Why was Luther so concerned with the issue of ‘Justification by Faith’

The concern of Martin Luther with the issue of Justification by Faith, an initially purely theological concern, which would later expand into one which would divide Europe both religiously and secularly, can be broadly explained through the character and background of Martin Luther. However, Luther’s concern with Justification by Faith, and indeed the movement which sprang from this concern, Lutheranism, cannot be explained wholly in terms of Martin Luther himself.

Luther’s initial approach to the issue of Justification of Faith and his later doggedness in defending it and refusal to recant, need also to be explained in terms of the intellectual environment of the effects of the earlier Italian Renaissance on scholarly approaches to religion, and in particular, the ad fontes method of studying texts. The issue of Justification by Faith attained such critical importance for Martin Luther initially due to the intellectual background in Europe at the time, and more specifically, the ideas that he encountered during his time at university, both as a student and as a professor.

Luther’s contact with nominalism and the ideas of the via moderna during his time at Erfut provided Luther with the academic background of questioning theological authority and relying only on reason and Scripture to draw theological conclusions. 1 It is these intellectual tools acquired at university that would later cause Luther so become so concerned with the issue of Justification by Faith, as they would allow him to view and deconstruct the flaws in the Catholic Church’s cycle of grace and sin which would lead to salvation.

Luther’s concern with the issue of Justification by Faith, and the effects of the intellectual ideas which would later form his attack on the current teaching and practices of the Church, need also to be accounted for in terms of Luther’s own personal background, and in particular the effects of his childhood. The frequent and brutal beatings which a young Luther received from both his parents and his schoolmasters and his parents’ rigorous enforcement of honesty contributed to the sense of guilt and inadequacy before God that Luther felt during the period in which he was an Augustinian monk.

It was this sense of guilt and sinfulness which would lead him to question why a righteous God had seemingly made the promise of salvation, only for Luther to feel that although “if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk… my conscience would not give me certainty”. 2 It was Luther’s wrestling with this question of reconciling the righteous nature of God and his own salvation that would lead him to become so concerned with the issue of Justification by Faith.

This initial concern was then greatly added to by the unwillingness of the Papacy to agree with Luther, or to even countenance his ideas, which for Luther, far more than being a theological debate, had become a matter of saving souls from what he now perceived as the Church’s misguided preaching of justification through penance. The question of why Luther was so concerned with the issue of Justification by Faith is best approached by asking two different questions; how and why did Luther become concerned with Justification by Faith, and why did his concern grow to such an extent that he was willing to be excommunicated from the Church.

The intellectual effects of the Renaissance are vital to understanding why Luther was concerned with Justification by Faith. The application of the ad fontes approach to texts that humanists were adopting in the period preceding the Reformation to the Bible and the accompanying attitude that the experiences of Christ could be ‘rediscovered’ and the Church returned to the Golden Age, provide a vital precedent for Luther’s close examination of the Bible on which his lectures at the University of Wittenberg were based, and his subsequent breakthrough on the issue of Justification. In addition to the importance of the ad fontes movement on Luther, his encounters with nominalism or the via moderna, as taught to him by von Usingen, during his period as a student at the University of Erfut also caused Luther’s later great concern with over the issue of Justification by Faith, as they also provided him with the concepts that were to become essential to the Reformation. The ideas of the via moderna provide Luther with the essential basis for his finished idea of the respective roles of Man and God in Justification by Faith, suggesting as they do the idea of a covenant between God and Man in which Man facere quod in se est, and when Man meets this precondition God was obliged to justify him. This idea of ‘doing what lies within you’ to some extent provides the foundation for the later theological impasse at which Luther arrived when he was an Augustinian monk.

It would perhaps be too much to argue, as Oberman has done, that the Lutheran Reformation may represent the triumph of the tradition of the via moderna in the sixteenth century. 5 However, Luther’s concern with the idea of Justification by Faith can be viewed as arising from his encounters with the ideas of the via moderna during his time at university, and in particular, the inability of these ideas to make Luther feel as though he was going to be justified.

The personal and familial background of Martin Luther is also significant in explaining why Luther would later become so concerned with the issue of Justification by Faith and that of his own salvation. Although the study of Luther’s background on his later theology is affected by two problems; the imposition of modern psycho-analytical analyses to historical figures requires some deal of caution, and the reliance upon biographical sources written by Luther himself at the end of his life, Luther’s background should not be dismissed despite these potential weaknesses.

The Luther household in which Martin was raised might be characterised as ruthless and brutal, although not unloving. Honesty was rigorously enforced, and was matter of course. For example, as a young child, Luther was once beaten by his mother until blood was drawn for stealing a nut, an occurrence which Luther remembered as an adult and saw fit to include in his autobiography. 6 Luther’s father was similarly firm in his treatment of his son, administering frequent thrashings, including one incident when Hans Luther beat his son so hard that is took the terrified child some time to resume normal relations with his father.

Of his childhood, Luther himself concludes that it caused him to later enter the monastery. It is possible to overstate the effects of these childhood experiences, however, his childhood certainly furnished him with the concepts of responsibility, experience with misbehaviour and the resultant punishment, and a sense of guilt. The effect of his upbringing and childhood on Luther’s later concern with Justification by Faith is to establish the idea of struggle to satisfy his parents within Luther, a struggle that would later translate into his inability to believe that he had satisfied God sufficiently to be justified.

For Luther, the question of his own salvation was of paramount importance, and his concern with the issue of Justification by Faith must be understood in terms of his own personal preoccupations before Luther’s more universal concerns. The rise of humanism and the humanist awareness of consciousness and individuality provide the broad background to Luther’s concern over how he personally would be justified, however, Luther’s personal experiences also worked to raise the question of how he would be saved. In 1505, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm whilst returning to university at Erfut and was struck by lightning.

In addition, Luther’s life was also near-fatally imperilled when he was stabbed in the leg in 1503, the blade piercing his artery. The effect of these incidents on Luther was to force him to confront the fact of his own death and question the manner of his salvation, and indeed, after he was struck by lightening, Luther immediately vowed to join a monastery, a promise which he kept. Luther’s grave concern over the issue of Justification by Faith must also be seen in the context of the Church’s theological confusion over what exactly had to be done in order to be saved.

The initial theological debate over justification had produced two broad schools of thought; those based on Aquinas and those based on Duns Scotus. As a result of the expansion of universities around Europe in the Middle Ages, there was a concomitant increase in the number of theological schools: by the sixteenth-century there were as many as nine. 7 This diversity of theological schools was caused by, and compounded by, the lack of authoritative pronouncements by the Church for over a millennium.

The confusion caused by the lack of theological authority and guidance on the part of the Church was exacerbated by the Church’s reluctance to evaluate the various schools. The combination of this theological confusion over salvation, and Luther’s background can be seen to cause his concern over the issue of Justification by Faith, as he could not find a satisfactory answer. It is this question of what had to be done in order to be saved that represents Luther’s major preoccupation until his ‘Tower Experience’ and explains why Luther was so concerned with the idea of Justification by Faith.

During his period as a lecturer at Erfut, Luther appears to be a follower of the via moderna view. However, after his crisis of existence at the monastery, Luther had difficulties with the idea of the ‘righteousness of God’ as expressed in Romans 1:17. To Luther this idea of a righteous God could only mean to Luther, who saw himself as irrevocably sinful, that he would not be saved, and indeed to ask “How can I find a gracious God? 8 Luther’s ‘tower experience’ and his realization that God assists the sinner to gain his justification through his own Grace were of great concern to Luther as they represented not merely a theological breakthrough, but rather the revelation of how Luther would eventually be justified. Having made the initial theological breakthrough that God provides everything necessary for Man’s justification, and having resolved the problem of his own justification, Luther was concerned with Justification by Faith because he regarded the Church’s teachings on Justification as heretical.

Forgiveness for Luther was a matter purely between Man and God, and was enacted by God alone. No priest was required to pronounce forgiveness, as it was given freely by God to sinners. Therefore the practices of indulgences were sinful to Luther, as they commuted punishments imposed by the Church, not by God, and also turned the gospel into little more than a cult. The issue of Justification by Faith was of such concern to Luther because he saw the great ecclesiastical establishment of the sixteenth-century as providing a false means of salvation to the laity. In Oberman’s view this issue was made more pressing for Luther as Luther saw himself as engaged in a cosmic battle between God and Satan, a battle in “the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days”10 , Indeed, Luther saw him Satan as a literal foe, who plagued him when he was a monk.

The issue of Justification by Faith was of such great concern to Luther due to the ideas with which he came into contact whilst he was at university. His contact with the ideas concerning Justification of the via moderna, coupled with a sense of inadequacy from his childhood combined to produce in Luther a great sense of frustration and fear regarding his own salvation.

Due to the effects of humanist approaches to theology, Luther was able to closely study the Bible, and reinterpret the ideas of St. Augustine on salvation. Luther’s reinterpretation of Augustine lead him to believe that Justification occurred between Man and God only, and therefore the way in which the Church was administering penance and salvation was sinful. Therefore his concern with Justification by faith was caused by the apparently sinful practices of the Church.