One of the most distinguishing features of Western Christianity is its insistence that the basis of salvation is not any form of human privilege, merit, or achievement, but the graciousness of God. The idea is found throughout the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul: "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The implications of these ideas were explored and clarified during the Pelagian controversy, which pitted Augustine of Hippo against the Rome-based British theologian Pelagius. Where Pelagius argued that humanity is required to do certain things and behave in certain ways to secure God's favor, Augustine argued that such actions and behavior are the result, not the cause, of being accepted by God. Divine acceptance is an act of total grace that leads to the moral and spiritual transformation of the sinner.3
Although little interest in these matters was shown by the early Swiss Reformation, which was primarily concerned with the renewal and reform of the life and morality of both the church and individual Christians, these issues lay at the heart of the emerging evangelical reformation at Wittenberg. Throughout the late 1510s, Luther and his colleagues Andreas Karlstadt and Nikolaus von Amsdorf sought to renew Augustine's reforming agenda in the face of what they believed to be a fresh outbreak of Pelagianism in the contemporary church. Although historians have noted the unacceptable generalization in their thinking—Luther and his colleagues were extrapolating, with no justification, from a local situation to the entire church—there is little doubt that they had some valid grounds for concern.
What gave the Lutheran Reformation its distinctive character was its decision to change the terminology in which the question of human salvation was conceived. Up to this point, the Christian tradition had focused on the Pauline notion of "salvation by grace" (Ephesians 2:8) and used this vocabulary in its discussion of how humanity is reconciled to God. Luther and his colleagues now used a different Pauline category to express substantially the same notion: "justification by faith" (Romans 5:1). The reasons for this shift in vocabulary are not fully understood.
This change in terms defined the contours of Protestantism. From now on, Protestant writers would discuss how the individual secures salvation using the specific terminology of "justification by faith" and would tend to regard any other form of words as unacceptable. Initially, their Catholic opponents followed suit: the Council of Trent chose to address its opponents using their own terminology. However, by the middle of the following century Catholicism had reverted to the traditional means of discussing the question in terms of salvation by grace. The prioritization of the idea of justification by faith was now a Protestant distinctive.
As we noted earlier, the doctrine of justification by faith was central to Luther's reforming agenda.4 This concern was often summed up in the Latin slogan sola fide, "by faith alone." It is important to appreciate that this concept is notionally independent of the early Reformation emphasis on the supreme importance of the Bible. The Reformation in eastern Switzerland, though rigorously focused on the Bible, did not develop any such doctrine of justification sola fide.
Luther was adamant that the doctrine of justification by faith was fundamental to the recovery of Christian identity and integrity at the time of the Reformation.5 If humanity became righteous in the sight of God because of its good actions, the whole gospel of grace was compromised. Salvation was a gift, not something that was earned through achievements or merit. Arguing that contemporary Catholicism taught "justification by works," Luther insisted that Paul's doctrine of "justification by faith" was definitive for Christianity. And to make sure that there were no misunderstandings about this, he added the word "alone," lest anyone see faith as one among a number of causes of justification—including works.
This addition caused a furor. Catholics pointed out that the New Testament nowhere taught "justification by faith alone"; indeed, the
Letter of James explicitly condemned this idea. Luther responded by making the point that his slogan encapsulated neatly the substance of the New Testament, even if it did not use precisely its original words. And as for the Letter of James, was it not "an epistle of straw" that ought not to be there in the New Testament anyway? This second argument caused considerable unease within Protestant circles and was not maintained by Luther's successors.
Luther's doctrine of justification won wide—but not universal—acceptance within early Protestantism. Zwingli and other eastern Swiss reformers of the late 1510s clearly entertained a vision of reformation that did not entail this idea and may even have been contradicted by it. Many Swiss and Rhineland reformers of the 1520s were nervous about the idea, believing that it suggested that Christians were relieved of any obligation to do good works. Bucer, perhaps showing his ethical sympathies with Erasmus of Rotterdam, set out a doctrine of double justification, which ensured a robust link between God's act of gracious acceptation and the human response of grateful moral action.6 Some Anabaptist writers also distanced themselves from it, again expressing anxieties about its biblical foundations and moral implications.
Luther responded by calming such fears—particularly in his "Sermon on Good Works"—arguing that all he was saying was that good works are the natural result of having been justified, not the cause of that justification. Far from destroying morality, Luther simply saw himself as setting it in its proper context. Believers perform good works as an act of thankfulness to God for having forgiven them, rather than in an attempt to persuade or entice God to forgive them in the first place.
These ideas were consolidated by Luther's colleague Philip Melanchthon, who drew a distinction between justification (the act in which God accepts a sinner as righteous) and sanctification (the process in which God transforms and renews the sinner). Developing the idea of "forensic justification," Melanchthon argued that God imputes Christ's righteousness, won by his obedience on the cross, to individual sinners, so that they are vindicated or acquitted of sin in the heavenly courtroom. There is thus no need for any notion of "purgatory," because the believer is now clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.
At one level, the Reformation can be seen as a replay of some of the leading themes of the Pelagian controversy between Augustine of
Hippo and Pelagius. Although the debate was wide-ranging, one of its central themes was the human capacity to do good without the assistance of God's grace. Pelagius held that humanity can fulfill the divine law unaided; God created humanity with the capacity for perfection, and they are thus under obligation to achieve it. Augustine argued that God's grace is essential at every stage in the Christian life. Humanity is fallen, damaged and wounded by sin, and needs healing and restoration—something they cannot achieve themselves. God's gracious assistance can be discerned in operation from the beginnings of faith to its fulfillment.
Following Luther and Calvin, mainline Protestantism sided with Augustine in this dispute, regarding him as a generally trustworthy interpreter of the Bible and defender of divine grace. Melanchthon saw the Reformation as recycling this older controversy, with Protestantism playing Augustine's role and Catholicism Pelagius's—a suggestion that was not well received by Catholics, who emphasized their shared opposition to Pelagianism.
It is important, however, to note the dissident voices within Protestantism on this matter. Zwingli and other Swiss reformers of the late 1510s, followed by some Anabaptist leaders of the 1520s and 1530s, saw their reforming work primarily in terms of the renewal of morals and set out reforming agendas that were closer to Pelagius's ideals than many realize.7 Later, John Wesley suggested that Pelagius's idea of "Christian perfection" was laudable and ought to be pursued by Christians.
The Council of Trent responded by criticizing the emerging Protestant consensus on justification at a number of levels. First, Trent insisted that the notion of justification by "faith alone" was unacceptable in that it failed to do justice to the New Testament emphasis on the place of love in the Christian life. More significantly, Trent argued that justification is a complex process, enfolding both acceptance and subsequent transformation by God. In other words, Trent insisted that the word "justification" denoted what Melanchthon understood by both "justification" and "sanctification," rolled into a single concept. This argument was a recipe for confusion, and it almost certainly underlies the popular nineteenth-century Protestant misunderstanding that Catholicism taught "justification by works."
The Protestant doctrine of justification had implications for the traditional Catholic cult of the saints. The saints were believed to work wonders, and their relics were highly prized. Most importantly, they were understood to play a role in ensuring the salvation of individuals through their righteous and effective prayer.8 The doctrine of justification rendered the cult of the saints redundant. They would add nothing to what Christ had done; there was nothing they could achieve that had not already been secured through Christ's saving death.
That having been said, a growing body of evidence points to early Protestant leaders being treated as if they were traditional saints during the first phase of the movement.9 Both Melanchthon and Luther became the object of stories of miraculous events—such as the village whose well dried up after Luther's censure of its citizens for supporting Karlstadt. Luther's birthplace in Eisleben began to attract pilgrims and was rumored to have miraculously survived destruction by fire several times. These ideas seem to have persisted into the seventeenth cen-tury—perhaps confirming the views of those who suggest that humanity is intrinsically religious.
Since the Second World War, there has been growing hesitation within many sections of Protestantism concerning its traditional way of speaking about salvation.10 While some have insisted that Protestants are bound by their tradition to speak and think in this manner, others have expressed anxieties over its continued use, especially in the light of a growing consensus among New Testament scholars that the notion of "justification by faith" is not as central to the thought of the New Testament, or even Paul himself, as Luther and others appear to have be-lieved.11 Many follow Albert Schweitzer, who suggested that the idea of justification was only a "subsidiary crater" in Paul's thought, rather than constituting its core and center. Why, many Protestant scholars have asked, should the movement be obliged to replicate Luther's interpretation of Paul when it appears questionable at points? Are not Protestants meant to constantly reexamine their ideas in the light of the biblical material rather than accept interpretations inherited from the past, however venerable or influential? Others have expressed concern that the phrase "justification by faith" is virtually unintelligible to modern secular humanity, and they suggest that other biblical concepts might be redeployed to remedy the situation.12 It remains to be seen where this debate will lead in the future.
So why did this doctrine play such an important role in the first phase of Protestantism? After all, the basic ideas underlying the doctrine were known in earlier periods of the history of Christian thought. The answer to this question is complex and nuanced and relates particularly to the emergence of the idea of the "individual." Although the origins of a sense of individual, personal identity, one that could be affirmed over and against one's place as a member of society at large, can be traced back to the early Middle Ages, there is no doubt that Renaissance humanism gave this notion a new sense of importance, as well as an injection of intellectual energy.13
The doctrine of justification made a powerful appeal to this emerging sense of individual identity. One's relationship to God was a personal matter, involving the creator and the creature. Justification was an act of personal graciousness and acceptation of the sinner by a God who promised to forgive sins and renew human nature. Each individual believer mattered profoundly to God and could not be reduced to an ecclesiastical statistic. Luther's doctrine of justification by faith was widely understood to mean that the individual relates directly to God, without having to involve the institution of the church or its priests or rites. The doctrine resonated profoundly with the notion of a privatized, personal faith. This is not what Luther intended; it was, however, how he was understood by his appreciative readers throughout Europe during the 1520s.
This individualist understanding of the doctrine of justification became so influential that second-generation Protestants felt the need to restore the balance and remind their followers of the corporate dimensions of faith. Christianity was not just about the individual's personal relationship with God; it had implications for an individual's existence in the community. Calvin's comments on the role of the church can be seen as an important corrective to a radically individualist reading of Luther. God uses certain definite earthly means to work out the salvation of his elect; although he is not absolutely bound by these means, he normally works within them. The church is thus identified as a divinely founded body within which God effects the sanctification of his people. "You cannot," Calvin argued, "have God as your father unless you have the church for your mother."
This naturally leads us to consider Protestant reflections on the nature of the church itself and its importance for the development of Protestantism.
Was this article helpful?