In studying the life and work of Martin Luther much consideration is generally given to the superstitious beliefs and practices of the Roman Church and rightly so. Less attention is devoted to what are in fact the sources of the theology that spawned them. Roman Catholic theology to this day begins with a false view of man. It attributes to fallen human reason and to the human will autonomy they do not possess. This teaching was strongly opposed by Luther using the Scriptures but also the teaching of the early Church Fathers. The ground of this rationalistic theology is to be found in Scholasticism. As it formed the foundation of the Church’s theology at the time of the Reformation and endures to this day, without looking at this system of theology we will acquire only a partial picture of what the Reformation was about and be ill-equipped to counter Roman Catholic dogma.
Already in the eleventh century translations of Aristotle and other Greek authors were making their way through Spain into Western Europe. These texts were seen as a serious threat to the prevailing Augustinian worldview, turning it from a religious into a secular one. The development of trade, the crusades, the many travelling scholars were causing western minds to broaden. The cloistered world of the monasteries faced a new reality. At the new university of Paris students gathered in large numbers to listen to Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142), Albertus Magnus (c. 1193/1206 – 1280) and Thomas Aquinas (c.1225 - 1274). Students were learning to debate using syllogisms. Scholasticism was in essence a method of learning emphasizing dialectical reasoning, seeking answers to questions and resolving any contradictions. To solve problems students would often turn to their teachers. They referred to them using the Latin title for teacher: scholasticus ― lecturer. The various schools of thought that grew from these professors became known collectively as Scholasticism.
These ‘Schoolmen’ believed that the answer to every problem imaginable would eventually come to them if they thought long and hard enough about it. The problem was that they all came up with different answers because they all began with different assumptions. Their teachings were a strange mixture of Greek paganism and Christian teaching. The road led from Socrates (c. 469 BC–399 BC) to Plato (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) by way of Boethius (ca. 480–524 or 525) and Porphyry (AD 234–c.305). At Luther’s time, Aristotle was seen as the light showing theologians the pathway to take.
As with many blanket names, the term Scholasticism is made by some to cover quite an extended period and includes figures holding very different, even opposing points of view. Church fathers such as Ambrose of Milan (c.337–397) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430) are counted among the early Scholastics. They were among the first of the Church fathers to attempt a somewhat tenuous reconciliation between Christian doctrine and Greek philosophy, Plato in particular. Some commentators detect this tendency already in false teachers of New Testament days.
At the time Martin Luther appeared on the scene, Scholasticism could largely be identified by three groups. There were the followers of Thomas Aquinas and there were those who followed Duns Scotus. Scotus opposed many of the ideas of Thomas. However, it is Thomas Aquinas who is to this day considered by many to be the foremost theologian and philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church. His best known works are Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles. Scotus was a Realist and attacked the position later propagated by Occam. He argued for the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary. The third group were followers of William of Occam. He taught Nominalism, or more accurately, Conceptualism. He followed Scotus in some things, but in many other things Occam opposed his views, particularly with respect to predestination and to universals. The Thomists and Scotists were known as the Via Antiqua or Old Way. Those following Occam became known as the Via Moderna, or the Modern Way.
When Luther entered the order of Augustinian Eremites on 17th July 1505, he would have encountered the writings of most of the scholastic writers, Thomas Aquinas , Duns Scotus, William of Occam , and Gabriel Biel (c.1420-1495). Biel was a fifteenth-century German Scholastic theologian and philosopher. Although he liked to call Occam ‘his master’, many see much of Scotus in his writings, particularly in his later works. Melanchthon testified that Luther practically knew the works of Gabriel Biel by heart.
The harmonization of the teaching of Augustine, the then predominant theology of the Church, with the philosophy of Aristotle, meant that the study of Aristotle dominated most medieval universities. It formed the basis for all scientific, philosophical and theological studies. Anyone not acquainted with Aristotle was considered an ignoramus. The techniques for determining the truth, presenting them convincingly, and disputing with opponents, Luther had acquired at university. Luther’s training in logic is evident in many of his writings such as his Ninety-five Theses, his address To the German Nobility, and On the Freedom of a Christian, whilst all the subtleties of the dialectics also acquired in his university days are seen in the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Yet as Luther increasingly drew on the Scriptures, the greater became his distaste for dialectics and Aristotle. He refused to be tyrannized by dialectics or the systems of logic and rhetoric widely practiced at the time, bringing down upon himself the ire and condemnation of his former teachers. He refused to attribute to fallen human reason and the human will attributes they did not possess. In one letter, speaking of what was being taught in universities, he writes:
“I daily ask the Lord, as far as now may be, that the pure study of the Bible and the Fathers may be restored. You think I am no logician; perhaps I am not, but I know that I fear no one’s logic when I defend this opinion.” (Insert Ref Preserved Smith S 1 p.13)
It is not clear with how well Luther knew the writings of Aquinas. The schools he attended were given over to the Via Moderna and they did not encourage study of Via Antiqua theologians. Where he was confronted with Aquinas, what he found he did not like. Luther accused Aquinas as being a poor and incompetent philosopher and theologian. He said Aquinas did not understand Aristotle. Luther’s strongest criticism of Aquinas was that his synthesis of Aristotle and theology had corrupted the truth. Luther attacked Aristotle initially for bringing a profanity into theology, but with time his criticism grew more intense.
“Aristotle, Porphyry, the theologians of the sentences … I desire nothing more ardently then to lay open before all eyes this false system, which has tricked the Church by covering itself with a Greek mask; and to expose its worthlessness before the world.” (Insert correct ref. D’Aubigne, p.178)
All the major errors of his day Luther blamed on the entrance of Aristotlean philosophy into the Church three hundred years previously. Luther’s chief objection to Aquinas was that he had corrupted the faith with an admixture from the philosophy of Aristotle.
“Moreover, the Church had the true faith for more than twelve hundred years, during which time the holy Fathers never once mentioned this trans-substantiation ― for sooth, a monstrous word for a monstrous idea! ― until the pseudo-philosophy of Aristotle became rampant in the church, these last three hundred years, during which many other things have been wrongly defined; as for example, that Divine essence neither is begotten or begets; that the soul is the substantial form of the human body, and like the assertions, which are made without reason or sense.” (insert REF)
The central position enjoyed by the works of Aristotle in the University curriculum was something Luther abhorred and was determined to change. His aim was “to eliminate universal barbarism and to the further the cause of learning everywhere.” In 1520 under his leadership significant changes were made to the studies at Wittenberg. Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics and Ethics were dropped. In On the Soul Aristotle had taught that the soul dies with the body and so, said Luther, it is to be rejected. All this Luther was clear, opposed the Gospel of Christ. A somewhat forgivable exception was made for Aristotle’s Poetics. This reflects Luther’s own appreciation of classical poetry. However, for the most part he regarded Aristotle as a “damned pagan”. Luther found all the Scholastics to be equally antagonistic to the biblical Gospel. In his disputes with them, besides using the barbed arrows of Scripture references, he also turned to the writings of Augustine, more especially his later works. Augustine’s own theology of grace and his understanding of predestination and the human will were developed during his conflict with the heretical teacher and monk, Pelagius (ca. AD 354 – ca. AD 420/440), who was declared a heretic by the Council of Carthage in 418.
Martin Luther is remembered for nailing his Ninety-five Theses against indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, it is thought on the 31 October, 1517. However, a month earlier he had formulated a set of Ninety-seven scholarly theses Contra Scholastica, generally known in English as his Disputation against Scholastic Theology. The outbreak of the Reformation can perhaps best be dated from the moment Martin Luther began to tear apart the teachings of Aristotle and the Scholastics rather than his opposition to indulgences. Its beginning would perhaps be better dated from the posting of the earlier theses rather than the more well-known Ninety-five Theses. Augustine was evidently peering over Luther’s shoulder as he put together his Ninety-seven Theses in September 1517. Luther’s teaching and insights soon spread through the whole university at Wittenberg. By the time he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church he had the support of the whole university. The selling of indulgences by the Dominican, John Tetzel, was condemned by all as a disgrace.
First of all, Thomas taught that natural revelation is known through reason and supernatural revelation through faith. Let us be clear from the outset that this assumption, a mixture of pagan and Christian teaching, is shared by many non-Catholics, including many evangelicals and fundamentalists who try to defend their beliefs and prove the intellectual acceptability of the Bible and its teaching on this basis. This approach was roundly condemned for what it was by all the Reformers without exception. Thomas extends this initial premise. Supernatural revelation, according to him, has its origin with the Holy Spirit and is made available through the prophets and Holy Scripture, transmitted through the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church. This is understood to be embodied in the bishops, led by the Pope, who has ultimate authority over every bishop and over every Roman Catholic adherent. For a final word, we are all dependent upon the Roman Church, the Pope.
The natural order of things according to Roman Catholic thinking can be discovered by reason apart from faith, which places believers and unbelievers on the same ground. What they say about the natural order is not dependent upon faith, therefore is also not reliant upon the authority of Scripture. Matters of science and philosophy are not considered to be within the scope of the Scriptures. Equally, things in the order of faith are not dependent for their validity upon the reason either. What men know about God apart from faith, so the Roman Catholic thinking, will not then essentially be of the order of faith. At the heart of Luther’s opposition to Scholasticism was his understanding of the relationship between faith, human reason, and the Word of God. Human reason must always submit to faith and the revealed Word of God. Reason and understanding are not destroyed; it is not a question of either or, but they are instruments ruled by faith. In Table Talk ( ), he says:
“The natural wisdom of a human creature in matters of faith, until he be regenerate and born anew, is altogether darkness, knowing nothing in divine cases. But in a faithful person, regenerate and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, through the Word, it is a fair and glorious instrument, and the work of God: for even as all God’s gifts, natural instruments, and expert faculties, are hurtful to the ungodly, even so are they wholesome and saving to the good and godly.”
“The understanding, through faith, receives life from faith; that which was dead, is made alive again; like as out bodies, in light day, when it is clear and bright, are better disposed, rise, move, walk, etc., more readily and safely than they do in the dark light, so it is, so it is with human reason, which survives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather and advances it.”
Nevertheless, reason and faith are both said to deal with God and his relationship with man and so it is therefore possible for us to reason our way to God. Having supposed that, how can we ever then be sure that it is the true and living God who is reached by reason? We cannot. Is Aristotle’s ‘supreme being’, the first pure ‘Act of Thought’, identical to the God of faith? This is complicated further when we are told on the authority of Aristotle that reason is in any case ‘wounded’ and needs be healed by grace before it can function properly. We ask: “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?” (Job 11:7) Aristotle’s god is most certainly not the ‘I Am’ of Scripture. He is a god purely of the mind, of conjecture, and the product of a fallen rather than just a wounded one at that. A god reached by philosophical speculation can never be the God of Scripture by whose Word the worlds came into being, never ever. The God of the Roman Catholic Church, it would appear, is one who is found by natural reasoning and effort assisted by its own dispensations. Essentially then, God is mediated to us by the Church, by the Pope; we are dependent upon them! This is not the God of the Christian Scriptures who makes Himself known to us, reveals Himself to anyone who truly seeks Him in the written and the living Word ― and that without the ministrations of the Roman Church.
The Roman Catholic Church defends the autonomy of reason. It can, however, only ever be a pretended autonomy. In Roman theology, man has a measure of autonomy over against God’s sovereign will. There are said to be areas where men operate freely and outside the constraints of God will. The have their own freewill, to make up their own mind apart from God. This means that in order to intervene in human affairs God must first await a decision from man. He must wait and see what men do, for if this will is genuinely free God cannot know in advance what any individual will decide to do. In the end God has no ultimate control over what comes to pass, so that there are some things God does not and cannot know. His knowledge is not all-encompassing; He is not omniscient in the way that the Bible teaches. Recognizing the autonomy of reason as it does, it follows that Roman theology acknowledges autonomy too in philosophy. Philosophy is cut free from the constraints of Scripture.
As a result of giving men a claim to autonomy, the Roman Church cannot really lay claim to any authority over anyone. Even God is now unable to call men to meet his requirements and demands. In rejecting the sovereign will of God as totally comprehensive, the Roman Church can call no one to be wholly subject to God. God is not sovereign where there is a claim of even partial autonomy. The Roman Church, again along with many in evangelical and fundamentalist Churches, rejects the counsel of God as comprehensively determinative. The only basis for true authority is where the plan and will of God is comprehensive, all-embracing. The Roman Church appears on the surface to have a concept of authority that is absolute; it appears on the surface to be far more rigid than in the Churches of the Reformation. The reality is very different. Faith at every level is undermined because it is adjusted to the demands of an assumed autonomous reason. Man is fallen but not quite. There can only be an adequate answer to the teachings of the Roman Church where the sovereign will of God is taken seriously and is comprehensive in its scope.
Many evangelicals seek to join forces with Roman Catholics in their defence of Christian belief. They confess to having many doctrines in common, in the first instance a belief the existence of God. The truth is that they also share many of Rome’s errors, including a qualified view of the sovereignty of God and they share the view that elements of the human will stand outside the plan of God: effectively, that God is dependent upon human decisions before He can act and that His knowledge of things is not comprehensive either. Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have often carried over into their theology much that is derived from Rome and thereby much that is pagan because of its origins in Greek philosophy.
We conclude, therefore, that the Roman Church had and still has a defective view of man. According to the Bible, the original righteousness of man and the moral excellence of Adam were natural. Rome maintains original righteousness was supernatural. According to their teaching, which echoes the Greek philosophers, God created man as soul and body and these two elements are naturally in conflict with each other. In order to preserve harmony between the two, man was given the gift of ‘original righteousness’. At the fall this was lost.
The implication in Roman Catholic teaching is that man’s original constitution was already in some degree defective as it came from the hands of his Creator. This is not the teaching of Scripture.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. … And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.“ (Genesis 1:27 & 31)
The Jesuit, Robert Bellarmin (1542 – 1621), an important cardinal of the Counter-Reformation, calls this a morbus or languor. Luther argued that this teaching was rank Pelagianism.
The unbeliever then, so Roman theology, is someone who has only lost original righteousness. The image of God is not marred since the Fall, but remains intact. This is because the image of God is thought of only in terms of being the human mind or reason and the will. These faculties are intact and unaffected by the Fall. This means that generally speaking the unbeliever’s view of his own will and reason is a correct one. Exercising these faculties does not of necessity involve him in any sin. The natural man therefore has no essential need of the Scriptures and the illumination of the Holy Spirit to enable him to understand himself or the world in which God has placed him. In epistemological terms, the Christian faith is reduced to being an added optional extra to what he already knows and possesses. The teaching of Scripture is that the whole of man’s constitution has been affected by the Fall and sin: the body, the soul, including the mind.
Much of this teaching, again, can be traced back to Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, who accorded the disturbance as being intrinsic to human nature because of the presence within it of non-rational elements. The intellect effectively does not ‘sin’ and man himself is not to blame for any disturbance. Who then is to blame, man’s Creator? The Bible teaches very clearly that anything that is wrong about human nature has come about not as a result of his creation or finitude, but because of sin. Human bias to sin is not natural to man, but came as a direct result of the Fall. Everyone’s faculties are affected totally and therefore operate wrongly. The whole of the human personality has been affected. This means that an intellectual understanding of the Gospel is inadequate without a work of God’s Holy Spirit to bring about a true knowledge of God.
Thomas confuses finitude and sinfulness. Man is finite and as such, says Aquinas echoing Greek thought, he naturally tends to evil. Grace is needed as much because he is finite, even were he not a sinner. Furthermore, because God created him as he is, God is virtually obliged to dispense His grace. The use of his freewill puts man in danger of sinning. Because his sin has as much to do with being finite as being a sinner, it makes a man only partly to blame for his sin, and therefore only partly guilty. He has retained after the fall his ability to do good.
“And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz., in order to do and wish supernatural good; but for two reasons, in the state of corrupt nature, viz., in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Beyond this, in both states man needs the Divine help, that he may be moved to act well.” (insert Ref. p.57)
Again, because of its attempted synthesis between the Greek philosophy, whether from Plato or Aristotle, the Roman Church takes a position halfway between confessing Christianity and paganism. It attributes to man unjustifiably a large measure of autonomy, whether in the area of knowledge, ethics, or salvation. In order to maintain this autonomy, according to Aquinas, to make man truly human and responsible, he must be able to function outside the counsel of God. This is behind all notions of ‘freewill’. There can, according to Aquinas, be no freedom, no responsibility, if what men do is done exclusively within the orbit of God’s sovereign will ― but as a consequence, as already noted, within Rome there can be no real Scriptural notion of authority either. Contrary to what one would assume, by insisting upon autonomous ‘freewill’ to be the guarantor of responsibility, in the truth the opposite is achieved. Where God does not rule, where He has no authority, where he has nothing to say, there He can call no one to fulfil their responsibilities to Him for in such circumstances they have none. Where God is not sovereign men are a law unto themselves and He cannot hold men to account for their sin. God is Lord of all or not Lord at all.
Much centred on the Scholastic teaching concerning freewill. Luther’s attacks were fierce. He drew on Augustine, he drew on Scriptures. It was the subject of a great debate with Erasmus in 1525-1526 and led to the volume Bondage of the Will. In the Heidelberg disputation of 1518 Luther attacked freewill.
Thesis 13 with Luther’s Proof
Freewill, after the Fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
The first part is clear, for the will is captive and subject to sin. Not that it is nothing, but that it is not free except to do evil. According the John 8:34-36 “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”Hence St Augustine says in his book, The Spirit and the Letter, “Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin;” and in the second book of Against Julian, “You call the will free, but in fact it is an enslaved will,” and in many other places.
The second part is clear from what has been said above and from the verse in Hosea 13:9 [freely rendered], “Israel thou art bringing misfortune upon thyself, for thy salvation is alone with me,”and from similar passages.
Facere quod in se est (─ to do what is in one) is a Scholastic phrase that implies that a Christian is able to perform meritorious works agreeable to God (cf Thesis 16). By doing their best, Christians receive the grace of God. They therefore have the ability to gain salvation by their works.
A theologian of the cross sees that when the fallen endeavours to “do what is one”, to do one’s best, it commits a deadly sin. This will is free only to do evil. After the Fall, the will is bound by sin, not by determinism or fate, but because the will does what it wills to do, and it will not do otherwise (cf. John 8:34, 36). The self seeks itself even for salvation, and in failing to recognize the power of God, in failing to give God the glory, it commits a deadly sin.
Luther’s opposition to all Scholasticism lay in his deep biblical objection to any plan of salvation that suggested salvation was possible based on personal merit. This inevitably involved a sound and a biblical understanding of the human will. He viewed the Scholastic teaching as gross error and contrary to Scripture. Although he always sought to be fair, he opposed them on every hand. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us." (Titus 3:5)
In the end that which destroys the Scholastics’ synthesis of Augustine and Aristotle is Scripture, the Word of the living God. (insert refs. S, 2 p. 9)
“It must be understood that all the Apostles present one and the same doctrine; and it is not correct to speak of four Evangelists and four Gospels for all which the Apostles wrote is one Gospel. But Gospel means nothing but a proclamation and heralding of the grace and mercy of God through Jesus Christ, merited, and procured through His death. And it is nor properly that which is contained in books, and is comprehended in the latter, but rather an oral proclamation and living Word, and a voice which echoes through the whole world, and is publicly uttered that it may universally be heard. Neither is it a book of laws, containing in itself many excellent doctrines, as has hitherto been held. For it does not bid us do works whereby we may become righteous, but proclaims to us the grace of God, bestowed freely, and apart from any merit of our own; and it tells how Christ has taken our place, and rendered satisfaction for our sins, and cancelled them, and by His own works justifies and saves us.”
“Whoever set forth this, by preaching or writing, he teaches the true Gospel, an all the Apostle did, especially St Paul and St Peter, in their Epistles. So that all, whatever it be, that sets forth Christ is one and the same Gospel, although one may use a different method, and speak of it in different language from another, for it may perhaps be a brief or extended writing. But yet, if it tends to this pint, that Christ is our Saviour, and we through faith in Him, apart from works of our own, are justified and saved, it is still the same Word, and but one Gospel, just as there is but one faith and one baptism in the whole Christian world.”
Not only Aquinas but also Duns Scotus and the followers of Occam, including Gabriel Biel, all believed that even after the Fall man remained essentially good, despite a tendency within to veer towards evil. His natural goodness enabled him to love God because he had not lost his freewill. All things were as they were because God had willed it that way, including the existence of the Roman Church. The matter of personal salvation was a purely arbitrary decision on God’s part.
Medieval thought was that to have fellowship with God, man himself must mount up the level of God as such fellowship is established only on the basis of his own inherent holiness. Salvation is an ascent from man to God rather than the biblical way where God reaches down to man. In Aquinas it was possible to ascend to God climbing a ‘ladder of merit’. The particular expression of the idea of a ladder to God that Luther attacked was the so-called ‘ladder of speculation’. The truth is that such an ascent to God is not possible neither is it necessary since our Lord Jesus came down and rescued man from sin by his death on the cross. He has established fellowship with those whose faith is in Him by removing their sin. Speculation of any kind is unwarranted and indeed more than useless as a way to God. God has given His Word in the Scriptures and through them we can know God. The fundamental difference between Luther and Aquinas shows Luther’s knowledge of God was personal, Aquinas’ knowledge was acquired by intellectual gymnastics, ultimately by self-deception as there is no other way to God than through Christ as revealed in Scriptures (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
Thomas Aquinas had returned in part to Augustine, speaking of irresistible grace and predestination. He knew that to enable his system to stand it was vital that grace must be made to harmonize with ‘freewill’ in order to leave room for merit in the way of salvation. He used Aristotle’s view of the various faculties of the soul to achieve this end. An infusion of God’s grace enabled a will freed from the constraints of sin to act upon these soul’s faculties. An elaborate system of merit was developed by the Scholastics and was seen as a kind of staircase up to God. Salvation is awarded when an adequate accumulation of merit has been achieved. Condign merit was awarded when it was fully deserved. When an individual does whatever he or she is able to do congruent merit is awarded by way of response by God out of divine generosity. This allowed theologians to argue that there must first be some effort by the believer which would then be met by gift of merit granted by God’s grace.
Linked to this system of merit is the understanding of ‘justification’ by Thomas Aquinas of a simultaneous act of God’s infused grace whereby a man was able to inwardly break with sin. He saw it as faith co-operating with grace, not faith alone, not grace alone. Importantly, justification was not seen as instantaneous but a lifelong process whereby the soul was made righteous and acceptable before God by an in-pouring of God’s grace. According to the teaching of the Scriptures, as Luther was to discover, justification was a crisis not a process. It has reference to standing before God and not acceptance with God on the grounds of personal merit, earned or infused. On the grounds of the merits of Christ, righteousness, right standing before God, is imputed to the believer solely by faith and not works. According to Roman teaching, baptism in infancy gives remission of original sin, but there was no justification or certainty of salvation until the end of life.
Occam also taught the freedom of the human will for man to do good in and of himself, even achieving contritio or heartfelt sorrow. He could then virtually oblige God to grant him His grace eventually progressing to the where God would forgive him his sins; they would not be imputed to him. Only after man had himself demonstrated his own worthiness did the sufferings and atonement of Christ have any value for him. Biel elaborates:
“Although Christ’s suffering is the principal merit, on account of which grace is conferred, it is, nevertheless, not the sole and meritorious cause. For it is manifest that there always concurs with the merit of Christ a certain operation of merit on the recipient of grace.” (refs insert SC p.167 ff.)
He outlines this further in yet another passage:
“The human will can love God above all things through its own natural powers. The sinner is also able to remove the hindrances to grace, yea, to hate sin and to will not to sin. By the removal of the impediments and by the good step toward God made by his own free will he can acquire the meritum de congruo, the first grace in turning toward God.”
(ref insert, p.169.)
A view with which Luther would have been familiar, he responded to it when lecturing on Romans (1515 & 1516):
“They are delirious who say that man by his own power can love God above all things, O proud, O hoggish theologians!” (ref)
Luther most strongly objected to all thought that man could raise himself upwards to God, in part or wholly by his own efforts or works. The decisive factor in this doctrine of salvation was the innate ability of the human will. Man must prove himself worthy of God’s grace for Him to respond. This teaching was correctly identified by Luther in his lectures on Romans as being first promulgated by Pelagius.
“How do I know that what I have done as my own or what is in me is acceptable to God? These people know that man of himself can do nothing. Hence it is most absurd and gives strong support to the error of Pelagius to use the commonly accepted statement: ‘God infallibly pours His grace into him who does what is within his power’ to mean that he does something or can do something.”
(Luther’s Works, [American Edition], Volume 25, St Louis, Missouri, 1972, p. 497).
Luther’s own agony with respect to the state of his soul was fully predictable because, clearly, what he had imbibed from reading the Scholastics conflicted with his own experience. He found he simply could not love God in his own strength. To use his own words, God appeared to him as “an angry Judge sitting on a rainbow.”By contrast, what he had learned from his scholastic studies was:
“The human will can love God above all things through its own natural powers. The sinner is also able to remove the hindrances to grace, because he is able to keep from, sinning and committing sinful acts, yea, to hate sin and to will not to sin. By the removal of the impediments and by the good steps toward God made by his own free will he can acquire the merit de congruo, the first grace in the turning toward God.” (ref insert, p.169)
Luther was considering this teaching most carefully. He believed that he was falling short of that perfection God expected of his elect before they were worthy of meritum de congruo. His great fear was that he belonged not to elect but to the damned. An honest seeker like Luther would not find assurance of his own salvation using this route. He found no peace for his soul. He compared what he was learning in the classroom with what he found written in the Scriptures. His problems intensified as he saw how far the schoolmen were from the plan of salvation he found in the Bible, the doctrine of sin and grace, and of justification by faith. Without a work of the Spirit of God, Luther would never have been driven to seek a solution to his own personal sin and guilt. The more he struggled, the more he realized that the trouble lay with the teaching of the Roman Church.
After receiving his doctorate, Luther was appointed to the chair of lectura in Biblia at the University of Wittenberg. In mid-July he began his first series of lectures on the Psalms, continuing until March 1515. It was during this period that Luther made a breakthrough on justification by faith alone without human merit. He began his lectures on Romans in November 1515 completing them in September 1516. Luther faced Scholasticism head on denying all possibility of anyone fulfilling God’s commands by his own freewill and innate goodness.
The Roman Church is sacerdotal in that it holds that grace is communicated solely by and through the ministrations of the Church. Men are bound to the Roman Catholic Church for salvation. The preaching of God’s free, unmerited grace broke these bonds at the Reformation. The Reformers, Luther, Calvin and all the others, believed not only that the power of God is exerted immediately upon the human soul to bring salvation, that God alone is the Saviour upon whom all must call if they are to be saved, but also that His grace is exerted not indiscriminately upon all but only upon those who through faith are trusting the merits of Christ alone. The saving grace of God does not simply make a provision for all to access or refuse, but it actually saves. “We trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).
The Scholastics and, following in their footsteps the modern Roman Catholic Church, have a view of the remedy to man’s ills that differs greatly from Scripture. They maintain that man possesses within himself, within his own mind, all that is necessary to set things on the right track and God is obliged to assist where necessary. The Scriptures teach differently:
“Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.”(Colossians 3:9-10)
The knowledge in this passage refers not simply to cognition but that knowledge which in Scripture is equated with salvation.
“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)
The natural man is unable in and of himself to understand and accept Christian truth. As he now stands by nature, every man is devoid of spiritual life, is completely insensible to the realities of the spiritual world, and in no position to receive the things of God.
“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
(1 Corinthian 2:14)
Eternal life is knowledge, sinfulness is darkness. This knowledge comes as the effect of regeneration within the soul, the translation from darkness into light. What is needed is a new heart and mind.
“In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)
“Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.” (Colossians 1:13)
The whole soul, feelings, intellect, will, all need regeneration. The whole world, man himself, is not intelligible without reference to God. It is the false understanding of man and his capabilities that must be questioned, where he rather than God is made the ultimate reference point.
A favourite subject for discussion by philosophers of ancient Greece and later among medieval philosopher-theologians and central to their thought was what is known in philosophy as the problem of universals. The idea of universals is an attempt to explain similar properties shared by different particular objects. For example, what are those elements in an individual cat that enables me, looking at other cats, to identify this animal before me as an example of a cat, rather than say, a dog? Such shared abstract properties are known as universals or forms. There were three broad approaches to this problem. Realism says that these abstract similarities between concrete individual particulars are real. Nominalism agrees that there are these similarities between individual concrete things, but denies that they are real in and of themselves. Using Latin, such generalizations were called ‘nomen’, hence Nominalists. Nominalists are essentially anti-Realists. Conceptualism admits that there are concepts of such abstract universals, but does not know whether they have any foundation outside our own minds. They are therefore of doubtful real value. Conceptualism was represented in Greece by the Stoics.
Plato was a Realist and expressed his views in his Theory of Forms. As the world experienced by the senses is essentially unstable and contingent, what is real can therefore only exist outside and above that world. Taking this one step further, the idea, for example ‘the good’, exists isolated from the phenomenal world, and is distinct from the Divine or human intellect or being. It exists in and of itself. This means effectively that both God and man are subject to ideals and forms existing outside them. It takes no account of God having determined or created them. By contrast the Bible teaches that God is the Creator of all things and that creation therefore manifest His glory. Attributes such as ‘goodness’ and ‘love’ have their source in God’s being and so are determined and defined by His being: “God is love” (1 John 4:8); “There is none good but one, that is God” (John 10:18) . They do not exist apart from Him.
Aristotle challenged Plato’s theory with his own more moderate version of Realism. Plato’s forms are generally characterized as being transcendent, existing in his version of ‘heaven’. Aristotle is said to have believed that all these forms are down here, in the things themselves, immanent. This is something of an oversimplification of their differing views as both Plato and Aristotle had many things in common: both believed the forms to be completely abstract. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle insisted that the real dwells not in a vague world of which the sensible world is but a shadow, but exists only in the sensible world. The universal is then not a thing in itself, but exists only in individual particulars and is multiplied in examples of any class.
The Scholastics of the thirteenth century, including Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure (1221 –1274), Duns Scotus (c.1265 – 1308), generally followed the moderate Realism of Aristotle. However, William of Occam (c.1288- 1348) and the Terminist School of thought gave rise to a Conceptualist approach to the problem of universals. They thought of the abstract and universal concept only as a sign, also called a ‘term’, hence Terminism, existing only within the mind and having no existence in the natural world. The later Schoolmen used both Plato and Aristotle as it suited them most. Aristotle seemed to them best in the area of physics. Plato seemed best to use when looking at divine revelation. Aristotle suggested an interplay between Form and Matter. In this Greek Realism the teaching of transubstantiation was given some philosophical justification.