Think Twice, Martin Luther Never Reverted Back To Augustine's Theology Of Justification

Excerpt from: Alister E. McGrath, Luther's Theology of the Cross (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 133-136.  

Note: the portions that are italicized below have been translated into English from the Latin terms.  

Luther can be shown to have decisively broken with the soteriology of the via moderna by the end of 1515.  But what position did he assume as a consequence?  Did he merely revert to an Augustinian theology of justification, similar to that of his mentor Johannes von Staupitz?  There are two reasons for suggesting that he did not, developing instead a theology of justification which can only be described as Luther's own creation.  The first of these reasons relates to Luther's espousal of man's choice, which goes far beyond Augustine's statements on the incapacitation of the human free will by sin.  The second, and more significant, relates to the development of the concept of the alien righteousness of Christ, unquestionably one of the most original and creative aspects of Luther's mature doctrine of justification. . . . 

The origins of Luther's concept of the 'alien righteousness of Christ' must be considered to lie in the holistic understanding of man.  In particular, Luther argues that 'flesh' and 'spirit' are not to be regarded as man's lower and higher faculties respectively, but rather as descriptions of the whole person considered under different aspects.  Thus flesh is not man's lower nature, but the entire man, considered as turned in upon itself in its irrepressible egoism and its radical alienation from God.  Similarly, spirit is to be understood as referring to the entire man in his openness to God and the divine promises.  For Luther, justification relates to the entire person, both flesh and spirit: although the individual comes to put his trust in the promises of God, he nevertheless remains a sinner.  Thus the whole man is simultaneously sinner and saint - a sinner inwardly, and yet righteous in the sight of God.  In effect, this tension arises from Luther's dialectic between the whole man, viewed before God and before man.  The believer is righteous before God, even though this righteousness cannot be detected empirically: indeed, those who righteousness can be detected empirically are those who are righteous before mankind, and yet unrighteous before God - the hypocrites. . . . 

As the whole man cannot be partially righteous before God, his righteousness must be alien and extrinsic to him - it is a righteousness which is in no sense part of his person, or which can in any way be said to belong to him.  It is this consideration which appears to underlie the concept of the alien righteousness of Christ.  As Oberman points out, the concept is of decisive importance in distinguishing Luther's theology of justification from that of Staupitz: for the latter, justifying righteousness is a righteousness which is inherent to man, righteousness in us, which, although originating from God, may be regarded as part of the person of the believer; for the former, justifying righteousness is a righteousness which is alien to man, righteousness outside/apart us, which can never be said to belong to the person of the believer.  Luther uses images such as Boaz covering Ruth with his cloak, or a mother hen covering her chicks with her wing, to illustrate how God clothes the sinner with the alien righteousness of Christ. Extrinsically, the believer is righteous, through the alien righteousness of Christ; intrinsically he is - and will remain - a sinner.  This concept of justifying righteousness is, of course, totally different from that of St. Augustine, as Luther himself fully appreciates.  This element of Luther's thought would be developed by Melanchthon into a doctrine of forensic justification, which would become normative for Protestant understandings of justification. . .  

It is clear that Luther understands there to be a radical dichotomy between human and divine concepts of righteousness.  For Augustine, the verb to justify was equivalent to doing right, so that man could be said to 'become righteous' as a consequence of the operation of grace within him.  Luther, however, refused to allow that man could be said to become righteous in justification: if anything, he merely became increasingly aware of his unrighteousness, and was thus driven back to the cross to seek forgiveness.  The believer is always sinner, always penitent, always righteous.  Whereas Augustine saw the sole supreme justice in human laws, Luther saw nothing in human concepts of righteousness which corresponded to the righteousness/justice of God.  The righteousness which God demands is faith, and that righteousness is only known to faith.  In effect, Luther's understanding of God's righteousness involves a hermeneutical circle - a circle outside of which Luther himself once stood.  For Luther, St. Paul's letter to the Romans represented a programmatic critique of human preconceptions of righteousness.  In order that man might become conscious of his need for another, strange righteousness - Christ's alien righteousness - and thus turn to God in the humility of faith to receive this righteousness, which alone is valid before God, as it is only when this distinction is fully appreciated that his justification becomes a real possibility: 
Scripture uses the term 'righteousness' and 'unrighteousness' very differently from the philosophers and lawyers.  For they consider them to be a quality of the soul, but in the scriptures 'righteousness' depends more upon the imputation of God than upon the essence of the thing itself.  For he who has only a quality does not have righteousness - indeed, he is actually a sinner and unrighteous.  The only one who is righteous is the man who God, in his mercy, regards as righteous before him, on account of his confession of his own righteousness and his prayer for the righteousness of God.  Thus we are all born and die in iniquity, that is, in unrighteousness, and we are righteous only by the reckoning of a merciful God through faith in his word. (Luther) 
In effect, Luther is here mounting a sustained polemic against human preconceptions of what precisely is entailed by the 'righteousness of God'.  For Luther, there is an ever-present danger that the righteousness of God will be interpreted in terms of giving to each his own - an interpretation which he himself had earlier adopted, and which stood in the way of his theological breakthrough.

To read more on this subject:
Beware, There Exists A Deep Gulf Between The Teachings of Augustine And Luther On Justification

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