Infusion, Imputation, and Luther

Infusion, Imputation, and Luther November 13, 2014

Distinguishing Catholic-infused from Protestant-imputed is difficult to sustain, since Luther frequently claims that justifying righteousness is “within” rather than “outside.” 

Luther’s 1520 treatise The Freedom of a Christian provides some rich material for this investigation. This is a very early treatise, and does not represent in every respect Luther’s mature understanding of justification, but it is clearly a Reformation treatise, written by all accounts at least two years after his “Reformation breakthrough.” It is thus important evidence that helps us to determine the actual differences between Catholic and Protestant.

In the course of this treatise, Luther addresses the question of how a sinner becomes righteous. Probably drawing from Staupitz, he answers using a marital metaphor. Just as a husband and wife have “everything . . . in common,” so too Christ shares all He has with the believing soul, even as He accepts all that the soul has to offer Him:

the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see the inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation shall be the soul’s, for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. . . . Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.

Luther does not describe righteousness as “imputed” or “accounted” to the sinner. Marriage is a legal institution, and to that extent Luther is operating in legal categories. But the description of justification emphasizes less the legal arrangements of the marriage than the personal relationship, the giving and receiving, between husband and wife. Righteousness is not legally imputed but shared, and it becomes the sinner’s possession just as truly as the wealth of a marriage becomes the wife’s.

So we may ask, In what sense is this a Protestant doctrine of justification?

A second passage from the same treatise is, if anything, more striking. Luther begins the treatise by distinguishing the “inner man” and the “outer man,” and argues that faith pertains to the “inner man” while works pertain to the “outer man.” By faith, Christ is united to the inner man, and this is why faith is superior to all works. This union of Christ the Righteous with the inner man is the presupposition for the sinner’s reception of righteousness:

No good work can rely upon the Word of God or live in the soul, for faith alone and the Word of God rule in the soul. Just as the heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it, so the Word imparts its qualities to the soul. It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no work to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law.

In the image of the iron and fire, the Word is the fire and the soul is the iron. Just as fire imparts its qualities to iron that is united with it, so the Word imparts His qualities to the soul that is united to Him by faith. Righteousness is one of the qualities that the Word possesses, and hence one of the qualities communicated to the believing soul. Here again righteousness is not imputed but given and shared. This is an alien righteousness, for the iron has no heat of its own, and will eventually lose heat if it is withdrawn from the fire. Yet, in a striking way, righteousness is imparted, one might almost say “infused,” into the soul.

Again: How then does this differ from Catholic theology? In what sense is this a Protestant doctrine of justification?

It will not do to suggest that Luther had not yet shed the remnants of medieval doctrine, for this treatise is clearly Protestant in orientation, composed in the same year as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, his polemic against Roman Catholic sacramental theology and practice. Yet this formulation appears to blur the key distinctions between Protestant and Catholic doctrine. Where are those lines?

The lines become clear when we place Luther over against medieval soteriology and remember the Reformation protest against medieval Catholic idolatry. Luther’s construction depends on a renunciation of every notion of created grace. In the iron-in-the-fire illustration, Luther is closer to Lombard than to Aquinas (as the two are typically understood): the heat is dependent on the continuing presence of the fiery Word, and the Word leaves no permanent “deposit” of created grace. With the marital analogy, Luther insists that righteousness is a gift and is an alien righteousness. Nor is there any hint of a natural/supernatural scheme, no suggestion of a pure nature or an inherent incapacity to receive grace. On the contrary, the marital analogy suggests the opposite: human beings are created precisely to be united to another, as a woman created for a man; we are created as “feminine” receptors to contain our husband.

The crucial difference between Luther’s image and the Catholic view of “infused righteousness” is that for Luther the thing infused is not substance or habitus but a Person. “Word” appears to mean the living and eternal Word of God, which comes to dwell in the soul of the believer. While medieval theologians conceived of grace as a substance or created gift, Protestant theologians taught that grace is simply the favor of God toward sinners, expressed in His self-giving to His people and in His many accompanying gifts. Grace, the Reformers insist, is one not multiple, and grace has a location, a name, and a human face—the face of Jesus. Jesus is the righteousness of God in Person, and when He dwells in us we are justified.

Luther continues to offer similar explanations of the gift of righteousness in justification in later treatises. Luther insists, for example, that Jesus is the grace of God:

Christ is God’s grace, mercy, righteousness, truth, wisdom, power, comfort, salvation, given to us by God without any merit on our part. Christ, I say, not as some express blind words, “causally,” so that he grants righteousness and remains absent himself, for that would be dead. Yes, it is not given at all unless Christ himself is present, just as the radiance of the sun and heat of fire are not present if there is no sun and no fire.

Luther extends this into a doctrine of deification:

We are so filled ‘with all sorts of God’s abundance,’ which is in the Hebrew manner as much as saying that we are filled in all ways in which he makes full, and, full of God we are showered with all gifts and grace and filled with his Spirit, so that it makes us courageous and illuminated by his light, and his life lives in us, his beatitude makes us blessed, his love awakens love in us. In short, that everything he is and can do be in us fully and affect us vigorously, so that we become completely divine, not having a piece or even a few pieces of God, but all abundance. Much has been written about how man is to become divine. . . . here the right and closest way to g
et there is shown so that you may become full of God, that you may not be lacking any piece, but have everything all together, that everything you say or think, everywhere you go, in sum: that your whole life be completely divine.

In all these quotations, Luther differs from the medieval Catholic doctrine not in the location of justifying righteousness, but in the nature of that grace and the entire cosmological and theological framework in which he operates.


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