Luther’s Views of Augustine & the Church Fathers

Luther’s Views of Augustine & the Church Fathers April 15, 2016
Martin Luther, 31 December 1525 (age 42), by Lucas Cranach the Elder [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Numbered excerpts are from Ewald M. Plass’s book of Luther citations, What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959; one-volume edition; tenth printing, 1994).

* * * * *

I ask the papists to note that I am doing them no injustice. They must certainly confess that their cause is not grounded in Scripture and that their faith and practice (Wesen) did not exist at the time of the apostles and martyrs — when the church was at its best — but was invented by men. My cause, however, is not contrary to Scripture, as they themselves must say, but is pure Scripture. . . . Let him who does not want Scripture stick to his own. We want Christ and not the pope. They, on the other hand, keep the pope and not Christ . . .(#3766, pp. 1178-1179; preface to sermon on Luke 17:11-19 in 1521)

All the world . . . must confess that we have the Gospel just as genuinely and purely as the apostles had it and that it has completely attained its original purity. (#2688, p. 861; address to the councilmen of Germany in 1524)

The papists themselves know and confess . . . that our teaching is not contrary to any article of faith or Holy Scripture . . . Therefore they have no right to dub us “heretics” . . . (#2699, p. 864; advice to friends after the Diet of Augsburg in 1530)

We teach nothing new. We teach what is old and what the apostles and all godly teachers have taught, inculcated, and established before us. (#2689, p. 861; exposition of Galatians 1:4 in 1531; citation also in LW, vol. 26, p. 39: “We are not teaching anything novel; we are repeating and confirming old doctrines”; in that source it is dated at 1535)

This message is not a novel invention of ours but the very ancient, approved teaching of the apostles brought to light again. Neither have we invented a new Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, Lord’s Prayer, and Creed; nor do we desire to know or to have anything new in Christendom. We only contend for, and hold to, the ancient: that which Christ and the apostles have left behind them and have given to us. But this we did do. Since we found all of this obscured by the pope with human doctrine, aye, decked out in dust and spider webs and all sorts of vermin, and flung and trodden into the mud besides, we have by God’s grace brought it out again, have cleansed it of this mess (Geschmeiss), wiped off the dust, brushed it, and brought it to the light of day. Accordingly, it shines again in purity, and everybody may see what Gospel, Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, keys, prayer, and everything that Christ has given us really is and how it should be used for our salvation. (#3771, pp. 1180-1181; exposition of John 16:13 in 1537; citation also in LW, vol. 24, p. 368)

We have the true doctrine, we know that we do not err, and we refuse to be called schismatics in the sight of God because of our teaching; for the Word of God is beyond criticism (unstraflich). Although they are calling us heretics, God and our hearts know that they are doing us an injustice. Moreover, they themselves know that our teaching is that of Holy Scripture . . . But as long as God is gracious to us, let the devil with all his crew be angry. (#2696, p. 864; sermon on John 3:25-27 on 28 June, 1539)

We bear a great load of hatred because it is said that we have fallen away from the ancient church . . . But we are falsely accused. For if we want to confess the truth, we must say that we fell away from the Word when we were still in their church. Now we have returned to the Word and have ceased to be apostates from the Word. (#2690, p. 862; lectures on Genesis 7:16-24, c. 1539; citation also in LW, vol. 2, p. 102, along with the delightful statement on p. 101: “we are His church, but . . . the papists are the church of Satan.”)

This theology was not born with us, as those blasphemers, the papists, clamor. It was neither thought up nor invented by us. The holy Paul transmits it and cites Moses as a witness for it . . . (#2687, p. 861; lectures on Genesis 15:6, c. 1539; citation also in LW, vol. 3, p. 26)

But what would you say if I were to prove that we stayed with the true, ancient church, nay, that we are the true, ancient church, but that you fell away from us, that is, from the ancient church, and established a new church, in opposition to the ancient one? . . .

Now the papists know that in all these points and in whatever other points there are we agree with the ancient church and may in truth be called the ancient church. For these points of doctrine are not new, nor have we invented them. One therefore wonders how they (our adversaries) can afford to belie and condemn us so shamelessly as people who have fallen away fro the church and have “started a new church.” After all, they can find nothing new about us, nothing that was not held in the ancient and true church at the time of the apostles. (#2695, p. 863; Against Hans Wurst (Jack Sausage), 1541; written to Count Henry of Brunswick)

Is it not provoking that the Word of the Lord Christ, nay, of the holy prophets and fathers from the beginning of the world, should be called a “new faith” by those who call themselves Christians? For we certainly neither preach nor desire to preach anything that differs from what you yourself read in the writings of the prophets and the apostles . . . And this doctrine of the Gospel is to be called nothing but a novelty! Why? Because men neither knew it nor preached it twenty or thirty years ago. They do not want to know (what as teachers of Christendom they certainly should teach others) that this is the doctrine and the faith which for fifteen hundred years since the birth of Christ, nay, longer, for five thousand years from the beginning of the world, was preached by the fathers and the prophets and is clearly revealed in Holy Scripture. (#2686, pp. 860-861; sermon on Luke 19:41-48 at Leipzig on 12 August 1545)

We can prove that our faith is not new and of unknown origin but that it is the oldest faith of all, which began and continued from the beginning of the world. (#2685, p. 860; sermon on Matthew 8:23-27 on 31 January 1546)

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So Luther thinks Lutheranism is the “ancient church” of the apostles and fathers (while Catholicism fell away from the same), yet on the other hand he contradicts himself by noting that the fathers were often wrong (even en masse, not just in isolated cases) in their theology:

I tell you it is difficult to stand before the impact (Puff) of the argument that holy people such as St. Augustine and others were subject to error. For about twenty years I have been greatly concerned about this matter, have argued with myself about it, and have been troubled by the fact that one does not believe all the pope says; likewise, that the church should be in error, and that I should really believe all that the fathers say. This view certainly had a great appearance and reputation, for they were considered great teachers of the church, and all emperors, kings, and princes of the world held to them and their teaching; and all the multitudes in the papacy (which possesses the kingdoms and the goods of the world) hold to their view. What are we compared to them? A small, poor, lowly flock . . .

No one believes what a great obstacle this is and how deeply it offends a person to teach and believe something contrary to the fathers. I, too, have often had this experience. Again, it is an offense to see that so many fine, sensible, learned people, nay, the better and greater part of the world, have held and taught this and that; likewise, so many holy people, as St. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Nevertheless the one Man, my dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, must certainly mean more to me than all the holiest people on earth, nay, more even than all the angels of heaven if they teach otherwise than the Gospel teaches or if they add anything to, or detract anything from, the teaching of the divine Word. When I read the books of St. Augustine and find that he, too, did this and that, it truly disconcerts me very much. When to this is added the cry: Church! Church! that hurts most of all. For it is truly a difficult task to conquer your own heart in this matter and to depart from the people who enjoy a great reputation and such a holy name, aye, from the church herself, and no longer to rely on and believe her teaching. But I mean that church of which they say: The church has decreed that the rule of St. Francis and St. Dominic, and the order of monks and nuns, is right, Christian, and good. This truly offends a person. However, I must, in a word, answer that I need not pick up everything that anybody says; for a man may be a pious and God-fearing person and yet be in error. (#2710-2711, p. 868; sermon on John 3:23-24 on 16 March 1538)

As with most anti-Catholic rhetoric, then and now, there are always vague yet sweeping, confident accusations of more or less complete apostasy, while there is a corresponding unwillingness to stake claims as to when and how all of this momentous corruption took place. The mythical “case against Catholicism” weakens and starts to collapse in direct proportion to how specific it is, and with attempted content and substance. Lutheranism is the ancient Church, but at the same time it isn’t, because all those fathers were mere men and erred constantly, and we must follow Christ alone and the Bible, etc., etc. ad nauseum. This is the self-contradiction running through the whole Lutheran claim regarding its ancient pedigree. It is only “ancient” when it agrees with Catholic teachings. When it does not, it isn’t ancient; it is a novelty and corruption. It’s really as simple as that.

The Catholic Church either fell away shortly after the apostolic age, or it did indeed preserve the Christian faith entire and intact in the nearly 15oo years between the apostles and the birth of Prophet Luther: Restorer of the Gospel and All Good Christian Things. If it preserved apostolic doctrine at all, then there is a legitimate patristic tradition that the Catholic Church can rightly draw from (as it does). Luther cannot discount Church history entirely, so he gives lip service to it now and then. In the same exposition on John 16:13 cited above, Luther also wrote:

. . . our predecessors also had the same scripture, Baptism, and everything. Yet it was all so soiled with mud and so encrusted with filth that no one could recognize it . . . this same teaching and Scripture has also been accepted by the pope and all the sects. (LW, vol. 24, p. 368)


Luther could be remarkably deferential to Catholic Tradition when it served his purpose. Perhaps the most striking instance of this occurred in his treatise, Concerning Rebaptism: A Letter to Two Pastors, from 1528 (LW, vol. 40, 225-262):

[231] In the first place I hear and see that such rebaptism is undertaken by some in order to spite the pope and to be free of any taint of the Antichrist. In the same way the foes of the sacrament want to believe only in bread and wine, in opposition to the pope, thinking thereby really to overthrow the papacy. It is indeed a shaky foundation on which they can build nothing good. On that basis we would have to disown the whole of Scripture and the office of the ministry, which of course we have received from the papacy. We would also have to make a new Bible.

. . . We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source. For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, [232] the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed . . . I speak of what the pope and we have in common . . . I contend that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints.

. . . The Christendom that now is under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it. If it is his body, then it has the true spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, the office of the ministry, prayer, holy Scripture, and everything that pertains to Christendom. So we are all still under the papacy and therefrom have received our Christian treasures.

. . . We do not rave as do the rebellious spirits, so as to reject everything that is found in the papal church. For then we would cast out even Christendom from the temple of God, and all that it contained of Christ. . . .

. . . [256] if the first, or child, baptism were not right, it would follow that for more than a thousand years there was no baptism or any Christendom, which is impossible. For in that case the article of the creed, I believe in one holy Christian church, would be false . . . [257] If this baptism is wrong then for that long period Christendom would have been without baptism, and if it were without baptism it would not be Christendom. (LW, vol. 40, pp. 231-232, 256-257)

Luther was equally adamant about the true tradition of the Holy Eucharist:

Moreover, this article has been unanimously believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to the present hour, as may be shown from the books and writings of the dear fathers, both in the Greek and Latin languages, — which testimony of the entire holy Christian Church ought to be sufficient for us, even if we had nothing more. For it is dangerous and dreadful to hear or believe anything against the unanimous testimony, faith, and doctrine of the entire holy Christian Church, as it has been held unanimously in all the world up to this year 1500. Whoever now doubts of this, he does just as much as if he believed in no Christian Church, and condemns not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but Christ Himself, and all the Apostles and Prophets, who founded this article, when we say, “I believe in a holy Christian Church,” to which Christ bears powerful testimony in Matt. 28.20: “Lo, I am with you alway, to the end of the world,” and Paul, in 1 Tim. 3.15: “The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth.” (Letter to Albrecht, Margrave of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, 1532, cited by Philip Schaff in The Life and Labours of St. Augustine, Oxford University: 1854, 95. Italics are Schaff’s own; partially cited also in Roland Bainton, Studies on the Reformation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, 26; from WA, Vol. XXX, 552)

Schaff, writing in The Reformed Quarterly Review (July, 1888, p. 295), cites the passage and (apparently due to better sources) translates one portion a little differently (my italics):

The testimony of the entire holy Christian Church (even without any other proof) should be sufficient for us to abide by this article and to listen to no sectaries against it.

So he claims to be upholding the “sacrament of the altar” yet he has ditched eucharistic adoration and the notion of the sacrifice of the mass, which were every bit as much of the ancient Christian understanding of the Holy Eucharist as the Real Presence (that he retains without accepting a complete change of substance; in 1520 he called transubstantiation “a monstrous idea” and the Mass “wicked”). Therefore, if the Church went off the rails in these matters, it did so very early on. At least (given the choice) Luther have preferred transubstantiation to the bare eucharistic symbolism of Zwingli and the Anabaptists:

Before I would drink mere wine with the Enthusiasts, I would rather have pure blood with the Pope. (in Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 376; from the early 1520s; cf. LW, vol. 37, 317)

Again in 1538 Luther writes:

Yes, we ourselves find it difficult to refute it, especially since we concede — as we must — that so much of what they say is true: that the papacy has God’s word and the office of the apostles, and that we have received Holy Scripture, Baptism, the Sacrament, and the pulpit from them. What would we know of these if it were not for them? Therefore, faith, the Christian Church, Christ, and the Holy Spirit must also be found among them. . . .

Thus we are also compelled to say: “I believe and am sure that the Christian Church has remained even in the papacy” . . . And yet some of the papists are true Christians, even though they, too, have been led astray, as Christ foretold in Matt. 24:24. But by the grace of God and with His help they have been preserved in a wonderful manner. 
(Exposition on John 16:1-2; 1538; LW, vol. 24, 304-305; WA, Vol. 46, 5 ff.)

Luther’s self-contradictory thought can be seen in the remarks in the same context that were passed over by the ellipses above:

On the other hand, I know that most of the papists are not the Christian Church, even though they give everyone the impression that they are. Today our popes, cardinals, and bishops are not God’s apostles and bishops; they are the devil’s. And their people are not God’s people; they are the devil’s. And yet . . .

So the Catholic Church is or was the true Church but it wasn’t and isn’t (and/but it is, nonetheless, despite almost universal apostasy, else Lutheranism couldn’t have received all the truly Christian endowments from it). If Luther wasn’t given to such extreme rhetoric back and forth, perhaps his message could at least be self-consistent. But he can’t sit there in the face of massive contrary historical facts, and say that Lutheranism hasn’t changed anything that was orthodox and true and good from the previous 1500 years. I myself have documented that Luther took different views in no less than 50 areas, just in the three treatises of 1520 alone:

1. Separation of justification from sanctification.
2. Extrinsic, forensic, imputed notion of justification.
3. Fiduciary faith.
4. Private judgment over against ecclesial infallibility.
5. Tossing out seven books of the Bible.
6. Denial of venial sin.
7. Denial of merit.
8. The damned should be happy that they are damned and accept God’s will.
9. Jesus offered Himself for damnation and possible hellfire.
10. No good work can be done except by a justified man.
11. All baptized men are priests (denial of the sacrament of ordination).
12. All baptized men can give absolution.
13. Bishops do not truly hold that office; God has not instituted it.
14. Popes do not truly hold that office; God has not instituted it.
15. Priests have no special, indelible character.
16. Temporal authorities have power over the Church; even bishops and popes; to assert the contrary was a mere presumptuous invention.
17. Vows of celibacy are wrong and should be abolished.
18. Denial of papal infallibility.
19. Belief that unrighteous priests or popes lose their authority (contrary to Augustine’s rationale against the Donatists).
20. The keys of the kingdom were not just given to Peter.
21. Private judgment of every individual to determine matters of faith.
22. Denial that the pope has the right to call or confirm a council.
23. Denial that the Church has the right to demand celibacy of certain callings.
24. There is no such vocation as a monk; God has not instituted it.
25. Feast days should be abolished, and all church celebrations confined to Sundays.
26. Fasts should be strictly optional.
27. Canonization of saints is thoroughly corrupt and should stop.
28. Confirmation is not a sacrament.
29. Indulgences should be abolished.
30. Dispensations should be abolished.
31. Philosophy (Aristotle as prime example) is an unsavory, detrimental influence on Christianity.
32. Transubstantiation is “a monstrous idea.”
33. The Church cannot institute sacraments.
34. Denial of the “wicked” belief that the mass is a good work.
35. Denial of the “wicked” belief that the mass is a true sacrifice.
36. Denial of the sacramental notion of ex opere operato.
37. Denial that penance is a sacrament.
38. Assertion that the Catholic Church had “completely abolished” even the practice of penance.
39. Claim that the Church had abolished faith as an aspect of penance.
40. Denial of apostolic succession.
41. Any layman who can should call a general council.
42. Penitential works are worthless.
43. None of what Catholics believe to be the seven sacraments have any biblical proof.
44. Marriage is not a sacrament.
45. Annulments are a senseless concept and the Church has no right to determine or grant annulments.
46. Whether divorce is allowable is an open question.
47. Divorced persons should be allowed to remarry.
48. Jesus allowed divorce when one partner committed adultery.
49. The priest’s daily office is “vain repetition.”
50. Extreme unction is not a sacrament (there are only two sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist).

Now, would anyone in their right mind suggest that these 50 things changed nothing that was present in the “ancient Church”? Obviously, they can easily be traced back, with plenty of documentation. I’ve done much of this myself. I just showed in a paper, for example, that St. Augustine believed in all seven Catholic sacraments. But Luther retained only two (see above: #11, 12, 15, 28, 33, 37, 42, 43, 44, 50). So for 1500 years according to Luther, five of the sacraments were an aspect of the “church of Satan” and no part of Christian truth. That would come as strange news indeed to the Church fathers.

Luther’s and Lutherans’ opinion of St. Augustine in particular is a fascinating study (Luther having once been an Augustinian monk). I have written about that previously, in a joint project with Anglican Church historian, Dr. Edwin Tait: “The Ambiguous Relationship of Luther and the Early Protestants to St. Augustine.” Later in life Luther let down his guard altogether and said things like the following about the Church fathers:

Behold what great darkness is in the books of the Fathers concerning faith . . . Augustine wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith. (#526) 

The more I read the books of the Fathers, the more I find myself offended. (#530) 

Jerome should not be numbered among the teachers of the church, for he was a heretic. (#535) (Table-Talk; edition translated by William Hazlitt, Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, n.d., 286-289)

The Lutherans who followed Luther became even more far-fetched in their historical claims. I wrote in the above paper:

I looked up every single reference to St. Augustine in my copy of the Book of Concord (the doctrinal standard for Lutheranism). Without exception it claims that Augustine is in full agreement with Lutheran doctrine. Furthermore, it makes outright false factual claims, such as that Augustine denied ex opere operato (the notion that the sacraments have inherent power apart from the dispenser or recipient), purgatory . . .

So we see the usual Protestant project of trying to co-opt the Fathers (above all, St. Augustine) for their purposes and views (in an effort to show that Protestantism is entirely “catholic” and in accord with the best of all previous Christian tradition), in the Book of Concord. But the attempt fails miserably, because, as we have seen, modern Protestant scholarship shows many profound differences between Protestantism and St. Augustine, particularly with regard to soteriology and justification in particular.

Philip Melanchthon, in his letter to Johann Brenz (May 1531), illustrates how the Protestants had departed from patristic precedent:

Avert your eyes from such a regeneration of man and from the Law and look only to the promises and to Christ . . . Augustine is not in agreement with the doctrine of Paul, though he comes nearer to it than do the Schoolmen. I quote Augustine as in entire agreement, although he does not sufficiently explain the righteousness of faith; this I do because of public opinion concerning him. (in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, six volumes, translated by E. M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 2nd edition, 1914, vol. 4, 459-460)

Dr. Tait translated a portion of the above:

Augustine does not fully accord with Paul’s pronouncement, even though he gets closer to it than the Scholastics. And I cite Augustine as fully agreeing with us on account of the public conviction about him, even though he does not explain the righteousness of faith well enough.

He noted that the Protestants were not straightforwardly telling the entire truth about St. Augustine:

They were not above claiming Augustine and neglecting to make it clear that the agreement was not total. 

. . . at least one Reformer was willing to exaggerate the degree of Augustine’s agreement with him for polemical purposes.
It certainly does indicate Melanchthon’s use of some degree of “dissimulation” . . .

Luther biographer Hartmann Grisar elaborates on Melanchthon’s questionable approach to St. Augustine in this respect:

We must come back in detail to the allegations made in the Confession, and more particularly in the Apology that Augustine was in favour of the Lutheran doctrine of Justification ; this is all the more necessary since Reformers, at the outset, were fond of claiming the authority of Augustine on their behalf. . . . According to the authentic version, Melanchthon’s words were: “That, concerning the doctrine of faith, no new interpretation had been introduced, could be proved from Augustine, who treats diligently of this matter and teaches that we obtain grace and are justified before God by faith in Christ and not by works, as his whole book De Spiritu et littera proves.”

The writer of these words felt it necessary to explain to Brenz why he had ventured to claim this Father as being in “entire agreement.” He had done so because this was “the general opinion concerning him (propter publicam de eo persuasionem), 3 though, as a matter of fact, he did not sufficiently expound the justificatory potency of faith. . . . In the Apology of the Confession, he continues, “I expounded more fully the doctrine [of faith alone], but was not able to speak there as I do now to you, although, on the whole, I say the same thing; it was not to be thought of on account of the calumnies of our opponents.” Thus in the Apology also, even when it was a question of the cardinal point of the new teaching, Melanchthon was of set purpose having recourse to dissimulation. If he had only to fear the calumnies of opponents, surely his best plan would have been to silence them by telling them in all frankness what the Lutheran position really was ; otherwise he had no right to stigmatise their attack on weak points of Luther s doctrine as mere calumnies. Yet, even in the “Apologia,” he appeals repeatedly to Augustine in order to shelter the main Lutheran contentions concerning faith, grace, and good works under the aegis of his name. 4


2 ” Symb. Biicher,” p. 45. The Latin text runs : ” Tola hcec causa habet testimonia patrum. Nam Augustinus multis voluminibus defendit gratiam et iustitiam ftdei contra merita operum. Et similia docet Ambrosius. . . . Quamquam autem haec doctrina (iustiflcationis) contemnitur ab imperitis, tamen experiuntur pice ac pavidce conscientice plurimam cam consolationis afferre.”

3 In the letter to Brenz mentioned above.

4 Cp. the passages, ” Symb. Biicher,” pp. 92, 104, 151, 218. On p. 104 in the article De iustificatione he quotes Augustine, De spir. et litt., in support of Luther’s interpretation of Paul s doctrine of Justification. On p. 218 he foists this assertion on the Catholics, “homines sine Spiritu Sancto posse . . . mereri gratiam et iustificationem operibus,” and says, that this was refuted by Augustine, ” cuius sententiam supra in articulo de iustificatione recitavimus.” (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 3, pp. 333-334)

We can understand how Dollinger, in his work Die Reformation, after referring to Melanchthon’s palpable self-contradictions, speaks of his solemn appeal to the doctrine of St. Augustine as an intentional and barefaced piece of deception, an untruth “which he deemed himself allowed.” Dollinger, without mincing matters, speaks of his “dishonesty,” and relentlessly brands his misleading statements ; they leave us to choose between two alternatives, either he was endeavouring to deceive and trick the Catholics, or he had surrendered the most important and distinctive Protestant doctrines, and was ready to lend a hand in re-establishing the Catholic teaching.

[Footnote: 5 Die Reformation, 1, p. 358 ff. The page-heading reads: “Melanchthons absichtliche und Gffentlicho Uiiwahrheit.”] (Grisar, ibid., vol. 3, 342)

Grisar provides several instances of Luther’s own dishonesty in presenting the (alleged) opinions of St. Augustine:

Luther cannot assure us sufficiently often that man is nothing but sin, and sins in everything. His reason is that concupiscence remains in man after baptism. This concupiscence he looks upon as real sin, in fact it is the original sin, enduring original sin, so that original sin is not removed by baptism, remains obdurate to all subsequent justifying grace, and, until death, can, at the utmost, only be diminished. He says expressly, quite against the Church’s teaching, that original sin is only covered over in baptism, and he tries to support this by a misunderstood text from Augustine and by misrepresenting Scholasticism.

Augustine teaches with clearness and precision in many passages that original sin is blotted out by baptism and entirely remitted; Luther, however, quotes him to the opposite effect. The passage in question occurs in De nuptiis et concupiscentia (1., c. xxv., n. 28) where Luther makes this Father say: sin (peccatum) is forgiven in baptism, not so that it no longer remains, but that it is no longer imputed. Whereas what Augustine actually says is : the concupiscence of the flesh is forgiven, etc. (“dimitti concupiscentiam carnis non ut non sit, sed ut in peccatum non imputetur“). And yet Luther was acquainted with the true reading of the passage which is really opposed to his view as he had annotated it in the margin of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, where it is correctly given. Luther, after having thus twisted the passage as above, employs if frequently later. In the original lecture on the Epistle to the Romans he has, it is true, added to the text, after the word “peccatum,” the word “concupiscentia,” as the new editor points out, in excuse of

Luther. But on the preceding page Luther adds in exactly the same way in two passages of his own text where he speaks of “peccatum,” the word ” concupiscentia,” so that his addition to Augustine cannot be regarded as a mere correction of a false citation, all the less since the incorrect form is found unaltered elsewhere in his writings. . . .

Luther was able to introduce the continuance of original sin into Augustine’s writings only by forcing their meaning (see above, his alteration of concupiscentia into peccatum, p. 98). (in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, six volumes, translated by E. M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 2nd edition, 1914, vol. 1, 98-99, 156)

Luther also quotes St. Augustine, but does not interpret him correctly. He even overlooks the fact that this Father, in one of the passages alleged, says the very opposite to his new ideas on unconditional predestination to hell, and attributes in every case the fate of the damned to their own moral misdeeds. Augustine says, in his own profound, concise way, in the text quoted by Luther: “the saved may not pride himself on his merits, and the damned may only bewail his demerits.” 1 In his meditations on the ever-inscrutable mystery he regards the sinner’s fault as entirely voluntary, and his revolt against the eternal God as, on this account, worthy of eternal damnation. Augustine teaches that “to him as to every man who comes into this world ” salvation was offered with a wealth of means of grace and with all the merits of Christ’s bitter death on the cross. 2


1 ” Schol. Rom.,” p. 230, and August., “Enchiridion ad Laurent.,” c. 98, Migne, P. L., xl., p. 278.

2 S. Aug., “Contra lulianum,” 6, n. 8, 14, 24; “Opus imperf.,” 1, c. 64, c. 132 seq., 175 : ” De catechiz. rudibus,” n. 52 ; ” De spiritu et litt.,” c. 33 ; “Retract,” 1, c. 10, n. 2. Cp. Comely, p. 494, on some exegetical peculiarities of Augustine. ] (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 1, 195-196)

He continued to rifle St. Augustine’s writings for passages which were apparently favourable to his views. He says, later, that he ran through the writings of this Father of the Church with such eagerness that he devoured rather than read them. He certainly did not allow himself sufficient time to appreciate properly the profound teachings of this, the greatest Father of the Church, and best authority on grace and justification. Even Protestant theologians now admit that he quoted Augustine where the latter by no means agrees with him. His own friends and contemporaries, such as Melanchthon, for instance, admitted the contradiction existing between Luther s ideas and those of St. Augustine on the most vital points; it was, however, essential that this Father of the Church, so Melanchthon writes to one of his confidants, should be cited as in “entire agreement” on account of the high esteem in which he was generally held. Luther himself was, consciously or unconsciously, in favour of these tactics; he tampered audaciously with the text of the Doctor of the Church in order to extract from his writings proofs favourable to his own doctrine; or at the very least, trusting to his memory, he made erroneous citations, when it would have been easy for him to verify the quotations at their source; the only excuse to be alleged on his behalf in so grave a matter of faith and conscience is his excessive precipitation and his superficiality. (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 1, 305-306)

However his convictions may have stood, he certainly, in his earlier writings, claimed Augustine in support of his doctrine of the absence of free-will, particularly on account of a passage in the work “Contra Julianum,” which Luther repeats and applies under various forms. [1, 2, c. 8, n. 23] There can, of course, be no question of St. Augustine’s having actually been a partisan, whether here or elsewhere, of the Lutheran doctrine of the “enslaved will.” ” These and other passages from St. Augustine which Luther quotes in proof of the unfreedom of the will really tell against him; he either tears them from their context or else he falsifies their meaning.” He is equally unfair when, in his Commentary on Romans and frequently elsewhere, he appeals to this Doctor of the Church in defence of his opinion, that, after baptism, sin really still persists in man, likewise in his doctrine of concupiscence in general, where he even fails to quote his texts correctly. He alters the sense of Augustine’s words with regard to the keeping of God s commandments, the difference between venial and mortal sin, and the virtues of the just. (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 4, 459)

Luther (not able to ever totally shake off the great Augustine) was still referring to him as unique among the fathers (while dishonestly slamming all the other fathers) as late as 1541:

We find not merely obscurity, but actual error, particularly in his account of the traditional interpretation and that which he had himself begun to advocate of the lustitia Dei (Rom. i. 17). Luther is, in this matter, the originator of the great legend still current even in our own day, which represents him as a Columbus discovering therein the central truth set forth by Paul ; no one had been able to find the key to the passage before his glance penetrated to the truth. All the learned men of earlier times had said that iustitia there meant the avenging Justice of an angry God. As a matter of fact, in Luther’s lectures on Genesis in 1540-41, it is asserted that all the doctors of the Church, with the exception of Augustine, had misunderstood the verses Romans i. 16 f.; Luther s Preface to his Latin works to some extent presupposes the same, for he says that he had, ” according to the custom and use of all doctors” (“usu et consuetudine omnium doctorum doctus“), understood the passage as meaning that justice ” by which God is Just and punishes sin,” and only Augustine, with whom he had made common cause, had found the right interpretation (“iustitiam Dei interpretatur, qua nos Deus induit“), although even the latter did not teach imputation clearly (see above, p. 392). . . .

Denifle, . . . proves by the testimony of more than sixty interpreters of antiquity, that all are unanimous in taking the iustitia Dei in St. Paul in the same sense as St. Augustine, viz. as the Justice by which God renders men just. (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 1, pp. 400-401)

Grisar writes of Luther’s conflicted, ambivalent relationship to St. Augustine:

It is not surprising that at a later date Luther hesitated to appeal to St. Augustine in support of his doctrine so confidently as he once had done. Augustine and all the Doctors of the Church are decidedly against him. On the publication of the complete edition of his works in Latin Luther expressed himself in the preface very diplomatically concerning Augustine: “In the matter of imputation he does not explain everything clearly.” Naturally the greatest teacher on grace, who lays such stress on its supernatural character and its gifts in the soul of the righteous, could not fail to disagree with him, seeing that Luther s system culminates in the assurance, that grace is the merest imputation in which man has no active share, a mere favour on God s part, “favor Dei.” . . .

. . . his strictures on Augustine and the Fathers in his lectures of 1527 on the 1st Epistle of St. John, and in his later Table-Talk prove, that, as time went on he had given up all idea of finding in these authorities any confirmation of his doctrine on faith alone and works. (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 4, 439, 458-459)

In conclusion, let’s marvel at Luther’s numerous self-exalting, comically surreal utterances placing himself far above the fathers:

“On one occasion when I was consoling a man on the loss of his son he, too, said to me: You will see, Martin, you will become a great man ! I often call this to mind, for such words have something of the omen or oracle about them.” . . .

“In Popery such darkness prevailed that they taught neither the Ten Commandments, nor the Creed, nor the Our Father ; such knowledge was considered quite superfluous.” . . .

“Before my day nothing was known,” . . .

“I wrote so usefully and splendidly concerning the secular authorities as no teacher has ever done since Apostolic times, save perhaps St. Augustine; of this I may boast with a good conscience, relying on the testimony of the whole world.”

[Vom Kriege widder die Turcken, 1529]

. . . ” Not one of the Fathers ever wrote anything remarkable or particularly good concerning matrimony. … In marriage they saw only evil luxury. . . . They fell into the ocean of sensuality and evil lusts.” ” But [by my preaching] God with His Word and by His peculiar Grace has restored, before the Last Day, matrimony, secular authority and the preaching office to their rightful position, as He instituted and ordained them, in order that we might behold His own institutions in what hitherto had been but shams.”

The Papists “know nothing about Holy Scripture, or what God is … or what Baptism or the Sacrament.” But thanks to me “we now have the Gospel almost as pure and undefiled as the Apostles had it.”

“Not for a thousand years has God bestowed such great gifts on any bishop as He has on me; for it is our duty to extol God’s gifts.” . . .

“Our Lord God had to summon Moses six times; me, too, He has led in the same way. . . . Others who lived before me attacked the wicked and scandalous life of the Pope; but I assailed his very doctrine and stormed in upon the monkery and the Mass, on which two pillars the whole Papacy rests. . . .”

“I am he to whom God first revealed it.”

“Show me a single passage on justification by faith in the Decrees, Decretals, Clementines, ” Liber Sextus ” or “Extravagantes,” in any of the Summas, books of Sentences, monkish sermons, synodal definitions, collegial or monastic Rules, in any Postils, in any work of Jerome and Gregory, in any decisions of the Councils, in any disputations of the theologians, in any lectures of any University, in any Mass or Vigil of any Church, in any “Ceremoniale Episcoporum,” in the institutes of any monastery, in any manual of any confraternity or guild, in any pilgrims book anywhere, in the pious exercises of any Saint, in any Indulgence, Bull, anywhere in the Papal Chancery or the Roman Curia or in the Curia of any bishop. And yet it was there that the doctrine of faith should have been expressed in all its fulness.”

“My Evangel,” that was what was wanting. “I have, praise be to God, achieved more reformation by my Evangel than they probably would have done even by five Councils. . . .”

“I believe I have summoned such a Council and effected such a reformation as will make the ears of the Papists tingle and their heart burst with malice. … In brief: It is Luther s own Reformation.” . . .

“Chrysostom was a mere gossip. Jerome, the good Father, and lauder of nuns, understood precious little of Christianity. . . .”

“See what darkness prevailed among the Fathers of the Church concerning faith ! Once the article concerning justification was obscured it became impossible to stem the course of error. St. Jerome writes on Matthew, on Galatians and on Titus, but how paltry it all is! Ambrose wrote six books on Genesis, but what poor stuff they are! Augustine never writes powerfully on faith except when assailing the Pelagians. . . . They left not a single commentary on Romans and Galatians that is worth anything. Oh, how great, on the other hand, is our age in purity of doctrine, and yet, alas, we despise it! . . .”

“Nevertheless I never should have attained to the great abundance of Divine gifts, which I am forced to confess and admit, unless Satan had tried me with temptations; without these temptations pride would have cast me into the abyss of hell.” . . .

“I say that all Christian truth had perished amongst those who ought to have been its upholders, viz. the bishops and learned men. Yet I do not doubt that the truth has survived in some hearts, even though only in those of babes in the cradle.”

[Grund und Ursach aller Artickel, 1521]

. . . Luther, at the very commencement of the tract which he published soon after leaving the Wartburg, and in which he describes himself as “Ecclesiastes by the grace of God,” says: “Should you, dear Sirs, look upon me as a fool for my assumption of so haughty a title,” I should not be in the least surprised; he adds, however: “I am convinced of this, that Christ Himself, Who is the Master of my teaching, calls me thus and regards me as such”; his “Word, office and work” had come to him “from God,” and his “judgment was God’s own” no less than his doctrine.

[Wyder den falsch genantten Standt des Bapst und der Bischoffen, with the sub-title: “Martin Luther, by God’s grace Ecclesiastes at Wittenberg, to the Popish Bishops my service and to them know ledge in Christ,” ” Werke,” Weim. ed., 10, 2, p. 105 ff. ; Erl. ed., 28, p. 142 ff. The book was partly written at the Wartburg (see Introd. in the Weim. ed., 10, 2, p. 93 f.), and was published in 1522, probably in Aug.]

. . . “Formerly no one knew what the Gospel was, what Christ, or baptism, or confession, or the Sacrament was, what faith, what spirit, what flesh, what good works, the Ten Commandments, the Our Father, prayer, suffering, consolation, secular authority,. matrimony, parents or children were, what master, servant, wife, maid, devils, angels, world, life, death, sin, law, forgiveness, God, bishop, pastor, or Church was, or what was a Christian, or what the cross; in fine, we knew nothing whatever of all a Christian ought to know. Everything was hidden and overborne by the Pope-Ass. For they are donkeys, great, rude, unlettered donkeys in Christian things. . . . But now, thank God, things are better and male and female, young and old, know the Catechism. . . . The things mentioned above have again emerged into the light.” The Papists, however, “will not suffer any one of these things. . . . You must help us [so they say] to prevent anyone from learning the Ten Commandments, the Our Father and Creed; or about baptism, the Sacrament, faith, authority, matrimony or the Gospel. . . . You must lend us a hand so that, in place of marriage, Christendom may again be filled with fornication, adultery and other unnatural and shameful vices.”

[Warnunge an seine lieben Deudschen, 1530] (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 4, 330-332, 334-336, 338, 341, 343)

“Such honour and glory have I by the grace of God whether it be to the taste or not of the devil and his brood that, since the days of the Apostles, no doctor, scribe, theologian or lawyer has confirmed, instructed and comforted the consciences of the secular Estates so well and lucidly as I have done by the peculiar grace of God. Of this I am confident. For neither St. Augustine nor St. Ambrose, who are the greatest authorities in this field, are here equal to me. . . . Such fame as this must be and remain known to God and to men even should they go raving mad over it.”

[Verantwortung der auffgelegten Auffrur, 1533] (in Grisar, ibid., vol. 5, 59-60)


Meta Description: Martin Luther tried to sometimes claim Augustine for himself, but he was quite hostile towards the Church fathers in general.

Meta Keywords: Church fathers, Fathers of the Church, Luther & Augustine, Luther & the Church Fathers, patristics, patrology, Protestants & Augustine, Reformers & Augustine, St. Augustine

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