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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther and Love

Summary and Keywords

The questions of love’s nature and its different forms were crucial to Martin Luther from the beginning of his theological career. Already as a young monk and theologian he struggled with the human incapacity to love God and sought a satisfying answer to this problem. He criticized the views of late medieval theologians such as Duns Scotus and Gabriel Biel and developed his own interpretation on the basis of the distinction between human and divine love. In the 1930s, the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren presented an interpretation of Luther’s theology of love that became widely accepted. Nygren made a strong distinction between two kinds of love and called them eros and agape. In his view they were contradictory to each other. Only the latter, selfless and disinterested agape, which gives to the object its value, is proper Christian love. For Nygren, Luther is the main representative of Christian agape, which is directed from God to a human being and from that human being to a neighbor. A human’s love of God is actually excluded, and God is considered to be the object of faith.

The strength of Nygren’s view has probably prevented a larger discussion of Luther’s theology of love. Nevertheless, since the 1980s some scholars have criticized Nygren’s interpretation of Luther. Among Catholic Luther scholars, Peter Manns in particular was interested in Luther’s conception of love of God and its connections with monastic theology. On the Lutheran side, Tuomo Mannermaa came to Luther’s theology of love from the viewpoint of the relation between faith and love. For Mannermaa, “faith” in Luther’s view is above all real participation in Christ and through him in the life of the Triune God. This led Mannermaa to think about Christian love in terms of real participation in divine love. In understanding the ontological nature of love, Mannermaa thus clearly differs from Nygren’s value-theoretical approach.

When seeking answers to his questions concerning Christian love, Luther used elements of the theological tradition. As an Augustinian monk, he could adhere to many emphases of his own order: Christian life as love of God and one’s neighbor, receiving of God and his gifts and denying oneself, and living in Christian unanimity where Christians have one mind and one heart. Luther interpreted all these Augustinian aspects through his own understanding of self-giving divine love, which sets one in the other’s position in order to understand his or her needs. Such love fulfills the demand of the law, which orders one to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself. To love God means to consider him to be goodness itself and the source of everything good, as well as to will the same with him. In other words, one has to set oneself in God’s position in order to understand that the only living God wants and needs to be considered as such. Only then is one able to receive everything good from God and to serve one’s neighbors with everything one has. The self-giving divine love gives to its objects their existence, goodness, beauty, righteousness, strength, wisdom, and wealth. In this sense, everything comes from God. A human being is meant to love with a similar love, which is oriented to those who are “nothing,” sinful, weak, poor, foolish, or unpleasant, in order to make them living, righteous, holy, strong, wise, and pleasant. This kind of love does not “seek one’s own” from its objects but gives them what it is and has. However, it does not exclude love of good and of things, such as God himself and his beautiful creatures. They may and should be loved because of their divine goodness, not because of some benefit which one may get from them.

Luther often says that God is to be loved in one’s suffering, needy, and ailing neighbors. God is thus hidden within disadvantaged humans, so that his goodness is to be seen only through them. But God may also be loved when one has experienced his love and mercy. Then one experiences how God loves one who in himself or herself is “nothing.” This experience arises from love as thankfulness and from joy in God’s goodness. In both cases God is loved as a good and merciful heavenly Father, but without the intention of seeking for one’s own benefit from him. The love of God in this sense means that one does not “dictate” to God what is the good that she awaits from God, but is ready to receive everything that God wants to give.

Keywords: Martin Luther, love, faith, law, God, neighbor, self-giving, kenosis

The Problem of the Relation between Divine Love and Love of God

Martin Luther is best known as a theologian of faith. He stressed that human beings will be saved through faith in Christ. In Lutheran theology love has, then, been understood as a consequence of faith, which leads to serving one’s neighbors and to concerning oneself with social charity. However, Luther also thought intensively about love as a properly theological question. From the beginning of his reforming career, he criticized late medieval views on the human capacity to love God above all and the Catholic teaching on justifying love.1 Most theologians of that time taught that human beings would be saved through faith formed by love (fides charitate formata). In other words, human beings know and love God according to God’s will only when love informs the faith and so raises the human soul to God. For Luther, this concept of faith is too weak, and at the same time it presupposes too much from love. In the Lectures on Galatians (1531/1535) he expresses his view: “But we substitute that love for faith.”2 He will not say that faith somehow informs itself, but that the justifying and saving factor is faith, not love. Therefore, in Lutheran theology, love of God and one’s neighbor have often been understood as the consequences of salvific faith, but not as elementary parts of the doctrine of salvation. On the other hand, Luther did not neglect love of God and one’s neighbor, but only rejected the view that faith has to be formed by the infused supernatural habit of love in order to fulfill the law in a way that pleases God and leads to salvation.3 The reformer thought about the nature of love from the beginning to the end of his career. The questions concerning the nature of divine love and loving God and one’s neighbor were at the center of his thinking.

For Luther, faith, which is the substitute for the supernatural habit of love, is embodied in Christ, who informs and beautifies faith. The grasping of Christ takes place through a firm trust and acceptance of the heart, which takes hold on Christ. And where Christ is present in the faith, there is also such trust in the heart. Christ is not just an object of such faith but is present in faith itself. Thus, Luther can say that true faith includes Christ as its form. Therefore, because of the indwelling Christ, faith itself is a believer’s formal—that is, essential—righteousness, not the love that informs his faith.4 Luther considers love to be essential for Christian life, but according to him it remains incomplete and, as he says, “beginning,” and therefore it cannot justify a human being.

From Luther’s rejection of love informing faith it follows that the relation between faith and love has to be thought of in a new way. It is well known that in Lutheran thought love of one’s neighbor is understood to be a consequence of true faith. “Love” means here above all love of one’s neighbor, whereas love of God seems difficult to combine with Luther’s conception of justifying faith. Luther also states that faith is orientated to God and love to one’s neighbor, but in this context he speaks about faith as receiving God’s good works and help without one’s own works, and about love as doing good to one’s neighbor.5 Therefore, not all aspects of faith and love are present in this text. Furthermore, sometimes Luther sees love to be turned to first, with faith following it.6 However, his most precise conception is that love is given together with faith, and one cannot exist without the other. He may also say that faith and love follow each other and one brings the other with it.7 In other words, real faith and true love are always intertwined with each other and affect the human heart simultaneously.

In late medieval theology and spiritual life, one crucial question was how a human being might form or possess an act of love to God. For Duns Scotus this was the principal question of theology as a practical science. Gabriel Biel, a prominent 15th-century German theologian, taught that a human being has a natural capacity for loving God above all, even though this is not the way that God wants to be loved. Therefore, the infused habit of love is also needed. William of Ockham, whose philosophical thinking had some influence on Luther, made a similar distinction.8 Luther, however, did not accept these late medieval approaches to love of God. Moreover, even more important than the erroneous conception of human capacity was the understanding of the nature of love itself. Luther’s starting points were the divine nature and divine love.

Divine Love as Self-Giving

Quite early on, Luther describes God by saying: “To be God is not to receive good, but to give it and therefore to render good for evil.”9 In other words, God’s nature is to bestow everything good for free, and not to take merit or anything else good from creatures. Luther stresses that God gives good through the incarnated Christ and so proves himself to be the living God.10 Early in his career Luther understands the traditional conception of God’s self-sufficiency, so that he does not require anything from anybody but does good to all without compensation (gratis).11 Just by willing to give what is his and to do good for humans and so to be everyone’s God, he shows himself to be the true God. Instead of requiring anything from human beings, God wishes that they are all his. This kind of doing good for others is divine, says Luther. But this kind of doing good is possible only when humans know that what is theirs is nothing (nihil) before God, and he does not want it from them. When humans have become humble in the sense of understanding that they have nothing to offer to God, they are made capable of receiving and seeking what is God’s.12 For the theology of love, it is crucial to analyze exactly what Luther means by “being capable of both receiving and seeking what is God’s.”

For Luther the biblical statement “God is love” means, first, that God is not only a donor or a distributor but also the substance of love. This implies that God’s nature or essence is to continuously give or shed himself and his good gifts to his creatures. God loves the “dead sinners” as well as bad, foolish, and weak people in order to make living, just, good, wise, and strong human beings. God infuses and donates the new life and other qualities into them. Hence sinners are beautiful because they are loved, but they are not loved because of their beauty.13 God is the highest good in the sense that he is goodness itself, and all creatures are good through participation in the divine goodness. Goodness is primarily God’s attribute, and therefore all, both worldly and spiritual, goodness should always be ascribed to God.14

As mentioned above, Luther speaks about infused divine qualities. For him true love is infused, too, even though he seldom says this explicitly. He wants, however, to return to Peter Lombard’s view in the Sentences, which says that the Holy Spirit himself is the love within us. Therefore, the distinction between caritas creata or infusa and caritas increata is not made at all.15 Love is infused in the human being in the sense that the Holy Spirit, who changes the humans and arouses love for mutual consensus and peace, is infused in human hearts.16 Therefore, infused love is not a supernatural but a created habit (caritas creata); it is the Holy Spirit himself. Simultaneously, the Spirit’s work is to infuse love as well as faith and hope in human beings.17 Because the Spirit infuses these and other gifts such as modesty, freedom, beneficence, and patience, he does not depart but remains in the believers. And like him, the Father and the Son are also present in the infused faith. They are substantially or essentially present and operating through their “clothes” or “covers.” This means that the presence of the Triune God is always connected with the Word and the sacraments in order to be understood and received by humans.18 The following describes first Luther’s view of self-giving divine love, and then the sacramental nature of participating in this love.

In the Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528) and in The Large Catechism (1529), Luther explains the Trinitarian self-giving of God.19 God gives himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God constitutes this continuous Trinitarian self-giving. In Luther’s view, God’s self-giving contains several aspects because all of the three divine persons gives himself in a different sense.

For Luther, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three persons and one God, who has given himself to all humans wholly and completely with all that He is and has. The Catechism adds that all this is given for “our support and help, so that we may fulfill the Ten Commandments.” From God’s self-giving, humans also receive the love of all his commandments; that is, they begin to love and follow God’s will.20

Luther explains that the Father gives himself with heaven and earth and all his creatures so that they will serve humans and be useful to them. However, this gift has through Adam’s fall become obscure and useless. Therefore the Son gave himself and bestowed all his works, such as suffering, wisdom, and justice. The Son has reconciled humans with the Father so that they—made again alert and righteous—recognize him and have him as their Father. The Holy Spirit comes and gives himself to them likewise wholly and completely in order to teach humans to know the good deeds that Christ has done for them. The Spirit also helps human beings to receive and maintain those gifts, as well as use, share, and increase them in a suitable way.21

From the human point of view, God’s love means, thus, first the Spirit’s teaching of the works of Christ and his assistance in receiving Christ’s good works, as well as in using, sharing, and enhancing them. With Christ’s works human beings also receives Christ himself and become living and righteous, and able to know the Father and use his gifts. As the result of God’s Triune nature, the self-giving one has the Triune God, the right knowledge of him and his gifts, as well as the correct use of all created and spiritual gifts.

In the Large Catechism’s explanation of the Creed, Luther clarifies this from love’s point of view even more comprehensively. In the three articles of faith, God has revealed himself and unveiled his fatherly heart’s depths and his pure love, which cannot be expressed with words. Without Christ this pure love cannot be known, because he is the “looking glass” of God’s fatherly heart. And in order to know Christ, people need the revelation transmitted by the Holy Spirit. For Luther, the Creed describes briefly but accurately the whole essence and will as well as all works of God. He stresses that they are described “to you.”22 In this way he refers to the giving nature of the Creed’s words. The Creed tells what God does and gives to human beings, and its words are also an essential aspect of this giving. Through these words the Holy Spirit offers Christ to humans and brings them to him to receive his good gifts.23

Important for Luther is the emphasis on the incarnation as an expression of love. Therein the Son of God sets himself in the position of human beings and does to them as he would himself want to be done to, if he were in a human’s situation. So Christ too becomes accessible to humans.24 This kind of setting oneself in another’s place in order to find out what the other needs is central to Luther’s understanding of active divine love.

God’s Self-Giving Good Works and the Obligation to Love God

Luther states that every day God is giving, maintaining, and guarding everything that people have, caring for what is in heaven and on earth. Therefore human beings are obliged to love, thank, and praise him incessantly, as indeed the Ten Commandments demand. In other words, from God’s good works follows the duty to love God. However, that kind of love arises only when people learn to know God’s mercy and to trust in Him, for then they perceive how God gives himself completely with everything he is and has. Consequently, Luther thinks that God cannot be loved unless he is known to be merciful. And this knowledge of God presupposes that he gives himself continuously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Luther explains in his lectures on the First Letter of John: those who believe also love, and the Holy Spirit arouses in them love for Christ, who has died so that they could live. Then through the love for Christ they are raised to love of the Father, who commanded Christ to do so because God so loved the world that he gave his only son. In this way the believer sees the depth of charity and love in the Father.25 The Holy Spirit wants to immerse the believer in the awareness that Christ and God “is love” (est charitas).26 So Luther may speak about God, the Father, or the Son as the subject of love. By using the singular form, Luther probably stresses here the unity of Father and Son in Christ. On this basis both together may be called “love.” And a human being is meant to live deep in this awareness. Luther explains that trust in God cannot be achieved without thinking that God wishes to be favorable and friendly to believers, and therefore, they for their part become friendly to him and are moved to trust in him and ascribe everything good to him.27

What kind of love is the one that loves the merciful and loving God? In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther contrasts the giving divine love with what he calls “human love,” which seeks objects that are already good and therefore also seeks good for itself. He sometimes also calls human love “love of the world.” The main difference between divine and human love is the nature of their orientation toward their objects. Human love presupposes the goodness and beauty of its object, whereas divine love is directed toward evil, ugly, and insignificant things in order to make them good, beautiful, and notable. Contrary to divine love, human love seeks “its own.” Sometimes Luther explains this expression by referring to something that is useful or profitable for the lover. This, however, is not the whole meaning of the term “own,” as will be shown later. Divine love, for its part, never aims at its own advantage but seeks what is good for others. Through divine love humans receive the suffering of neighbors as if they were themselves in those people’s position.28 The difficulty of combining the love of God as the highest good with this differentiation between human and divine love would appear to be a genuine problem in Luther’s conception of love.

In a sermon from 1526, for example, Luther seems to speak as if he had forgotten the view of love described above. In explaining the Commandment of Love, he stresses that God does not allow loving anything apart from him. Those who love God have to be ready to leave all worldly things as well their own body and life, if God wills it so. This means that humans may not cling solely to created things nor compare loving them with the love of God. God is the highest good, and he wishes to be loved above all other good things.29 In this sense, goodness may clearly be an object of Christian love. But we need to investigate carefully what Luther means. He stresses that one should love God because God is good, not for the sake of his good gifts. This means that one has to love God in all circumstances, regardless of what happens to the one who loves God. In other words, one should not “seek for his or her own” in God. Here “seeking for one’s own” connotes humans’ own conception of what is good for them. But when one believes that God is good and loves him as such, he or she cannot decide when and in which way God is good and how God expresses his love. Luther acknowledges that this kind of love of God is impossible for human beings.

Luther continues the explanation of the Commandment of Love by stating that in the scriptures the term “heart” refers to the strong and passionate love with which humans should love God. It does not signify certain outward deeds, but rather the whole human being.30 To love God from one’s whole heart means to love God above all created things. Even though many creatures are amiable and pleasing, one has to abandon and even despise them for God’s sake, if God wills. Luther’s main emphasis here is that one should not get attached to creatures even though they are good and one may love them as such.31 Creatures are good gifts from God, but they cannot be the reason to love God. They may sometimes even become obstacles to loving God.

Luther’s understanding of the “love of God from the whole soul” is similar. For him the “soul” means the life of the human body and the functioning of the five senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching, as well as different functions of the human body like eating, drinking, sleeping, and staying awake. So the term “soul” signifies the body’s life and its activities.32 To love God from the whole soul means that one’s whole bodily life is oriented toward God so that one is willing to give everything away rather than renounce God. Then whatever God wills may happen to the human being, but one is still willing to let everything go rather than abandon God. The believer will hang onto God more than onto any creature or onto anything that he or she is or has which is not God.33

To “love God out of all powers” means to set the body so that all outward works that one is able to do would follow God’s will. One would do so rather than perform anything that would be against God, and when “loving God out of the whole mind,” one will accept only such things as please God. Then the human is consciously oriented to God and what pleases him.34

The love of God for the sake of his goodness demands everything from human beings, including the soul and the human being’s functions and outward actions. This kind of love does not offer any good works or actions to God, because he does not need them. Instead of deeds he wants the human being completely. Humans, however, have the possibility of performing good deeds for God. Such works are not offered directly to God, but to one’s neighbors who need them. According to Luther, Christ himself receives the works of love through poor, needy, and suffering neighbors. Christ has united himself with humanity by quitting his divine form and taking the form of a slave. Luther even says—somewhat imprecisely—that because humans did not want to love God because of his good deeds, by dying on the cross he has given himself in suffering, and misery. Therefore they have to love him now in hunger, sorrow, unhappiness, and shame.35 Interestingly, Luther’s view combines two aspects: love of God as giving oneself to God and one’s neighbor, and loving God as the highest good because of his sheer goodness. Therefore the Christian love of God is love of the cross. God is also to be loved in his opposites. But as was shown above, through Christ’s humanity and suffering one may learn to know the loving heavenly Father and arise in love of him because of his good, merciful, and fatherly nature.

Human Beings as Lovers of God, One’s Neighbors, and Other Creatures

God wishes to be loved above all because of his goodness, but he also allows love of good and beautiful creatures. In fact, God has created them for this purpose. Such creatures arouse love quite naturally, and God is pleased with that.36 In the Lectures on Galatians Luther presents the neighbor as “the most lovable pleasant, helpful, kind, and necessary creature.” He even says that one’s neighbor is more worthy of love than anything else in the universe. One should not let any fault, disease, or even evil deeds of one’s neighbor hide this.37 Therefore all love of good things is not sinful, nor is it depraved to enjoy their goodness and beauty. Love of good and beautiful creatures is something that pleases God. They may be received as God’s good gifts, and as such they bring forth love. Among living beings, human beings especially may be good and lovely creatures as well as needy and suffering neighbors. The first aspect delights the heart, whereas the second invites one to engage in works of love.

Knowing a loving and merciful God and love of one’s neighbor are intertwined and presuppose each other. In Luther’s view, the person who does not love his or her neighbor does not know God either. Knowing God is to understand that he is nothing but an active and self-giving love. Therefore, one who does not have faith in God, or does not love God through faith, is not able to do any truly good deeds. But those who know God and who love human beings identify him correctly. This involves both fear of God and confidence in him. People fear God because of “what is theirs,” but they flee to him because of “what is his.”38 This is the reason why Luther teaches the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism by telling first why people should fear God, and after that why he should be loved. He explains, for example, the fifth commandment “Thou shalt not kill” as follows: “We should fear and love God so that we don’t cause any harm or suffering to our neighbor’s body but help and support her in all bodily distress.”39 Here “what is theirs” simply means all the harm and suffering that humans have caused to their neighbors. Nevertheless, God gives help and support through the same people.

For Luther it is decisive that humans receive divine love through faith and do not try to form an act of love through their own capacities. Receiving divine love means accepting everything good, including the giver himself, from God. The other side of this receiving is considering God to be goodness itself and the source and donator of everything good, as well as thanking and praising him for that. This is just what faith in God does.

God’s goodness becomes known in and through Christ. Therefore, knowing Christ and God’s love in him is a presupposition of the Christian love of one’s neighbor. Christians should relate to and feel for each other in a way similar to what Christ has done for them. In other words, Christ’s kenosis leads them to a loving attitude toward each other. Christ possessed the “divine form,” which here signifies divine attributes such as goodness, strength, righteousness, and freedom. But by “emptying” himself from the divine form, he took the slave’s form, which means that he did not want to be like God but humbled himself and lived as a mortal human being, even though he is of the same essence as the Father. He did not treat humans like a good, strong, righteous and free God who is above all others, nor did he underrate or despise anybody. Instead, he lived, worked, suffered, and died so that he might be like other humans and in manners and in actions be nothing else than a man.40

Christ did not keep the divine form by himself but “returned” it back to God. This means that in his being and acting Christ did not “seek his own.” He did not want to use the divine attributes in order to separate himself from other humans, but instead wanted to be one of them. Even though he was free, he set himself to be everyone’s servant and acted as if all the evil that they have were his own. In this way he took the sin and punishment of humanity upon himself and did everything in order to defeat them.41

Christians should, then, assume this kind of mind toward their neighbors. Even though they participate in the divine attributes through Christ, who is present in their faith, they should behave with others as if they did not have these qualities. This is the content of Luther’s famous idea that a Christian is in faith a free lord and above all, but in love a Christian is simultaneously everyone’s subject and servant. With their neighbors Christians should act as if the others’ weakness, sin, and foolishness were their own. When they ascribe divine attributes to God and do not consider them their own, they will be able to assume the servant’s form in respect to their neighbor.42

Giving up the direct use of the divine attributes and receiving the neighbor’s sin are presuppositions for practicing divine love toward one’s neighbor. The divine attributes are also needed—like God’s gifts—to enable one to make weak people strong, turn the foolish wise, and the unjust righteous. One should not laugh at them, nor despise or condemn them. On the contrary, they should be raised up, supported, forgiven, and justified. This is to do to others as one would like to be done to oneself in their position.43 In sum, God has in his Son done for human beings what he would have wanted others do for him if he had been in the human situation of sin, condemnation, and death. He has rescued humans from sin and death and given them life, righteousness, and a good and joyful conscience. Therefore, human beings should love God and their neighbors and do unto others as Christ has done for them.

When faith receives God and his gifts, love acts out of this divine self-giving. For Luther love is not merely a favorable attitude toward a neighbor, nor are good works only the fruits or consequences of love. Rather, love means a favorable good deed done to another.44 Consequently, love consists of the inner mood or affect and the outward act. Christ is the example of love because he serves others but not himself. Love sees which works the others need and serves them with these works. So love makes people the others’ servants. Faith makes them lords above all, but in love they serve other creatures. Through faith in the Son of God they are made children of God, and therefore the Bible calls them “gods.” Luther stresses that they are not gods by birth, but divinity is given them through faith. This means that through faith they participate in the divine nature, but in love they do not glorify themselves on that account but take care of neighbors’ needs. For Luther they become true human beings in this way. Therefore, in his understanding of love, deification and becoming human do not exclude each other but belong together. Real human beings are those who participate in the divine nature through faith and serve their neighbors through love without setting themselves above others. Christian love does not seek for any kind of glory. It constantly does good to all, even to enemies, regardless of the response.45

In particular, the sacrament of the altar plays a central role in receiving the divine love and in living in it. The Eucharist creates a believer’s union with Christ and with other Christians. In this sacrament the head of the church, Christ, practices love by giving himself to the communicants, sharing their suffering and tragedy and bearing the load for them. He does so in order to let the members of the church, for their part, bear one another’s misery. This act of giving himself to others fulfills the aim of uniting love: through it everything that Christ is and everything that he has is shared with Christians.46 The sharing of all spiritual gifts as well as all misery and sin constitutes the unity between Christ and Christians.47 In this community of sharing between Christ and Christians, Christians may also enjoy Christ and each other. This mutual enjoyment includes the annihilation of selfish love and the increase of love that seeks the common good in the context of this communion.48 The spiritual gifts as well as sin and suffering become common only through love. This uniting love leads people outside themselves: as Luther writes in On the Freedom of a Christian, a Christian lives not in himself or herself but in Christ through faith and in his or her neighbor through love. And continually—also in faith—he or she remains in the divine love.49

The essence of the communion called “the church” is selfless love, which does not seek its own benefit. In the church both temporal and spiritual gifts are shared through love.50 The principal spiritual gift from God is “being of the same mind with one another” so that everyone is affected, moved, and bound by the same reality. Luther interprets this Augustinian view in terms of his conception of love: the weak understand the same as strong people, and the strong share the same difficulties as the weak, so that they do unto them as they would have liked to be done to if they had been in the place of the weak. Being of the same mind is realized as reciprocally setting oneself in another’s position and in seeking one’s neighbor’s good. Luther stresses that this spiritual affect is the strength (nervus) of the Christian religion, without which it could not stand. So, “to be of the same mind” is not taken here in a philosophical sense but in the Christian way. It refers to the affect or the most intimate movement of the heart, which is directed toward promoting one’s neighbor’s good.51 Luther’s conception of spiritual affect as the “strength” of Christianity is grounded precisely on his understanding of divine love.52 Christian unanimity does not mean only thinking in the same way about some things; it is that which seeks the good of the other.

The uniting of Christ with Christians in the Eucharist contains a social and an ethical aspect: it forms a communion where Christ bears the burdens of Christians and they for their part bear one another’s misery. As Christians have received love and support from Christ and his church, so they in turn show love and support to Christ and Christ’s own people who need them. Thus, they bear all of the misery and injustice that innocent people suffer. All of this should be in their hearts in such a way that they defend the unfortunate and work and pray for them as much they can.53 The Christian community is not only a spiritual and inner unity; it also realizes itself in working for all who suffer in this world. Luther’s idea is that when Christians participate in Christ, who has taken all the misery, suffering, and sin of the world upon himself, they also take part in Christ’s carrying all this. Misery, injustice, and suffering are not strange to them; they participate in it and experience it through a uniting love.

According to Luther, one can see with the greatest certainty if one has love. This becomes evident especially in a time of trial, when one feels the wrath of God or when one’s neighbor is offending one. If one then has an affectionate impulse toward the angry and afflicting God and toward the offending and unpleasant neighbor, then one has genuine love. On the other hand, love is often only imitated without real affection.54 So for Luther genuine love cannot be hidden from oneself, even though one’s outward behavior does not always reveal whether the love is real or only pretense.

The Relation between Love of One’s Neighbor and Love of Oneself

Luther abandons the traditional way of understanding the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” as well as the commandment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”55 According to him, some “fathers” have supposed that love should begin with oneself. But he thinks that self-love is not commanded here at all, but only the love of one’s neighbor. The first reason for this view is that there is no need to command it because all humans naturally love themselves. Second, the commandment of love does not say “Love yourself and your neighbor as yourself.” Moreover, the Apostle Paul states that love does not seek for its own benefit and so denies self-love. Christ, too, ordered that we deny ourselves and hate our own life (John 12:25), and the Letter to the Philippians says clearly that Christians should not consider what is theirs but what is others’. The context shows that, for Luther, self-love means here the perverted love that forgets the neighbor and seeks only its own benefit. This love can be rectified only if it forgets itself and serves only the neighbor.56 Luther indeed seems to understand self-love and love of one’s neighbor as exclusive alternatives. However, in the same text he discusses a possible form of self-love.

He states that self-love is always evil when it arises from human beings themselves. It may be good only outside of oneself, namely in God. This signifies that humans’ own will and own love, which are oriented toward themselves, will die entirely so that they seek only God’s will and are ready for everything that God wills for them. Then they love themselves in God and His will, but not in themselves or in their own will. If self-love is understood in this way, they may also love their neighbor as themselves. Love of oneself means now that one wills that God’s will happens in one’s neighbor’s life but not in one’s own will.57 Consequently, the terms “self” and “own” are used with quite specific meanings. They refer to the human being as contrary to God’s will and to the neighbor’s good. They connote the meaning of seeking one’s own advantage, but the main issue is that the “self” and “own” signify one’s will to decide what is good and what is evil for oneself and one’s neighbor. In Luther’s view, this means stealing something that belongs to God, namely liberum arbitrium (“free decision”).58

To understand Luther’s view of self-love, we need to see that the “self” about which he is speaking is not the human being as a created bodily soul but the “old Adam,” humans as sinful beings who do not acknowledge God or want to serve their neighbors. Even though Luther may, especially in his early writings, describe fallen human beings as seeking only their own in everything, he also knows and mentions expressions of love where humans willingly serve others. Parents, for example, may love their children in this way. Also in this sense, there are some traces of the genuine order of love where all exist primarily for others. Nevertheless, Luther sees “seeking one’s own” as a very strong motivation in human action, which prevents a genuine love of God and one’s neighbor.59

According to Luther, the righteous relation to God and to one’s neighbor can also be expressed with the traditional principle of justice: one should give everyone what is his or her due. In relation to God, this principle is followed when one ascribes goodness itself and all that is good to Him. Then God may be to the human being what he is in himself, that is, goodness and the source and donor of everything good. Faith does both: it considers God good in all circumstances, and receives goodness from him. But those humans who believe in God in this way also love God, and therefore give themselves wholly to God and will the same with him.60 Willing the same with God naturally presupposes the union with Christ in faith and participation in the self-giving divine love.61

For Luther the “rule of love”—nowadays called the Golden Rule—which Jesus expresses in Mathew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 is the summary of divine law and is identical with the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. It is also, with similar principles, the foundation of human law and all good works. Therefore humans are commanded to set themselves in God’s position as well as in their neighbor’s situation.62 As stated above, Luther often refers to the demand that people set themselves in another’s place and asks what they would want others to do for them if they were in a similar situation, or as Luther sometimes says, if they were the other. In this way they can know what to do in order to perform works of love. In fact, a Christian should at all times meditate on this command and act according to it. In meditation on one’s relation to God, one will understand that God does not require human deeds. He has everything in himself. But in order to be God and act accordingly as the donor of everything good, God needs to be considered God and trusted as such. Moreover, in relation to neighbors, one should contemplate how one could serve and benefit others in all that one does, considering nothing else than the need and advantage of one’s neighbor.63 By setting oneself in the neighbor’s position, one will comprehend what the other needs in this concrete situation. This presupposes participation in Christ and his divine qualities as well as in his kenosis, the “self-emptying” of one’s own will. When people forget themselves and empty themselves of God’s gifts, they will be able to receive their neighbor’s weakness, sin, and foolishness as if they were their own, and the good gifts that God has given to them will flow from them to their neighbors. The weaker, the sicker, and the more ignorant people are, the more Christians should serve them, forgetting their own honor, health, and power. In On the Freedom of a Christian, Luther writes about how one should “put on” one’s neighbor and conduct oneself toward him or her as if one were in the other’s place. Thus Christians may serve the other not only with outward deeds, but also with their faith and righteousness. They may lay them before God so that these deeds cover and intercede for the sins of their neighbors.64

When continuously receiving everything good from God, humans need only let the good go through them to their neighbors. However, this “going through” should not be understood as passive receiving, but is instead like a conduit through which love flows. Luther strongly emphasizes that love is activity directed toward the neighbor and other creatures. In love human beings cooperate with God. So the Christian love of one’s neighbor is simply always seeking the benefit of the neighbor by applying the Golden Rule in order to find out how to use the divine gifts correctly.

Review of the Literature

In the 1930s the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren provided an analysis of Luther’s notion of agape love. His interpretation has proved highly influential and is still of value in today’s discussions. He argued that Luther was not only a theologian of faith but also made a remarkable contribution to the theology of love. For Nygren, Luther denies all “eudemonism” of love and defends pure, selfless agape. All love that presupposes the value of its object is eudemonistic eros and thus sinful. In Nygren’s view, agape appreciates the “object” of love by giving it its value.65 Such a value-giving kind of relation is formed between God and a human being and then between human persons. The relation of a human to God is faith, which receives divine appreciation. Nygren’s interpretation of Luther’s theology of love was generally accepted when first published and did not stir up much discussion until the end of the 20th century, unlike his reading of Augustine’s conception of charity. At least three critiques have been presented, the first by the German Catholic theologian Peter Manns (1923–1991), and the second by the Finnish Lutheran theologian Tuomo Mannermaa (1937–2015). It would seem that Pope Benedict XVI has also implicitly criticized the Nygrenian approach, though he does not mention him by name. Benedict’s encyclical on love, however, is not concerned with Luther interpretation as such but is about the common understanding of Christian love. Benedict does not see eros and agape as contrary to each other. For him love always begins as eros and may be developed into the Christian agape without totally losing its eros aspect.66

Manns and Mannermaa wrote and published preliminary works on the theme and also planned to write about Luther’s theology of love, but their work on this topic could not be completed.67 Some of Mannermaa’s pupils have continued the work on Luther’s theology of love68 and a theme close to it, the theology of the gift.69 Manns concentrated especially on his understanding of love of God, which already makes his approach different from Nygren’s. Manns tried to understand Luther by reading him against the background of medieval monastic theology and Bernard of Clairvaux. For him, the main problem for the young Luther in an Augustinian monastery was the demand for a perfect love of God. After intense theological struggles concerning repentance and confession, he learned to acknowledge that perfect fulfillment of God’s law is beyond human capacities, and that a new understanding of salvific faith is the only answer to the problem of imperfect love.70

Mannermaa criticizes Nygren more indirectly than explicitly, but he does not consider the terms eros and agape the best possible ones for describing Luther’s view.71 He does not follow Nygren’s understanding that all “human love” is sinful. According to Mannermaa, Luther uses the rhetorical figure of synecdoche when speaking of human love as self-interested. This means that Luther uses one of the attributes of human love to describe the entirety of love. Nevertheless, he does not deny the value of love between a man and a woman, nor the importance of love between friends or between parents and children.72 Mannermaa also considers erroneous Nygren’s view that all kinds of unions between the lover and the beloved are eros.73 One problem is that the love to God is not easily compatible with Nygren’s conception of true Christian love. Thus, one question of Luther research is, “What is the exact relation between divine and human love?” Does it have a connection with the capacity of receiving and seeking mentioned above? Closely connected with this question is the problem of the conceptions of God as a giver and as the highest good. According to Ilmari Karimies, it has been common to think in the Nygrenian way that God cannot be considered the highest good, because then the relation of humans to God would be a form of eros. Karimies sees this feature even in Mannermaa’s analysis. For him, Mannermaa denies the possibility of seeing God as the summum bonum.74 In my understanding, Mannermaa does not wish to imply that, though, truth be told, he does not pay much attention to this problem. For him, Luther shares with the “theologians of glory” the view that God is in himself good, righteous, true, and omnipotent. The point is that even though God is like this, for a human being he is all this only through God’s humanity, through the oppositeness of the cross. Even though the term “highest good” does not occur here, the same holds true for it as well.75 In any case, Karimies pays attention to the obvious need for clarification of how Luther understands the traditional view of God as the highest good.

Further Reading

Bielfeldt, Dennis D., and Klaus Schwarzwäller, eds. Freiheit als Liebe bei Martin Luther/Freedom as Love in Martin Luther: 8th International Congress for Luther Research in St. Paul, Minnesota, Referate/Papers (German and English Edition). Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1995.Find this resource:

Jeanrond, Werner. A Theology of Love. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010.Find this resource:

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.Find this resource:

Manns, Peter. Vater im Glauben: Studien zur Theologie Martin Luthers. Edited by Rolf Decot. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1998.Find this resource:

Nygren, Anders. Agape and Eros. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Raunio, Antti. Summe des christlichen Lebens: Die Goldene Regel als Gesetz der Liebe in der Theologie Martin Luther 1510–1527. Wiesbaden: von Zabern, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) See WA 56:274, 11–275, 23. LW 25:261–262, Diui Pauli apostoli ad Romanos Epistola 1515/1516; WA 1:224, 28–225, 10; LW 31:10, Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam 1517.

(2.) WA 40/I:228, 28; LW 26:129.

(3.) WA 40/I:227, 21–228, 28; LW 26:129.

(4.) WA 40/I:228, 33–229, 30; LW 26:129–130.

(5.) WA 10/III:13, 23–28; LW 51.

(6.) WA 6:210, 5–9; LW 44:30.

(7.) WA 10/III:177, 13–16.

(8.) For Luther’s critique of Scotus and Biel on the issue of the human capacity to love God, see WA 1:224, 28–29; LW 31:10; for his critique of Scotus and Ockham, see WA 40/I:226, 20–228, 17; LW 26:128–129. For Scotus’s view of the issue, see Alan B. Wolter, The Philosophical Theology of Duns Scotus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 151–156. For Biel’s view, see Gabriel Biel, Collectorium circa quattuor libros Sententiarum, eds. W. Werbeck and U. Hofmann (Tübingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), Liber tertius, d. 26, q.1, a. 3, dub 2.

(9.) WA 55/II:883, 102–104 (Ps. 115).

(10.) WA 55/II:888, 11–15 (Ps. 117).

(11.) WA 55/II: 888, 15–889, 17.

(12.) WA 55/II: 889, 24–31.

(13.) StA 1:212, 5–11; WA 1:365; LW 31:57; WA 20:740, 15–16; 740, 19–741, 7; 11–13; LW 30:293.

(14.) See, for example, Antti Raunio, Summe des christlichen Lebens: Die “Goldene Regel” als Gesetz der Liebe in der Theologie Martin Luthers 1510–1527 (Wiesbaden: von Zabern, 2001), 264–265.

(15.) WA 39/I:319, 10–19; 319, 21–320, 19. (Disputatio circularis D. Doctoris Martini Lutheri de caena magna sive veste nuptiali die 15. Iunii 1537).

(16.) WA 40/III:645, 27–33.

(17.) WA 39/II:214, 30–31. (Die Promotionsdisputation von Johann Marbach. 16. Februar 1543).

(18.) WA 39/I:243–245, 21.

(19.) See also Antti Raunio, “Luther’s Social Theology in the Contemporary World: Searching for the Neighbor’s Good,” in The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 217–220.

(20.) WA 30/I: 192, 25–29.

(21.) WA 26:505, 38–506, 7; LW 37.

(22.) WA 26:191, 28–192, 8.

(23.) WA 26:187, 38–189, 5.

(24.) WA 10/I.2:42, 5–27; 42, 33–43, 7.

(25.) WA 20:754, 26–755, 1; LW 30:300.

(26.) WA 20:756, 6–7; LW 30:300.

(27.) WA 6:210, 6–9.

(28.) WA 20:480, 23–30.

(29.) WA 10/I.2:361, 18–27.

(30.) WA 10/I.2:360, 1–3.

(31.) WA 10/I.2:361, 5–8; 15–18.

(32.) WA 10/I.2:362, 1–4.

(33.) WA 10/I.2:361, 33–362, 1.

(34.) WA 10/I.2:362, 5–10.

(35.) WA 17/II:99, 10–31.

(36.) WA 10/I.2:361, 15–18.

(37.) WA 40/II:71, 22–73, 32; LW 27:56–59.

(38.) WA 20:740, 3–14.

(39.) WA 30/I: 286, 12–18.

(40.) StA 1:224, 8–18; StA 2:296, 19–34; WA 2:147, 34–148, 6; WA 7:65, 10–25; LW 31:301, 366.

(41.) StA 1:224, 25–225, 4; WA 2:148, 12–21; LW 31:301–302.

(42.) StA 1:224, 8–225, 23; WA 2:147, 34–149, 4; LW 31:301–302; and StA 2:296, 35–298, 16; WA 7:65, 26–66, 6; LW 31:366–367.

(43.) StA 1:226, 20–25; WA 2:150, 15–20; LW 31:304.

(44.) WA 17/II:98, 28–33.

(45.) WA 11:10, 7–29.

(46.) StA 1:276, 31–37; WA 2:745, 38–746, 5; LW 35:55.

(47.) StA 1:274, 15–18; WA 2:743, 27–30; LW 35:51; WA 12:487, 19–24.

(48.) StA 1:284, 16–23; WA 2:754, 9–14; LW 35:67.

(49.) WA 7:69, 12–15; LW 31:371.

(50.) WA 6:131, 2–6.

(51.) WA 7:484, 6–21. Enarrationes epistolarum et euangeliorum quae postillas vocant, 1521.

(52.) For Luther’s view of love as an affect, see Rudolf Mau, “Liebe als gelebte Freiheit der Christen: Luthers Auslegung von G 5, 13–24 im Kommentar von 1519,” in Lutherjahrbuch59, ed. H. Junghans (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1992), 22–24.

(53.) StA 1:276, 13–27; WA 2:745, 1–34; LW 35:54.

(54.) WA 2:593; LW 27:373–374.

(55.) See also Mau, “Liebe als gelebte Freiheit der Christen,” 26–29.

(56.) WA 2:580, 24–581, 7; LW 27:355–356.

(57.) WA 2:581, 12–20; LW 27:356–357.

(58.) Antti Raunio, “Das liberum arbitrium als göttliche Eigenschaft in Luthers De servo arbitrio,” in Widerspruch: Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Erasmus von Rotterdam, ed. Kari Kopperi (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, 1997), 71–73, 75.

(59.) Compare with Terence Irwin, “Luther’s Attack on Self-Love: The Failure of Pagan virtue,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 42 (2012), 131–156.

(60.) WA 4:697, 25–29; StA 1:394, 33–395, 12; WA 10/III:130, 1–16. See Raunio, Summe des christlichen Lebens, 250–259.

(61.) WA 4:695, 32–37; 697, 1–15.

(62.) WA 1:251, 24–32; WA 10/II: 379, 13–16, 380, 4–11; WA 40/II:66, 34–36; LW 27:53.

(63.) Sta 2:294, 31–34; WA 7:64, 24–27; LW 31:365.

(64.) StA 2:304, 1–9; WA 7:69, 1–9; LW 31:371.

(65.) Anders Nygren, Eros och Agape (Stockholm: Verbum, 1966), 56–57; 1st ed., 1930. See also G. W. Forell, Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther’s Social Ethics (New York: American Press, 1954), which follows Nygren’s view of the nature of Christian love.

(66.) Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, Encyclical Letter (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2005). See also Werner Jeanrond, A Theology of Love (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 162–165.

(67.) Peter Manns and Rainer Vinke, “Martin Luther als Theologe der Liebe,” in Caritas Dei: Beiträge zum Veständnis Luthers und der gegenwärtigen Ökumene, eds. Oswald Bayer, Robert Jenson and Simo Knuuttila (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, 1997), 265–266; Peter Manns, “Zum Gespräch zwischen M. Luther und der katholischen Theologie. Begegnung zwischen patristischer-monastischer und refermatorischer Theologie an der Scholastik vorbei,” in Thesaurus Lutheri: Auf der Suche nach neuen Paradigmen der Luther-Forschung, eds. Tuomo Mannermaa, Anja Ghiselli and Simo Peura (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Gesellschaft, 1987), 63–154.

(68.) Tuomo Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World, ed. Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010); Jeanrond, Theology of Love, 96–103, presents Luther’s theology of love mostly following the results of Finnish research. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “The Christian as Christ to the Neighbor: On Luther’s Theology of Love,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6.2 (2004): 101–117, offers a presentation of Luther’s conception of love which is largely based on the insights of Finnish Luther research. See also Simo Peura, “What God Gives, Man Receives,” in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 76–95; Antti Raunio, Summe des christlichen Lebens.; “Nächstenliebe,” in Das Luther-Lexikon, ed. Volker Leppin and Gury Schneider-Ludorff (Regensburg: Bückle & Böhm, 2014).

(69.) See Risto Saarinen, God and the Gift: An Ecumenical Theology of Giving (Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2005).

(70.) Manns and Vinke, “Martin Luther,” 276–285; “Risto Saarinen, Theology of Giving as a Comprehensive Lutheran Theology,” in Transformations in Luther’s Theology, eds. Christine Helmer and Bo Holm (Arbeiten zur Kirchen- und Theologiegeschichte; Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2011), 141–159.

(71.) Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love, 119; see also Juhani Forsberg, “Afterword: Finnish Luther Research since 1979,” in Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love, ed. Kirsi Stjerna (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 92.

(72.) Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love, 5–6.

(73.) Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love, 9–10, 108.

(74.) Ilmari Karimies, “Can Luther’s Doctrine of God as the Giver and God as the Highest Good Be Reconciled?: A critique of Tuomo Mannermaa's Two Kinds of Love,” Pro Ecclesia 24.4 (2015): 476.

(75.) Mannermaa, Two Kinds of Love, 34.