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date: 28 April 2017

Scholasticisms in Martin Luther’s Thought

Summary and Keywords

The article’s starting point is the observation that “scholasticism” cannot simply be taken as a unity, and thus also not Luther’s relationship to it, in spite of his often very general polemics against “the scholastics.” Rather, Luther’s discussion of specific philosophical and theological topics is analyzed, since only such debates have a clearly defined content and allow for arguments that can be examined, as is characteristic for medieval disputations. Thus, the unusual plural “scholasticisms” is used.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Aristotle, scholasticism, philosophy, nature, grace, law, freedom of the will

The topic under consideration is an unusual one, as the title “Scholasticisms” indicates. It does not deal with scholasticism as such, but rather with Luther’s relationship to “scholasticism,” and it takes a distinctive methodological approach to the problem. It is a difficult task to identify precisely what the relatum of the relationship between Luther and “scholasticism” actually is. One way would be to study the philosophical and theological texts of the Middle Ages that are commonly called “scholastic,” taking into consideration contemporary research on these texts and including institutional aspects of medieval teaching and learning, and in so doing develop a concept of “scholasticism.” But even though the term “scholasticism” is often used as if it denoted a unified entity, closer examination demonstrates that it is very difficult to grasp the multiplicity of phenomena all attributed to “scholasticism” as a single entity.1 We may refer to a certain method or methods, or to certain contents or to a special understanding of or approach to the world, as characterizing “scholasticism”;2 nevertheless, we are not able to describe it as a unity. Contemporary historians argue that we ought to give up a univocal concept of “scholasticism” and instead denote it through “a combination of individual descriptions … instead of a definitional formula.”3

Even if we have achieved such a complex understanding of “scholasticism,” however, we should be aware that this does not help very much in understanding Luther’s relationship to it. It would be anachronistic to suppose that Luther could have had the same perception of “scholasticism” that we have been able to develop from our later historical vantage point, whereby we would, for example, determine where he understood or misunderstood various medieval theologians. Leif Grane in particular emphasized this point.4

It will be more useful to observe how Luther used the word “scholasticus” and develop our understanding of Luther’s view from there.5 This alternative way to define the relatum will be adopted here.

Luther’s statements using the word “scholasticus” are often very general. A few examples suffice to make the point: “Scholastic theology does not know anything at all of the promises of God.”6 “But doctrines outside the word [of God] are useless. They are not able at all to stabilize minds and to pacify and make certain a conscience, as I have experienced, too. For I have made great efforts in the Summa angelica [“cases of conscience”] toward scholastic theology. I have experienced that I achieved nothing.”7 Referring to the idea that by nature one can love God above all, Luther comments that there is strong evidence “that scholastic theology has completely degenerated into a certain philosophy that has no true cognition of God. But because it does not know the word [of God], it also has no knowledge of God and walks in darkness.”8 “I am a doctor schooled in scholastic theology, but in the Bible I find very much that is in conflict with that theology.”9 With respect to the proposition, “If I obey the light of God that is still in us, I will be in grace,” Luther comments that this is to make God a merchant. “And there is a consensus in this opinion among all scholastic doctors.”10 “Our scholastic theologians have made counsels out of Christ’s clear precepts.”11

These few quotations out of many others show what we can also observe elsewhere, namely, that “scholasticism” appears as a unity in the eyes of a critic such as Luther even while it remains very difficult to describe this unity from inside. Nevertheless, these quotations seem to indicate that it makes little sense to speak of “scholasticisms” in the plural with respect to Luther’s relationship to “scholasticism.” Luther can simply state that the Apostle Paul’s way of speaking (modus loquendi Apostoli) is contrary to the metaphysical or moral way of speaking (modus methaphysicus seu moralis).12

When Luther presents arguments as to why such metaphysical thinking corrupts the biblical message, however, he turns to more concrete argumentation. In these passages, we can identify the arguments he offers, check whether they meet their target, and analyze whether they are well founded. The approach taken here is focused on such texts. Luther’s criticism of scholastic theologians and scholastic theologoumena is substantiated in these specific cases, while he himself was convinced that his criticism could be extended to the “whole” of scholasticism.

Grane states emphatically, “Because Luther’s criticism is mainly a rejection of the whole [of scholasticism], any agreement in respective ‘doctrines’ will be meaningless, because it is accidental and not fundamental.”13 Grane is in accordance with Luther’s criticism, but “the whole” of which Grane speaks is neither a historical nor a systematic concept. A historic concept of the “whole of scholasticism” would require an inductive procedure, taking into consideration the huge variety of scholastic theories either by Luther himself or by contemporary historians (with all the problems previously mentioned). We do not find such a satisfactory conception of the “whole of scholasticism” in Luther. But neither do we have a systematic concept of “the whole.” It would require a systematic procedure beginning from a specific starting point (e.g., the nature-grace-distinction) and unfolding the “system” or the “whole” from there.

Thus, both historical and systematic theologians should refrain from using the phrase “the whole of scholasticism,” acknowledging instead that Luther could not argue in the same way with Gabriel Biel as he would with Thomas Aquinas. Though the two “scholastics” may have used the same propositions, they functioned in different systematic contexts and are therefore different in meaning, even if their wording is similar. Grane actually does not go far enough in claiming historical consciousness and accuracy, since neither Luther nor Grane can offer a concept of the “whole of scholasticism” that comprises different scholastic theologies in their unity. Thus, we draw the conclusion that it is more helpful to focus on the individual controversies and elucidate the range of Luther’s criticism from there. Hence, the plural “scholasticisms” in the title.

Nevertheless, one should be aware that in 1255, a decision was made in the faculty of artes liberales in Paris to integrate into the curriculum all the books of Aristotle that had become known thus far. This became a model also for the other European universities. Thus, Aristotle became the philosopher, the institutional central figure of academic teaching that we call “scholastic.” Everybody who wished to participate in academic conversation had to relate to Aristotelian language and conceptuality, to the Aristotelian way of defining problems and making arguments—even if, in terms of content, one’s thinking was not Aristotelian. This has been called “institutional Aristotelianism.”14 It dominated medieval universities in a way that is difficult to imagine today. When Luther argued for a reform of the universities and thus criticized, ridiculed, and degraded Aristotle and his philosophy, he had in mind this all-encompassing, unrivaled institutional Aristotelianism: “Now for more than three hundred years so many universities, so many very smart minds in them, so many of these minds take great pains in incessantly studying the one Aristotle.”15 And: “It is certain that today the dead and damned Aristotle is the teacher of all universities more than Christ.”16 In the reform of the universities, Luther wished to take out of the curriculum Aristotle’s books De anima, Physica, Metaphysica, and Ethics, while he wanted to keep Aristotle’s Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetics.17

For Luther, dealing with Aristotle as it was done in medieval universities was a waste of time for young people,18 since they had to learn not only to interpret Aristotle’s texts but also to interpret the interpretations, entering into debates between competing schools (“sects”). And yet, as Luther saw it, they were not able to understand Aristotle properly. The humanist criticism that many misunderstandings of Aristotle’s philosophy in medieval schools resulted from a lack of knowledge of the Greek language is reflected in Luther’s thesis: “It is very doubtful whether the Latins comprehend the correct meaning of Aristotle.”19 But even if it were correctly understood, Luther could find no help in Aristotle either for theology or for understanding nature.20

Altogether, Luther’s comments on “Aristotle” or “scholastics,” when aiming at the institutional Aristotelianism of the universities, are more rhetorical and political than argumentative. So, for example, Theses 41 to 45 of the Disputation against Scholastic Theology read:

Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This is in opposition to the scholastics [Thesis 41]. It is an error to maintain that Aristotle’s understanding of happiness does not contradict Catholic doctrine. This is in opposition to the doctrine on morals [Thesis 42]. It is an error to say that nobody can become a theologian without Aristotle. This is in opposition to common opinion [Thesis 43]. Indeed, nobody can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle [Thesis 44]. To state that a theologian who is not a logician is a monstrous heretic–this is a monstrous and heretical statement. This is in opposition to common opinion [Thesis 45].21

In modern times, institutional Aristotelianism disappeared from the European universities for many different reasons, and thus the main target of Luther’s criticism of “scholasticism” also disappeared along with it. But since one has to distinguish between this type of Aristotelianism and Aristotle’s philosophy in terms of content, Aristotle’s challenge for theology remains. As long as philosophers see this philosophy as a convincing way of understanding the created world, and as long as people continue to look for a comprehensive worldview, theologians cannot simply dismiss Aristotelian philosophy but have to engage in defining the relationship between both sides. This is another argument for clearly distinguishing between Luther’s polemics against the “whole of scholasticism” and concrete controversies with specific scholastic theologians.

This is all the more necessary since Aristotelian philosophy went on to play an important role in Lutheran Orthodoxy.22 Already in 1537, Philip Melanchthon was stating in a “Speech on Aristotle”: “I am actually convinced that it must lead to a great confusion of doctrines if Aristotle is neglected, who solely and alone is the master of the method. In no other way can someone become familiar with the method except if he is trained in this kind of the Aristotelian philosophy.”23

In what follows, four case studies of conflict between Luther and scholastic theologians are examined. Of course, these studies do not comprise the whole range of Luther’s relationship to “scholasticisms,” but they do identify some of the main aspects of the debate.

A Philosophical Debate of Martin Luther with Aristotle

Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 contains 28 theological theses24 and 12 philosophical theses.25 The first two of the theses “Ex Philosophia”26 are more theological in character and discuss the problem of how a Christian should properly deal with Aristotle’s philosophy: “He who wishes to philosophize by using Aristotle without danger to his soul must first become thoroughly foolish in Christ.” And: “Just as a person does not use the evil of passion well unless he is a married man, so no person philosophizes well unless he is a fool, that is, a Christian.”27 These theses together with their proofs resemble theses 19 to 24 on the theology of the cross and of glory, or rather the theologian of the cross and of glory:28 “That wisdom which sees the things of God that are perceived through works, completely puffs up, blinds, and hardens.”29 “Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.”30

This is so because the person without grace seeks her own benefit in everything (in omnibus quaerere quae sua sunt). This self-seeking extends both to the invisible properties of God (wisdom, power, etc.) and to human goods like wisdom. When grace is active in a person, it attacks this self-seeking structure by confronting her with “sufferings” (passiones) instead of calling for works. But this is inexplicable to the theology of glory: “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.”31 Since there is a universal tendency among human beings to seize everything good for themselves, the theologian of the cross recognizes that what is good must appear under its opposite form so that such striving would be frustrated and broken. In this perspective, God is not seen simply as the highest good—this would mean that loving God amounts to seeking the highest good for oneself. Rather, the highest good is seen on the cross. The cross either breaks the self-seeking tendency and so allows one to love God for God’s sake, or it turns the person away from God altogether. The cross thus has consequences for the act of philosophizing (that is, regarded as something good) and the content of philosophy, as the first two philosophical theses describe it.

The other 10 theses do not discuss how a Christian should practice philosophy. Instead, they address certain problems of Aristotle’s philosophy and its significance for theology. They are strictly philosophical in scope. Only recently were the proofs for these theses identified as Luther’s text and published.32 A careful analysis reveals Luther’s argumentative strategy. The following text was known before the rediscovery of the philosophical proofs and, as a result, was erroneously related to the theological theses, but it makes much better sense as relating to the philosophical theses. Luther apparently wrote this text soon after the disputation and describes their purpose:

These theses were discussed and debated by me to show, first, that everywhere the Sophists of all the schools have deviated from Aristotle’s opinion and have clearly introduced their dreams into the works of Aristotle whom they do not understand. Next, if we should hold to his meaning as strongly as possible (as I proposed here), nevertheless one gains no aid whatsoever from it, either for theology and sacred letters or even for natural philosophy. For what could be gained with respect to the understanding of material things if you could quibble and trifle with matter, form, motion, measure, and time–words taken over and copied from Aristotle?33

In his third philosophical thesis, Luther addresses the problem of the mortality of the human soul, claiming that Aristotle held this position: “It was easy for Aristotle to understand the world as eternal since according to his opinion the human soul is mortal.”34 The reason for connecting the eternity of the world and the mortality of the soul is that if the human soul were immortal and the world eternal, one would have to assume that infinite human souls exist, but Aristotle denies that there is an actual infinity. He only speaks of a potential infinity. Luther further points to the fact that Aristotle denies the creation of the world by God, and that by denying the immortality of the soul he rejects the Christian perspective on eternal life. Thus, Luther’s intention is to demonstrate that Aristotle is in basic disagreement with Christian doctrine and so of no help for theology.

Luther proceeds according to the standard academic rules. First, he offers proofs for the first part of the thesis (“the world is eternal according to Aristotle”) by quoting relevant Aristotelian texts. He uses the newly published humanist translation of Aristotle by John Argyropoulos35 and thus sees himself in a certain sense as part of the humanist encounter with Aristotle. With respect to the second part of the thesis (“the human soul is mortal according to his opinion”), he argues first by employing Aristotelian principles (secundum eius principia).36 Here, the relation between matter and form that mutually require each other plays a decisive role, because Aristotle sees the human being as a composite of body and form (i.e., soul). Luther emphasizes that this has the consequence that the soul will no longer exist when the body dissolves in death. Scholastic theologians have either denied this consequence or followed the Christian understanding of the immortality of the soul, even while admitting that on strict Aristotelian grounds, one should regard the soul as mortal.

After that, Luther quotes four texts that seem to indicate that Aristotle thought the intellect or the intellectual soul to be immortal. Among them, Luther interprets one of the most difficult texts of Aristotle’s philosophy, “On the Soul,” book 3, chapter 5.37 It is very interesting to see how Luther comments on an Aristotelian text, the same basic method he follows with biblical texts. The difference is that he does not wish to interpret Aristotle in a favorable way but to demonstrate that the philosopher actually understood the human soul as mortal (even though some texts seem to indicate the opposite). In his commentary Luther quotes many Aristotelian texts and argues quite often in a subtle way, always keeping in mind the goal of his argument even when he delves into details. On the other hand, Luther makes a few interpretative mistakes, and so Aristotle’s text does not make sense in certain parts. Luther ascribes this problem to Aristotle, not to himself. The underlying argument in his commentary is that matter and form cannot be separated from each other, and Luther finds this assertion in most of the quotes from Aristotle.

In the following theses, Luther takes up the relation between matter and form as a problem of natural philosophy. He claims that, according to Aristotle, “matter, form, composite are one thing [una res].”38 He tries to show that Aristotle does not allow for a real distinction between matter and form, with the consequence that Aristotle’s distinction cannot explain anything in nature, particularly coming into being and ceasing to exist. To make his case, Luther applies Ockham’s understanding of “real distinction” and “matter,” which are different from Aristotle’s understanding. This is an interesting move, since Luther, as previously quoted, was convinced that he, unlike the various scholastic writers, would succeed in presenting the authentic Aristotle. This is not the case, for in his arguments he relies on several concepts derived from Ockham. Luther believes he can prove that all of Aristotle’s distinctions collapse: “In Aristotle, privation, matter, form, the mobile, the immobile, act, potency etc. seem to be the same.”39 If this is the case, then nobody can expect any real help from Aristotle in understanding natural entities. Instead of Aristotle, “whose philosophy crawls in the sediment of corporeal and sensual things,”40 Luther prefers Plato’s separate ideas.

This is what Luther wants to prove: that Aristotle’s philosophy contradicts the Christian understanding of the creation of the world by God and the immortality of the human soul. Theologians can expect no help from Aristotle. But the mutual dependence of matter and form in Aristotle has not only the consequence of assuming the mortality of the human soul but also the far-reaching consequence that Aristotle’s philosophy is unable to explain natural phenomena and, thus, is also not helpful for understanding nature. While using the new humanist translation by John Argyropoulos, Luther depended on the Ockhamist understanding of some Aristotelian concepts. Thus, we conclude, Luther did not fully reach his stated goals in this debate with Aristotle.

Against Gabriel Biel: The Center of the Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam

Luther’s later so-called Disputation against Scholastic Theology41 has at the core a text of Gabriel Biel (1413/1414–1495), which runs to four pages in the modern edition. Nearly two-thirds of the 97 theses in this Disputation deal directly or indirectly with Biel’s short text. Here, we can see how Luther discusses a concrete scholastic problem while also widening the range of his theses to some general statements on scholastics, as he notes in the margins (“against the scholastics,” “against a common saying”), as well as against the role of Aristotle’s ethics and logic in theology.

Biel’s text is a question, the dubium: “Whether the human will of the pilgrim is able to love God above all with his natural power and so fulfil the commandment of love of God?”42 Three aspects are important here: (1) The commandment of love of God is to be fulfilled; (2) for Biel, this is attributed to the will of the human being; and (3) Biel asks whether the will can do this without grace or by nature. Mark 12:30 expresses the divine commandment this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Biel relates these four qualifications to the will, the intellect, the vis sensitiva (the sensual power), and finally to the vis motiva corporalium membrorum (the power that moves the members of the body).43 After he has explained this in detail, Biel summarizes and concludes: “Thus the commandment is fulfilled by loving God above all.”44 Even though Biel explains that this commandment comprises all human capacities, he nevertheless thinks that it can be fulfilled by the will. Thus, love of God is an act of the human will. To will that God be God is to love God according to the commandment, since willing that God be God is the best one is able to wish for God.

According to Luther, on the contrary, God expects in this commandment the complete dedication of the whole human being to Him, including all dimensions of human existence, even those over which the will does not rule. Theses 37–38 state that nature, without grace, is able to perform good works only outwardly, since there is pride in every good work, and no moral virtue is without pride or desperation.45 That pride makes a good work only outwardly good indicates that Luther distinguishes the moral concept of a good work from the theological concept. In a moral perspective, pride is the consciousness of being the subject of a good work, while in a theological perspective, pride means appropriating the good work as one’s own possession, forgetting that the good work finally belongs to God as either its author or its aim. Nature without grace is looking for one’s own benefit in everything (as mentioned), thus being curved in upon oneself (incurvatus in seipsum). The difference between a moral and a theological understanding of good works is again emphasized when in Theses 62 to 64, Luther rejects the conclusion that if the commandments of God have to be fulfilled in the grace of God, everybody outside of this grace sins even by not killing, not committing adultery, or not stealing. Instead, the right conclusion, according to Luther, is: “One does not spiritually kill, commit adultery or steal who neither hates nor desires.”46 Apart from grace, no one is able to be without hatred or desire, but this is what God’s commandments require from human beings.

Thus, for the spiritual fulfillment of the commandments, grace is needed. Luther sharply rejects Biel’s distinction of fulfilling the commandments according to their substance versus according to the intention of the legislator (that is, earning eternal life). He criticizes Biel for not understanding grace as simply (simpliciter) necessary for fulfilling the commandments in a theological sense; instead, Biel makes this distinction so that grace is only required for the meritorious character of the fulfillment of the commandments, while this fulfillment, in terms of content, is possible for human beings by nature. Thus, for this scholastic, being in grace appears to be an additional requirement for fulfilling the commandments in a certain respect.

Luther concludes that grace, understood as an additional requirement, makes grace to be hated even more than the law (Thesis 61).47 His sharpest criticism in his lecture on Romans aims at this distinction, as well as the notion that the law could be fulfilled by nature:

[I]t is plain insanity to say that human beings of their own powers can love God above all things and can perform the works of the Law according to the substance of the act, even if not according to the intention of the legislator since they are not in a state of grace—these are mere phantasms. O fools, O pig-theologians! [German: O Sawtheologen!] By your line of reasoning grace was not necessary except because of some new demand above and beyond the Law. For if the Law can be fulfilled by our powers, as they say, then grace is not necessary for the fulfilling of the Law, but only for the fulfilling of some new exaction imposed by God above the Law. Who can endure these sacrilegious notions?”48

Luther denies the natural human capacity to love God with one’s whole being. Since scholastic theologians attribute this capacity to the human will, Luther therefore also denies the freedom of the will. But strictly speaking, he does not talk about the human will as one faculty of the human soul among many, as the philosophers do, but about the totality of human faculties, and he appeals to personal experience to answer whether or not we have the theologically required capacity to love God:

For willy-nilly they recognize the evil lusts in themselves. For this reason I say: “Hah! Get busy now, I beg you. Be men! Work with all your might, so that these lusts may no longer be in you. Prove that it is possible by nature to love God, as you say, ‘with all your strength’ (Luke 10:27) and without any grace. If you are without concupiscence, we will believe you. But if you live with and in these lusts, then you are no longer fulfilling the Law.” Does not the Law say, “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17), but rather, “You shall love God” (Deut. 6:5)? But when a person desires and loves something else, can he really love God? But this concupiscence is always in us, and therefore the love of God is never in us, unless it is begun by grace, and until the concupiscence which still remains and which keeps us from “loving God with all our heart” (Luke 10:27) is healed and by mercy not imputed to us as sin, and until it is completely removed and the perfect love for God is given to the believers and those who persistently agitate for it to the end.49

Luther also discusses the following proposition of the aforementioned dubium: “The act of friendship-love of God above all cannot remain without grace and infused love according to the ordained power of God.”50 According to Biel, there exists a relationship between the naturally possible act of love of God and the infusion of grace. This relationship is established by a pact that God makes with humanity (pactum Dei). Biel offers biblical evidence for this idea by referring to texts like Jeremiah 29:13 (“if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me”). Luther objects that attributing the first part of these biblical sayings to nature amounts to Pelagianism (Thesis 28).51 For Luther, the act of loving God is later in both time and order than grace (Thesis 27);52 it presupposes grace.

It is important to realize that Thomas Aquinas, similarly to Luther, had argued that such expressions as “Turn to God, and God will turn to you” have to be understood in the context of other biblical verses like Jeremiah 31:18 (“convert me, and I will return, for you are my Lord God”).53 Thus, Luther’s argument does not apply to Thomas Aquinas while it does hit the mark of Biel’s understanding of grace. Because this difference between two scholastic theologians exists at the very center of the theology of grace, it is an excellent example of the need to distinguish between the various “scholasticisms.”

Since for Biel the act of loving God is possible without grace, it is not self-contradictory to assume that an act of love of God can exist without the infusion of grace, and thus that this would be possible within the absolute power of God. Luther considers this proposal and rejects it stridently in Thesis 55: “and it could not happen by the absolute power of God that an act of friendship-love of God would exist and the grace of God not be present”54 (my translation). This thesis demonstrates how far Luther is from thinking in terms of the ordained and absolute powers of God. If according to Biel the act of loving God is possible by natural powers, the question arises as to whether God, who is absolutely free, will accept this act of love. The answer must refer to the ordained power of God. But if this act of love arises from living grace, as Luther is convinced, the same question cannot be asked, because God’s acceptation precedes the infusion of grace or is already expressed in it. Thus, Luther adds another thesis against Ockham: “God cannot accept a human being without the justifying grace of God” (Thesis 56).55 For Ockham, such grace is a created reality, but God may not depend on it for his acceptation. For Luther, acceptation and justifying grace are the same, so that acceptation without justifying grace would amount to grace without grace. Here, we see how different are the thought structures at work.

This is the core of Luther’s disagreement with Gabriel Biel and William of Ockham. Luther puts forward a different understanding of the theological concept of the love of God, the natural human capacity to realize this love of God, and the role of grace in fulfilling the law and salvation. Luther gives up Biel’s and Ockham’s idea of the pactum Dei between human actions and divine reactions, thus also thinking in terms of the distinction between the absolute and ordained powers of God.

Against the Thomists and their fundamentum Thomae

Thomas Aquinas is not at all mentioned in the so-called Disputation against Scholastic Theology, even though one may assume that he is included in Luther’s very general statements about scholastics. When Luther directs his theses explicitly against special theologians, he mentions Gabriel Biel, Pierre d’Ailly, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus, but never Thomas. These other theologians were the focus of his interest and criticism.

Luther later came into conflict with Thomists, mainly in the controversies over his 95 Theses on Indulgences and the debates that followed, including such theologians as Tetzel, Wimpina, Prierias, Cajetan, and Ambrosius Catharinus. Since these Thomists quoted Thomas Aquinas, in these cases Luther also referred to some of his positions. Luther was challenged by these opponents to deal with certain themes of Thomas.56 The sources from which Luther got his knowledge of Thomas is still an endless debate—whether he read Thomas’s books himself, or whether he learned about him from the books of other theologians such as Gabriel Biel57 or from conversations with colleagues. The idea that Luther knew Thomas through extensive original reading58 has been convincingly refuted.59

One example of a controversy between Luther and Thomas comes via Sylvester Prierias’s criticism of Luther’s fifth of the 95 Theses on Indulgences. The thesis states: “The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own discretion or that of the canons.”60 In arguing against Luther, Prierias quotes Thomas, who speaks about the punishment that some people have to suffer in purgatory according to the divine justice.61 Luther answers: “I judge the fundamentum Thomae (the fundament of Thomas) to be false, namely that God requires punishments from the sinner and that he forgives only by the required satisfaction. On the contrary, it is true that God does not despise a broken and contrite heart. And what he forgives, he forgives completely, except that he imposes scourges according to his will which neither church nor heaven are able to reduce.”62

The tradition that divine justice requires a certain limited or temporal punishment for every sin even though it is forgiven with respect to its guilt, however, is much older than Thomas’s statement. Luther attributes it to Thomas because Prierias quoted Thomas in this regard as an authority. Luther presents a biblical argument against this fundamentum Thomae: “No one can defend the position with any passage from Scripture that God’s righteousness desires or demands any punishment or satisfaction from sinners except for their heartfelt and true contrition or conversion alone—with the condition that from that moment on they bear the cross of Christ and practice the aforementioned works [prayers, fasting, giving alms] (but not as imposed by anyone).”63 This exemplifies how Thomas received Luther’s critical attention.

With Pierre d’Ailly against Thomas Aquinas

In his Babylonian Captivity, Luther writes that when he studied scholastic theology, Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly’s (1350/1351–1420) commentary on the fourth book of the Sentences made him aware that it would be more reasonable, that is, require fewer miracles, if one assumed that there is true bread and true wine on the altar.64 Pierre d’Ailly argued that it is no more impossible for two substances to coexist than for two qualities to coexist. The first alternative would even be easier and more reasonable, since it would no longer be necessary to assert that the accidents of the bread continue to exist without the subject in which they inhere.65 But the cardinal then admitted that the decision of the church had been in favor of the second alternative, and therefore he too would follow this line. Luther goes on to report that he later realized which church it was that made such a choice: It was “the Thomistic—that is, the Aristotelian church.”66

This remark invited a great deal of mockery toward Luther, since it was the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that used the word “transubstantiated,”67 and Thomas Aquinas was born only in 1225. Nevertheless, the Aristotelian terms “substance” and “accident” were implicitly used by the Council in order to describe the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, and Thomas Aquinas developed a complex theory of transubstantiation following the hints of that Council. Unlike Pierre d’Ailly, however, Luther considered himself capable of following the logic of the cardinal’s argument, since he did not see himself bound by the decision of a Thomistic church for the more difficult explanation. His new task is to show why a Thomistic or Aristotelian church does not deserve obedience with respect to this particular topic.

Luther develops his criticism of Thomas in an Occamistic perspective.68 Occam assumes that according to Aristotle there are only two categories, substance and quality; quantity denotes a substance or quality connoting extension or limitation.69 According to Thomas, by contrast, quantity was really different from substance and could thus be separated from it by God’s power. All accidents refer to substance through quantity.70 As an Occamist (in this respect), Luther called the concept of continuous quantity a Babylonian confusion of concepts.71 Since the Aristotelian definition of an accident is that its being is being-in, Luther claimed that for transubstantiation to work, Thomas had to invent a new being created by God.

Luther seems to argue that according to Thomas, after transubstantiation all accidents of the bread have their being in the accident of quantity, while this accident itself has no subject. Thus, Thomas has to assume that God preserves the accident’s existence even without a subject; that is, He creates its new existence (novum esse).72 Pierre d’Ailly explicitly acknowledges that Aristotle’s authority has to be denied when it comes to understanding the accidents in transubstantiation (neganda est auctoritas Aristotelis.)73 Thus, Luther criticizes Thomas for not having understood Aristotle properly.

Philosophical concepts are meant to explain the Lord’s Supper, Luther argues, but what happens is that the concepts by which one intends to explain must be modified ad hoc by what has to be explained. Thus, Luther cannot see what theology gains from such a reception of philosophical terms, let alone that one should regard their explanation as binding for the faith. Luther has taken the material for his criticism of transubstantiation from Ockham’s arguments (via Pierre d’Ailly), while attributing the concept of transubstantiation mainly to Thomas.


In addition to these four examples of the way in which Luther critically discusses scholastic theories in detail, we could also describe examples of his positive receptions of scholastic concepts.74 Nevertheless, Luther was convinced that he had to reject “scholasticism as a whole” as a type of theology that misleads Christians and as an institutional setting that wastes the time of young theologians and does not teach them to think ad modum Apostolis; yet in a serious medieval disputation, Luther had to argue for his position and every argumentation had to focus on the specific contention of a certain theologian. One can attack the “whole of scholasticism” rhetorically—and Luther does this quite often—but as soon as one wishes to argue, one has to enter into a concrete controversy.

Luther was not in the position to appeal to a Lutherus dixit (“Luther has said”) as an argument or an authority, as later Lutherans did and some contemporary theologians still do. He had to present arguments. We have the task of describing and analyzing his premises and the steps of his arguments, identifying the objects of his statements, and asking whether he actually engaged them. We have also to ask whether his positive solutions created new problems that may not be easily solved. We should therefore not be satisfied with Luther’s or anyone else’s dismissal of the whole of scholasticism but should develop a differentiated view of Luther’s relation to many different scholasticisms.

Further Reading

Andreatta, Eugenio. Lutero e Aristotele. Padua: Cosl Nuova Vita, 1996.Find this resource:

Dieter, Theodor. Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: Historisch-systematische Untersuchungen zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2001.Find this resource:

Dieter, Theodor. “Martin Luthers kritische Wahrnehmung ‘der’ Scholastik in seiner so genannten ‘Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam.’” In Die Reformation und ihr Mittelalter, eds. Günter Frank and Volker Leppin, 153–188. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 2016.Find this resource:

Dieter, Theodor. “Widersprüchliche Vernunft? Beobachtungen zu Luthers Umgang mit ʻder’ Vernunft.” In Glaube und Vernunft: Wie vernünftig ist die Vernunft? ed. R. Rausch, 73–97. Hanover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 2014.Find this resource:

Dragseth, Jennifer Hockenbery, ed. The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010.Find this resource:

Gerrish, Brian A. Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.Find this resource:

Grane, Leif. “Die Anfänge von Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit dem Thomismus.” In Reformationsstudien. Beiträge zu Luther und zur dänischen Reformation, 57–68. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1999.Find this resource:

Grane, Leif. “Luthers Kritik an Thomas von Aquin in De captivitate Babylonica.” In Reformationsstudien. Beiträge zu Luther und zur dänischen Reformation, 69–82. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1999.Find this resource:

Grane, Leif. Modus loquendi theologicus: Luthers Kampf um die Erneuerung der Theologie (1515–1518). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975.Find this resource:

Hägglund, Bengt. Theologie und Philosophie bei Luther und in der occamistischen Tradition. Luthers Stellung zur Theorie von der doppelten Wahrheit. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1955.Find this resource:

Janz, Denis. Luther and Late Medieval Thomism: A Study in Theological Anthropology. Waterloo: Wilfried Laurier University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Junghans, Helmar. “Die Probationes zu den philosophischen Thesen der Heidelberger Disputation Luthers im Jahre 1518.” Lutherjahrbuch 46 (1979): 10–59.Find this resource:

Lohse, Bernhard. Ratio und Fides. Eine Untersuchung über die Ratio in der Theologie Luthers. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1958.Find this resource:

Malter, Rudolf. Das reformatorische Denken und die Philosophie: Luthers Entwurf einer transzendental-pragmatischen Metaphysik. Bonn: Bouvier, 1980.Find this resource:

Mühlen, Karl-Heinz zur. Reformatorische Vernunftkritik und neuzeitliches Denken: Dargestellt am Werk M. Luthers und Fr. Gogartens. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1972.Find this resource:

Pesch, Otto Hermann. Theologie der Rechtfertigung bei Martin Luther und Thomas von Aquin: Versuch eines systematisch-theologischen Dialogs. Mainz: Grünewald, 1967.Find this resource:

White, Graham. Luther as Nominalist: A Study of the Logical Methods used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of Their Medieval Background. Helsinki: Luther Agricola Society, 1994.Find this resource:


(1.) Rolf Schönberger, Was ist Scholastik? (Hildesheim: Bernward, 1999).

(2.) Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: Historisch-systematische Untersuchungen zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2001), 28–37.

(3.) Schönberger, Was ist Scholastik?, 45.

(4.) Leif Grane, “Luthers Kritik an Thomas von Aquin in De capticitate Babylonica,” in Reformationsstudien: Beiträge zu Luther und zur dänischen Reformation (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1999), 69–82.

(5.) Cf. WA 68:97.

(6.) WA 40/III:395, 33s. All translations from WA are my own.

(7.) WA 31/II:454, 14–17.

(8.) WA 42:349, 38–40.

(9.) WA 43:293, 25–27.

(10.) WA 40/II;377, 19.

(11.) WA 40/III:669, 12s.

(12.) WA 56:334, 14s.

(13.) Leif Grane, “Die Anfänge von Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit dem Thomismus,” in Reformationsstudien: Beiträge zu Luther und zur dänischen Reformation (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1999), 58s.

(14.) Wolfgang Kluxen, “Aristoteles V. Abendländischer Aristotelismus. V/1. Mittelalter,” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, eds. Gerhard Krause and Gerhard Müller, 782–789; 784s (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter), 1978.

(15.) WA 1:611, 26–28.

(16.) WA 7:739, 27s.

(17.) WA 6:457, 35–458,32.

(18.) WA 6:29, 17s.

(19.) LW 31:12.

(20.) LW 31:70.

(21.) LW 31:12 (translation altered).

(22.) Rolf Schäfer, “Aristoteles V. Abendländischer Aristotelismus. V/2. Reformation und nachreformatorische Theologie,” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, eds. Gerhard Krause/Gerhard Müller, 789–796 (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1978).

(23.) Declamatio de Aristotele (Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 11, ed. Carolus G. Bretschneider [Halle: C. A. Schwetschke, 1843]), 349.

(24.) LW 31:39–41.

(25.) LW 31:41s.

(26.) WA 1:355, 1.

(27.) LW 31:41.

(28.) LW 31:40s.

(29.) Thesis 22; LW 31:40s. (translation altered).

(30.) Thesis 24; LW 31:41.

(31.) LW 31:53.

(32.) Helmar Junghans, “Die probationes zu den philosophischen Thesen der Heidelberger Disputation Luthers im Jahre 1518,” Lutherjahrbuch 46 (1979): 10–59.

(33.) LW 31:70.

(34.) WA 59:410, 14s.

(35.) Helmar Junghans, “Die probationes,” 30–32.

(36.) WA 59:412, 1.

(37.) WA 59:414, 20–419, 11; see Dieter, Der junge Luther, 454–563.

(38.) WA 59:413, 3s.

(39.) WA 59:426, 18s.

(40.) WA 59:425, 8s.

(41.) LW 31:9–16.

(42.) Gabriel Biel, Collectorium circa quattuor libros Sententiarum, vol. 3, eds. Wilfried Werbeck and Udo Hofmann (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1979), 503.

(43.) Ibid., 490s.

(44.) Ibid., 491.

(45.) LW 31:11.

(46.) LW 31:13 (translation altered).

(47.) LW 31:13.

(48.) LW 25:261s. (translation altered).

(49.) LW 25:262.

(50.) Biel, Collectorium, 505.

(51.) LW 31:11.

(52.) LW 31:11.

(53.) Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I/II, qu. 109, art. 6 ad 1.

(54.) WA 1:227, 2s (LW 31:13 is inaccurate).

(55.) LW 31:13 (translation altered).

(56.) Grane, “Die Anfänge,” 62.

(57.) Cf. John L. Farthing, Thomas Aquinas and Gabriel Biel: Interpretations of St. Thomas Aquinas in German Nominalism on the Eve of the Reformation (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1988).

(58.) Cf. Denis Janz, Luther on Thomas Aquinas: The Angelic Doctor in the Thought of the Reformer (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1989).

(59.) Cf. Stefan Gradl, “Inspektor Columbo irrt. Kriminalistische Überlegungen zur Frage ‘Kannte Luther Thomas’?” Luther 77 (2006): 83–99.

(60.) The Annotated Luther, vol. 1: The Roots of Reform, ed. Timothy Wengert, 35 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015).

(61.) Peter Fabisch and Erwin Iserloh, eds. Dokumente zur Causa Lutheri (1517–1521), vol. 1 (Münster: Aschendorff, 1988), 61.

(62.) WA 1:658, 6–10.

(63.) The Annotated Luther, 61.

(64.) LW 36:28s.

(65.) Petrus de Ailliaco, Quaestiones super libros sententiarum cum quibusdam in fine adjunctis, (Strasbourg: 1490), IV, qu.6, art.2 E.

(66.) LW 36:29.

(67.) Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils from Nicaea I to Vatican II, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 230.

(68.) Grane, “Luthers Kritik an Thomas von Aquin,” 76–82.

(69.) Biel, Collectorium, 371s.

(70.) Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae III, qu.77, art.2.

(71.) Cf. LW 36:32.

(72.) LW 36:32.

(73.) Petrus de Ailliaco, Quaestiones IV, qu.6 art.3 K.

(74.) Cf. Dieter, Der junge Luther, 257–377.