Luther, Imputation, and Sin: Surprisingly Irrational

This was supposed to be a post about Abraham’s faith and righteousness, but instead I started reading Luther, and was unexpectedly carried away with other observations.

Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, 1565 (WikiPaintings).

Now, I freely acknowledge that I may be missing something. Am I somehow misunderstanding Protestant theology? Please, someone correct me if I am. Because today, in seeking to understand, I’ve been reading Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, and, forgive me for saying so, but it comes across as the ravings of a lunatic. I say this not because I’m predisposed to oppose Luther; I read him because I’m seeking to understand his theology, not to condemn him as a person.

But what I read is a man obsessed with his own sin, going out of his mind to find a way how he could be acceptable to God and still be sinful; interposing every other paragraph with wild aspersions against “meritmongers” and “popist sophisters,” charging that they, “seek righteousness by their own works,” that in this they “think to appease the wrath of God: that is, they do not judge him to be merciful, true, and keeping promise, etc., but to be an angry judge, which must be pacified by their works.” Luther is the one so consumed by the thought of a wrathful God! I struggle to understand how someone so well educated in Catholic theology could so wholly and thoroughly misunderstand it — unless he either be intentionally misrepresenting it, or be genuinely mentally deranged. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue, repeatedly, that “faith killeth reason, and slayeth that beast which the whole world and all creatures cannot kill”; that reason is “the most bitter enemy of God,” a “pestilent beast,” “the fountain and headspring of all mischiefs” — to argue intentionally and consistently that faith and reason are wholly opposed, that his own theology and all true faith defies all reason, and that reason instead is the sole purview of “popish sophisters and schoolmen,” who “kill not reason … but quicken it.” I didn’t set out to write this — but really, I am shocked. I never expected Luther to be so irrational.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

So if I understand correctly, Luther argues that “God accounteth this imperfect faith for perfect righteousness” — that he even having a “weak faith,” God imputes to him the “perfect righteousness” of Christ, that he is then “covered under the shadow of Christ’s wings,” that he can then “dwell without all fear under that most ample and large heaven of the forgiveness of sins, which is spread over me, God [covering] and [pardoning] the remnant of sin in me,” and from then on God “counteth [his] sin for no sin,” indeed He “winketh at the remnants of sin yet sticking in our flesh, and so covereth them, as if they were no sin.” I knew that this was the upshot of what Protestants believed; I never knew that Luther stated it so boldfacedly! God looks on sin and accepts it instead as righteousness. And what’s more, that this a one-time, once-and-for-all, irrevocable occurrence.

I was a Protestant not so very long ago. I accepted this! Now, perhaps it’s my Lent-addled state, but I can no longer understand where Luther could rationally have derived such a doctrine, let alone how he could square it with the rest of Scripture. I suppose, by reckoning that he could be simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner, he can dismiss scriptural warnings against sin and judgment upon it as not applying to him, whether he actually be a wanton sinner or not, he being “righteous” by imputation: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9). But on the other hand, Paul writes, to members of the Church, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21), without regard to their having been once-justified or not.

Even more surprising than all this, though, is the tone with which Luther argues. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I could ramble on about this for some time, so I will bring this to a close. If you have any criticism, please give it. I would like to make sense of this.

7 thoughts on “Luther, Imputation, and Sin: Surprisingly Irrational

  1. I have often wondered if Luther did not suffer from one or more mental illnesses.

    Luther was a man obsessed with his own sin. It was the system in which he was raised and taught. He was taught that, if during Confession, if one happened to forget a sin, and it remained unconfessed, it was then unforgiven, and one would be damned to eternity in hell. His confessors actually had to tell him to go away. Whether right or wrong, that was the theology he had been taught, and the theology to which, to a lesser degree, the people around him, the people subscribed.

    And yes, Luther was obsessed with the idea of a wrathful God, until he reached the turning point that showed him the grace of God. His claim is that the common people, however, rightly or wrongly, based on what they were being taught, were still perceiving God as a wrathful God who needed to be appeased because they were not being taught grace. In the sentences you quoted above, you’ll notice that he is critical of trying to use works to appease God.

    These particular words on reason would not be held today–and remember, this is one writing out of hundreds. He was not opposed to reason, but felt that it was being way, way overused in trying to “figure out” how God worked, producing formulas and systems that locked God into the way the church had decided to understand God.

    And come on, Luther’s tone is half the fun of reading him. The guy channeled his anger and frustration right through the pen, and the results are sometimes hysterical! Thankfully, Lutheran theology does not hinge on Luther’s words alone. We’re mostly Melanchthonites and Concordians.

    • Speaking of psychoanalyzing Luther: Erikson’s Young Man Luther is a landmark in psychoanalytical historiography in the great emphasis it places on Luther’s severe constipation and other bowel difficulties.

      I haven’t read much about Luther personally — I need to remedy that. I can’t speak to the specific situation of his upbringing — I know there were doctrinal abuses and doctrinal ignorance — but as an academic later in life, he should have known better. St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the situation very specifically of what happened when someone couldn’t remember a sin, and stated very clearly that a general absolution remits all sins, provided the sinner is truly contrite and genuinely forgot the sin (Summa Theologica Supplementum question 10 article 5). So far as I know, that has been the magisterial teaching ever since.

      I also can’t speak to what common people were being taught about grace or works, but the Magisterium of the Church has held since Augustine that salvation was by grace alone and that no one could merit their initial justification.

      That about formulas and systems was very much my attitude toward the Catholic Church before I actually experienced it. The medieval scholastic theologians were very caught up in defining things, but the majority of their work was speculative; today of the scholastics, it’s only the work of Thomas that defines our theology to any degree, by the sheer virtue of his volume and intellectual magnitude and his unquestionable influence on all that followed. Regarding grace and justification, our theology is still essentially Augustinian.

      I can understand Luther’s polemic writing being angry and vitriolic. But that is not what I was expecting from a scriptural commentary.

    • Ken, I’ve always wondered about Luther’s mental state at certain periods of his life too. There are a lot of stories/rumors that would point to the fact that he was a bit unstable, specifically during his time as a monk.

      Luther’s writing style is great because his passion for the Scriptures jumps off the page and smacks you in the face at times. This passionate prose certainly inspired a lot of his contemporaries but I honestly think other “Lutheran” theologians such as Phillipp Melanchthon and martin Chemnitz where probably about writing Luther’s theology with a clear voice that was a bit more scholastic and easy to understand. For me, Melanchthon’s “Apology of the Augsburg Confession” is one of the better summaries of Luther’s stance of doctrine.

  2. Great post. I have often wondered about Luther’s logic too, particularly wrt imputation of righteousness. For one thing, if God looked at each one of us, and insteaf of seeing our true nature, saw Christ and His righteousness, would this not lead to an undermining, even a destruction of the uniqueness of each person and all the history (both sin and the redemption that was worked in them) of their lives?

    As for his views on reason, my personal view is that he was unduly influenced by the earlier nominalists, particularly William of Ockham and his voluntarist view of divine action, which placed a wedge between an arbitrary divine will and what we may be able to know through logic. The two books of Nature and Revelation were seperated.

    One last point – your post reminded me of this, a ‘Lutheran Insulter’: http://ergofabulous.org/luther/?
    I would highly recommend giving it a go – it is hilarious!

    • Thanks. 🙂 Tomorrow I hope to post the post I intended to post with this one, dealing with another challenge I have to this theory of imputation.

      I am familiar with the Luther insulter. It is awesome!

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