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Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?
November 14, 2006
What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenthcentury Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited abovewritten in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.

Medieval scholasticism, as noted already, was characterized by the blending of Aristotelianism and Christian theology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was adapted by Thomas Aquinas to biblical content in a synthesis that shaped the medieval moral tradition. Aquinas, with his view that Adam’s fall had not undermined human reason, welcomed the insights of Aristotle as a complementary source in buttressing revelation wherever the Bible is relatively silent. This allowed for increasing speculation in subsequent generations as the church doctors produced their various systematic theologies. By Luther’s day, however, the nap of this arrangement was wearing thin. As Heiko Oberman points out, there existed in the fourteenth century a “suspicion of speculation” and a “programmatic call for an affective theology in its place.”5 Luther, reflecting this disposition, was confident that the time for change had come when, in 1517, he spoke of the ascendance of Augustine’s theology and the decline of Aristotelianism.”

Luther’s challenge was more profound than many of his peers realized at first. The two systems were at complete odds with each other. In Augustine’s model of the human will, the affective component is primary, so that the love of God is the motivating feature of salvation-God draws the elect to himself apart from any initiative on their part towards God. This was a thoroughly unilateral model of salvation. In the Aristotle/Aquinas model, by contrast, the will is self-moved. That is, the will works most effectively apart from any influence of the affections. In adopting this model, Aquinas assumed that the self-moved will is a necessary feature of salvation which, in turn, led him to adopt a cooperative doctrine of salvation-a doctrine that Luther rejected. This was the “hinge” of Luther’s reformation activism.

In this study we will begin by establishing some of the distinctions between Aristotle’s ethical assumptions and those offered by Augustine in his controversy with the Pelagians. The Pelagian debate is the context for all that Luther wrote about God’s grace in salvation. A second section examines Luther’s belief that Augustine’s theology was subverted by the later assimilation of Aristotle’s views within medieval theologies. This is shown to be the context for Luther’s claim that the will is in bondage because of its faulty affections, as Augustine held, rather than “free” in the manner that Aristotle’s ethics assumed.


A. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Cooperative Theology

An underlying assumption of the cooperative model was set out in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: morality is defined by a freedom either to choose or to refuse the good apart from any external constraint or compulsion. In his definition Aristotle specifically rejected any reference to the passions (“By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longings,” etc.) because they are “neither praised nor blamed”-that is, they fall outside the categories of merit.7 Aquinas adopted this and other of Aristotle’s moral assumptions but struggled to formulate them in terms suited to the Augustinianism which he also sought to honor. Aquinas and most medieval theologians assumed that a gap exists between the iustitia Christi (a provision of grace or love) and the iustitia Dei (an absolute righteousness, examined at judgment day) to which Christians move in their lifetime through the endeavors of “faith formed by love.” Love, in this arrangement, is an obligation which the seeker continually fulfills by his or her choices. Love is thus a work of the will. This effort, by Aristotelian values, is meritorious. As reconfigured by Aquinas, it results from God’s grace, which God, in turn, crowns with merit. Luther, however, insisted that at conversion the believer, by faith, has both iustitia Christi and Dei as his or her possession.8

The Thomistic model thus made love a function of the will, a human effort, by which man is to achieve greater spiritual benefits. In the Summa Theologie, addressing the new law (lex nova), Aquinas portrayed faith working through love (fide per dilectionem operante), as a property of grace. The grace is delivered through the efficacy of the sacraments and by an instinct of inward grace (interiorem gratiam). The benefit of the new law, as against the old, is its relative freedom (lex libertatis) from specific directives. This is viewed within the Aristotelian framework: freedom provides opportunity for meritorious choice, either to do well or badly. Aquinas anchored his point by citing Aristotle directly: “The free man is one who is his own cause.”9 Thus Aquinas’s system looked for room-a region of limited autonomy within God’s larger will-in which free choices, enabled by grace, display a person’s ability to “act rightly.” The necessary grace is infused by the Spirit: “Since therefore the grace of the Holy Spirit is a kind of interior disposition infused into us which inclines us to act rightly, it makes us do freely whatever is in accordance with grace, and avoid whatever is contrary to it.”lo

The notion of habitus, as drawn from Aristotle’s anthropology, was crucial to Aquinas and, though widely noticed in scholarly literature, should be reviewed in passing. Habitus is the principal nexus of nature and grace in Aquinas’s spirituality, the gift of grace which supernaturally enhances nature to be able to bear the responsibilities of faith (aliquid inditum homini quasi naturae superadditum per gratix donum).11 Thus Aquinas’s view of grace combined human responsibility with divine enablement-the cooperative model of faith. Love, in this arrangement, is seen to be part of the will in order to be crowned with merit, rather than an affection which, as a response, is non-meritorious. It is this conception of love as part of the enabled will, that supported Aquinas’s crucial paradigm, of faith formed by love (fides caritate formata) in progressive justification.12

Aquinas’s cooperative model was semi-Pelagian.13 He believed, with Pelagius, that human culpability requires that moral decisions be made freely. But, like Augustine, and against Pelagius, he held that original sin destroys any human ability to choose well. Restoration comes only by God’s grace. This led to the conundrum that morality requires free will, but original sin precludes it. In Aquinas’s solution God provides an assisting grace that enables, but does not compel, the will to choose the good. Culpability is then based on the failure to apply God’s gracious enablement. How, then, did this model compare to the Augustinian model?

B. Augustine on the Will

Augustine’s doctrine of grace presumed the Spirit’s work of illumination that elicits an obedient love for God. Thus, like Pelagius, he affirmed a link between grace and obedience. In the Treatise on Grace and Free Will, an anti-Pelagian work, he affirmed “the free choice of the human will” and the merits of obedience: “Indeed, a work is then to be pronounced a good one when a person does it willingly; then too, may the reward of a good work be hoped for from [God].”14 What, then, were the specific elements of Augustine’s view of the will in his conflict with Pelagius? Three issues invite special attention.

1. The Heart is the Core of the Soul

Augustine developed his argument in stages, all of which assumed a “heart” conversion. Thus, while Augustine accepted the reality of a free will, he portrayed it as useless, “perverse and opposed to faith,” until the heart, which includes the will, is replaced. In the language of Ezekiel, the stone-like heart that “has no feeling,” must be replaced with another heart that “possesses feeling.” God himself is the only proper object of these feelings. Thus, Augustine warned that free will with a hard heart only leads to accountability; but God transforms some hearts: “For what does it profit us if we will what we are unable to do, or else do not will what we are able to do?”15 The heart for Augustine, sometimes called love or will, is the inclusive faculty of the soul in relationship to God.l6

2. Every Choice is Motivated by an Affection

A question must be raised about the relationship of the will and love in light of Augustine’s interchangeable use of the words. Is love a work of the autonomous-self-moved-will? Or does the will gain its priorities through the affections? Augustine held the latter position, a crucial point that Aquinas either missed or ignored. In fact, Augustine seems to support the Thomistic model if he is read carelessly. The bishop spoke freely of God enabling the will in his Treatise, as if accepting the key contention of Aristotle that was also central to the view of his Pelagian opponents, that “God would not command what he knew could not be done by man.”17 This captures Augustine’s strategy of confrontation. He first made a case for the apparent ability of the will to be self-moved in choosing “the good” before turning to attack what he perceived as the system’s flawed logic. Thus, he noted Phil 2:13 (“It is God who works in you, even to will!”): “It is certain that it is we that act when we act; but it is He who makes us act, by applying efficacious powers to our will,” and, “Make or enable me, O Lord [to obey].” Furthermore, God is “He who prepares the will, and perfects by His cooperation what He initiates by his operation.”18

Having set up the key premise of the Pelagian position, Augustine then offered what he believed to be the solution to the entire matter, namely, the primacy of the affections as they guide the act of choosing: “When the martyrs did the great commandments which they obeyed, they acted by a great will,-that is, with great love. “19 He supported the crucial role of love with a litany of verses on its power, including the call to follow Christ’s example: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Similarly, it was a “small and imperfect love” which God’s cooperation promised to assist in supporting “what He initiates by His operation.” Augustine’s point, unless he had been suddenly converted to the Pelagian position, is that love-seen as will and affections-is the motive center of the soul. Thus, it is through the illumination of the soul by God’s love that the soul moves, by response, out of its imprisonment of self-love. It is this absolute linkage of affections to choices that characterized the will for Augustine, as summarized in his paraphrase of 1 John 4:19: “. . we should not love God unless He first loved us. “20

In The Spirit and the Letter, also written against the Pelagians, Augustine presented the Spirit as the source of the love that shapes the believer’s response:

For it would not be within us, to whatever extent soever it is in us, if it were not diffused in our hearts by the Holy Ghost who is given to us. Now “the love of God” is said to be shed abroad in our hearts, not because He loves us, but because He makes us lovers of Himself.21

Thus, the presence of the Spirit in believers represents the sanctifying force in faith.

3. Love and Obedience Operate Unidirectionally

In Augustine’s acceptance of a linkage between the will and obedience, he denied the correlative assumption that a decision to love God can be achieved by the self-moved will. The assumption that the will is able to move itself when aided by infused will-power, is, in fact, the very foundation on which the cooperative model was based. Augustine denied its key premise and, in doing so, exposed the single direction of travel in the love-obedience nexus in three steps: 1) love generates obedience; 2) but certain types of obedience may be achieved without love; 3) therefore obedience does not assure the presence of love. He thus challenged the critical Pelagian assumption, that “Love comes to us of our own selves.”22 Augustine used a literal Bible reading to make his case against the Pelagians. Since the Spirit offers “the things that are freely given to us of God” (1 Cor 2:12), and “God is love” (1 John 4:16), then the knowledge of God as love comes only by the Spirit. Augustine challenged the Pelagians for their credulity in identifying grace with law and not with God’s love given by the Spirit:

And thus the Pelagians affirm that they actually have God Himself, not from God, but from their own selves! and although they allow that we have knowledge of the law from God, they will yet have it that love is from our very selves. Nor do they listen to the apostle when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” Now what can be more absurd, nay, what more insane?23

Augustine’s response to the question of how God enables the will, then, is focused on the motive power of love, a love which God gives believers by his indwelling Spirit.


Luther recognized the key issues in Augustine’s critique of the Pelagians, including an awareness that their dispute centered on definitions of sin, will, and grace. To this end, his targets in the Disputation against Scholastic Theology are revealing. Luther charged that Aristotle’s categories and definitions were a primary source of heterodoxy. In sending the Disputation to Jodokus Trutfetter, Luther commented:

Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself. My wish would be for Usingen [Bartholomaeus Arnoldi] and Trutfetter to give up their teaching, indeed stop publishing altogether. I have a full arsenal of arguments against their writings, which I now recognize as a waste of time.24

A. Luther’s Early Disputations

What, then, were these arguments? In both the Disputation and the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther relied on Augustine’s fundamental argument against Pelagius: the will is enslaved by self-love that defies God.” The enslavement is only overcome in the elect by the regenerating disclosure of God’s love and goodness.26 Aristotle, in Luther’s debates, was transposed into the role of heresiarch in place of Augustine’s Pelagius. Luther believed he could demonstrate an identity in definitions of the will between Pelagius, a confirmed heretic, and Aristotle. By this means any part of the scholastic tradition that assimilated that definition was subject to challenge. Three assumptions may be identified in Luther’s approach.

1. Sin as Enslavement through Concupiscence

The Disputation began with Luther’s emphasis on the polarity between Pelagius and Augustine. He denied that Augustine’s opposition to the “Pelagians and all heretics” is “exaggerated.” The fourth and fifth theses expressed the heart of Luther’s case:

4. It is therefore true that man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil. 5. It is false to state that man’s inclination is free to choose between either of two opposites. Indeed, the inclination is not free, but captive. This is said in opposition to common opinion.27

The reason for this captivity is a paradoxical conflict taken from Augustine: “nothing is so much in the power of the will as the will itself.”28 This implied that the more intense purposes of the will always dominate lesser purposes. What, then, guides the will? Luther argued that sin is misapplied devotion: “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.”29 The idea that nature, of its own accord, will love God above all else is a fantasy? Thus, Luther used Augustine’s definition of sin: “No act is done according to nature that is not an act of concupiscence against God,” and, “Every act of concupiscence against God is evil and a fornication of the spirit.”31 This view of self-deceiving sin-pride-was further developed in the Heidelberg Disputation. Luther argued that self-love is ultimately expressed by anthropocentric, rather than Christocentric, theology.32

2. The Inside-Out Movement of the Heart-Behavior Continuum

By adopting an intentional and relational definition of sin, rather than the more extrinsic definition of law-breaking, Luther, like Augustine, radicalized sin. Even the best behavior as measured by extrinsic values was thus rejected: “Every deed of the law without the grace of God appears good outwardly, but inwardly it is sin.” This set up Luther’s complete rejection of the law, “even the Decalogue itself.” Why does he press the point to this extent? Because, although the fallen will hates the imposition of the law, it may still find the law of use, so that if “the will desires the imposition of the law it does so out of love of self.” In any case, the will is hostile to the law’s goodness because “everyone’s natural will is iniquitous and bad.”33

These assumptions set up Luther’s most important opposition between Aristotelian-scholasticism and his own beliefs. The deceptiveness of sin means that all behavior, no matter how attractive outwardly, only witnesses to sin’s pollution unless the will is led to that behavior by the Spirit’s grace. With that grace of received love, the soul is able to love: “The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God,” and “without it no act of love is performed.”34

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in contrast to this arrangement, held that goodness is both intrinsic and extrinsic; rooted in habitus and displayed in actus. Merit, however, is found in actus, the outward activity of the will.35 While this intrinsic-extrinsic arrangement suggested a wholism in which the dual aspects of volition are fully meshed, the actus, in fact, has a primacy based on its function in forming the habitus. That is, virtue is formed by doing virtuous actions, an ethical transformation generated from the outside-in:

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity [as in physical functions]. . but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.36

Luther expressed his opposition by an explicit juxtaposition: “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds,” and “Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.’37

Thus the radical polarization expressed in Luther’s inaugural disputations-his pitting Augustine’s affectionate theology against Aristotle’s intellectual-volitional model-was critical to the emergence of the Protestant Reformation?38

B. Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici (1521)

Melanchthon’s earliest theological commentary expanded many of the issues in Luther’s theses. Melanchthon, it should be noted, later shifted his views. It is assumed here that his early views were, in fact, a reflection of Luther’s position that the younger man accepted in full and then began to leave behind in his irenic pursuit of an accommodation with Rome.39 Nevertheless, leaving that matter aside, the underlying assumption of the 1521 Loci is that God’s attractiveness is disclosed by the Spirit to the elect. As Luther had before him, Melanchthon attacked Aristotle’s influence on scholastic theology. In particular, he insisted that the affections have primacy over the will in describing faith; and he defined grace as God’s immediate favor, as opposed to those who held it to be an intermediary and created quality.

1. The Primacy of the Affections

Melanchthon rejected the assumption that morality is defined by the human exercise of freely choosing either good or evil: “The term `free wilY [arbitrium] was used, a term most incongruous with Scripture and the sense and judgment of the Spirit, and a term that often offended holy men.”40 The scholastic elevation of the will, in Melanchthon’s view, meant that the church had “embraced Aristotle instead of Christ.”4′ Instead, Melanchthon held, the soul consists of cognition and inclination.42 The former operates through reason and the latter through “appetition” or will. Here, however, Melanchthon redefined Aristotle’s “appetitive” faculty.

We divide man into only two parts. For there is in him a cognitive faculty, and there is also a faculty by which he either follows or flees the things he has come to know. The cognitive faculty is that by which we discern through the senses, understand, think, compare, and deduce. The faculty from which affections (affectus) arise is that by which we either turn away from or pursue the things known, and this faculty is sometimes called “will” (voluntas), sometimes “affection,” and sometimes “appetite.” . . . in which are love, hate, hope, fear, sorrow, anger, and the feeling which arise from these.43

Experience shows, Melanchthon argued, that the will can be informed by the intellect but can be easily overcome by the affections, just as a despot (using the analogy of ancient Roman politics) overrules the reasoned deliberations of the senate. This displays the greater power of the affections, not as a property external to the will, but as the defining quality of the will: “the will [as in the political analogy] casts knowledge out and is borne along by its own affection.” Thus, in a critical distinction, he revised the nomenclature of the twin faculties to be “the ‘cognitive faculty’ and the ‘faculty subject to the affections.”’44

Given this redefinition, Melanchthon was prepared to address the main concern of the scholastics, “whether the will (voluntas) is free and to what extent it is free.” He concluded from biblical evidence: “Since all things that happen, happen necessarily according to divine predestination, our will has no liberty.”45 The determinism of predestination is the point where, Melanchthon insisted, reason in the hands of Aristotelian theologians always violates Scripture because of their belief that good conduct arising from a self-moved will is the basis of morality (Aristotle’s eupraxia).46 Melanchthon addressed this tension by pointing to the power of the affections as God’s instrument for change. This allows a “certain freedom in outward works” but only as they operate within the limited range of the controlling affections of the heart. The question of morality, then, is centered in the affections and not the behaviors. The “outward works” merely disclose the nature of the affections.

The would-be philosophers who have attributed freedom to the will (volitntas) have fixed their eyes upon this contingency of external works. But Scripture tells nothing of that kind of freedom, since God looks not at external works but at the inner disposition of the heart. . . . By contrast [to external works], internal affections are not in our power, for by experience and habit we find that the will (voluntas) cannot in itself control love, hate, or similar affection, but affection is overcome by affection.47

This key principle, that “affection is overcome by affection,” captured Augustine’s solution to the conundrum of God’s initiative and human free will. Augustine had argued: “[Let the soul seek God’s mercy] that [God] may give it what he commands, and may, by inspiring into it the sweetness of his grace through his Holy Spirit, cause the soul to delight more in what he teaches it, than it delights in what opposes his instruction.”48 Thus, for Melanchthon, if sin is “a depraved affection,” so that “the dominant affection of man’s nature is love of self,” then the solution to sin must come through an even greater affection that can eclipse the affections of sin.49 God alone elicits such an affection once he is revealed to the heart by the Spirit: “For unless the Spirit teaches you, you cannot know what it is to love God, that is, unless you actually experience it inflamed by the Spirit himself.”50

2. Grace as Real Union Rather than a Quality

Melanchthon also challenged the medieval belief that grace can be construed as a quality. This was critical to rejecting the cooperative model of salvation. Melanchthon offered a dichotomy of views on the way a spiritual gift is related to God as giver: a gift may be seen either as something given as the ongoing benefit of God’s continued benevolence by his Spirit, or as a quality imparted by God, but with an independence from God once he imparts it. In the latter option, the gift of a righteous disposition is an effect imparted by God; but is also an independent quality within the subject once it has been given. This option, developed by Aquinas, established a framework for the cooperative model of salvation. A physical analogy for this is the motion imparted to a stone, which, once free of the hand that throws it, is a continuing effect of the thrower; but it is independent in light of its freedom from the hand. Melanchthon rejected this as “Aristotelian figments.”51

Melanchthon held that the Bible affirms saving grace to be God’s love or favor. To designate grace as “a quality in the souls of the saints” is a shameful misuse, Melanchthon charged: “The worst of all offenders are the Thomists who have placed the quality of ‘grace’ in the nature of the soul, and faith, hope, and love in the powers of the soul.”52 Melanchthon, in rejecting the conceptualities of Aristotelian motion, offered the solution of the affectionate tradition: “But the gift of God is the Holy Spirit himself, whom God has poured out into their hearts. John 20:22: ‘He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”‘”53 This assumption, when defining grace as God’s benevolence, affirmed a dependency of the recipient of the gift on the presence of the giver rather than on the gift by itself.

C. Luther’s Dispute with Erasmus

Erasmus, the great humanist of Luther’s era, was attracted to many of Luther’s practical reforms, but he generally avoided matters of dogmatic theology and retained his Catholic affiliations. Nevertheless, after remaining silent about his own views for most of a decade, Erasmus finally reacted to an aspect of Luther’s message in his Diatribe . . . Concerning Free Will in 1524. It was Luther’s “riddles” and “paradoxes” that troubled Erasmus, as he reported in a letter to Ulrich Zwingli in 1523. Among these riddles he included Luther’s view that free will is an “empty word” [nomen inane].

The denial of a free will was, of course, a riddle that Melanchthon, following Luther, sought to unravel in his Loci.s4 In his introduction to the Bondage of the Will Luther explained that he was slow in responding to Erasmus’s work because it had added nothing to the debate, so that “it seemed a complete waste of time to reply to your arguments.” Luther went on:

I have already myself refuted them over and over again, and Philip Melanchthon, in his unsurpassed volume on the doctrines of theology [Loci Communes] has trampled them in the dust. That book of his, to my mind, deserves not merely to live as long as books are read, but to take its place in the Church’s canon; whereas your book, by comparison, struck me as so worthless and poor that my heart went out to you for having defiled your lovely, brilliant flow of language with such vile stuff.

While Luther left readers with little doubt about his feelings, he certainly recognized that a work by so prominent a figure as Erasmus required a careful response. In the Bondage of the Will Luther addressed the Diatribe by citing and evaluating key assertions and arguments. Two major features emerge among the many points in debate, both of which were rejections of Erasmian arguments, namely, Luther’s certainty of God’s uncontingent predestination and his belief in the spontaneity of necessary actions for all humans.

1. Foreknowledge and Contingency

Luther attacked the Erasmian position for its lack of precision on the key definition: “In this book of mine,” he wrote, “I shall harry you and all the Sophists [i.e. scholastic theologians] till you tell me exactly what ‘free will’ can and does do.”5 Any definition, Luther insisted, needed to affirm the absence of any contingency in God’s works.

It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will. This bombshell knocks “freewill” flat, and utterly shatters it.57

Having made that point, however, Luther also acknowledged that the standard theological word for God’s uncontingent purposes”necessity”-is inadequate, being “harsh” and “foreign” because “it suggests some sort of compulsion, and something that is against one’s will.”5 The Erasmian definition of free will was, indeed, based on an Aristotelian notion of moral freedom. Free will is, Erasmus insisted, “a power of the human will by which a man may apply himself to those things that lead to eternal salvation, or turn away from the same.” Such a view, Luther responded, “is plainly to ascribe divinity to the ‘free will’!” That is, the will is able to move itself “by its own power,” a position affirmed only by pure Pelagians. Even the scholastic theologians, Luther reminded Erasmus, required an assisting work of the Spirit in their model of free will.59

2. The Spontaneity of Human Choices

What, then, did Luther offer in countering the Erasmian view? The key premise in Luther’s thought is that the affections move the heart in a response to God’s initiative of loving self-disclosure: “The will, whether it be God’s or man’s, does what it does, good or bad, under no compulsion, but just as it wants or pleases, as if totally free.”6 Erasmus fails to recognize this and other matters, Luther argued, because “Your thoughts of God are too human.”61 The solution is to be found, he believed, in the spontaneity of necessary acts, a spontaneity produced by God’s attractiveness as he reveals himself to the soul by the work of the Spirit. Thus, whether in good or evil, there is a fundamental immutability at work in human souls apart from any compulsion. “That is to say,” Luther explained, “a man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it.” And, On the other hand: when God works in us, the will is changed under the sweet influence of the Spirit of God. Once more it desires and acts, not of compulsion, but of its own desire and spontaneous inclination. Its bent still cannot be altered by any opposition; it cannot be mastered or prevailed upon even by the gates of hell; but it goes on willing, desiring and loving good, just as once it willed, desired and loved evil.62

The work of conversion, then, is a work of Christ who “overcomes Satan,” thus generating a new freedom:
So man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God will…. If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan will. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it.63


The collision of two competing views of the human will generated Luther’s earliest protests in what became the Protestant Reformation. His opposition to the widespread Aristotelianscholastic theology of his era was not simply a secondary matter, but a frontal assault on prevailing medieval assumptions about the nature of human volition and the ground of morality-matters that define salvation. He rejected Aristotle’s definitions as assimilated by Aquinas and affirmed, instead, the affective tradition of Augustine. Thus Muller and others who would promote a Christian Aristotelianism must speak more effectively to Luther’s concernsLuther’s discussion of the nature of the human will shows just how heavily-loaded the question of Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology can be.

The following points may be offered in summary.

A. Luther Affirmed the Augustinian Reading of the Bible on the Nature of the Human Will

We have seen that Luther’s earliest reforming efforts were triggered by his opposition to the flawed anthropology and morality of his day; compared to such matters the issue of indulgences was just a “trifle.” The Pelagian view of grace and salvation, which Augustine and the late-patriarchal church rejected were, nevertheless, revived in the Aristotelian-scholastic synthesis of Aquinas and those who followed after him. Luther, in labeling Aristotle’s Ethics as the “worst enemy of grace” put his finger on the fundamental polarity of any theology of grace: does a “righteous man” become righteous by doing righteous deeds? Or do righteous deeds emerge because he has been made righteous by the Spirit’s work in transforming him? The nature of sin, using Augustine’s definition of concupiscence as self-love, precluded any anthropocentric model of salvation, including the cooperative approach offered in the Thomistic synthesis.

B. The Augustinian/Lutheran Model Assumed an Affective Dimension in the Will

The role of the affections as a necessary feature of the willserving as the capacity which prioritizes choices-was rejected by Aristotle as applied to ethics because it meant that the ground of morality may be a response and not a self-initiated action. Aquinas accepted this premise; it became a foundation for most of latemedieval theology. Luther and the early Melanchthon, instead, adopted Augustine’s assumption that the will is shaped by its highest desires and that salvation of those who are “dead in their trespasses and sin” depends on God’s initiative. With faith viewed as a response, the human desires are generated and sustained by the immediate grace of the Spirit who discloses the love of God to the elect.

C. The Augustinian/Lutheran Model Affirmed a Distinctively Unilateral Work of Salvation

Luther certainly understood the profound nature of his decision to affirm the Augustinian affective tradition. It meant the notion of a cooperative (albeit assisted or enabled) doctrine of grace misconstrued the real issues of sin and salvation. Only God’s overt initiative can accomplish the work of salvation. The human heart is not disabled and in need of assistance; it is dead in its absolute hostility to God. We conclude, then, by citing the point made by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston in their introduction to the Bondage of the Will:

Historically, it is a simple matter of fact that Martin Luther and John Calvin, and, for that matter, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation, stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences; but in asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one.64

1 Martin Luther on “The Bondage of the Will” [De Servo Arbitrio (1525)] (London: Clarke, 1957) 319 [WA 786].

2Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987) 39. Muller, whose astute and prolific work in early-modern historical theology is widely acknowledged, is technically accurate in making this point-it is certainly true that the Reformation was not an independent event that appeared suddenly but was a development emerging from within late medieval theology. H. A. Oberman, in particular, has shown the importance of various forerunners to the Reformation; see, e.g., his The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986). Muller, however, goes beyond Oberman’s point by insisting that Aristotelian methods were necessary for meaningful theological training after the first wave of Reformers had departed; e.g., “In order to teach theology in their universities they needed, once again, to address issues of definition and method [by using Aristotelian/scholastic tools]” (God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991] 32). Similarly M. Klauber misses this overt rejection of Aristotelianism and concludes that it was necessary for later theologians to look to “medieval models to help them integrate reason into theological discourse” (“The Use of Philosophy in the Theology of Johannes Maccovius [1578-1644],” Calvin Theological Journal 30 [1995] 383).

3E.g., Muller, “Calvin and the ‘Calvinists’: Assessing Continuities and Discontinuities Between the Reformation and Orthodoxy,” Calvin Theological Journal 30, 31 (1995-96) 345-75; 125-60.

4Melanchthon, Loci Communes Theologici [1521], in the Library of Christian Classics, (ed. W. Pauck; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969).

5 Oberman (“Fourteenth-Century Religious Thought: A Premature Profile,” in Dawn of the Reformation, 7) helpfully places Luther within a broader context. See, also, chap. 5, “‘Iustitia Christi’ and ‘lustitia Dei’: Luther and the Scholastic Doctrines of Justification.” Oberman shows that Luther’s charges in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology were applicable to the full range of medieval theology, and not just nominalism.

6″Theologia nostra et Sanctus Augustinius prospere procedunt . . . Aristoteles descendit paulatim” (WA 1.99.8-13 [Luther to Lang, Wittenberg, 18 May 15171 cited in Oberman, “Headwaters of the Reformation: Initia Lutheri-Initia Reformationis,” in Dawn of the Reformation, 44).

7Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) vol. 9, 2.5 [Berlin number 1105b (30)]. Cf. 5.8 [1135a (15)]. The anthropocentric quality of this approach is acknowledged in 9.8 [1168a-69b]. sOberman, Dawn of the Reformation, chap. 5.

9Aquinas, Summa Theologie (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972) Ia2ae. 108.1, ad 3: “liber est qui sui causa est.” He cites Metaphysics 1.2 [982b26].
“Aquinas, Summa la2a. 108.1, ad 2: “Quia igitur gratia Spiritus sancti est sicut interior habitus nobis infusus, inclinans nos ad recte operandum, facit nos ligere operari ea quae conveniunt gratiw, et vitare ea quae gratiae repugnant.” Aquinas, Summa Ia2ae. 106.1.

12See S. E. Ozment, “Homo Viator: Luther and Late Medieval Theology,” chap. 6 in The Reformation in Medieval Perspective (ed. S. E. Ozment; Chicago: Quadrangle, 19714 151.

13See C. Ernst, “Introduction,” in T. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Blackfriars ed.; London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1972) vol. 30, xxiv-xxv. 14Augustine, Treatise on Grace 5.444-3.

Ibid., 5.457 [32 (16)].

16He freely exchanges the three terms. See N. Fiering, “Will and Intellect in the New England Mind,” WMQ 29 (1972); cf. id., Moral Philosophy at Seventeenth-Century Harvard: A Discipline in Transition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1981) 117.

Augustine, Treatise on Grace 5.457 [32 (16)]. Tbid., 5.457 [32 (16)]; 5.458 [33 (17)].
19Ibid., 5.457 [33 (17)], emphasis added. This linkage of love and will is pivotal, but generally overlooked. To illustrate the point, William Perkins, the Puritan who was central to the introduction of Theodore Beza’s scholastic version of Reformed theology to England, cites this chapter to establish his doctrine of God’s “co-working grace” (Of God’s Free Grace and Man’s Free Will 1.718). In so doing, he missed Augustine’s pivotal point, expressed here, as did Aquinas, Summa la2a. 111.2. For a larger exploration of these issues and the division it generated among English Puritans, see my “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1996). 2Au ustine, Treatise on Grace 5.459 [38 (18)].

2’Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter 5.108 [56 (32)]. His caveat is not a denial of God’s love, but a note on the grammatical use of the genitive case. In this context the question of Pelagianism versus Augustinianism is most sharply felt. John Burnaby comments, “The effect of the Pelagian controversy was to sharpen the dilemmaeither God’s work or ours.” He suggests, arguably, that this is a false dilemma and that the Pauline solution is one of paradox. In his commentary on Romans, Augustine wrote: “That we believe, is our own act: that we work what is good, belongs to him who gives the Holy Spirit to them that believe.” He comments on this in his Retractions (i, 23): “I should not have said that, if I had known then that faith itself is found among the gifts of God, which are given in the same Spirit. Both therefore [faith and works] are ours, through the choice (arbitrium) of our will, and yet both are given through the Spirit of faith and charity” (See J. Burnaby, “Introduction,” in Augustine: Later Works [Library of Christian Classics; Philadelphia: Westminster, 192).

22Augustine, Treatise on Grace 5.460 [40 (19)]. 23Ibid., 5.460-1 [40 (19)].

24Luther, WA 1.88.22-89, 29 (8 Feb. 1517); cited in H. A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (London: HarperCollins, 1993) 121.

25T. F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989). It includes both disputations: Disputation against Scholastic Theology [DST], 1320; Heidelberg Disputation [HD], 30-49. Oberman holds that Luther was not merely attacking nominalism, as L. Grane argues, but the theology of all medieval schools (“‘Iustitia Christi’ and ‘Iustitia Dei,”‘ 104). He cites Grane, Luthers Ausinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra Scholasticism Theologiam, 1517 (Copenhagen, 1962) 46f.

26R. Mau argues that Luther’s reading of Gal 5:14 is defined by affectus, which Luther found to be supported by Jerome and Augustine-“Liebe als gelebte Freheit der Christen, Luthers Auslegung von G 5,13-24 im Kommentar von 1519,” in Lutheriahrbuch (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupert, 1992) 11-37. Luther, DST, thesis 13. 281bid., thesis 12.

29Ibid.,theses 13-24. 30bid., theses 17, lX. 3lIbid., theses 21, 22. 32Luther, HD, thesis 21.

33Luther, DST, theses 76, 83, 86, 87, 88. 34Ibid.. theses 90 91.

35E.g. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.8 [1098b-99a], 5.7. Aristotle held that goodness could exist as a state of being without outward expression (see 8.5 [1157a]). Merit, a separate matter, credits any expression of goodness.

36Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 2.1 [1103a-b]. 37Luther, DST, theses 40-1. In his Address to the German Nobility Luther underlined his knowledge of Aristotle-“I know my Aristotle as well as you or the likes of you” (Three Treatises, 93).

38Ozment (“Homo Viator: Luther and Late Medieval Theology”) points out the radical nature of Luther’s message, citing Luther’s belief that marital union with Christ may be a reality even as a believer continues as a viator in a still sinful, but repentant life.

39Melanchthon composed the Loci Communes at the age of twenty-four, in the first years of his embrace of Lutheran theology. The emphases of this work reflected Luther’s first disputations and pointed to Melanchthon’s reliance on Luther in this early period. His position represented a dramatic shift from his prior devotion to Aristotle. However, the wheel continued to turn in a well-documented transition. He soon reacquired many of the categories and approaches of scholastic theology that he confronts so sharply here. Thus the third, and final Latin edition (1543), of the Loci contradicted much of his first effort. Any attempt to trace the transitions in Luther’s and Melanchthon’s views of grace, and their causes, goes beyond the scope of this study; the concern here is to identify the two men’s awareness of an ongoing theological division over nature and grace, and their use of the Augustinian affective theology to launch the Lutheran reformation. See the preface in J. A. O. Preus, trans., Loci Communes, 1543 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992) 7-14, on Melanchthon’s shifting views. He introduces the four editions of the Loci. Cf. W. H. Neuser, “Luther und Melanchthon-Ein Herr, verschiedene Gaben,” in Luthers Werkung: Festschrift fir Martin Brecht zum 60. Geburtstag (ed. W.-D. Hauschild et al.; Stuttgart: Calwer, 1992) 47-62. Neuser affirms the view that 1525 was the year when Melanchthon reverted back to an Aristotelian view of the will. This led to his public disagreement with Luther in the Cordatus dispute (1536).

400ne aspect of the Aristotelian assumption, assimilated by Aquinas, that “the will necessarily pursues what is firmly held by reason, and that it cannot abstain from that which reason dictates,” was declared to be heterodoxical by the bishop of Paris in 1277 (Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook [ed. R Lerner and M. Mahdi; Glencoe, IL: 1963] 335-54; cited in Fiering, “Will and Intellect,” 526).

Melanchthon, Loci 23. This and subsequent citations of the Loci refer to the 1521 edition.

42See discussions of the Aristotelian-scholastic views of anthropology/ psychology in J. Rossall, “God’s Activity and the Believer’s Experience in the Theology of John Calvin” (PhD. diss., University of Durham, 1991) 131f; and throughout Fiering’s works, cited above. Melanchthon Loci 23.

44Ibid., 24. 45Ibid.

46Fiering, Moral Philosophy, 44 47Melanchthon, Loci 27.

Augustine, Spirit and the Letter, in NPNF 5.106 [51 (29)]. Melanchthon, Loci 31.

Ibid., 54. SlIbid., 87. 52bid.

5Ibid., 88.

54Packer & Johnston, “Historical and Theological Introduction,” in Luther, Bondage of the Will, 36 [Erasmus, Epist. 5.1384]. Luther, Bondage 63 [WA 600-2]. 5-Ibid., 80 [WA 614-8]. 57Ibid.

5Ibid., 81 [WA 614-8]. 59Ibid., 137,140-3 [WA 661-6]. 60bid., 81 [WA 614-8]. 61id., 87 [WA 620-30]. 62Ibid 102-3 [WA 634-5].

63Ibid., 103-4 [WA 634-635]. Calvin, alert to Luther’s usage, also adopted this analogy and attributes it to Augustine (Institutes 2.4.1).

64Bondage, 58.

Ronald N. Frost is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

Copyright Trinity International University Fall 1997

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