Michael L. Czapkay (Sudduth)

McGrath Tutorial

Paper 2 (Luther)

January 27, 1993






In the present paper I propose to examine the evolution of Martin Luther's doctrine of justification. What was to become Luther's central theme, justification by faith, was not--contrary to some presentations--arrived at in a moment of insight but was the result of a gradual process in doctrinal development. This process was marked by several significant insights which together constituted the necessary and sufficient conditions for the development of a doctrine of justification which was at once wholly anti-Pelagian and partly unAugustinian, and which may therefore be called Luther's unique soteriological contribution to Christian theology.

It is generally recognized, though, that within the evolution of Luther's soteriology there is one key period of transition in which Luther broke away from an old soteriological framework (governed by the views of the via moderna) and took the first step in the way of constructing the new soteriology mentioned above, a construction which centered around a new understanding of iustitia Dei. What was the precise nature of the discovery which resulted in this transition? And when did it occur? These two questions have dominated 20th century Luther scholarship. Therefore, in this paper the examination of Luther's doctrine of justification will focus on providing an answer to these two questions by examining three key documents: Dictata super Psalterium (1513-1515), the Romans Lectures (1515-16), and the Autobiographical Fragment (1545).


Between the years 1508 and 1514, Luther was under the influence of the via moderna, an influence which played a major role in shaping his early theology of justification (1513-15). This influence began at the University of Erfurt, where Luther was under the instruction of moderni teachers who instilled in Luther the fundamental theme of the via moderna--the pactum theology. This theology maintained that God, in His liberality and graciousness, had established a covenant between Himself and mankind. This covenant laid down the necessary, minimal pre-condition for justification--facere quod in se est. Those who satisfied this condition, God was obligated to justify, not because their works had an inherent value, but because God had graciously agreed through the covenant to regard human works as possessing a value sufficient for justification. In this manner, a distinction could be drawn between the moral and meritorious value of an act. Although faciens quod in se est involves a merit which leads to the infusion of grace (de congruo merit), only works which are done in the state of grace (de condigno merit) elicit divine acceptation.

This view of justification is very evident in Luther's exposition of the Psalter (1513-1515), in which humility (or the humility of faith) is understood to be what God requires for justification, so much so that Luther says that the whole iustitia Dei consists in recognizing one's weakened spiritual condition and "humbling oneself into the depth." "Et sic fit iustitia," writes Luther, "Quia qui iniustus est et ita coram Deo humilis, huic dat Deus gratiam suam." This runs parallel to the via moderna slogan, variously expressed, Facienti quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam. For Luther self-abasement and humiliation makes a person righteous in the eyes of God. Elsewhere in the Psalms Luther speaks of grace and faith as unable to justify ex seipsis without the pactum. "God has made a testament (testamentum) and covenant (pactum) with us, so that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. In this covenant God is truthful and faithful, and is bound by what he has promised." Here we have the notion of covenantal causality. The causal relationship between what faciens quod in se est (humilitas) and justification is grounded in the covenant. God's obligation to save is not by absolute necessity, but by a conditional necessity, a necessity arising from God's decision to bind himself with a promise.


Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock,

and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks

receives, etc." (Matthew 7:7-8). Hence the doctors rightly

say that God gives grace without fail to the man who does what

lies within him (homini facienti quod in se est Deus

infallibiliter dat gratiam), and though he could not prepare

himself for grace in a manner which is meritorious de

condigno, he may do so in a manner which is meritorious de

congruo on account of this promise of God and the covenant

of mercy (pactum misericordiae).


What we find in the above selections from the Psalter are several points which form the structure of the via moderna soteriology. (1) The covenant represents God's general grace to mankind by establishing the preconditions for justification, which for Luther is humility, (2) a distinction between meritum de congruo and meritum de condigno, (3) God's being bound by a self-imposed or conditional necessity arising out of the divine will and expressed in the pactum, and (4), the basic presupposition of the via moderna, man is capable of meeting the preconditions of justification without the aid of special grace or divine assistance.


When did Luther change his view on justification? And what caused the change? The controversy around this question involves an autobiographical fragment of 1545 in which Luther explicitly refers to the date of 1519 as a date of decisive significance. Tied to this date is what Luther calls his new discovery of the meaning of iustitia Dei.

Meanwhile in that year [1519], I had returned to interpreting

the Psalter again, confident that I was better equipped after

I had expounded in the schools the letters of St. Paul to the

Romans and the Galatians, and the letter to the Hebrews. I had

certainly been overcome with a great desire to understand St.

Paul in his letter to the Romans, but what hindered me thus

far was not any "coldness of blood" so much as that one phrase

in the first chapter: "the righteousness of God is revealed in it."

For I hated that phrase "the righteousness of God"

which, according to use and custom of all the doctors, I had

been taught to understand philosophically in the sense of

the formal or active righteousness (as they termed it), by

which God is righteous, and punished unrighteous sinners....

At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night

on the connection of the words "the righteousness of God is

revealed in it, as it is written: the righteous shall live by

faith", I began to understand that "righteousness of God" as

that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely

by faith, and this sentence, "the righteousness of God is

revealed", to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the

merciful God justifies us by faith....

Therefore, we may take 1519 as the date, at least by which, Luther has moved into a new understanding of iustitia Dei, a change which entails a radically new understanding of justification. But how this new understanding of iustitia Dei is related to the rest of Luther's theology can be seen by examining the reasons which led him to the discovery, or rather, which led him to see a problem in the first place with the notion of the righteousness of God.

If we go back to the year 1515, the year Luther began his Romans lectures, it is clear that a significant change has already occurred in his theology. Even by this early date the previous framework of the via moderna has been broken down; Luther has come to reject the key points of the moderni, which he had previously adopted and which formed the theological structure of the Psalter. Most fundamentally, this can be seen in the emerging doctrine of the servum arbitrium--the enslaved will. Luther now believes that man does not possess a free will and is therefore incapable of meeting the minimum precondition for justification. Consequently, the facere quod in se est theology is now rejected and--in fact--condemned by Luther as Pelagian.

They know that man cannot do anything from himself (ex se).

Hence it is totally absurd (and strongly Pelagian!) to hold

the view summed up in the well-known statement: "God

infallibly infuses grace in the one who does quod in se est

(facienti quod in se est, infallibiliter Deus infundit

gratiam)" if the phrase facere quod in se est is to be

understood as meaning "to do or to be capable of doing

something" (aliquid facere vel posse).

What is the more general significance of this vis-a-vis the righteousness of God? Let us recall what iustitia Dei meant within the framework of the via moderna. The moderni adopted the Aristotelian-Ciceronian definition of iustitia as "reddens unicuique quod suum est." Justice is a rendering to each person what is due him. A just God, then, is a God who rewards individuals according to their deeds without respect to their person. In the pactum theology, God is both equitable and faithful. If a person satisfies the preconditions of justification, he is faithful to reward them with justifying righteousness; if he didn't he wouldn't be iustus. If they do not satisfy the conditions, then he will condemn them. Under this system, if God were to reward someone who did not do quod in se est, he would be unjust, for he would show partiality. The righteousness of God, then, referred either to his faithfulness in promising justification to those who meet the preconditions or his justice in punishing those who do not meet the preconditions.

But what if a person cannot meet the minimum precondition. Either God is unjust and some people are saved (because their salvation would involve God justifying them without their own efforts and hence showing respect of persons) or God is just and no one is saved. But the iustitia Dei is the good news of salvation according to Romans. How can this be? Luther's insight at the time of the Romans lectures was that man's will is enslaved, therefore he cannot meet the minimum precondition of humility. Consequently, if man is to be justified, that justification must come by God's initiative in special grace, granting man humility or faith. God Himself grants the precondition for justification. Put in other terms, under the classical understanding of iustitia, God can only justify the godly--a conclusion which Luther finds totally at variance with the gospel. The message of the gospel, entails a radically new understanding of iustitia Dei, which Luther refers to in the autobiographical fragment. It is no coincidence that in Romans, where we find the emergence of the servum arbitrium, we also find Luther rejecting the old view of iustitia which he had previously maintained under the influence of the via moderna.

Now, it has been argued (by Vogelsang) that Luther's exposition of the Psalter shows signs of this transition, that there is a new understanding of justification which begins in the Psalter. This centers around Psalm 70 and 71, where--it is argued--Luther has a new understanding of iustitia. This is based chiefly on the identification of iustitia Dei with fides Christi, and the suggestion that the latter is considered a gift of God. In the Psalter righteousness is identified with faith, and this with the righteousness of Christ. In response, it should first be pointed out that if the servum arbitrium doctrine is necessary to Luther's theological breakthrough, then it could not have occurred except at the very end of the Psalter exposition, for very late in the Psalter we still find Luther committed to free will.  Moreover, it is by no means evident that Luther's talk of iustitia fidei or fides Christi is incongruous with free will. Earlier references support the contention that in the Psalms Luther consistently identifies humilitas and fides, so that the iustitia fidei is what man must possess if he is to be justified coram Deo, and the iustitia Dei is God's faithfulness in justifying such a person when they humble themselves or believe.

Also, and this is crucial, even though Luther speaks of iustitia fidei as originating from God, as a gift from God, this is entirely consistent with the pactum-theology of the Psalter with its commitment to free will. The iustitia fidei is a iustitia which originates from God via the covenant, but this is a general gift--man must still meet the preconditions the pactum establishes. Without the pactum, humilitas or iustitia fidei would not be a iustitia coram Deo. It is the pactum which transforms faith as a bonitas intrinseca to the iustitia fidei which is a valor impositus. What the Psalter shift establishes is a conceptual clarification of iustitia vis-a-vis humilitas, iustitia fidei, et fides Christi. The latter is simply the tropological aspect of iustitia Dei, and is identical to humilitas, which God accepts as iustitia fidei.

What the Psalter does establish, then, is the fides Christi. What is crucial to Luther's new understanding of iustitia Dei is realizing that fides Christi is not within the grasp of man's natural abilities, but arises in a person as a special divine gift.


All of this, of course, lays the foundation for arguing for 1515 as the year of transition. Several dates have been proposed by scholars: (1) the later date(s): 1518-19 by Saarnivaara, Bizer, and Cranz, and (2) the earlier date(s): 1514-15 by Hirsch, Vogelsang, and Bornkamm. What must be stressed, though, is that before one can venture to date Luther's great discovery, one must determine what exactly that discovery was. What is (or are) the crucial element(s) involved in Luther's transition from Rome to what might be considered a Protestant view of justification?

First, of all, on the basis of Luther's autobiographical fragment, the discovery must involve a new understanding of iustitia Dei. Hence, establishing a 1515 date for those propositions which entail this new understanding would provide evidence for 1515 as the date of the discovery. It is clear from the Romans lectures that Luther had by 1515 rejected free will. The implications of this I have drawn out above. I think it does entail (once conjoined with the additional non-controversial premises we have supplied) a new understanding of iustitia Dei.

Therefore, we may say that the anti-Pelagian stance Luther had taken by 1515 was necessary for his theological breakthrough. But was it sufficient?

Up to this point I have focused on the role of servum arbitrium in bringing Luther to a new understanding of iustitia Dei. However, the situation is a bit more complex, for though this certainly sufficient to show a breaking away from the via moderna, one must enquire into some of the other elements of Luther's position. The presence of the doctrine of servum arbitrium (though different from Augustine's liberum arbitrium captivatum) would not sufficiently distinguish Luther's position from that of St. Augustine. This latter requirement is necessary because if in moving away from the via moderna, Luther merely took on Augustinian theology, it would be quite difficult to distinguish his theology from that of the other theologians at Wittenberg, such as Staupitz, who had adopted an Augustinian theology.

This brings us to consider two additional doctrines contained in the Romans lectures--iustitia Christi aliena and the totus homo theology.

For God does not want to save us by our own but by an

extraneous righteousness which does not originate in

ourselves but comes to us from beyond ourselves, which

does not arise on earth but comes from Heaven. Therefore,

we must come to know this righteousness which utterly

external and foreign to us.

Staupitz had argued that the iustitia of the believer is an intrinsic iustitia, and that the believer is partially righteous and partially sinful. Staupitz's view is Augustinian, and like Augustine, it conceives of justification as a "making" righteous. In order to account for the presence of sin in the believer it is necessary to distinguish between flesh (the worldly side of a person) and spirit (a person's higher nature), and--along neo-Platonic lines--relegate righteousness to the spirit and contrast spirit with the flesh. Luther will have none of this. Righteousness and sinfulness must be predicated of the whole man (totus homo). Therefore, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator. He is extrinsically iustus, coram Deo, but he is intrinsically peccator, coram hominibus. Luther, comparing the justified sinner to a man under the care of a physician, says that the Christian is iustus in spe non in re. Justification is conceived of a healing process (Augustine also thought of justification as a process) which looks toward a final resolution in the future (hence the proleptic element in Luther's view). What is central here is extrinsic iustitia, for it is this notion which sets Luther distinct from Augustine and which will serve as the essential dividing point between Protestantism and Romanism for Reformed doctrine, especially after Melanchthon develops it into an explicitly forensic concept.

It might be objected that 1515 cannot be the year of transition because this conflicts with the explicit statements of the autobiographical fragment, for--among other things--Luther says that the discovery took place in 1519. Or does he? The 1515 argument is clearly consistent with at least one of the explicit statements of Luther in the fragment, for he tells us at the end of the fragment that he had made his discovery shortly before he read Augustine's On the Spirit and the Letter, which he read in 1515. So, if he means to say that 1519 was the year in which he made the discovery, then he obviously contradicts himself by the end of the fragment--not impossible but highly unlikely. As for Luther's introductory remark, captus fueram (I had been overcome), it is entirely reasonable to take this double pluperfect to indicate a digression from the main line of thought. This is significant for a chronology of the content of the text, for it would allow us to understand Luther's discovery to have occurred by 1519, not in 1519. This would also make Luther's introduction to the fragment consistent with its conclusion.

Therefore, I have argued that it is most plausible, based upon the internal evidence of Luther's Romans Lectures, to regard 1515 as the year of Luther's theological breakthrough. In this year we find Luther destroying his former theological framework by rejecting free will and maintaining that fides Christi is a special gift from God. Secondly, we learn of iustitia being considered as something external to the individual, thereby setting Luther's view of justification distinct from Augustinianism. That this anti-Pelagian and partially unAugustinian soteriology is presupposed in the autobiographical fragment is clear from two facts: (1) Luther's new understanding of iustitia Dei announced in it comes about if and only if we presuppose these elements, and (2) Luther's critical stance toward Augustine is directly evident in the fragment, for Luther recognizes that, though Augustine seemed to have the right idea of iustitia Dei, it is "expressed imperfectly" and "he [Augustine] does not understand everything about imputation clearly." On the evidence considered, then, it is most probable that Luther's theological breakthrough occurred in 1515.



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