luther got Paul wrong in maintaining the contrast between justification by faith and justification by works, and, thus, turned ‘Paul’s letter to the Romans into personal introspective and to an extent gloom-laden autobiography’. Secondly, because Luther’s theology was shaped in this way, it is claimed that he misread Paul in terms of salvation by an individualistic approach to the doctrine of justification.

One might stand back from this somewhat academic (and for some esoteric) debate and ask what this has to do with believers in assembly fellowship. How could they be affected by such views? The simple answer to this is that the influence of the NPP is so widespread throughout Pauline studies that it has caused scholars such as Don Carson to state that this new perspective is now so strong, especially in the world of English-language biblical scholarship, that only the rare major work on Paul does not interact with it, whether primarily by agreement, qualification, or disagreement. In short, if the views of Dunn and Wright are held to be the new orthodoxy then it poses ‘a serious and potentially damaging challenge to a hallmark of Reformation theology: justification before God by faith alone, by grace alone’. Earlier, it was indicated that the terms relating to justification occur in a small number of Paul’s letters, hence critics argue that it was not a central Pauline theme. It is certainly true that Paul uses the verb ‘to justify’ (δικαιόω) and the noun ‘righteousness’ (δικαιόσυνή) almost exclusively in Romans and Galatians. But the presence or absence of phrases or words in particular Pauline letters is not the only determining factor in establishing Paul’s thought world. The purpose of the letter would undoubtedly order the subject matter. And if the letter to the Romans, for instance, is a treatise in which Paul carefully sets out his doctrinal position regarding the Gospel of Christ, why should it surprise us to find that the theme of justification is central to his theology? The letter covers a wide range of theological issues, but what, in our view, acts as the single most important Mitte or the coherent force is Paul’s unqualified commitment to forensic justification.

While we do not see Luther as an infallible guide to Paul’s theology, for us he captures its essence, even if occasionally he allows his own personal circumstances to direct his exegesis. We conclude that Luther did get Paul right in many important ways, not least, on his interpretation of the ‘righteousness of God’. Here we stand, we can do no other!


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