“Facientibus quod in se est” as Political Virtue

“Allegory of Good Government” (1338-1339) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Jordan Ballor, in a post at TCI, notes that Luther used the Medieval formula facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam in his mature theology, but in a manner different from the theology of the via moderna. There is a passage in Luther’s Lectures on Galatians which corroborates Ballor’s point:

“God does not require of any man That he do more than he really can.” This is actually a good statement, but in its proper place, that is, in political, domestic, and natural affairs. For example, if I, who exist in the realm of reason, rule a family, build a house, or carry on a governmental office, and I do as much as I can or what lies within me (quantum possum vel quod in me est), I am excused. For this realm has boundaries, and to this realm these statements like “to do what lies within one” (Facere quod in se est) or “to do as much as I can” (facere, quantum possum) properly apply. But the sophists drag these statements into the spiritual realm, where a man cannot do anything but sin, because he is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). But in external matters, that is, in political and domestic affairs, man is not a slave but a lord of these physical matters (corporalium rerum). Therefore it was wicked of the sophists to drag these political and domestic statements into the church. For the realm of human reason (Regnum … rationis humanae) must be separated as far as possible from the spiritual realm (spirituali Regno). (WA, 40. I. Band, 2. Galatervorlesung [cap. 1 –4] 1531, p. 292-293; LW, 26:173-174).

This corresponds with Luther’s rejection of Aristotelian virtue as the paradigm for spiritual virtue or righteousness. An interesting thing to note here is Luther’s division between the two Regna or Kingdoms permits him to use a principle that he often appears to reject outrightly. Thus, the principle of facientibus quod in se est is only sinful if one attempts to use it in spiritual affairs or consider it a theological principle rather than one that solely denotes political action.


Martin Luther: Various uses of ‘Ratio’

Although the Gospel is a higher gift and wisdom than human reason, it does not alter or tear up man’s understanding: for it was God Himself who implanted reason in man (Martin Luther, WA 11, 105 ff).

Brian Gerrish’s Grace and Reason, published back in 1964, adequately and persuasively demonstrated that the predominant interpretation of Martin Luther’s thought as a fideistic theology which utterly rejects reason as “Frau Hulda” for all spheres of human life is not accurate. Karl Barth is perhaps the most famous proponent of the irrational Luther. Despite the work of Gerrish, Cranz, and others, this interpretations still persists, albeit in various forms. I was reminded of Gerrish’s work in particular after reading a recent piece that portrays Luther in this light, a piece that I may review some time in the future. For now, here are a few concluding remarks on Luther’s use of “ratio” from Gerrish:

It is not sufficient to say, ‘Luther was an irrationalist: he attacked reason,’ and leave it at that. One must stop to inquire why he attacked reason, in what respects he attacked reason, and what he meant by ‘reason.’ […] If … we are to do justice to the complexity of Luther’s thought, we must carefully distinguish: (1) natural reason, ruling within its proper domain (the Earthly Kingdom); (2) arrogant reason, trespassing upon the domain of faith (the Heavenly Kingdom); (3) regenerate reason, serving humbly in the household of faith, but always subject to the Word of God. Within the first context, reason is an excellent gift of God; within the second, it is Frau Hulda, the Devil’s Whore; within the third, it is the handmaiden of faith. And if ‘we find no more precise discussion of the activity thus attributed to reason in the lives of the regenerate (reason in the third sense), this is not, as Köstlin seems to suppose [The Theology of Luther, II. 266.], merely because its function has become purely formal, that is, to deal in thought and speech with the material presented to it by faith and the Word; it is also because reason, when regenerate, is virtually absorbed into faith, becoming faith’s cognitive and intellective aspects. Because reason belongs to the natural sphere, Luther will not allow that it is competent to judge in matters of faith; and yet, because faith comes through the hearing and understanding of the Word, Luther found himself bound to concede that reason – man’s rationality in the broadest sense – was, when regenerate, faith’s indispensable tool (Grace and Reason, 25-27).

Apparent Dionysian Themes in Luther’s Theology

Scholars such as Bernard McGinn and Paul Rorem have highlighted Martin Luther’s explicit criticisms of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite in gauging the relationship of the Wittenberg Reformer to his Medieval and mystical theological predecessors. As Rorem points out, Luther’scriticisms of Dionysius are continuous throughout his early and mature theologies. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, one of Luther’s more mature writings, he states:

[I]t greatly displeases me to assign such importance to this Dionysius, whoever he may have been, for he shows hardly any signs of solid learning. I would ask, by what authority and with what arguments does he prove his hodge-podge about the angels in his Celestial Hierarchy—a book over which many curious and superstitious spirits have cudgeled their brains? If one were to read and judge without prejudice, is not everything in it his own fancy and very much like a dream? But in his Theology, which is rightly called Mystical, of which certain very ignorant theologians make so much, he is downright dangerous, for he is more of a Platonist than a Christian. So if I had my way, no believing soul would give the least attention to these books. So far, indeed, from learning Christ in them, you will lose even what you already know of him. I speak from experience. Let us rather hear Paul, that we may learn Jesus Christ and him crucified. He is the way, the life, and the truth; he is the ladder by which we come to the Father (LW 36:109).

Erich Vogelsang distinguished between (1) Dionysian mysticism, (2) Latin mysticism, and (3) German mysticism. Since Luther emphasized Christ’s humanity and the mystic’s self-despair, Vogelsang argues, he represents German mysticism to the exclusion of all other types. In his chapter in the recently published, Re-Thinking Dionysius the Areopagite, Piotr Malysz challenges this neat categorization of Luther, specifically with regard to Dionysian mysticism. Though Luther is critical of Dionysius, perhaps, Malysz asks, these criticisms should be openly weighed against Luther’s use of similar themes in his theology.

Malysz claims that Luther’s theology of the cross, his reference to God as Deus absconditus, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone bear similarities to the Dionysian concepts of Deus incognitosand the Neoplatonic theme of divine procession and return. Malysz, depending upon Rorem’s earlier work (“Martin Luther’s Christocentric Critique of Pseudo-Dionysian Spirituality”), notes that much of the history of the Corpus Dionysiacum revolved around the interpretive task of situating Dionysius’s Christology. According to Rorem, theologians from Maximus the Confessor to Bonaventure sought to make the Areopagite’s theology more Christ centered. Malysz argues that Luther continues the line of thinkers who contribute a Christocentric interpretation of Dionysius, adding his own particular solution to the problem of where Christ fits in Dionysian negative theology.

Dionysius, Malysz argues, distinguishes God from creation as theos agnostos. “Because ‘he is not some kind of being’, God enables the distinct identity of the world and is the framework for the unfolding of the world’s astounding multiplicity” (Malysz, 681). For Dionysius, man cannot know God in his nature but can know him in some way from the projection of things from him. But, God is not known through any particular thing. What is known is God’s simultaneous presence in all things while remaining unapparent and transcendently other to all. For Malysz, Luther’s The Bondage of the Will is an elaboration of divine hiddeness. Deus praesens appears in this work, he argues, as God at work in creation – all things transpire through the will of God which is his essence. Luther notes, “everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact … necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God” (ibid). The unfolding of God’s omnipotence, Malysz clarifies, does not violate the human will, in Luther’s view, but animates it. Doing the good out of free choice cannot occur apart from the Holy Spirit. Creation cannot yield knowledge apart from God. Malysz argues:

Luther does not reject divine unknowability but locates it, as does Dionysius, on the level of divine operation ad extra. Luther departs from Dionysius in questioning whether God’s unknowability can be conceptualized at all apart from God’s being God in relation to creation. It is fundamentally as praesens that God, for Luther, is unknown and unknowable (ibid., 684).

Malysz argues that Luther turns from the argument over divine presence with Erasmus to engage in similar debate with Zwingli. He argues with Zwingli that the presence of Christ’s humanity along with his divinity does not destroy Christ’s humanity. Luther correlates the presence of the humanity of Christ with God’s presence noting, “all created things are … much more permeable and present to him than they are in the second mode,” Malysz clarifies, “that is, when the risen Christ passed through closed doors, for example” (idib., 684).  For Luther, God’s presence is not a filling of space but space is present to him. For Luther:

God is no such extended, long, broad, thick, high, deep being. He is a supernatural, inscrutable being who exists at the same time in every little seed, whole and entire, and yet also in all and above all and outside all created things. . . . Nothing is so small but God is still smaller, nothing so large but God is still larger . . . He is an inexpressible being, above and beyond all that can be described or imagined (Luther quoted in ibid., 684).

Both Luther and Dionysius maintain that one does not come into God’s presence since God has the world present to himself: “he is the time and space of the world” (ibid., 685).  God remains in himself while giving himself to the created order. One difference between the two, notes Malysz, is that for Dionysius, God’s creating activity is for the sake of returning all things to him. For Luther, on the other hand, God’s majesty only evokes terror. However, Luther’s soteriology has a procession and return structure, Malysz argues. For Luther, the terror of God’s majesty is not meant to lead to absolute despair but to salutary despair. The God who is revealed as wrathful is also the God who reveals himself in the weakness of the cross. “Rather,” Malysz notes, “the purpose of his all-working hiddenness is to bring proud humans down to nothing, at which point they are not longer able to trust in themselves” (ibid., 686).

Despair over God’s majestic hiddenness gives way to faithful appreciation of his salvific hiddenness. For Luther, sin in its essence is a turning of the mind toward its self, principally in seeking to gratify ones desires by one’s own perceived righteousness. The sinner whose will is turned inward upon itself, who seeks self-justification, must come to nothing. In losing one’s relatedness to self, the relationship with God can be re-established. Malysz argues that, for Luther, one receives the joy of salvation through faith by fleeing from the majestic hiddeness of God to the hiddeness of the cross.

Rather than being instruments, the locales of God’s favour are Christ’s testament, which establishes the believer’s identity by imparting to her Christ’s life, righteousness and salvation. More importantly, they convey God’s relationship to humanity by defining this relationship as unquestionably favourable, rooted in God’s merciful identity (ibid., 687).

Freed to live in an “identity-bestowing relationship” with God, the believer is freed from self-justification and thus made open to relational living (ibid., 687).  By being properly placed in an orderly relationship the believer is freed from the self and enabled to seek to justify others. Malysz affirms that this other-seeking motive brought about by justification has important socio-political implications:

Luther’s dramatic plea that public offices be filled by Christians must be seen in this context. The transactional nature of civil law, despite its capacity for social order, cannot by itself assure justice, for the law objectifies those under it. It is therefore imperative that public officers not lose sight of those under their authority as persons and apply the law with equity” (ibid., 687).

Believers exhibit in their lives Christ’s “other-justifying descent” (ibid., 688).  In seeking to share the divine light through justifying others, believers are simultaneously returning to their source. Luther acknowledges that God is the source of every good – faith “consummates the Deity … it is the creator of the Deity, not in the substance of God but in us” (Luther quoted in ibid., 688).  In performing just acts the believer participates in the return of God’s own divinity to himself. Luther’s point of departure, Malysz argues, is the necessity of salvation seen in primarily psychological terms (bondage of the will, etc.). For Dionysius it is the attribution of harmony to a multiplicity of created goods.

For Dionysius the creature has an anological identity – participating in the harmonious gathering and return of all things to the One. The creature’s identity is encompassed by the desire to participate in God’s own desire to create. Malysz affirms that, in Dionysius’s view, creatures are able by free will to act against the divine harmony and cause chaos and disorder, yet all of creation yearns for and is called to oneness with God. With both Luther’s and Dionysius’s affirmations of the sinful predicament of the human will and the created order in mind, Malysz asks, “How can such sinners come to know God?” Both Dionysius and Luther agree that to think that one sees and understands God is to mistake the creation for the Creator. For Luther, God has veiled himself in creation and in the humanity of Christ to preserve man’s analogous nature. In accepting the hidden God believers must halt the activities of the mind and receive him who is “hidden even amid the revelation” (Luther quoted in ibid., 689).  Malysz summarizes what he sees as the quintessential similarities between the Areopagite and the Wittenberger. Both: (1) see creation’s harmony as a structure of divine impartation (2) this impartation can be phrased in terms of procession and return (3) emphasize the analogical relationality of the human person and the divine.

Though Malysz’s comparison and contrast of Luther and Dionysius performs a much needed second look at Luther’s relationship to his Medieval theological predecessors, he leaves the reader with some unanswered questions. What is Luther’s exact relationship to the Corpus Dionysiacum? How do we balance an apparent influence of Dionysian Neoplatonism on Luther’s theology with his own words in opposition to the Areopagite? Malysz does not offer a solution to this overarching problem, other than pointing to some intriguing similarities. On this note, Malysz’s analysis could stand to be more empirical. It could stand to focus more on Luther’s explicit positive use of Dionysian terminology. Also, his analysis might be more thorough if it focused on the importance of faith and the relationship between the law and gospel, two very prominent themes in Luther’s theology where, I believe, he uses Dionysian terms and reasons most explicitly. For a more text-based analysis of the similarities between Luther and Dionysius, I point the reader to Knut Alfsvåg’s article which I may get around to reviewing later, “Luther as a Reader of Dionysius the Areopagite” (Studia Theologica 65 [2011], pp. 101- 114). Also, a mention of the difficult tension between justification and deification in Luther’s theology would have been apropos. A needed clarification on this point comes by way of Bruce Marshall’s “Justification as Declaration and Deification” (International Journal of Systematic Theology, 4:1 [2002], pp. 3-28).

The Reformation of Religious Images: Lucas Cranach the Elder and Martin Luther

When Martin Luther began translating the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into German in the 1520s his main intention was to create a text in a common dialect that would open up the word of God to the laity. Yet, something in Luther’s modus intelligendi prevented him from releasing the final copy devoid of any illuminating artwork. This will inevitably seem odd to the average Protestant of our day who (a) does not live in a culture that values illuminated manuscripts and (b) fears any sort of “superstition” that may accompany images placed so dangerously close to God’s inerrant word. Luther did not think that way, and neither did the other Reformers (as I have demonstrated concerning Zwingli).

In fact, Luther appears to have no reservations about the inclusion of images of God within his Bible, as the following images taken from his “Bibel … Schrifft Deutsch” show.

1. This image is similar to that in Zwingli’s “Zürcher Bibel” and depicts the “Son of Man” from John’s Apocalypse:

2. Here God is depicted in the text for Genesis 1, creating and upholding the earth.

3. Finally, this image is a depiction of Ezekiel’s vision of God on his throne from Ezekiel 1.

Of course Luther cannot be accused of limiting God’s nature to that of a man, rather he views the appearances of the “Glory of God” in the Old Testament as an appearance of God’s likeness or the pre-incarnate Christ himself. Luther was not afraid that those who see these images would come to think of God as a mere man. On the contrary, Luther considered these images to be detrimental to the goal of a biblically educated church. Ezekiel really saw the likeness of God. The people should be encouraged to believe that.

Luther was no artist in the professional sense. Therefore, he needed help in creating Reformed images for his new translation. The artist chosen to help would need to be Reformed and comfortable with Luther’s theology, such as the exclusion of halos around the heads of saints and the belief that the images may carry some sort of inherent blessing. He did not need to look far. There was already a local artist by the name of Lucas Cranach the Elder who was a court painter for the Electors of Saxony. Cranach met Luther sometime around 1520 and developed a strong bond with him that would last for the remainder of his life. The two even became godparents to each other’s children. Cranach and Luther worked closely together on numerous propaganda pieces against the extravagancies of the Papacy at that time. One of their first projects together was that of Luther’s Bible.

Some may find it difficult to think of Cranach’s religious depictions as genuinely “Reformed” because the interpretation of images is often somewhat subjective. However, this is not the case with Cranach, as Bonnie Noble points out:

From the very beginning of Luther reform, Cranach made pictures to promote religious change. A famous and early Cranach-Luther collaboration is the Passional Christi et Antichristi, an acerbic, propagandistic, illustrated book of 1521 that contrasts Christ with the pope in the role of the anti-Christ. According to a statement by an employee in the Wittneberg shop of Hans Lufft, who printed the book, Luther supplied the text for the project: ‘The honorable doctor recommended some of the figures himself, how one should sketch or paint them, how one was supposed to paint according to the text and did not want any extra, unnecessary things that did not serve the text. This quotation is intriguing for at least two reasons. First, it highlights the priority of aligning pictorial and textual meaning, of creating a limited, reciprocal relationship between word and image, to the exclusion of ‘unnecessary things that did not serve the text.’ Second, it indicates that Luther at least advised on the production of the image, exercising influence on its content. The contrast between Christ and the pope makes the Lutheran agenda unmistakable. (Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation, p. 34.)

Therefore, Cranach and Luther worked together to produce pieces that would not only aid in the interpretation of the Bible but also in winning converts to the Reformation cause. Perhaps the most famous Luther-Cranach piece is Gesetz und Gnade (Law and Grace, a.k.a., Law and Gospel).

This image depicts one of the most pivotal elements of Luther’s theology. On the left is the Law and judgment symbolized by a man being forced into hell by Death and Satan, Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, Christ sitting in judgment, and Adam and Even partaking of the forbidden fruit. On the right is Grace and the Gospel with Christ’s cross crushing Death and Satan and the blood of Christ covering those near the cross. The tree that divides the painting is dead on the side of the Law but vibrant on the side of the Gospel. Luther and Cranach are not here depicting a radical break between Law and Gospel, the theologies of the Old Testament versus that of the New. Rather, as Noble demonstrates, “The painting draws a boundary between the dynamics of Law and Gospel (Lutheran theology) on the one hand, and law on its own (Catholicism or Judaism) on the other.” (ibid., p. 49.) Luther is not antithetical toward the Law as a guide in Sanctification, rather he castigates the Law seen as an agent of Justification.

This emphasis on theology has led many scholars to the notion that Luther and Cranach’s religious depictions are merely functional. The idea is that these images are only meant to convince the mind of a particular theological position or way of interpreting the Bible and nothing more. Yet, the detail in these works conveys a different message. Surely functionality is important. Luther considered the errors of the Roman church to be the works of Satan himself. In that light, these pictures were meant to guide the pious back toward God’s grace which is freely exhibited by the cross of Christ. However, one should not say that Cranach’s artistic hand was somehow limited by the particular medium with which he worked, or that artistic value was for him subordinate to his theological agenda. These works were meant to unveil the “veiled God” of whom Luther so often spoke. These images were designed to convey the truth, to shine light upon a dark world. And for that reason creativity cannot be a mere by-product of function.

We can catch a glimpse into the world of the 16th century Reformation through Luther’s relationship with an artist who used his medium to do spiritual battle against the dark forces within the church. It was not Luther’s intention to merely teach the less-educated by including awesome images within his Bible. He called on Lucas Cranach the Elder to use his God-given talents to open the word of God to the eyes and the imagination as Luther himself was opening the word of God for the first time (in such an accessible form) to the German people.

Ohne Reformation kein Humanismus

Reformed SchoolOhne Humanismus keine Reformation (without Humanism no Reformation)  is the conclusion of one German scholar. On this Reformation Day, a day that bids us stop and reflect, the question, “Would the Reformation have occurred without humanism?,” seems pertinent. Many scholars have focused on the influence of humanism upon Luther, Zwingli, and Clavin, concluding that these three prominent Reformers came to their conclusions through the use of humanistic methods. Without ad fontes there would be no sola scriptura or sola fide. Yet, there is another side to the coin.

Unfortunately, the adage Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation stressed too much, signifies the notion that humanistic ideals and education were in the stages of decline in the mid-16th century, a decline that was precipitated by the Reformation return to Christian piety. This Reformation of piety, some say, valued theology over the arts curriculum and even sought to stunt the spread of a liberal education, fearing pagan authors would distract the youth from the importance of the sacred text. Against this notion are the examples of the Reformers themselves and those with whom they associated.

Lewis Spitz has done a tremendous service to Reformation scholarship with his work on education at the time of the Reformation and, particularly, his publication of the essential pedagogical writings of Johann Sturm. The research of Spitz and many others (including Barbara Tinsley and Karin Maag) has led scholars (such as Erika Rummel) to reverse the question of how humanism influenced the Reformers and ask, “How did the Reformation influence Humanism?” Spitz, in “The Importance of the Reformation for the Universities: Culture and Confession in the Critical Years,” points out that although Erfurt and Leiden Universities were influenced by traveling humanists such as Rudolph Agricola and Mutianus Rufus, genuine humanistic reform did not occur in these schools until 1519.

New humanist translations of Aristotle were to replace the medieval Latin texts. Instruction in classical Latin, poetry, rhetoric, lectures on Cicero and Virgil, and the study of Greek were added to the curriculum. (Spitz, in Rebirth, Reform, and Resilience, p. 50)

LutherThe same type of Reform in the classical arts occurred at Heidelberg in 1522, in Tübingen in 1525, and Cologne shortly after. At the University of Wittenberg humanistic education flourished under Luther and Melanchthon due to the protection of Elector Frederick and the distance of Wittenberg from the older centers of learning – in the older universities humanism had to battle with scholasticism and church tradition. Elector Frederick appointed Philip Melanchthon as professor in Greek, against Luther who suggested Peter Mosellanus. Elaborating on Luther’s and Melachthon’s humanism, Spitz notes:

Although no humanist theologically speaking, Luther was, nevertheless, a protagonist of the humanist curriculum on the arts level. He understood that the reform of theology in the advanced faculty of theology would be impeded and perhaps even impossible if the students’ arts training was exclusively in traditional dialectic and Aristotle in Latin commentaries and if they lacked education in poetry, rhetoric, languages, and history, subjects he deemed necessary for Biblical exegesis and the theological disciplines. He took an active role in promoting these subjects with the Augustinian colleagues and especially with Melanchthon after his arrival in 1518. Melanchthon’s draft of the statutes for the Faculty of Liberal Arts in 1520 eliminated everything that had referred to scholasticism. Melanchthon’s inaugural oration, De corrigendis adolescentia studiis [On the correcting of adolescent studies], was programmatic for Wittenberg, decrying the loss of learning, the ignorance of Greek language and culture, and the schoolmen’s dialectic, and urging the university to turn to the studia humanitatis for new light. The various reform statutes adopted between 1533 and 1536 … completed the symbiosis of humanism and reformation. Melanchthon, praeceptor Germaniae, labored for a reform of education from top to bottom. His role in the educational reform of the secondary schools was of critical importance. He took the initiative in encouraging the establishment of gymnasia in Nuremberg and many other cities, and his influence reached through Johannes Sturm in Strasbourg to Roger Ascham in England and Claude Baduel in Nimes. (ibid., 51.)

Through the influence of Wittenberg, humanistic reform came to other universities throughout Europe and even reaching England. Spitz slightly exaggerates the influence of Melancthon in this article. For instance, Johann Sturm was mainly influenced by the Brethren of the Common Life, through his education at the College of St. Jerome in Liege. Yet, no matter who influenced whom, it is a proven fact that were it not for these pivotal figures humanism would not have advanced in European centers of education. Even such a staunch biblical theologian as John Calvin worked to implement a humanist curriculum at the Genevan Academy, mainly under the influence of Johann Sturm’s Strausburg Academy. Therefore, on this Reformation Day we should all remember the humanism of these great church Reformers and instead of saying Ohne Humanismus keine Reformation (without humanism no Reformation) we should say, Ohne Reformation kein Humanismus (without the Reformation no humanism).

Luther and Valla on The Donation of Constantine: Thoughts about Truth and History

VallaLorenzo Valla’s book debunking the myth that Constantine gave most of the Western territories to Pope Sylvester was published in 1517. By that point Conciliarists had been trying to limit the power of the Papal office for hundreds of years, and Martin Luther had already come to conclusions similar to those of the Bohemian reformer Jan Huss. However, Valla’s uncovering of the fraudulence of this document added conviction to both Conciliarist beliefs and those of the Reformers. Valla affirms:

I know that for a long time now men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. (Valla, Discourse on the Alleged Donation of Constantine, p. 23.)

LutherMartin Luther read this book in 1520 and was both shocked and more fully convinced that the real battle in which he had already begun to take part centered upon the problem of the papacy. He tells of his surprise and anguish of discovering the truth about the forged Donation to his friend Spalatin:

I have at hand Lorenzo Valla’s proof (edited by Hutten) that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. Good heavens! what a darkness and wickedness is at Rome! You wonder at the judment of God that such unauthentic, erass, impudent lies not only lived but prevailed for so many centuries, that they were incorporated in the Canon Law, and (that no degree of horror might be wanting) that they became as articles of faith. I am in such a passion that I scarecely doubt that the Pope is the Antichrist expected by the world, so closely do their acts, lives, sayings, and laws agree. (Letter to Spalatin, Feb. 24, 1520.)

C.S. Lewis says that rationalists are like children. When their premises have been proven false they still do not concede the argument but resort to ad hominems or the childish reply, “nuh-uh.” Rationalists also, in my experience, are bad historians. Luther’s problem with the Roman church was more than just doctrinal, as many today believe. His battle was against those who did not have the heart for Truth even though their minds seemed sharp and ripe with understanding. Luther did not want to make people merely understand his teachings on justification, he wanted those teachings to affect their hearts. When people have a reasoned desire for Truth they ask critical questions and are not afraid of the conclusions. 

The true end of sacred doctrine is to humble us and change our heart of stone to a spiritual heart. Doctrine partially fulfills our desire for Truth. Thomas said that sacred doctrine is like God’s own understanding. Unfortunately, people today tend to use doctrine either to exclude others or they treat doctrine as if it is an end in itself. Some think that if our doctrine of justification is worded correctly we will have a perfect knowledge of its truth; if not, then the gospel itself has been compromised. This produces a spirit of rationalism that seeks to strip away anything mysterious for the purpose of “clarifying” difficult teachings. If the right formulation of these doctrines is necessary for salvation then we better seek to know them perfectly. Hence, our textbooks of theology tend to look more like dictionaries. 

When we become overzealous for doctrinal purity we tend to lose all bearing on the path toward Truth, and eventually we lose all desire for Truth. Valla, though he remained loyal to the Roman Church was able to criticize the magisterium even to the point of accusing it of deliberate fabrication. Martin Luther, though not a historian, also demonstrated his desire for Truth with his call to go back to the fountain of scripture in order to reassess those doctrines that have been corrupted by the “Truth-deniers” at Rome. Of course, his ad fontes approach was not so radical that he spurned the wisdom of the church fathers or the regula fide. Luther was not a “patrist” however. When he read Valla’s book what really surprised him was the lack of concern for the Truth by the Roman vicar. This should be a reminder for those of us seeking to be Reformed historians/theologians/philosophers, etc. that (a) Truth is something to be contemplated not sealed up and stored away, (b) Truth requires investigation but not concise discursive explanation, and (c) Truth is something to be lived. Without a heart for Truth we will not know the truth, and will quite possibly try to keep others from knowing it.

Finding the Mean Between Vices

One huge area of interest for the Christian philosopher is that of the relationship between man’s natural practical reason and the virtues that he may acquire through his faculties and the supernatural virtues that no natural faculty can help to achieve but are, nonetheless, requirements for entry into the City of God.  Peter Martyr said that the mean between vices (which is the essence of virtue) may only be found by looking to the scriptures.  At first this idea seems like that of  a biblicist who seeks to do violence to nature in order to prove man’s need of the supernatural.  However, Martyr is a big fan of natural law (he calls it prolepseis) even saying, “we must always accept the view that ‘Reason always encourages one to better things.'” (Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 286).  

How do we solve this dilemma?  Does Martyr contradict himself?  Can men find the mean by use of reason?  I think if we assume (a) that Christianity and pagan philosophy are incompatible or (b) that there is a dichotomy between reason and faith so that we must always make a choice between one or the other then we must conclude that he does contradict himself.  The person who holds to (a) would consider this good while the person holding to (b) would consider Martyr irrational.  

In order to answer these questions we must distinguish between (1) acquired and (2) inspired (or infused) virtues. The acquired virtues are worthless coram Deo while the inspired ones are made perfect by Christ’s righteousness.  No. (2) does not only consist of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity but also those that man can naturally acquire (but does not in this case) such as prudence, fortitude, and temperance.  The difference between the believer’s moral virtues and those of the unbeliever is that the former are directed to God while the others are directed at an infinite variety of earthly ends.

Therefore, Martyr says that Christian right reason seeks after the mean of (2) in the scriptures because they surpass natural reason and because the effects of sin have deemed man’s rational faculty unreliable.  I believe Martyr follows the basic structure that Martin Luther presents in his Lectures on Galatians to perfect Aristotle’s virtue theory with the more certain truth of the Christian faith.  Luther says that in theology “doing” has a different meaning than in morals:    

Thus it has a completely new meaning; it does indeed require right reason and a good will, but in a theological sense, not in a moral sense, which means that through the Word of the Gospel I know and believe that God sent His Son into the world to redeem us from sin and death.  Here ‘doing’ is a new thing, unknown to reason, to the philosophers, to the legalists, and to all men; for it is a ‘wisdom hidden in a mystery’ (1 Cor. 2:7).  In theology, therefore, ‘doing’ necessarily requires faith itself as a precondition […] a new reason must come into being, which is the reason of faith.  Therefore ‘doing’ is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, one that is different from moral doing. (Lectures on Galatians, pp. 262, 263)  

Thus in order to find the mean that counts as virtue coram Deo natural reason is not enough.  One must look to the supernatural wisdom, a reason of faith, found in the Holy Scriptures.  This is not the case of faith doing violence to natural reason, rather it is the case of faith perfecting natural reason by directing it toward its supernatural end in the vision of God.  Once faith has been found through the hearing of the word and the inspiration of the Spirit men can acquire virtues that apply both to the civil and spiritual realms through the use of right reason.