Aristotle and Luther: On Justice, Virtue and the Reformation of Values

Aristotle and Luther: On Justice, Virtue and the Reformation of Values October 11, 2014

Food for ThoughtDo we become just by doing just things or by being made just? This is a key question in view of Aristotle and Luther.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that “by doing just things we become just.”[1] Luther took an opposing stance: we become good by being made good. Luther had harsh words for Aristotle’s Ethics.[2] According to Luther in his “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology,” the fallen will is not free to choose the good; it will bear bad fruit—choosing and doing only evil.[3] In contrast to Aristotle’s claim that moral virtue results from habit formation,[4] Luther contends that the Spirit of grace must transform our hearts through the outpouring of God’s love.[5]

Robert Jenson also refers to Luther’s “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology” in his assessment of Luther’s alignment with Augustine on the personal presence of the Spirit in the believer’s life.[6] There Jenson quotes Augustine, “The Holy Spirit’s gift is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.”[7] Here we find a continuation in the tradition of earlier church fathers such as Basil the Great.[8] Jenson claims that for Augustine (and Peter Lombard), the Holy Spirit is “‘the mutual . . . love by which the Father and the Son love one another,’ and it is this very love with which the Spirit fills also us.”[9] Jenson continues his quotation from Augustine’s “audacious doctrine”[10]: “‘Therefore the love which is of God and which is God is specifically the Holy Spirit; by him God’s love is diffused in our hearts, and by this love the whole Trinity indwells us.’”[11] Jenson goes further and claims that this audacious doctrine was “too audacious for subsequent theology.”[12] He elaborates by saying,

The doctrine that the Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son remained the chief axiom of subsequent Western pneumatology. But later theology did not generally follow Lombard and teach that this same bond is also that which binds us to God and one another—although there have always been rebels against the standard position, notably including Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards.[13]

This month, we who are Protestant remember the Reformation. But why? Could it be that Luther’s Reformation was a response to Aristotle’s Ethics and related notions concerning the freedom of the will and virtue? Luther commends Erasmus for addressing this subject in particular in their exchange over Luther’s account of the bondage of the will; for Luther, it is the “hinge” on which everything else turns. All other debated points, such as indulgences, are “trifles” in comparison.[14]

Aristotle’s ethics, as rigorous and far-reaching as it is, could not have accounted for the New Testament teaching of the Spirit of love poured out into human hearts otherwise hardened against God. In contrast to the Bible’s emphasis on the problem of sin, Aristotle “accentuates the positive.”[15] Indeed,

rather than diagnosing some fundamental fault in the human condition and prescribing a remedy for it—which is what many religions do—Aristotle first gives us an account of the end or purpose or meaning of human life, then suggests how it can be put into practice, and how failures to live up to the ideal might be avoided or remedied.[16]

Beyond the subject matter’s importance for doctrine, the distinction or division between Aristotle’s and Luther’s ethical frameworks is no mere “trifle” pertaining to matters of the common good. Aristotle’s conception of friendship and love, for example, can only really occur between friends—more specifically and accurately good people who are friends (See his treatments of friendship and love in books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics). The New Testament, by contrast, emphasizes love for one’s enemies (See Matthew 5:43-48), not simply virtuous friends.[17] How can one arrive at such love by habits of virtuous activity if, as Luther maintains, one cannot and will not act virtuously apart from God’s transformative intervention of gracious love in our lives through his indwelling Spirit (and not simply cooperation with God; see Luther’s reference to Matthew 7:17-18 in thesis 4 of “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology”)?

Luther may not have responded as well to his enemies as his teaching set forth in “The Freedom of a Christian” might suggest. But the man who bore his name certainly did. Martin Luther King, Jr’s love ethic that centered on one’s enemies came from Jesus, while his method derived from Gandhi.[18] King’s life and personalist ethic resonated with Luther’s teaching in “Freedom of a Christian” that we ascend to Christ by faith and descend to our neighbor in love as God’s Spirit of love fills our hearts.[19] In this way, God’s love creates the attraction; our attractiveness does not create God’s love.[20] By no means is this a trifle in a society given increasingly to gated community friendships of virtue and vice alike.

Whether or not we are children of the Protestant Reformation, we all need to be reformed from the heart to move beyond gated communities that emphasize the lesser good for a few virtuous friends, or even the greater good for those we can endure, to the common good which involves radical love of the seemingly virtuous and non-virtuous alike.


[1]See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), page 27 (1103b).

[2]See Martin Luther, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (ed. Timothy F. Lull; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989). You can find an online version of the treatise here: See for example his harsh words for Aristotle’s Ethics in thesis 41.

[3]See Luther’s “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology,” theses 4-10.

[4]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 26.

[5]See Luther’s “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology,” thesis 7. See also Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 619.

[6]Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1:149 n. 20.

[7] Augustine, De trinitate, 15.36; quoted in Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:148.

[8] See Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:148 n. 15.

[9]  Augustine, De trinitate, 15.27; quoted in Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:148.

[10] Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:148.

[11] Augustine, De trinitate, 15.32; quoted in Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:148.

[12] Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:148.

[13]Jenson, Systematic Theology, 1:149.

[14] See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), page 319.

[15]Leslie Stevenson, David L. Haberman and Peter Matthews Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, sixth edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), page 105.

[16]Stevenson, Haberman and Wright, Twelve Theories of Human Nature, pages 105-106.

[17]See the excellent engagement of a comparison between Aristotle and the New Testament on the subject of friendship and love in Twelve Theories of Human Nature, pages 113-114.

[18]Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1998), page 67.

[19]See “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

[20]Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), pages 43-44, 48.

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