Some Remarks on Lutheran Christology

By Piotr J. Malysz

The Person of Christ

Luther’s critique of the disastrous anthropological consequences of late medieval piety ultimately aims at the right view of God as Saviour, who exchanges his righteousness for his people’s sin.  Luther does not begin, like Anselm, with a theoretical consideration of why God should have become a human but proceeds instead from the reality, impact, and sacramental availability of redemption.  It is the self-authenticating validity of Christ’s work, with justified humans in turn justifying God (LW 26:233), that presupposes the personal union and the communication of properties between Christ’s divine and human natures.

Although Luther has been frequently charged with docetism or monophysitism, and although many of his successors were reluctant to embrace some of his christological insights, Luther does construct his Christology within a fundamentally Chalcedonian framework of Christ’s being one person in two natures.  In fact, he consistently maintains the soteriological focus of the Chalcedonian definition, which leads him where Chalcedon ultimately failed to go and where post-Chalcedonian reflection ventured only timidly.  Though the council carefully distinguished between hypostasis and natures, it failed, according to Robert Jenson, to determine what sort of ontological category ‘hypostasis’ was.  In light of what Chalcedon says about the natures, one may, in fact, conclude that “the ‘one hypostasis’ is nothing actual, and that the natures’ union has no material consequences for the state or activity of either nature.”[1]

Luther’s soteriological emphasis leads him to begin with the actuality of the communication of properties between the divine and human natures in Christ’s person.  Because there is life-giving exchange between CImagehrist and the sinner, there must also be an exchange of properties between Christ’s natures.  Luther firmly believes that nothing less will do if one wishes to do justice to the salvation which Christ accomplished for sin-bound and moribund humanity: “if it cannot be said that God died for us, but only a man, we are lost; but if God’s death and a dead God lie in the balance, his side goes down and ours goes up like a light and empty scale. … God in his own nature cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is called God’s death when the man dies who is one substance [ein ding] or one person with God” (LW 41:103-4).  This is a novel point of departure, in that Luther does not begin with the natures, carefully circumscribing them in separation from each other before bringing them together.  Moreover, Luther does not begin with an assertion that the properties of each nature are merely predicated of the other nature by virtue of the personal union.  The properties are actually shared and not only verbally ascribed to the other nature.  The communication is actual, because Christ is a single person, and it is Christ’s person, as both God and man, who is the agent behind all his works that the natures enable.  It is not the natures that do the doing; it is rather the single and actual person.  In his eucharistic confession against the Swiss, Luther defends this position: “[The Zwinglians] raise a hue and cry against us, saying that we mingle the two natures into one essence [ein wesen].  This is not true. We do not say that divinity is humanity, or that the divine nature is the human nature, which would be confusing the natures into one essence.”  That was actually the error of Schwenckfeld, who taught the complete absorption of Christ’s humanity by his divinity in the state of exaltation.  Luther continues: “Rather, we merge the two distinct natures into one single person, and say: God is man and man is God. … But if the works are divided and separated, the person will also have to be separated, since all the doing and suffering are not ascribed to natures but to persons. … Therefore we regard our Lord Christ as God and man in one person, ‘neither confusing the natures nor dividing the person’ (LW 37:212-3).

In line with the Chalcedonian tradition, Luther does conceptually distinguish between the two natures, designated by the abstract terms, divinity and humanity.  But he also realises that semantic logic, governing the use of these terms, may be as much an obstacle as it is helpful.  He writes: “reason wants to be clever here and not tolerate that God should die or have any human characteristics, even though it is used to believing like Nestorius, that Christ [only in a manner of speaking] is God.”  Luther turns against much of the medieval tradition with its merely notional understanding of the communicatio and asks: “Who knows how many Nestorians may still be in the papacy?” (LW 41:105).  Responding to the argument that the same thing cannot be predicated of both God and man, in the Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi, Luther admits that it is true, but only in philosophy, where “there is no relation between the creature and the Creator, between the finite and the infinite.  But we not only establish a relation, but a union of the finite and the infinite” (WA 39II:112).  He attacks Aristotle for doing incalculable damage to theology.  As Anna Vind argues in her commentary on Luther’s statement, “Christ is … made sin for us metaphorically” (LW 32:200), metaphorical language, with its capacity to assign new meanings, offers to Luther a way of escaping the confines of semantic logic and achieving more clarity of expression.  But Luther breaks with the rhetorical principles dating back to Roman antiquity when he rejects that similarity be the basis of metaphor and when he claims that metaphor involves not merely verbal transfer but an actual translatio rerum.  This makes metaphorical speech closer to reality than non-metaphorical speech, crippled as the latter is by its internal logic.  It also makes metaphorical language the prerogative of God, who through his Word speaks (new and unexpected) reality into being: God became a human being, more than that, sin for us.

In addition to the salvific exchange between Christ and the sinner, Luther’s insistence on the reality of the communicatio idiomatum between Christ’s natures (considered not as rigid philosophical concepts but retrospectively through the work of the person) also enabled him to dismiss eucharistic transubstantiation as a constraining and unnecessary philosophical construct based on Aristotelian substance-metaphysics.  In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Luther articulated his christological principle: “what is true in regard to Christ is also true in regard to the sacrament. In order for the divine nature to dwell in him bodily, it is not necessary for the human nature to be transubstantiated and the divine nature contained under the accidents of the human nature. Both natures are simply there in their entirety…  Even though philosophy cannot grasp this, faith grasps it nonetheless” (LW 36:35).  Luther applied the same principle in his polemic with Zwingli, this time arguing not for the real presence of the bread and the wine but of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament.


Luther and his followers faced a tremendous challenge when they began to spell out the metaphysical consequences of this realist view of the communicatio, given canonical form in Luther’s statement, “wherever you place God for me, you must also place the humanity for me” (LW 37:219; later cited in Formula concordiae SD VIII.84).  Things were exacerbated when the Lutherans began to construct their dogmatic systems and, in doing so, never quite allowed themselves to be influenced in their locus on God, which ordinarily preceded the locus on Christ, by Luther’s emphasis on redemption effected by the God-man Christ (one notable exception was the very first edition of Melanchthon’s Loci).  Instead, they resorted to standard metaphysical accounts, thus establishing the parameters for the discussion to follow by means of natural theology and treating divinity as an ontologically fixed category.  This posed tremendous problems when it came to divine attributes such as omnipotence and omnipresence.  While Luther allowed divine omnipotence to be qualified by the event of God’s death (which later, too, became subject to controversy), for his successors the impact of the hypostatic union on Christ’s divinity, absolutely immutable by definition, was out of the question.

What aroused heated debate, instead, was the precise character of the communication from the divine nature to the human, especially the presence of Christ’s body’s and the reality of Christ’s earthly life prior to the resurrection and ascension.  The Swabian theologian, Johannes Brenz, in his treatise De vera maiestate Domini nostri Iesu Christi (1564), argued that heaven was not a spatial realm but was rather the place of God, who is his own place and to whom everything else is present.  While this took care of the omnipresence of Christ’s exalted body, insofar as ubiquity meant being above every place, Brenz was less successful in accounting for how this body was therefore capable of being available in particular localities.  Chemnitz, on the other hand, in his work, The Two Natures in Christ (1570), made the divine will responsible for the communication of attributes from the divine to the human nature, which introduced a degree of insatiability and threatened the integrity of Christ’s person.  In a way, this was a return to a mere supposital understanding of the unio personalis, which Luther had sought to overcome in the scholastic theology he had inherited.[2]  But Chemnitz’s conception was, arguably, better suited to a realistic treatment of Christ’s earthly life.  The Formula of Concord presents an interesting combination of these two positions.  First, in keeping with Luther’s axiom, it affirms that Christ exercises his majesty “in, with and through” his human nature (SD VIII.66).  It then tries to make sense of it by applying it to Christ’s life on earth.  On the one hand, it states that Christ “possessed this majesty from his conception in the womb of his mother.”  He thus had, and never ceased to have, this majesty in consequence of the incarnation, even as he forever retains his human nature.  What, then, is one to make of the assertion that, when exalted, he “was installed into the full possession and use of his divine majesty according to his assumed human nature”?  This second statement – by trying to do justice to the servant-like character of Christ’s life – seems to imply that the majesty was Christ’s, according to his human nature, only after his exaltation. Further, even if one naturally maintains that Christ was already, in the incarnation, in full possession of the divine majesty, did he simply “keep it secret” or did he actually “empty” himself of it in an act of self-humiliation? (SD VIII.26).  That this was a real problem was evidenced by the controversy that erupted in the early seventeenth century between the theological faculties of Giessen and Tübingen.  The debated issue was whether, in the state of humiliation, Christ, according to his human nature, participated in the full exercise of the divine attributes and merely hid it, as the Tübingen scholars held; or whether, by assuming the form of a servant, he had surrendered the human nature’s share in the divine majesty altogether, which was the position of the Giessen faculty.  The decision rendered at the time (1624) came in favour of Giessen, presumably because of this position’s more historically, narratively dynamic character.  However, one wonders whether the view expressed by the Tübingeners was not more consistent with Luther’s christological principles.

Luther’s successors were fully aware of the radical nature of their Christology, especially vis-à-vis the scholastic tradition, with its carefully laid-out distinctions – although, because of their own metaphysical assumptions, they were also closer to it than they thought.  Luther might have regarded scholastic theology as too philosophical and too timid; his successors thought only that it was timid.  But this still led them to invest a considerable amount of effort into demonstrating that the communication of divine attributes to Christ’s human nature was, in fact, the teaching of the Bible and had also been taught by the ancient church.  The fruit of that effort was the Catalog of Testimonies – a collection of patristic citations, mostly from the Greek fathers – appended to the early editions of the Book of Concord.


Excerpted and abridged from: Piotr J. Malysz, “Luther and the Lutherans,” The Oxford Handbook to the Reception History of Christian Theology (Oxford: University Press, 2013), forthcoming.

[1] Robert W. Jenson, “Luther’s Contemporary Theological Significance,” Donald K. McKim (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: University Press, 2003), 274.

[2] Jörg Baur, “Ubiquität,” Oswald Bayer and Benjamin Gleede (eds.), Creator est Creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), 227-54

Theological Fragments: The satis est; enough is enough

“The satis est calls us, surely, to believe and confess that the gospel and the sacraments are indeed enough. No doubt the irony of it all is that that seems precisely the hardest thing for churches and theologians to agree on. But what can be done about that? If we have listened to Luther, and learned anything at all from the recovery of his theology, I expect we will just have to say, “nothing!” It is simply not a matter of attempting to repair the supposed inadequacy of the satis est by adding or subtracting this or that. It is not a matter of a list of “things,” doctrinally or otherwise. It is rather a matter of the specific activity of preaching the gospel–learning how to do that and sticking to it.”

–Gerhard Forde, “The Meaning of Satis Est,” A More Radical Gospel, pg 170

Lutheranism and Tradition

Reception of Doctrine as a Methodological Issue in Early Lutheranism

Piotr J. Malysz

(The following is an excerpt from a much larger article dealing with the question of doctrinal reception in Lutheranism.  The footnotes and some of the references have been omitted here.)

1. Practice and doctrine

In the writings of the sixteenth-century Lutherans, terms denoting reception appear in two sharply distinguished, though interrelated, senses: a passive and an active one.  In the first sense, they refer to the material dimension of reception, namely, that which is received.  In this sense, reception generally connotes restoration and is regarded in an overwhelmingly positive manner.  Although a further distinction is made here between the content of the faith and ecclesiastical practice, both are considered from the perspective of their point of origin: that which is eventually received is always evaluated in terms of what was first passed on.  Apostolic belief and practice, as expressed in the Scriptures, are uniformly privileged – but this is done in different ways.

Since much of the early Lutheran protest centred on practical abuses (indulgences, the trade in private masses, fasts, monastic vows, etc.), let us look at the reception of practice first.  For example, defending the Lutherans’ restoration of the Mass under both kinds to the laity, Melanchthon shows that that was what Paul received (accepisse) from Jesus and what he then passed on (Ap XXII.3).  Usually words such as command (mandatum) or testimony (testimonium) are employed to designate this material terminus a quo of reception.  The absence of explicit scriptural mandate does not necessarily disqualify a practice.  Apostolic practices did become more elaborate, while new practices were introduced, in the course of the church’s history.  Melanchthon is at pains to emphasise that the Lutherans “cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and teach common folk and ignorant” (Ap VII/VIII.33).

It is at this point that doctrine is brought into the equation.  The Lutheran protest against practical abuses quickly escalated into full-fledged doctrinal controversy.  Practice, though distinct from doctrine, is never isolated from doctrine – practices can either promote the gospel or obscure it.  Therefore, what disqualifies a non-scriptural practice (e.g., masses for the dead) is when its attendant beliefs (purgatory) are, in the words of Luther, “against the chief article that Christ alone (and not human works) is to help souls.”  All this means that, while humans may, and indeed will need to, institute rites and practices (provided they do not obscure the gospel), no human may establish articles of faith, not even “on the basis of the holy Fathers’ works or words” if they lack scriptural support (Smalcald Articles II.II.12-13).  The content of the faith must remain invariant, the same at any point of its transmission as at the terminus a quo.

By the time of the Formula of Concord, this understanding of doctrine will become enshrined in the elevation of the scriptures to the status of “the only true guiding principle, according to which all teachers and teaching [and, by extension, practices] are to be judged and evaluated.”  Interestingly, other than this brief remark in the Formula’s preface, none of the Lutheran confessions devotes a separate article to Holy Scripture.  This will change within a generation.  Theologians, such as Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) in his monumental Loci communes theologici, will feel compelled to develop a complex doctrine of the perfection of Holy Writ, which, as “the Word of God … reduced to writing in accordance with his will” (Gerhard 1:502), must be both clear and exhaustive in all matters pertaining to salvation.  On the basis of Scripture’s perfection, Gerhard can then argue, on the one hand, for the necessary presence of vowel pointing in the original Hebrew text, and, on the other, against any “unwritten traditions,” by which he understands doctrines without scriptural mandate.

2. The process of transmission

Besides beliefs and practices, the Lutherans employed the term reception also to designate the transmission process.  In contrast to the material sense, the term’s emotive value in this second sense is highly ambiguous.  On the one hand, it was through the much-vilified Church of Rome that the Lutherans “received [haben wir freilich alles vom Bapst] … 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, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed,” as Luther admits in his treatise Concerning Rebaptism (1528), “indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found [under the Papacy] and has come to us from this source” (LW 40:231-32).  On the other hand, these realities, the Lutherans insisted, had become obscured through numerous additional practices and opinions which the papal church had illicitly made into laws and articles of faith.  For this reason, Luther can also maintain, in Against Hanswurst (1541), that both the Papacy and the Lutheran churches derive from the ancient church, in that they both share the same true articles of faith and apostolic practices.  With this material aspect of reception in mind, he then adds: “we have received [empfangen] everything from the church before you (not from you),” and accuses the Papacy of perverting this common heritage and thus becoming an “erring, apostate, whorelike church” (LW 41:207).

The ambivalence with which the Lutherans viewed the transmission process was further complicated by the frequent attacks of their Papist opponents, who claimed that the Lutheran doctrines were innovations without precedent in the church’s teaching.  Faced with this charge, the Lutherans sought to establish their credentials as the true church by taking a more positive approach to the witness of the church’s tradition.  In the Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther declared emphatically, “The authority of the Fathers is of no consequence … for Christ is a higher authority than the Fathers” (LW 33:58, translation altered).  A decade later, in On the Councils and the Church (1539), he presents a more nuanced argument.  First of all, he emphasises that the fathers were all students of Scripture, and that no single father was able to exhaust the richness of the Scriptures and give an account of the entirety of Christian doctrine contained therein (although Augustine did come close).  In support Luther cites Augustine’s statement from De Trinitate that his writings are not to be regarded in the same manner as the Scriptures.  Second, the fathers frequently contradict each other and cannot, therefore, be appealed to without first and foremost being subjected to scriptural scrutiny.  In this connection, Luther claims that he actually knows the fathers better than his papal opponents who are “woefully at variance … with the will of the councils and the fathers” (LW 41:14).  He does admit that both the parties cull from the fathers’ writings what is convenient to them but maintains that, whereas the papists do so unscripturally to enhance papal power, the Lutherans use the fathers as that which they intended to be, namely, witnesses to the gospel, and in the way they intended to be used, that is, in conjunction with Scripture.  This becomes the general principle underlying the Lutheran approach to the fathers.  In On the Councils Luther points to Cyprian as an example of both scriptural and counter-scriptural teaching. Similarly, Melanchthon, even though he regards Augustine as the best of the fathers, can criticise Augustine for holding that faith is internal renovation rather than apprehension of Christ.  These criticisms appear not only in private correspondence (WA Br 6:99-100, cited together with Luther’s postscript) but also in Melanchthon’s Preface to the 1545 edition of Augustine’s De spiritu et littera (CR 5:803-10).

In addition, as early as the first edition of his Loci (1521), Melanchthon assumes, as a rule of thumb, that “the more recent an author is, the less Scriptural he is.”  He then explains, “Christian doctrine has degenerated into Scholastic trifling, and one does not know whether it is more godless than it is stupid” (19-20).  This loose observation was by mid-16th century developed, by Matthias Flacius (1520-75), into a historiographic methodology and eventually took shape in the form of the Magdeburg Centuries, a monumental but unfinished history of Christianity, documenting, century by century, the slow decline of the church before Luther’s protest.  This is not to imply that the Lutherans had nothing good to say about more recent theologians.  Luther’s attitude to Thomas Aquinas was by no means entirely negative (Janz 1989); and throughout his life he remained deeply appreciative of Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom he referred affectionately as “Pater Bernhardus” (LW 22:388; cf. Posset 1999: 59).

3. Reclaiming the church’s witness

But Luther and his colleagues came to believe that the fathers were useful not merely as an inventory of proof-texts, either illustrating the papacy’s apostasy, or indicating that the Lutheran doctrines were not new but rather the old doctrines brought back to light.  The fathers were also useful as examples of piety.  Towards this end, in 1544, the Lutherans published an edition of the medieval classic, Vitae patrum, but with parts extolling monastic life or contrary to the Lutheran emphasis on justification carefully expurgated.  For this edition Luther himself provided a preface (WA 54:109-111).

Last but not least, this appreciation – both externally necessitated and internally reclaimed – for the value of patristic witness was increased further by the rise of more radical church- and society- reforming programmes.  Of importance here are not only the theologies of the other magisterial reformers, but especially the programmes put forth by the Anabaptists and various anti-Trinitarian movements.  It was with those in mind that Luther observed: “heretics always like to boast of possessing Scripture” (LW 41:45).  And though his response to Karlstad’s and Zwingli’s views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper was fundamentally scripture-based, he found it necessary also implicitly to invoke the church’s condemnation of Arius and Sabellius (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40:197), as well as Nestorius (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; LW 37:212; cf. 41:105).  The Augsburg Confession is more explicit.  Besides Pelagianism, of which the Lutherans routinely accused their Roman adversaries (II), and Manichaeism, with which they were in turn charged by their papal opponents, it denounces the heresies of “the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all others like them; also the Samosatenians, old and new” (I), Donatists (VIII), as well as the explicitly mentioned Anabaptists (V, IX).  In addition to rejecting all manners of heresy, Melanchthon invokes the magnus consensus of the church  and, referring to the substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood with the bread and the wine, goes on to state in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (X): “we defend the position received in the entire church [receptam in tota ecclesia].”

The Lutherans were, of course, not unaware of the danger.  Luther, for his part, warned against indiscriminate appeals to the church: “whenever the pope does not have the authority of the Scriptures on his side, he always uses this same argument against us: ‘The church’” (Lectures on Galatians, 1531; LW 26:15).  Although in the early days of his reformatorial career, Luther did several times appeal for vindication to a General Council, at the Leipzig debate with Johannes Eck (1519) he was cornered by his outspoken opponent into admitting that even councils could err.  He maintained this view for the rest of his life, which, as far as he was concerned, rendered the conciliar argument for a council’s canonical authority or hierarchical dignity (over against the pope’s) as ultimately of no consequence.  No council was authorised to make articles of faith anyway; those were established by Scripture alone.  Interesting in this light is, therefore, the mature Luther’s appeal to the fides catholica in his Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi (1540/43; WA 39II:92-121).   In this polemic against Caspar von Schwenckfeld’s docetic monophysitism, Luther notes that Scripture does not always speak in the most fortuitous and helpful way.  As an example he cites the Johanine “The Word was made flesh.”  “In our judgment,” he comments, “it would have been better said, ‘The Word was incarnate,’ or ‘made fleshly.’”  He then goes on to insist that true understanding of Scripture lies not in the words, that is, in their sense necessitated by the grammar, but one must rather interpret the Scriptures “according to theology.”  Luther concludes the theses by asserting: “This is what it means to be a heretic: one who understands the Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands.”  What he means by that is not some individual enlightenment but precisely the catholic faith which he invoked in the first thesis.

4. Developments

As can be seen, the process of doctrinal reception under the papacy was not a problem that the early Lutherans simply critiqued and then managed to overcome (as was their hope).  Rather, by the 1540s, their initial ambivalence had been transformed into a methodological problem internal to Lutheran theology – an insoluble tension between, on the one hand, the sufficiency and clarity of Holy Writ and, on the other, the continuing necessity of appealing to, and for this purpose also circumscribing, the catholic faith.  In his treatise, De Ecclesia et autoritate verbi Dei (1539/40; Romans 1992: 239-84), Melanchthon laid the groundwork for all subsequent attempts to overcome this tension.  He notes that the authority of the church extends only as far as teaching and admonishing.  And whenever it is invoked, “one must ask whether [the doctrine under consideration] was the consensus of the true church, agreeing with the Word of God.”  He spells out what he means by that when he puts forth the requirement that dogmas necessary for salvation must have been present in the teaching of the apostles.  Later doctrinal formulations must not only agree with this “divine voice” but also do so “simply and without sophistry.”  In closing Melanchthon reflects quite optimistically on the Lutherans’ own teaching: “it is beyond doubt that the kind of doctrine which we profess is truly the consensus of the catholic church of Christ, as the symbols, the saner synods, and the more learned fathers show.”  Melanchthon’s attempt was continued by his student Martin Chemnitz (1522-86) in his exhaustive Examination of the Council of Trent.  In this work Chemnitz develops a complex typology of ecclesiastical traditions.  He warns, on the one hand, against mistaking “antiquity of error and the multitude of the erring” for an indication of truth (1:219).  On the other hand, he appeals to “the consensus of the true, learned, and purer antiquity,” noting that “no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted” (1:256-57).  All of these procedures are inevitably tainted with a degree of arbitrariness and circularity.  For this reason, the insistence of subsequent generations on the perfection of Scripture, and later on its inerrancy, can also be seen as an attempt to deal with the tension between Scripture and the growing role of the church’s tradition in its proper interpretation.  Especially in the face of attempts to treat the Bible as (also) a human document (nascent historical criticism), but also vis-à-vis those readings that saw the message of the Bible as from the beginning perverted by the institutional church (anti-Trinitarians) – tradition became increasingly indispensable.  To assert the Scriptures’ perfection and inerrancy was one method of coming to terms with that development, while remaining ostensibly faithful to scriptural sufficiency and clarity.  Still, in their flight from what would be seen as Catholicizing, the Lutherans ended up sharing their commitment to inerrancy with many of the groups which they wanted to place squarely in the heretical camp.

Copyright © 2009 by Piotr J. Malysz