‘Faith’ According to Luther Had Nothing to Do With Faith as Understood by Catholics

BOOK REVIEW: Faith in Luther

Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder. (photo: Public domain)


By Paul Hacker

Emmaus Academic, 2017

170 pages, $22.95, hardcover ($11.96 e-book)

To order: stpaulcenter.com


Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” in 1517, and he was charged with heresy in 1518. In 1521, after Luther refused to recant, Pope Leo X excommunicated him.

“Faith alone” (sola fide) was among Luther’s rallying cries. Faith — not good works, not even love — was salvific. Luther’s tenet became a cardinal principle of Protestantism.

But “faith” according to Luther had nothing to do with faith as understood by Catholics (or even the pre-Protestant Luther). Neither did it have anything in common with the received Christian tradition, which Luther pretended to restore, but from which he ultimately amputated himself and his movement.

Paul Hacker’s scholarly study probes Luther’s concept of faith, using the Reformer’s writings, and finds a strange, egocentric notion that is at loggerheads with orthodox Christian theology and leads finally to secularism.

Hacker calls Luther’s faith (fides apprehensiva) “reflexive.”

“Luther’s exposition ... teaches the believer to profess the faith and at the same time to look back at his own self. This is not just a pastoral suggestion compensated elsewhere by other doctrinal statements. Rather, Luther intends to present here an exercise in the sort of faith which he conceived to be justifying. The reference to the ego is not a meditation beside the act of faith but a part, and the essential part, of the act itself. Within the very act of faith, the ego bends back on itself. This sort of faith may fittingly be called reflexive” (emphasis original).

For Luther, faith “seizes” salvation: One is redeemed by the act of believing one is saved and damned when one doubts his salvation. I am not saved until I “believe” I am saved; once I do, my works are irrelevant. Luther’s “faith” is an eternal circle that constantly returns to his conscious self.

In this, Luther anticipated the later self-focus of Descartes and even the existentialists. The anthropocentric shift typically associated with the Renaissance received a major impetus from Luther; that shift persisted even after the Renaissance itself passed.

Hacker argues rightly that this self-focus perdured even after the fumes of Divine faith dissipated: God is dead, but the “I” alone remains. If my faith can “seize” salvation for Luther, then my mind seizing the whole of temporal reality à la Descartes is small beer.

The theologian Jacques Maritain noted: “Luther’s self becomes practically the center of gravity of everything, especially in the spiritual order.”

This notion of faith above all distorts the relations among good works, hope, grace and even love. As Hacker observes: “Now if faith, instead of being informed with love, has rather to inform love, what is the part that faith has to play in the just man’s good works? We have already mentioned Luther’s view about man’s obligation to assert that his works are pleasing to God. … [A]ssertion not merely accompanies but even constitutes the goodness of works. But it need not be demonstrated at length that in this sort of religious practice there can be no question of love, least of all love for God. If a man, in dealing with another person, asserts that his action in relation to the other is pleasing to that person just because of his asserting that it is so, he is not realizing a true interpersonal relationship, and by no means can such behavior claim to be called love.”

Self-absorption — as Luther’s “reflexive faith” demands — is inimical to the self-emptying, the kenosis that love, Christian or otherwise, requires. In Luther’s “faith,” one sees how destructive scrupulosity can be, especially when one refuses to allow others (and ultimately the Church) to lead one out of that mental hell.

This is an academic book that demands attentive reading, but rewards the effort. Published originally in German in 1966 and first translated in 1970, its reissuance on the fifth centenary of Luther’s break is timely. While some Luther scholars branded Hacker’s work “controversial,” the original bore a preface by then-Father Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI).

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.