Tag Archives: Martin Luther

On the Role of Justification in Lutheran Theology

Today’s post is prompted by the following remark from the contemporary American Lutheran moral theologian Gilbert Meilaender.

However much some contemporary Lutherans have attempted to think of Lutheranism as a freestanding theological system, it can really be understood only as a correction within the Catholic tradition. It degenerates rapidly whenever its theologians attempt to build an entire system of Christian thought on ideas thought to be characteristically Lutheran (e.g., law/gospel, justification, paradox). [from The Freedom of a Christian (Brazos, 2006)]

Here are some questions Meilaender raises for me: what normative role should signature Lutheran doctrines like the law/gospel distinction or justification by faith alone play in Lutheran theology? That is, what sort of authority should they exercise? Additionally, to what extent is confessional Lutheran systematic theology just an elaboration of its doctrine of justification? Does justification in fact set the only proper point of departure for theological exposition, the limit of its scope, and the goal of its task?

The reason this is a live question for me is my standing regard for both Luther and Meilaender. I still believe Luther was right to teach that justification is an article by which “the church stands or falls.” At the same time I also think that Meilaender is on to something that’s not always so easy for Lutherans to acknowledge. This post, then, will attempt to preserve both of their insights.

It strikes me that the kind of logic that motivates a stricter deployment and emphasis of Lutheran distinctives can be observed in other theological disputes. (I’m not going to claim there’s a causal link, just a resemblance in logic.) I have in mind a question like the nature of scripture’s authority in theology. One proposal on this subject, that of the Protestant Reformers, was distilled through the slogan of Scripture Alone. Scripture, that is, on its own, without the supplementation of church tradition, was said to be a singular and sufficient norm of doctrine and practice. With so much I won’t take issue. The next step, however, gets trickier. And that’s because the notion of “lone norm” is still a bit ambiguous. For one, it can mean “sole source of knowledge” –- the only fund from which knowledge may be derived. Or it could mean “supreme canon” — the final measure of a proposal’s validity. This distinction between source and canon is crucial for this post, so I’m going to let Charles Wood belabor the point:

Canon does not mean source, and even though scripture may in fact always remain the primary source of our thought, its function as canon is not to supply all our ideas but to enable us to judge their adequacy, their likelihood of usefulness within the language and life of faith. [from An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Pr Intl, 1994), 102.]

With this distinction in place, here, then, is my suggestion. What’s objectionable about the practice of strict Lutherans – those Meilaender censures – is that they’ve opted for a “source” model of authority. In this understanding, the characteristic notions of Lutheran theology function as the controlling source of theological knowledge, analogous to the way some think scripture alone is supposed to fund theology. It’s precisely the shibboleths that are supposed to be the only spring from which the system is to be derived.

I wonder, though, to what extent a “canonical” approach to the authority of Lutheran constructs (see note 1 below) might forge a more promising path for Lutheran theology, and much for the same reason that I think it offers a superior conception of the relation between scripture and theology. (I inventory gestures toward something closer to what I imagine as theology’s canonical use of scripture here.) The first reason is this: a source model risks generating reductive and clichéd theology, which in the long run only threatens to limit theology’s imaginative reach, diminish its assimilative power, and discredit its capacity to sustain and train our intellectual appetites. These are flaws you should want to avoid! (At present I will forgo elaborating on my reasons for these allegations.)

A second reason is my suspicion that a source model actually works against itself, undermining one of the key lessons it’s meant to serve in this particular case. We can see this played out in the Lutheran / Reformed dispute over principles of worship. A distinction is drawn between the normative and the regulative principles of worship. The normative principle states that anything not prohibited in scripture regarding worship is permitted; and the regulative — the stricter of the two — that anything not prescribed is prohibited. The Lutherans opted for the former principle, and the Reformed the latter.

Here is a confessional Lutheran articulation of the normative principle of worship:

We believe, teach, and confess … that no church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known saying: … Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith. …

Accordingly, we reject and condemn as wrong and contrary to God’s Word when it is taught: … when these external ceremonies and adiaphora are abrogated in such a manner as though it were not free to the congregation of God to employ one or more in Christian liberty, according to its circumstances, as may be most useful at any time to the Church. [Ep-FC. 10.7, 12. (1577)]

And here is a confessional Reformed articulation of the regulative principle of worship.

The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures. [Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 (1646)]

One concrete illustration of the fallout of this divergence is the Lutheran authorization and the Reformed prohibition of the use of images, vestments, and the like in worship.

When these two principles are juxtaposed to one another like this, their different emphases stand in sharper focus. I read the Lutheran principle as aiming to secure “Christian liberty” in worship. The Reformed, on the other hand, I read as aiming to secure “purity of liturgy.” (It’s not a coincidence, after all, that it was the Puritans who seized on this principle in their opposition to the Anglican church.)

Now to translate this digression back to the point at hand, the Reformed regulative principle is another example of a “single source” model of authority at work, insofar as the only permissible forms of worship must be derivable from scripture alone. For the purposes of theological discourse, this regulative principle would be well primed to serve theologians who are also chiefly concerned about preserving doctrinal purity and the succession of tradition. So in a theological use of the regulative principle it would be the distinctive categories of a tradition functioning as the source otherwise assigned to scripture in analogous disputes.

For theologians, however, who have truly imbibed the spirit of the Lutheran doctrine of justification, I would think they’d prize liberty over purity, as the Lutheran normative principle prioritizes it (though I’d immediately concede this will require continued thinking on my part). This is what I mean when I say that a source model of Lutheran theology risks undercutting the very lesson it’s meant to instill: if signature doctrines like justification are treated, not as canons of judgment, but as the sole permissible sources of theological exposition, we’ll only lose a measure of the liberty justification was meant to afford us in the first place.

If any of the above tracks, I hope enough ground has been cleared to permit us to affirm both that Luther is still right that no ecclesial theology should dare contradict or mute the doctrine of justification by faith, and that Meilaender is also right that we Lutherans are freer to exercise some more imagination than we might typically indulge ourselves.

If we’re at a loss trying to conceive what this sort of theology might look like, let me suggest that there are already instances of it in existence. We needn’t look any farther than, say, the two-volume Systematic Theology by Robert Jenson. There is a work that fundamentally affirms the confessional Lutheran law/gospel distinction, and yet is not slavishly driven by it materially, but can countenance at the same time a program of broader sympathies and a wider frame of reference.


(1) To be clear, in this sense of “canon” it refers not to the scope of the norm’s jurisdiction — Lutheranism’s identifying categories don’t share scripture’s status as an ecumenical or global norm but rather confessional and local — but to the manner in which its authority is exercised.

Is There an Entry for “Formation” in the Lutheran Lexicon?

A. On Formation

In those branches of Christian tradition where the term itself is most at home, “formation” is viewed as a deliberate undertaking in which those who are spiritually more mature direct and assist the less mature, and “forming” is seen as an apt term for this process: there are various disciplines and exercises aimed at shaping the Christian life, helping one acquire the proper habits (or virtues) and shed inappropriate ones, and so forth. But in other Christian communities, the very idea of “forming” is suspect, as running counter to the way human personhood ought to be described as well as to the way the Holy Spirit works with and in human beings. … Sanctification is God’s work – not the product of human programs; further, “forming” is not as accurate a term for what the Spirit does as, say, “regeneration.” Most of those who take this alternative to the language of “formation” still find appropriate ways of nurturing and guiding persons in the life of faith, and ways of describing the spiritual state of the life of the unregenerate and the regenerate, the immature and the mature Christian – but with some characteristic differences in both conception and procedure. There are similar ranges of variation among Christian groups as to, for example, the role involvement in Christian practice plays in spiritual formation – and as to what sort of Christian practice is most crucial.

from Charles Wood, An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Press Intl, 1994), 27.

B. Standing Questions for Lutherans

Would they [the 16th c Reformers]…have endorsed the sort of intentional training in virtuous works and deliberate cultivation of Christian character that is advocated by the supporters of virtue ethics? Is the exhortation to good works the same thing as the inculcation of virtue? Did the reformers approve the idea that individual Christian character could and should be formed through human effort as virtue ethics holds, or did they rely solely on the gospel’s power of transformation? Was there a place within the Christian faith and specifically within Lutheranism for the teaching of virtue, or were Christian virtues the essentially automatic fruit of the gospel and justification?

from Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward A Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Fortress Press, 2014), 73.

C. One Strand of the Received Wisdom

41. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.

from Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 1517.

The quest to be a virtuous or pious person is not a Christian quest.

from Gerhard Forde, “The Christian Life,” in Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Fortress Press, 1984), 438. [italics original]

Virtue is not the goal of life; virtue is our problem.

from Steven Paulson, Lutheran Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), 2.

D. A counter vision

I want to be part of a community with the habits and practices [i.e. virtues] that will make me do what I would otherwise not choose to do and then to learn to like what I have been forced to do [i.e. formation by habituation].

from Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company (Univ Notre Dame Pr, 1995), 75.

Is Lutheran theology adequately capacious to assimilate Hauerwas’ admission? Or does this topic expose a structural blind spot for Lutherans? Or is it Hauerwas who’s missing the bigger picture? However we come down on these questions, I’m glad folks like Biermann are at least continuing the conversation.

On St. Paul and the continuity/provisionality of the Law

1. Ben Witherington III

Paul believes that the story of Moses and those involved in the Mosaic covenant is not the generating narrative for Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. […] The story of Moses, like the Mosaic covenant and the Mosaic Law, […] was a story meant to guide God’s people between the time of Moses and Christ. But once the eschatological age dawned though the Christ event, the Moses story could no longer be the controlling narrative of God’s people, precisely because now is the era of the new covenant. [40]

Paul is no antinomian, and freedom in his view does not amount to exchanging obedience to the Mosaic Law for a condition in which no objective restrictions or requirements are placed on one’s life. [49]

By what rule or standard will the Christian community live and be shaped? Paul’s answer is that the community is to be cruciform and Christological in shape. It is to follow his example and the pattern of Christ and walk in and by the Spirit. [42]

In his [Paul’s] view the Mosaic Law […] will and should be reflected in the life of the Christian believer, not because Christians have placed themselves under the Law and committed themselves to obey it all, but because the Spirit produces the essential qualities the Law demanded in the life of the believer. To put it another way, the eschatological age is the age of fulfillment, and the essential requirements of the Mosaic Law are fulfilled in the life of the Christian “not because they continue to be obligated to it but because, by the power of the Spirit in their lives, their conduct coincidentally displays the behavior the Mosaic law prescribes. In this verse then, Paul is claiming that believers have no need of the Mosaic law because by their Spirit-inspired conduct they already fulfill its requirements.” […] Not surprisingly there is considerable principle overlap between the Mosaic Law and the Law of Christ since God has given them both. But this does not mean that Paul sees the “Law of Christ” as simply Christ’s interpretation of the Law. Indeed not. The phrase Law of Christ first and foremost refers to the cruciform and resurrection pattern of the life of Jesus, which is to be replicated in the lives of Christ’s followers by the work of the Spirit and by imitation. They are to clothe themselves with Christ and immerse themselves in his life and lifestyle. This pattern of a crucified and risen Savior is not enunciated in the Mosaic Law and certainly not enunciated there as a pattern for believers to imitate. The Law of Christ also entails various teachings of Christ, both the portions of the OT he reaffirmed during his ministry and the new teachings he enunciated. It furthermore involves some early Christian teaching such as we find in Galatians 6, including Paul’s own paraphrasing and amplifying of the teachings of Christ. Thus, Paul’s answer to the question “How then should Christians live?” is […] “Follow and be refashioned by the Law of Christ” and “walk in the Spirit.” [44-5]

from The Problem with Evangelical Theology, (Baylor, 2005)

2. Austin Farrer

It is plain that to him [St Paul] the Bible is ‘the Law,’ buttressed by its traditional outworks. If, in his view, the Old Testament did anything, it imposed a Law, and this was God’s purpose for the while. But now the Law has fallen foul of Christ, crucifying him as a law-breaker. So much the worse for the Law; its right is at an end, and the old Covenant or Testament gives place to the New. Indeed, if we look carefully at the Law, we see that it carries in it the mark of its provisional character and the promise of what will supersede it. Not that the servants of God are henceforth lawless; they do what the Law requires, not through conformity to Law, but through devotion to Christ.

from The Truth Seeking Heart, (Canterbury, 2006), 12.

P.S. from Oswald Bayer on Luther and the Law

Luther continually stressed the fact that the law should not be preached to Christians insofar as they are justified by the gospel. But it should be preached to them insofar as they are sinners and still belong to the old world. […] This Lutheran confession [The Formula of Concord] constantly comes back to our old nature when stressing the validity of the law. For “the old Adam…still clings to” the Christian. This old Adam is a simple quarrelsome, “stubborn, recalcitrant donkey” that always wages war against our new nature. There is no real difference between a justified Christian insofar as he is still the old human and an unbelieving and unrepentant non-Christian! The one law is for believers no less than unbelievers.

from Living by Faith, (LQB, 2003): 67-8.

Martin Luther on being a neighbor

Since the arms of the crucified embrace the neighbour, genuinely to live in Christ is always to live in the neighbour as well. Never shallow, Luther insisted we live in the neighbour [in three ways. First,] by sharing her need. This isn’t especially difficult, since we are meeting her scarcity with our abundance. In the second place we live in our neighbour by sharing her suffering. This is considerably more difficult, since proximity to another person’s pain is itself painful for us. At the same time, we may feel rather good about sharing our neighbour’s suffering in that we may feel somewhat heroic, virtuous; we shall likely feel even better if we are recognized and commended for this. In the third place we live in our neighbour by sharing her disgrace. So far from being commended now we find ourselves despised. We are told that we have compromised our standards. We are reminded that you can always tell a person by the company she keeps. Our only comfort here, says Luther, is to continue clinging to him who was himself numbered among the transgressors. He, after all, knew no sin yet was made to be sin in order that we whose sin can never be excused may yet know it forgiven and know ourselves rendered the righteousness of God.

Victor Shepherd, “My Spiritual Debt to Martin Luther,” in The Canadian Lutheran (Oct, 2002).

Available in full here

Martin Luther on temptation

Young fellows are tempted by girls, men who are thirty years old are tempted by gold, when they are forty years old they are tempted by honor and glory, and those who are sixty years old say to themselves, “What a pious man I have become”!

Martin Luther, excerpt from Table Talk (1566), in A Reformation Reader, edited by Denis R. Janz, (Fortress, 1999), 78. [Also LW vol 54, no. 1601]

A prayer on receiving the Lord’s Supper

“Lord, it is true that I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Yet I am in need and desire your help and grace. So I come with no other plea except that I have heard the gracious invitation to come to your altar. I am unworthy, but you have assured me I shall have forgiveness of all sins through your body and blood which I eat and drink in this sacrament. Amen, dear Lord; your word is true. I do not doubt it. Let happen to me whatever you say. Amen.”

Martin Luther (citation data coming)

Martin Luther on the Eighth Commandment

You are not to bear false witness against your neighbor.

What is this? Answer:

We are to fear God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

Martin Luther, from The Small Catechism, (1529).