Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 3

Continued from part one, which was followed by part two: this is the third and final post (for now, until I get to Calvin at some future date.) 

7) Ozment argues that “[i]n Ockham’s philosophy, ‘artificial’ relations replaced assumed real relations between God, man, and the world. For Ockham, the world was contingent, not necessary, and only concepts, words, and promises bound man to God and to the world.”[1] Ozment elsewhere describes the center of Luther’s thought in similar terms, as following the Ockhamist tradition on this point: “Luther found the interpretive center of the Bible in what is variously called pactum or testamentum, the promise of God, the foundation of salvation and the sacraments.”[2] This promise is known through the signs of the promise, and reason cannot bypass the signs to know something about God apart from them. In opposing the speculative theology of the late Scholastic nominalists, “Luther may have been more consistently Ockhamist than were”[3] those he opposed. Whether in the rational theology of the Late Antique and early Medieval period or the speculative theology of the late Scholastics, Luther saw “only an effort to manipulate revelation with reason”,[4] just as works done to earn grace were an effort to manipulate God. This could only result in idolatry, because the mind, conscience, and will of humanity (as Luther argues) were bent toward concupiscence, and were unable to know God.

We saw above the line from Biel about “turning to God and doing what one can”; for Luther, this is nonsense, as “30. […] nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.”[5] Yet in line with the covenantal distinction between person and work, Luther will write that “40. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”[6] Indeed, “54. For an act to be meritorious, either the presence of grace is sufficient, or its presence means nothing.”[7] This is because the natural goodness of our humanity is corrupted by sin so thoroughly that our efforts to acquire good habits can only produce evil fruit appropriate to our fallenness: “[w]ith God there is nothing intermediate between righteousness and sin, no neutral ground so to speak, which is neither righteousness nor sin.”[8] Whether the Ockhamist contracted merit obtained through effort or the “semi[-]merit”[9] of Aquinas, Luther rejects it. We see here Luther both for and against the Ockhamist tradition, but squarely working out the consequences of the Augustinian notion of the desire for mastery corrupting everything – even against Augustine’s appropriation of the Neoplatonism found in the Late Antique world. In Luther, man is so utterly fallen that there is no natural inclination of the will to the good, unlike in Aquinas. Man is entirely egotistical, and bent to evil.[10] Whereas in Aquinas, all desire is for a good, even if a lesser good stemming from a corrupt being, in Luther, all willing is not free, but either forced or motivated by pleasure[11] – the motivation-by-pleasure of Aquinas’ system remains, but that there is some lesser good desired by lesser pleasures, that disappears. Likewise, when a sinner is “gently breathed upon” by the Spirit, and begins to love and do the good, this is not under compulsion.[12]

If knowledge of God cannot be had through the analogy of being or through speculative thought, there is still knowledge, and even certainty, through the signs of the promise. Certainty for Luther is also important, but it does not come from Platonic intellection or from syllogistic reasoning – though it does not contradict reasoning.[13] The truths of the faith can be publicly vindicated, so that opponents cannot answer the preacher, for the truth of what one asserts is only unclear to those who are damned,[14] to those who are slaves of Satan,[15] and declaiming the clarity of the divine Word will ultimately leave one’s Satanic opponents with no real answer.[16] The personal clarity of the individual believer’s trust in the true promise is certain, however, regardless of whether that believer can argue soundly or not. The clarity and self-evident certainty of the promise for an individual believer leaves him or her no doubt, writes Luther. In response to Erasmus, Luther affirms that the “Holy Spirit is no Skeptic, and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.”[17] Indeed, “it is in the nature of faith not to be deceived”, and so it “is necessary for every individual Christian” to “judge[…] and discern with the greatest certainty the dogmas and opinions of all men”, although only for him or herself – this is not a public certainty.[18] It is, however, certainty – a certainty local to the subject. Indeed, Luther asks: “what is more miserable than uncertainty?”[19] This certainty corresponds to the infallibility and efficacy of grace, contra the Ockhamists – though it comes through signs, which have clarity to them.[20] The names which we ascribe to God do not come from Neoplatonic metaphysics, but name the One whom we come to trust through the promises given in the signs.[21] The fallenness of our humanity is one of the reasons why, for Luther, there is no natural knowledge of God, why reason or the intellect does not still contain natural reference to, and orientation toward, God. Indeed, all of us is flesh: Aquinas taught that the mind is not as corrupted as the will, but Luther states that “the whole man, and the most excellent thing in man, is said to be flesh”.[22] There is another reason why there is no natural knowledge of God, however, and it is found, not in Luther’s anthropology or in his understanding of sin, but in his model of God.

God is known through the covenantal signs because God is radically unlike beings, “exceeding human grasp”[23]; economic metaphors appear again, surrounding this issue. (The application of economic metaphors seems often to be hated by Luther for a variety of reasons. Luther writes to Erasmus that they are dealing with something important, not something trivial like money.[24] Also, although Luther despises the crypto-Pelagians such as Diatribe for selling the grace of God so cheaply, by saying it can be acquired merely by “doing what one can”, he also opposes the Pelagians, who prize it highly.[25] Grace is gratis. It is hardly surprising that he opts for the exchange of goods through marriage as the metaphor for the alien gifts of God given gratuitously, rather than metaphors of the marketplace.[26] I find it unimaginable that the controversy over indulgences didn’t influence this preference in imagery at some level, despite the scriptural resonances – for there are plenty of economic images surrounding talents, &c., in the biblical text.) Luther asserts that God-in-himself is quite distinct from God-as-revealed: “we have to argue in one way about God or the will of God as preached, revealed, offered, and worshipped, and in another way about God as he is not preached, not revealed, not offered, not worshipped. To the extent, therefore, that God hides himself and wills to be unknown to us, it is no business of ours.”[27] The implication is that “God as he is preached” is concerned with one thing, while “God hidden in his majesty” can be something else entirely, for “there he has not bound himself by his word, but has kept himself free over all things.”[28] This freedom is not participated in; God remains alien, totally other than beings. There is no chain of being, no scale of participation, and no natural and ineliminable orientation of creatures to God even in their fallenness, except what remains as a judgment on the creature in its depravity.

In Luther, God is not the good determining all things as modulations of relative unity and relative harmony, as in Aquinas, but rather he is unrestricted power and will, entirely beyond the comprehension of people (“[y]our thoughts about God are all too human”, Luther tells Erasmus[29]); God is not “subjected to merits and laws and” denied the permission “to make what he likes”; he is not “required to make what he ought”, for “the consideration of merits conflicts with the power and freedom [of God] to do what he pleases”[30] As Infinite Freedom, God cannot be understood (he is free from form except in clothing himself in the Word of promise[31]), but only trusted: “This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable […] [i]f, then, I could by any means comprehend how this God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith.”[32] There is here something of Aquinas’ understanding that God is not determined by anything but himself, but there is much more of the Scotist and Ockhamist understanding that God is totally free (and unknowable), and that his absolute power is unconstrained, and that only the signs of his contingent will can be known. There is a strong emphasis in Ockham on the infinite freedom of God’s absolute power that stands behind “the infinite possibilities open to [God] in eternity.”[33] This absolute power as Ozment describes it is nearly promethean, and is not the freedom of actualizing a nature (as in Aquinas – the self-actualizations in Luther actualize the moral character of the individual), but of uncircumscribed and unfettered choosing; it is the absence of any kind of constraints.

God, for Aquinas, determines all things, and is determined by nothing. We can say the same for Luther, but with the intermediate occurrence of Ockham, there is no analogia entis behind this, but rather will, freedom. This radical freedom to be what one wishes is not a property of human individuals,[34] who cannot always be sure of the outcome of their endeavors: “free choice is plainly a divine term, and can be properly applied to none but the Divine Majesty alone; for he alone can do and does […Ps 115:3…] whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth. If this is attributed to men, it is no more rightly attributed than if divinity itself also were attributed to them”.[35] For Luther, therefore, Will is the operation of this Divine and Infinite Freedom: “the will of God is effectual and cannot be hindered, since it is the power of the divine nature itself”,[36] and this freedom determines all things in its will: “all things stand or fall by the choice and authority of God, and all the earth should keep silence before the Lord”,[37] as “we must not ask the reason for the divine will, but simply adore it”.[38] This Infinite Freedom, in his hidden will, “works life, death, and all in all”, though, according to his revealed will, he only wills and works life in his people according to his Word of promise.[39] If its freedom is terrifying, Luther does affirm that the divine will is immutable,[40] and that this should be a consolation to those who believe the divine promises.[41]

Should we criticize God’s decisions, we would find that Luther would assert, in reply, that our ethical judgments here are expressions of our own self-interest, as we are fundamentally not motivated by the good, but are slaves to evil: were we to have “regard to equity”, we “would expostulate with God just as much when he crowns the unworthy as when he damns the undeserving.”[42] God’s goodness is beyond human ideas and standards of goodness (which no longer mirror, however poorly, the all-determining Good), beyond the standards of “Aristotle Ethics” or of “Justinian’s” code of laws.[43] Ultimately, “he is unprincipled and unjust by human standards, but just and true by his own.”[44] Our minds have no access to this justice and goodness; it is beyond us, and it is simply for us to adore it, Luther says. It is difficult to see how this justice and goodness are really the form of the just and the good, which our intellect, purified, might see, and so we have another real difference with the ascetical practice and realist metaphysics of Aquinas.

As salvation is the transference of an alien righteousness through the wedding of Christ to the wretchedness of the soul, it is through God’s action alone that this occurs. Neither congruous nor condign merits apply. “54. For an act to be meritorious, either the presence of grace is sufficient, or its presence means nothing. This in opposition to Gabriel [Biel].”[45] Indeed, explicitly, “there is no such thing as merit”.[46] We saw before the metaphor, coming from Augustine, of grace relating to the soul as a rider to a horse – this also appears in Luther.[47] We saw that the will always works good or evil because of its nature, and not by compulsion: “neither the divine nor the human will does what it does, whether good or evil, under any compulsion, but from sheer pleasure or desire, as with true freedom”.[48] Recalling this, it is notable that the forces which move the will this or that way come not from a theological ontology, but from an apocalyptic framework, against which the grace-and-soul rider-and-horse analogy takes on a particular significance.


[1] Ozment, Age of Reform, 60.

[2] Oberman, The Two Reformations, 41.

[3] Ozment, Age of Reform, 238.

[4] Ozment, Age of Reform, 237.

[5] Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Third Edition ed. Timothy F. Lull & William R. Russell (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 4.

[6] Lull, Basic Theological Writings, 5.

[7] Lull, Basic Theological Writings,, 6.

[8] Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation ed. E. Gordon Rupp & Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 308.

[9] Ozment, Age of Reform, 236.

[10] So in the early Disputation there are numerous lines to this effect: 34. In brief, a person by nature has neither correct precept nor good will. 29. The best and infallible preparation for grace and the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God. 70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will. 87. Since the law is good, the will, which is hostile to it, cannot be good. 78. The will which is inclined toward the law without the grace of God is so inclined by reason of its own advantage. 86. Anyone’s will hates it that the law should be imposed upon it; if, however, the will desires imposition of the law it does so out of love of self.

[11] Luther and Erasmus, 139. “If [those who are set on something] yield, they yield to force or to the greater attraction of something else; they never yield freely.”

[12] Luther and Erasmus, 140.

[13] Lull, Basic Theological Writings, 5: see the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology #s 47-50.

[14] Luther and Erasmus, 111, 167.

[15] Luther and Erasmus, 140, 165, 167.

[16] Luther and Erasmus, 163-165.

[17] Luther and Erasmus, 109.

[18] Luther and Erasmus, 157-159.

[19] Luther and Erasmus, 108.

[20] Luther and Erasmus, 112.

[21] Lull, Basic Theological Writings, 408-409.

[22] Luther and Erasmus, 275.

[23] Luther and Erasmus, 130.

[24] Luther and Erasmus, 127

[25] Luther and Erasmus, 311.

[26] Lull, Basic Theological Writings, 409-410.

[27] Luther and Erasmus, 200.

[28] Luther and Erasmus, 200.

[29] Luther and Erasmus, 125.

[30] Luther and Erasmus, 258.

[31] Luther and Erasmus, 201.

[32] Luther and Erasmus, 138.

[33] Ozment, Age of Reform, 38.

[34] Luther and Erasmus, 143.

[35] Luther and Erasmus, 141.

[36] Luther and Erasmus, 119.

[37] Luther and Erasmus, 135.

[38] Luther and Erasmus, 137.

[39] Luther and Erasmus, 201.

[40] Luther and Erasmus, 119.

[41] Luther and Erasmus, 122.

[42] Luther and Erasmus, 259.

[43] Luther and Erasmus, 258.

[44] Luther and Erasmus, 259-260.

[45]Lull, Basic Theological Writings,  6

[46] Luther and Erasmus, 310

[47] Luther and Erasmus, 140.

[48] Luther and Erasmus, 120.

6 thoughts on “Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period, Part 3

    • If the Analogia Entis falls, then one of these other options holds — and Luther’s is, frankly, the most plausible of the other ones here, if Aquinas is wrong on the Analogy of Being, as I just wrote. Luther’s view, the more one sits with it, is actually not nearly as severe as it seems on the first (or the second, or even the third) pass. It simply comes from a very different place. It’s important to read authors with charity.

      Still, out of these options, I lean most heavily toward Aquinas.


    • –and to be even more fair to Luther, it’s not clear that the harsher-sounding elements in his position are really all that different, substantially, from Aquinas. Sure, there is the seeming misanthropy in how he writes about humanity — though that’s not as severe in literary or historical context as it sounds when it is ported into ours. Aquinas affirms the goodness and value of the world in terms that are stronger.

      In the end, however, both Luther and Aquinas say that not all are given grace, and there is no real reason for it: it is simply gratuity in Aquinas, a gratuity that seems (within Aquinas’ system, so far as I understand it) to be unassailable by ethical critique because the the gratuity flows from God as The Good (the divine boundlessness of grace gratuitously elevates the creature beyond his or her own bounded, natural end to an end beyond the boundedness of nature — the creature has no _right_ to it, and the gratuity of grace is certainly not _natural_). Aquinas steals a leaf out of the Neoplatonists’ book, without actually seeming to complete the reditus of the Neoplatonic system with final salvation (the reditus would seem to be simply a worldly and worlded perfection of a bounded nature whose limits do not exceed the horizon of this age). Next to that, the misanthropic elements in Luther, and the radical and seemingly monstrous freedom he paints God as being and having — these seem already implicit in the notion of gratuitous election that Aquinas breathes through an Aristotelian Neoplatonism (or is a Neoplatonic Aristotelianism?).


  1. Pingback: Merit & Grace in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period | Into the Clarities

  2. Enjoyed this post. I have often been bothered by the idea of free will as an answer to human suffering, especially suffering at the hands of another who used that faculty to commit a violent crime or worse. I like the idea of free will being a reflection of God, and for a moment I was inspired, though it seems that Luther felt that we falsely perceive that element in human beings. I also think of the American Puritans and their theology of “preparation,” which precluded them from doing anything but respond to the unctions of the Spirit, since even choosing God would not be enough to ensure election. Trying to prove that God was indeed calling you to be one of the elect became its own dilemma, resulting in some interesting conversion narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Augustine would not say that our will is free — it is remarkably constrained.
    I have not looked into it, but evolutionary psychologists would almost certainly say that the range of our freedom is constrained by the limits of our inheritance. I am strongly inclined to agree.

    When we wish to explain the acts of another –the suffering that such-and-such person inflicts– I am not sure that “freedom” is always a helpful rubric to explain it. Certainly in the case of my mother, and the very serious evils she inflicted upon me when I was younger (and in much lesser form, today), I do not think –though I thought it then– that “freedom” is helpful to explain how and why she committed the acts that she did. That said, most of us, and perhaps all of us, do have some form of freedom, within varying constraints — and we use the freedom of another to explain the axiological weight of their choices. A woman drove a car into a grocery store when I was younger; I believe it was decided that she was mentally ill. My father drove into a CVS when I was younger; a camera slipped under the brake because my sister had dropped it in his footwell unbeknownst to him, and so he was innocent of willfully breaking the concrete post he crashed into. I knew a man with nervous tics when I was doing my undergraduate; I would not fault him for slapping me if his arms flailed out voluntarily (though were he to have done so _voluntarily_, I would have faulted him). We become more free the more we refuse to suffer these constraints to be overcome by habit, or biology, _&c._. This doesn’t mean we ever become totally free. Luther would say that we are free to pick up our wine cup or not; what he would _not_ say we are free to do is to choose salvation. The _libido dominandi_ allows us a great degree of freedom, but no matter how free we become when saddled with it, we never escape its gravity. For Luther, _freedom_ is, in the end, one of the divine names; we cannot be named as free. (I have several posts about “_Freedom_ in the Reformations” in queue.)

    The commenter above, Joe, also studied the Puritans, and tells me stories; I never tire of hearing them. :-D Of course, the Puritans, as Reformed, were stricter Augustinians than Luther was: for Luther, the sensuousness of the word involved both the hearing of the external sign of true preaching and the sensuousness of Baptism and Eucharist. These signs of the Covenant were very physical for Luther: faith trusted the external signs. It was not this internal thing the way it was for Calvin and the Reformed tradition, so that uncertainty about election was not, for Luther, the problem it became for the Reformed tradition. The community who trusted the signs had no reason to worry about salvation.

    On that note, have you read Max Weber?


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