Misunderstanding Luther, St. Paul, or Both?

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

Earlier this year Credo magazine devoted an issue to the doctrine of justification and, very graciously, they asked me to participate in a “roundtable” on the topic. Specifically, they requested my take on some recent interpretations of Luther’s doctrine of justification. Below is the question posed, followed by my response. (You can find the fuller conversation, and read the whole issue, here.)

Martin Luther has proven to be one of the most important figures in church history in light of his teaching on justification, which resulted in the sixteenth-century Reformation. However, in our own day many are seeking to rethink Luther. Two examples come to mind. First, the New Perspective on Paul has said that Luther got Paul wrong on justification. Second, there is the New Finnish Interpretation of Luther which has argued that Luther himself has been misinterpreted on the issue of justification. Have we misunderstood Luther and how would you respond to both of these groups?

Ah, yes, the “one-two punch” of these recently popular schools would seem to put us, Lutherans especially, awkwardly on the ropes. Either we’ve long misunderstood Luther on justification, or, if we do in fact believe as Luther did, then precisely for this reason we’ve gotten Paul radically wrong. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if either interpretation is correct, then for half a millennium we’ve either been bad Lutherans or bad Christians—or both. Ultimately, though, neither conclusion seems warranted by the evidence, especially as it’s been increasingly reexamined.

Now, the New Perspective (NP) and the Finnish Interpretation (FI) have each produced small libraries, to which one cannot sufficiently respond in a few words. And it’s perhaps bad form to begin with a tu quoque; but since the premise of both schools is that the “traditional” interpretations are the result of reading later assumptions back into earlier texts, it is worth noting how susceptible they are to the same charge.

While the Finns, for example, are concerned about later confessional categories and philosophical paradigms distorting Luther’s doctrine, they don’t seem quite so concerned that their own interpretation of Luther grew directly out of engagement with Eastern Orthodox theology, or that it is often praised specifically for its ecumenical utility. More to the point, though, in emphasizing passages in which Luther might speak in terms of a “real-ontic” union with Christ rather than of a forensic imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the FI often neglects not only the context in which such statements appear, but also the manner in which Luther’s thought develops. Most significantly, the FI draws especially on Luther’s earlier publications rather than his more mature writings. But when specifically asked—for example, in 1536—if justifying righteousness is to be understood in any intrinsic manner, Luther insisted that it is to be understood “only by gracious imputation.”

It is an even more pointed critique of “gracious imputation” that one finds in the NP. While granting that this was indeed Luther’s own theological emphasis, it is alleged that he was mistaken in believing it to have been St. Paul’s—that he instead read his own theology back into Paul. The NP’s understanding of Paul’s soteriology is in large part predicated on a revised understanding of the Judaism of Paul’s day. Since it was not a proto-Pelagian religion of works-righteousness, it is argued, Paul couldn’t possibly have been denouncing a legalistic Jewish theology of salvation in favor of a uniquely Christian doctrine of justification by grace.

But, granting (as I think is warranted) that the NP is correct to insist that Paul was not opposing a Judaic soteriology that might anachronistically be called Pelagian, there’s still no good reason to think Luther imposed his own objections to Catholic soteriology upon Paul.

Most obviously, this is because Luther well understood that Rome’s doctrine of justification was not Pelagian; it had never denied the necessity of grace. He was certainly convinced that it was semi-Pelagian in its requirement of human cooperation with divine grace; but this is precisely the theology the NP itself ascribes to Second Temple Judaism. Described as “covenantal nomism,” it is understood in terms of God’s election of Israel having been entirely gracious; law-keeping, though, was still necessary to remain in the covenant and enjoy the fulfilment of its promises.

In other words, the theology to which Paul objected was not so drastically different from that challenged by Luther.

Again, one can hardly summarize and respond adequately to either of these new schools in a few words. Nonetheless, the few points touched on here do suggest that classical Protestantism has not radically misread Luther on justification; nor did Luther totally misunderstand Paul.