Sunday, July 02, 2006

Luther and the Reformation

We're discussing the Reformation, and I've been neck deep in Luther's ideas for the last three weeks. I can't say I've truly mastered all of the material yet. We started with two essays by Augustine on the errors of Pelagius. Those might've gone much better if I'd had a different (read: cleaner) copy. The CCEL version is riddled with typos. Pelikan's explanation of the Reformation on the Continent was good, but frankly, three chapters simply isn't enough to cover all of the facets. If they had been on Luther's ideas alone, I might feel a bit more sure. Then the assignment included "browsing through" Roland Bainton's biography on Luther, a text we weren't required to have, as well as reading two of three other selections. 95 Theses is short enough. Bondage of the will is a rather lengthy fisking of Erasmus by Luther.

UPDATE: So, I saw that our local library has copies of the Bainton text, so after being unable to confirm their hours, I drove down, only to find that they close at 6:00 on Fridays. Guess I shouldn't complain, though. I'm frankly amazed they actually have something I need.

UPDATE 2: I managed to pick up Here I Stand by Roland Bainton at the library. Although we're only requested to browse it, I'll most likely read the whole thing. It's pretty engaging, although the author must undoubtedly by Lutheran. He occasionally throws in little comments like "even Catholic historians agree that such and such was a problem." That and the Old Catholic Encyclopedia have been helpful in clarifying my understanding of Augustine's thoughts on grace.

One thing I can say is very clear to me: private revelation can be a dangerous thing when one lacks discernment. I think that fact is most clear when one sees the dramatic change in Luther's theology. I find it interesting how he employs the words "bind" and "loose," as he should know full well to whom that authority was given, while at the same time disputing the authority of the Pope and the testimony of the fathers of the Church. Then, in the same breath, he seems to claim to know the mind of Christ better. Christ, though, gave no such seal to Luther.

So, what I notice from The Bondage of the Will are the following:

- Luther claims to know the Word of God better than the Church.

- Luther changes the definitions of theological terms to suit his purpose, then defeats those traditional usages that he deems unsuited for his purpose.

- Luther rails against the Sophists while employing sophistry.

- And, as a side note, Luther speaks of himself in the third person.

Based on his writing, I can surely see why he was very persuasive. However, I can also see how much of his theology arose from his own personal torment—his own struggle with sin. Heck, I can commiserate, but that I blame on my own scrupulosity, not on a failure of Catholic dogma.

Anyhoo, to the questions...

What is the point of disagreement between Pelagius and St. Augustine?

The point of contention Augustine has with Pelagius is the latter's claim that works of the free will can initiate the process of justification, which suggests that faith is not due to a gratuitous gift of grace. He denied original sin. Augustine, on the other hand, posited that faith was a response to God's grace, hence an act of the free will in cooperation with grace. Pelagius also disputed the need or value of infant baptism and suggested that grave was simply an expedient to salvation but that one could gain faith and, hence, salvation through freely chosen virtuous behavior. This is in distinction to the Catholic doctrine that grace impels one to faith and, with the cooperation of free will, leads to additional actual graces, salutary works, and justification. As Augustine notes numerous times in "On Nature and Grace," Pelagius' thought, if true, renders Christ’s sacrifice meaningless.

Is the position of Luther and his followers in agreement with Augustine?

No, although Luther clearly thought it to be. Luther saw no difference between the grace that prompts man to faith and that which results in salvation. Augustine, on the contrary, seems to have thought it something that worked to prompt faith and continued to impel choices to sanctification. For Luther, faith is a one-time event, a fiduciary event that we gain solely by God's will and without any free choice of our own. Augustine seems to express himself in hyperbole to the point that one unfamiliar with all of his works could certainly come to misunderstand him. I think that Luther's own preoccupation with his guilt as well as his limited exposure to Augustine's thought left him to accept faith as a completely gratuitous act with no cooperation of the human will.

What are the differences between Augustine’s and Luther’s positions?

While Augustine saw grace as a purely gratuitous gift from God, he affirmed that grace required cooperation of the free human will for faith. Luther, though, disputed the existence of free will at all and considered God's will to be immutable. The idea of someone willing not to have faith and resisting God's will was absurd. It necessarily follows from this thinking, then, that God must will only the Elect to salvation. For Augustine, God wills all to be saved. However, because of the free will of man, God's will in this instance must be conditional. He absolutely wills some things, but for most humans, their salvation is a conditionally willed by God.

Luther's notion of justification is clearly different and seems to be a one-time event. In this, it more closely seems to be related to sanctifying grace than to justifying or actual grace. Luther's justification is a state, whereas Augustine demonstrates a belief in the process of justification, of grace and the cooperating free will leading to faith, which leads to actual grace, which leads to salutary acts.

For Luther, grace is either present or not. For Augustine, sufficient grace is always present but only becomes efficacious with the cooperative will. Hence, salutary acts have meaning in Augustine's salvation economy, where good acts are simply a product or end result in Luther's economy, with no salutary effect.

How does Luther propose that one can be both just and a sinner at the same time

According to Bainton, Luther's understanding of justification comes from the duality of the Greek term that renders into justice and justification in English. First, God renders justice, which means He condemns or rewards as does a judge. However, as Judge, He can justify someone, that is, essentially suspend a condemned man's sentence and reclaim his instead of "exaction of a pound of flesh" (page 64). The idea is essentially that in God's mercy He gives clemency, which doesn't remove guilt but withholds punishment, with the expectation and confidence that the sinner will sin no more. In this way, God simply chooses to ignore the guilt. This notion counters the Catholic concept of justification, which results in a purification or sanctification process. To Luther, one's guilt is covered and hidden by God. To the Catholic, that sin is expunged, and the wound it left is healed over time.

Oddly, Luther sought to bring relief to those who were scrupulously concerned about confession, himself primarily. Judging from Bainton's words, Luther didn't seem to have a clear understanding of the requirements for confession and absolution and believed that even those sins he had forgotten to confess would be held to his account. I suspect this ignorance on his part was probably widespread among Catholics of the time.

Feel free to leave comments. Although I think I have Luther's take down pretty well, I'm still working to understand Augustine. The CCEL copies I have and my limited exposure to his work are hindering me in that regard.

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