A reduced story of Luther looks like this: Luther was miserable and suffering under the law’s condemnation but in reading Romans and Galatians he discovered grace, justification by faith alone and imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Hence, from misery to joy.
Not so fast says Richard Rex in his fine (and very readable book), The Making of Martin Luther. Luther’s story was more gradual.
A few observations:
First, prior to Luther’s “conversion” he was reading and studying and commenting on and teaching the Bible, including both Psalms and Romans. He did so as a Catholic in the Ockhamist tradition and in tension somewhat with the Aristotelian tradition.
Second, as a Catholic Luther was obsessed with justice and justification, though he clearly was not yet Lutheran in his understanding. His approach was more along the line of obedience.
Luther’s overwhelming concern, however, arising from the very first psalm, was with the central theological issue of justice. It was to the understanding and explanation of justice and justification that he returned throughout the commentary—and it is this focus that has led some scholars to conclude that, because the words are there, his later and very distinctive understandings of justice and justification are also already present.
But, his views were not yet “Lutheran.” They were thoroughly Catholic:
Thus the mere passing comment that “we are co-workers with God” demonstrates that Luther was still well within the boundaries of medieval Catholicism.8 The concept of “cooperative grace” implicit in the claim that the faithful are co-workers (cooperatores) is worlds away from the strictly passive or instrumental role ascribed to human action and even volition in Luthers later understanding of salvation. Faith, grace, and justice (three pretty much interchangeable terms) are “given”—data — not (as much later) “imputed.” Justifl cation is continuous and progressive, not instantaneous. His understanding of salvation is entirely traditional: “The first root of all good is to put one’s will into the law of the Lord.” Far from believing in “justification by faith alone,” Luther’s first reference to faith in this commentary is his quotation from the Epistle of James: “Faith without works is dead.” Indeed, he censures the “stupid confidence” of those who think that they are saved because they are members of the people of God, because they are baptized believers, without any good works. Faith was a prerequisite for everything. But it was not everything. Christian justice came through faith in Christ, but it was still about works of justice. Christians, unlike Jews, “work towards God and fulfil the works of the Law before God.” Salvation for the early Luther, as for the late medieval Church, was ultimately about imitating Christ. The deeds of Christ, and of his saints, done in humility, poverty, and affliction, were examples set before the faithful for emulation.
Third, as a Catholic and not unlike others, Luther was virulently anti-Semitic. While Rex does not drudge up the mud by constant citation of the worst of his statements, Luther’s own notes on the Psalms clearly evidenced anti-Semitism.
The most striking feature of the commentary, at least to the modern eye, is its stridently anti-Jewish tone. Although there was then a clear Christian consensus that, at the time of Christ, the Jews had (with some exceptions) willfully and culpably rejected his Messianic claims and brought about his crucifixion, calling down upon themselves and their descendants the chastisement of divine providence, and although this consensus underpinned a general hostility towards Jews that ranged from a reluctant and grudging (though highly discriminatory) toleration by way of moral panic to sporadic mob violence and, ultimately, the option of forced conversion or expulsion, antiJewish rhetoric did not usually run right through Christian theological reflection. … In Luther’s commentaries, anti-Jewish rhetoric is well-nigh omnipresent, surfacing in almost every psalm, indeed on almost every page. Anti-Jewish ideas are not only endemic, but are systemically integral to the text, in that Luther construes the Jews and their interpretation of the “law” (i.e., the Old Testament scriptures, the Hebrew Bible) as the wrong end of a stark polarity between true and false justice. The Jews and their theology embody a complete inversion of the divine justice that is, for Luther, the crucial theme of the book of Psalms. They seek to justify themselves.
Fourth, when Luther turned to teaching Romans and making notes in his copy of Romans, his theology began to take on anti-Aristotelian polemics and pro-Augustinian theology. This occurs in the middle of the 1510s. The key to this shift in Luther — this gradual awakening — was discovery of the many anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, and they gave to Luther his opportunity of characteristic exaggeration, paradox and dichotomy.
He begins to suspect free will and human efforts and affirms the primacy of grace. He turns from polemics against Judaism to polemics against some in the church, and in particular, he sees the same problem in Catholics than he saw in Judaism. (This was a feature of E.P. Sanders in some ways.)
Fifth, Luther mistranslated something in Augustine and his mistranslation shaped Luther’s own theology in important ways.
Luther sees in Augustine, which he mistranslates, both a forgiveness of sin in baptism as well as sin’s continuance (he calls this concupiscense) after baptism though it is not considered sin after baptism. Augustine did not teach this; Luther thought he did.
But Saint Augustine put it excellently, saying that “the sin concupiscence is remitted in baptism not so that it does not exist, but so that it is not imputed.”
[Now to Rex’s footnote:] In this citation, Luther misplaced the word “peccatum.” Augustine’s words were: “concupiscentiam in baptismate remitti non ut non sit, sed ut non imputetur in peccatum,” namely, “concupiscence is remitted in baptism not so that it does not exist but so that it is not reckoned as sin.” Luther’s formulation here—”peccatum concupiscentiam in baptismate remitti, non ut non sit, sed ut non imputetur”—was the nearest he ever got to citing the text accurately. In countless later references, doubtless working from memory, he omitted the word “concupiscence” and spoke only of “sin.” Thus, for Luther, “sin” (rather than “concupiscence”) was what was said by Augustine to be forgiven but not entirely removed in baptism. This erroneous recollection was probably responsible for Luther’s original adoption of this idiosyncratic position, though he later argued that his position was justified from the words of Paul alone. Augustine always insisted that the concupiscence of the flesh was not sin in the baptized, because baptism took away all sin.
All of this emphasis on grace led him further from Aristotle and Aquinas and back to Augustine, though almost all of his contemporaries were Augustinian as well.
By the time Luther had finished with Romans, he had finished with Aristotle, and with the medieval theology that blended Aristotelianism with Christianity. This was openly proclaimed in an event he staged in Wittenberg at the end of summer 1517, the “Disputation against Scholastic Theology.” … The truth is that the human being, corrupted to the root, can neither desire nor perform anything but evil. … Almost all of Aristotle’s Ethics is completely opposed to grace.
The emphasis in popular preaching on the Aristotelian virtues and vices obscured from Christians the true reality of sin, which Luther now envisaged in a deeply Augustinian way as an endemic undercurrent of even the holiest life. Indeed, his understanding of sin was already “hyper-Augustinian,” in that his misreading of Augustine s conception of the “concupiscence of the flesh” took the debate onto a new level. Moreover, his antipathy to scholastic theology was leading him to misrepresent it. The understanding of justice and justification among scholastic theologians was for the most part formulated with careful attention to the teachings of Augustine, to whom almost all medieval Catholic theologians looked back as supreme among the “Fathers” of the Church. Luther, careless as ever of subtle distinctions, bundled them all together in a box, labelled it “Pelagians” and henceforth paid them even less attention.
And off he went.