Was Luther Augustinian? The question is difficult to answer from a historical perspective because more concrete evidence must be documented to show that Luther was influenced by Augustine. We know Luther read a lot of Augustine, but that does not necessarily mean that his theology was influenced by him. From a theological perspective we could survey Augustine and Luther’s theology and see if they are similar, but that would not answer the question of influence. Two people can be in agreement, but not influenced by one another. Simply because Luther quotes Augustine more then any other church father combined (which he does) also does not prove anything. Luther could have quoted Augustine frequently to promote his own agenda since Augustine was respected. In the following paragraphs I will show the opinions of notable historians who have attempted to answer the question whether or not Luther was Augustinian. Further, I will examine the question and attempt to show that Luther was influenced by Augustine in his early theological career, and it was Augustine who helped Luther combat the Scholastics.
Heiko Obermann, Professor of Church History at the University of Tubingen has tried to promote a different idea. He has stated that Martin Luther was simply a product of a modern Augustinian school (schola Augustiniana moderna), a form of Scholasticism that began in the 14th century and continued into the 17th century. This means that Luther was indebted to the Augustinian Gregory of Ramini, and the Reformation was due to a late Medeival Augustinian Renaissance. His theses have been convincingly challenged by David Steinmetz, Professor of History at Duke University. Steinmetz has shown that one of the distinguishing marks of Ramini’s school was a concern to quote theologians of its own school. But in Luther, we find not a single quotation of theologians of Ramini’s order. Steinmetz wrote: “If Luther is in fact a representative of the schola Augustiniana moderna, one of those distinguishing marks is great care in the accurate citation of sources and a concern to quote the theologians of its own order, this silence is – to say the least – remarkable” (Steinmetz, David. “Luther and the Late Medieval Augustinians: Another Look,” (Concordia Theological Monthly 44 (1973): 255)).
Obermann’s view also does not take seriously Luther’s real struggle with sin, the Catholic Scholastics, and his own personal theological breakthroughs. Further, the Finnish Lutheran, Uura Saarnivaara, has recently come out with a Augustine/Luther survey. He has shown that since Augustine’s doctrine of justification is different then Luther’s, Luther could not have been influenced by Augustine. In fact, Saarnivaara even goes as far to say that Luther’s obstacle to discovering the gospel was Augustine. Saarnivaara’s survey is nice, but it does not answer any historical questions. Disagreement on the doctrine of justification in two different historical contexts does not mean disconnection.
In Martin Luther’s early theological career, it is safe to say that he was influenced by Augustine from his Romans lectures (1515-1516) to his Heidelberg Disputation (1518). In his Romans lectures we see Luther responding to the errors of Scholasticism and beginning to understand that salvation is by grace and not by works. The Scholastics believed that original sin was washed away at baptism, and actual sin was removed through penance. Luther struggled with this since after penance his sin would remain and his conscience would be disturbed. Luther said in his Romans lectures, “[The Scholastics] imagine that original sin, just like actual sin, is entirely taken away, as if sins were something that could be moved in the flick of an eyelash, as darkness is by light” (Quoted in Kerr, Hugh T. Readings in Christian Thought: 2nd Edition
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 140).
Luther was greatly aided by Augustine who taught that sin and its effects remain in the Christian, even while Christ reckons the Christian as righteous. In 1532, Luther would look back on this as significant for his theological career (Plass, Ewald M. ed. What Luther Says
(Saint Louis: Concordia, 1959), 315).
The Scholastic theologians like Gabriel Biel (1420 - 1495) and Duns Scotus (1265 - 1308) had a negative impact on Luther since they were modern day Pelagians. Luther wanted to be righteous before God, but his conscience could not be at peace under their system. Biel held that it was possible to love God without the assistance of divine grace. Scotus argued that this natural ability was intensified by the infused habitus
of love leading to works that were meritorious. To combat these modern day Pelagians, Luther was greatly aided by the champion of orthodoxy against the first Pelagians. With Augustine’s help, Luther articulates a Christian understanding of being sick and righteous simultaneously: sick because of sin, and righteous because of the promise of the Great Physician to heal him completely on the Last Day. Luther said in his Lectures on Romans,
“[The Christian] is at the same time both a sinner and righteous, a sinner in fact but righteous by virtue of the reckoning and the certain promise of God….I did not know that though forgiveness is indeed real, sin is not taken away except in hope, i.e., that it is in the process of being taken away by the gift of grace which starts this removal, so that it is only not reckoned as sin….All the saints had this understanding of sin, as David prophesied in Ps. 32. And they all confessed themselves to be sinners, as the books of Blessed Augustine show” (Quoted in Kerr, 140-141).
At the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther expounds on Augustine’s theology and calls him the “most trustworthy interpreter” of Paul (Luther’s Works: Volume 31, Career of the Reformer I
(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 39).
This is primarily because Augustine understood the malady of sinful nature, and the reality of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Augustine was not only helpful to Luther in understanding human nature, but also in understanding that the Law is fulfilled when what has not been done is forgiven. For Augustine, salvation was by grace alone and not by works. For Luther, this teaching was a light in the darkness in the midst of a works righteousness atmosphere. In the light of this, the Swiss historian, Philip Schaff has gone as far to say that Augustine was the first forerunner of the Reformation (Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post Nicene Christianity
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 1021).
After Luther discovered that a man was not made righteous through a process, but was actually counted righteousness because of Christ’s righteousness, he had to come to terms with Augustine’s doctrine of sanative justification. In 1531, Melanchthon sent to Dr. John Brenz a letter that Luther endorsed. The letter said, “Augustine does not do justice to the meaning of Paul, although he comes closer to it than do the scholastic theologians” (Quoted in Plass, 315). Luther came to believe that a person was counted righteous because of the righteousness of another: Jesus Christ. He continued to believe that man was simultaneously sick and righteous. But he no longer believed that his righteousness before God was in himself but outside himself. Luther used to believe, like Augustine, that man was fifty percent sick and fifty percent righteous. But now he believed that man was one hundred percent sick and one hundred percent righteous. This one hundred percent righteousness was due to Christ who was outside of him and the object of his faith.
What was Luther specifically responding to that caused him to make this jump? The Scholastics were teaching a merit of congruity (mertium de congruo
) and a merit of condignity (meritum de condigno
). A merit of congruity was a good work that earned a reward solely on the basis of God’s grace. A merit of condignity was a good work that earned a reward on the basis of its intrinsic worth. But if a merit of congruity had to be earned on the basis of the natural man, grace must be earned. This was a semi-Pelagian teaching. For Biel, a person did what was in him according to his nature, and then God infused him with a disposition (habitus
) of love which caused him to be able to earn more rewards (merit de condigno
). In 1518, when Luther was enamored with Augustine, Cardinal Cajetan demanded that Luther doubt whether this disposition (habitus) was present in his life (Kolb, Robert & Wengert, Timothy. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 123, n. 65).
One can only imagine the aggravation that this caused Martin Luther.
In the Scholastic doctrine and Augustine’s doctrine, justification occurred inside man. Although they were completely different, and the Scholastics were far removed from the spirit of Augustine, Luther had a theological responsibility to respond. His theological development on the basis of Paul caused him to teach that justification occurred outside of man. The merits of congruity and of condignity could be thrown out as a theological categories not threatening the doctrine of justification or the spirit of Augustine. If Augustine were responding to the Scholastics would he have grown more in his understanding of Paul? Luther thought so, for he said on March 25, 1539, “If [Augustine] were living in this age, he would agree with us" (Quoted in Plass, 316; Also quoted in Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church: The German Reformation
(New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 535).
Schaff also agrees: “Had [Augustine] lived at the time of the Reformation, he would in all probability have taken the lead of the evangelical movement against the prevailing Pelagianism of the Roman Church” (Schaff, Nicene and Post Nicene Christianity
Schaff said concerning Luther: “Of all the fathers he learned from Augustine. For him he had the profoundest respect, and him he quotes more frequently than all others combined” (Schaff, The German Reformation
, 534). It is true that mere quotations do not prove that Luther was influenced by Augustine. But considering the enormity of quotations, combined with Luther’s early soteriological insights, and his favorable disposition towards Augustine, it would be hard to maintain that Augustine did not influence Luther in a positive way. Schaff says that Luther considered Augustine, “The best commentator and the patron of theologians” (Schaff, The German Reformation
, 534). Luther said, “[Augustine] pleased me and pleases me better than all the doctors; he was a great teacher, and worthy of all praise” (Schaff, The German Reformation
Augustine’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone to the exclusion of works was very influential in Luther’s theological career. Further, it would be hard to divorce Luther’s doctrine of the bondage of the will and predestination from Augustine as if he had no influence. In conclusion, we can say Luther was Augustinian because he emphasized the grace of God over and against similar Pelagian enemies. And finally, he did this using an Augustinian method: by Scripture via the Apostle Paul.