Thursday, May 27, 2004

Martin Luther's Doctrine Concerning Good Works: Have I Misrepresented It?

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A person objected to the following statement of mine in a paper about Luther. I responded a few times on a discussion board and then asked him if he was willing to continue the discussion on my blog. He was not. As I am fed up with discussion boards and only wanted to reply to the query, the discussion then reached an impasse. Originally, I posted his words on my blog and this paper, so that people could read both sides (which is always my preference, if possible). I gave the URL of the discussion board thread so people could read that for themselves if they wished to do so. But my critic objected to unfair editing on my part (there are many different ways to edit, especially with multiple posts and in constructing a dialogue format for the sake of readers). Therefore, I decided to remove his words and the URL of the original exchange. I think that is a shame, but I would rather make it simply my own explanation, than have a disgruntled person objecting to use of their words. Luther's words will be in blue.

* * * * *


In The Freedom of a Christian, Luther denied the necessity of good works as a necessary manifestation of true saving faith.
Yes, I did write that. Note very carefully how I worded it (though no doubt I could have used a better phrase). If I were to paraphrase it to clarify what I meant, it would be:
"Luther thought that works were not technically part of justification by faith alone, which is what saves a person."
Or another way to rephrase it, following my original words more closely, would be:
"It is not necessary for true saving faith to manifest good works in order to be what it is (because it does not depend on works, but on faith alone)."
This is Luther's teaching. I did not (and do not) deny that he urges Christians to do good works. I was referring, rather, to the Lutheran distinction between justification and sanctification. Works are not (strictly speaking) necessary in the former category in Lutheran thought, but they ought to inevitably flow from the latter (as also in Reformed theology and thinking).

My critic pointed out that Luther wrote the following in The Freedom of a Christian:

So the Christian who is consecrated by his faith does good works, but the works do not make him holier or more Christian, for that is the work of faith alone. And if a man were not first a believer and a Christian, all his works would amount to nothing and would be truly wicked and damnable sins.
This is precisely what I meant, as explained (and I will mention this clarification in that paper now, so as -- hopefully -- to avoid further misunderstanding of this somewhat-difficult topic and my opinions). Luther thinks a man is justified by faith alone. Therefore, by definition, works are not involved in that. But they are involved in the Christian life, as Luther most assuredly taught.

One can see my point of view also in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (Sophia Institute Press, 2003), which was completed in 1996 (some parts as early as 1991, and the first draft in 1994). In my chapter on justification, I wrote:

Although classic “Reformational” Protestantism most certainly doesn't deny the importance of good works in the Christian life, it regards them as manifestations or results of the necessary imputed justification, rather than as necessities in their own right.

(pp. 28-29)

To back up my statement, I cite no less than four important Protestant sources, in footnote 32 on page 29:
Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 869-871; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 464-465, 471-472; Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, ch. 16, sec. 1-4; Augsburg Confession (Lutheran, 1530), section 20.
I obviously agree, then, as to a definite high regard for works in Protestant thought. They are simply formally separated from salvation and placed in the category of sanctification. I wrote also on page 31:
Simply put, both sides agree that faith is absolutely necessary for salvation and that we are clearly commanded by God to do good works . . . at the level of Creeds, Catechisms, Confessions, and Councils, both sides completely concur on these two maxims. The split comes over the precise nature of the relationship of faith and works to each other and to justification and salvation. We must not minimize theological divisions, but we also shouldn't exaggerate them. The first approach flows from the duty of honesty; the second from the demands of charity and understanding among Christians in the Body of Christ.
Likewise in Chapter Three of my upcoming book (scheduled for release in April): 95 Bible Verses That Protestants Ignore, I write:
These two clashing approaches to justification have, however, a substantial meeting-point: both accept the notion of sola gratia, or salvation by grace alone (over against the heresy of Pelagianism, which holds that man can be saved by works or his own self-generated effort). Both also believe that good works are necessary in the Christian life.

Catholics, however, believe that faith and works are more closely tied together, and related to justification itself. Works can follow only by God's grace, and do not cause salvation, but they must be present, because (per James), "faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26).

In large part, the Protestant-Catholic dispute is over the distinction between justification and sanctification. Protestants believe that the latter has nothing whatsoever to do with justification (which is imputed to the believer or declared by God), yet that it should follow from it. Catholics think they are closely related. The practical result is arguably the same in either system. Classical Protestantism will not accept a person as "saved" if that person shows no fruit of good works in his life. They will deny that he ever was saved if he habitually engages in serious sin. Both Luther and Calvin taught this. Luther wrote (contrary to much evangelical talk today):

We must therefore certainly maintain that where there is no faith there also can be no good works; and conversely, that there is no faith where there are no good works. Therefore faith and good works should be so closely joined together that the essence of the entire Christian life consists in both.

(in Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 246)

Accordingly, if good works do not follow, it is certain that this faith in Christ does not dwell in our heart, but dead faith.

(Althaus, ibid., 246; also LW, 34, 111; cf. 34, 161)

In the same chapter, I make myself even more clear:
Luther and Calvin believe that faith alone saves a person and works or obedience have nothing whatsoever to do with it -- not even an obedience necessarily made possible entirely by grace . . .
Hence, in The Freedom of a Christian (which work I characterized in the disputed statement above), Luther wrote:
. . . the soul . . . is justified by faith alone and not any works . . .

This faith cannot exist in connection with works . . .

(p. 280)

. . . since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man.

(p. 281)

. . . faith alone justifies and offers us such a treasure of great benefits without works . . .

. . . faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves . . .

(p. 282)

It is clear, then, that a Christian has all he needs in faith and needs no work to justify him . . .

(p. 284)

This obedience, however, is not rendered by works, but by faith alone.

(p. 285)

. . . he needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things.

(p. 291)

In doing these works, however, we must not think that a man is justified before God by them, for faith, which alone is righteousness before God, cannot endure that erroneous opinion.

(p. 295)

(Three Treatises, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, revised edition, 1970; translations taken from the 55-volume set; this work translated by W.A. Lambert)

And so I summarized quotes such as these, in this book in particular, as follows: "Luther denied the necessity of good works as a necessary manifestation of true saving faith." Luther talks about doing good works in the same book, but I was referring to the relationship of the works to justification and salvation, not to the necessity of a Christian doing good works, period. Luther makes the same distinction himself. Probably the word manifestation confused things. I could have stated my position more clearly, for sure. My critic also cited the following words from Luther:
The following statements are therefore true: “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.” Consequently it is always necessary that the substance or person himself be good before there can be any good works, and that good works follow and proceed from the good person, as Christ also says, “A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” [Matt. 7:18]. It is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree and that the tree does not grow on the fruits, also that, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruits and the fruits grow on the trees. As it is necessary, therefore, that the trees exist before their fruits and the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked.

(Luther's Works 31:360-361)

And also these words:
[A] man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked.
I explained how neither of these quotes poses any problem whatsoever for my position, above. This person then opined that I (as a Catholic apologist -- which description he put in quotes) shouldn't have the slightest interest in Luther's writing. I could hardly believe that he thought this, asked him if he was serious, and thought it to be an astoundingly naive and wrongheaded statement. Beyond the obvious apologetic relevance of Luther to a Catholic, I am interested in him on three levels:
1) I love Church history,

2) I love history of theology,

3) I find Luther to be a fascinating (and oftentimes admirable, even quite charming) person.

He then stated that I should list references to the 55-volume set of Luther's Works in English if I deal with Luther at all. For the most part, I have done so, especially in my writings of the last three or four years. Some of my earlier writings are not as well documented (though I think they are documented enough to be able to withstand scrutiny if any of their contentions were to be challenged). I will be looking them over again when I find the time. I've already modified several papers and taken a few off my website, too, because I thought I did much better research since. That's just how I am, and one reason I become so disgusted over occasional absurd charges that I am a dishonest, special pleading propagandist, simply because I am an apologist. One tires of that . . . there's no basis for it whatsoever.

On the other hand, there is a distinction to be made between a lay apologist like myself, and an academic historian. I dealt with that in a recent paper: Christian Apologetics and Academic Historiography: Similarities and Differences.

If anyone is under the illusion that I am "anti-Luther" in the way that many Catholic critics (Denifle et al) have been, then they need to look at at least two of my papers where I largely or totally defend him against false charges:

"Did Martin Luther Believe That Jesus Had Carnal Relations With Mary Magdalene and Others?"

"Martin Luther's Violent, Inflammatory Rhetoric and its Relationship to the German Peasants' Revolt (1524-1525)"

The latter paper begins with these words:

Historians on both sides are in agreement that Luther never supported the Peasants' Revolt (or insurrection in general). Many, however (including Roland Bainton, the famous Protestant author of the biography Here I Stand), believe that he used highly intemperate language that couldn't help but be misinterpreted in the worst possible sense by the peasants. I agree with these Protestant scholars, and this has been my stated position in writing for twelve years now (I initially formed the opinion in 1991 as a result of reading Hartmann Grisar, the Catholic historian who is supposedly so "anti-Luther").

No Catholic (or Protestant) historian I have found -- not even Janssen -- asserts that Luther deliberately wanted to cause the Peasants' Revolt, or that he was the primary cause of it. Quite the contrary . . . My long-held position on this agrees, therefore, with the consensus opinion of historians of all stripes. I think Luther had the typical naivete of many sincerely, deeply-committed and (what might be called) "super-pious" religious people. It is also undeniably true that Luther's thought is highly complex, nuanced, sometimes vacillating or seemingly or actually self-contradictory, and often difficult to understand.

This ought to be sufficient enough to establish that:
1) I understand Luther's teaching;

and

2) I have no desire whatsoever to misrepresent him or run him down as an evil man, but simply to contrast his teaching with that of the Catholic Church (and to rejoice where agreement is present).

The critic then acknowledged that my clarifications resolved his difficulties with what I wrote, and graciously accepted my explanation as to my original meaning. He still believes that my older statement (first line of this paper after the introductory remarks above) is flat-out false. I do not. I think it could have been phrased better, but not that it has no interpretation which is in line with my position, as reiterated presently.

So the long and short of it is that one word ("manifestation") wasn't clear enough, with regard to a quite complex subject. If that is the worst I can be accused of, I guess I haven't done all that bad in my research on Luther. One ill-chosen word . . . All's well that ends well, I reckon.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 22 February 2004.

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