Review: Steinmetz, Luther in Context


Biel:  God has established a covenant and promises to give saving grace to everyone who meets the terms of the covenant (6).  

Staupitz: Only God can make God dear to sinners (9).

Luther and Augustine on Romans 9

Early Augustine:  evil had its existence in the free operations of a rational will (14).  Justification begins with divine vocatio, initiated by God.   The response to this is human willing.  

Later Augustine:  election is a grace which cannot be merited.  Faith is a gift of God. He had not distinguished between a general and narrow call of God.  “If faith is not purely a human act, but a human act which is also a divine gift, then the explanation that God preferred Jacob because of his foreknowledge of the merit of Jacob’s entirely free act of faith becomes untenable” (16).

Image result for luther in context

Luther:  His exegesis introduces a number of themes not found in Augustine:  human virtue is a product of divine election (18). True, Luther’s understanding of God’s justice leans towards an Occamist reading, but to the degree that it is faithful to the text one shouldn’t worry about charges of nominalism.  

Steinmetz draws three conclusions (20):  

  1. Neither Augustine nor Luther is particularly concerned about the problem which is uppermost in Paul’s mind.” (???)
  2. The will of God–for Luther–is the cause of election.
  3. “While Augustine worries about free will and the justice of God, Luther devotes his attention to certitude of salvation and the understandable fears of the spiritually weak.”

Luther and the Hidden God

“The transcendence of God is not equivalent to his absence” (24).  It means that while God is present everywhere, his presence is inaccessible to me apart from his Word.  Luther warns against trying to uncover the naked being of God.

“The gospel is the good news that we are not required to ascend to God through prayer, self-denial, and the discipline of reason and desire.  God has descended to us as a child on its mother’s lap. He has met us at the bottom rung of the ladder” (25).

Predestination belongs to the deus absconditus.  Luther would have us look to the deus revelatus–God in Jesus Christ.  

Luther and Abraham

“The thesis that Abraham was justified by his faith became increasingly problematic in a Church which distinguished between fides informis (a faith that can coexist with mortal sin) and fides formata (faith active in love), fides implicita (a habitual belief in what the church teaches) and fides explicita (the conscious and explicit assent of the mind to Catholic truth), fides quae (the content of faith) and fides acquisita (faith acquired through natural means) and fides infusa (faith supernaturally infused), credulitas (intellectual assent to doctrine) and fiducia (trust in the promises of God)” (33).

Steinmetz surveys three late medieval and early Reformation commentators on St Paul (one of whom was Luther).  He notes several competing strands between these exegetes. “The dispute is intense because each interpretation of Paul presupposes, contains, and implies a competing vision of the nature of the religious life” (35).  

“If the literal sense of Augustine’s proposition is true–no virtue without charity–then it is impossible for a sinner to earn justifying grace by a merit of congruity (37).  

Luther on Faith

“When Luther insists that the object of faith is invisible, he does so for two reasons, neither of which has very much to do with Plato or heavenly archetypes.  The object of faith is invisible either because it is future (who of us can see next Wednesday?) or because it is hidden in the present under the form of a contrary and contradictory appearance” (39).  

Luther among the anti-Thomists

Luther first encountered Thomas in an Occamist context (48).

Luther and Hubmaier on the Freedom of the Will

Hubmaier saw clearly that Luther’s view on the human will undercut the anabaptist distinctives.  Luther didn’t see the need to deal in depth with Hubmaier.

Lord’s Supper

The Protestant sacramental debates are well-known and I won’t rehash them here.  Steinmetz does make some interesting points, though, that are worth reflection. “Zwingli’s exegesis…depended, at least in part, on his dualistic understanding of human nature” (75).  Luther, by contrast, read the NT anthropology in a way to suggest the unity between soul and body.

Of course, I do not agree with Luther’s conclusions but it does show that both Luther and Zwingli had good points, which further suggests that a mediating position like Calvin’s is the correct one.  

Some final notes

“God’s word, according to Luther, is a “Deed-Word,” which not only names but effects what it signifies.   Adam looks around him and says, ‘This is a cow and an owl and a horse and a mosquito.’ But God looks around him and says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light.”

“God’s word creates new possibilities where no possibilities existed before.  The Word of God is a Word that enriches the poor, releases captives, gives sight to the blind, and sets at liberty those who are oppressed.  It is a Word that meets men and women at the point of their greatest need and sets them free” (115).

“Preeminently for Luther it is Jesus Christ who is the Deed-Word of God.  It is he and no one else who has been anointed to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (116).



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