LUTHER ON THE EVE OF HIS REVOLT
A criticism of Luther's Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans given at
Wittenberg in 1515-1516. by The Very Rev. M. J. Lagrange, O.P.
Translated by The Rev. W. S. Reilly, S.S.
NIHIL OBSTAT: E. R. DYER, D. D. Censor Deputatus
IMPRIMATUR: J. CARD. GIBBONS Archiepiscopus Baltimorensis
Baltimorre, die 24 Novembris, 1917.
The official birthday of the Reformation has been fixed as the 31st of
October, 1517, the day Luther posted upon the door of the University
Church at Wittenberg the ninety-five theses in which he bade defiance to
preachers of indulgences in Germany. It was resolved, before the war into
which Europe has been plunged, to celebrate with great solemnity the four
hundredth anniversary of this event.
The view that Luther's challenge had great significance was held by
Bossuet. That incomparable controversialist did not see in Luther's action
more than a rather irresolute first step, a denunciation of an isolated
abuse: "From abuses he passed to the thing itself." The Lutheran system
would have grown only insensibly and according to the requirements of
controversy: "However, one matter led him to another. As the doctrine of
justification and of the efficacy of the Sacraments was closely connected
with that of indulgences, Luther turned upon these two articles; and this
controversy soon became the more important." Working on this
assumption, Bossuet undertakes the difficult task of following Luther in
his first movements, which he represents as sometimes bold, sometimes
timid. His admirable book, so full of facts, so vigorous and serene in its
reasoning, is, at the beginning, occupied with the discussion of petty
quarrels. It is like the first flappings of the wings of the eagle which
is starting upon its flight.
It has been shown recently that Bossuet's view about the beginnings of
Lutheranism was entirely wrong. Long before the incident of October 31,
1517, Luther was already in full possession of his theological system. If
all the details were not formulated, the principles had been laid down
clearly and with assurance. The monk had his doctrine and his plan of
reform. It is now clear that the new religion is not the result of
The first historian to understand and to analyze the state of mind of
Luther on the eve of the Reformation was an Austrian Dominican, Father
Denifle, in his study on the beginnings of Lutheranism, as they are seen
in the original documents.
The document which proved to be of most value was a manuscript of the
"Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans" which Luther, as professor of
exegesis at Wittenberg, had composed in 1515-1516. We have the precise
date, because the Vulgate text of the Epistle which he annotated was
printed in 1515, and we know that the lectures ended in October, 1516,
just one year before the publication of the theses on indulgences. We owe
the discovery of this important document to Mr. Johannes Ficker, who, in
his search for manuscripts bearing on the beginning of the Reformation,
found, first, a copy of the "Commentary" in the archives of the Vatican
Library at Rome, and then the original itself, in the handwriting of
Luther, carefully preserved-- unread--in a glass case of the Royal Library
of Berlin. German Protestants, who have raised to the glory of the
Reformer a veritable monument of books and pamphlets, had overlooked the
only absolutely reliable source of information concerning the thought of
Luther when that thought was ripening into Lutheranism. Was such an
oversight due to the fact that intellectual curiosity about the master's
activity as a monk had been satisfied by his own stories about his life in
the cloister? Did they take seriously his claim to be divinely inspired?
The details of Ficker's discovery are given, too sparingly, in his edition
of the Berlin manuscript, from which we shall quote in the present
Father Denifle was not the man to await the publication of the Berlin
text. With his incomparable mastery of paleography, he set to work with
the Roman copy. He realized at a glance the importance of the discovery of
this book and it was not hard for such a keen theologian and historian, so
admirably informed concerning the intellectual life of the Middle Ages, to
realize that there was in this "Commentary" the essence of all the errors
which Luther was afterward to profess. Variations might appear, called
forth by polemics, but they would not fundamentally alter the system which
the Augustinian monk expounded a year before his revolt. The long extracts
which Father Denifle gives from the "Commentary," and the rigorous
analysis to which he submits them, are the most interesting features of
his great work on Luther and Lutheranism.
This work has shown conclusively, as is conceded by more than one of the
many opponents Father Denifle stirred up, that Luther, when he made his
attack on Catholic theology, had no knowledge of the great scholastics,
including St. Thomas Aquinas. His theological reading had not extended
beyond the disciples of Occam; Gabriel Biel had been his most familiar
A second still more important point made by the clear-sighted Thomistic
theologian is that Occam exercised an influence over the dominant theory
Protestant theologians were rather dumbfounded by the revelations which
Father Denifle had made, thanks to his knowledge of the theology, the
mysticism, and the liturgy of the Middle Ages. They had found it
convenient to make real Christianity begin with Luther, as a Jacobin might
date the history of France from the Revolution. The facts were too clear
to be gainsaid. Luther's mental equipment as a reformer was poor; even as
a heretic he was not so original as people had thought. So much might be
granted. But when Father Denifle passed on to discuss the moral condition
of Luther at the time that he was elaborating his theological system, he
ceased to convince Protestants. He had laid about with a scourge of
thistles among the contradictions of the theologian and, having followed
the movements of his mind up to the moment when he deviated from Catholic
teaching, he ventured to assign as the real cause of this deviation the
infidelities of the father of the Reformation; if Luther believed
concupiscence invincible, it was because he had himself, and frequently,
given way to concupiscence. A clamor of Lutheran apologists broke out
against the unmerciful treatment which the mendicant friar had meted out
to the apostate monk. Denifle's verdict was denounced as a calumny.
Harnack was as excited as the rest, although he spoke with caution. Father
Denifle had called attention to what might seem insufficient concern about
truth in some of the statements of this renowned historian in his work on
Luther. Whatever may be thought of the correctness of Father Denifle's
judgment about the moral dispositions of the father of Protestantism, this
judgment did not bear on a matter which could be made so clear as Luther's
state of mind. It has not found support in the more recent work of another
Catholic scholar, Father Grisar, S.J., who has dealt with the question in
the course of his exhaustive studies on Luther. He declares that
"neither the "Commentary" on the Psalms nor that on the Epistle to the
Romans gives the impression that the author was morally corrupt."
Consequently, he has not sought for the origin of Luther's theories in his
In the following study of the "Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans," I
shall keep this psychological problem in view. Everybody admits that
Luther's personality was a considerable factor in his exegesis. Some of
his admirers recognize with naive satisfaction this influence of the
dispositions of his mind and heart, without seeming to know that to be
guided in interpreting another's mind by one's own prepossessions and
feelings, means to depart from truth. But while we endeavor to determine
to what extent Luther was thus misled in his understanding of the teaching
of St. Paul, we must inquire no less carefully to what extent St. Paul
influenced Luther. For Luther really thought that he understood the
Apostle; he was convinced, at least in the beginning, that his system was
grounded on the Bible. It would be a mistake to think that he simply read
into the Epistle to the Romans a system of thought formed without any
dependence on the Apostle.
Before entering upon this study of the relation between the text of Romans
and the Lutheran way of understanding it, of the state of soul and the
exegetical methods which in part account for Luther's interpretation, it
is of interest to note that a cursory reading of the Commentary makes it
clear that the idea of revolt had not yet entered his thoughts. He still
believed himself loyal to the Catholic Church. He purposed only to bring
religion back to its purest sources. It did not occur to him that he would
ever be reduced to seeking salvation outside the Church. No book, even in
the Middle Ages, more frequently denounces heresy or paints heresy in
darker colors than does the "Commentary." It represents the heretic as a
proud man, who sins first through ignorance. If contempt be mingled with
ignorance, he is in the net. Then he clings to what seems true to his own
private judgment and at the moment when he thinks himself sure of the
truth, freed from snares and pitfalls, he is really a captive. Next, he
becomes impatient of contradiction, and will listen to nothing. Finally,
he is seized with indignant zeal for his own inventions; he pursues and
calumniates his enemies, seeking to harm them. His punishment has been
already inflicted! The "Commentary" tells us, moreover, that, whatever
heretics may do, there is always a weak spot which allows one to unmask
them. you have only to ask whence they hold their mission. That is a death
blow. They can allege neither prophesy nor miracles. mindful of this need
of proper authorization, the Wittenberg professor is careful to shield
himself behind his title: if he teaches, it is by apostolic commission.
This gives him an apostolic authority and a right to blame all that is
evil, even in the most exalted.
We propose here, firstly, to consider Luther's "Commentary" merely as an
exegetical work, restricting ourselves to an examination of his method,
and reserving until later any formal discussion of the new doctrines;
secondly, to study the intellectual and moral dispositions of Luther, in
so far as they may be gathered from his work on this Epistle to the
Romans; thirdly, to indicate the new doctrine which the Wittenberg
professor so dogmatically gave out as the genuine teaching of St. Paul,
and to discuss its real relation to that teaching.
The exegesis of Luther in his lectures at the University of Wittenberg in
1515-1516 deserves study for many reasons. Foremost, it was destined to
transform the religious lives of millions. Henceforth, the teaching of St.
Paul as interpreted by the Augustinian professor was to become the rule of
faith and practice of a large portion of the Christian world. And it still
holds sway. Many Protestants admit, indeed, that while professing to
interpret St. Paul, Luther simply set forth his own ideas. About the
ideas themselves they care little; they are as independent in his regard
as he would have them to be in regard to the teaching which was
traditional in 1516. There are, however, a great many Protestants who
still regard Luther as a faithful expositor of the Apostle's doctrine.
Some even, like Mr. A. Jundt, exalt his exegetical fidelity to the
prejudice of his originality: "St. Paul, Augustine, Calvin, have created
theological systems, Luther has restored Pauline theology; his mind,
attuned to that of the Apostle, acquired dogmatic precision of thought
once he understood what St. Paul means in the Epistle to the Romans."
Luther's system of thought possesses more than an archeological interest
for the student of history of Bible interpretation.
We are fully aware, of course, that a Catholic who criticizes the giant of
the Reformation can expect only disdain from Protestants. Father Denifle
has recalled that many who feel perfectly free to dissect the words and
actions of Jesus will not suffer any disparagement of the inviolable
Luther. We are incapable, it is claimed, of understanding him. The
caviling of modern dwarfs can no more reach him than the envy of a
mole-hill could efface Mount Blanc. We need not, then, be embarrassed,
since we do the idol no harm. Besides, we are conscious of only seeking
CHAPTER I: LUTHER'S COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS AS AN
1. THE STRUCTURE OF THE COMMENTARY
The text of Luther's "Commentary", as published by Johannes Ficker, is,
naturally, according to the original of Berlin, with notation of variants
in the Vatican copy, which differs very slightly from the text. The first
volume is consecrated to the "Glosses," the second to the "Scholia". The
work of Luther comprises, indeed, two very distinct parts.
He used, for the first of these parts, a printed text of the Epistle to
the Romans according to the Vulgate, with considerable space between the
lines. This space is devoted to a first series of "Glosses" which were
only another way of expressing the idea of the sacred writer. Sometimes a
word is substituted for another in an endeavor to get nearer the meaning
of the Greek, sometimes several words are paraphrased or explained. These
annotations are for the most part brief indications of consequences to be
drawn from a text. In the edition of Ficker the text of the Bible is
printed in heavy (Egyptian) characters, and the gloss follows in Italic.
The following translation will give an idea of the book:
Romans 1.28: And as they did not approve, make efforts, or diligently
strive to have God in their knowledge, that their heart might not be
darkened, the knowledge of God being lost. This, I say, they did not care
about, therefore God delivered them up to a worthy chastisement, by a just
judgment, to a reprobate sense, a dishonest mind, etc.
Other glosses were placed in the margin. They are by way of development of
the former, explaining more in detail the meaning of the Greek text, or
the thought of the Apostle, and at times they contain citations, etc. In
Ficker these glosses are assigned a place by themselves, under the others,
with indication of the texts to which they refer.
The text, together with interlinear and marginal glosses, occupies only 28
pages in quarto, whereas the "Scholia" extend from p. 29 to p. 152 of the
manuscript. The "Scholia" form a continuous commentary, if the name can be
given to such an original work. Some words of the text are still quoted,
but digressions are not rare. It is in the "Scholia" that we find the
developments which refer to the new doctrine. The glosses reflect it also,
but less clearly, either because Luther was naturally led to write these
short notes in the terminology of traditional exegesis, or because the
text of St. Paul itself served as a barrier. The new ideas are freely set
forth only in the "Scholia".
2. NEGLECT OF THE FATHERS AND THE SCHOOLMEN
It is in these "Scholia" that it would have been well to determine the
logical connection of the Apostle's thought. The system of St. Thomas is
known: he reproduces the Latin text of a pericope; then he dismembers it,
so to speak, to point out the order of the propositions, the relations of
causality, finality, or consequence. After this he goes on to examine the
propositions, endeavoring solely to disengage their meaning. He willingly
notes the various solutions which may be given, and sets down analogous
biblical passages. This commentary of St. Thomas would be a model of an
objective explanation, if such could be produced without having recourse
to the original text, and if one might interpret a book without studying
its environment, the origin and conflict of doctrines--without applying
all that we call historical exegesis.
St. Thomas has at least the merit of keeping his own personality in the
background. Father Denifle shows us how impersonal this method was. "If we
compare," he writes in a sort of supplement to his work on Luther, "the
Commentary of St. Thomas with those which immediately preceded it, we
find in these earlier ones, to speak in a general way, the same questions,
often the same solutions, the same scriptural texts, although more
numerous; but in the commentary of St. Thomas, as in his "Summa",
everything is handled with more perspicuity, is better understood, is
grasped in a surer and more objective way. He did not, however, invent his
method; he only employed logically the traditional way of expounding
All the works of the scholastic exegetes remained almost unknown to
Luther. He has, indeed, a few allusions to Peter Lombard, and Mr.
Ficker has expressed the view that he had under his eyes a Latin Vulgate
containing the divisions of St. Thomas; but his contempt for
scholasticism, which led him to an open rupture with the system, kept him
from consulting, except perhaps very rarely, the exegetes of the Middle
This neglect was unfortunate, for, although the schoolmen went too far in
their concern for logical order, bringing it into St. Paul to such an
extent as to reduce its utterances to a series of well-drawn conclusions,
they could at least have taught Luther to inform himself about the plan of
the Apostle, perfectly recognizable in its main lines in spite of the
almost tumultuous appearance of his style.
In his scorn for scholasticism did the Augustinian monk prefer to go
directly to the Fathers? The influence of St. Augustine is evident. Luther
has told us what an impression was made upon him by the "De spiritu, et
littera." This might be recognized by simply reading his work. The books
against Julian, "De nuptiis et concupiscentia" and others, furnish him
with quotations and veritable extracts. We shall have to inquire how far
he really reproduced the thought of one whom he regarded as the founder of
his order, and to whom he had consecrated so much and such exclusive
admiration. St. Ambrose is named ten times, twice without any special
reason, once following Erasmus, four times following St.
Augustine; and, let us add, a citation which is rather inaccurate
and one which Luther probably borrowed from a citation of another. In
the single passage where Ambrose is quoted as a commentator, reference is
made to the distinguished work which we call, for want of a better name,
the "Ambrosiaster." Luther knew it, consequently, but he did not make much
use of it. St. Cyprian is named three times, always following St.
Augustine. Chrysostom himself is not otherwise cited. This is fortunate
for him, because he would surely have been rudely handled. St. Jerome was
better known, but especially as the translator of the Old Testament.
Luther was not obliged to display in his "Commentary" wide acquaintance
with the opinions of the Fathers, but he should at least have avoided
incorrect general statements about writings which he had not read. He
frequently misrepresents them. For instance, on the words of the text:
"Let every man abound in his own sense," Luther writes:
"This saying is taken everywhere (passim) by the Holy Fathers and Doctors
for a general declaration, by which every man is allowed to abound in his
own sense in the understanding of the Scriptures."
Concerning this statement Mr. Ficker notes that the exegesis of Romans 14.
5 is met with neither in the Fathers nor in the Scholastics.
When the "Commentary" speaks of "the Fathers," one can be sure that Luther
has in mind hardly any one but St. Augustine, in whom the Augustinian monk
hears the whole school. It is again Mr. Ficker himself who has noticed
this. It is, then, rather to ignorance than to bad faith that we may
attribute Luther's allegation about the traditional interpretation of
Romans 1.17, so severely judged by Father Denifle, upon whom it imposed
Luther had accustomed himself to put down as an "opinion of the Fathers"
any view which in his own neighborhood was regarded as traditional.
However, he had direct knowledge of St. Bernard, whose authority he
willingly alleged alongside that of St. Augustine. Once he even attributes
to Augustine an idea which was suggested by Bernard. And he grafts
upon his words a whole theory. But it is as an ascetic Doctor much
more than as an exegete that Bernard is cited; only one gloss is borrowed
If now we return to more recent commentators, we find Luther making use of
the "Ordinary" and of the "Interlineary" glossaries current in his
time. These he had habitually under his eyes. He also used Nicholas
de Lyra, quoted oftener when he parts company with him in his
interpretation than when they agree. Paul of Burgos is named several
3. DEPENDENCE ON THE HUMANISTS LEFEVRE d' ETAPLES, ERASMUS, AND REUCHLIN
Luther himself has defined the attitude which he intended to assume in the
explanation of the word of God, for we may apply to his whole method what
he says of one passage (Romans 1.3-4):
"I do not know whether this passage has been really and truly expounded by
anyone. The ancients were prevented from doing so by the incorrectness of
the translation, the more recent commentators, by the absence of the
A concise formula, but strong and expressive, such as occur frequently
under his pen. He believed, then, with the most enlightened minds of his
time, that the moment had come for exegetes to define with more precision
the meaning of words. For this recourse must be had to the original text.
Illustrious humanists had opened the way in the case of the Greek New
Testament. Luther, so independent in regard to the Scholastics, does not
hesitate to accept the moderns as his real authorities. For everything
pertaining to the sense of the Greek he depends on Lefevre d'Etaples. The
first edition of the "Epistole Pauli A postoli" had appeared in Paris in
the year 1512. Luther never disputed d'Etaples' authority as a Hellenist
until the day a more luminous star came within the ken of Wittenberg. The
"Novum Testamentum" of Erasmus appeared at Basle only in 1516, but Luther
already uses it after his ninth chapter. Henceforth Erasmus is the master
for Greek and references to the Greek text become more and more frequent
in the glosses, while allusions to the religious and political conditions
of the times are multiplied in the "Scholia". The mendicant monk entered
at the same time into the current of humanism and into Erasmus'
aspirations for reform. It is even probable (Ficker infers it from the
handwriting) that more than one philological note was added in the
margin to the first part of the "Commentary" after Erasmus had appeared.
But Erasmus was already for Luther what he so loudly declared him to
be in their controversy on free will, a profane and superficial humanist,
little concerned about the things of God. If the new exegesis had
"correctness of translation" (proprietas verborum), there was lacking to
it the spirit of the ancients, by which Luther meant especially the
doctrine of Augustine, the faithful interpreter of the Holy Spirit, who
had spoken by the mouth of Paul.
Whence we may conclude that his ideal was to compose a commentary which
should be above reproach as regards the explanation of the Greek but
nevertheless penetrated by the spirit which had animated the Apostle. So
we shall see him consciously depart from the literal sense under the
influence of the view that the meaning of Paul can only be attained by
those who are "in spirit."
"The solution is: because the Apostle speaks in spirit, he is not
understood except by those who are in spirit."
Luther was well inspired in accepting the authority of the humanists. His
competency in Greek was at the time very mediocre. He learned it only
later on from Melanchthon and he always remained far inferior to Erasmus
in regard to the understanding of words. It is true that Erasmus'
philological tact was wonderful.
It would be a loss of time to point out here the cases, more and more
numerous, in which Luther translates according to the Greek, frequently
insisting on its difference from the Vulgate. Mr. Ficker has taken care
in such cases to note the translation of Lefevre and that of Erasmus.
Luther always respected their authority. Towards the end of his
"Commentary", after having defended at length his view on the meaning of
"philoutimoumenos" (Rom. 15. 20), which he translates "ambitiosus" with
Lefevre against Erasmus, he is careful to make a concession to the
authority of the great humanist. His tone is here very far from the
disdain which he shows for theologians. He doubtless realized his
And, indeed, his personal contribution does not equal even that of
Lefevre, not to speak of Erasmus. The former had translated Romans 1.3-4:
"de filio suo . . . definito filio Dei in potestate
. . . Jhesu Christo domino nostro." Luther translates
"horisthentos", "destinato sive definito, declarato, ordinato," etc.,
without seeming to attach much importance to the varieties of meaning
which these words represent. He hesitates to replace "Jhesu Christi
Domini nostri" by the ablative on the ground that the Greek text is
equivocal. However, he is right in retaining "secundum spiritum
sanctificationis," which Lefevre had translated "per spiritum
One does not see why he replaced "in die" (Rom. 2.5) by "in diem;" he
notes "Greci, in diem, et melius," but no authority, Greek or Latin,
known to us, can have suggested this.
The Latin text "credita sunt . . . eloquia Dei" (Rom. 3. 2), like the
Greek "episteuthesan", signifies that the word of God has been entrusted
to the Jews. Perhaps on account of his preoccupation concerning the role
of faith, Luther understands the text to mean that the Jews had believed
the word of God. Nevertheless, he puts aside the reading "ab illis,"
which would lead to this confusion, and retains only "credita sunt eloquia
Another still stranger confusion. In the famous text on Original Sin (Rom.
5.12) "in quo" is glossed "peccato originali," and this sense is
maintained in the "Scholia": "Sed nullum aliud est, in quo omnes
peccaverunt, proprium peccatum, sed unusquisque in suo pecato." Is it
that Luther has neglected to consult the Greek text of this important
passage? He would not have understood "eph o" of sin, which is feminine
(hamartia). But he has expressed himself further on concerning this "in
"This is ambiguous in Greek, whether masculine or neuter. Therefore,
it seems that the, Apostle wished it understood in both senses."
Consequently a double literal sense, commented on by St. Augustine.
Luther holds decidedly to the neuter. The authority of St. Augustine
dispenses him from a deeper study of the Greek.
This same authority prevented him from noticing a remark of Lefevre on the
meaning of "katergazesthai" (Rom. 7.18), which is not "perficere" (to
perfect), but simply "operari" (to do). But it would have been necessary
to give up the doctrinal opposition between "facere" and "perficere,"
favorable to his thesis, as we shall see. I cannot blame him for having
confirmed the meaning of "perficere" in Romans 7.18 by Galatians 5.16,
where the Greek has another verb, since he is in this place but
following St. Augustine.
Father Denifle also appears to me too severe when he condemns the
exegesis of "ego ipse" (I myself) in Romans 7.25:
"I," he says, "the whole man, the same person, serve in both
Luther should have consulted the Greek text (autos ego), which authorizes
the explanation: "If alone, if left to myself." St. Augustine and St.
Thomas (unus et idem) are guilty of the same neglect. In reality, both
explanations are, perhaps, equally probable. Needless to say, St.
Augustine in no wise authorizes Luther to conclude: "Simsul justus est et
peccat" (While just he sins).
On the other hand, Father Denifle is right in censuring Luther-- as
Melanchthon did before him--for treating the statement about faith in
Hebrews 11.1 as if "substantia futurarum rerum" (the substance of things
future) meant the possession of, and power of using, future things:
"possessio et facultas futurarum rerum."
We again find in the "Commentary" on Romans 8.35 St. Augustine opposed to
Lefevre in express terms, this time in a case where the latter is on the
right side; the love of Christ is indeed that which He has for us, active
and not passive. In other cases Lefevre has proved unreliable as a guide.
"Abba ho pater" (Rom. 8.15) is transcribed in Latin and made equivalent
to "Abba, quod est pater," as if the article represented the relative
of the two readings (Rom. 9.10): "Isaac, patre nostro" and "Isaac patris
nostri," the first is better. Luther prefers the second with Lefevre
against Erasmus, whose influence is about to begin.
Nevertheless, it doubtless would be unjust to judge of his knowledge of
Greek by the translation of "philos" by "amor," which came down to him
from the exegesis of the Middle Ages.
Taking it all in all, Luther made a judicious use of the humanists. Father
Denifle complains, without giving definite cases, that he sounds the
trumpet when the Greek text seems to favor him.
These cases are assuredly not very frequent. Here are two. In his
interlinear gloss Luther has the certainly correct translation: "quod enim
mortuus est" (Rom. 6.10), but in the marginal gloss:
"In greco habetur: quod enim mortuum est peccato, mortuum est semel" et
multo melius. "Quod autem vivit, vivit Deo." Quod, i. e., quodeunque,
pronominaliter, non conjunctionaliter.
And he reproaches the translator with going outside his role to give
"There is no greater vice in a translator, because he imparts to others
his own idea, which is not in him whom he translates."
He is surely in good faith; he does not suspect, then, that he himself
adds to the text, or rather inflicts upon it an interpretation contrary to
the mind of the writer in the interest of his thesis, namely, that sin
truly dies only at the threshold of eternal life:
"Nor can he again die to sin, who has once died to sin, for there has
followed upon it eternal justice, which nevermore sins."
Another case where prepossession is not less evident. The Greek "genestho
de ho theos alethes" (Rom. 3. 4) has been translated in the Vulgate, "Est
autem Deus verax." It was impossible to translate "fiat," because Paul
meant in the logical sense: let it then be well understood that God is
truthful. This is what Lefevre has well seen in rendering "esto." Luther
follows him, but treats the verb as a real imperative and connects with it
the scriptural text which follows:
"That this is to be taken in an imperative sense is proved by the
authority which he alleges. . . . As it is written, that is to say
that we must believe in him, because to be justified is to believe, as
will be said below."
However, this tendency to seek for his doctrine in the original texts is
much more apparent in his elucubrations on the Hebrew. In dealing with
the Bible, Greek was not alone to be considered. It was necessary to go
back to the language of the Old Testament. This was not without interest
even for the Epistle to the Romans, which cites so many passages of Moses
and the Prophets. In this domain, too, a revolution was going on, and the
conflict between the Dominicans of Cologne and Reuchlin marks its
inception. Luther held all the more sympathy with the Hebrew scholar that
he thought he could get from him support for some points of his doctrine.
We are obliged to insist on his mistakes, which go even beyond those of
Here is an example connected with justification. When we recognize God's
justice, He is justified for us; it is, on our part, an act of faith,
which He reckons unto us for righteousness. At the same time, then, that
He is justified, He justifies. And this double operation is altogether
conformable to the double state of the Scripture, passive in Greek and
Latin, "ut justificeris," active in Hebrew. This is said in express terms:
"Thus it is in agreement with the Hebrew, which has: 'I have sinned
against thee, therefore thou shalt justify,' that is, work justification,
'by thy word and cleanse when thou judgest.' Consequently, when justified
He justifies, and when He justifies He is justified. Wherefore the same is
expressed by the active verb in Hebrew and by the passive in our
This astonishing argument is baseless, since the Hebrew text of Psalm 50
(51).6 has the passive as well as the Greek: "That thou mayest be
recognized just in thy sentence, and clear from reproach in thy judgment."
At times Luther has recourse to the Septuagint which Augustine may have
led him to regard as an inspired translation. For instance, he notes that
no one is exempt from concupiscence, "not even a child of one day," a
reference to Job 14.4 according to the Septuagint.
But the Hebrew serves Luther above all to establish imputative justice.
Here again Reuchlin furnishes him with a translation, very literal in
appearance, on which he engrafts a very fantastic interpretation.
As an example we may cite the following commentary on Psalms 32.1-2:
"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are
covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord hath not imputed sin":
"Blessed (that is, it is well with him), who becomes unburdened," that is,
who by grace is made free from the load of crime, namely, the actual sin
which he has committed. But this is not enough; there must be at the same
time a covering for sin, that is, his radical evil must not be imputed as
sin. It is then passed by when it exists indeed, but is not seen, not
observed, not imputed.... Blessed the man, the Lord will not impute unto
him his iniquity."
Luther pretends very seriously that the Hebrew constantly maintains this
distinction between actual and original sin. If it is not recognized, it
is the fault of the Vulgate:
"These differences are always kept in the Hebrew, but the translation
lacks precision and everything is consequently very confused."
He goes on to maintain without blinking that "Pescha" signifies actual
sin, "Hattaa" original sin, "Aon" the absence of righteousness, "Rascha"
impiety or the vice of pride, the setting up of one's own
It may be that Luther was under the spell of the word "to impute"; but if
he was, he did not delay to exert upon the text the influence of his own
ideas. It is useless to prove that his nice defining of the meaning of
Hebrew terms is arbitrary and false.
When not preoccupied with his theories, he occasionally makes a judicious
remark. Thus, on Romans 11.27:
"The words, 'When I shall take away their sins' are not in Isaias, but
either have been added by the Apostle or have been taken from other
Another observation, which indicates some knowledge of the Hebrew
language, is his interlinear gloss on Romans 15.13:
"In virtute spiritus sancti, i.e., per virtutem spiritus sancti; hebraica
locutio quae equivocum habet hane prepositionem 'in.'
That is, Paul would have allowed to appear in Greek the instrumental
meaning of the Hebrew "beth." This erudition did not come to maturity, but
it is interesting to see Luther entering upon a path which was later to be
followed by so many, not without some danger.
4. LUTHER ON ST. PAUL'S CITATIONS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Incidentally we have just met with the delicate question of Paul's
citations of the Old Testament. Luther does not seem to have any very
definite criterion. At times he expresses himself as a rigid conservative.
For instance, to reconcile the divergencies of the text of Paul (who
quotes from the Septuagint) with the Hebrew, he maintains that both are
"Consequently, both texts have the same thing, but the LXX express the
cause, the Hebrew the effect, as is very often the case."
I do not know where he found this rule or what examples he might have
given. Elsewhere he expresses himself like a modern critic:
"(The Apostle) cites the Bible as it was possessed by those to whom he was
In certain cases Paul seems to depart freely from both texts. Then Luther
very justly holds that the Apostle has a right to argue from the
Scriptures without confining himself to the literal sense. On "Who shall
ascend into heaven" (Rom. 10 . 6) he remarks:
"Moses does not use the words in this sense in Deuteronomy 30, but the
Apostle under the Spirit's influence draws out the meat of them with true
insight, teaching us as by a powerful argument that the whole Bible deals
everywhere with Christ alone, when its inner meaning is perceived,
although on the surface it speaks of other matters--figures and
In this case, then, the Apostle would have argued from the spiritual
sense. Father Cornely interprets the passage still more freely,
maintaining that St. Paul simply uses the biblical terms without precise
Elsewhere Luther himself offers another solution. On Romans 4.17, instead
of simply noting that the words, "before God whom he believed" are not
part of the citation from Genesis (as he reads "credidisti" and does not
consult the Greek, Lefevre having neglected to do so), he supposes that
Paul borrows from other Jewish books:
"This is not in the Hebrew, but it is usefully added to confute the Jews,
from whose books the Apostle doubtless took it."
This solution is again very conservative if these books of the Jews were
regarded as inspired, but we have already seen, in citing his remarks on
Romans 11.27, that he thought that the Apostle had a right to add his own
words. Lefevre had called his attention to the freedom of some of St.
Paul's citations (on Rom. 4.17).
5. THE LITERAL AND THE SPIRITUAL SENSES OF SCRIPTURE
We have seen Luther admit in the most sweeping fashion the spiritual sense
of Scripture. He was then naturally led on to allegorical explanations. In
fact, he does use allegory much more than St. Thomas. It was perhaps a
matter of tradition and habit; or perhaps he wished to preserve, in the
modern exegesis which he was inaugurating, that spirit whose rights he
His allegories are not very remarkable. Paul begins with the Romans, who
were the head of the world, as John baptized Christ beginning with the
head; the Epistle of Paul is then like a river of Paradise or the Nile,
etc. Moses fleeing from the rod changed into a serpent, is a figure of
the man to whom the law is promulgated. Christ is named Hermon,
because he was anathematized by the Jews. The Jews coming to Christ at
the end of time are prefigured by the brethren of Joseph. Those who do
not for the sake of higher service consent to abandon their present
occupations, refuse to lend an ass to the Savior, etc.
Luther's inclination to look at everything from the moral point of view
prevents him at times from paying sufficient attention to the literal
meaning. The expression of Romans 2. 22, "sacrilegium facis" (thou
committest sacrilege), is explained in the interlinear gloss:
"By polluting and violating, by evil desires, the true temple of God which
is the heart."
It is not that he does not know what the meaning of "hierosuleis" is; in
the "Scholia" he interprets it:
"Sacrilege is the pillage and robbery from a temple."
But he immediately launches into two moral meanings to which he adds that
of his gloss.
This is not the work of an innovator. Nor could one do Luther the honor to
consider him as a pioneer in historical exegesis. Scholars of the past
century have discussed the reason of St. Paul's addressing to Rome a
treatise on the relation of the Gospel to the law. They asked whether the
Romans were imbued with judaizing errors, and they studied the relations
between Jews and Gentiles. But the questions had long been put. Marcion
dealt with them; St. Thomas had given them thought. They never occurred to
Luther, until he came to the second of Romans, which speaks of the strong
and the weak. Brought thus face to face with them, he simply notes that
everything the Apostle says is aimed at the Jewish superstition, which
certain false apostles taught concerning foods and days.
Naturally Luther contemplates with sympathy the freedom of mind shown by
the Apostle; but the abuses with which Paul had to deal inspired less
interest than did those of his own times; the Rome of Nero could not take
his mind away from the Rome of Leo.
However, he felt very keenly the difficulty presented by the sixteenth
chapter of Romans, which has so much interested modern scholars. How did
Paul, who had never been in Rome, know so many people there? All his
Asiatic friends would seem to have gone thither before him. Luther did
not, as has been claimed, raise this question; and the solution, which he
gives as personal, is clearly bad:
"Therefore I meanwhile in my own mind will to think this, that these
persons are all Achaians and Corinthians, whom the Apostle commends to
them, that they may know and greet them."
So the Romans are invited to salute friends of the Apostles who remain in
Greece. The reason would be the Hebrew custom of placing in the Synagogues
the names of all Jews in tribal order. Even if this custom had been
constant, it would throw no light on the problem.
CHAPTER II: THE PERSONALITY OF THE COMMENTATOR
1. THE INFLUENCE OF THE COMMENTATOR UPON THE COMMENTARY
What century has not resounded, in countries whose people were capable of
self-expression, with the old lamentation over the attacks and the
victories of evil within us? Plato made Socrates describe the astonishment
of reason in presence of the unleashed wild beasts of the lower
appetite. St. Paul had figured in the anguish of his double self all
humanity involved in sin. Manichaeism, a long-lived and vigorous heresy,
assigned to evil an almost divine position; it transported the conflict
into the spheres of the deity.
Luther was one of the sons of Adam who suffered most painfully from the
attacks of what he called concupiscence: leanings to pride, anger, the
pleasures of sense. He could not, like the platonic Gnostics, attribute
this domestic hostility to the fall of the spirit into matter, still less
see in it the eternal battle of two divine principles.
He thought that St. Paul furnished him with the desired explanation;
concupiscence was the heritage of man from his first sinful father; it was
St. Paul taught, indeed, that the disobedience of Adam had brought into
the world a sin which is transmitted from father to son, and the
punishment of which is death. But he thought. of this situation only by
way of comparison with the state of the first man, a happy state from
which the human race had been degraded. He did not teach that we have
inherited a nature irremediably vitiated. An important group of
theologians (and it may be said that there is no Catholic theologian today
who does not belong to it) explained that original sin, transmitted to
all, is only the privation of this privilege, called original justice,
granted to our first parents. Nature is really lowered and despoiled of
the gifts which God had destined for it, but it is not thereby deprived of
free-will. And St. Paul had shown admirably that the goodness of God,
frustrated at first in its designs, had afterwards realized them in Christ
with more richness. Through Christ, through Baptism received in Christ's
name--an external act by which the believer subjects himself to Christ and
is incorporated into Him, sin loses its hold. The Christian is dead to
sin; he is freed, purified from the original stain. He retains, indeed,
his nature, composed of a reasonable soul, and a body the tendencies of
which arc too often in conflict with the soul's aspirations. In this
respect his situation is not changed. What was called concupiscence before
Baptism may still be so termed. But henceforth the spirit of Jesus dwells
in His faithful disciple and causes him to live with His life; the
struggle is no longer between powerless reason and the flesh,--pride,
anger, luxury,--which dragged it into sin; it is between the spirit which
is in him, a principle of action which theologians called grace, and these
same evil tendencies. Moreover, an assurance of victory is given. The
Christian must have full confidence. If God has granted him such means of
salvation, it shows that He wishes to save him.
This is, briefly stated, the economy of salvation to which Luther opposes
his precise negation already in 1515. The new idea of his "Commentary" on
the Epistle to the Romans, Denifle and Ficker agree, is the identification
of concupiscence with sin. This fundamental idea of the system of
theology, which was taking shape, had not been expressed in his earlier
writings, but it is asserted at the beginning of the "Commentary" and runs
all through it. The sinfulness of concupiscence is, he maintains, the
principal doctrine of St. Paul; the Apostle's chief aim is to establish
the necessity of Christ's righteousness for the destruction of sin by
making all recognize that they are sinners.
"The main point and intention of the Apostle in this Epistle is to destroy
self-righteousness and reliance on one s own wisdom, and to construct,
increase, and magnify sins and folly, which were not (i. e., not thought
to be, on account of our good opinion of ourselves); his purpose, I say,
is to make us realize that sins still exist, that they are great and
numerous, and thus to bring home to us our need of Christ and His
In the gloss, he uses the plural sins, but in the "Scholia" the singular
"The supreme object of this Epistle is to destroy, etc.... and to plant
and constitute and magnify sin (although this was not or was not thought
We shall see more clearly, as we proceed, that this sin is concupiscence.
However one scrutinizes Luther's propositions, he will come to this
fundamental point of his system: concupiscence is a sin of our nature
which nothing removes. Neither Baptism nor Penance change anything. We are
sinners and must acknowledge it. Therein lies our only hope of salvation.
If we are very humble, if we confess our sin, if we have confidence in
Christ, and if nevertheless we resign ourselves willingly to damnation, in
case it should be God's will, we shall be saved.
There is still some indecision as regards the proposed remedy. Most
frequently it is humility, which is always on Luther's lips, and already
it is faith, understood as personal assurance of salvation. But what is
settled from the start, and what is affirmed with ever-growing confidence,
is the irremediable corruption of our nature. We are sinners, hence we do
not possess righteousness, nor anything to make us agreeable to God. By
the sin of Adam it was human nature itself that was vitiated. It became
incapable of doing good. If it tries, it but adds presumption and
insolence to its powerlessness. To endeavor to perform good works is to
sin more and more irremissibly.
This radical pessimism must lead to despair. Luther understands the danger
and he offers deliverance. To those who are humble God does not impute
sin. Sin remains, the fundamental thesis requires this, but it is not an
obstacle to salvation. Every sin is, however, essentially mortal, so
contaminated is the source of our actions. But our sin is imputed by God
as venial. What is more, to those who believe, faith is imputed as
righteousness. We are then sinners but, at the same time, if we have
faith, we are righteous, although, strictly speaking, only in hope.
Righteousness will not be conferred on us until the moment of our death.
Righteous and sinners--a paradoxical antithesis, which delights Luther and
which he develops with endless variations.
He triumphs, for he possesses at last the means to crush pride, to make
man withdraw into the mire of his sin to bring him back into the way of
salvation. Yes, he is deeply convinced that all theology was astray, that
men were deceiving themselves in seeking salvation by good works, that
they must restore to God all His rights, abase themselves before Him as
the only righteous One, yield themselves to Him as alone able to perform
good actions in them, render Him glory by going with docility to the goal
to which He leads them, blessedness or damnation.
Human liberty disappeared--even human activity--in a pessimistic quietism.
Now it is certain that the source of this false mysticism is not in St.
Paul. A few belated orthodox Lutherans still maintain that it is; but more
and more numerous in German universities are the professors of theology,
that is to say, of Biblical exegesis, who no longer seek to find
Lutheranism in the Epistle to the Romans or any part of the Scriptures. It
is true that both Testaments proclaim that man is a sinner. This is a
confession which mystics have ever found sweet, but without. denying that
God gives grace when He pardons. One of the Psalms congratulates the man
to whom God "does not impute his sin." But it was understood that God's
attitude means that the sin is forgiven. And if St. Paul repeats after
Genesis that the faith of Abraham "was reputed to him unto justice," it is
but an expression cited in passing, such as it stands, which must be
understood according to the general spirit of his teaching. Now if the
modern rationalistic critics considered themselves authorized to address
reproaches to St. Paul, they would say that he exaggerated the splendor
of the gift of God in the Christian soul. For him Christian life, far from
being a prolongation of the life of sin, is such an evident transformation
that more than one non-Catholic exegete qualifies it as a magical effect.
This is assuredly going too far, or rather it is putting it badly; but the
qualification allows us to measure the distance between an unbiased
interpretation and that which Luther imposed upon his followers.
The question now arises more definitely: How did this doctrine, the
novelty of which no one should doubt, take possession of Luther's mind and
inspire such absolute conviction?
There exists Luther's own explanation, given towards the end of his life,
in 1545, in the preface of his Latin works. Here he describes with
complacency the manner in which God gave him light:
"I was burning with the desire to understand St. Paul's epistle to the
Romans. Ardor was not lacking, but I was ever coming in collision with
this expression of the first chapter of Romans, In the Gospel is revealed
the justice of God."
"I hated the words justice of God, which I had learned from the usage of
all doctors to understand in the philosophical sense. I thought it meant
what they call formal or active justice, that with which God is just when
He punishes sinners and the unrighteous."
"Notwithstanding the irreproachable character of my life as a monk, I felt
that I was a sinner before God and my conscience was uneasy. Were the
satisfactions which I offered God sufficient to appease Him? I had no
certitude that they were. So I did not love this just and avenging God....
I was troubled in conscience and I ceaselessly applied myself to this
passage of Paul in the keen desire to know what it meant."
"I thus meditated day and night, until God had pity on me. I gave
attention to the connection of these words: The justice of God is revealed
in the Gospel, as it is written: the just man shall live by faith, and I
perceived that the justice of God must be understood of the justice which
God imparts, that by which the just man lives, that is to say, faith. The
meaning of the sentence was then: The justice which is revealed in the
Gospel is passive justice, by which God in His mercy justifies us by means
of faith. At once I felt myself born to a new life. It seemed to me that
the gate of Paradise opened wide before me."
"Henceforth Scripture took on a new aspect. . . . I next read 'De Spiritu
et litera.' Contrary to my expectation I found that Augustine understood,
like myself, by the justice of God that with which God clothes us when He
Would that Luther had made no other discovery!
We know through the labors of Father Denifle that before the time when
Luther wrote, sixty-six Latin commentators, in works printed or in
manuscript, had given the words in Romans 1.17 this interpretation. And if
any one (several modern writers have done so) took the words "justice of
God" to mean not the justice communicated but the divine attribute of
justice, absolutely no one had ever understood it of the avenging justice.
Where then did Luther get the opinion of "all the doctors"? And if he was
mistaken about this point, he may well have been mistaken in a different
way when he attributed to himself an interpretation which he would only
subsequently have found in Augustine.
The facts are so clear that one might ask if Father Denifle had not taken
too much trouble to establish them. But it is doubtful whether Luther's
admirers would have laid down their arms in presence of a less convincing
demonstration of the levity with which the Reformer related his personal
history. We still read in Mr. Ficker: "It matters little for our
appreciation of Luther that nearly all (?) previous commentators
understood Romans 1.17 in the same way, as Father Denifle has proved with
meritorious exactitude and wealth of evidence. The new (!) interpretation
impressed him only when read in Augustine. And that is on the whole what
is decisive." It is, then, Paul interpreted by Augustine who would
have made an impression on Luther. But Mr. Ficker knows that the dominant
idea of the system came before he learned it from Augustine. What
Victorious concupiscence, Father Denifle has answered. When Luther entered
the cloister with the purpose of sanctifying himself, he was too much
imbued with the teachings of Occam. He fancied that holiness depended
exclusively on his own efforts. This notion, which he held in good faith,
had to give way. Concupiscence proved too strong for him; he concluded
that it was invincible and consequently that it was impossible to keep the
This invincible concupiscence he identified with original sin, and he
sought salvation, which he was unwilling to give up, only in the
righteousness of Christ.
This view of Father Denifle attributes nearly everything in the evolution
of Luther's system to experience; he makes no allowance, as far as I can
see, for the direct influence of St. Paul upon it. Under the
discouragement of a fall, Luther framed a theory which would help him out
of his difficulties. Father Denifle notes the time when the identification
of concupiscence and original sin appears; he exposes Luther's state of
soul, and, concurrently, the variations of his doctrine. He leaves St.
Paul out of the question.
Mr. Jundt likewise insists upon Luther's moral experience. He excludes,
however, as might have been expected, the notion that Luther had sinned;
he even identifies Luther's experience with that of Paul. His last word is
that: "this system rests upon the data of individual experience of the
believer, confirmed and completed by the testimony of Holy Writ." This
places Scripture in an important, though secondary place; and such it
certainly had in Luther's mind.
I believe, for my own part, that Mr. Jundt's formula would be exact if
only it added some indication of the fact that it was not Holy Writ
itself, but Holy Writ as it was understood by Luther, that confirmed his
individual experience. Lutheranism issued from its author's personal
dispositions, and from his misinterpretation of the Epistle to the Romans.
It is not merely by logical deduction that both Catholic and Protestant
theologians have recognized the important part played by individual
experience in Luther's doctrine. His passionate personality reveals itself
frequently. Later on he will speak of adopting some point to annoy the
Pope. But already in the "Commentary" he writes:
"God so acts in all the Saints, that He causes them to do with their own
will what they desire supremely. Philosophers wonder at the contrariety,
and men do not understand. Therefore, I have said that it will never be
known except by practice and experience."
This is what mystics teach concerning supernatural states; but he adds:
"If in law, which is the teaching of a shadowy justice, practice is
necessary, how much more in theology!"
Here we see the intention to regulate theology according to personal
experience, which means according to the disposition of the heart and the
mind, in the moral and in the intellectual order.
2. THE MORAL DISPOSITIONS OF LUTHER
What strikes one most in the moral dispositions of Luther is, as Father
Denifle has well seen, the constant and tormenting preoccupation about
concupiscence, the notion he has of its power, of its ceaselessly renewed
forces. When he takes up this subject his style becomes passionate,
reflecting the vicissitudes of a tragic conflict.
Already in 1514, in his "Dictation on the Psalter," Luther wrote:
"The passion of anger, pride, lust, when absent, is easily presumed to be
conquered by those lacking experience; but when it is present, it is felt
to be most powerful, even insuperable, as experience teaches. And thus
humbled and weakened, they have cried unto the Lord, despairing of self,
hoping in God."
In the "Commentary" he identifies concupiscence with original sin and this
allows him to paint it in most somber colors, reproducing, as he believes,
the thought of St. Paul and the Fathers. He ends his analysis with the
most fearful images of mythology:
"This is the many-headed hydra, the exceedingly pertinacious monster, with
which we fight in the Lernaean marshes of this life until death. It is
Cerberus, the unrestrainable barker, and the insuperable Antheus sent down
Apparently it did not occur to him that it was more powerful in himself
than in others, or that it was humiliating. He defies other theologians to
overcome it, applying to them the term "Sautheologen." They are invited to
consider themselves and their own condition.
"The very silly swine who hold this view should be warned, brought to
shame and repentance, at least by their own experience. Because, whether
they will it or not, they feel in themselves evil desires. Here then I
say: Try hard, I beg! Be men! With all your might so act that there may be
no such concupiscence in you. Endeavor to put in practice what you say,
that God can be loved naturally, without grace. If you are without
concupiscence, we believe you. But if you live in and with it, you no
longer fulfill the law. For, indeed, the law says: Thou shalt not covet, '
but thou shalt love God. Can one who covets and loves other things,
really love God? But this concupiscence is ever in us; consequently, we
never have the love of God, unless it be begun by grace," etc.
This is not the place to show that the conclusion is not legitimate.
Theologians could answer that to feel concupiscence is not to yield to it,
not to entertain desires condemned by the law. Luther knew of this
distinction, and he could not give it up entirely; he maintains, however,
that concupiscence itself is opposed to the law. He repeatedly comes back
upon the point. And this opposition of concupiscence to the law seems to
us to show decisively that he regarded concupiscence as invincible.
Father Denifle has maintained that, as early as 1515, Luther held that the
commandments could not be kept, since concupiscence is invincible. Father
Grisar has denied this, because Luther always urged that men should resist
concupiscence and keep the commandments; he only meant that concupiscence
is ineradicable--a perfectly exact statement.
In favor of his opinion Father Grisar can point to the undeniable fact
that in certain places Luther speaks of the impossibility of resisting
"without the help of grace." This suggests that with grace one might
resist. His immoderate statements elsewhere would be called forth by the
fact that the theologians he had in view did not sufficiently acknowledge
man's dependence on God's supernatural assistance. But Father Denifle has
shown that he defends the same doctrine about the irresistible character
of concupiscence in a sermon in which he speaks at the same time of his
hearers and of himself--persons who were all baptized and of whom at least
a certain number might be considered as under the influence of grace.
Here is the text:
"And if God imposes upon us things that are impossible and beyond our
strength, nobody is thereby excused . . . consequently, since we are
carnal, it is impossible for us to fulfill the law; but Christ came to
fulfill alone this law, which it is impossible for us to fulfill (or
according to the edition of Weimar, not to break). For what the law could
not do, says the Apostle, in that it was vitiated (St. Paul says "made
weak) by the flesh.... Behold the law is impossible on account of the
flesh.... By the law is knowledge of sin. For if it be known that by no
device of our own and by no help which we can obtain can concupiscence be
taken from us, and if this concupiscence is against the law which says:
Thou shalt not covet,--and indeed we do all know by experience that
concupiscence is invincible,--what does there remain for us?" etc.
It is strange that, after such a statement, it can still be asked whether,
according to Luther, concupiscence is really invincible. He does not
teach, indeed, that we are always overcome by it; the grace of Christ may
preserve us and we must do everything for God, acting under the
inspiration of the purest charity. Nevertheless, according to the new
principles taken rigorously, we always sin mortally even when performing
good works. Concupiscence, which is in us, is a mortal sin of its very
"As the baptized person or the penitent remains in the weakness of
concupiscence, which nevertheless is against the law: Thou shalt not
covet, and indeed mortal, unless the merciful God should refrain from
imputing it on account of the cure which has begun . . ."
Actual sins being the fruits of this first sin, which is mortal, are
themselves mortal, for there is no sin venial in itself:
"Hence it follows that no sin is venial of its nature.... Therefore we
sin when we are doing good, unless God through Christ cover over the
imperfections of our action and impute them not; sin then becomes venial
by the mercy of God who does not impute it to us . . ."
These expressions seem to us stronger than those in which Luther declares
concupiscence invincible. It is represented as affecting and infesting
everything, giving to all our actions its sinful character, mortally
sinful of its nature. If Luther preached resistance to concupiscence, it
is a happy contradiction which does him credit as a man, though, to a
lesser degree, it discredits him as a logician. We are not here concerned,
however, with his contradictions. We are citing his doctrinal
pronouncements only as giving an idea of the state of his soul. It may be
argued that a preacher who declares concupiscence invincible, has himself
given way to it.
We shall not dwell on the other indications of moral delinquency which are
alleged by Father Denifle. He may be somewhat severe in dealing with
confessions of Luther contained in intimate letters. They bear on points
concerning which he was perhaps not without excuse. That his too numerous
occupations prevented him from regularly saying his Office and celebrating
Mass would be an indication of lukewarmness; but priests did not then
say Mass every day, and even now it is not a matter of obligation; the
obligation to say the Office was also less strict than it is now. He had
pretty strong distractions; sometimes he had finished a Psalm or even the
whole Office without having noticed whether he was at the beginning or at
the middle of it. But many otherwise good men are not exempt from such
weaknesses. One would even judge that he possessed an excellent principle
of spiritual life when he writes: "I am absolutely certain, knowing it by
my own experience, by yours and by that of everyone whom I have seen in
disquiet, that it is the prudence of our own judgment which is the only
cause, the only root of all our troubles. For our eye is very evil.... And
to speak of myself, alas! how many miseries and troubles have been caused
and are still caused in me by this evil eye." Father Denifle, who cites
these words, cannot help concluding: "That is well said."
The "Commentary" contains so many protestations of complete abandonment to
the will of God; it so urgently recommends leaving all to Him, breathing
only His goodness and His justice; it contains such oft-repeated and
enthusiastic praise of humility, that we can well understand the verdict
of Father Grisar, already recorded, that it does not convey the impression
of moral corruption in its author. We are not easily convinced that sin
and righteousness exist in the same man; we are little inclined to declare
sinful a man who loudly proclaims his sin.
It is nevertheless incontestable, as Mr. Ficker remarks, that
preoccupation about humility is less noticeable as one advances in the
"Commentary". We shall carefully refrain from suspecting Luther of
definite falls, for instance, in the matter of chastity. The suspicion
would be simply rash. But at any rate the least that can be said of his
ardent zeal is that it is bitter and passionate. And to come to a point
which is capital, whence came his tendency to discouragement? Later on he
used to describe with complacency his despair in the religious life, but
he did not explain it by his faults; he claimed that it rose in him
notwithstanding heroic efforts to attain sanctity. Father Denifle had
brushed away this legend of superhuman mortifications. But despair figures
in the "Commentary" as one of the bases of doctrine: a despair caused by
sins. It is true that Luther does not speak in his own name, but let us
weigh well his terms:
Temptations, or blasphemies extorted by the devil, are first dealt with.
In his usual extreme manner he pronounces:
"The more horrible and foul the blasphemy, the more agreeable it is to God
if the heart feels that it does not will it, because it did not prefer nor
choose it. Frequently and especially in our own times (God) raises up
the devil, to cast His elect into horrible sins and domineer over them a
long while,--or at least to impede their good resolutions and lead them to
do the contrary of what they intended; this He does to make them realize
by experience that it is not they who will and run. And nevertheless by
all these means He brings them out of captivity in an unexpected way,
while they are groaning in despair because they will do and actually do so
many evil things, and do not actually do nor will to do many things which
they will. This comes about that He may show forth His power and that His
name may be proclaimed in all the earth."
Where did Luther get this information: that sin, even mortal sin, may be
conducive to salvation--very indirectly!--by the humiliation which it
causes, had been taught? But the case is totally different here. It is God
who so tries His elect, who brings them into the state of despair from
which He saves them. Yes, yes, so it is, Luther concludes, as if his own
assertion had particular bearing. And why this divine pedagogy by sin,
especially "in our own times," if not because it preluded to the great
designs which Luther was already fostering?
However, whether or not the Reformer's discouragement was occasioned by
his falls is after all God's secret, and it is not what matters most in
He is not the first who was violently tried by concupiscence. A Saint
Vincent Ferrier compares it to a quagmire; he resigned himself to living
in its neighborhood, distressed by its fetid odor, though he did not
resign himself to live in the mud in order the better to do homage to
grace. Many sons of Adam, even members of religious orders, have given way
to evil tendencies. Some have remained vanquished, others have arisen.
The former have not claimed to be righteous, the latter have longed to be
freed from sin. None have thought it possible for sin and righteousness to
coexist in a man. This is what distinguishes Luther's position.
The view Luther adopted might be well explained as the solution offered by
pride in presence of a fall. The pride of a monk, who has aspired to
holiness, revolts at the fact that, instead of being spiritual, he has
proved himself no better than a vulgar sinner. In the case of an ordinary
proud man it will be sufficient to deny the gravity of the fault. After
all, he will say, it was not a mortal sin. But in the case of a man whose
nature is extremely rich and resourceful, if pride is strong enough to
assert itself, even when there is an evident sin, the conclusion will be
that the temptation to which he succumbed was invincible. If he fall,
anybody would have fallen. Nature is so evil. He despairs of doing
otherwise; and instead of seeking to recover justice by the humble avowal
that he was wrong, that it is his own fault, he gives up righteousness. He
settles down in sin, protesting with false humility that this is where he
belongs. There is no shame in being like everybody else.
But if this explanation is plausible one can likewise adopt the hypothesis
that sin was not, or at least not frequently, consummated. In certain
religious, the very realization that they are subject to an ever-reviving
concupiscence may produce the impression of painful surprise. The grace of
the beginnings may have been sensible enough to reduce "the flesh" to
silence. It was thought conquered. Sin had no right to enter the cloister.
Then one day it reappears. It redoubles its attacks. It is more formidable
than ever. Has there been a mistake in embracing a religious life. There
is never lacking an experienced spiritual father to teach the novice the
difference between the first stings and full consent. But the struggle
becomes in time fatiguing and humiliating; concupiscence puts itself
forward as impudent as it is indestructible. If good works do not deliver
us from this domestic enemy, what is the use of good works? There is
grace. But grace, too, is apparently powerless. After confession, which
should have restored grace if it had been lost, one is no better than
before. One is apt to despair of God's goodness, unless he is very humble.
It is possible that Luther exaggerated the effect which his religious
profession was to produce in the soul. "And truly," he wrote in 1533, "I
rejoiced at having become such an excellent man, at having, by one act,
rendered myself so beautiful and holy.... I admired myself as a being
capable of miracles, able to make one mouthful of death and the
This is undoubtedly an exaggeration. Father Denifle has demonstrated that
the teaching of the Middle Ages was not responsible for it. But how could
one who was so extreme in everything fail to exaggerate, in the beginning,
the graces of the religious life or the sensible effect of Christian
grace? We know, from the evidence of the "Commentary", how much he
exaggerated in those days the grace of the Sacrament of Penance:
"Hence I was so stupid as not to be able to understand that I should
esteem myself a sinner like others and prefer myself to no one when, with
contrition, I had made my confession; for then I thought everything
removed and done away with, even within."
Again I have no trouble to believe him when he says that he exaggerated
the action of temptations in his soul:
"As a monk I thought salvation impossible when I felt the concupiscence of
the flesh, that is, an evil movement, whether of lust or of anger or of
envy, against a brother, etc. I tried many things, I went to confession
every day, etc. But nothing gave me relief because the concupiscence of
the flesh always came back. Therefore I could not rest, but was ever
tormented by these thoughts: "Thou hast committed this or that sin, or
again, Thou art under the domination of envy, impatience, etc. 'It is then
in vain that thou hast entered into this state of life, and all thy good
works are useless."
In such a case scruples may lead to despair, just as surely as actual
sins, especially when the victim is not humble and has had too much
reliance on his own efforts. This is what happened in the case of Luther,
if we may accept the testimony of a letter dating from the same time as
the "Commentary", at a moment when this error had given rise to an extreme
"In our day there is a great temptation to presumption in many souls,
particularly in those who are endeavoring with all their strength to be
righteous and good; ignoring the justice of God, which is given us in
Christ most abundantly and gratuitously, they seek of themselves to act
righteously until they may confidently stand before God adorned with
virtues and merits, which is impossible. Thou wast while amongst us in
this opinion, or rather error; I was myself, and even now I am struggling
against such a view, without having yet overcome it."
A man of Luther's temperament was bound to turn about completely and to
grapple with those who had, he thought, led him into error. And indeed he
does not cease his invectives against those whom he calls "justitiarii".
His disillusionment must have been deep and painful. Despair caused by
scruples explains less clearly than would more positive infidelities how
he came to adopt as a remedy the declaration that he was a sinner; but the
hypothesis of scruples cannot be rejected absolutely.
In a word, in the system of Father Denifle, everything unfolds logically.
Luther, having become a sinner, decides to acknowledge that he is such and
to adapt to the situation a religious doctrine, the starting point of
which was invincible concupiscence.
The weak point of this moral evaluation is precisely that it is too
logical. Father Denifle, who has followed Luther from contradiction to
contradiction, might have credited him with a few more contradictions and
with some of those exaggerations which recur so naturally under his pen.
In the hypothesis of scruples, bringing on discouragement, one must
explain how Luther, already inclined to confuse concupiscence and sin,
came to a definite assertion of their identity.
Besides, both in the view that Luther's doctrine was occasioned by his sin
and in the view that it grew out of scruples, there would remain the
question why he identified concupiscence with original sin, or, rather,
since theology recognized that concupiscence is an effect of original sin,
why he became so certain, contrary to the doctrine of the Church, that
this sin is not remitted in Baptism. It is here that he alleges St. Paul.
But before weighing his arguments, we must call attention to other
dispositions of his mind which inclined him to a new meaning foreign to
that of the Apostle--namely, his ability to hold contrary and even
contradictory ideas and his lack of moderation.
3. ABILITY TO HOLD CONTRADICTORY OPINIONS
It is very true, as Mr. Jundt remarks, that Luther had a passion for the
absolute. But when he adds that, "like the Apostle, he had a mind which
was all of a piece and whose first need was logic," he is confusing the
requirements of a mind formed by Graeco-Roman discipline and that German
knack of combining contradictions which Luther installed in the religious
order long before it appeared in the philosophy of Hegel and Schelling.
His love of reality does not, indeed, exclude a certain headlong logic
which goes as far as it can--a logic which allows him, at the end of his
reasoning, resignedly to retain contrary, if not contradictory, notions.
Theology, which had little by little assimilated the philosophy of
Aristotle. had become accustomed to the distinction of concepts
inaugurated by Socrates. This power of clear and definite distinction is
the most solid characteristic of the Latin genius, of great value so long
as it is exercised on concepts which are not empty but which correspond to
things. It is true that the nominalists, regarding concepts as mere
creations of reason, multiplied them in an arbitrary way and indulged
complacently in the mental exercise of opposing them one to another and
bringing them into collision, of analyzing everything in a most rigorous
manner. Moreover, they were not satisfied with a consideration of what God
had done, but must concern themselves with equal strenuosity about what He
might have done. They had departed from the solid ground of realities.
Luther energetically brushes aside these spider webs. He means to find man
as he is, mind and flesh, instead of a synoptical table of the
predicaments, in the order of nature and in the order of grace.
It was, if you like, his stroke of genius to have understood the
aspirations of his time. Simplification, a return to common sense, a
language which all could understand, that is w hat is always sure of
success with the masses. They understand only later on that the would-be
simplifiers have been doing a work of destruction, and that it is self-
delusion to pretend to do away with mysteries while attempting to preserve
religion. But in the meanwhile the shock of antitheses is not displeasing,
and the masses heartily applaud one who attacks distinctions which they
If the interlocutors of Socrates, daring and practical, armed with common
sense and current ideas--if a Thrasybulus and a Callicles might count on
the votes of the Athenians by preferring solid reasons to concepts founded
on distinctions, Luther was sure to please a much coarser public, when he
attacked the subtleties of scholasticism.
In the "Commentary", the tendencies of which are ultra-mystical, one
perceives this note, already rationalistic, which would take account only
of notions that clearly correspond with realities.
The religious problem, Luther tells us, will not be solved by disputing
about the contrary appetites, or about forms which succeed one another in
the faculties: man is one, and it is he who is sick. The text is not
lacking in savor:
"Hence appears the frivolous and delirious character of the conduct of
metaphysical theologians, who dispute about contrary appetites, as to
whether they can be in the same subject, and deal with the spirit, that is
to say, the reason, as a thing apart, with an absolute, complete and
perfect being, and in like manner with the sensuality or the flesh as
another thing complete and absolute, and are made to forget by their
absurd fancies that the flesh is the weakness itself, inasmuch as it is
the wound of the whole man, whom grace has begun to heal in his spirit or
A house which is being restored is a ruined house, not a ruin and a house.
There is something seductive in the appeal to current notions and to the
common sense against the invasion of an artificial dialectics:
"Their imagination was noxiouslly employed when they followed Aristotle in
teaching with metaphorical words that virtues and vices inhere in the soul
like whiteness in a wall, writing on a tablet, and form in a subject."
In denying the distinction between the soul and its faculties, Luther was
very near the denial of grace and charity, which God deposits in them. But
let us not anticipate.
A Latin mind might experience the same tendencies to simplification, but
it would remain fixed in negation; it would not try, once it had destroyed
the supernatural, to get it back by associating contradictory concepts.
Luther, however, was disposed to this latter course. It was useless to
show that in his system God at the same time wills and does not will evil,
that man is at the same time righteous and a sinner. He was triumphant. He
had a doctrine which is inaccessible to the stupid. He was intoxicated
with antitheses which he pretended to reduce to unity. Here are a few
examples, borrowed from his religious doctrines, which testify to the
state of his mind. It is not his system which led him into involuntary
contradictions; he willingly accepted them:
"They are still unlearned, who remove from God the will of evil, lest they
be forced to concede that he sins. . . . This proposition is true: God
wills what is evil and sinful, as well as this: God understands what is
evil and sinful.... These things are true: God wills what is bad, God
wills what is good; God does not will what is bad, God does not will what
Evidently, when dealing with the nature of God, our poor little intellect
is very much embarrassed. If it is wise, it has no illusions about the
insufficiency of its affirmations, but it does its best, not to define
God, but to avoid destroying itself by contradictions. For Luther this was
the supreme exercise.
This juggling excites the indignation of the honest soul of Father
Denifle. He exclaims, "It would make one's hair stand on end," on reading
"Real chastity is in luxury, and the more filthy the luxury, the more
beautiful the chastity."
No, it simply makes one smile. The master is exhibiting his dexterity, as
he already does in his "Commentary":
"Therefore, for themselves and in reality they are sinners; for God,
however, on account of this confession, they are righteous; their are
really sinners, but by the accounting of a merciful God they are
righteous; without knowing it, they are righteous and, according to their
knowledge, they are unrighteous; sinners in reality, righteous in
What is more, he supports his contradictions by the authority of Aristotle
"well understood." It doubtless amused him to accommodate his theory of
justification to that of power and act. Only with him it is the same
quality which is at the same time in power and in act in the same subject:
"Always a sinner, always a penitent, always righteous."
We know that Renan, a great admirer of German philosophy, was ever more
and more prone to associate the affirmation and the negation in two
propositions where both are apparently edifying, but are at the same time
of such a nature as "to make one's hair stand on end." But Renan was the
first to smile at his doctrines and at himself; at least, he affected this
attitude through deference for the Gallic mind. Luther was terribly
4. LACK OF MODERATION
Foreign, and even brutally hostile, to the distinction of concepts,
Luther's intelligence was absolutely devoid of moderation. Moderation and
tact would seem to be other gifts come to us from the Greeks, were they
not at the same time natural endowments of the French genius. Luther
develops all his passion for the absolute in practical judgments. There is
no half way, no compromise, no indulgence. Here again we proceed by
Luther, the author of a movement the most definite result of which is
liberty of inquiry. notably exaggerated the domain and the character of
obedience. This is one of the most interesting surprises caused by the
publication of the "Commentary". Extreme in everything, Luther began by
demanding obedience towards all prelates, towards everybody, and by giving
to this obedience the character of theological faith. One has to read his
statements to believe this. Theology, he tells us, says that heretics have
not the faith because they choose what they believe. The same is true of
"In like manner, the proud man sets himself in opposition in his mind to
the commandment or the counsel of one who rightly warns him for his
salvation. Not believing him, he believes nothing and all his faith
perishes on account of the stubbornness of his judgment."
Here faith is lost by a refusal to comply with a mere counsel. And Luther
was about to erect the whole edifice of the Reformation upon faith alone!
It is not a passing exaggeration; he insists and this, precisely, to show
that we can be saved only by faith. Heretics claim to believe in Christ,
but they do not believe in what is His.
"What are they (the objects of faith)? The Church, and every word that
proceeds from the mouth of one of the Church's prelates or of a good and
holy man, is the word of Christ, who says: He who hears you hears me.
Those consequently who withstanding the Church s prelates, will not hear
their word, but follow their own lights, how, I ask, can they believe in
In a word:
"What is the mouth of God? That of the priest and of the superior!"
Faith, moreover, extends to interior illuminations. Such being the nature
of faith, who can be sure that he really believes? The only resource left
is to cast oneself blindly upon humility:
"Since the matter stands thus, we must humble ourselves profoundly.
Because, since we cannot know whether we live on every word of God and
deny none (God saying many things to us by the superior, many by the
brethren, many in the Gospel and the Apostles, many interiorly), w e can
never know whether we are justified, whether we believe."
So begins the joyous message of Luther, that second Gospel which has given
to Christian souls "living faith in a God, who, through Christ, cries out
to the unhappy soul, 'I am thy salvation,' and firm confidence that we may
rest in God!"
Luther does not stop at a confident doubt; the excess of this obedience
must, under penalty of loss of faith, lead to despair; and this is, as a
matter of fact, what he demands as an indispensable condition of
salvation. To be saved one must renounce all that is good, even
salvation. It is not question of that self-abandonment to the will of God
which accepts even the sufferings of hell, if God has so decreed. Beyond
this point, already near the brink of an abyss where vertigo threatens,
the Church does not allow one to go. Luther is not stopped. True love of
God requires, he holds, that we resign ourselves to His loss not in a
hypothetical, but in a very real way, and with all our heart:
"Therefore we must fly from good and accept evil, and this, not only in
word and without meaning it at heart; but we must in a wholehearted way
profess to be and wish to be, lost and damned. .
This is but to imitate Christ! Luther utters this blasphemy at a time when
he still thinks himself a submissive son of the Church. He affirms of
"that He really and truly offered Himself for eternal damnation to the
Father for us."
That settled it. He had ventured upon the leap into the abyss. But he
reserved an escape for himself, and on his return he brings confidence
with him. The sincere desire of damnation is the means to avoid it:
"They are rather damned who flee from damnation."
How, then, was the desire sincere? We do not understand him, we protest;
we accuse him of bad faith and of juggling with words. No, it is the
philosophy of the absolute. We are evil, there is only one thing to do,
and that is to sink into our evil; there we find the goodness of God.
Such disinterested love of God cannot well he satisfied with
half-measures. Luther has confessed, we have seen, distractions in the
recitation of the Divine Office. Is one to be damned for such an offense?
Canonists had reassured the conscience by requiring only virtual
"A fine pretext for laziness and wickedness!"
In a really amusing way he puts before us canons and monks who,
tranquilized by Canon Law which commands them to "say" or "read" the
Office but not to "pray" it, snore on in peace!
Such sayings are jests only. But coming from Luther they leave a bitter
Carried away by the idea of pure love he will not suffer anybody to speak
of his rights and of justice. It is the duty of princes to see that
justice is respected by their subjects: but all, even princes, should be
ready to surrender their rights:
"The very word "justice" so nauseates me, that I would suffer less to be
despoiled of my goods than to hear it. It is, nevertheless, always in the
mouth of the jurists.
Naturally, that is their function! But what a race they are!
"There are no people in the world so simpleminded as the jurists and those
who rely on good intentions, or their proud reason . . All justice is
then humility . . ."
Since everyone is in the wrong before God, no wrong can be done anyone;
nobody is wrong and nobody is right. Let men realize this and then we
shall have peace:
"Thereby is the cause of contention taken away from all men, etc.
. . ."
Such excess could not be stayed by texts, even those of Scripture. One
should not love oneself at all. Nevertheless, Scripture says we must love
our neighbor as ourselves. It would seem, then, obvious that the love of
self proposed as a standard, is legitimate. What can the text mean? That
one must cease to love oneself to love one's neighbor! This is said in so
"Consequently I believe that, by this precept "as thyself, man is not
commanded to love himself, but that by it that love is shown to be vicious
by which one in fact loves himself . . . It is a self-concentrated love,
from which thou shalt be freed only if thou cease altogether to love
thyself, and, forgetful of self, love only thy neighbor."
Exaggeration, subtlety, misinterpretation. . . . What could be expected of
an unbridled mind, which amused itself in paradox as in its proper
Luther had only contempt for the simpleminded, "rudiores;" a nickname for
those of good intention, "boneintentionarii;" jests for canons who snored
so peacefully. His most violent attacks were against philosophers and the
""justitiarii"," who are, I think, the representatives of speculative and
moral theology. He is resolved to set up, instead of a teaching which is
founded upon human reason and aims at establishing human justice, a wholly
divine doctrine based on the word of God. He has a mission, although,
being still in the Church, he claims that this mission is regular.
We have already spoken of his hostility toward philosophers, especially
Aristotle. The condemnation is without appeal, based upon a deep knowledge
of the subject-matter:
"I indeed believe that I owe to the Lord this service of barking against
philosophy and urging to the study of Sacred Scripture. For, if anyone
without my experience did it, he might be timid or might not be believed.
But I, having now studied it for many years, having observed and listened
to many, see that it is a study of vanity and of perdition."
The extent of these studies was not very great, as readers of Father
Denifle know. But let us take note of the motive of his condemnation. If
he rejects Aristotle, it is not that he prefers Plato to him, as did
certain humanists; and he does not think at all of overturning the edifice
of Christian theology in order to gain an advantage for experimental
study. Nothing is more foreign to his mind than scientific
preoccupations. Science, too, nauseates him. He appeals to things
themselves in a passage of apocalyptic beauty:
"Behold we value highly the science of the essences, operations and
passions of things; and the things themselves are ashamed of, and groan
over, their own essences, operations and passions."
Things in St. Paul groan in expectation of the liberty of the children of
God. Luther makes of this voice a condemnation of science. The prosopopea
is bold and splendid but disquieting for reason; it must sound strange to
that part of the modern world which is most insistent on its connection
with Luther. And it is not merely things which protest against the study
to which men subject them; what is decisive is that the Apostle has
condemned philosophy in an absolute way. Always in the absolute!
"If, indeed, the apostle had wished it to be understood that some
philosophy was useful and good, he would not have condemned it
Luther did not, however, expect to transform the schools in a day. The
advice he gives his pupils is not of irreproachable straightforwardness.
Let them study philosophy, but as an error which must be refuted, and in
order not to be ignorant of the language of the age:
"Wherefore, I urge you all as strongly as I can to go through these
studies quickly, not seeking to establish and defend them, but rather as
we study the evil arts, that we may destroy them, and errors. that we may
refute them. In like manner, take up this study that we may reject what we
learn thereby, or at least that we may understand those with whom it is
necessary to converse. For it is time to emancipate ourselves from other
pursuits, that we may learn Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
It is then Paul's doctrine which shall replace the theology of the
schools, which is too much imbued with philosophy. It must, above all,
give a mortal blow to the pernicious teaching of the "justitiarii".
These latter are not religious whose excessively zealous observances would
have disgusted Luther with good works. I meet only once with the word
"observantes." Luther addresses to them the reproach which they have
always drawn upon themselves (and sometimes deserved) from those who are
more or less lukewarm and relaxed:
"The observant fight among themselves for the love of God, but pay no heed
to the precept of charity."
He appears to have been wholly unconcerned about attempts at reformation
in his order, whose numbers, indeed, were not considerable enough to draw
upon themselves such sweeping and violent attacks. No, the matter is not a
quarrel between monks; the whole Church is nearly destroyed. She is the
victim of a latent Pelagianism which is held by doctors who themselves are
unconscious of the danger. Even the evils of ecclesiastical administration
come from it.
"Of this error the essence is Pelagianism. For, although there are at
present no professed Pelagians, many are really such in their views,
"Therefore most absurd and quite favorable to the error of the Pelagians
is the common saying: "To one who does his best God infallibly gives
grace," which is based on the idea that the "one who does his best" is
able to do something. Hence the whole Church is nearly subverted, namely,
by confidence in this saying."
Concerning the famous axiom: "To one who does his best God infallibly
gives grace," Father Denifle has said all that is necessary. He recalls
that, rightly understood, it supposes the action of what is called actual
grace, that is to say, a special divine concursus leading the soul to
sanctifying grace. Luther admitted the principle in 1514, consequently
just before the composition of his "Commentary", But what is of more
interest, it was in a nominalistic sense that he held it. Now the
nominalists too frequently confounded the general concursus of God with
the special concursus called actual grace, to such an extent that
they did not leave in sufficient relief the doctrine concerning God's
salutary action in salvation. Luther who, as we have seen, counted too
much at first on his own strength, perceived this fact more or less
suddenly in the light of Pauline theology interpreted by St. Augustine.
The reaction was violent; he saw everywhere only latent Pelagianism. And
it is precisely according to another nominalist principle that he sought a
remedy. This seems very strange in truth, but is it not one of the
conditions of our mind to use the resources it has at its command?"
And perhaps a more topical explanation may be suggested.
Luther, trained in nominalist theology, experienced the need of
disengaging himself from it only when he felt that it gave too much to
nature. That one may love God above all things, with only the powers of
nature, is a blasphemy for the Augustinian neophyte, who has measured (and
exaggerated) the nature of concupiscence. But there was in the theology of
Occam a principle which seemed to give everything to God, the principle,
namely, which makes truth dependent upon the good pleasure of God; which
allows for the simultaneous existence of contraries, good and evil, and
which recognizes in good, in charity itself, no other meritorious value
than the free acceptance of God. Did not Occam say explicitly that one can
be agreeable to God, accepted by Him and loved, without any supernatural
form inherent in the soul? Doubtless, these questions were treated, as
usual with Scholasticism, in an abstract way, as pertaining to a possible
order, which Almighty God had not established, and with deference to the
actual order, in which God really gives grace. But, nevertheless, Occam
remarked very characteristically that his opinion is farthest removed from
the error of Pelagius. And, indeed, is not God thus made freer and
salvation more gratuitous? Even if you are clothed with grace, He can
refuse to accept your dispositions! And if it pleases Him, He will accept
them, even if you are devoid of every supernatural gift! Thus all depends
on His free will. For a mind like Luther's, in love with the absolute,
would not what was absolutely possible become a fact? Since infused grace
was unnecessary, why retain it?
Let us stop before we enter upon a discussion of his system. We are only
looking for the dispositions which were to lead to it. Suffice it to say,
in conclusion, that a man is badly equipped to react against a doctrine
when he knows that doctrine alone, especially if its fundamental concepts
are false. How indeed can one get rid of the principles? And it was
another disadvantage, especially for a mind so inclined to extreme views,
to attach one's self to only one doctor, even though he were the greatest
We here touch upon a very delicate point. St. Augustine is the Doctor of
grace. His system is assuredly the system of the Catholic Church. But it
is undeniable that at times his expressions are too strong, that he even
struck too hard, and that in his very laudable desire to crush a dangerous
heresy he gave a rather unnatural explanation to some texts of the Epistle
to the Romans. Gaston Boissier has somewhere raised the question, whether
the African writers had not a special temperament of their own.
Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and St. Augustine would seem to have upheld what
they considered the truth with a certain spirited sort of logic which led
the two first into excesses, and Tertullian even into heresy. Once more, a
sense of ecclesiastical tradition, a very thorough study of Scripture, all
the gifts of nature and of grace, made of Augustine an incomparable
Doctor; but precisely on account of his unique genius, he exerts over
those who read him alone a sort of fascination, and if they are naturally
inclined to exaggerate, they will be apt to set up all his formulas as
dogmas, his whole exegesis as truth of faith. Very frequently, with
marvelous tact, Augustine himself softens, by a shading or a distinction,
what is too strong in an expression. Trouble lost for absolute minds who
profess, like Luther, to despise distinctions. After Luther, Jansenius,
Baius, and so many Jansenists, wrongly understood Augustine's thoughts,
because they failed to interpret certain striking expressions by his
doctrine considered as a whole. Father Denifle recognizes very distinctly
that Luther supported his system by an inexact exegesis of St. Augustine,
and that he clung to it "as if St. Augustine were the Church, and each of
his explanations were infallible."
After all, an Augustinian reaction against the naturalistic tendencies of
the Occamists had already achieved results. St. Thomas had adopted, and
we may say co-ordinated, the Augustinian doctrine, while he took from its
expressions what might be misleading, by the very fact of employing them
in his theological construction. In modern times, many have complained
that St. Thomas was a too faithful disciple of the Doctor of grace.
But Luther regarded the Thomists, as well as the Scotists, as mere
sectaries bent on defending the master through passion, with
excessive veneration, heeding words more than the spirit. But was not his
own preference for St. Augustine more exclusive from the fact that he was
a Hermit of St. Augustine? The glory of the saint, who was claimed as
founder, merged with that of his order. When Wimpfeling asserted (in 1509)
that St. Augustine had not worn the habit of the Hermits, and cast doubt
upon the authenticity of two sermons, Luther, feeling the outrage offered
his order as a personal affront, assailed Wimpfeling with bitterest
invectives: "I would that Wimpfeling, the prattler, the carping impugner
of the glory of the Augustinians, had read these two sermons (but it were
first necessary that he should have called back his reason, which has gone
far away as a result of his stubbornness and jealousy), and that he had
put a pair of spectacles before his mole-eyes. . . . Why, then, dost
thou, an old man, a raving maggot, accuse Hugh? Why dost thou undertake to
correct the Church of God?"
Here we see the Church of God engaged in the little quarrel!
Luther will write later in the "Commentary":
"With such folly do members of religious communities contend about their
We may then believe that Augustine was particularly dear to Luther as the
"founder" of his order. As for St. Thomas' doctrine, that concerned the
Had Luther known the Thomistic doctrine, he would probably have judged it
too rationalistic, for it was preoccupied with reconciling reason with
faith, while he was setting up faith against reason. Although the
circumstances, which developed this passion for mysticism that went to the
point of contempt for scholastic theology, are still obscure, one must
certainly assign a considerable place to the influence of Tauler. Father
Denifle, who is so well acquainted with German mystics, has not been
prevented by any fraternal spirit from showing how inconsistent with
himself was this great Dominican mystic. Tauler pleased Luther very
much as a German, he thought him the author of the German Theology which
he (Luther) was to publish.
In the golden period of the Middle Ages men were conscious of receiving
light by speculative theology and by mysticism; but mysticism reflected
theology "as the moon reflects the sun." This comparison did not perhaps
do full justice to the very real and precious light which came from
mysticism itself. Be this as it may, the partial divorce of the fifteenth
century was a great misfortune. With Luther, it is mysticism alone, and a
false mysticism, that of quietism, which sets itself up against theology.
We shall cite but one text taken from the "Commentary":
"Then are we capable of His works and counsels, when our counsels cease
and our works take rest and we become purely passive in regard to God,
both in the matter of our interior and our exterior actions."
Almost immediately afterwards, Luther cites Tauler:
"Of this passivity in regard to God see Tauler, who above all others has
lucidly and ably dealt with this matter in the German language."
CHAPTER III: THE NEW DOCTRINE AND THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
1. THE TEACHING THAT THE JUSTIFIED MAN LIVES IN SIN THE ANTITHESIS OF ST.
PAUL'S DOCTRINE CONCERNING GRACE
Luther was not the first monk to vindicate the rights of grace against the
encroachments of nature, to attack philosophy in the name of simplicity of
faith, to express suspicions about man's judgment, to denounce the peril
of trust in self. Had he limited himself to these topics he doubtless
would, on account of his tendency to go to excess and of the confusion of
his mind, have overstepped the limits of orthodoxy and sought to lead
souls in the ways of quietism. Would the Church have intervened? Would he
have yielded? Idle questions. What is certain is that his doctrine would
have remained in a haze of German mysticism; he would have lacked a
clearly affirmed theological doctrine and at the same time a basis for
defense. But he came forth from the cloister, proclaiming a doctrine
founded upon the Scriptures and destined to replace the traditional
system, which had grown up under the influence of the disciples of
Aristotle. Thus he became at the same time the champion of grace and the
herald of truth and of God. The particular portion of Scripture which he
presented as his warrant for denouncing the errors of his contemporaries,
was the Epistle to the Romans. The "Commentary", which he gave of it in
his Wittenberg lectures of 1515-1516, formulated a well-defined
theological doctrine and made clear a plan for self-defense.
In this work the vague feeling of being under the dominion of an
invincible concupiscence, becomes the affirmation that baptism does not
efface original sin. Grace ceases to be a reality and Luther is saved from
despair by satisfying himself that St. Paul taught that the righteousness
of Christ is imputed to us. As a mystic, he had desperately preached
humility, which suffices for everything and is the best guarantee of
salvation. He now substitutes for this too negative notion that of faith,
a principle of life. This is certainly in St. Paul, though Luther did not
yet know what meaning he should attach to the Apostle's term. The last
point of his development will be certitude of justification and even of
salvation. But in this "Commentary" his notion of faith is still too vague
to serve as a basis for certitude. He remains undecided, leaning more
towards that incertitude, which the mystic was particularly prone to
How did Luther see all this in St. Paul? It is unfortunately hard to say,
since he is during a good part of his course feeling his way, and arrives
only gradually at clear and definite expressions. This shows that he did
not start out with a settled system, which he was ready to force upon St.
Paul's words. His hesitation, however, is not the same on all points.
Although he insists more and more, even in the course of his "Commentary",
upon the incapacity of human nature and its evil tendencies, it is on this
point that we find least contradictions. It is impossible to attain
righteousness; one must admit that he is powerless, confess that he lives
in sin, and by this avowal solicit mercy. How connect this dreary doctrine
with that of the Apostle?
It is the very antithesis of what St. Paul teaches.
The subject of the Epistle to the Romans is, as St. Augustine understood,
what we call grace. Its "propositio" is contained in Romans I. 16-17: "For
I am not ashamed of the Gospel; for it is the power of God unto the
salvation of every one who believes, the Jew first, and the Gentile. For
therein is revealed the righteousness of God, going from faith to faith,
as it is written: But the righteous by faith shall live." The Gospel is a
divine power, acting for the salvation of men, and of all men, provided
they believe, that is to say, embrace the doctrine. By that act they ask
and receive the gift which is offered them; and it is thus that the
righteousness of God is revealed,--revealed in them, since, as a
consequence of their faith, it is a principle of life.
There are two parts in the development of this theme: (1) Those who
believe are justified in the blood of Jesus and sins are consequently
forgiven them; this is justification, (Rom. 3.21-30) which, in itself,
assures salvation (Rom. 5.1-11), and is "a power of God unto salvation"
according to the theme of Rom. 1.16; (2) Those who are justified live
according to the Spirit, who is a certain pledge of salvation (Rom. 6 and
8), and this is Christian life, which is also "a power of God unto
The passages just cited are, so to speak, the center of the teaching: they
are parallel and end with the perspective of salvation. According to the
first, sin is remitted; and, nevertheless, according to the others, men
still fight against sin or the flesh, which has retained the impress of
sin. But the synthesis is found in the idea of the power of God which is
exerted in both cases. This power, principle of spiritual life, is at the
same time a principle of death for the flesh. One lives in Jesus Christ
because he has received it, and it is what has done away with sin. Now
this power of God is precisely, as it is already said in the theme (Rom.
1.17), the righteousness of God, a righteousness which is consequently
communicated and which constitutes the state of righteousness. Whatever
quibbles there may be, then, about this or that text, on the meaning of
"to justify" and of "justification" in a particular passage, it results
from the most intimate structure of the Epistle that the righteousness of
God given to men is the principle which makes them die to sin, to live
unto God in Christ.
Around these fundamental points the other parts of the Epistle group
If, while keeping exceptions in mind, St. Paul condemns Judaism and
heathenism, it is to throw into more striking opposition former times and
the Gospel era, the patient tolerance of God and His granted
righteousness. The sin of Adam had spread over all mankind; even the
situation of the most highly favored was extremely sad. Far from being a
remedy, the old law, by multiplying commandments, only increased the
number of transgressions. The will found in it no resource; it rather
revolted against the precept, abandoning itself to evil. But with Christ
all is changed. Because of His blood God pardons all who believe in Him.
By faith and by Baptism, man is transformed, he becomes one with
Christ. If by the misdeed of Adam all have been made sinners, by the grace
of Christ they are now rendered righteous. The change wrought in the soul
is so great that it is compared to death followed by life. There is then
in Christians a real principle of life, which is the charity that God has
for us, and that is poured forth into our hearts. Paul does not, indeed,
use the terms of Aristotle; he does not distinguish the soul from its
powers, nor charity, which is a virtue infused into the will, from
sanctifying grace, which is grafted in the soul. But he affirms that the
Christian is henceforth dead to sin, and, consequently, freed from the law
of Moses. And by law Paul does not mean only the ceremonial part of the
old legislation but the whole law, even in its moral enactments, inasmuch
as it constituted a distinct dispensation Bossuet had very well understood
this: "It is then that law given to Moses, that holy law of the decalogue,
that the Apostle calls a ministry of death, and consequently the letter
But the Apostle, in declaring that the Mosaic law was abrogated, did not
renounce the eternal prescriptions of ethics. He looked upon them as
imposed by a new law, the law of the new alliance, the law of charity. Its
requirements surpass, indeed, those of the earlier regime, but the
Christian is enabled to meet them by obeying the Spirit which animates
him. Sin had not given up the struggle. It seems, even as we read St.
Paul, that it had some base of operation in the flesh, which fights
against the spirit; but sin was no longer the master, it no longer
dominated. Man was, all in all, delivered from its power and enabled to
enter the service of righteousness (Rom. 6.18).
How did Luther, using St. Paul, arrive at a result so diametrically
opposed to this teaching?
The radical vice of his argumentation is a lack of historical sense. He
took no account of the concrete situation with which the Apostle dealt.
All the words of the Epistle were considered to be addressed to himself,
an Augustinian monk deeply impressed with the danger and the power of the
flesh. He felt intimately all that Paul said of the powerlessness of
works; he was only too well convinced of that by his personal experience.
How often had he not witnessed that tragic conflict between the will on
the one side, and on the other sin, which dwells in the flesh? It is,
then, really sin that dwells in us. The identification of sin and
concupiscence Luther claimed to find in the seventh chapter of Romans,
particularly in verses 14-17: "I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I do
I know not; for I do not that good which I will, but the evil which I hate
that I do. If I do that which I will not, I recognize that the law is
good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me."
Though St. Paul speaks in the first person singular, he is really not
dealing with his own experience nor with that of baptized Christians; he
speaks of man before his regeneration. This was St. Augustine's first
interpretation; during the Pelagian controversy he adopted, as more
probable, the view that the Apostle has in mind the regenerated man who is
still conscious of his powerlessness to keep God's law without the help of
Luther adopted and distorted this second interpretation of St. Augustine,
maintaining that St. Paul represents himself, and spiritual men in
general, as still in the state of original sin and powerless.
He accumulates twelve arguments to prove his thesis and they all
presuppose the same principle. They would be conclusive only if one had to
choose between two classes of men, men completely spiritual and men so
completely enslaved by sin that they do not even struggle against it.
Here is the first argument:
"The whole text expressly indicates a groaning under, and a hatred for,
the flesh and a love for the good and for law. Now this can in no wise be
said of the carnal man, who rather hates the law and scoffs at it and
follows the flesh unresistingly."
With much boldness, and not without psychological clearness of vision,
Luther asserts that it is a spiritual man who cries out: "But I am carnal"
(Rom. 7.14); for this is not the language of one who gives himself up to
sin. A first objection to understanding St. Paul's words as spoken of a
Christian under the influence of the Holy Ghost was that such a one could
not make the confession of Romans 7.15: "I do not that good which I will;
but the evil which I hate, that I do." The text is formal, and Luther
allows that the literal meaning is opposed to his exegesis. Thus to the
human understanding do his words sound. But this fact could not prove an
obstacle to one who could claim the spirit! The text, then, means nothing
more than that the spiritual man does not act with as much ease as he
would like, and especially, that he does not practice virtue so well as he
would wish. Augustine's distinction between "facere" and "perficere" comes
in conveniently to solve the difficulty.
If it be objected that the spiritual man is declared to be at the same
time wicked and righteous, Luther simply admits the antimony. He finds
support for it in this same text, in which St. Paul speaks of a sinner
and which the Commentator understands to refer to the spiritual man:
"Thus there is a "communicatio idiomatum" in virtue of which the same man
is spiritual and carnal, righteous and sinful, good and bad. Just as the
one person of Christ is at the same time alive and dead. . . ."
In fact, Luther has finally his proof that concupiscence is indeed a sin,
which remains as sin in the Christian. "Now then it is no longer I that do
it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Rom. 7.17). Nothing could be clearer;
theologians would not have failed to grasp the point if they had not been
so carried away by Aristotle as to miss Paul's teaching:
"Have not then the fallacious metaphysics and philosophy of Aristotle
deceived our theologians according to human tradition? They have been
misled into thinking that, because sin is abolished by Baptism or Penance,
it were absurd for the Apostle to say: but sin that dwelleth in me . . .
Consequently sin is in the spiritual man, left there to exercise grace, to
humble pride, to repress presumption; and if one does not sedulously try
to fight this sin, without doubt he has already within him something that
will bring about his damnation, even though he be guilty of no other
The opposition to St. Paul is flagrant: the baptized Christian is still,
according to Luther, exposed to damnation. Now the eighth chapter of
Romans begins with the words: "There is now therefore no condemnation to
them that are in Christ Jesus." In the "Scholia", so abundant in regard to
Romans 7-7 ff, there is not a word concerning this text. In the marginal
gloss there is nothing, while in the interlinear gloss the new doctrine is
clothed in words which avoid a too pronounced opposition:
"There is now then no condemnation, although not no sin, as has been said,
because by the flesh they serve the law of sin."
We have thought it important to place in its setting the text which made
such an impression on Luther. Perhaps, according to his experience, he was
only inclined to conjecture that sin remains and was fixed in his opinion
by the text; it may be, however, that he was already convinced of the
survival of sin and that to this text he owed only its identification with
original sin. However that may be, it is to these words that he refers us
at the moment he defines his theory, after having explained the seven
first verses of the fourth chapter of Romans:
"It is not question here of sins in deed, word and thought, but of that
fuel (fomes) of sin, of which chapter 7 below speaks: Not I, but sin that
dwelleth in me. And in the same place he calls it the passions of sins, i.
e., desires, affections and inclinations to sins, which, he says, produce
fruit unto death. There actual sin (to use the term of theologians) is
more truly a sin, i. e., the work and fruit of sin, but sin is that very
passion, fuel (fomes), and concupiscence or proneness to evil and
difficulty in doing good, as below: 'I knew not that concupiscence was
It requires coolness or levity to sum up Romans 7.7 ff. in the words:
"I knew not that concupiscence was sin."
But it must be confessed that this text, which had so impressed Luther,
was embarrassing for those who interpreted it of regenerated man.
According to the traditional principle of Catholic exegetes, who never
sacrifice a recognized truth to what one might personally take to be the
meaning of a text, Augustine had maintained energetically that sin is
remitted in Baptism. As for this text, he had solved the difficulty by
taking the words loosely, conceding that Paul had called concupiscence
sin, although not in the proper sense of the term: "The Apostle commands
us to check concupiscence, and he does not permit it to reign, and he
calls it by the name of sin, because it has its origin in the first sin
and because any one consenting to its promptings sins." Elsewhere
Augustine had endeavored to give a more precise explanation: "If it be
asked, how does this concupiscence of the flesh remain in the regenerate
man, in whom there has been remission of all sins . . . to this it is
answered, that the concupiscence of the flesh is remitted in Baptism, not
that it be not, but that it be not imputed unto sin." This is the
pronouncement of a comprehensive mind, which does not lose sight of
essential points, and which refuses to be drawn too far by the personal
view that St. Paul speaks of concupiscence as sin and as in some way
remitted in Baptism. Luther, on the contrary, falls in the way in which
he leans: he sees nothing but the identification of sin and concupiscence,
and since concupiscence remains, he declares that sin remains also. By a
bold falsification, he attributes this opinion to St. Augustine:
"But St. Augustine has very well said that sin (concupiscence) is remitted
in Baptism, not that it be not, but that it be not imputed."
Does the fact that sin remains after Baptism mean that nothing has been
changed? Luther does not dare to go so far as that, when commenting on the
Pauline texts; but he has found a most ingenious way out of the
difficulty, and at the same time he lays the foundation of his whole moral
system: sin has not been taken away; and the change that takes place in
the soul is not brought about, as scholastics would have it, by a
mysterious transformation, but by a more energetic resolution to combat
concupiscence. Thus, without appearing to notice it, while seeming to
oppose the too human doctrines of philosophers, Luther does away with the
supernatural effect, the divine reality produced in the soul baptized in
Christ to be born again with Him. All this is given as exegesis of the
beginning of this important seventh chapter of Romans, where Paul explains
how the Christian is dead to the law. Note well, says Luther with
insistence, that it is not sin which is remitted, but that it is man who
is dead. And, better to bring home his meaning, he tries every subtlety.
This passage is decisive in conveying an idea of his exegesis:
"Corollary: The manner of speech of the Apostle and the metaphysical and
moral manner are contrary. For the Apostle seeks to convey that man is
rather taken away, sin remaining (left over as it were), and that man is
removed from sin rather than that sin is removed from man. But man's
judgment on the contrary speaks of sin being taken away, the man
remaining, and of the removal of stains from man. But the judgment of the
Apostle is eminently right and perfectly divine. For thus also does the
Scripture (Psalm 80) say: He removed his back from the burden. It does not
say: "He removed the burden from his back."
Let us pass by this childish literalism. Luther considered himself armed,
by such means, with a powerful weapon against the "justiciarii". And he
Father Denifle remarks that in reality the soul does not die in
justification, and that it is precisely in the system of Luther that it is
not really changed. What did that matter to Luther? He was not
disconcerted by contradictions; he even saw in them a divine seal upon his
doctrine. And, as to the point which occupies us, he surely was
conscious of having found a new principle, that which Protestants still
oppose to Catholics, the moral reform of the will, substituted to what
they call the magical effect of grace. Luther did not foresee, however,
what an intense Pelagianism was to issue from this doctrine; he thought he
was fighting the human judgment and metaphysical quibbles:
"Whence it is clear that the Apostle understands sin to be spiritually
removed, that is, the will to sin to be mortified, whereas they claim that
the works of sin and evil desires are metaphysically removed, as whiteness
from n wall, heat from water."
What theologian pretended that concupiscence was removed by sanctifying
grace? But when Luther is in presence of a metaphysical term he gets angry
instead of trying to understand it. He imagines that the infusion of
charity is a detriment to moral change. which he is of course right in
demanding, but which is easier and more complete in one under the
influence of grace; and he cries out:
"That cursed word "informed" (formatum), which forces men to understand
that the soul is, as it were, the same before and after charity, and that
it is, as it were, by the accession of a form brought into action, whereas
it is necessary that it should be totally mortified and made other, before
it puts on charity and works!"
The last words are deceptive; they should be understood in the light of
the new doctrine, that mortification will be complete only at death. It
was hard to veil the opposition of this view to Paul's doctrine. Romans 6,
which incontestably described the new state, offered more than one hard
problem to the new exegesis. When Paul says that (Christians are baptized
"into the death" (in mortem), united in Baptism to the death of Christ,
Luther explains it to mean "for death" (ad mortem), their own death:
"That is, they begin to act that they may attain to that death and that
In reality, riddance of sin is deferred till the moment of death. How
then understand that one is dead to sin and lives unto God? It is
necessary to attenuate the Pauline expressions:
"(1) To be dead to sin; (2) but to live for God; (3) to serve by the mind
the law of God and by the flesh the law of sin (Rom. 7.25), mean nothing
but that we must not consent to concupiscence and to sin, although sin
remain. It is the same (4) about sin not dominating, not reigning, but (5)
justice reigning, etc."
As regards these last two cases, Luther seems to have a more solid
foundation in the text of the Apostle. If sin must no longer have
dominion, reign (Rom. 6.12-14), if we are no longer to serve it (Rom.
6.6), it must be that it still exists. It is not the master, but it is
To express here, my whole thought on the matter, I consider it would be
more in conformity with the concept of St. Paul not to see here a
designation of original sin. I know that theologians will be careful not
to speak of original sin after Baptism; they will say that it exists only
as concupiscence. But if Paul employs the word sin, why not understand it
in the proper sense? Luther obstinately refused to make any distinction.
He would not have even the semblance of a reason, if it were not said that
sin still dwells in man by some sort of function. And there will be no
reason for this statement if we understand Romans 7.7 ff., as written
concerning unregenerate man. It would be very important, for an altogether
exact exegesis, not to define too closely what the Apostle left somewhat
Sin is, according to him, at times original sin, at others it is actual
sin; but when it is question, as here, of dominating, reigning,
commanding, it is personified, like a being with a separate existence; it
is almost a principle of evil, a demon which would seek to establish his
empire, by using what is carnal, but not sinful, in us. Sin is ever
present and threatening, but from without.
Luther, on the other hand, thinks of it as original sin which remains and
he is conscious of departing on this point from the opinion of
"Things being thus, either I have never understood, or scholastic
theologians have not spoken well enough about sin and grace, who dream of
all original sin being taken away as well as actual sin, as if they were
things that could be removed in the twinkling of an eye, as darkness by
light. Whereas, the ancient Holy Fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, spoke very
differently in conformity with Scripture; they (the theologians) speak
like Aristotle in his Ethics, who placed sins and righteousness in works,
as likewise, their conferring and taking away."
It would be hard to push confusion farther. What had Aristotle to do with
the question, and where did he say that sins disappear in a moment? But
Luther held to his contrast: on the one side the Scriptures and the
Fathers, on the other Aristotle and the theologians.
It is to Scripture that Luther has recourse to prove that we must look
upon the existence of original sin as continuing in baptized Christians.
He was, indeed, penetrated personally with the sentiment of sin and he,
appeals to experience; but it was a truth of faith, which the Scriptures
taught and which we would have to accept even against the testimony of
conscience. This is said from the beginning:
"Even if we recognize no sin in us, we must nevertheless believe that we
are sinners.... By faith alone must we believe that we are sinners,
because it is not manifest to us, nay, we even more often seem to
ourselves not guilty."
He gives as proof some scriptural texts. The point is so important that he
comes back to it in connection with original sin.
"Therefore we are all born, all die in iniquity, i. e., in
And he accumulates passages of Holy Writ to show that all are in sin. It
is useless to indicate each of his twelve arguments. Not one refers to
original sin. And that every one should confess himself sinful, no one
Luther, at any rate, was fully persuaded that his principal thesis rested
on Scripture, and on the Fathers, represented by St. Augustine, whose
principal text he had misquoted.
2. IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS NOT FOUND IN ST. PAUL
Sin is a correlative of righteousness. If man is a sinner, if original sin
remains in him, he is not really righteous. Conciliation of
contradictories cannot go so far as that. Luther acknowledges that this
point gave him much preoccupation. How could he call himself a sinner,
when confession had taken away his sin? If sin remained, how was he
justified? The solution would arouse envy in the most subtle scholastic:
sin was "remitted" without being "taken away," except in hope, and, to use
other terms, it was not regarded as sin, it was not imputed:
"Thus, I contended within myself, not knowing that there is indeed a real
remission, though there is no taking away of sin, except in hope, i. e.,
it is to be taken away, and grace is given, which begins to remove sin, so
that it be not now imputed for sin."
Sin is not imputed! An important formula, for it is biblical: "Blessed is
the man to whom the Lord hath not imputed sin" (Psalms 32.2). He is now in
possession of a text and of a principle that distinguishes him from his
opponents, the "justiciarii:"
"Their watchword and doctrine is: he is righteous who does this and that;
but that of the others (it is question of himself) is: Blessed is the man
to whom the Lord does not impute sin."
The consequence was of a nature to cause the boldest to pause: God then
was to regard as righteous those who are not? Luther did not recoil from
"The saints are always intrinsically sinners, therefore they are always
extrinsically justified. Hypocrites, on the other hand, are always
intrinsically righteous, therefore they are always extrinsically
To see in this the view of a man of genius, one must admit that genius is
not bound by the rules of common sense. Nothing could be more painful than
to see Luther entangled in these notions of intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic should signify the reality which is within man; Luther takes it
in this meaning, but he attaches a second to it. It is used in a double
sense in the text just quoted. There it signifies (1) In reality, (2) In
our own eyes:
"Intrinsically, I say, i. e., as we are in ourselves, in our own eyes, in
our own estimation."
And he, the enemy of scholasticism, appeals for the substantiation of his
thesis to the "nature of relatives," to the "power and necessity of
relation." For those who are justified, the terms are applicable; they are
sinners intrinsically, justified "before God and in His reckoning." But
why not say that all are sinners intrinsically? Because the hypocrites
(Luther's adversaries, the justiciarii) are righteous in their own eyes,
consequently intrinsically(!) righteous and then
"by the power and necessity of relation they are extrinsically unrighteous
(i. e., in the reckoning of God)."
If we set aside this logic, we have the statement that sinners are
justified when they acknowledge their sin, that is to say, that humility
is the cause of justification. Now as Luther does not speak of actual
grace, he, the defender of grace, ends in a Pelagian doctrine of
justification. It is true that his justification lacks reality.
The contradiction with St. Paul is complete. The Apostle teaches that the
Gospel is the manifestation of the justice of God, and (as Luther claimed
to be the first to have recognized) not of the divine attribute of
justice, but of a justice given to men to justify them. On this point the
agreement of tradition was absolute. The exegesis of St. Augustine did not
furnish even the appearance of a pretext to depart from it. So Luther long
remained faithful to the Catholic formulas. No one would have reproached
him with opposing the righteousness of Paul to that of Aristotle. The
righteousness of God is gratuitous, it comes from on high, it is not
acquired by works.
Nothing, evidently, could be more opposed to the doctrine of Aristotle,
who admits that righteousness is acquired by acts. The scholastic
theologians had recognized the contradiction. The righteousness we have
from God is supernatural; it opens for us the gates of heaven. Without
this righteousness one cannot always practice human righteousness,
especially in difficult circumstances; but, nevertheless, by performing
acts of virtue man acquires a certain habit of righteousness which helps
him to practice it. When the two kinds of righteousness are united (the
normal case of a baptized Christian), the supernatural virtue is exercised
more easily, thanks to acquired habit, or the habit is more easily
acquired. There is in this nothing contrary to St. Paul, who regards
Baptism as placing man m the service of righteousness in view of
sanctification (Rom. 6.18. ff.). But Luther affects to place theologians
in the camp of Aristotle, as if they had no notion of a righteousness
which comes from God. It is his first great discovery. The opposition
between the righteousness of God and that of Aristotle is set forth in
connection with Romans 1.17:
It is different from the righteousness of men, which comes from works.
Thus does Aristotle (3, Ethics) clearly determine, teaching that
righteousness follows and comes from works. But the righteousness of God
precedes works and works come from it.
Theologians did not speak otherwise.
When writing the words just quoted, Luther still appeared to say that
God's righteousness was given to man, since he performs works which
proceed from it (ex ipsa). It was the Catholic doctrine, which was then,
as it is now, so clear that it is not opportune to insist; so clear that
Luther long preserved its terms. It is, consequently, difficult to
determine at just what point of his "Commentary" he passed from real
righteousness to righteousness merely imputed. This latter variety is
clearly in view, when on the second page of his "Scholia", he invites the
really humble man
"to await the bare mercy of God, who reckons him as just and wise."
On the other hand, even after the commentary on chapter of Romans, he
still uses Catholic terminology, for instance:
"For though we be justified by God and receive grace, we do not receive
this grace by our merit, but it is a gift."
It is, however, at the end of his commentary on chapter 3 and in the
course of that on chapter 4 that he establishes his doctrine of imputed
justice. If the term appears before, it is because his conviction had
been arrived at from a first study. When, consequently, he continues to
speak like a Catholic theologian, we must often understand him in a
particular manner. I do not think that he is rendering witness to the
truth by a contradiction when he says at the end of his commentary on
"The death of Christ is at the same time the death of sin and His
resurrection is the life of justice, because by His death He satisfies for
sin and by His resurrection He confers righteousness upon us. And so His
death does not merely signify, but it effects, the remission of sin as a
most sufficient satisfaction. And His resurrection is not merely a
sacrament of our righteousness, but it also effects it in us, if we
believe it, and it is a cause. About this we shall speak more at length
below. All this the scholastic theologians call one change: the expulsion
of sin and the infusion of grace."
We see that he has not lost sight of his opponents; and we cannot suppose
that he intended, so to speak, to set before them a flagrant contradiction
in his own new doctrine. Either he wished simply to take note of the
thought of scholastics opposed to his own, or, as I think more likely, we
must presuppose his system, which does not deny the remission of sins nor
the true gift of righteousness, but puts them off to the moment of death.
In the passage we have cited Luther does not refer us to a quotation of
Augustine, as Ficker thinks, but to an elaborate theory, which
is to the effect that we die to sin only once, because we thus die only on
the threshold of eternal life. Luther prudently kept this explanation
in reserve; otherwise one would have to suppose that he was not conscious
of the novelty of his doctrine.
If we cannot know at precisely what moment he came to the notion of
imputed justice, we can, at least, appreciate the scriptural arguments
which decided him.
These arguments are not devoid of cleverness, and his way of interpreting
St. Paul is still law for a great many Protestant exegetes.
Instead of understanding "to justify" in the sense of "to make just," he
takes it as meaning "to declare just." This was only a first step, because
one would think that God would declare just only him who is really such.
But already he had determined an intermediate state in which God does not
impute sin. Why, in like manner, should He not impute justice? The first
time that the term "justificari" presents itself (Rom. 2.13), he
understands it: "To be recognized just"; and this is right. Likewise the
second time (Rom. 3.4), where it is question of God. But already he gets
away from the sense to a notable degree when he takes the justice of God
of Romans 3.5 for the justice.
"by which He is just and justifies us."
Here it is incontestably a question of the retributive justice of God. And
this misunderstanding is not without consequences, because the act, by
which we recognize the justice of God, becomes the act by which He
justifies us in the same sense, that is, by accounting us just:
"That (justice of God) our injustice (that is acknowledged and confessed)
commends, for it humbles us and casts us down before God and implores His
justice, which, being received, we glorify God who bestows it."
These last words sound well enough. One sees how much Luther is
embarrassed,--differently from when he spoke of the permanence of sin,--
when he tries to get away from the Catholic doctrine concerning grace
received. But he does not delay to speak more clearly on the identity of
the two justifications, the one active, the other passive:
"By this justifying of God we are justified ourselves, and this passive
justification of God, by which He is justified by us, is by God's action
our own justification. Because the faith, which justifies His words, He
reputes justice, as chapter 4 says."
This time we are enlightened. Luther would have spared himself this
disquisition on active and passive justification, if he had not had
already in view imputed justice, such as he will establish it in his
commentary on Romans 4.
In the meanwhile, he draws back at times under the pressure of the texts.
When he puts himself the objection which arises from the Epistle of St.
James, from Galatians, chapter 6, from Romans 2.13, he gives the right
explanation of Paul's texts. In condemning works, which are incapable of
procuring justice, the Apostle distinguished between the dispensation of
the law and that of grace. The faithful and infidels may be likened to
priests and laymen. The latter may use the formulas of the former and
nothing valid is accomplished. On the contrary, priests use them
effectively; and so of the man who has the faith,
"by which he is justified and, as it were, ordained, that he may be just
for the performance of works of justice."
In the same way, if a monkey became a man, the transformation would be
evident. The comparison is surely strong enough! There is, then, still a
real righteousness and works of righteousness. The moment had not yet
come when the Epistle of St. James would be pronounced an Epistle of
straw; and certain texts of St. Paul were still correctly understood.
But in the commentary on chapter 4 of Romans the new doctrine is affirmed
already in the interlinear gloss:
"It was reputed to him by God unto justice that thereby he might be just
with God. And thus it is not of him who works, but of God who accepts his
faith unto justice."
"Who justifies by grace. The wicked, i. e., he, who of himself is but
wicked, is reputed before God,--that is to say, by God his faith is
gratuitously reputed, unto justice, that he may be just before God."
In this fourth chapter, St. Paul speaks of Abraham, the father of
believers, the most obvious instance of one who, before the advent of
Christ, had attained to the righteousness which Christ was to merit. He
does not speak directly of the manner in which Abraham obtained
righteousness, nor of the change which must have taken place in his soul
at that moment of his justification. The essential point is that Abraham,
whose righteousness all admitted, was recognized as righteous by the
Scriptures on account of his faith. He did not, consequently, arrive at
the righteousness of works (Rom. 4.1-3). Then Paul, comparing the formula
used by Genesis in reference to Abraham and that used by David in the
Psalms in reference to the pardoned sinner, shows that they exclude works
and suppose that justice comes from God.
In Romans 4.3 St. Paul quotes Genesis 15.6: "Abraham believed God and it
was reckoned unto him as righteousness." In Genesis the exact words are:
"And he believed Jahweh, and He reckoned it unto him as righteousness." It
is almost the same expression of satisfaction that Jahweh has for those
who observe the law (Deut. 6 . 25, 24.13); it is applied to Phineas for
an act of zeal (Psalms 105.31). It is in no wise question of the first
justification of Abraham, but of the merit of his act of faith, merit such
that it is equivalent to a perfect work and is recognized as such by
Scripture. Luther and Lutherans, in basing upon this text their system of
imputed justice, are going manifestly against its meaning as it stood in
Nor is there anything in the doctrine of St. Paul, taken as a whole, which
would authorize one to hold that he thought Abraham's faith was regarded
as sufficient without righteousness, and that it obtained that God should
declare him righteous though he was a sinner. We have sufficiently pointed
out that the Epistle to the Romans regards man's death to sin as very real
and announces a power of God which really transforms the members of
Christ's mystical body, even while they are still on earth. St. Paul has
no thought of "imputed" righteousness. And of course, it is a canon of
modern criticism that a phrase, particularly a quoted phrase, be
interpreted in the light of the writer's doctrine taken as a whole.
It is in connection with this text of St. Paul that we find the
disquisition already spoken of concerning extrinsic justice. Again,
nothing could be more contrary to his teaching. It is conceded that the
meaning of the words "to justify," "to be justified," is not always the
same in the texts, but it is not doubtful that he regards Baptism as the
beginning of a life of real holiness. Holiness is nothing but justice
(righteousness); they come into existence and they disappear together.
But Luther's stroke of genius must be placed at this point. Into this void
of extrinsic justice he has thrown Christ. He is outside of us; but He is
our good; much more He dwells in us, and lo! our justice is replaced:
"Therefore I have rightly said that all our good is extrinsic, for it is
Christ. As the Apostle says: Who of God is made unto us wisdom, and
justice, and sanctification, and redemption, all of which are in us only
by faith and hope in Him."
Luther may really and in good faith have thought at this period that he
was replacing a predicament of Aristotle by the living and active presence
of Christ. What emotion in the following expression:
"Therefore let us say to God: O how glad we are to be empty, that Thou
mayest be full in us! I am glad to be weak, that Thy power may dwell in
me; a sinner, that Thou mayest be justified in me; foolish, that Thou
mayest be my wisdom; unrighteous, that Thou mayest be my
Many a religious soul in the bosom of Protestantism has thus poured itself
out before God. And the words are but an echo of ancient Christian
mysticism. One must be emptied of self to draw God into his heart;
humility is in its way the cause of grace.
In adding the exaggeration, which makes Christ dwell in a sinful soul,
Luther introduces an innovation, which is far from honoring Christ as he
claims. Leaving aside reasons or fitness, the Spirit of Christ is truly
active in the faithful soul, His grace is a gift which constitutes one
righteous: "As by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners; so
also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just" (Rom. 5.19). Luther
transcribes this text without paying it the courtesy of a word of comment.
His position is taken. He is in possession of a doctrine: sin not imputed,
3. MISINTERPRETATION OF ST. PAUL'S TEACHING ABOUT FAITH
But why are some reputed just? To answer the question in the light of the
views which Luther has up to this time set forth, we must recur to the
mystical teaching that God reputes just those who acknowledge their
sinfulness. This solution is often stated, and we have just seen a clear
expression of it. Likewise God saves those who yield themselves up to Him
with purest love.
But was there not a danger that this love should resemble charity, of
which Luther still speaks with praise in his "Commentary" but which might
easily become suspect, as eminently a work?
As regards humility, if it dug very deep the abyss into which false
security sinks, did it not threaten to weaken the soul by discouragement?
Now Luther claimed to have found a middle way between false security and
despair. He had to indicate in man, outside of humility and of charity, a
disposition which inclined God to justification. He finds it in faith. The
principal service which the Epistle to the Romans has rendered
Protestantism (very much against its will) was to give faith as the human
disposition to which God gratuitously accords justification. This faith
may be defined in various ways. Catholic exegesis, and also independent
exegesis, sees in it a sincere adhesion to Christianity. It was, in its
way, a historical notion; an interior act which must exist at all times,
but which in St. Paul is applied to that manifestation of the divine which
had been the passion and resurrection of Jesus. It comprised an
intellectual act, the adhesion of the mind to the truth proposed, and an
act of the will, adhesion to the new life in Jesus.
It is true that theologians, with a view to more precision, had
distinguished these two aspects, following the example of Paul himself in
the Epistle to the Corinthians where he distinguishes so clearly faith and
charity (1 Cor. 13). But to understand faith as St. Paul did, it had to be
taken with charity; and Luther would not do so. To understand it with
theological precision was to make it a disposition which could not
distinguish Christians who are justified from those who are not.
There is always a possibility of employing an ill-defined and vague notion
in the most unexpected way. We have seen that Luther confounded faith and
obedience, extending the domain of faith even to the counsels of a
superior. And if one was to hold as a matter of faith that he is a sinner,
why might he not hold in like manner that he is righteous? This step,
which is so important in the history of Protestantism, is taken in the
"Commentary". We find in it a first sketch of faith--confidence.
It is St. Bernard who must serve as intermediary between Luther and his
text. After the interlinear gloss (Rom. 8,16):
"The Holy Spirit himself given us giveth testimony strengthening
confidence in God...."
Luther notes in the margin:
"For he who confided with strong faith and hope that he is a son of God,
is indeed a Son of God, since it cannot be done without the Spirit. Hence
the blessed Bernard in ser. 1 concerning the annunciation of the
The text of St. Bernard is reproduced at length in the "Scholia", to show
how the testimony of the spirit is indeed confidence of heart.
Nevertheless, St. Bernard speaks of a triple testimony of the faith: "Thou
must believe that thou canst obtain remission of sins only by the
indulgence of God; that thou canst have as thy own absolutely no good
work, if God does not give it; that thou canst merit eternal life by no
work, if he does not give this eternal life freely." These
expressions are certainly a strong affirmation of the need of grace. But
while formulated for one person only, they assign to faith a general
object. And for this reason Luther judges them insufficient.
"That is only a certain beginning, and as a foundation of faith,"
of that faith which shall be his, which is complete only when it is at the
same time personal confidence which partakes of the nature of faith:
"It is necessary that the Spirit make thee believe this, that by Him sins
are forgiven thee. . . "
And this is welded on to the doctrine of the Apostle:
"Thus does the Apostle deem that man is justified by faith (by the
positive belief concerning thyself also, not merely concerning the elect,
that Christ has died for thy sins and atoned for them)."
The second point of St. Bernard is developed in the same way:
"It suffices not, until the spirit of truth gives testimony, that thou
hast these (merits) by him."
And, finally, it is not enough to believe that God gives eternal life
"But it is necessary that thou have the testimony of the Spirit, that thou
art to come to it."
One must believe that he is predestined.
Where is the proof that authorizes Luther to transfer Bernard's words from
the scale of objective faith to that of personal assurance, preserving the
firmness of faith, firmness due to the word of God? In St. Paul.
"These three points are clearly manifest in the Apostle. For he says: Who
shall accuse against the elect of God? ', which means that we are certain
that no sins will accuse us. So of merits: 'We know that to them that love
God all things work together unto good. So of eternal glory: I am sure
that neither things present nor things to come, etc., shall be able to
separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ.'"
All this, it is true, is still intimately mingled with the idea that it is
humility which renders us pleasing to God; this humility is then, taking
it all in all, the ultimate foundation of faith--confidence.
But a new notion was set forth, which was constantly to expand its
dominion. Luther claimed to lean upon St. Paul. St. Paul had had in view
the community of Christians, whose salvation God had prepared and whose
organ he was. On the part of God salvation was assured, but the Apostle
did not ignore the fact that one might lose the spirit of Christ (Rom.
8.9). Luther applies to himself words spoken of the faithful, he lays
claim to the assurance given them, and adds to the legitimate confidence
of the Christian the firmness of faith. It was, again, through lack of
To this confidence he has given a strange expression, perhaps
characteristic of his race: men must hurl themselves upon the truth of
God, Who has promised salvation.
Luther could not, however, forget that his main purpose was to attack the
false security of the jurists. It is for this that he maintained sin. He
stopped, then, before having rounded off his system. We must fear, he
tells us, but only to find assurance in this fear itself. It is at the
very end of the "Commentary" that he utters a last denunciation against
those who are in security and confidence,
"which all aspire to with wonderful fury. For thus by fear grace is found;
and by grace man is made willing to perform good works, while without he
Such is, let us repeat, the joyful message which Luther had in store for
the world. It was only when his doctrine was attacked that he boldly
hurled himself upon confidence. Certitude of one's own justification would
become the best proof of true Lutheranism. Then the word faith, which was
that of Paul, regained all its advantages; faith, and faith only, became
the fundamental disposition of man in view of salvation.
The "Commentary" offers other interesting features. In its moral part,
especially from chapter 12 on, the words of the Apostle are scarcely more
than a pretext for declamation against abuses. One feels that Luther was
ready to attack them and to reform them in his own way. He was in
conscious possession of a new religious doctrine which he claimed was
based on Scripture, in particular upon the authority of St. Paul. We have
endeavored to show how he had come to this conviction, and that it was not
without having misinterpreted the thought of the Apostle.
EPILOGUE: CONSEQUENCES OF THE NEW SYSTEM
Luther rightly denounced heresy as the blindest and most audacious
manifestation of pride. Did he not understand, then, that the system of
doctrine which was already coordinated in his mind was incompatible with
the Church's organization and disturbed the harmony of Christian dogma?
In 1515, Bohemia was still agitated by the convulsions of the Hussites,
the most radical of whom were called Picards. Referring to them, he asks:
"Are we to support the heresy of the Picards? .
. . Must we decide to suppress everything--the churches and their
decorations, all fast-days, all feast-days, distinctions of priests,
bishops, and religious, their rank, their costumes, their ceremonies
observed for so many centuries, do away with all monasteries, foundations,
benefices, prebends? This is what they do and what according to them the
liberty of the new law calls for."
Luther's reply is "God forbid!" Such a revolution was far from his mind.
He asks for changes; he would wish that prelates might take the initiative
in diminishing the number of fasts and festivals, shorten the ceremonies,
give to the poor rather than lay up treasures-for the construction of
churches; instead of maintaining, even by war, temporal interests,
churchmen should devote themselves to improving morals; they should attach
more importance to inner religion than to the pomp of exterior worship.
The exemptions of clerics are not bad in themselves; but when asked
whereby they deserve them these clerics can only refer to the prayers they
mutter, and they get exemptions even from them. "We priests," he says,
"claim freedom from the service of men because we are bound to the service
of God. We serve neither God nor man. Let us beware; laymen are beginning
to open their eyes." But the reform of abuses is all that is
Luther does not as yet, in the project of reform which he opposes to that
of the Picards, seem to suppose that the priesthood is endangered by his
plans to secure Christian liberty. The priest is for us, as he was for the
ancients, a man who offers sacrifice. So long as he had not made up his
mind to suppress the sacrifice of the Mass, Luther allowed what was
essential in the priesthood to subsist. But the priest is also the
dispenser of the sacraments, especially, after the Eucharist, of the
sacrament of Penance. If Penance does not confer grace, what becomes of
the power to bind and to loose? Since sins are not loosed in Heaven, the
jurisdiction conferred on Peter and the Apostles was without an object,
and the ecclesiastical organization was seriously affected.
Dogma was not less affected. The history of the Reformation affords,
perhaps, the most striking example of the assistance of the Holy Ghost in
the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, the shortsightedness of
the human spirit.
Luther was shocked by the rationalism of theology. Did it not seek to
bring divine realities into Aristotle's categories, place grace and
charity among the predicaments, speak of them as if they appeared and
disappeared in the soul as whiteness on a wall or heat in water? He
thought he was abolishing an intermediary between the soul and Christ; or
rather he fancied he was doing away by a stroke of his pen with an
artificial philosophical entity to unite himself more closely with the
Savior. The soul, always sick, is henceforth in the hands of its Healer.
This seductive simplification was, there can be no doubt, the cause of the
success of Lutheranism, at least in the case of those whom it drew by its
religious character. But while attempting to remove an obstacle to the
soul's union with God, Luther was, as a matter of fact, destroying the
possibility of such a union. Scholastics had boldly attempted to
understand divine realities as well as they could, and, if it appeared
rash to classify them, was it not the noblest task of the human mind to
construct a harmonious system, in which the supernatural was conceived as
adapted to our weakness in order to raise us up higher? For the rest,
whether grace was to be regarded as a second nature, communicated to the
soul itself, and charity as a quality of the will, was not altogether a
closed question; what was essential was to suppress neither grace nor the
love of God, which is according to Jesus Christ everything in religion.
Genuine theology had not a whit less horror for Pelagianism than had
Luther. It taught that man cannot merit eternal life, or even grace, by
the efforts of nature alone; that grace comes only from God; that the
dispositions of the soul to receive it must themselves be aroused by help
from above. But it believed with St. Paul in the liberality of God, rich
in His gifts to those who have recourse to Him. Jesus Christ could not
abide in a soul soiled with sin; He came to her with complete pardon, and
made her able to respond to His love by clothing her with charity,-- the
love of friendship, the theologians called it,--which established between
Jesus and the soul an intercourse which was altogether favorable to
humility, so gratuitous was such an elevation. In making of confidence the
sum of all that man experiences in regard to God, Luther did indeed keep
religious sentiment at a high level, but he was obliged to despoil man of
charity--of which he still speaks enthusiastically in his first
writings--and, consequently, to disrupt the divine union. Modern
Protestants are fond of applying the term "magical" to Catholicism. And,
indeed, the charm was broken,--the charm of the outpourings of the heart,
responding to the supreme gift, of the prodigalities for worship which, to
go to the root of the matter, created beauty. Luther did not wish to
attack mysteries. He even boasted that he was digging deeper into the
mystery of evil. But in doing so, he was inflicting cruel wounds upon the
mystery of goodness.
Now if reason, which is so frequently rebellious in presence of the
mysterious, hesitates, even when it is in revolt, before rejecting a
mystery of goodness, because there it catches a glimpse of the proper
nature of God, it is absolutely averse to admitting a mystery of evil
which would involve wickedness in God. Predestination to damnation as well
as to happiness; settled designs of God to leave man in sin, and even to
draw him into it in order to damn him more surely,--such dogmas can hardly
be reconciled with that personal confidence which each must have in regard
to his own salvation. Those who came under Luther's influence were bound
eventually to reject such Lutheran mysteries; that influence was destined
to lead men not only to deny the gift of God but everything supernatural.
It must be said, however, that Luther and his followers appealed to moral
energy to fight against evil. This appeal supposes, indeed, that we can do
something. Human nature, corrupt, deprived of free will, would have had
only to let God act. Protestantism and Lutheranism itself have rejected
this too logical conclusion. They have often given the spectacle of fine
moral virtues. And the more attraction for the supernatural decreased in
their communities, the more they gave themselves up to this noble aim.
But who does not see that in so doing they were not acting in accordance
with the pessimistic mysticism of Luther, his pretended championing of the
rights of God?
How unfathomable are the designs of God! or, to speak in a more modern
way, what a strange reversal of values!
In 1515, after half a century of official renaissance of the literature
and art of the ancients, more than one group of Christians in Catholic
countries were slowly drifting into naturalism. Luther, in his cell, was
above all struck by the extravagances of luxury, the relaxation of
manners, the torpor of the clergy. High standards of clerical life were
not, it would seem, so much endangered as in the Middle Ages, from the
tenth to the twelfth century. But the peril run by the intelligence of
Christians was greater. It is not the place to speak of that matter here.
It is well known that even the heads of the Church themselves showed too
much favor towards the culture of antiquity, too much indulgence towards
those who combined Christian practice with skepticism of thought.
Christian religion risked being deprived of its supernatural force. Luther
arose, protested, undertook to restore to religion its inner soul.
His moral preaching was only a means of making Jesus to rule-- Jesus
crucified, once more a conqueror of heathen sensualism. He appealed to
faith and would have nothing but faith.
According to human prevision, Christian dogma was to be saved by the
Reformation. while Catholic countries would insensibly fall away towards
the logical conclusion of the naturalism latent in the Renaissance. And it
was precisely the opposite that happened.
In Protestant countries men strove to attain those moral virtues towards
which God ever excites us in order to prevent us from perishing, and this
effort was directed by the Bible; but from variation to variation they
abandoned, especially in intellectual environments, the most important
points of the old belief. Jesus, too often, is no longer an object of
faith among those who venerate the memory of Luther. The Catholic Church,
on the other hand, successfully set to work to reform manners according to
the evangelical ideal of supernatural morals, and she kept intact the
teaching of the Apostles.
1. "Histoire des Variations des Eglises Protestantes, Book 1.
2. "Luther und Luthertum in der ersten , Entwickelung quellenmassig
The first part of this work was revived by the author himself (1904). The
second appeared after his death (June 10, 1905), edited by Father Weiss,
O. P (1906). Circumstances having prevented access to the original, we
shall cite from the French translation, enriched by careful notes, of the
Rev, J. Paquier, LL.D., "Luther et le Lutheranisme," Paris, Picard, 4
vols., 1910- 1913.
3. "Anfange reformatorischer Bibelauslegung, herausgeben von Johannes
Ficker." 1. Band: "Luther's Vorlesung uber den Romerbrief," 1515-1516. I
Teil "Die Glosse," in 8 CIV--161 pp. II Teil: "Die Scholien," 1-346 pp.,
4. "Luther," by Hartmann Grisar, S.J., Freiburg im Breisgau, B. Herder,
1911 ff. English translation, by E. M. Lamond, in 5 vols., B. Herder,
completed in 1917.
5. Op. cit., I., p. 91.
6. "Le developpement de la pensee religieuse de Luther jusqu'en 1517."
7. "Quellenbelege. Die ablandischen Schriftsausleger bis Luther uber
JUSTITIA DEI (Rom. 1.17), und JUSTIFICATIO" (1905), p. 136.
8. Father Denifle cites in the preceding pages the Dominicans Guerrie of
St. Quentin, Odo Gallus (?), Gaufrid of Bleveio, and the Franciscan John
of la Rochelle.
9. Hugh of St. Victor is cited textually, but the passage is not found in
his works (F. 312). It is the same with a quotation from Seneca (F. 74)
and one from Cicero, who even says the contrary of what is in the citation
The references indicated by F. with a number are to the pages of the
volume containing the "Scholia", the more important. F.g. will indicate
the volume of Ficker which contains the glosses.
10. F. 108, 278.
11. F.g. 126.
12. F. 116; 168; 169; g. 69.
13. F. 109.
14. F. 28.
15. F. 325.
16. F. 144, on line 19: "Luther means here as elsewhere by the ancient
Fathers especially St. Augustine." The passage which calls for this note
Consequently as the ancient Fathers have rightly said: That sin of origin
is the fuel (fomes) the law of the flesh (lex carnis), the law of the
members (lex membrorum), the weakness of nature (languorem nature), the
tyrant, the sickness of origin (tyrannus, morbus originis), etc.
17. The whole volume of "Quellenbelege."
18. F. 201.
19. F. 197.
20. F.g. 17; 33.
21. The "Ordinary Glossary" (Glossa Ordinaria) was a compilation of
explanations of scriptural words and ideas which were current during the
Middle Ages and down to Luther's time. It is usually attributed to
Walafrid Strabo, Abbot of Reichenau, who died at the court of Charles the
Bald, July 17, 849. The "Interlinear Glossary" (Glossa Interlinearis), by
Anselm of Laon (+1117), explained the meaning of words between the lines
of the Bible.
22. F. 9: Iste locus nescio si ab ullo sit vere et recte expositus.
Antiquis obstitit interpretationis improprietas, recentioribus vero
23. F. 21.
24. Letter to Spalatin, of Oct. 19. 1516, where he differs from Erasmus
regarding the sense of St. Paul; letter to Lang of March 1, 1517.
25. F. 66.
26. F. 345: But let us not condemn the judgment of Erasmus and of those
27. F. 9.
28. F 11. Graecus textus non potest esse certus.
29. With Valla, F. 9, note 22.
30. F. 17.
31. Mr. Ficker notes that this interpretation and his preference for the
neuter comes from the commentary of Lefevre; but may it not be that
Lefevre understood "eph ps" to mean "eo quod" (because)? where Luther says
clearly "in quo peccato" (in which sin).
32. F. 61. Credita, i.e., per fidem suscepta.
33. F. g. 48; 142.
34. Denifle-Paquier, III., p. 107, N. 1; F. 171.
35. Non perficietis.
36. F. 182.
37. Denifle-Paquier, III., p. 107 f.
38. F. 176: ego, inquit, totus homo, persona eadem, servio utranque
39. This particular point has no influence on the determination of the
general theme, whether it be question of the regenerate man or the
40. Denifle-Paquier, III., 108; F. 235.
41. F.g. 73.
42. F. 222.
43. F. 284.
44. Denifle-Paquier, III., p. 107.
45. F. 55.
46. F. 158.
47. F. 52.
48. F. 63 f.
49. Ficker refers to Reuchlin, "Septem psalmi poenitentiales hebraice cum
grammatica tralacione latina, 1512."
50. F. 65.
51. F. 107. The reference has escaped Mr. Ficker.
52. F. 113.
53. F. 119.
54. F. 119, 123.
55. F. 263; cf. g. 43.
56. F.g. 131: "in the power of the Holy Ghost," that is, by the power of
the Holy Ghost; the Hebrew locution corresponding to "in" is equivocal.
57. F. 238.
58. F.g. 30.
59. F. 240.
60. F. 42.
61. F. 17.
62. F. 192.
63. F. 216.
64. F. 262.
65. F. 287.
66. F.g. 23.
67. F. 313; cf. g. on Rom. 16.17.
68. F. 139.
70. F.g., p. 1.
71. F. 1.
72. The Vulgate term "justitia" is rendered by the word justice in the
Douay Bible, and in Catholic theological works justice is used frequently
in the broad sense of righteousness.-- Translator's note.
73. F. 79.
74. L. 1, p. 156.
75. F. 271.
76. Cited by Denifle-Paquier, II., 396.
77. F. 271.
78. F. 110.
79. Denifle-Paquier, II., 382. Note 1. This sermon which Koestlin assigned
to St. Stephen's day, 1514 has been transferred to the following year by
Denifle precisely because it reveals the point which is made in the
"Commentary on Romans." Ficker and Jundt admit Denifle's verdict.
80. F. 332.
81. F. 123.
82. Denifle-Paquier, I., 62.
83. Denifle-Paquier, II., 378.
84. Denifle-Paquier II., 378.
85. P. LXXXIII: One can hardly read a page till we come to Ch. 12,
without meeting the word humility: "for what else but humility does all
Scripture teach?" p. 39.
86. F. 227. So far what Luther says is true.
87. F. 228.
88. Jundt, p. 45.
89. F. 109.
90. In the "Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians" (1636), in
Denifle-Paquier, II., 389, note 2.
91. F. 180.
92. F. 182.
93. F. 22.
94. In 1518, Denifle-Paquier, II., 404, n. 2.
95. F. 105.
96. F. 266 f.
97. F. 86.
98. F. 88.
99. F. 89.
100. F. 89.
101. Harnack cited by Denifle-Paquier, II., 369.
102. F. 220.
103. F. 218.
104. F. 218.
105. F. 288.
106. F. 288: Sed habent nunc juriste puleram glosam, quia orationes
horarias orare non est preceptum, sed "legere" seu "dicere" sic enim
ponderant canonem in verbis ac sic securi stertunt. Some jokes are very
long-lived. This one recalls the words of the dean during a storm "This is
no time to say our Office, but to pray to God."
107. F. 273.
108. F. 273.
109. F. 337.
110. F. 199.
111. F. 200, On Col. II., 8.
112. F. 199.
113. F. 305.
114. F. 322.
115. F. 323.
116. Denifle-Paquier, II., 397, citing the edition of Weimar, IV., 262, 4.
117. Denifle-Paquier, III., pp. 166,170,171,183 and 184.
118. Ficker, p. LXI.: "In terminology and argumentation he is the disciple
of Occamian nominalism; there were there many things which corresponded to
his penetrating way of conceiving, to his taste for dash, antithesis,
119. Occam, on I Sent: dist. 17, qu. 1 M, cited by Denifle- Paquier, III.,
198: Et ita ista opinio maxime recedit ab errore Pelagii, que ponit Deum
sic non posse necessitari et non magis gratuitam et liberam Dei
acceptionem esse necessriam cuicumque.
120. Denifle-Paquier, III., p. 106.
121. F. 165: Simili temeritate aguntur Thomiste, Scotiste etalie secte,
qui scripta et verba suorum auctorum ita defendunt, ut spiritum non solum
contemnant querere, sed etiam nimio venerationis zelo extinguant, satis
arbitrati, si verba tantum teneant etiam sine spiritu.
122. Jundt, 1. 1. p. 65.
123. Denifle-Paquier, II., 425.
124. F.g. 80
125. Denifle-Paquier, III., 128 ff.
126. In 1516, cf. Denifle-Paquier, III., 128 and note 2.
127. F. 203.
128. F. 205.
129. St. Paul speaks at times as if faith understood in the broad sense,
which implies charity, was the one condition for the granting by God of
that divine justice, called grace in modern theological language. This is
chiefly when he is combating the pharisaic doctrine of justice acquired by
man's own efforts. He speaks in other places as if Baptism were the sole
means by which this grace is acquired. Luther, attending only to the
former set of utterances, make of Baptism a mere symbol, denying that it
had any power to impart grace. The Church reconciles both sets of
assertions by maintaining the necessity both of faith and of the Sacrament
of Baptism. The justice of God is given to every believer; but every
believer must receive Baptism, an exterior rite, conferring the grace,
which it signifies, and admitting into the membership of the Church. So
essential is this rite that no matter how perfect the inner dispositions
of a person may be, he cannot be justified without receiving it, at least
by desire, as our Catechism teaches. (Translator's note.)
130. First sermon for the feast of Pentecost, according to 2 Cor. 3.7.
131. F. 169.
132. We have already seen that it is opposed to the Greek text.
133. F. 172.
134. F. 178.
135. "Opus imperf. contra Julianum" (429-430), II. C. 226, cited in
Denifle-Paquier, III., 30.
136. "De nupt. et concupise." I. C. 25 n. 28, Denifle-Paquier, III., 11
137. F. 109. We see the great importance of this fact. Father Denifle (D.-
P. III., 11 ff.) has conclusively shown: 1. that Luther has set forth,
under analogous terms, the reverse of Augustine's thought; 2. that he knew
perfectly well the true text, which he commented upon in the same way as
everybody else in his glosses on Peter Lombard (1510-1511); 3. that he
obstinately persisted henceforth in always citing falsely; 4. that
Melanchthon completed the falsification. Father Denifle, quoting from the
Vatican MS., has not written concupiscence, the copyist having omitted to
add this marginal word. Ficker (o. 1, p. 41) has dared to say that this
little word reduces to nothingness the passionate attack of Father
Denifle. M. Paquier has very well answered that it changes nothing (III.,
p. 16). I think that Luther's correction proves that he had reread
Augustine. He cannot then be excused on the ground of only having fallen
into a mistake of memory. The falsification remains and thus appears more
voluntary. If he leaves the two words, it is because sin = concupiscence.
Would he then have cited Augustine against his own system?
138. F. 164.
139. Denifle-Paquier, III., 319 ff.
140. Denifle-Paquier, III., 225, 305.
141. F. 164.
142. F. 164.
143. F. 155.
144. F. 108.
145. F. 69.
146. F. 104.
147. F. 104.
148. F. 104 and 105.
149. F. 14.
150. F. 149.
151. F. 129 f. on Rom. 4.25.
152. F. 130, note 2, referring to p. 152, line 28.
153. Based on a wrong reading which he prefers to that of the Vulgate; see
154. F. 157 f.
155. F. 55.
156. F. 65.
157. F. 85.
158. F.g. 37.
159. F. 114.
160. Denifle blames him rather severely for making of Christ a "quality,"
a monstrous thing in scholastic theology but Luther had no regard for
161. F. 59.
162. F. 138: Hence only the "charity of God," which is a most pure
affection for God, which alone makes upright of heart, takes away
iniquity, extinguishes the enjoyment of our own righteousness.
163. F.g. 73.
164. Necesse est enim primo omnium credere, quod remissionem peccatorum
habere non possis nisi per indulgentiam Dei. Deinde, quod nihil prorsus
habere queas boni operis, nisi et hoc dederit ipse. Postremo, quod
alternam vitam nullis potes operibus promereri, nisi gratis detur et illa.
165. F. 197 f.
166. Ergo in veritatem promittentis Dei audacter ruat (se transferat de
prescientiua terrentis Dei) et salvus et electus erit. F. 214.
167. F. 324.
168. F. 11, p. 315.
169. F. 11, 299 f.
170. The study on the genesis of Lutheranism here translated was published
by Father Lagrange in the "Revue Biblique," 1914-16, in the "Revue
Pratique d'Apologetique," Jan. 1, 1915, and in his commentary on the
Epistle to the Romans, "Saint Paul, Epitre aux Romains," Paris, Gabalda,