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Augustine and Reformation

18 April 2011

Mark Ellingsen’s article in the current issue of Scottish Journal of Theology, “Augustinian origins of the Reformation reconsidered,” makes an interesting case against recent scholarship, represented most prominently today by Alister McGrath, which asserts that the influence of the thought of Augustine of Hippo on Martin Luther has traditionally been overstated. In opposition to this view Ellingsen presents a number of parallels in the theology of Augustine and that of Reformation Luther (beyond simply the Tower Experience). Ellingsen’s argument is, on the whole, convincing and the case he makes for Luther’s dependence on Augustine very strong. He does acknowledge those places where the evidence is against him, perhaps interestingly Luther’s own statement that he put Augustine aside once he understood Paul.[1]

Ellingsen posits that faced with similar theological interlocutors Augustine and Luther came to similar conclusions, and so Luther leans upon his predecessor. Luther understood himself to be addressing what was essentially Pelagianism and writings where he spoke against this perceived element in Catholic teachings and theologies he employed Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings. Ellingsen also finds agreement between Luther and Augustine’s views on the relation between faith and reason, though he does cede the point that, particularly when addressing pastoral concern not related to heresy, Augustine, quite unlike Luther, allows for a correlation between reason and faith.[2] These two caveats aside Ellingsen’s argument is an extremely interesting one: when faced with similar theological or pastoral concerns two thinkers at great temporal, geographical, and cultural remove can come to similar positions. This idea changes the tone of the debate from “how Luther is influenced by Augustine” to “how Luther mirrors Augustine.” Of course these questions are not mutually exclusive but the shift in emphasis in significant: if we accept that Luther came to Augustinian positions independently we must allow for the idea that Luther does cite or praise Augustine because Augustine influenced his thinking but because Augustine is an authority who agrees with Luther. Ellingsen does not explore this question in depth but it is an interesting one and I will return to it. First I would address three matters that came to the fore for me while reading Ellingsen’s article.

Numerous occasions where Ellingsen identifies Luther as employing an Augustinian reading of Paul strike one, at least to one educated in the New Perspective on Paul school of Pauline interpretation in contradistinction to the Classical Protestant School, as simply readings of Paul. For instance, Ellingsen calls attention to what he describes as Luther’s “unacknowledged overall embrace of the Augustinian two-realms view of world history.”[3] However the two-worlds (or ‘two-ages,’ to employ the New School terminology) paradigm is also strongly present in Paul. In Paul’s ex post facto thinking the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new, eschatological epoch.[4] A careful reader Paul, Luther is very likely to have derived this paradigm from the great epistler rather than from a later commentator, even if he did regard that commentator highly, and even if that commentator shared the paradigm in question (Augustine too may have derived his two-worlds thinking from Paul). Of course the Pauline two-ages thinking as it is understood today is not identical to either Augustine or Luther’s two-worlds thinking but the parallels are strong and the latter may likely have developed from the former.

Though Ellingsen does make the obligatory reference to Christ Present in Faith he does not attempt to look at Luther through the insights of the Finnish/Mannermaa school. This is indeed a loss because Mannermaa’s insights into Luther’s soteriology and the possibility of interpreting it through the light of deification is particularly interesting in the light of Luther’s debated dependence on Augustine. Deification was far from a central topic of debate in Luther’s time but it was a dominant stream of Patristic soteriology. How it might be seen to be present in Luther through Augustine is fascinating question deserving of further study.

Oddly, Ellingsen makes only a passing reference to De servo arbitrio, mentioning that Augustine is employed therein.[5] Give that Luther, at the end of his life, regarded this as one his two or three works worth keeping and that it leans so heavily upon Augustinian modes of thinking about the irresistibility of grace one would think that it would form a more central plank of Ellingsen’s argument. Of course De servo arbitrio is less about irresistible grace as such and more about divine sovereignty; Luther asserts that the will is entirely enslaved to God whereas Augustine’s position was more that the will is enslaved to sin when not taken up by irresistible grace. However, despite this difference in emphasis the influence of the Doctor of Grace shines through strongly in De servo arbitrio and would certainly have served Ellingsen’s point.

Returning to the question of influence vs. appeal, Ellingsen’s suggestion raised an important question for how scholars trace the genealogy of ideas. Simply because a past thinker seems to looms large in the work of a later writer does not mean that said earlier thinker can be identified as a great influence. Give the frequency with which I myself cite Karl Rahner in defense of my ideas one could be forgiven for thinking that this great Catholic theologian is a great personal influence. In truth I have never read him; though I have enough about him to know that he agrees with ideas I have long held. I cite him because he is well-read and well-respected today, not because he influenced by thought in any substantive way. By contrast I rarely make mention of Jacobus Arminius, an enormous personal influence who completely changed the way I think about soteriology because even in theological circles he is not well-known today. I doubt I am the first person to cite a well-respected forebear in defense of my own positions whilst leaving a true influence uncredited. When seeking to win an argument whom you cite is often more a matter of rhetorical advantage than academic honesty and Luther was certainly seeking to win the theological arguments in which he was embroiled. This is not to suggest that Augustine did not, in fact, influence Luther, far from it, merely to point out that if Ellingsen’s thesis is correct and Luther did come to similar positions at least partially independently of Augustine then the ramifications are interesting and, so far as I am aware, unexplored.

Notes and Bibliography

The article: Mark Ellingsen, “Augustinian origins of the Reformation reconsidered,”  Scottish Journal of Theology (2011) 64: 13-28.

The obligatory reference: Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).

For further material of the New Perspective on Paul: The Paul Page

[1] Ellingsen, “Augustinian origins,” 21.

[2]Elligsen, “Augustinian origins,” 25.

[3] Ellingsen, “Augustinian origins,” 24.

[4] Leander E. Keck, “Paul as Thinker,” The New Interpreter’s Bible vol 12, 30.

[5] Ellingsen, “Augustinian origins,” 23.


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