A Synopsis of Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: Eine historisch-systematische Untersuchung zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie (Berlin & NY: Walter de Gruyter, 2001).

Paul R. Hinlicky

[A Note to the Reader: A synopsis is necessarily a somewhat subjective undertaking; it is in any case an act of interpretation. What follows cannot be a mathematically proportionate reduction of everything Theodor Dieter covers in his massive work of scholarship (687 pages!) but a selection for the English speaking world of what in this reader’s mind are his most significant discoveries, arguments, and conclusions on the vexed topic of the 16th century Reformer’s notorious --especially in the English speaking world-- pronouncements on reason as “the devil’s whore.”[1] Dieter’s scholarship profoundly complicates the usual facile judgments. For this reason alone the gist of what he has discovered merits the present effort to publicize it. I undertake this synopsis, furthermore, in the sad recognition that so few English speaking scholars today any longer have the facilities in German and Latin, a working knowledge of both Aristotle and Luther, and, frankly, the research time needed to work through Dieter’s volume on their own. It is pointless to lament here this decline of classical standards in contemporary theology. What matters is that some ready access to Dieter’s work with its paradigm-altering implications be provided that will make this scholarship known and provide a framework for understanding it. Scholars with the appropriate facilities and interests may in any case turn to Dieter’s own text for the detailed evidence provided and the careful analysis scrupulously made on behalf of his claims.

In this synopsis I trace the argumentative line of Dieter’s book in the form of a series of informed assertions, for the most part omitting the detailed discussion of the evidence he provides. On multiple occasions, Dieter explores topics that amount to excursions from this chief argumentative line, and I have often omitted mention of these altogether. There are two large examples of such omission. I omit in this synopsis the entirety of Dieter’s final chapter on the recently rediscovered probationes (demonstrations) of the philosophical theses of the Heidelberg Disputation. Chapter Six (200 pages!) was in any event originally a work independent of the preceding chapters; I will report on Dieter’s investigation in this chapter in the Introduction to the English language translation of Luther’s philosophical probationes in Volume 72 of Luther’s Works: The American Edition forthcoming. By mutual agreement with the author, I have also omitted the shorter Chapter Five on the young Luther’s appropriation of nominalist logical studies, both because it is highly technical and because Dieter himself has recently provided an English language version of his research results.[2]

Such multi-layered judgments on relevance in what follows are my own, though I have shared this synopsis with Theodore Dieter and may happily record here his approval of this presentation. I have roughly provided reference to the original pagination in parentheses. For the most part the synopsis is rendered by English language paraphrase of Dieter’s German, though I often expand on his wording to bring out the meaning or capture thoughts otherwise found in the material that has been omitted. I often provide Luther’s Latin, as provided by Dieter, but give an English translation in parentheses. On rarer occasions I supply a word or concept of my own to bring out the sense more crisply in English. – prh]

Introduction [Methodological Considerations]

The wisdom of this world also speaks of God, of humanity and of the cosmos. Philosophy does this (just like theology) in distinction from the individual sciences in that it speaks of the world as a whole and humanity as such and as a whole. Therewith the task of determining the relation between philosophy and theology arises. So Luther commented on Romans 8: Aliter Apostulus de rebus philosophatur et sapit quam philosophi et metaphysici…  (The apostle philosophizes and thinks otherwise concerning things that do the philosophers and metaphysicians...). Yet Paul’s definition of the relationship in I Corinthians 1-2 is not complete, since believers also have multifaceted ways of participating in the wisdom of the world, for example, in the knowledge that is necessary to daily life as also to their methodological considerations regarding the world and regarding themselves. For a theology which only wants to be interpretation of the ‘word of the cross’ a problem emerges from this: any definition of a relationship adds a determination to the two sides which have been put in relationship which neither has from itself (3). The problem becomes even sharper when we note that theology uses human language and follows rules of argument and interprets texts, which people outside of theology also do (4). 

Unlike Baur and Jüngel, the author will not make a contemporary systematic case taking wing from Luther’s supposed stance against Aristotle, but rather will ask “how Luther himself represents and conceives this relationship [to Aristotle] in his texts…. [specifying how] Luther according to his own understanding has established an affirmative or negative, receptive or distancing relation to Aristotle…” (6). Indeed, it is always necessary to clarify which Aristotle is meant in any given Luther text and what this name stands for in this particular place (7, cf. 14). This task is difficult. The task arises, How do we reconstruct a controversy, in which the opponents critique one another (7)? Taking a critical look at the influential Luther studies of Leif Grane and Gerhard Ebeling that depict “scholasticism” as the “folly” over against which Luther’s theology is profiled, Dieter notes  exposition of a thought (supposedly) of Luther in this manner does not yet prove it or the interpreter’s own judgment to be true (8). In any case, it does not suffice “only to ask how Luther has seen Aristotle or the scholastics, one must also investigate whether he has seen rightly” (9). Dieter rejects an all or nothing yes or no to the thought of the reconstructed Luther meaning derived in this undifferentiated way in favor of a “critical relation to Luther, i.e. a relation in which the elements of a thought complex are distinguished, the individual items tested and affirmed or denied by argument” (10). This is a demanding task in Luther’s case. While on the one side Luther will challenge the theological suitability of certain scholastic ways of framing theological questions, he will on the other side intensively engage the questions from within the challenged framework. That complication makes the interpretation of many Luther texts difficult (11). But when we do undertake this difficult task, it is important as well as surprising to observe how precisely Luther argues in proper scholastic manner (13).

We must distinguish between philosophical (inhaltlich) and institutional aspects of “Aristotle,” “the” philosopher whose texts were the basis of university education, the curricular basis for the pedagogy we name scholasticism (14). After the 1255 decision in Paris, Aristotle became “the” philosopher, the effect of which in the course of the next centuries was twofold: a powerful “logicalizing” of theological problems and increasing concern with the problems posed by the philosophy of nature. Adding to the complexity is that fact that even those inclined to Platonism, had to employ concepts and methods derived from Aristotle to express their non-Aristotelian ideas. For us today Aristotle is one philosopher among many others, whose work must be studied in clear consciousness of its historical uniqueness (15), but we dare not impose this modern understanding of Aristotle on Luther’s encounter with “Aristotle.” The present study is limited to the philosophical Aristotle, bracketing the question of the institutional Aristotle (18). It will bring in other texts of Luther for consideration only when exegesis has made clear in a particular passage that Luther connects a definite thought with the philosophical Aristotle. Noting the centuries of interpretation of Aristotle texts standing between Luther and Aristotle in Thomas Aquinas, William Occam, Johannes Buridan, Petrus de Ailliaco, Gabriel Biel, his teachers at Erfurt Usingen and Trutvetter, the crucial question is always: “Which Aristotle does Luther have in view?” Only by asking and answering this question with precision can we test Luther’s own, not modest claim that he has understood Aristotle otherwise and better than the scholastics (19). If we do not ask this crucial question, we will read our own ideas into Luther’s criticisms of Aristotle. For example, Luther researchers, who are against metaphysics, have often understood Luther’s critical remarks against metaphysics as evidence of a new way of thinking. But it is not clear that the grounds for the criticism of Aristotle’s metaphysics in Luther are the same as in his interpreters. “Kant’s critique of metaphysics has created an epochal new context of argumentation, but it is not that of the young Luther” (20). Hence “which Aristotle” Luther has in mind is to be determined case by case from the Luther texts themselves. The study limits itself to the young Luther, up to the year 1518; it sees in the philosophical theses of the Heidelberg Disputation the high point of Luther’s Auseinandersetzung with Aristotle, since in the proofs Luther undertakes something which for him was singular: a purely philosophical comparison and contrast with Aristotle” (22).

In the exegesis of Luther texts, the leading question will be the context in which Luther is presently arguing. The question is how Luther read certain texts of Aristotle, how plausible and well-founded are his interpretations, not about “influences” on him (25). In addition, we can reconstruct how a Biel or an Ockham or an Aristotle might have replied to these readings of Luther. That fully elucidates the controversy between these actors. Such elucidation is this study’s main systematic contribution (26).

For Luther many traditional solutions of theological problems have lost their plausibility; he has newly defined problems and sought new solutions for them and thereby developed a different understanding of the task of theology.  But of course new solutions bring along new problems. Hence in working out his own alternatives Luther is not free from obscurities and aporia. For example, scholastic dependence on the substance-accidents scheme from Aristotle entailed that both sin and grace be classified as accidents, not affecting “man himself.” If repudiation of this scheme to affirm that sin and grace affect man “himself” is supposed to reflect Luther’s thinking on justification, however, it would have the implication that the grace of justification, affecting “man himself,” would have to be understood as a “transubstantiation” (27)! In fact, the criticism that grace does not only transform accidents of a  human being but the being itself would entail something like a doctrine of “transubstantiation.” Thus Luther’s own position cannot be expressed in this way that would actually remain within the schema of substance and accidents. Luther’s position can only be expressed by different concepts. Thus such approaches are vague and unhistorical. Luther’s theology is no meteorite landing in a strange new world, but consists in both positive reception and also in definite negations of what preceded.

A further factor has been the supposition by Luther researchers of some notion of “the unity of the scholastics,” by means of which the generalization “Luther against the scholastics” is justified as a fundamental antithesis (28). Leif Grane for example claims that Aristotle-oriented theology hinders understanding of the Bible on its own terms, hence Luther’s relation to “the” scholastics can only be one of irreconcilable war (29). Yet, here too, we must pause and patiently ask specifically what Luther understood by “scholastic” and derive our answers step by step from the exegesis of Luther texts. In fact there are formidable problems with any thesis about the unity of the scholastics. There is certainly not a doctrinal unity among them (31); even in method, the term, “scholastic,” turns out to be an abstraction (32). Today we distinguish between a monastic theology and a scholarly theology in the medieval period; it makes sense to contrast Anselm’s credo ut intelligam with Bernard’s credo ut experiar (33). About all that can be said concerning unity of method in scholasticism is that the disputational form of the “quaestio” and the commentary on Aristotlean texts were standard pedogogy (34). Yet Ebeling speaks of the basic distinction between nature and grace in scholasticism as well as the ontological continuity between them as something which undergirds “the” scholastic theology (35). This thesis is vague and equivocal; such abstractions actually hinder interpretation.

Chapter One: Luther’s critique of the teleological understanding of the soul in Aristotle.

In the proof of article 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther argues that Aristotle in his doctrine of the soul describes the ontic structure of the sinner in that he taught that man “seeks his own in all things.” But this teaching contradicts theology, if by it the self-seeking sinner is thought of as the norm of humanity (39). This amor hominis finds its theoretical and practical interpretation in the theologia gloriae (40). Luther is entangled in the traditional discussion of the “faculties of the soul” (Seelenvermögen), though his thought militates against this scheme. He speaks of the potentia affectiva (affective potency) as equivalent with voluntas (the faculty of will), in order to say that will is not merely intellectual but also sensitive. Luther notes that the word, voluntas, in the Bible, as in Ps. 1:2, has a different meaning than in the schools where the word designates a faculty of the soul, which, on the one side, is delimited over against the intellect as another faculty, and, on the other side, is distinguished as potency from its actualization in the decision and the deed (42) of the soul. Luther asserts that “we are not lords of our own acts from beginning to end. Against the philosophers.” Yet he himself equates the passivity with which the self suffers divine things with the passivity of the faculty of knowledge --as in Aristotle! A good objection to Aristotle is not obtained by Luther advocating a passive understanding of the faculties of the soul (44).

But if one looks more precisely, Luther designates the act of the passive faculty by agere (to do). But doing is the act of the active faculty, while recipere (reception) is the act of the passive faculty. Is Luther muddled or in contradiction? In fact Luther’s teacher Usingen saw active and passive moments in the faculty of the soul (45). This coordination of active and passive moments is meant to clarify how and when an activity becomes one’s own. I may receive many impulses, but I take ownership of one when I decide for it and act upon it. Yet this reflection in itself does not yet make it clear how the sinner in omnibus quaerere quae sua sunt (seeks what is his own in all things). In reality, Luther’s thought here depends on Aristotelian reasoning: the goal of anything in the mode of potency is actualization. This goal is the good for the soul. Any act of the faculty of the soul ipso facto represents its good, its self-actualization (46). This perfect self-reference of the faculty of the soul in any good act is what Luther has in view when he says that man so understood seeks his own in all things (47). Whatever good is desired or truth known, man in this way contributes ipso fact to his own perfection. Luther’s critique applies therefore to the teleological understanding of the soul as also to the ethic so oriented.

An objection from the side of scholasticism to Luther’s reasoning is readily available. The notion that man is perfected in the good act attends to human nature as such; such perfection is not itself the “object” of his “seeking” but consequence of acquiring the good. What he seeks is an object; that in knowing and loving this object he finds the perfection of his nature in the sense of the latter’s actualization (48) happens, as it were, behind his back, without conscious intention. In modern language: “To love something for its own sake is precisely the way to human self-realization” (49). If we turn to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, moreover, we find here also that the criterion of the good is just that which is sought for its own sake, while other things will be sought for its sake. Aristotle’s insight is that activity would be pointless without final goals. Apart from this analytical insight, of course, Aristotle thinks of the ideal of autarky: to be self-sufficient, like the prime mover, is what alone makes life worthwhile. Since man, according to Aristotle, seeks his good and happiness in this way as his final goal, Luther can say that Aristotle thinks of man who in all things seeks his own. But to be precise, this judgment must be coupled with Luther’s further claim in the Heidelberg Disputation that Aristotelian man takes good rather than gives it (50). In fact, this judgment also agrees with Aristotle, who literally says the same (NE IX:7:1167g27f). What Aristotle distinguishes here is an animal self-love in vice from a rational self-love in virtue. Hence for Aristotle, Luther’s objection about seeking one’s own would have no force, but rather reflect his own intention. “Luther clearly understands seeking one’s own good not only in antithesis to “seeking another’s good” but rather also through its opposition to “seeking the things of God.” Aristotle, of course, does not know this latter antithesis. Luther thus imposes on Aristotle a way of framing the question of ethics from outside the philosopher’s own horizon (51).

In scholasticism, of course, one does find this Christian antithesis, yet it is not taken disjunctively, as in Luther. Aristotle’s analysis of the teleology of the soul is modified, going back to Augustine, with the introduction of God as summum bonum (highest good). This led to a distinction between finis cuius (the end to whom) and finis quo (the end by which), the object possessed and the possessing of the object (52). As Thomas taught, God himself, the uncreated Good alone in his infinite goodness is able to satisfy perfectly the will of man. Yet by a second mode, the ultimate goal of man is something created, which is nothing other than the fruition of the ultimate end in the creature’s enjoyment of it. Thomas’ teaching reflects Augustine’s distinction between uti (using) propter aliud (for the sake something else) and frui (enjoying) propter se (for its own sake), the latter being what is truly worthy of love, in which happiness consists and exists eternally, in which the creature’s seeking will comes to true rest (55). This creaturely enjoyment of God is amor amicitiae (the love of friends), not amor concupiscentiae (concupiscent love), love which is velle alicui bonum (to will another’s good, 58). Lombard is less strict than Augustine: lesser goals can be desired for their own sake so long as they are not regarded as final goals. Here Luther reverts to Augustine’s rigor: the radical question cutting through all things is whether one loves God or not. What matters is not the happiness of the soul by virtue of its own activity but God and participation in Him (56).

Closer to Luther himself, of course, is the teaching of Gabriel Biel who defended concupiscent love for God; this hope for my own good, my happiness, my beatitude is distinguished from caritas through which God is loved for his own sake (59). It is to this which Luther objects: concupiscent love for God does not love God as final, but degrades Him to something penultimate. It uses God rapaciously. It is spiritual whoredom. “Luther consequently took seriously the metaphysical concept of the ultimate end” (60). Closely connected to this dispute with Biel is a perplexity regarding motivation (61). In Biel one obeys the command to love God for His own sake in order to gain heavenly reward. This ambivalence repeats itself in the situation of the penitent, who wants to return to grace, and thus seeks something for herself. Yet to attain this, she must love God without any self-interest. The perplexity here leads to uncertainty (62).

In conclusion, here, we can clearly see that Luther’s disjunctive antithesis between seeking one’s own and seeking God is not derived from Aristotle, but is found already in scholasticism on account of the reception of the doctrine of the final goal. There is a real, material tension here between God Himself and the creature’s beatitude, between love for God and hope for oneself. Luther called Biel’s “hope” a fornicatio spiritus (fornication of the spirit, 63), because Luther thinks of seeking self and seeking God disjunctively (64).

Yet Luther proves to be more dependent on Aristotle than he himself fully realizes. The 58th of the Indulgence Theses reads: “The theologian of glory… learns from Aristotle that the object of the will is good and that the good is lovable, while evil is truly hateful, that therefore God is the highest good and most lovable of all” (64). Since the sinner is the  human being who seeks his own in everything, even and especially in God, the highest good, the true God encounters the sis sinner not as its highest good but as just the opposite of it. Thus, when the merits of Christ work grace for the inner man, they work cross, death and hell for the outer man in order to mortify the self-seeking self of the sinner. Whoever acknowledges himself to be a sinner at the same time therewith acknowledges himself as worthy of this mortification. When the ‘body of sin’ is destroyed in man by the discipleship of the cross and he is prepared to take upon himself all punishment, cross and death then he has attained to conformity with Christ. Indulgences refuse this salutary punishment. Scholastic theology is the theologically reflected form of this refusal, which follows Aristotle rather than Christ… by regarding God as highest good.

The object of the will is its good, as Aristotle teaches in the Nichomachean Ethics: “the beautiful, the useful and the pleasant” (NE II, 2; 1104630-32). In Latin, honestum, utile, delectabile. The distinction between good and evil is the basic distinction of the Scholastic tradition in regard to desire, will and action. The elementary judgment of natural law is so formulated by Thomas Aquinas: “This is the first precept of the law, that good is to be done and pursued but evil is to be shunned (ST 1/11 ques. 94, art. 2c). On this precept all the other precepts of the natural law are founded. Gabriel Biel taught that there are two act of the faculty of will, velle and nolle, corresponding to good and evil respectively. Man can only will something sub ratione bonitatis (on account of its goodness, 66). Also in the classification of affects, the distinction of good and evil plays a determinative role. Amor, as affect, is an appetite which inclines to the agreeable, what has the ratio boni, while odium refers to what is repugnant and harmful, which as the ratio mali. Hope and fear correspondingly refer to future good and evil. This analysis reflects a far-reaching consensus in Scholastic theology: being directed towards the good is the basic form of human activity in general. That anything is intended at all means that it is intended as a good.
This affirmation is at the root of all activity, through which the doer also affirms himself, that is, his own being as seeker of the good.

How then can Luther reverse the basic principle in his theology of the cross and say that the Christian loves evils and shuns the good? That sin is manifest in that we are prone to evil rather than good? To answer this question we must become conscious of the equivocity of good and evil, which can have different meanings morally and theologically. Malum can mean evil, i.e. the injustice one does, or sin, which contradicts God’s will. The theologian of the cross clearly cannot will such moral evil or celebrate it. Evil can also mean the lack or loss of a good, which for Aristotle is good luck or bad luck in distinction from our own deserved praise or blame for things done in our own power. But the theologian of the cross holds that sufferings and cross are the highest good, most worthy of love.

Note then that also for Luther something is affirmed or willed when it appears as good and lovable. “Good” is a transcendental determination of the object of the will. The conflict between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory is not about willing the good but about what good is to be willed, not whether this or that is to be done but rather between doing and suffering. The conflict is about the evaluation of suffering. Aristotle in fact teaches explicitly: “acting is always more worthy than suffering” (De anima, III, 5, 430a, 18ff). Luther’s teacher Usingen likewise taught agere nobilior est conditio quam pati per quam agens assimilatur primo enti, quod est actus purus (Acting through which an agent is assimilated to the first entity, which is pure act, is a nobler condition than suffering). But the theologian of the cross can understand suffering as a good because Adam is destroyed in him, the one who in doing good as also in receiving good always seeks self and so converts good into evil (69). For Aristotle the affect of pain is diminution of life and must be regarded as pure negative. But the New Testament does not know the antithesis between pleasure and pain. Here the Greek word hedone is an ethical term for worldly or carnal desire. 2 Cor. 7:9-11 speaks of a worldly sorrow and a godly sorrow. Whoever lives with Christ by breaking from the world draws the world’s hate. It is a death –a crucifixion—to the world. The believer sees this suffering not --as those see it who in reality are perishing with the world -- as some kind of negation of life but rather as liberation and growth in the power of true life (71, drawn from Bultmann’s article on sorrow, lupe).

Aristotle’s doctrine of friendship was taken over by Thomas Aquinas and used to develop his doctrine of caritas. For Aristotle, three kinds of friendship correspond to honestum, utile and delectabile. Self-love and love of others harmonize among those who are good. But no good person can befriend the bad. Only the good is worthy of love. That notion is strictly opposed to Jesus’ unconditional turning towards sinners. Luther accordingly comments on 1  Cor. 13 that it is phony charity which loves not the person but the good qualities in them. Thomas Aquinas, knowing the teaching of the New Testament, raised the question whether sinners should be loved out of charity. He answered with the distinction between nature and fault. In distinction from Aristotle, then, Thomas can extend charity to the sinner, yet it is also clear that he will be loved for and on the basis of his good nature which he has from God, similarly to the modern distinction of the person and the work. All the same, the unconditional love of God which needs no good as its object but creates its good is not suitably thought out here. For Luther, the believer’s turning to the sinner is grounded in God in Christ’s communicatio, the mediation of creative love, not where it finds a good to be enjoyed but where it can confer good on the evil person.  The amor hominis (human love) flees the sinner, since here the object is and must be the very cause of love (76). Philosophical knowing cannot acknowledge a “nothing” as its object, only a something which is good, true and real. The question was posed in Scholasticism utrum intellectus possit intelligere non ens (whether the intellect is able to understand a something that does not exist). Luther points to a passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics IV, but Luther misunderstands Aristotle here (77). Yet, there is one place in Aristotle where the intellect, its object and way of life are bound together in a prominent being, namely, in Aristotle’s thought-thinking-itself, that is, in God. Luther mocks this construal of deity (WA 10 I/1: 567, 24-568, 7; 18: 785-9; 7:547, 8f. 13-16), who cannot be engaged in the world as is the biblical God, nor hear the cries of His creatures, nor be affected by them. Thus Luther is able to bring out the difference with Aristotle. If all love their own being, and all other beings and goods for their own sake, thus their own being as their highest good, it is impossible to see suffering as something positive. Nor can the loving turn towards those who are not worthy according to human standards be made plausible. So it appears impossible to develop the Christian understanding of humanity in the context of Aristotle’s philosophy. Nonetheless, however, the element of truth found in Aristotle’s orientation of human beings toward the good is not simply challenged (79).

Luther understands seeking one’s own as the definition of what makes evil to be evil. Luther consequently understands sin as concupiscence (80). Does he have Paul on his side? Is this teaching biblically justified? Luther orients himself here on the double love commandment (81), to love God with one’s all and the neighbor as oneself. He knows very well the famous teaching deriving from Augustine of ordered love: for God first, then in order one’s own soul, then the soul of one’s neighbor, then one’s own body and so on. Luther does not reject ordered love as such, but radicalizes and simplifies the order: God first, then others. He does so because he is convinced admitting any notion of self-love is corrosive, since our notions of self and love are warped by egocentricity, which is the very essence of sin. As we actually are in Adam, rightly ordered love is odium sui, self-hate. In other words, other-love and self-love are disjunctively related.

We can consider several objections to Luther’s position here. Sometimes Luther appeals to the Golden Rule for insight into the concrete obligation to love the neighbor. Putting yourself in the neighbor’s place tells you what is needed. But why should it be right in an Adamic world to do what the neighbor self-seekingly wants, since precisely in such desire sinful egocentricity is manifest? There are two possibilities for Luther to respond to this objection. First, yes, neighbor love acknowledges in the neighbor’s subjectivity and honors it, even in its warped form of self-seeking, and thus helps him as such. Obviously, this is in no little tension with Luther’s disjunctive logic here. Second, the true lover opposes any self-seeking, whether in self or in the neighbor, and thus itself decides what the neighbor’s true need is and how it is to be met. Luther’s seems to be closer to this understanding, although it contradicts the facile appeal to the Golden Rule as a procedure for the discovery of moral action.  Another objection runs: if self-hatred is so profound that a neighbor refuses all love and help, as in the traumatized, does one still owe love? Luther thinks that as long as we live we are in need and thus there is always some objective basis for love. Yet once again this objection makes clear how problematic it is to try to parse the meaning of neighbor love in the pervasive web of Adamic self-seeking. A final objection asks whether Luther’s solution of other-regarding love does not dialectically get trapped by its own attempt to overcome its own self-seeking. Is battling self-seeking by the practice of neighbor love a sublime form of self-seeking? Luther in fact says something like this. “Only he loves himself in truth, who loves not himself but the neighbor… he loves himself in a pure way in that he loves his neighbor. Hating himself, he loves himself as God’s loves, who hates and damns sin” (85). But note the Latin: quia iam extra se seipsum diligit (because he now loves himself outside of himself).

What is this extra se (outside or beyond oneself) of true self-love? The chief antithesis for Luther is not finally egoism versus altruism on the horizontal plane of human relations. The chief antithesis of self-love is to love the things of God, as in John 5:30, where Jesus says that he has come not to do his own will but the will of Him who sent him. At the same time, Luther’s teaching is and remains based also upon the philosophical analysis of human desire as an activity which is motivated by its apprehension of the good. Just because this is so for Luther, he sees that love for a certain created good can so fix man on this object that it is impossible for him to refer such a good to God as His gift. If God is not the final goal of man, then man makes himself the final good to be enjoyed, while all other objects, God too, are to be used. Manifestly, Luther here is and remains deeply bound to Augustine’s tradition (86). This is no mere relic. Luther’s constant invocation of the propter se/propter deum opposition shows that Luther has in view the human will in its intentional structure, thus a final goal as the motivating ground of human action. Man always seeks a good, but forgetting God in avaritia spiritualis (spiritual greed) ascribes this good to himself (87).  Hence Luther explicates the propter se, which characterizes all human desire, with concepts like glory, honor and pleasure. In fact praise and blame play a significant role in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. There what is good and what is evil are mediated by the question of social praise and blame. Virtue is what is praiseworthy. But Paul critique of boasting before God makes Luther both insightful and critical of Aristotle at just this point (88).

Occam and Biel appealed to experience to prove the reality of the freedom of the will. Interestingly, Luther also appeals to experience but in order to prove the unfreedom of the will (89). Whether someone truly loves God for His own sake becomes clear when this love is opposed to natural or religious expectation: “Whoever truly loves God with filial love and friendship freely offers himself in all things to the will of God, even to hell and eternal death, if God thus willed, in order that His will be fulfilled. Precisely so they have sought nothing of their own” (WA 56: 391, 7:9-12). Luther is drawing here on Tauler’s resignatio ad infernum, the Höllenfahrt der Selbsterkenntnis (90, resignation to hell, the descent into hell of self-knowledge). This purgation of love to refine it into a pure love is for Luther the true purgatory, now, on the earth. It is as such liberation and joy. The fear of death is and remains prudentia carnis (the wisdom of the flesh), but the new prudentia spiritualis (wisdom of the spirit) is the height of joy in willing with perfect will what God wills. Here there is neither sorrow nor terror (91). This is what it is to seek the things of God (92). Luther’s teaching here is reminiscent of Plato’s reflection about the purification of motivation occasioned by the suffering of the righteous in Politeia II:357ff.

All in all this investigation shows how Luther follows the moral and metaphysical thought of the finis ultimus. This result seems strange, as Luther himself states that Paul does not speak morally or metaphysically but theologically (93) and that Luther wants to follow Paul’s modus loquendi (WA 56; 334, 3f; 14f). Luther emphases the experience of one’s own evil and also the faith that one is a sinner. It is a matter of faith that one is a sinner (94). This distinction is worked out against Biel. Biel reduces the love of God to the discrete act of the faculty of the will in wanting for God the greatest good. Luther does not at all accept this reduction of whole human being, of the requirement of his whole-hearted love (ex toto corde) for God to an act of wishing (96). What does it mean to love God above all, with one’s whole heart? Commenting on Ps. 1:2a, Luther notes that the “will” does not designate a faculty of the soul but rather the willing, spontaneous readiness of all our faculties. Luther works with a holistic model of the human being as will, as desire, as seeker in all its faculties. Hence he can argue that whoever is not wholly perfect is wholly imperfect. To love God in the wholeness of all human faculties cannot be reduced then to this or that object of choosing or act of wishing, since God is not there at hand like an object of choosing or a matter of mere wishing. Instead the whole human being in its orientation or direction is either on God in faith or away from God in unfaith. What makes Luther difficult to understand at times is the fact that these two distinctive concepts of willing are at play in him, the holistic model derived from Deut. 6:5 demanding that God be loved with one’s all and the moral/metaphysical model of the summum bonum, the final goal (finis ultimus) for the sake of which all acts of love have to be perfromed.  In the former, the concern is with origin of desire and emotion in the first place, not with goals of acting and their objects. Hence the love God does not exclude love to creatures, but includes them since love to creatures can be thought to spring from love to God. By contrast, the finis ultimus model of love to God above all has to do with the direction and goal of love (98), so that God must stand exclusively at the peak of the hierarchy, for the sake of whom all else is willed or loved. What is not God can only be rightly loved when it is intentionally referred to God. Since God is not an object of sense, this directing of love can only be an act of reason (99).

An aporia thus arises for Luther: spontaneous love of God with one’s all can only occur when one knows God and His will. One cannot rationally choose God as one’s highest object, then instruct the self to love this object wholly, since the act of choosing never escapes the chooser’s self-assertion and since desire cannot spontaneously love anything which it does not experience as lovable. God must be known both in His Word and by His Spirit, if the whole human being is to love God wholly. This perplexity can only be resolved when through the Holy Spirit one loves and hates what God loves and hates. Thus the law demands: you ought to have Christ and His Spirit! Such a law cannot be understood morally, eliciting an act of will for a discernable good, but only spiritually, something that is fulfilled by the gospel (100): Behold! Here is Christ and the Spirit for you! Caritas or the Holy Spirit is thus necessary if the whole man is to be thought as loving God. Where this wholeness does not exist, there is sin. Outside of caritas, all is sin.

This leads us back to the question about Luther’s conception of the soul’s faculties: cor, voluntas, affectus. Luther’s holistic perspective allows him to see how even the higher faculties can be curved into themselves in a posture of egocentricity (101). While in the justified there is a readiness to love God worked by the Holy Spirit, nevertheless as the same time there is a noluntas (active willing against), so that in the justified the wholeness of this love does not prevail. In the unjustified there is compulsion of the law to do good. In either case, a tension will be experienced between parts of the self or between powers at work in them. Yet the recognition that the justified is at the same time justified and sinner –each denotes the whole person—is not the result of self-experience but a reflection, in Luther’s view (102), of faith on the basis of the transmoral and disjunctive perspective of Deut. 6:5. Between holistic and non-holistic love to God, there is complete disjunction: If one is not wholly in love to God one is wholly a sinner. This embraces both the justified in whom the Holy Spirit works and the unjustified. Only the one who is undivided in love to God seeks the things of God (103).

In contrast the question of the “what” of willing is a moral one and its distinction between what is propter se and propter aliud is essential to the metaphysics of morals for distinguishing the hightest good from what is merely useful. Luther uses this complex of thinking to explicate an issue which basically he understands transmorally (i.e., the theological, holistic model). In Luther the two ways of thinking occur together and inseparably, even though the biblical demand for holistic love does not contain or imply the structure of the summum bonum. Certainly any desire is intentionally structured, but this does not imply the supposition of a final goal (104).

The chief reason that Luther challenges the possibility of moral action by natural powers lies in the Scholastic equation of morally good deeds with the fulfillment of the command to love God wholly secundum substantiam facti (according to the substance of the deed, 105). Dieter concludes: to think of sin understood in moral terms of seeking the finis ultimus transmorally, as Luther continues to think, is not unproblematic, since Luther would like to think in a non-moral and non-metaphysical way. The young Luther here has not thought through consequently enough the distinction of the theological and the moral/metaphysical (106).

When we turn to the fundamental alternatives of a theology of the cross and a theology of glory, no one can seriously assert that the Scholastics wanted only to know God from His traces in creation, as von Loewenich claimed. But what then did Luther mean? Pierre Bühler made a more satisfying proposal when he pointed to the whole complex of questions involved in the correlation of the natural knowledge of God with the doctrine of analogy. God is prima causa and the world is His effectus. Here prima causa equals Luther’s God in glory. Analogically, man can also be a causa in his works on the way to his goal of attaining glory and corresponding to God. Thus God and humanity are understood from the same standpoint of natural causality, “through the things which have been made,” citing Luther’s paraphrase of Romans 1 in the Heidelberg Disputation. The problem with Bühler’s proposal, however, is that Luther never speaks here of analogy. Moreover, the theology of the cross emphatically gives God glory as the “cause” of salvation. In Luther’s theology of the cross, God appears not only as the suffering and crucified One, but just there, sub contrario, as the sole, exclusive Doer of human salvation (109).

A better interpretation proceeds from Luther’s claim that without the theology of the cross man misuses the best things in the worst ways. The theology of the cross and the theology of glory are two different relations to goods and the good.

Biel had sought to demonstrate that man without grace could love God above all. Self-love is overcome by its reference to the summum bonum: “Now however we know the goodness of God in itself through its effects, through which our good exists, according to Romans 1: “the invisible things of God are known intellectually though those which have been made.” Therefore just as the first thing is to know God as our good and then as good in itself, thus also the first thing is to love God as our good, which is the act of hope, and then to love God as God in Himself, which is the act of charity.” The 19th thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation aims squarely as Biel’s thought here. For Luther it is never only about the knowledge of God. Rather it is always about the equivalence (the sicut-sic, required by his holistic model) between knowledge of God and love of God (110). Luther found in Augustine (City of God XIV, 28, 2.lf12-23) this connection between knowing God, self-love and denying honor to God, as per Romans 1:21-5.

To understand this alternative to Biel, one must distinguish knowledge as an activity from knowledge as content. As activity, Aristotle notes that all by nature seek knowledge and thus the greatest happiness of the rational animal is its actualization of its highest good in theoria, in contemplation. The question for Luther is whether man knows in this way love of God and neighbor. Is the theoretical way of life exalted over service (112)? Luther warns: “Take care that neither the active life with its works nor the contemplative life with its speculations seduces us.” The other aspect of knowledge is content. The wisdom of the flesh is the theological self-interpretation of the amor hominis in view of the final goal of its striving, God as summum bonum. Here the theology of glory appears as a practical theory of goods. God is essential here, because love as willing and striving presupposes knowledge of the highest good in order to prioritize goods. To love God for the sake of man would be metaphysical nonsense. This love rather ascends from created goods to the uncreated good, as, for example, in St. Bernard for whom natural self-love loses itself wholly in its beloved, in the ecstatic love of God, through a meditative process (113).

Thus when Luther sees and criticizes the theology of glory in its orientation to the good, in ascent from lesser to greater goods, and in its putative exceeding of self-love in the pure love of God as summum bonum (114), he is concerned with a fundamental structure of medieval thought. The theology of glory has learned from Aristotle that the object of the will is good; the theology of the cross is Luther’s critical answer to the insight into this self-seeking man.

Yet Luther does not repudiate the knowledge of the invisibilia Dei; rather he accuses the theology of glory of misusing a good thing. He calls this knowledge a synteresis which cannot be extinguished in man. But this awareness only becomes knowledge of God when in it the knower is transformed. And that transformation happens in the cross (115), when God appears, not as summum bonum as natural reason thinks, but exclusively sub contrario. The summum bonum on the cross! That is the crisis of human love to God as highest good. Love to God henceforth can only be amor crucis. God appears here as Negativa essentia. God’s properties can only be possessed when all affirmative definitions are negated. Only this ceaseless negation of any good gives a way of possessing them without misuse, the Pauline “having as having not.” Metaphysics is superficial; it apprehends only the appearances, the apparent. Theology discerns what is hidden (116).

Luther follows Augustine’s cor inquietum (restless heart) in a modified way. Faith “rests” in the presence of God hidden sub contrario because only so can integration of God into human self-seeking be overcome. Thus God is present, not in actions, but in passions, in suffering and the cross: not our works which we do, according to Aristotle’s evil doctrine, in our own choices, as they say, mediated by free will but those works which without us Christ works in us. The choice of an act according to Aristotle is a matter of prohairesis. This is the origin of the movement that takes place in any action. Even though it is the beginning, it presupposes on the other side desire and knowledge of the will’s object. It has to select its own act out of consideration of what is in its power and can lead to its goal (118). Luther’s strong judgment against Aristotle’s teaching should be understandable, if the issue is seen as follows: intentionality belongs to any human work which is chosen; in any act of will man desires something sub ratione bonitatis. Since, however, what is intended as good arises through the mediation of free choice, the agent can ascribe the act of will to itself and by just this ascription empower itself in its self-seeking. But in the case of pure love of God an insolvable aporia arises, since there remains the ambivalence of whether we love God for God’s sake or we love our act of love for God for our own sake. Love of God cannot be directly intended just like humility (119). Luther’s answer to it is that passio, the suffering of God’s work in the self such that one acknowledges that God is the One who works all good in one. It is the task of humility to bring the judgment of God into man’s self-relation, breaking down the amor sui. It belongs to the self-judgment in which the Christian acknowledges herself as a sinner to seek after justification by God, which seeking saves it from falling into sheer distress (120).

The theology of glory sees in suffering nothing but a disorder that frustrates its desire and thus an evil; the theologian of the cross sees the same as a disruption of his self-seeking desire and so a good. Here a readiness is awakened to affirm suffering. This is caritas, the prudentia spiritus, which allows good and evil rightly to be judged (122). There is thus an active moment within such suffering: the theology of the cross names things for what they really are.

The author criticizes Luther’s incautious rhetoric of the odium sui; likewise the counsel to seek God’s justification too easily turn into a new, perverse work of preparation for grace. Luther can rightly only demand that one let God’s work take place in us, not that we should hate ourselves to make ourselves worthy of God’s work. The latter goes beyond humility, which consists in taking into the human self-relation God’s judgment on the sinner (123). The exclusivity of Luther’s claim that God can only be found in sufferings and the cross is problematic. The believer, for Luther, faces a permanent negation of self-seeking in the cross of Christ, crux mortificat omnia nostra ( the cross puts all of our things to death, 124). Thus Luther universalizes the cross of Christ, supposing that the death and resurrection of Christ introduces the Christian into a corresponding process (cf. Rom. 6) so that the suffering in discipleship to Christ, as also the suffering bound up with life in the world, can be affirmatively taken upon oneself. God is to be loved above all not as one’s summum bonum but as the Crucified in the midst of our sufferings with the corresponding determination of man in relation to God not by his own works but rather by suffering the work of God – that is Luther’s theology of the cross. Luther extends the scope of suffering, then, not only to the encounter with the Word of God, but to all the negatives of life experience. This is plausible to an extent, when the sin of men, understood as the desire to appropriate all goods, is overcome in confrontation with the true goods hidden under the opposite which frustrate perverse desire (cf. Rom. 8). Yet where and when goods are not misused, it does not follow that they must only be present under the opposite. Indeed it is unbiblical when in Thesis 4 Luther says all the work of God appears evil and deformed to men, so that believers live in the hiddenness of God, in the nude trust of his mercy (125). But in the Bible Hannah, for example, thanks and praises God for delivering her from the hell of her barrenness. Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation does not yet clearly distinguish law and gospel, and hence fails to recognize the blessings present in creation as gifts of God alongside the curse which shadows all human acquisitiveness.

Augustine famously spoke of the soul’s thirst for God. Aristotle also thinks of that thirst when he describes the faculties of the soul as material, as potential, and thus a condition of hunger for reality (126). Man, so understood, is a seeker in all his being. The man who is otherwise understood by Aristotle to rest in himself as substance reveals himself instead in any action of life as one who refers himself, whether mediately or immediately, to others. This neediness of man is not a sign of sin but of creatureliness. To note in this connection Luther’s use of rhetorical paradox (as opposed to assertion of logical contradictions), as Mannerma does, is right, but it does not of itself solve the problem of interpretation raised by Luther’s usage. That question runs: What is the right use of goods, when the sinner seeks self in all things and the believer is righteous and sinful at the same time?

Conclusions: the theology of the cross is a way of existence in which a consequent and comprehensive battle will be conducted against acquisitive desire. The highest form of this acquisitive desire is love of God as summum bonum. This striving is broken when God instead encounters man as the Crucified. God himself takes care that the good, which doubtless is present in the theology of the cross, does not appear as such but rather is hidden under its opposite, so that the good cannot be appropriated as a property. Scholastic theology does not profoundly enough understand (128) this universal acquisitiveness. The theology of the cross and the theology of glory are two ways of existence each with its way of knowing God. Yet a deficiency is found in the Heidelberg Disputation in that God is not only hidden precisely in the Crucified but is said further to be present generally only in sufferings. The scholastic concept of summum bonum leads to aporia about pure love to God. Medieval amor amicitiae is directed to God in Himself but Luther develops an understanding of faith which is directed to God as He communicates Himself to man (in His incarnate Word). This communication is not mere information but promissio, so that the faith which corresponds to it has the character of trust. Here the dilemma of caritas –pure love and/or self-love—gives way to the alternative, whether the One who promises is regarded as trustworthy or not (129). In faith, man honors God as trustworthy. Faith thus steps into the place held by love in Scholasticism.

Appetitus contrarii, the contrary desires described in Romans 7 -- Luther engages the debate on the much discussed problem of whether contrary desires can be in one and the same subject. Luther’s polemicizes against inventing two contrary things in one person, as if the faculties of the soul could really be separated and opposed to each other, or from the essence of the soul (130). On examination, Luther accepts neither realist or nominalist accounts of the problem. Luther’s critique applies to both schools insofar as the antithetical desires are referred by them to different subjects.  When one follows such reasoning, one loses according to Luther the theological way of understanding the conflict of Spirit and flesh (132). Ontological ways focus on identity, the oneness of the subject. But the reality of the justified sinner is a case of extreme non-identity. It is the sign precisely of the spiritual man that he knows that he is flesh. Yet Luther sees that Paul speaks of one subject: unus et idem homo simul servit legi Dei et legi peccati (it is one and same man who simultaneously serves the law of God and the law of sin). He does not say that my “mind” serves the law of God, or that my “flesh” serves the law of sin. But he says, I, the whole man, the same person (in my mind or in my flesh) serves one or the other.

To solve this problem Luther introduces rules of language. To divide the person into the parts of spirit and flesh is unavoidable in ordinary discourse, yet such discourse must observe two rules of attribution to be acceptable. First, the person as a whole is flesh on account of the flesh or spiritual on account of the spiritual, as in the Christological principle of the communicatio idiomatum (133). Second, what the person does in the flesh, or in the Spirit, is ascribed to it as a whole. With these rules, Luther thinks to have attained to Paul’s modus loquendi. These rules of attribution arise because in the biblical text something is first evoked by the encounter with the Word of God, which must be energetically distinguished from everyday experience. Augustine’s exegesis of the same passage led Luther to see in Paul that insofar as one loves the law of God, one is spirit and insofar as one lusts, he is flesh. From this it is clear that sin cannot be understood as a quality of the soul. That is what Luther is attacking in the “fantasies derived from Aristotle: virtues and vices like paint on the wall. From this structure of thought, the differences between Spirit and flesh cease to be understood deeply.”

What actually is Luther criticizing here? The superficiality of sin as given by this image of paint on the wall (135)? More likely, Luther means that when sin is understood categorically as a quality and as vice in terms of its content, then sin would be completely removed by righteousness (painted over, say, with another better color). Luther’s simul cannot then be thought in this way. If one tries to understand Romans 7 by a philosophy oriented to maintaining the identity of things, one cannot make sense of the Word of God’s making things new. When the Word meets man, his identity is in conflict; he comes to live in the tension of two mutually contradictory and total determinations of his being (136).

When we come to Thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation, we note that Thomas can describe the distinction between amor Dei and amor hominis just like Luther: “Our will is not the cause of the goodness of things but is moved by them as by its object. Our love, by which we will another as our good, is not the cause of goodness itself. But the love of God infuses and creates goodness in things” (ST 1, qu. 20, art2c). The author comments: it is worthy of attention that Thesis 28, which appears to be so exclusively Lutheran [cf. Nygren on Eros and Agape!], is encountered also almost verbatim in Thomas. This is not surprising wherever one takes the doctrine of creation from nothing seriously (137). Likewise Thomas on grace: “God loves the better more, not because it is better, but because the more God loves the better it is.” The difference with Luther is that Thomas describes the amor hominis as amicitia where Luther describes it as amor concupiscentiae.

In contrast with nominalist voluntarism –as if the love of God in a sheer act of divine power re-designated the sinful being as a righteous being (138)—Luther understands the Word of God to make the one who remains a sinner also to be righteous. According to the pactum Dei/facere quod in se (the order by which God is obligated to reciprocate when the creature does what it is capable of) in Scotus and Biel, the love of God reacts positively to what is found to correspond to itself in man, namely, human love to God. Luther, in contrast, has God acting to love what is contrary to God, grace accepting man “as he is.” Yet Luther’s “as he is” must be taken seriously as Luther intends it: man is a sinner and just so a nothing (139). Creation is always creation out of nothing. The gospel of the love of God is for Luther good news for sinners, but it is not nice news without any confrontation with human sinfulness for what it really is, a nothing. In this nothingness the love of God comes, so Luther speaks of the amor dei in homine vivens (the love of God living in man). What is the reference here to living love? Is it the love of God for sinners? Or the love for others worked by the Holy Spirit (140)? Thesis 25, directed against Aristotle, must not be forgotten here: it is not by doing righteous deeds that we become righteous, but rather those who have become righteous who do righteous deeds. Righteousness is not a habitus, a created grace, but rather Christ who by faith comes to dwell and act in the believer, doing His own righteous work there. Here we recognize Luther’s double-structure of “faith-love” which puts God’s activity in Christ in analogy with the believer’s relation to others (141).


We have reconstructed the controversy showing problems on either side of it. What are the results?  Luther with Aristotle understands the faculties of the soul as material in a state of potential; they receive passively. In its act, the soul represents to itself a good, a worthwhile objective. Since all this activity is oriented on a final goal, man so understood seeks self in every actualization of himself. In Christendom, however, God appears as the final goal and the fall from God is thought of as choosing some lesser good than God as final goal. Yet this is just different from Aristotle, for whom human failure is that it realizes itself not as a rational being but as a sensual one. Luther tirelessly points to this difference (142). For scholasticism the final goal of God suffers a doubling. God in himself is the goal, but also our happiness of participation in God. Bernard: God is loved not without reward, but without intending a reward. The distinction between self-centered hope and pure love allowed Aristotle’s teleological conception of the soul to be theologically integrated into the concept of Christian life as charity for God; in itself charity is directed to God as summum bonum. It is friendship with God.  The aporias involved in this synthesis however become evident when a stricter Augustinian application is made of the uti/frui distinction and the distinction between amor concupiscentiae and amor amicitiae was elaborated. God is not the final goal when He is also a means to the end of blessedness. Motivation also is perplexed: the penitent seeks grace in order to gain eternal life but he is expected to love God for God’s sake. The wholeness with which God is to be loved is no possible object of an act of will, since will, which certainly commands the willing, cannot command the other faculties to see that God is good, to desire God as good. The demand for holistic love of God leads under Christian presuppositions no longer to Aristotle’s conflict of the higher and lower faculties but rather to the discovery of the resistance against the will of God, as in Romans 7, which focuses on “the heart, the center of human striving.” As noted, however, Luther takes up elements of the moral/metaphysical scheme so that both of these heterogeneous concepts mutually determine and sharpen each other. Thus human love to God gradually becomes questionable. It becomes the emblem of human acquisitiveness since even the renewing work of the Holy Spirit does not appear unambiguously in this life. Hence God is present only sub contrario. Otherwise man takes pleasure in God’s presence as his own good and makes Christianity the sublime form of his self-seeking (145).

Some of Luther’s radical antitheses do not stand up to scrutiny: First, the alternative either to seek one’s own or to seek the other’s good, ignores Mitsein: quaere suum cuique. Second, Luther’s exclusive sub contrario does not fully correspond to the biblical witness of God’s blessing and the thanks and praise of God’s people. Third, the element of truth in Aristotle cannot be denied. We have eyes to see, and seeing is a good thing. Thus the Christian’s relation to goods and the good must be clarified in a differentiated way. What we learn from Luther is that human neediness and hunger for being is always already perverted by self-seeking and that God does not seek His own perfection in the world but rather comes to share it with man. The relation of these two to each other –our neediness and our fulfillment on the one hand and our self-giving on the other—has to be thought through theologically (145), since we find both in man. That means that regarding the problem of the right use of things, the theology of the cross in its categorical struggle against acquisitiveness gives us no criteria for distinguishing true and false use of created things.

Trust in the promise resolves the caritas aporia. It is not so much now a matter of pure love for God as whole-hearted trust which elicits spontaneous love in return (147). But modernity redefined society on the basis of a conception of self-preservation (i.e., as in Hobbes). The contrast is drawn polemically with the medieval self which transcends itself by reference to another than self, namely, God. But in modernity even this other, God, is made serviceable to self-preservation. Likewise the natural desire for happiness is reinterpreted as a function of self-preservation. This development points to a structural analogy with Luther’s depiction of the sinner as curvatus in seipsum, the self-seeker (146). Is Luther already reacting to the birth of early modernity? The complexity of the constellation of problems here is evident. Are these changes events in the history of being which thought must follow? Or can there be alternative, comprehensive orientations to life for which grounds can be given and for which one can opt? Is Luther’s understanding of sin independent of such changes? Is it closer to modernity with its self-concerned man? But modernity does not think of such a self-concerned man as the counter image to the true man. Or is there greater affinity between Luther and Thomas, since the latter assumes teleology and gives a theocentric grounding of the human desire for happiness (147)? Is human freedom integrated into God’s acting with it as final goal, or is it perceived as standing over against God as an inalienable natural power of human beings? Moderns are very skeptical of Thomas’ claim that grace is quality in the soul, a created reality that can and should be seen. Luther’s simul seems closer to our reality (148).

Chapter Two: “For it is not, as Aristotle thinks, that we are made just by doing just things.”


Luther’s objection is directed against the notion that habitual justice arises out of repeated acts. Controversial is the question whether being good or righteous passes over from the right acts (149) to the person, or the reverse. But we must ask more precisely about what Luther targets here. Is it what Aristotle teaches in his practical philosophy? Or is it a particular appropriation of Aristotle by Scholastic theology? If so, who are these theologians and in what systematic-theological ways do they appropriate Aristotle? Ebeling’s interpretation here illustrates the problems. Ebeling knows that Aristotle everywhere is interested in the fact that good works follow from the being of a just man. Thus Luther’s real critique is said to be directed against Aristotle’s notion that such a being, as a “just” person, is something acquired through practices and familiarization. But for the Scholastics it is clear that the habitus of grace is in no way obtained by the works of man. To redeem Luther’s critique from blatant mischaracterization therefore Ebeling argues that the problem in Scholasticism is that the fundamental tendency has to be about the actualization of potential. Habitual grace must now be actualized. Only the one who realizes habitual grace in good works is actually justified. Everything really hangs on man as doer. So grace does not annul nature but perfects it.

But we have to ask what this account has to do with Luther’s claim, cited above? When Ebeling expressly lays it down that Luther’s critique of Aristotle is aimed at Aristotle’s understanding of how habitus is gained, he cannot then argue (150) that the real target of Luther’s critique is how habitus is to be realized in works. Ebeling has not appropriately defined the sense of Luther’s critique. Even if Ebeling’s characterization of Scholastic theology were correct, it cannot be said that it is valid as an interpretation of Luther’s critique of Aristotle. Because of overly broad generalizations about “the” Scholastic theology, we are required methodologically to identify Luther texts which match the precise claim made by Luther in the above citation about the problem of Aristotle in theology. Such texts must satisfy two criteria: first, that the state of being is thought to pass from just acts over to become the person’s property, such that the person’s state of being just is not first presupposed but is rather acquired; second, that the person’s state of being just arises from repeating just acts. Only when both criteria are satisfied can we suppose that we have a proper conception of what Luther’s critique aims at (151).

Luther and the Aristotelian doctrine of the acquisition of virtue

Luther’s text presents an ambiguous picture on examination. On the one hand, Luther points to the many meanings of righteousness, e.g. when he contrasts the kingdom of God which precedes human works and out of which they are done with Aristotle’s teaching about the virtuous man, who, as he says, comes to be from doing good works. It is a contrast of man coram deo and coram mundo (152).  In such a characterization of two kinds of righteousness, one does not posit pure alternatives; the second kind can have its legitimate place theologically. In contrast, however, Theses 25 of the Heidelberg Disputation lifts up, “not the one who does much, but the one who believes much,” as righteous. In this contrast, an alternative is established. “For the justice of God is not acquired from frequently repeated acts as Aristotle taught, but is infused through faith.” Note: Luther’s claim here is literally senseless in that Aristotle never taught anything about iustitia Dei. Certainly, Aristotle’s iustitia receives a new determination which it previously did not have when it is put into relationship with the biblical iustitia Dei. Thus Luther can speak (ambiguously!) of God’s justice contra vel supra Aristotle’s acquired justice (153). Here the contra indicates conflict about how justice is acquired coram Deo, while the supra indicates the new determination of human justice acquired by works. The coordination allowed for in this latter supra formulation differs from the alternative created by the contra formulation (154).

Luther’s reception of Aristotle’s understanding of the acquisition of works

What for Aristotle belongs together –through repeated doing of right things one becomes a just person; a just person acts justly—Luther splits into two mutually exclusive notions. At bottom, this is because Luther does not understand righteousness to refer to a disposition to behave in a just way, as Aristotle does, but as a state in which having arrived, one can remain (169). When Luther projects the Pauline opposition of faith and works onto Aristotle’s teaching of virtue, the result is an inappropriate reduction of the complexity of Aristotle’s meaning. If one supposes that Aristotle really is the primary target of Luther’s critique, one would have to accuse Luther of serious distortion (170).

In the first Psalm commentary on Ps. 84 (85): 14, Luther already asserts that righteousness precedes, that the will must first be made right. Just as inherited sin is before any of our evil works, so original justice would have been before any of our good works. Thus Luther’s sense is that these form a Gestalt; out of the will works proceed. He does not think in terms of a habitus and how it comes to be, but about the inner act of will (taken in a holistic way) from which the outer act gets its good or evil quality (171). Certainly, the ability to see naturally precedes the act of seeing, as Aristotle taught (NE II). Not noting the difference, Luther here ascribes different meanings to Aristotle, basing himself on Jesus’ saying regarding the tree and its fruits which he is trying to express by means of terminology and concepts derived from Aristotle. First, Luther places the relation of justice to just deeds in analogy to the ability to see and the act of seeing. But this has no persuasive power, because opponents point out that the analogy is to a natural substance while Aristotle distinguishes ethical acts as those virtues humans learn by familiarization in distinctions from what happens naturally (i.e. eyes see, trees produce fruit). Second, it accordingly does not help when Luther uses a second analogy from nature: “all nature teaches: not because something warms is it warm, but being warm it warms.” Third, Luther argues ontologically. A second act presupposes a first act and an operation requires a substantial agent beforehand. Agere sequitur esse. All Scholastics would agree, but it does not follow that virtue can be presupposed as a cause (173).

This nest of difficulties shows that it is not possible to transfer the world of biblical language without mediation into the world of Aristotle’s ethics; if we do so, it is only at the price of arguing with broken fragments of Aristotle’s terms and concepts torn from their own context. So we may conclude: 1) Luther’s critique has a twofold orientation, either imposing the antithetical structure of the justice of God and the justice of man or contesting the theory of habituated justice in Aristotle as such. 2) Luther tears apart what Aristotle unites in order to stress against Aristotle that only a just person can do justice. 3) Luther projects the Pauline antithesis on Aristotle’s understanding of justice. 4) But Aristotle himself is caught in a circle with which Luther’s critique actually makes contact. Aristotle cannot explain how one who has become evil by habituation could become righteous by doing right things. 5) Which then is really Luther’s point? To challenge the coherence of what Aristotle holds together: doing and being righteous? Or is it to challenge the possibility of doing something good without being good (174)? It seems to be the latter. 6) Given the ambiguity of Luther’s critique, the question arises whether in truth it hits its ostensive target, what Aristotle teaches, or in fact rather certain definite theological or philosophical forms of the received Aristotle.

How man becomes righteous in Thomas’ and in Biel’s doctrine of grace and merit

For Luther the issue is not about merit per se but about the substance of the act (193). How does Thomas analyze the substance of the act? Thomas answers the question about human preparation for grace by analyzing the relation between mover and goal. Any agent is active for the sake of a goal. God as the absolute first mover has directed all things to Himself as general directedness to the Good. The just man directs himself to God as his own good, so that he intends God as his own goal. But this special human intention presupposes the divine movement. As return to God, preparation for grace presupposes this special movement of God. The command to return to God by free will then can be obeyed only when and if God turns Himself to someone. So Thomas thinks here entirely in antithesis to Biel, whose axiom it is that God will not deny grace to those doing what is in their power. But for Thomas free will cannot be converted to God unless God converts it to Himself (194).

The question about post-baptismal sin is not whether the person can cease sinning, but whether he who has lost grace by mortal sin can come again to grace without the help of grace. Sin leaves behind the stain of the loss of grace, disorder in the soul and punishment. The first grace cannot be merited. In Thomas God prepares the individual and confers grace on him. In Biel the love of God objectifies itself in a certain order: if A then B. If so, it is man’s doing. Of course, even for Biel this doing is not inherently worthy. Nothing creaturely obligates God in His absolute power. Nevertheless in his ordered power, human doing is the condition upon which God’s reaction of grace unfailingly follows. From this it is clear that Luther’s critique does not apply to Thomas. Indeed, man merits eternal life by repeated acts according to Thomas. But it is the justified who manage to bring such merits (of condignity, not congruity) in and by the power of the grace moving them.

Thomas distinghishes between the status naturae integrae and corruptae (196). Thus on the very important question for Luther whether man can love God over all out of natural powers, Thomas teaches that such love is connatural. It is the fundamental law of desire, the tendency of all creatures to love their own good for the sake of the common good of the whole universe. But this refers to the natura integra in which self with all things are referred to the love of God (197). In the state of corruption, man cannot as in Biel arise to an act of love to God ex suis naturalibus. Natural love and grace loved also differ in that the former loves God as being and end of natural goods, while caritas loves God as the object of eternal beatitude. Thus caritas is supernatural; it is not in our power (198).

The distinction between quantum ad substantiam operis/quantum ad modum agendi (to the extent concerning the substance of the act/ to the extent concerning the mode of the agent) is not so simple. One can honor parents in the substance of the act without love of God, yet without love of God, the deed is sin in respect to the mode of the agent (199). It is clear that for Thomas grace enables not only the merit of the fulfilling the law but transforms the substance of the act itself. Sin is also disorder of the soul, in which reason ought to reign over sensuality, just as reason in turn is subordinate to God. After the fall and without grace, the soul sins mortally and frequently. It is impossible without grace for fallen man to love God over all (200). Human will for Thomas is pointed towards the common good as its transcendental object. Whoever sins does not cease to be directed towards a final goal, even if this is not God. Nor can the sinner overcome aversion to God. Infused grace does not only annul the state of sin but enables in the justified the first act of love to God. At the same time this is the holistic orientation in which man for the first time (201) can fulfill the command according to the substance of the act. Man’s arena of activity is transformed by grace. First it is necessary for the person to be changed, then works follow. The merit of eternal life is gained by that person under the operation of the Holy Spirit. But this Thomistic constellation has no place in Luther’s stark alternative. There is a new person doing new works; the alternative is an unchanged person trying to become new by repeated acts. There are, for Luther, incommensurable. Luther would not agree with Thomas. But neither does his critique hit its proper target in Thomas.

Excursus: On the origin of the concept of freedom criticized by Luther

The 219 Paris Theses in 1277 were directed against the Peripatetic philosophy in all forms (Thomas’ also), especially for an alleged deterministic understanding of human will (214). Thesis 131 relates to the issue of mover and moved in the human will, with reference to De anima III, 9 and Thesis 130 accuses Aristotle of the Pelagian error when he is said to claim that if the intellect is right, then also the will follows; thus grace is not needed, only illumination, knowledge (215) of the highest good.

Olivi stresses the necessity with which, according to Aristotle, the will must flee from the bad to follow and do the good out of the nature of the intellect and its knowledge. Olivi views this doctrine as an heretical lie, for the will always has before it alternatives of good and evil. Aristotle’s will is a purely passive capacity unable to move itself. N.b., here the assertion of the freedom of the will and its correct understanding is developed precisely as criticism of Aristotle! Voluntas in an Aristotelian perspective is the subject of its act, not in the modern sense (218), but as potentia passiva, that is, as moved by its object as perceived by its intellect. If self-movement of the soul is to be entertained (as the “freedom of the will”), then the fundamental Aristotelian doctrine that “all that is moved is moved by another” must be transcended. How can the will be active? In any act, the will is reflexive, i.e. not only choosing its object but also in choosing itself as mover of this act of will. Without such freedom, man is robbed (219) of personhood. God would be too. Thus the usual Protestant polemic is invalid which greets the liberation from the alleged compusion of the Aristotelian system by the new emphasis in the late middle ages on the freedom of God (in Scotus, Occam and Biel!) and on the other hand bewails the increasing assertion of human autonomy (220).

Duns Scotus’s understanding of the freedom of the will

Scotus concludes the line of thought initiated by Olivi. But in an ironic twist, what Olivi saw as his anti-Aristotelian understanding of freedom, Scotus put forward as rather the correct understanding of Aristotle! Scotus asks what a rational faculty is. Either it is a faculty which is so determined that it must produce a given act when hindrances external to the agent are removed, or, it is not so determined with the result that it can produce contrary acts as also the ability to act or not act. It is the latter which is a rational principle. But strictly speaking it applies only to the free will, not the intellect. This is a surprising result, but intellect in Scotus’ view has no choice but to know an intelligible object when it is given. Evidence compels assent. A strict proof of the will’s rationality cannot be developed, but one experiences freedom in oneself in that one can will, or not will, being willing or unwilling. This experience in the self corresponds to Scotus’ notion of contingency as something whose opposite is logically possible. The will is free because whenever it wills one thing it could also will the contrary (222). The indeterminacy of the will reflects the unboundedness/infinity of reality. The freedom of self-determination is thus grounded in this “more than reality” of radical indeterminate contingency, a metaphysic quite critical of Aristotle’s mechanics, in which ”whatever is moved is moved by another” (224). Scotus thus develops a notion of freedom as self-movement, combining active and passive principles, reminiscent of Luther’s recipiendo agere.

One could object here that nemo dat quod non habet (nobody gives what he does not already have). If something as an active principle wants to communicate itself as a passive principle (i.e., to give itself), it must already have it. This is Luther’s objection. Only those made right do right, only those gifted give. But Scotus understands the will as self-moving, as a creative faculty. It can develop either according to an affectio commodi (affection of utility) or an affectio iustitiae (affection of justice). The former is not free, but rather freedom is grounded in the latter, according to which the will can will something good in itself, not merely useful. This aptitude for justice liberates the will (224) so that it does not necessarily have to desire what utility commends, or at least not as intensively.

Buridan’s Commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics

Freedom can only consist in the ability to initiate something out of oneself. The agens voluntarium is the one who can freely determine himself to opposite ends. This is a natural property (225). It is not to be thought of as freedom of choice between objects but rather as self-determination of the will, working a transformation of the self through itself, in that it now wants what previously it did not as a libertas oppositionis. Against the objection that animals too have a capacity for the opposite –a dog can run here or there, and yet they are determined in their behavior—Buridan replies that he has few arguments with which to refute the objection. It is rather Catholic faith which has such grounds, namely, that without freedom our acts are determined and so could not be meritorious. For the sake of merit we ascribe greater freedom to ourselves than to animals. In Buridan, then, what was previously developed as critique of Aristotle is once again newly presented as an interpretation of him! The conclusion from this is that the conception of the freedom of the will (227), which Luther criticizes is precisely not the result of an overpowering of Christian theology by Aristotelian philosophy but much more a consequence of the fact that Christian church and theology campaigned for such a conception of freedom in a series of confused reactions against confused appropriations of Aristotle. Wilifried Joest’s work Ontologie der Person bei Luther (228) derives from Ebeling’s claim that Luther wishes the word, person, to be understood, as in the Bible, as facies, the external face [i.e., Greek prosopon] – such would be genuinely theological, unlike the Scholastics. But this proves to be a very strange interpretation of the Luther text from the 1519 Commentary on Galatians (2:6), where Luther’s point is that man sees and judges “according to persons,” i.e. superficially, but God knows and judges the heart: Deus nunquam respicit personas, sed autem cor (229).

The relation between person and work in Luther

Along with the tradition, Luther takes his point of departure on the “person” from Genesis 4:4, Respicit Dominus ad Abel et munera eius: prius ad personam deinde ad munus oblatum (The Lord regarded Abel and his sacrifice; first the person, then the offering 230). But this presupposes an understanding of the term, persona, equivalent to Abel as personally named, which has been labeled substantial or substantial-ontological, as in the tree and its fruits (231).  N.b., however, that the tree is not a thing, but a living thing, an organism. The persona here is that to which grace is given and by which man distinguishes himself from his works/fruits. What is this but precisely the substantial-ontological understanding, in which one distinguishes the living person as actus primus from works as actus secundi and so expresses the precedence of substance to its acts (232)?

In the scholastic context the distinction is clear: person or agent is the individual substance of the rational essence, man, with its faculties as actus primus in distinction from its acts as its own work, actus secundus. In Luther the sense of this metaphysical-moral distinction changes as Luther wishes to follow the modus loquendi of Paul the Apostle and philosophize differently, theologically. The Law of God, spiritually understood, demands not merely an act of will corresponding to a specific legal demand but the heart, the inner readiness and good pleasure in the work. Thus for Luther voluntas is the persona, the whole person (234). Spiritually understood, man is a whole, worker and work, agent and act, tree and fruit. Conversely the sinner too is identified with his sin. Metaphysically and morally, to take away sin is to remove a quality as an accident from a substance. But spiritually to take away sin means that the voluntas dies to sin and is given new birth. The basic distinction for Luther thus is not the person and the work (metaphysics of morals) but the old and new man (apocalyptic theology). Luther retains the former only to articulate and to stress the precedence of person to work (235).

Concerning the relation between person and work, there are three interpretive possibilities here. First, if we reason from tree to fruit, whatever a good person does is just so, analytically, a good work. Second, if we reason from fruit to tree, wherever a good work takes place, just so, analytically, there must be a good person. Or third, criteria exist for knowing both tree and fruit, which testing is combined in a synthetic judgment. Luther finds both the first and third interpretations significant (236). The problem for Luther is that the good person is not only good but remains at the same time a sinner. Luther expresses himself on this issue, however, in an irritating ambiguity when he says that in spite of sin, the believer can be certain that his work pleases God. This can mean, however, that he is certain because he knows, in spite of his own mixed motives, that the work objectively is permitted, just or commanded by God. It is opus operandum. Or, it can mean that he is certain because whatever work he does, he pleases God by virtue of trusting in God, not the rightness of his works (238). The latter is not fully plausible. If a believer commits a murder, this murder does not become through faith and forgiveness of sins a God-pleasing work (239). The believer is not free from wrath. Sins are forgiven through faith, not turned into something good. Luther gives no convincing proof that the acceptance of the person by God implies approbation of its works. Indeed works, as Luther himself vehemently emphasized, are not only the fruits of faith but at the same time works of the old man (240). Dieter concludes: There is a definite lack of clarity in Luther about the relation between the locus on justification and the locus on the judgment of works.

Luther’s critique of faith as habitus and its problems

In Scotus, Occam and Biel the impersonal habitus (created grace) is the condition for the possibility of a meritorious act. Luther sharply criticizes this understanding of grace: “the grace of God never thus coexists in man as something idle; it is a living, mobile and efficacious spirit.” Christ, the Holy Spirit and/or grace cannot be understood as a habitus, the “idle” possibility of acting. Grace is like an infinite spring of water, bonum diffusivum sui, traditionally a description of God. Faith has part in this fullness of being because it lets Christ be present. Thus faith participates in the being of God and in turn is said to be such a good among men (245). Three problems arise here, if we wish to perceive these thoughts ontologically:

First, in light of the Scotist distinction between nature and freedom, Luther’s faith must apparently side with nature, as the ontological tree-to-fruit metaphor would require. Yet Luther insists to the contrary, that faith is free, the spontaneity of the whole man to God, hence a divine, not natural principle participating in God’s freedom as bonum deffusivum sui (the good pouring itself out) and thus to be conceived relationally (246). Second, if Christ or the Spirit is the active agent in the believer, how can the latter ever say, “I believe, I act”? A free principle of the whole person cannot be external to him. But how on the other hand can the person of faith say “I” without ascribing works to himself in a moralistic way? Third, Lombard in the Commentary I:Dist. 17, asks how the Holy Spirit, who is caritas, has been sent and given to the soul. Scholastics distinguished between caritas increata and creata. The young Luther’s marginal comment here is interesting (247). He ascribes the understanding of the soul as “having” the Holy Spirit (thus, habitus) to the influence of Aristotle. It seems absurd, of course, to regard the Holy Spirit as a habitus of the soul, something “possessed” by the pious person as its own “idle” possibility, which it is capable of realizing for the sake of merit. But if we disregard Aristotle’s psychology which requires this distancing of the Holy Spirit from the believer by means of a forced distinction between created and uncreated grace, the young Luther holds that the Holy Spirit, as love, can through itself work with the believing soul to produce acts of love (248). There is nothing absurd about the Holy Spirit working immediately with the will in this way. Thomas also criticizes Lombard on this point (249). Yet Thomas’ compatibilism makes clear in contrast why Luther denies any concept of caritas as a habitus, i.e., as the mere possibility of eliciting a meritorious act; it also explains for Luther, how it is possible to say, “I believe.” Lombard did not explain this. For Luther, faith is real as an act but never as a possibility: “For what is faith except that motion of the heart to believe, of hope to hope, of love which loves?” Such faith is passio, raptus, motus. So faith is “more than real.” Yet how is this to be conceived in a world of creatures suspended between the actual and the possible? All three of these problems lead theology into new lands, previously unthought. But no one can wonder at the incomprehension here on the part of an opponent of Luther (250). Even Luther’s followers did not follow him into these new lands, but merely maintained (a vague, undiscerning, uncomprehending) polemical opposition to the old, “the” Scholastic theology, without understanding the new tasks that arose from Luther’s breakthroughs.

Conclusion to Chapter Two

First, methodologically: the object of our study is the priority of person over work; the question of whether and how the person is changed is on the margin of this inquiry. Of course, these go together; but they must be separated for study because they don’t say the same thing. If we fail to make this distinction we lose precision and control over the argument. Second, Aristotle’s own argument in fact betrays a surprising circularity. On the metaphysical basis of the priority of actuality, Aristotle can make the origin of habitus in the person through habituation, i.e. repeated action understandable, but how any action at all comes about remains obscure. The priority of actuality excludes freedom, which is, strictly speaking, the priority of possibility over actuality. Third, from Olivi to Scotus there is a Christian defense of freedom as the priority of possibility in reaction to the deterministic implications of the priority of reality. Fourth, Luther’s opponent turns out to be Biel, who describes the soul’s natural powers and the freedom of the will in line with late medieval commentaries on Aristotle’s Ethics. But it is not out of Aristotle but rather out of Christian sources –in any case so the latter understood themselves—that the conception of human freedom arose which Luther held to be the destroyer of the Christian understanding of sin and grace. Fifth, at this point, Luther’s question is whether the unchanged person has any possibility to do something truly new, i.e. the sinner to love God above all and so fulfill the law according to the substance of the act. Luther’s answer: such freedom is a predicate of God alone; consequently only that man is free who participates in God’s freedom. Sixth, Thomas’ doctrine of grace has a totally different structure from Biel’s. Biel’s concept of the freedom of the will together with his concept of the pactum Dei allow for the integration of the Aristotelian ethical theory in the doctrine of grace without major changes. Thus, Luther’s criticism of “Aristotle” actually applies to Biel but not to Thomas. Seventh, Luther’s alternative to Biel creates a new difficulty to which Luther has no clear answer. But recognition of this allows us to question the later work of the reformer. The difficulty is that in making the person, as prior, the place of justification, the notion of works and how they are to be known as good in relation to the justified person is left unclear. If the justified person is simul iustus et peccator, then what are its good works? If not their meritoriousness, what is it that makes them good?

Chapter Three. The Aristotelian doctrine of knowledge in the theology of Luther.

A passage from Luther’s Christmas sermon in 1514:

“And it is not a marvel that I have said that we must become Word, since the philosophers also say that the intellect is the intelligible thing in the act of knowledge and that the faculty of sense is the sensible perception in the act of sense knowledge. How much more is that true in the Spirit and the Word! So namely says Aristotle: The potential intellect is actually nothing of what it knows; it is pure potency, not yet actual. But it is everything according to possibility and it in a certain way is itself everything. So also are the faculties of desire and the thing one desires, and love and the beloved, which all is understood entirely falsely if taken substantially. But now, intellect and affect, while they are desiring their objects, relate themselves as desiring, like matter which desires form. Accordingly i.e., in so far as they desire, and not in so far as they subsist, they are pure possibility, indeed in a certain way nothing at all; and they become some existing thing when they touch their objects, and so the objects are their being and reality, without which they would be nothing, like matter without form would be nothing. This beautiful philosophy, although understood by few, is useful for the most sublime theology. So for example God as the object of blessedness is the essence of the blessed themselves, without which the blessed would be nothing at all, but insofar as they touch Him they come out of possibility into something. Hence God is their reality (260-1).”

The incarnation of the Word aims at the “Verbalization” of the flesh: ideo verbum fit caro ut caro fiat verbum. This principle of exchange applies to all the properties of God. God always takes on what is ours in order to communicate His own to us. But the “becoming” in question here must now be clarified. In Luther it does not lead to the profanation of God; we do not become God but rather consorts of the divine nature. Nor does the Word cease to be God. The Word is not substantially changed. Likewise we are not substantially changed when we become Word, but we take on the Word and become united with it in faith (261). The flesh is Word on account of the union in faith. Faith – that means deserting and emptying oneself by retaining nothing from our senses but denying it all. Thus without doubt we effect in us that which we assume in the Word. In other words, faith is a complete refusal of all that is our own. That is why Luther sees in Aristotle’s doctrine of the intellect a model which can serve to clarify faith. Intellect is pure possibility, nothing but openness to what is intelligible, hence a nothing in itself. This is how intellect is analogous to the human person in verbalization. Yet in the act of the knowledge the intellect nevertheless is something, indeed is the intelligible. Indeed, Luther exclaims, all the more so in Word and Spirit! Here the unity of man and the Logos is not conceived statically, as would be on the model of the unity of form and matter in a substance (262), but dynamically, in analogy to the action of knowing. Indeed, Luther expressly rejects substance models in our passage: it is not about a substantial change of God or man in their union; here everything understood in a substantial way would be entirely false. It is also noteworthy how Luther places affect and intellect together and designates their ecstatic structure in relation to their objects as desire. The nature of such faculties is possibility, hence virtually nothing in themselves, but rather entirely longing and striving for their objects, hence for being, like matter for form (263). The model reaches its limit, however, in that for Luther verbalization entails abandonment of what is one’s own, a “suffering” that Aristotle’s theory of knowledge cannot help to articulate – here the matter-form model would better serve to express the idea of faith as a new turning from self to God and hence attaining a new formation or organization of desire. It would signify the destruction of an existing form for the sake of the construction of a new one. In any event, in the present text Luther is more interested in a model of divine-human unity which is not substantial but dynamic.

Three problems, however, arise. First, Luther says that the objects are the being and act of the intellect. According to Scholastic theology, the act of the intellect is the act of knowing in which knower and known are one, not objects. Luther himself knows this teaching and repeats such thoughts elsewhere in this text. How then can Luther say the objects are the being and act of intellect? It is because as a theologian Luther is seeking a non-substantial understanding of union, but also because he wants this union to be totally oriented towards the Word and away from the existing self. Luther accordingly subtly alters the Scholastic model of knowledge. It is not the act of knowing as intending an object, but rather the object itself which is the being and act of the faculty of knowledge. Thus the relation between faculty and object is thought structurally as the relation of matter to form, determined to determining, but yet not substantially though ontologically (i.e. the being of the unity is the object of desire). God as object of blessedness is precisely the essence of the blessed (265).

This is no word game for Luther. Luther is trying to discover the sense of claiming that we “are” the Word, as also we are “the righteousness of God,” etc. Ontological analysis is required, since there are formally comparable linguistic expressions of a non-theological type and we must ask there, as well as here, what understanding of “being” is thus implied.

A second problem is that in the Heidelberg Disputation Luther takes Aristotle to task for only apparently speaking about the essence of the soul, when in fact Aristotle speaks only of the duration and cessation of the act of knowing. In response, Luther could in a preliminary way be said to develop a relational conception of essence.  God the object of beatitude is Himself the essence of the blessed. What man is is determined by his relation to God (267). Yet Luther does not, despite appearances and what is often claimed, give up regarding things as substances, but rather distinguishes between things “so far as they exist” and “so far as they are desiring” (268). While Scholasticism sought an integration of theological and philosophical views of the soul, Luther sought a genuinely theological conception of man. Man in his self- and world- relations as soul and body has significance also for the God relation, but in this respect Luther perceived God as substance, while this God relation has significance for the human being as self and as belonging to the created world. Indeed the self- and world- relation man cannot be comprehensively determined exclusively by theology. All these matters remain unsettled.

A third problem is that the 1514 claim verbally contradicts the Heidelberg Disputation when it denies that knowledge of the invisible things of God makes one worthy or wise. The contradiction, however, dissolves when we see that the relation of the believer to the Word which he becomes is not in reality one of knowledge as Aristotle understands but is only being thought here by Luther on analogy to knowledge (268). Theologia gloriae indeed has only a knowledge, i.e. intellectual relation to God, but such does not bring salvation because salvation concerns a truth that makes man true; it is not merely knowledge that he “has” like a piece of information, an additional quality acquired by the knowing soul without affect, without its holistic transformation. To express this basic transformation of the knower in faith, Luther speaks of man in relation to God as pura potentia.

The doctrine of the intellect in Luther’s interpretation of Rom. 3:7

God can be justified in His word when man confesses his unrighteousness. Only the sick need a physician, as nature itself teaches. Luther paraphrases Aristotle: “The possible intellect takes on no form unless it is free from form to start with and like an empty tablet” (269). Here Luther follows the usage of 1514, operating eclectically; he appropriates only individual Aristotelian thoughts and from these conceives only such elements which can serve to make a theological complex plausible. He feels no obligation to the inner coherence of the various elements of these philosophical thoughts according to Aristotle’s own intention.

The doctrine of the intellect in the interpretation of Rom. 8:24

Luther notices that Paul does not refer to the thing hoped for but to the act of hoping. This is what Paul says does not yet appear. While this transfer from a cause to an effect is a figurative locution, Luther calls it a highly genuine and precise way of speaking theologically (272). He is reacting here against Biel’s interpretation of the same passage. For Biel, this kind of transfer, e.g., the Psalm verse, the Lord is speratum, i.e. my act of hoping, cannot be taken literally. But Luther sees his task precisely in justifying this way of speaking as the theological way. There are two significant differences between Pauline hope and the Aristotelian act of knowledge. First, spes is made analogous to the act of knowledge, and second, the object of hope, unlike the intellectual or sensible object of knowing, is not present (273). It is not the presence of an object to which hope awakes, but hope rather is hope in hidden, dark places. Why? The motive is the same (274) as in the theologia crucis: believers are to have, as though having not, by way of a non-substantial union with the object. The unity of hoping with the thing hoped for, which is as such hidden and not apparent, is a unity which cannot by appropriated in self-seeking; as hope is not visible, man in hope cannot be seeking his own in it. Because hope is directed to an unknown, it does not let itself be possessed. Thus Luther’s attempt here is once again to think how the thing hoped for is appropriated by the viator without becoming his property (275).

Chapter Four: The Aristotelian Concept of Motion in the Theology of Luther

The question is important because by means of the concept of motion Luther explicated his notions of simul, semper, and partim... partim, all of which are important for his understanding of justification. This usage shows Luther not only as a critic of Aristotle but how he could make use of him. “Look how aptly Aristotle in his philosophy serves theology!” “Man is always in privation, always in becoming or potential or matter and always then in action. For thus Aristotle philosophizes concerning things and philosophizes well. But they do not thus understand the thing itself” (276). Tuomo Mannerma called attention to this positive use of Aristotle in Luther’s 1514 Christmas sermon. There Luther distinguished the four traditional aspects of the problem of motion as 1) the act of change in so far as it is of this sort of modality (actus mobilis in quantum huiusmodi); 2) the incomplete act (actus imperfectus); 3) potential/privation; and 4) the question of arising and passing away (277). Whatever is in motion finds itself, according to Luther, partly bound by its whence and partly by its whither; from the place from which and the place towards which it goes; its being is partly acquired and partly still being acquired. But what exactly does “partly” mean here? It is not clear. Does it mean that only a part of the thing in motion has arrived or left? Or does it mean that thing itself as a whole is gradually acquiring its goal? Does it mean that a part of the thing in motion possesses a new property, like a wall partially painted? Or does he think of a subject as a whole acquiring something in degrees, like an area that is white turning black in every greater measure? Depending on the answer, one could expect a possible distinction between partial and total aspects of justification. Simul also merits scrutiny, as does semper. Luther sometimes speaks of “rest” and “motion” in every movement or “at the same time begun and finished.” Does “always” then mean every single moment of motion? The question is whether simul is about the whole of the motion (“in every instant”) or about the unity of a specified subject in motion, or through the whole of a specified time. What notion of motion is at work in such an understanding of simul or semper? Luther’s expressions about motion are vivid: Always in motion (semper in motu). To advance is nothing else but always to begin (proficere est nihil aliud, nisi semper incipere). Partly righteous, partly sinner (partim iustus, partim peccator). In natural things there are five degrees in motion (in naturalibus quinque sunt gradus). Joest accuses Luther of self-deception in this respect for thinking that he is close to Aristotle on the question of motion. But Joest comes to this judgment because he compares Luther with our contemporary knowledge of Aristotle instead of with the Aristotle Luther knew in the early 16th century (279). We will explicate each of these statements of Luther.

The definition of movement in Aristotle and his medieval interpreters

First, the distinction of being according to possibility and actuality and the division of actual things according to the categories are fundamental for Aristotle in the question of motion. It is, however, extraordinarily difficult to define motion in a non-circular fashion. Aristotle’s basic definition: Potentia existentis entelechia secundum quod huiusmodi est, motus est: Motion is the potential of an entelechy to exist according to its own mode. Thus a cold stone is qua stone in the mode of actuality but with regard to being warm it is in possibility. Becoming warm in this case is the actual being at the end of a motion. The concern here is with a definite, not diffuse possibility of being in some specific mode. Motion is the reality of this prior moment of possibility. Obviously there are different levels of possibility as well. Mere possiblity, “not impossible,” itself becomes or moves into a “real possibility” at the beginning of any process of actualization (281).

Second, in another formula Aristotle explications motion in quantum, “in so far as.” This in quantum is the equivalent of the “according to that of which it is a mode” (secundum quod huiusmodi), e.g., when a lump of clay becomes a statue, the becoming is not the reality of the clay as clay, but rather of the clay in so far as the lump can become a statue. The being of the lump and the being of the possibility are not the same thing. Were they the same, the lump as lump would always be in motion towards realization as a statue. Thus possibility applies only “in so far” as something is changeable in a specific modality. Hence motion here is the actuality of a definite moment of possibility of being according to that of which it is a mode, i.e., in so far as it is changeable.

Third, Aristotle criticized his predecessors for their vague notions of concepts like otherness, dissimilarity and nothingness by means of which change is determined. These notions bring into view the beginning and end states of a motion, but do not explain why motion occurred in some particular direction or why otherness involves motion at all. These aforementioned concepts characterize movement as something undetermined by its ground (282), that motion belongs neither absolutely on the side of possibility nor on the side of reality. Motion is reality, but incomplete, imperfectus. Movement is an incomplete reality because it is the reality of the incomplete actus imperfecti. It is a reality not yet at its goal in distinction from a reality that has its goal in itself and is thus perfect or complete. An entity which has possibility is with, reference to it, incomplete because it is not actual in this respect.

Fourth, movement not only has a being whose properties are changed with its progression, but is mover and moved at the same time. Even the mover is moved, since its possibility to move is only actual in movement (283). The motion is mobile action in so far as it is mobile (motus actus mobilis est in quantum est mobile). The idea that Aristotle had two kinds of possibility in mind, i.e. the possibility to move and the possibility to obtain a state of perfection or actuality after movement is a misunderstanding, influence by Avicenna. But it is a misunderstanding of Aristotle: if one understands the thing in motion as the possibility to move, the second definition is tautological.

Thomas Aquinas commented on the error of a circular definition of motion, as suggested by Avicenna. He, in any case, attempted a modal analysis of movement since the modalities of possibility and actuality are prior to the concept of movement. He thinks out the Aristotelian doctrine of motion from the midposition between the merely potential and the purely actual. A being to which mere potential is ascribed does not yet move (285). If it has actuality ascribed to it, it no longer moves. It is in motion, so the ascription, “partly actual, partly potential,” is made. It participates imperfectly in the final state. The chief understanding of motion is therefore as actus imperfectus. Motion is an entelechy, that is, an act of existence of a potential according to that of which it is a mode (actus existentia in potentia secondum quod huiusmodi). Act designates the reference to a foregoing possibility, the potential of existing points to a further act (286).

Thomas picks up a distinction from Avicenna. The movable is prior to the beginning of motion in a twofold way of possibility: both in reference to a final state as actus perfectus and to motion as actus imperfectus. Thomas explains existentia in potentia to mean that any act is the act of that in which it is found, as for example light is found only in transparency and therefore is called the actuality of lucidity. Motion however is always found in potential beings; it is therefore the motion of its actuality. There is no motion in the categories of substance, quality, quantity and place because motion is either active or passive. To resolve the difficulty, Thomas develops a double view, distinguishing between the order of being (in rerum natura) and the order of knowledge (per id quo ratio apprehendit). In the nature of things motion as an imperfect act is thematic for Thomas. In this perspective, movement belongs to a category as to its goal (terminus ad quem) and by rational reduction to it. Since nothing can pass from potential to actual without cause, this reduction by causality forms the view of what movement is as apprehended by reason, which discovers the final cause of motion (288). This double way sees both the passivity and the finality of movement. Thomas can thus preserve the dynamism of movement, though the relation between these two views is not wholly clear (289).

Occam denies that motion is either a substance or a quality. It is a connotative term, a verbal term that does not designate a self-standing thing. So in every case it must be analyzed what motus means (290), whether it stands for that which suffers movement or for the end point of motion or form a complex of magnitudes. Ordinary language teaches that one speaks of motion when something in a certain time as a determination which it did not have before. Therefore motion is to be understand as actuality. But this much only describes the state of a changed object, not yet its movement. Thus, as for Thomas, the problem arises how to think the dynamic of motion (291). In the expression, in quantum est in potentia, the in quantum designates the state immediately post hoc aliquid aliud erit in actu (after which something will be something else in act). Thus Occam does not take motion modally but temporally: a changeable something has not an actual determination, while immediate before it had a different determination and immediately afterward will have yet another. The three temporal modes of past, present and future must be distinguished to understand motion, even though they are immediately related to each other. But Aristotle had shown that two points cannot be immediate to one another, because there is always an interval intervening. Thus there cannot be any first point of motion, because the continuum is infinitely divisible. There can be no immediate next point of motion at any point of motion.

Thus we speak of motion at any point by saying that the object has a determination that it had at no earlier point. This in omni instanti alicuius temporis (in every instant of any given time) will later be taken up by Luther in his emphatic semper (292), just as Occam had stressed that “always” in any point of time of motion means quod simul sit in actu tali et in potentia ad aliud dum est in actu (that at the same time would be in such an act and in potential to something until it is in act). So motion is a certain flux, a continuous flow that continually gains something and loses something or moves from place to place semper (294). Indeed, rest cannot be thought without motion; the two continuously alternating states must be thought continually to alternate. All is in flux, nothing is at rest – thoughts in which Occam is almost “modern” (295). In the same way, while Aristotle was interested in what motion is, for Occam the question is senseless. What matters here is understanding of the usage of language. Thus always mobile means always in one location or another, always having a determination that before it did not (296).

Everything that moves exists partly from its goal and partly towards its goal (omne quod movetur partim in termine a quo a ad quem). As Aristotle taught in Physics VI, what is in motion goes from something to something else. Movement, hence, is successive; what is moved exists partially and there is no instantaneous change. Occam denies this interpretation of motion, however, because strictly speaking it violates the law of non-contradiction. He puts forward, instead, the notion that all motion proceeds e contario in contrarium (from contrary to contrary, 298).

Luther’s opinion on the ontic status of movement may be located by reference to the fourfold scheme of philosophical views of motion put forward by his teacher at Erfurt, Usingen. First, the ancients think of motion as a certain entity, which as a whole and in its parts should be distinguished in reality from things which are permanent. There is a fluxus in which the way must be realistically distinguished from the goal. Second, for certain modern thinkers, motion is identical with the thing moved in respect to the thing’s gaining something which previously it did not have and is seen to possess something which previously it did not have (300). Third, the common opinion of the modern thinkers is that motion is not a successive thing that can be realistically distinguished from a permanent thing. Rather movement is the final destination with the connotation that it is acquired successively in what is moved. Gregory of Rimini: motum acquisitivum esse illud cuius continue pars post partem acquisitur alicui quod dictitur moveri (the motion of acquisition is that of which it is continually acquired step by step by something which is said to be moving). Fourth, there is the view of Occam who denies that the flux exists in the sense of the realists, but takes notes the conventional usage of the concept. When Luther says: motus est actus imperfectus, semper partim acquisitus et partim acquirendus (motion is the incomplete act, always partly acquired and partly acquiring), he shows that he belongs to the third view above. In all motion, Luther affirms, the acquired part ceases to acquire and in that place there is now the rest of what was in motion, and thus the same thing is moved in respect to the end which it seeks. Movement is successive, acquisition of the end to which motion occurs step by step; for Luther motion is not only spatial, but also qualitative and quantitative (301). Luther does not then think like a realist who distinguishes in reality permanent things from things in succession. Rather movement for him is identical with that part of the goal which has been reached; it is the thing on its way, the actual presence of the future.

The Theological Reception of the Aristotelian Concept of Movement in Luther

Luther’s Christmas sermon of 1514 is concerned with a Scholastic doctrinal position that had brought him to the edge of despair, but now to dissent over against the Scholastic consensus, regarding the entire infusion of grace and the entire expulsion of sin in an instant (302). This teaching had caused him doubt because the experience of the self introduced by the Word of God causes one to know the remnants of sin in oneself. Their error here, Luther comes to think, was to follow Aristotle’s moralism in supposing that the human act is the place of sin and righteousness, rather than the church fathers, Augustine and Ambrose, who had judged according to the Scriptures. Awoken from his dogmatic slumbers, Luther asks unprecedented questions. First, if being sinful and being just stand over against each other as contradictory determinations, how can anyone stand under both judgments (303)? Second, Scholasticism answered this question by thinking of grace as a form or quality of the soul, which brings along with it the theological virtues as a habitus. i.e. as a “having” of the Spirit; qualitas and habitus are persisting entities. In contrast to the acts which may proceed from it, habitus endures temporally. But how can Luther think of the persistence of being in grace when he can no longer revert to such concepts? Luther answers with the help of the concept of movement. As the later controversy with Prierias over repentance shows, Agite poenitentiam! (literally: do penance!) cannot be understood according to the habitus/actus scheme. The sense of metanoia (literally: change of mind) is rather a renovatio mentis de die in diem (continuous renewal of the mind, 304). All of life we sin, in all of life we repent. To the argument of Prierias that sleep interrupts continual repentance, Luther grounds the unity of life, which is not built up out of acts, by reference to God as he rephrases Romans 14:7, “He who sleeps, sleeps to the Lord,” i.e., the Lord also works in him who sleeps, so that in sleep the believer keeps Sabbath.

If not the habitus-actus scheme, then what explains the being of the Christian? How does Luther spell out this motion of renovation? How can man live under two contradictory judgments? Wilifrid Joest alleges here that with full deliberation Luther flagrantly contradicted the rules of logic (305). But Luther in the Disputation against the Antinomians (from which Joest cited) fully endorsed the logical principle of non-contradiction (which Aristotle in the Metaphysics calls the most certain of all principles). Looked at more carefully, we see Luther’s perspectivalism by which he lifts up the qualification, “in the same respect,” as it pertains to the rule of non-contradiction: two contraries cannot be asserted of the same object in the same respect (306). Now we can clearly see how Luther intends logically the rhetorical paradox simul iustus et peccator. He makes clear the differing perspectives on the justified person: inquantum christianus – inquantum respicio ad me et ad meum peccatum (insofar as I am a Christian and insofar as I look upon myself and on my sin). Had Joest but noticed this he would not have represented Luther as in flagrant and indeed intentional contradiction to the fundaments of logical reasoning; rather he would have seen how Luther can shift perspectives from in mundo (in the world) to in domino (in the Lord). Since these contrary determinations of the believer are made in diverse respects to indicate the state of motion in which the believer exists, moreover, they do not abide in a state of peaceful coexistence (307). The formula designates a conflict. It is important then to distinguish a sharp material conflict of sin and righteousness that Luther intends to describe from a logical contradiction that amounts to having Luther assert nonsense. If the expression simul iustus et peccator is to be used, the theological task is to express the conflict between being just and being sinful in the life of the justified, so that on the one side these judgments are not reduced to the literal nonsense of sheer contradiction and that on the other side the differentiated perspectives according to which the determinations of being sinful or righteous should be applied are so developed that the conflict between them is existentially fought out.

Luther’s Understanding of Motion as an Attempt to Solve Basic Theological Problems

Scholastic theology distinguished two movements in justification: 1) the movement from unrighteousness to righteousness, which is not successive but happens instantaneously (309), since the divine power which causes this movement is infinite and works otherwise than a natural agent which must take time in order to dispose matter for the reception of form. From this instantaneous transformation is distinguished, 2) the successive movement of the augmentum gratiae (increasing of grace). Grace is here conceived as in a quantity, not, to be sure, with regard to the goal or object it involves insofar as this is connected to God, the highest Good, but ex parte subjecti  (from the side of the human subject) grace can be assimilated in greater or lesser degree. Luther does not distinguish these two movements, yet he does overlay the notions of instantaneous and successive change. This naturally leads to complications. To master the difficulty Luther appropriated solutions from Occam.

On the side, Luther thinks of the way of the Christian as the increase of love. But can love increase? Occam agreed that love can increase in a subject. Of course, that does not mean that love is half-present or three-quarters present, since the form of love is whole and thus wholly present or not present at all. Yet its presence in a person is of distinguishable intensities and in this way can be more or less present. According to Occam, it so happens that the form remains whole and self-same and that something somehow really distinct from it yet nevertheless of the same type is added. Luther says that the righteousness of a certain motion is unrighteousness at any given point in relation to the increasing righteousness in the moment following. In justification there is a movement (310) from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3: 18), from good to better, although the form of glory is ever the same. Note well, then: Luther does not think of righteousness as a quality of the soul; nevertheless he can think of the life-long justification of the Christian according to a model of a qualitative ascension to increasing righteousness. But this is just one side of Luther’s thinking about the being of the Christian as consisting in motion.

The other side – and this is in complete contradiction to scholasticism—is that Luther thinks the same successive movement as a transformation from unrighteousness to righteousness. This is highly unusual. “All righteousness in the present moment is sin in relation to the righteousness that is added in the following moment... The next point, which at this moment is the goal, is in the next moment the point of departure. The starting point, however, is always the sin from which we are ever departing. And the goal is always righteousness to which we are ever setting out. “Thus I have rightly said that the preceding righteousness is always unrighteousness in reference to the following” (311).

Does Luther like Occam see movement and time as an actual, infinite manifold of points of movement and of time? How can he say that any point in time, so far as it is regarded as the point of departure, is to be identified as sin? He does so with the aid of Occam’s thought that all motion proceeds from the contrary to the contrary, although, as usual, Luther modifies this thought for his own purposes. According to Occam, Aristotle explained that the augmentation of a quality can be understood only as a motion from contrary to contrary. Here “contrary” is taken broadly and the mean between contrary determinations (e.g., gray as the mean between black and white), which is itself also a contrary to these opposites (e.g., gray as contrary to white or to black), can be designated as the less perfect in relation to the perfect (e.g., gray is imperfect whiteness or imperfect blackness). This then does not involve relations of strict contradiction, since the motion plays out within a species (e.g., a color). A strict relation of contradiction obtains, if one analyzes motion (here, as an increase in a quality) such that any moment in it (T1 – in isto instanti, in this instant) is determined by the affirmation of the respective degree of a qualitative form (e.g., the respective degree of warmth, or the respective degree of righteousness, the iustitia precedens, iustitia1). This affirmation, however, is the negation of the future determination (e.g., the following degree of warmth, or righteousness, the iustitia sequens, iustitia2). In the moment, T1, the person is co-determined by the negation of iustitia2 as also in T2 by the affirmation of iustitia2. Insofar as the conception of the person in T1 (as only under this negation) and in T2 (as only under this affirmation) is considered, opposites exist in the strong sense. The negation by the coming righteousness (iustitia2), for Luther, renders the righteousness of T1 sinful.

The following problem results from this. It is certainly right to consider the negation of righteousness as sin. Nevertheless in this text Luther thinks of the negation of a determinate righteousness, a righteousness that can be specified by a numerical index. Occam in no way accepted this interpretation of the opposition. For him it involved an opposition between the negation and affirmation of definite degrees of righteousness (312), not an antithetical relation of righteousness to unrighteousness. This is so because for him the destruction of unrighteousness follows in an instant on the grounds of the infinite power of God. Luther finds in the analysis of the augmentio qualitatis the insight that a definite state of movement is determined by its negation in the following state. In contradiction to Occam, he nevertheless interprets the opposition not only as between degrees of affirmation but also absolutely as between iustitia and non-iustitia, peccatum. Between these there is no third. In this way Luther comes to his theological concern: that the justified is at the same time to be considered as sinner. Luther formulates this carefully. The condition of the believer in T1 is qualified as sin with reference to the condition in T2. If the movement from righteousness to righteousness proceeds, the sin in T1 is overcome by the righteousness in T2. Whoever brings the movement of the new righteousness to a standstill and fixes the sin of T1 also in T2, and as a result loses the righteousness that had been, iustitia1. So Luther follows Bernard: ibi incipis nolle fieri melior, desinis esse bonus (When you begin not to want to become better, you cease from being good). Thus in an impressive way, Luther attempts to think out the simultaneity of sin and righteousness so that he puts their opposition dynamically into a state of motion.

Thus Luther characteristically modifies Occam in the process of appropriating his thought. This is not motion as Aristotle thought; neither is its Thomas’ view (313). But it is connected with Luther’s claim that the Scholastics have not properly understood Aristotle, but he has. We will now examine a number of his expressions that articulate this claim.

Always in Motion (semper in motu)

Luther’s judgment is that “to itself a changing thing always begins and always ceases; it itself is in the beginning and in the end.” But semper has a twofold meaning that must be distinguished. It can express a judgment about an object that thus informs us that whether it persists through time or not. Thus in Luther’s statement, “always” would mean “an object, so long as it persists in motion.” This “always” would mean that the judgment is valid at any moment of the motion the thing moved both begins and ends. But how long motion lasts the “always” does not say. It is rather concerned with the inner structure of motion. But “always” can also be applied in a judgment about duration. In this case, the duration of motion and of the thing in motion are parallel, or, the duration of a motion is thought to have no end. For Aristotle, any motion is characterized by beginning- and end-points; for him there is no continuous movement of one and the same subject, except the stars in their circular motion. The processuality of the world is without beginning or end in this way, but within it subjects and ways of motion evolve from beginnings to endings (314). Luther combines both senses of semper when he says that all are in motion always. He is speaking of the movement of justification, which lasts till death. The reason for this is not Aristotle’s notion of motion but theology. Luther sees that a Christian does not cease to be flesh with which the Spirit conflicts. A justified person who is wholly and exclusively justified exists only in heaven (315). His stress then is on the life-long duration in omni instanti. As in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” the continuity of the movement and its instantiation at every step along the way belong together.

Luther’s countless coupling of semper with doing and suffering in Christian life is based on the fact that he no longer can think of the duration of being in faith by means of form, quality or habit. This conflict is thus rendered dynamic as movement from unrighteousness to righteousness, and, at the same time, from righteousness to righteousness, so that the duration is the unity of this very movement. But what are the conditions for ascribing unity to movement? In lectures on the philosophy of nature Luther had learned that three presuppositions must be fulfilled for a movement to be numerically identical and continuous: 1) the unity of the movable thing, 2) the unity of the form to which the motion applies, and 3) the numerical identity and continuity of time. As movement is a successio that is only one as continuous, so continuous time occurs only when motion is not interrupted by rest.  If rest occurs, one has not one, but two movements. Thus the quies media (the interlude of rest) is what semper excludes (316).

Thus it is no longer the concept of quality that allows for the duration of being in grace to be thought but rather the unity of the movement to righteousness. This is also clarified when Luther calls the actus perfectus the achievement of the end, when motion ceases. Here the actus imperfectus indicates a certain form or disposition that is attained in a subject continually without interruption by any interlude of rest; if the movement ceases, the believer understands her state as perfect, with the implicit or explicit claim to have attained perfection (317). Thus Luther’s use of semper has a precise and plausible sense: it is not about “actualism” but about the unity of the believer’s movement, which is not composed of a series of acts, but is founded on exodus, on the way to the new righteousness and seeking of it.

To Advance is Nothing Else than Always to Begin (proficere ist nihil aliud, nisi semper incipit).

Luther said this repeatedly. But Joest’s misunderstanding of it was to make the return a regression to the very first step of the motion, rather than as ever newly setting out from place already achieved. Luther’s idea is not that like Sysiphus the believer ceaselessly returns to the beginning of the work and hence gets nowhere, for in his slogan it is not only the case that the incipere determines the proficere but also the converse. Luther’s understanding of motion should help us to a more precise understanding of this notion, “to advance is nothing else than always to begin” (319).

The same thing moves in respect to the thing it seeks but in respect to the thing acquired, it rests (eadem res respectu termini quem quaerit movetur, sed respectu eius quem acquisivit quiescat). This is Luther’s return to the beginning. To progress in righteousness by returning does not refer to the state before the motion began but to that moment in the movement from which at any instant further movement proceeds. Progress begins anew with regard to what one does not yet have (320). One may not stand still but must progress from glory to glory and from understanding to understanding, from the literal to the spiritual (321). In this way Luther can even speak of a continua perfectio. So it is clear that Luther does not understand the existence of the Christian in the sense of the absurd posture of the endlessly frustrated Sysiphus who must continually set out from exactly the same place and thus advance nowhere. Rather the Christian’s renewed endeavor is always a beginning from the place that has been reached. The movement obtains its direction from the goal; it is, on the one hand, a growth in faith and the Spirit and a decline in sin and flesh (322) and, on the other hand, it is a growth in confession of sin. This latter is important because so often the rhetoric of “perfection” is bound up with introspection on one’s own progress. With Luther it is otherwise: the self-examination of the justified is determined by the humility in which one is confronted with what is still not yet perfected. This lack makes the believer as a whole a sinner. Luther’s “progress” from righteousness to righteousness has nothing to do with the optimism of progress in the thought of endless perfectibility. Evidence of this is found Luther’s gloss on the Sentences: “Conservation is always a new beginning. Conservation is the same as continuously to create. Conservation is continuous creation, since God creates up to today.” This applies not only to the motion of physical creatures but also to the working of divine salvation (323).

Occam distinguished creatio and conservatio only by connotation. Creation excludes a pre-existing object, matter to be shaped by form, while conservation indicates an existing object and connotes prevention of its interruption or cessation in being. Duration is the conservation of the thing and so the being of things is an ever-becoming (324). In this light, Luther’s motto means that being just can only be understood as becoming just, that is, if sin is not cancelled and driven out in the bat of an eye by infusion of grace. Yet becoming righteous does have the character of attaining perfection (325). Standing here in Bernard’s tradition again, Luther’s notion of progress does not exclude the simul iustus et peccator but explicates it dynamically as motion. Luther’s use of Occam’s notion of movement allows him to integrate into one conceptual whole elements that otherwise are separated and stand in tension to each other.

Partly Righteous, Partly Sinner (partim iustus, partim peccator)

Joest conceives of a “total” perspective in “all or nothing” style in distinction from a “partial” perspective in a “more or less” style indicated by the partim... partim locution. Yet doubt about this conception arises because Luther can also orient the partim... partim determination in yet another way. “Health battles with sickness, and this will be called change (328) because the one is not complete in relation to the other, as in the statement that the justified will be justified.  So the just are ever with the left foot (i.e., as the old Man) in sin and with the right foot in grace (i.e. with the new Man); so also at the same time in servile fear of hell and in holy fear of God.” Here partim... partim does not mean from one step to the next but the beginning- and the end-point of the movement in the strict sense. Occam denied this interpretation. But Luther is here following another thought of Aristotle’s about the middle between two extremes. In this sense gray can be called black because it is incomplete with respect to white (imperfectum ad aliud). But it can also be called white, because it is a stage in the process of becoming white and thereby moving away from being black and moving itself to becoming white. Thus also Luther’s “left foot in sin, right foot in grace.” Here therefore the total aspect of the Christian as old or as new Man (329) is distinguished by the partim – partim expression rather than, as Joest thinks, in distinction from it.

The logical problem of the simul expression in Luther is not an indifferent matter, as many interpreters think. Luther tries with the health-sickness analogy to make plausible how two contraries can be in the same subject at the same time. Whether he follows here Occam’s partim... partim or Aristotle’s medium inter contraria, he will have to modify the scheme to achieve what he wants, as the following text shows. Secundum philosophiam motus est actus imperfectus, semper partim acquisitus et partim acquirendus, semper in medio contrariorum et simul in termino a quo et ad quem consistens (According to philosophy motion is an incomplete act, always partly acquired and partly acquiring, always in the middle of contraries and at the same time consisting in the beginning and in the goal). This present life is a kind of motion and Passover, a transition and “in Galilee,”a journey from this world to the future, which is eternal rest” (330).  Once again we see how Luther connects –against Occam—the partim... partim expression with the in medio contrariorum and also puts it next to the ad quem and a quo distinction. That confirms the fact that for Luther the partim... partim judgment does not involve a partial aspect in distinction from a total one. It is not about a “half” righteousness, but about the whole righteousness, to be sure in a weak condition because in the believer there remains an unwillingness (noluntas) towards the will of God, as a consequence of which the believer as a whole is sinner.

In the same text we can see how for Luther the partim is loosened from the context of movement when he writes that “we have eternal rest partly in conscience and partly we have tribulations in the flesh.” Yet this is a misunderstanding, because conscience and flesh have to do with the person as a whole. If one stands not only under one but rather under two contradictory total judgments, Luther can connect this with the partim... partim expression. But here partim is not in antithesis to totus (as part to whole) but to totaliter in the sense of exclusively (as simultaneously subject to diverse judgments). Thus Luther writes that “the same person is spirit and flesh. Therefore what he does carnally he is said to do totus. Yet nevertheless because he resists, totus non facere, sed pars eius etiam recte dicitur – ipse et non ipse operatur (he acts not as a whole, but, it is rightly said, as a part – he himself does and does not do). One has the impression (331), that Luther here experiments with different formulations in order to make plausible and find expression for what he wants to say theologically.

A survey of partim usage outside the boundaries of this study confirms the result that it does not involve Joest’s “partial” perspective but involves rather other ways of expressing the simul iustus et peccator. By this Luther emphasizes either that the person does not exclusively stand under one total determination, whether as sinner or as righteous, or he puts the simul into the dynamic framework of the doctrine of motion. Out of the background in Occam, it is understandable how Luther can use the adverb, partim, to express the double total-determination of the believer as just and as sinner, yet a Certain reification is nonetheless suggested, as if the concern is with a certain part of the person in distinction from the whole person. That corresponds, moreover, to the original sense of Aristotle. Against Joest’s interpretation, the Third Antinomian Disputation from much later in Luther’s career argues that “sin fights against faith, but does not conquer. Therefore sin is there in an inferior degree. Thus in diverse intensities, contraries are able easily to be in the same person. In diminishing degree sorrow and faith are able to be at the same time in the same person.” Therefore, 1) Luther does not content himself with a flat contradiction. To be sure, he points out that the examples from nature (hot-cold, sick-healthy) are thought on the level of physical reality, but he takes this objection seriously because he is thinking analogically here. 2) The solution of the presence of sin in diminishing degree is not a “deceived attempt at quantitative compensation” (Joest) but is borrowed from the scholastic attempt to understand qualitative change (334). 3) For Luther the use of the partim... partim determination takes the lead in showing the being of the just as the movement of becoming justified or of penance. If we are therefore always repenting, we are also always sinners, and yet by the same token also just and being justified, partly sinners and partly righteous, i.e., nothing if not penitents on the move. With the partim... partim, Luther shows that the just are not only under one determination but rather under two which are related to each other in contradiction (335). It is a linguistic sign for this motion, without the implication that the object in motion or the qualitative form is somehow divided into parts.

In Natural Things there are Five Grades (In naturalibus rebus quinque sunt gradus).

In the lectures on Romans 12:12, Luther tried to explain the life of the Christian as profectus (a journey, a progression). He employed Aristotle’s five stages of privation, matter, form, action and suffering to do this. Privation is a thing without name and a person in sin; becoming is justification; being is righteousness; work is right action and life; and suffering is being brought to perfection (336). As a journey, this life cannot consist in rest. Rather it is movement from good to better, sickness to health. Luther here tries to understand the way of the Christian in analogy to Aristotle’s five stages of nature; sicut in naturibus, ita et Spiritu (thus in natural things, so also in the Spirit, 337). The theological end of humanity is the consummation, certainly, but above all for Luther, as the following will show, the concern is with the suffering of man in every moment of this life (not first at the end) and so here suffering is always as much passing away as coming to be. Thus Luther can take becoming and suffering together as virtual synonyms (338). From the “new birth,” then, Luther goes on to speak of the new being as “becoming another, in essence better,” rather than a non-being. This happens through sufferings; it is movere de bone in melius (moving from good to better). Thus like Occam Luther speaks of a qualitative, progressive ascent and at the same time, in contradiction to this notion from good to better, of a transition from contrary to contrary (339). Luther’s emphasis, we recall, is not that new deeds correspond to the new being but that the new being is a non-being in relation to further states of new being and that it is out of this negation of what it has achieved through suffering that it ever becomes a new being. Luther says in this connection that Aristotle philosophizes well regarding natural things but it is not clear whether Luther means that natural things have movement or are movement. If our supposition is true (340), Aristotle, according to Luther, understands the essence of things as motion, while it is the scholastics who have distinguished between movement as actus secondus over against the actus primus of the essential form (341).

Commenting on Romans 8:26, Luther disassociates the “first grace” from the notion of an instantaneous infusion at the new birth and speaks of its continuous coming. Thus Luther thinks of a growth of grace, or more precisely, a growth in grace. God gives the gratia operans, with which He permits the recipient to cooperate, so that it becomes gratia cooperans until God once again infuses new grace. This corresponds to the stages of fieri, esse, operatio, and passio. The agent of the believer’s progress here is God, who sheds grace upon grace. Luther so conceives the passivity of the person in the reception of grace that she does not prayer nor is she in any way active; she descends into darkness, into a true negation of the antecedent self (342). Yet there is a tension in these Luther texts. Sometimes confession is the medium between injustice and justice and at other times there is no need of prayer or confession to suffer the coming of grace as God’s act. The manifest tension here betrays Luther’s twofold understanding of becoming as 1) the succession of a determination in relation to an object, a succession of differing degrees of righteousness that relate to one after another as good to better, and 2) the timeless determination creatively made by God from out of nothing, “Let there be...” The believer’s being just, therefore, will be understood as movement and becoming in both horizontal and vertical dimensions.

Earlier than the act is being, agere sequitur esse, but earlier than being is suffering; thus being must be understood dynamically, not as a fixed thing preserving itself against change, but as a thing summoned forth and coming to its goal through change. The Christian to be sure is just (Luther speaks repeatedly of the new being), yet this very determination in its exclusivity is still outstanding. On the basis of the self-contradiction (not in the strictly logical sense), that the believer in via is, being just can only be thought of as becoming just (343), as seen from the believer’s perspective in repentance and as seen by God in  His creatio continua ex nihilo, which integrates the life of the believer into the unity of the movement of becoming just. This movement has an end, the fulfillment of the exclusive determination of being just, in the resurrection of the dead.


First, in arguing for his modal analysis of motion Aristotle had criticized Zeno for having destroyed motion as motion: by dividing matter into discrete and irreducible atoms he had made of out non-actual, merely potential being something actual that actually never changes but only externally combines and disintegrates in random motion. In contrast, Aristotle emphasized the continuity of motion in the unity formed by the connections that can be seen between beginnings and endings. Thomas and Occam both interpret this definition of motion by Aristotle. Thomas focuses on the middle point between mere potential and pure actuality. The unity of motion is found in the orientation of the actus imperfectus to its goal. Occam likewise focuses on the explanation of motion by analysis of its moments, but he forgoes the modal analysis and instead determines the points of motion by a combination of affirmative and negative judgments. This enables Luther to understand movement at the same time as from contrary to contrary states and as from good to better states. While Luther modifies Occam for his own purposes, regarding the historical question it is clear that the question about which Aristotle it is to which Luther connects here, may be answered unambiguously: this is Occam’s Aristotle.

Second, the basic theological problem is the simultaneity of the believer’s being just and being sinful as the question about the duration of new being in grace, if, that is, basic concepts like actus and habitus are no longer suitable for the explication of this simultaneity and one must reckon with this simultaneity of being sinful and righteous. Luther’s answer is that the being of the Christian is to be thought of as motion, both instantaneous transformation from being sinful to being righteous and the continuous growth in love. These overlap one another (344).

Third, Luther understands the progress of the Christian --in his modification of Occam’s account of motion “from good to better” to one of “from unjust to just”—to include and not exclude the simul iustus et peccator.  In the background here stands Luther’s understanding of the First Commandment demanding the totality of the person in faith and love towards God. Where this total devotion is lacking, the total person is sinner. Where faith and love to God exists, there the whole person is just.

Fourth, the being just of the believer is understood as always becoming just. The semper belongs here because it expresses the continuity of movement and stands against the cessation of seeking and longing for the new righteousness. Conversely, the simul is only properly understood when it leads to understanding Christian life as ceaseless movement.

Fifth, it is an inappropriate notion of “progress” that lies behind the resistance in Luther research to understanding the movement of the believer as journey or progression. But progress is growth in faith and in Spirit and (therefore!) at the same time growth in knowledge of sin. If we take note Luther’s modification of Occam’s explanation of motion, this claim to progression can in no way lead to perfectionism (345). It is much more the relation of the continuous working of God on humanity that is represented in human perspective as a progressive repentance.

Sixth, Luther uses Occam’s interpretation of Aristotle as a model.  As a model, Aristotle’s doctrine of motion allows him modifications for the sake of the theological substance he wishes to interpret. Conversely the model makes this theological substance better known and expressed. Therefore it is important to know which model Luther used because interpreters bring their own models with them that are frequently anachronistic and substantively inapt, and, by imposing them, distort Luther’s meaning.

Seventh, naturally it has not been the task of this chapter to exposit the entire doctrine of justification but only those elements of it that are illuminated by Luther’s use of the model of motion. Just so, however, we can suppose that this model has significance also for the mature Luther. We should not think that the old is simply abandoned and replaced by the new. Rather, old insights appear again in modified form and in new contexts (346).

Eighth, we have seen in this chapter that Luther wants to think not only the being just of believers as movement, but the movement of the being of things in general. In his commentary on Romans 8:19, Luther noted that metaphysics are oriented to the present state of things, while those who learn from the Apostle perceive things as in expectation: developing, sighing, in labor for what is not yet. So Luther wants to suggest an alternative to the Aristotelian view of the essence of things with the articulate help of the Aristotelian doctrine of motion. To be sure this creates problems of consistency. It is not clear how motion applies as an aspect of a thing (in quantum mobilis), what the relation of this aspect of motion is to the being of the thing.

Luther’s Christmas Sermon of 1514

The sermon of 1514 is especially noteworthy because Luther tried to make the theological issues intelligible with the help of Aristotelian doctrine. The sermon in recent years has experienced a great deal of attention. Unfortunately, not all interpreters bear in mind that this is a sermon that intends to make a certain Biblical text understandable. Only when we bear the homiletical genre in mind (347) are we in a position to determine whether and how far a new ontology is being suggested. The text is John’s prologue. Luther preaches a “literal” exposition, which takes up the greater part of the sermon, and upon which follows the exposition of the “moral” sense. Luther notes that by the Logos John means the Son of God. This fact and its basis will be explained in what follows (348).

The First Part of the Sermon, First Section: Analytical Commentary

Commenting on John 1: 1-4, Luther says that what the Evangelist says, and what he will now exposit, is the eternity of the Son. This includes both His distinction from the Father and His identity with the Father (349). He thus rejects the Arian heresy: “even when He is distinguished, He is nevertheless not separated and another God, but rather God Himself. That means: whatever belongs to the being of God belongs to Him – or the fullness of deity and the wholeness of deity was the Logos Himself, because only the one God, yes, also the whole God was in the Logos as the whole God was in the Father.” This gives Luther occasion critically to enter into the logical treatment of the Trinity problem according to “modern” (i.e. Nominalist) logic. It is noteworthy how Luther concentrates on the unfolding of the order of words and conceptual-logical explanation of them. His chief theological interest concerns the identity of the Logos and God.

First he treats the identification of the Logos as the Son of God and vice versa (350). The striking basis Luther gives for calling the Son of God the Logos is Genesis 1:3, Dixit Deus, “Fiat,” a factum est (God said, “Let there be...” and there was). Luther claims there can be no third thing between a factor and factura, a Maker and a thing made. “If God has spoken, His Word is distinguished from Him. Nevertheless in no way could it be other than with the speaking God. Therefore it is coeternal and nonetheless distinct from Him and thereby it is also true God. And whatever that is, out of which all things were made, that is God, because between Creator and creature there can be nothing else.” Luther’s special interest is that this deity of the Son and the plurality of persons in the unity of the divine being should be made understandable (351). Luther distinguishes between the inner and outer word. The outer word refers to the incarnate Logos, the inner word to the innertrinitarian Word. Luther attends to the inner word first. The inner word is only found in the most perfect natures, which are the rational natures, as in the Psalmist, “Mein Herz sagt mir das” (my heart says to me) in comparison to the words coming out of the mouth. These two words are distinguished by their powers of motivation (352). The internal word is what moves the heart. But since we creatures have only the outer word in relation to each other, we fail often to let loose the same movement of the heart in the heart of another that we find in our own.  Therewith the superiority of the inner word over the outer is indicated.

Luther posits the characteristics of the internal word as 1) an ability to think of God; 2) as something not separable from its thinker/speaker; 3) as something that exists for one’s own sake, whereas the outer word is for the sake of others (as is the case especially with the Incarnate Son, 353). So Luther’s thesis: the internal word would be nothing distinct from the same God, except as a certain kind of motion: for it appears to be motion of this sort (quod verbum internum sit nihil distinctum ab eodem [Deus], nisi velut quaedam motio: nam nidetur esse eiusmodi motio).

Luther introduces this idea by an ontological meditation in which he wants to find the common structure of all beings and in which he interprets a significant piece of Aristotle’s philosophy for the illumination of the secrets of theology. Luther claims that John has prepared for us a perfect way to learn the deity of the Son of God and to ascend to it. The way presupposes an analogy between the structures of the Creator and the creature, i.e. between the capacity of the Creator for the Logos and of the rational creature similarly for the internal and external word discussed above. Luther follows Augustine’s thought at this point of the sermon that every creature has a trinitarian structure (vestigium Trinitatis). Thus he asks how the soul would be the image of the Trinity. Luther seeks the answer in movement (356).

Thus Luther looks for a model of the structure of being as pluriform and yet at the same time one and identical. On the one side the difference and relation are given with the processions of the Logos from the Father and on the other side from the identity of God with His Word (357).  As creatures come forth and express themselves so also within God ex se suscitat (arises from Himself), ex se procedit (proceeds from Himself). The reflexivity of the creature means that what the creatures are in their possibilities is what their actions bring to the light of day. “So also in God” – God like the creatures expresses Himself outwardly in the light of day. Insofar as He expresses Himself, He Himself is His word; insofar as He does not lose this other of Himself (the Logos remains apud se), He relates Himself to it and it to Him. So He is Himself as “being-in-relation,” in analogy to intellectus, ratio and the senses in the act of cognition through which the mind comes in knowledge to what previously it was not. That designates motion, so also a spiritual motion, from one place to another where it was not previously (358).

Thus being is connected with multiplicity through motion by Luther. The distinction of beings from themselves in motion does not cancel their identity but rather presupposes it, since otherwise the movement would be attributed to another subject and so it could not be said that beings multiply themselves in themselves. So also with God who in an inexpressible way remains the same and yet multiplies Himself, in that He knows, speaks, understands, perceives, and exudes Himself and so behaves; with a certain rational, indeed super-rational movement He moves Himself. In creatures the movement is accidental to the essence, but in God, the Son is not accident, neither of the Father nor of the divine essence. In Deo nullum est accidens (359). In another analogy, Luther stresses the identity of the things that are distinguished from each other in motion. Filius Dei est ipsa essentia Dei (The Son of God is the essence itself of God). But Luther therewith materially darkens his own interpretation. For the relation of the divine persons, Father and Son, is by no means the same as the relation of the divine essence and the Son. Essentia nec generat nec generactur (the essence neither generates nor is generated), while the Father does generate and the Son is generated. Here Luther inconsequently fails to distinguish between the Father as person and the essence of God, while he does so when he speaks of the doctrine of the Trinity itself (360). What Luther wants to say is this, citing Mannerma: “The Father produces the Logos, which in a certain sense is other and exists in a relation to the Father. But this producing of the Logos as another is at the same time the being of God Himself. God exists in that He produces the Logos. In other words, the movement, actus mobilis as such, is the esse of God Himself. Relatio and esse are therefore interpenetrating notions.” Yet there is an ambiguity in this. In the claim that God exists in that He produces, the producing is the comprehensive term of which the Logos is a moment. But this is not the same as saying that movement as such is the esse of God (361).

Luther in any case sees that it not right to understand in the usual way of the seeing or hearing of sensible creatures as accidents. He makes it clear that the acts of being, understood as possibilities for determinate executions of movement, are energeia, “being-in-work,” ways of motion (362). Indeed, Luther argues from out of the definition of motion such that he neither has in view the identity of the movement with the moment of the thing or the identity of the movement with the thing moved. A further difficulty is that Luther presupposes the astonishing thesis, when he relates these analogies of motion to God, that motion is very essence of God according to Aristotle, who says that God is the actus mobilis in quantum huiusmodi. Probably Luther does not mean that Aristotle said this but that one can come to this thesis on the basis of Aristotle’s definition of motion. Over against this, however, Aristotle distinguished kinesis from energeia. God is pure energeia (Metaphysics XII, 6). But Luther takes up Aristotle’s concept of motion and modifies it and relates it to God other than Aristotle does. He can do this because the movements in God (processio, spiratio) to be thought theologically are eternal movements. God does not change Himself. There are definite tensions here. It is not wholly satisfying first to use the distinction of the mobile thing and motion for the distinction of the Father and the Son and then to draw on the unity of motion and thing moved insofar as it is mobile for establishment of the unity of the Son of God and the essence of God (Luther himself is aware of a comparable problem in the application of logic to the doctrine of the Trinity: the fallacy of equivocation when the term, God, is used as a term for the essence one time and for the person another, 364).

The thesis that Luther has broken open Aristotle’s metaphysics and even gone beyond Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity is not plausible, for Luther also asserts a distinction between esse and motus. Luther has rather tried to make the Christological and Trinitarian contents plausible with the help of Aristotle’s doctrine of motion. Luther thus attempts to understand the statement that the essence neither generates nor is generated when he writes that all things by motion, and not according to essence, attain their goal, or at least they attain to it, not insofar as they are but insofar as they are mobile (omnis res motu et non secundum esse attinget terminum ad quem vel saltem non inquantum est, sed in quantum mobile est). But the same tension arises here that arose in the previous discussion. The thing qua thing is distinguished from the thing qua mobile. In reference to the thing qua mobile the unity of the divine essence and the Son of God is made plausible, but in the other case the attribution of mobility to God the Father and of substantiality to the divine essence explains the thesis that the essence neither generates nor is generated. It is quite evident that Luther uses the analogy of motion to explain various Trinitarian claims regarding the procession of the Logos, or the essential deity of the Son, or the impassibility of the divine essence, but it is also evident that he does not do so consistently or consequently (365).

Has Luther succeeded in illuminating the plurality of persons in the divine unity with the model of motion? In finite things creatures are either in motion or at rest, but not both at the same time. Luther in fact advocates a view of movement in which there is a simultaneity of movement and rest in the thing moved, if not in the same respect. In God it is the same. In regard to the goal that God seeks to attain, God is in motion but in view of that which is already attained, God is at rest: in movement and at rest, always beginning and ending, always at the beginning and at the goal (367). But if we take this analogy consequently, it would imply, even if the process were continuous, that the Son is the form partially acquired and the Holy Spirit is the form totally acquired, as Occam put it. Naturally, Luther does not intend this. But the fact that does not draw this consequence into consideration shows something about his use of Aristotle. He draws on a philosophical thought in order to make the structure of its elements useful, but he does not accept the consequences of this application of them. So when Luther says the same thing applies to God with respect to the goal sought by movement and the goal acquired in rest, he obscures the fact that both determinations, the already and the not yet, belong to the concept of motion. Luther does not simply use two concepts (quiescere and moveri) but rather two moments in the concept of motion in order to evoke the two persons of the Trinity. But at the same time he uses the concept of motion for the second person (369). So has Luther understood Aristotle better than he understood himself? We must refer these questions, as we have seen, to Occam’s Aristotle. And we have seen that, as in the doctrine of justification so also in Trinity, Luther takes up the late medieval analysis of motion (370) but gives it his own twist.

The Second Part of the Sermon, John 1: 14

The Incarnation of the Word, according to Luther, aims at the “Word-ification” of the flesh: “We are Word!” (371). This is not a transformation of substance, so that after this becoming the Word is no longer Word or the human human. “Through the union it is not only said of Him, that He has flesh, but that He is flesh. So also we who are flesh become Word, not in the sense of being substantially transformed into the Word, but rather that we accept the Word and through faith it unites itself with us.” Thus any mutation of the substance is rejected in place of an assumption of the flesh, yet not as a having flesh, however, but as a being flesh. This is Biblical usage according to Luther. But the parallelism is broken by the fact that we are sinners who, when we assume the Word, desert ourselves and empty ourselves, retaining nothing of our senses but totally denying them. This Word-ification then brings the old being to naught. Luther uses Aristotle’s doctrine of knowledge here, rather than of motion, to explain by analogy this complicated becoming in which three things must be expressed. First, it is not a substantial change. Just so, second, it requires alternative account of the statement, “We are the Word!” (372). The account will be one which recognizes, third, the fact that the flesh excludes the Word and is hostile to it. Luther takes up this task by using the analogy of the union of knower and thing known in the act of knowledge. Apart from this act, the faculty of knowledge is only the possibility of knowledge, next to nothing (quoddam nihil). Only through its reference to an object does this possibility become a quoddam ens (a certain something), so that Luther can say that the object is the esse and actus of the knowing mind. The divine Word does not change itself into flesh, but rather sustains itself as movement in the Incarnation; it remains the Word as movement. It lets itself be seen now only in union with the flesh, i.e. in kenosis. Thus the general notion of becoming is stamped concretely in Christology with weakness and kenosis.

Even though the conclusion of the sermon speaks a lot about motion –the Word becomes flesh and the flesh becomes Word—the concept of motion does not in general appear here. The reason for this, one has the impression, is Luther’s statement, “When we assume the Word we ought to desert ourselves” (373). The use of the concept of motion earlier in the sermon was to offer a model by which to make plausible the difference and identity of God and the Word. But this model is not serviceable for explicating the believer becoming the Word. So Luther rather uses Aristotle’s doctrine of the unity of the knower with the thing known in the act of knowledge. To be sure, one can also understand knowledge as motion, and earlier Luther had done so, when he specified that knowledge is the actus secundus of the rational creature. But what he draws on here is not the identity of the movement with the thing moved but rather on the unity of subject and object in knowledge: the knower is nothing in itself and from out of itself but first becomes one with the known thing and thereby attains being and determination. Neither of these moments are contained in the concept of motion (374). So it is clear that Luther introduces another teaching of Aristotle at the end of the sermon, but not one that flows consequently out of the first part of the sermon (375).

This demonstrates that the Christmas sermon of 1514 does not exhibit the strongly unified conceptual order that Oswald Bayer supposed. The fact that Luther tried to explain the eternal procession of the Son from the Father with the help of Aristotle’s doctrine of motion is not the presupposition of the fact that Luther sought to make the Word-ification of believers plausible with the help of Aristotle’s epistemology. These are different and relatively independent theological and philosophical doctrines which are simply added together in the sermon.

Concluding Remarks

First, Luther’s 1514 Christmas sermon stands out for the extraordinary intensity with which he interpreted theological conceptions like Christology, Trinity and salvation with the help of philosophical doctrine. This has been the occasion for a lot of speculative development. Second, it is imperative that we take this text as a sermon to see how philosophy is employed for explaining the Biblical text. That orientation does not, of course, exclude the fact that certain ontological insights are developed in the sermon.

Third, Luther’s usage shows not only that he drew upon various philosophical doctrines but that individual doctrines are taken up in distinguishable ways not fully consistent with one another. He employs one aspect or another of the doctrine of motion (375) –again, independent of their mutual coherence. This has the result that theology in this way (376) does not become subordinate to a system of philosophy foreign to its own concerns. By the same token, this eclectic way limits the value of philosophical doctrines as analogies. Luther does not integrate philosophical doctrines in his theological expositions such that a philosophy’s own, inner coherence should come to prevail over the theology.

Fourth, this eclecticism does not exclude Luther from developing his own new ontology from out of these dissected parts of Aristotle, as in the fashion Mannerma wanted to see in the 1514 Christmas sermon a Trinitarian ontology. This supposition, however, has not been established in the foregoing investigation. Certainly Luther thinks in the direction of dynamizing the concept of essence and suggests a relational structuring of the concept of being. But these are interpretations developed only to solve individual problems in theology, not developed into a new system. Fifth, while Luther uses Aristotle’s epistemology to articulate a non-substantial unity for explicating the union of the human creature with the Logos, substantial language about the human creatures is also possible for Luther (377). How do we relate these two? No answer is provided in this sermon. Sixth, Luther’s resort to logic in the doctrine of the Trinity and his use of Aristotle’s doctrine of motion shows how intensively Luther was engaged in the academic discussions of his time.

Concluding Remarks to the Study as a Whole

We have endeavored to determine precisely the historical place of the controversy, “Luther against Aristotle,” and to investigate this place in its systematic dimensions. We have discovered that the “Aristotle” with whom Luther engages is a many-sided entity. He is the philosophically received and transformed and theologically integrated Aristotle of scholasticism. This fact permits an investigation of Luther’s relation to Aristotle, as also the acquisition of some critical distance from it, only by working through the series of antithetical assertions by teasing out the various references. Consequently one cannot so glibly speak, as did Wilifrid Joest, of “the substantial concept of the person as the counter-pole of Luther’s thought” (632). If Bonaventure can already pronounce, Dico, quod creatio, quae est passio, accidens non est, quia relatio creaturae ad Creatorem non est accidentalis, sed essentialis (“I say that what is creation is passion; it is not accidental because the relation of creature to Creator is not accidental but essential”), then the Scholastic reception of Aristotle has not left Aristotle untransformed. In the teaching of grace, therefore, one must distinguish between its classification in the category of quality and the definition of its content as “participation in divine goodness,” because participation designates something that is totally relational. The theological themes have brought along with them the result that the notion of relationship has obtained a much greater weight in Scholastic thought than can appear in the system of Aristotle’s categories (633).

The habitual, resort in Luther research to, “Thus hath Luther spoken,” is conversation-stopping -- as if this were something self-understood and decisive. But in fact it blocks consciousness of the deeper web of problems involved in the relationship between Luther and the preceding tradition. It blocks discussion of the material problems and arguments that disclose not only the strengths, but also the weaknesses of Luther’s positions. We have established that in context Luther knows Aristotle well and understands how to argue with him. But he does this, with few exceptions, with polemical zeal in order to deny honor to the heathen philosopher. As a result, it is not always clear where the actual point of criticism lies and how the foundation for it is laid or which philosophical implications are indicated by his theological insights. But if one takes care to situate Luther’s theology historically, as the foregoing study has attempted, it is not illuminating, for example, to see the ontological point of the doctrine of justification in the priority of possibility over actuality, as Eberhard Jüngel does. Already since Dun Scotus the radical conception of freedom is seen to bear such priority of possibility over actuality, just as this very Christian claim is made critically against Aristotle. So if one wants to work out the philosophical implications of Luther’s theological insights, one must take care to observe the difference between the level of theological expressions and the level of ontological theory-formation (634). Up till now, we have witnessed a great deal of talk about a relational ontology in Luther research, and much about relation in Luther’s theology has in fact been described, but no ontology of relation has been developed. One can only speak of an ontology where being as beings is contemplated or relation as relation. Without this one has only an empty negation of substantiality. But that negation in no way thinks out what relation is.

The mere opposition, “Luther against Aristotle,” is in danger of becoming excessive. Rather Luther research needs to attend to the following task. Given the fact that Aristotle came into the Western world with a great claim to plausibility, Christian theology had before it the task of mediating the apparent conflicts with Aristotle over questions like the happiness and final goal of humanity, the mortality of the soul, the eternity of the world, and whether theology is a science, etc. Luther with good grounds criticized the results of this integration and sought to explode the synthesis that had been created in that he worked out in all sharpness the antitheses between philosophical and theological views (635). But that changes nothing in regard to the theological task of relating to the true insights of Aristotle. The material problem here is connected with the existence of “heathen” knowledge, which has to be brought into a relationship with truth of Christian doctrine. Luther tackles the problem here with good distinctions (coram Deocoram hominibus, etc.), and good distinctions are good in their place, but distinctions alone do no more than posit otherness and leave this relation itself underdetermined. For example, Joest claims that in the relation, coram Deo, Luther has denied the substantial notion of the person, while he concedes that in worldly relationships, Luther hardly challenges this notion at all but rather claims outstanding traits for human beings. The relation between these two is not even posed as a question (636). Surely the task before us is to develop the distinction and coherence of theological categories like coram Deo and coram hominibus. If one undertakes such a theological task, not only does the engagement with scholastic theology and philosophical debates make sense for sharply profiling Luther’s views. Much more it enables tackling the actual problems of theology and solving them (637).

Luther’s wrath was directed precisely to the fusion of institutional and philosophical Aristotelianism in the curriculum of the unversity, a fusion which for us today no longer exists (639). So it is facile to argue, as does Leif Grane, that Luther’s biblical exegesis necessarily had as a consequence the complete reform of the university. Do new insights into the spiritual understanding of humanity bring new insights into medicine or physics? Probably not. Can it decide what topics are to be taught? How pedagogy and content go together? Whether a common method underlies all the disciplines or how method differs in individual disciplines? Or what is the relationship of the various faculties to each other? (640) When one speaks so recklessly, one creates the expectation that the university must be completely reformed by theology. It is surely noteworthy that not 20 years after Luther denounced Aristotle in the Disputation against Scholastic Theology Melanchthon demanded an erudite philosophy for theology and church (641). This return of Aristotle in the Lutheran universities has appeared to many as a betrayal of Luther’s reformatory insights. We cannot answer that question here. But a presupposition of an answer is a differentiated analysis of Luther’s relationship to Aristotle, such as has been here attempted (642).



[1] As explored recently in The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition, ed. J. Hockenberry Drageseth (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2011). Influential as well in English-language circles has been Brian A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther (Oxford, U.K.: At the Clarendon Press, 1962).

[2] Theodor Dieter, “Martin Luther as Late Medieval Theologian: His Positive and Negative Use of Nominalism and Realism,” Oxford Handbook to Martin Luther, ed. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and Lubomir Batka.  (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014) pp. 31-48.