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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther and Relational Thinking

Summary and Keywords

Luther believes that a Christian needs to constitute his identity “outside of himself” (extra se). This is because the justification of sinners and our spiritual existence are based on an external grounding, not on our own properties or contributions. In such relationality, Christians are heteronomous beings. Their actions, desires, and even bodily properties are attributed to them from outside as gift. This relationality is strongly present in Luther’s texts.

While Luther employs a rich variety of relational phrases, for instance, “before God” (coram Deo) and “for me” (pro me), he does not employ the concept of relation frequently. When this concept is used, it typically points to a situation in which the person must renounce his old, carnal, and natural properties and seek help from God. The new, spiritual way of life consists of the reception of God’s gifts that are external to oneself.

This view is based in monastic theology. Luther is not content with the monastic renunciation of one’s own properties. He employs mystical terminology without, however, aiming at dissolving the human subject in the manner of Meister Eckhart. Instead, Luther thinks that there is a new path of constituting the Christian person as something that is “external to oneself.” While this view differs from medieval mysticism, it can also be interpreted as a certain “intensification” of its aims. Proceeding on this path, the Christian no longer considers his hands, his feet, his choices, his actions as his own contribution. They are rather something that is attributed to him, a passive attachment.

Luther’s view of relationality helps to understand what he means by the Christian’s first-person involvement in phrases like “my faith” and “for my sake.” He does not have the post-Enlightenment sense of subjectivity in the manner of Pietism or other individualist variants of modern Christianity. On the other hand, the ideas of passive attachment and the attribution of gift-like properties to a believer enable a robust first-person involvement in faith. Within this framework of relational passivity, faith and its acts are not contributions in the sense of human works. At the same time, the Christian has the ability to receive good gifts and participate in them. There are certain parallels with the Stoic view of oikeiosis, the primary social attachment taught by Cicero and many Christian thinkers.

Luther is also well aware of the Augustinian view of divine persons as relations. For this reason, he can also understand in which sense relations can be primary “things” in theology. Sometimes the interpreters of Luther have extended the issue of relationality to cover all kinds of themes that assume a communicative interplay of different parties. Such extension can often highlight adequately the biblical background of an idea that is narrative rather than philosophical.

Keywords: Martin Luther, relation, faith, free will, attachment, subjectivity, anthropology, trinity

The Discovery of Relational Thinking

Relational thinking focuses on the relationships between things rather than on the things themselves. Since the 1950s, many scholars have claimed that Martin Luther is a relational thinker in this sense. The theological content of these claims is introduced and Luther’s use of the term relatio in its historical context is discussed. Because the claim of relational thinking extends beyond the use of the term, the theological analysis needs to be broadened to other relevant issues. Then, Luther’s textual evidence can be connected with some broader historical issues of theology and philosophy. Recent scholarship is reviewed.

In his influential study on the origins of Luther’s hermeneutics, Gerhard Ebeling argues that Luther replaces the philosophical concept of substance with a theological view, according to which the biblical concept of substance is relational and dependent on “as what” the person takes it to be. Luther adheres to a view that substance does not signify the essence of a thing in itself and for itself. Instead, it points out what it means for the person who employs it or how the person understands himself in relation to this substance. For Ebeling, this is a revolutionary turn in the concept of substance. In Luther’s thinking, substance begins to mean how a person “relates to the things.”1

In another study, Ebeling interprets Luther’s early statements claiming that the person must be in the state of grace before any acts of obedience. For Ebeling, such a claim is meaningful only when the person is considered outside of himself (extra se) and before God (coram Deo). The question “Who is this person?” is decided in these relations. Ebeling concludes that Luther does not mean by persona something that exists in and for itself but that he depicts the person as something external to himself and before God. In this manner, his existence as a person means being “in relationship” (in relatione).2

When Ebeling claims that Luther understands the concepts of substance and person relationally, he wants to highlight how the biblical and theological language differs from the vocabulary of medieval Aristotelianism. While Aristotle and the medieval Catholic Church think in terms of substances and static ontology, Luther represents an “existential” thinking that considers people as relational beings, focusing on qualities rather than quantities.3 Such relationality is not something that is emphasized in addition to the already existing person or substance. It is radical heteronomy that ascribes a constitutive role to relations in the emergence of theological persons and things.

In Luther studies, the term “existential” was used before Ebeling by Lennart Pinomaa as a characterization of the overall nature of Luther’s theology.4 It was later employed by Otto Hermann Pesch5 and many others. While the term connotes the broader current of existential thinking, as represented by Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann, it often creates a bridge to Sören Kierkegaard’s thought, which is critical of seemingly objectivistic metaphysics.6 During the 1950s and 1960s, Friedrich Gogarten and Wilfried Joest also interpreted Luther’s theology in a relational manner. In the case of Gogarten, the link to existential philosophy is evident.7

In his study of Luther’s ontology of personhood, Joest takes over the claims of Ebeling and employs them to create a systematic interpretation of Luther’s theological anthropology. In this venture, Joest does not reduce Luther’s ontological language into existential experience but constructs a theological ontology that is thoroughly relational. Joest maintains that Luther understands humanity within three relational realms. A person is responsive, as he receives everything in the correlative relation of word and faith. A person is eschatological, that is, his fulfillment only takes place in the future. Thirdly, a person has the center of his personhood outside of himself. He is “ex-centric” (exzentrisch).8 While the medieval concept of person as individual substance is allegedly “con-centric,” Luther considers that “the structure of the being of a person takes place before God, as somebody who relates to God and has the ontological grounding of his relationship to God in God.”9

Such fundamental relationality is close to Ebeling’s earlier reflections; Joest moves, however, beyond Ebeling in considering that the new being of Christian in Christ takes place within this relationality. Joest formulates a fairly strong doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ and effective justification.10 As the existence of Christian remains “outside or himself” in this union, Joest can avoid pantheism and overly mystical interpretations of the union. At the same time, he highlights the idea of a foundation that carries and protects people while also remaining, strictly speaking, outside of them. In this manner, justification is effective while its grounds remain external to the Christian. Our relationship to Christ in this union does not consist of mere knowledge—faith takes hold of Christ in our relation to him as person.11

While Ebeling’s variant of relationality focuses on the existential and word-centered features of Luther’s thought, Joest manages to integrate the more sacramental and ontological traits of Lutheran theology into his overall idea of Christians as new beings who are grounded outside of themselves. The textual evidence must be examined to grasp this phenomenon in more detail.

Luther’s Use of Relatio

Somewhat surprisingly, the Latin terms relatio, relativus are only occasionally employed in the source texts. In the First Lectures on the Psalms, the main piece of evidence of Ebeling’s early studies, relatio does not appear at all. The word relative appears seven times, often denoting a relationship of two opposites to one another, like old and new, mercy and misery, truth and lie.12 The relational opposite between good and evil is twice said to be hidden under the contrary.13

Ebeling does not deal with all possible relations, only with those that are existentially relevant to the human condition. Closest to his understanding of relationality is the evidence occurring in a passage discussing meditation.14 Here, Luther interprets the verse of the Vulgate (Psalms 118:24), saying that “your testimony is my meditation.” He considers that evil people want their own thoughts to be divine testimonies. However, we are not supposed to give our own testimonies but meditate on the testimonies given by the Lord.15 A proper meditation of divine testimony must be “my” meditation in the sense that I apply it to myself and consider that the divine testimonies are meant for me. This is what it means “to understand relationally” (relative intelligere).16.

If a person does not apply divine testimonies to himself but attempts to understand them in general terms, he is arrogant and does not have the proper inner attitude of faith. A faithful reader of the testimony meditates the word as something that he applies to himself. While he desires understanding, he may not understand everything in this life. The important thing is to be oriented in the future life and improvement.17 Instead of turning the testimony to conform to our own judgement, we are to follow the biblical judgement and meditate it so that it guides our actions.18 In this manner, relational understanding means personal application. In Luther’s later German writings, Relation occasionally means the act of worshiping God in the manner of meditative prayer.19

After the First Lectures on the Psalms, Luther continues to use relatio, relative somewhat sporadically. In the Second Psalm Lectures, these words appear only in grammatical or otherwise technical meanings.20 In the Lecture on Romans, Luther continues to use the term to refer to the opposites.21 He also speaks of the act of comparing different parties in terms of relationality.22 Both in the Lecture on Romans and in the late Lectures on Genesis Luther refers to promise and faith as a relational pair of concepts that assume each other.23

Perhaps the most interesting occurrence of the term in Lectures on Romans concerns the discussion on imputation in Romans 4:7. Here, an opposite pair intrinsically–extrinsically, or intra me–extra me, is constructed.24 Those who are extrinsically imputed as righteous continue to be sinners intrinsically. Luther says that this is due to “the nature of relations” (per naturam relatiorum).25 The hypocrites, on the other hand, consider themselves as righteous. “By the power and necessity of relation” (per vim et necessitatem relationis),26 they are reckoned as sinners.

Remarkably, Luther continues to discuss this relational case in terms of first-person application. He maintains that human hearts always err, as my own sin always puts me against myself. Thus I can say that, theologically, “my own righteousness is always against me, that is, in my own judgement. And the blessed, when they do what is right, say: ‘For you I (instead of sinning) do the right,’ and so they do it for themselves.”27 In this condensed quote, there is both the relation of opposites and the first-person application. The person who attributes righteousness to oneself fails, but the person who attributes it to God prevails and, in some sense, receives it back. Therefore, “my own righteousness” is wrong insofar as the person thinks about it in terms of his personal ownership.

In order that justification bears fruit, there needs to be a connection between the person and his righteousness. However, this connection is not one of simple ownership or personal contribution. In the relation of opposites, it is something like an attribution or a secondary passive attachment. In a passive attachment, a person first renounces his first, natural, and active attachment to good things and activities. This renunciation of self-righteousness is the counterpart of a divine imputation of righteousness; they come in one package. In relating to the imputed “alien” righteousness, a person relates to himself in a new, secondary manner. This new manner, that is, passive attachment, differs from natural ownership or contribution, as it is constituted in the framework of relational opposites, and becomes attributed to the person as gift from outside of oneself.

It may be possible to read the idea of passive attachment from Luther’s previously quoted reading of “your testimony is my meditation” in the First Psalm Lectures. This verse says that the good things of testimony are not mine but yours. They only become mine in the process of passive attachment that the meditation produces. As Luther’s overall theological horizon in these early lectures is concerned with humility and renunciation,28 the idea of passive attachment is not as complex as it may seem. Luther seeks to avoid self-righteousness, but he is also critical of non-committed readings of biblical truths. The idea of passive attachment allows him to steer a theological course between self-righteous subjectivism and arrogant neutrality.

These two occurrences of relatio, relative have been interpreted in some detail in order to show that Ebeling’s claim of relational and “existential” theology is supported by terminological evidence in Luther’s early lectures. At the same time, the term relation appears rarely in Luther’s theology. His relational thinking needs, therefore, to be grounded on other and more frequent theological resources.

Luther employs relational terminology fairly often in his writings on the Trinity. For the most part, he is following the Augustinian tradition that understands the Trinitarian persons in terms of the Aristotelian category of relation. Augustine chose this category to steer his course between tritheism (three divine substances) and modalism (persons as only accidental features of one God). The Augustinian background is already visible in Luther’s early remarks on Augustine.29

In Luther’s mature years, the standard Augustinian concept of relation is employed in the theses 11–17 of the Doctoral Disputation of Petrus Hegemon. In these theses, Luther wants to show how a theological understanding of some concepts differs from their use in philosophy. Discussion here is restricted to the traditional Augustinian features in this passage. Luther argues that the concept of relation in theology differs from its meaning in philosophy. While relation is not a “thing” in philosophy, it is a thing, namely, divine hypostasis and person, in theology. The three persons of God are “distinct things” and in this manner these theological things prove the existence of relation in God. This theological fact cannot, however, be employed as a logical starting point of a philosophical theology, as these things can only be approached in faith.30 The concept of relation employed in these theses is Augustinian, although Luther’s anti-philosophical argument pertains to late medieval scholastic developments.31

In the Doctoral Disputation of Major and Faber, Luther defends a somewhat unorthodox Trinitarian thesis, namely, “essence generates.” He claims that one can speak of essence and substance in God as relations.32 While this claim may entail a more person-oriented theology of the Trinity than what is common in the Latin West,33 the concept of relation does not contain any peculiar features. As the disputation notes show, Luther aims at defending clearly orthodox theological positions, for instance, the creedal sentence “God from God.”34 When Luther affirms the sentence “essence generates,” he basically again teaches that the philosophical concept of essence is not valid in theology. In theology, one can speak of relative essence in God. Luther here aims at defending an Augustinian concept of relation.35

In sum, Luther’s Trinitarian theology is not in the focus of the discussion concerning his “relational thinking.” This thinking focuses on the believer’s personal application and the existential constitution of believers rather than any discussion on the Trinity. The Trinitarian debates show, however, that Luther is well aware of the Augustinian view of divine persons as relations and that he, therefore, can also understand in which sense relations can be primary “things” in theology. The Trinitarian debate is nevertheless only distantly related to the issue of relational thinking.

Extra Nos and Coram Deo

Neither Ebeling nor Joest build their claim of Luther’s relational thinking on the term relation only. Instead, they highlight words and phrases that depict the constitutive anthropological situation of the Christian in relation to God and oneself. Among such phrases, extra nos (outside of ourselves, external to us) and coram Deo (before God) are particularly prominent. Many other phrases depict similar relationality. In a late essay, Gerhard Ebeling gives a list of some other ontological “signals” and “basic features” that characterize Luther’s relational thinking: substantia, intellectus, verbal reading of substantives, iustitia Dei, expectatio creaturae (signals), word and faith, distinction–unio, persona–conscientia (basic features). Ebeling concludes by saying that the formulations are less important than the intention that guides Luther.36 He emphasizes that the Bible speaks about such matters in a manner that differs from philosophy.37

The phrase extra nos is amply used in medieval theology. There it is connected with mysticism, in particular the phenomenon of ecstasy. Thomas Aquinas understands ecstasy as a state of receiving divine love in which one is put outside of oneself (extra se ponitur).38 Luther begins to employ the phrase while expounding Romans 1:1, continuing to lay out its meaning in many later passages of Lecture on Romans. He claims that one must destroy everything that is “in us” in order to nurture things that are “outside of ourselves and in Christ” (extra nos et in Christo).39

According to Luther, God does not want to save us by means of our own proper or domestic (propriam, domesticam) righteousness. Instead, God employs external (extraneam, externam) and alien (alienam) righteousness to educate us. This can only work if people are stripped of their own righteousness. Christ wants us to renounce even our own affections.40 A true Christian should renounce everything so that he has nothing that is his own (nihil proprium habere).41 No human virtue counts before God (coram Deo). People want to achieve something before God, but one should only look for the “naked mercy of God” that reckons people as righteous.42

To see the theological meaning of extra nos clearly, one needs to understand the event of renunciation. Luther is here extremely allergic to everything that humans regard as “their own.” The expression “domestic righteousness” is close to the economy of a household in which property relations and social hierarchies define the person. While some mystical background may be assumed in the early chapters of the Lecture on Romans43, Luther does not aim to practice mystical theology. He is primarily interested in deconstructing the natural and ordinary semantics of “mine” or “my own.” Before God, the human person should be “outside of himself” or “external to himself” in the sense that he claims no natural powers, properties, or contributions.

In the Lecture on Romans, Luther very strongly connects extra nos and related phrases with the overall renunciation of first-person involvement. Divine reckoning is not “in us” or “in our powers.” Similarly, our righteousness is not ours in the sense of being in us or produced by us. Your salvation is “external to yourself” (extra te), and my help is from God and not from myself (non ex me). Here Luther also employs the concept of relation.44 While the church is empty, poor, and “naked” in itself, it has divine righteousness outside of itself (extra se). Therefore, the church says to Christ in Song of Songs (1:3) “Drag me behind you.”45 Human beings need to step outside of themselves and seek God’s help outside of themselves (extra se).46

Luther emphasizes that the true goodness and righteousness is hidden under its opposite like treasure is hidden in dirty soil. God does not regard any human properties as good. When Christ says that the kingdom is within you and everything external to you is waste, he means the new perspective that is only available through faith.47 In this sense, faith brings the passive attachment to oneself after renunciation. Generally speaking, however, the phrase extra nos/me/se highlights the renunciation of our first and natural appropriation to ourselves and our own powers.

This result concurs in many ways with the points made by Ebeling and zur Mühlen about relational thinking. It also indicates the theology of humiliation and the criticism of our own righteousness, which are central tenets of young Luther’s theology. The renunciation of first-person involvement is a theme that scholars have noted but not emphasized. This renunciation lies at the core of Luther’s relational terminology and we need to pay closer attention to it. One could think of it as a mystical topic, highlighting the dissolution of one’s own ego in the style of Meister Eckhart.48 Mysticism is not, however, the main message of young Luther’s theology, although he adheres to some mystical terminology. The idea of the believer’s passive attachment in faith does not consist in a dissolution of the ego but rather in the discovery of genuine theological subjectivity that is attributed to the person from outside. We should look beyond mysticism to find the intellectual roots of Luther’s theology of renunciation.

At times, Luther’s hostility to all expressions denoting ownership or appropriation reaches extraordinary dimensions. For instance, he argues against Erasmus that the expressions “your wages” and “your fruits” in the gospel (Matt. 5:12, 7:20) do not really mean that these wages and fruits belong to persons in the ordinary sense. He claims that one can obtain wages without earning them; thus, the idea of merit cannot prove free will.49 While the fruits mean good works in Matthew 7:20, such works cannot be called “ours” in the sense of our action or contribution. Rather, they are “ours” in the sense of attribution: we do not own them as ourselves but receive them from others (non fecimus quidem nos, recepimus vero ab aliis), that is, from God as the gift of the Spirit.50 Here we see how the relational extra nos produces not only renunciation but also passive attachment in terms of receptive attribution.

Luther underlines this point with the examples of eyes, hand, and feet. We call these body parts “ours,” though we have not made or produced them. We have received them as gifts and they are “ours” only in the sense of attribution. In the same sense, “our fruits” and “our wages” are attributed to us in the gospel, although they are not our doing.51 Grammatically, this is an odd way to employ possessive pronouns, and it is no wonder that Erasmus does not find this convincing. Luther here also wants to say that the language of the Bible does not comply with natural reason. In terms of relational thinking, however, this passage in De servo arbitrio highlights the ideas of renunciation, extra se, and passive attachment in a paradigmatic manner. The way of relational thinking proceeds from an illusory active contribution through consistent renunciation to a genuine passive attribution. Theologically, “our” properties are ours only in the sense of attribution.

The phrase coram Deo is also often employed in Luther’s debates on free decision of the will. He can say that free decision belongs to God only.52 Human free decision is nothing before God (coram Deo).53 In order to be humble before God (coram Deo), one needs to believe that salvation takes place entirely outside of human powers (extra suas vires).54 As the salvation takes place outside of our thoughts and powers (extra vires et consilia nostra), it only depends on God. As carnal persons we are responsible for our sinful works, but in salvation “our” action takes place outside of our powers.55 In the debate against Erasmus, extra nos is transformed into the language of human powers.56

In Luther’s late Disputatio de homine, the phrase coram Deo is employed in a key sentence indicating the complete transformation of humanity in justification. Theologically, human beings are something that is justified by faith. Before God (coram Deo) this means that humans are sinful and in need of grace. Theologically, human beings in this life are mere matter that will be shaped by God toward future life.57 While a person has certain powers and even dominion in the earthly affairs of this life,58 in theological perspective he remains a recipient of God’s work. Theologically, the attachment of a person to the ends of future life thus remains merely passive.

When Wilfrid Joest speaks of the ex-centric existence of human being in Luther’s theology,59 he is clearly right in many ways. In Luther’s relational thinking, the person needs to renounce everything that is his “own doing” or even “own property” and let himself become a recipient of goods that are, strictly speaking, external to himself. Luther’s use of first-person perspective is very distinctive in that he renounces all natural attachment as well as authorship or subjectivity. He wants to replace them with another kind of theological subjectivity in which a person has only a passive attachment, an attribution rather than contribution to things, properties, and actions that are called “his.” While this basic figure of relationality is distinctive and original, we also need to ask how it relates to broader currents of Western philosophy and theology.

The Historical Context

Luther scholars have often paid attention to the peculiar view of subjectivity that is available in Luther’s view of salvation by grace alone. The Reformer has been shown to be extremely interested in the correct use of personal pronouns, especially of first-person involvement. Scholars like Karl Holl and Lennart Pinomaa have therefore connected Luther with the traditions of modern subjectivity and subjectivism, in particular with Sören Kierkegaard.60 This tradition has also exercised some influence on the existential Luther interpretation of young Gerhard Ebeling. While many scholars have found this tradition good and helpful, others, in particular the conservative Catholic Luther scholar Paul Hacker, have seen Luther as a forerunner of Descartes and later problematic individualism and subjectivism. Given that Hacker’s views have been shared by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, the debate on Luther’s allegedly Kierkegaardian or Cartesian subjectivism is ongoing.61

Nonetheless, little attention will be paid here to this debate. It has already been argued that the figures of renunciation and passive attachment are central to Luther’s relational view of theological subjectivity. These figures are by no means Cartesian and they are in many respects different from Kierkegaard and late modernity. Second, while the line from Luther to Pietism and modernity can be drawn with necessary care, such a line does not really explain the core content of the figures of renunciation and passive attachment. These figures of Luther have some affinities to medieval mysticism as well as to later individualist modernity, but they are not properly elucidated by either of these traditions.

The attempt to situate Luther’s relational thinking into some classical views of the self and the human properties that constitute one’s identity as a person assumes that some conceptions of ownership have always existed in Western thought and that “subjectivity” is not merely an innovation of Descartes and early modern philosophy. This assumption can be adequately defended with references to current scholarship in the history of philosophy.62 In addition, the idea of personal appropriation was not first put forward by the Pietism and Sören Kierkegaard but belongs to the larger historical context of the self and human ownership.

Still another assumption concerns the need to be aware of the very general linguistic facts that guide the use of personal and possessive pronouns in theological texts. Pronouns can act as placeholders for a number of things and they are so frequently used that one cannot pinpoint any one narrow tradition as their ideological background. When Luther employs expressions like “for us,” “in me,” “your wages,” or “before God,” he often alludes to Pauline and other biblical phrases. To what extent we need to assume other, more nuanced traditions behind Luther’s theological use of pronouns and relations remains a matter of debate.

In the previous discussion, Luther’s relational thinking consists of three moments that are clearly based on the Bible but are also influenced by other traditions. First, he claims that natural and carnal human beings look to their properties and action as something that is their own contribution. Second, he proclaims a consistent renunciation in which humans need to stop considering their properties and action as their own possession. Third, he maintains that the Christian faith assumes an existence that is grounded outside of oneself, in Christ and before God. Even when Christ is said to be “in us” or when Jesus speaks of “your wages,” we are not supposed to understand this in terms of possession but as something that is a gift and has its being from outside of us. These three moments are cumulative, so that the second assumes the first and the third assumes the first and the second. The core of Luther’s relational thinking is found in the third moment. What kind of intellectual and spiritual traditions do these three moments represent?

In answering this question, it is easiest to begin with the second moment, that of renunciation. This feature is very characteristic of Latin monastic tradition. In it, the monk is not merely supposed to give up his material property, he also needs to renounce other things that are “proper” to his person, such as his will and habits. The Latin proprium can in this context mean both material property and personal habits and characteristics. Both are regarded as something belonging to the person, and the monk is supposed to renounce all personal properties of this kind.63 The monastic background of such renunciation is often documented in Luther studies.64

When medieval monks entered the monastery, they were supposed to give up their monetary properties as well as renounce their own will and private sphere as a whole. The Latin terms for property (proprium, proprietas) also covered mental and psychological properties. In monastic Latin, proprium habere was potentially or even actually sinful. Monastic obedience demanded that one live without all one’s own properties (sine proprio).65 When Luther insists on renouncing everything that is one’s own, he is continuing this monastic tradition.

Why is this renunciation necessary in the first place and what purpose does it serve? Obviously, it assumes that the natural state of humanity is problematic and thus needs to be renounced. While Aristotelian scholasticism was Luther’s immediate opponent, the discussion on human condition is a much older issue than late medieval scholasticism, and its medieval monastic background needs to be explained in fairly general terms. Cicero’s moderate Stoicism provides a helpful illustration of this first moment, as Cicero was known through the entire medieval period and his views were part of general cultural learning.

In De finibus (3, 16–21), Cicero presents the influential Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis, that is, self-attachment and social orientation.66 He argues against Epicureans who consider that lust and pain are the first attachment (prima commendatio, fin 2, 35) of living beings. With the Stoics, Cicero claims that self-preservation and self-attachment exist prior to any feelings and desires. Living beings must first become attached to themselves in terms of self-preserving self-love (fin 3, 16). For this reason, we first love our own body parts and prefer to have them healthy over all desire of external objects (fin 3, 18). The first attachment of humans is therefore oriented to what we have from nature (fin 3, 20-21).

For Cicero, this first natural attachment of self-preservation is followed by attachments to all kinds of natural things (ut ea teneat quae secundum naturam sint, fin 3, 20). We desire things because we have already, as first natural attachment, developed a self that wants them. Given this Ciceronian doctrine, it is understandable that the primary battle of the monks is not against lust or bad desires. Rather, they should fight the initial, natural self-love that constitutes their natural humanity and their subsequent striving after other properties. Obviously, the monks also wrestle against concupiscence and other harmful desires, but the root of their personal identity and “having properties” (proprium habere) is found not in the desires—which were Epicurean—but in the initial self-attachment.

Cicero’s moral advice does not end with this first and natural attachment. He considers that a grown-up rational person should also choose things with a view to responsibilities or duties (officia). Such responsibilities can bypass our immediate self-preservation, as they look rationally at the worth and power of their objects. While the duties appear later in the personal life-course than the need for self-preservation, a mature person sees that they are sometimes of greater worth. (fin 3, 20-21). In this manner, responsible adults are not steered by mere self-interest, but they can sometimes prefer the greater good of justice and morals to their own immediate interest. Such considerations are nevertheless natural and rational, as they witness the natural power of reason.67

Monastic theology of renunciation claims that natural love and rational responsibility are not everything. Christians need to seek their fulfillment beyond this natural sphere. At the same time, this monastic striving for improvement also follows the Ciceronian path of duty to an extent. The monk should not merely think of his own properties in a childish manner, but he should turn his choice and attachment to the more worthy objects of maturity. As the eternal objects of Christianity are higher than any natural goods and rational duties, they are preferred over all personal properties and desires.

Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were familiar with the basic ideas of oikeiosis. Thomas’s idea of natural inclinations that constitute the first principles of willing is an adaptation of Cicero’s doctrine.68 When Luther strives toward renouncing “himself” and everything that is “one’s own contribution,” he is critical of this Ciceronian tradition. While the Aristotelian idea of acquired property (habitus) also plays a role in this context,69 Luther’s critical evaluation of human natural capacities follows and radicalizes a theological tradition that is much longer than Latin Aristotelianism. In this manner, his renunciation of everything that is “one’s own property” is a detachment from that Stoic natural subjectivity that is normally labeled as oikeiosis.

Luther is not content with the monastic renunciation of one’s own properties. He employs mystical terminology without, however, aiming at dissolving the human subject in the manner of Meister Eckhart. Instead, Luther thinks that there is a new path of constituting the Christian person as something that is “external to oneself.” While this third moment differs from medieval mysticism, it can also be interpreted as a certain “intensification” of its aims.70 Proceeding on this path, the Christian no longer considers his hands, his feet, his choices, his actions as his own contribution. They are rather something that is attributed to him, a passive attachment.

While the Ciceronian idea of attachment concerns natural and active self-love, Luther’s relational passive attachment concerns the state of being justified by faith so that the person becomes constituted by something external to himself. Luther’s theological view is very different from that of Cicero, but it is nevertheless illuminating to compare these two thinkers with one another, as they both aim to constitute a premodern version of identity or subjectivity.71 Luther’s use of the Ciceronian term commendatio may even indicate some historical link between the two.72 More important than the existence of such a link is, however, that the broad intellectual context of Luther’s three moments of relationality can be seen in the Ciceronian and monastic views of self-love and its renunciation.

Conclusion and Some Extensions

In recent Luther studies, the phrases relationality and relational ontology typically refer to Luther’s theological view of justification by faith and the human condition as a person’s being “external to oneself.” Luther considers that a Christian needs to constitute his identity “outside of himself” (extra se). This is because justification and our spiritual existence are based on an external grounding, not on our own contribution. In terms of such relationality, Christians are heteronomous beings. Their actions, desires, and even bodily properties are attributed to them from outside as gifts. This relationality is strongly present in Luther’s texts.

It may be misleading to call this view “ontology,” as it is not concerned with relations in general. In the shape given by Ebeling and Joest, the view focuses on the self-relationship of Christians. While this view does not spell out any full-fledged ontology, it can be connected with different kinds of ontological frameworks. One complex set of problems concerns the new being of a Christian after he has grounded his existence outside of himself. Does the new righteousness of Christ also begin to permeate his being or does it remain an eschatological horizon available in hope only?73

While the large issue of sanctification cannot be discussed here, it can be argued that both alternatives can be called relational. A purely forensic view of justification obviously preserves externality and relationality. An effective view of justification and sanctification can also be relational if the new being of Christian is considered to take place as attribution and gift rather than resulting from contributions and free human choice. As an attributed gift, Christ can be present intra me so that my being, as grounded on Christ, is external to my natural self.74

Sometimes the interpreters of Luther have extended the issue of relationality to cover all kinds of themes that assume a communicative interplay of different parties. Such extension can often highlight adequately the biblical background of an idea that is narrative rather than philosophical. For instance, Eberhard Jüngel points out that Luther’s view of justification is indebted to the Old Testament idea of God’s righteousness, which manifests God’s faithfulness to the communion with humankind. In this relational communion or covenant, humans receive God’s act of acknowledgement and live by it. In this relational manner, “righteousness in human beings is the fact of our being acknowledged by God.”75 Such interpretation can elucidate Luther’s theology adequately and helpfully. At the same time, the extended interpretations of relationality may lose something of the sharpness and profile that is characteristic of Ebeling’s and Joest’s claims.

It may be possible that the era of the Renaissance and the Reformation developed a more consistent relational ontology. New scholarship on Lorenzo Valla argues that the Humanist critics of Aristotle wanted to reduce the number of categories, focusing on qualities and relations instead of substances and accidences.76 Such findings may support Gerhard Ebeling’s claims of Luther’s relational thinking and shed new light on the Reformer’s theological criticism of scholastic positions. Luther does not, however, develop any full-fledged relational account of reality. He employs strongly relational arguments to elucidate his message on justification by faith alone and the human condition in this constitutive event.

Review of New Literature

Since the 1970s, the idea of Luther’s relational thinking has permeated different types of Luther interpretation. Among Ebeling’s followers, Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen connects Luther’s “ex-centric” notion of person with medieval mystical traditions. Albrecht Peters takes over Joest’s anthropological division, emphasizing the relational features of createdness. Sibylle Rolf argues that in more recent German Luther research most scholars agree that the Reformer’s thought is deeply relational.77

Recent studies tend to emphasize the ontological and spiritual roots of Luther’s relational thinking. Ebeling himself speaks of “relational ontology” in his late works.78 At the same time, relational thinking remains connected to Protestant and non-sacramental theological features. In the collected volume Relationen, David Steinmetz emphasizes that Protestant pastors interpret mysteries rather than celebrate them. Likewise, the Reformers move from eucharist-centered to word-centered practices of worship; they further prefer rhetoric to dialectics in their theological work.79 In this manner, the non-sacramental and word-centered features of Protestant theology continue to appear in the context of allegedly relational thinking.

Finnish Luther scholars have often criticized the relational concept of Ebeling and Joest. According to the Finns, an existential and relational emphasis tends to neglect the sacramental character of Luther’s theology. If our union with Christ becomes interpreted as a relationship in which Christ remains merely “external to us,” the sacramental side of Luther’s theology of salvation becomes modernized in an unhistorical manner.80 This criticism, while valid in large part, is insufficient to prove that the discovery of Luther’s relational thinking would be simply illusory. Berndt Hamm’s new studies on monasticism and mysticism are taken into account here,81 but the concept of passive attachment and the comparison with Cicero and oikeiosis are, unique interpretations.

The existential theology of the 1950s enabled scholars like Ebeling and Joest to pay attention to some important features of Luther’s theology that may be summarized with the technical expression “relational thinking.” While we no longer share the ontological and sacramental reductionism present in some older existential theology, the textual evidence presented by the leading scholars of that generation shows convincingly that Luther makes ample use of relational thinking in his theology. David H. Kelsey’s concept of “eccentric existence” shows the broader relevance of this figure for a theology inspired by Calvin and Barth.82

Further Reading

Braaten, Carl, and Robert Jenson, eds. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.Find this resource:

Ebeling, Gerhard. Lutherstudien. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1971.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. “Martin Luther’s Revolutionary Theology of Pure Gift without Reciprocation.” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (2015): 125–161.Find this resource:

Helmer, Christine. The Trinity and Martin Luther. Mainz, Germany: Zabern, 1999.Find this resource:

Joest, Wilfried. Ontologie der person bei Luther. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967.Find this resource:

Jüngel, Eberhard. Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith. London: T&T Clark, 2006.Find this resource:

zur Mühlen, Karl-Heinz. Nos extra nos: Luthers Theologie zwischen Mystik und Scholastic. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1972.Find this resource:

zur Mühlen, Karl-Heinz, Athina Lexutt, and Wolfgang Matz, eds. Relationen: Studien zum Übergang vom Spätmittelalter zur Reformation. Münster, Germany: LIT, 2000.Find this resource:

Nauta, Lodi. In Defense of Common Sense: Lorenzo Valla’s Humanist Critique of Scholastic Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Rolf, Sibylle. Zum Herzen sprechen: Eine Studie zum imputativen Aspekt in Martin Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre und zu seinen Konsequenzen für die Predigt des Evangeliums. Leipzig: Ev. Verlag, 2008.Find this resource:

Saarinen, Risto. Recognition and Religion: A Historical and Systematic Study. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Vinzent, Markus. The Art of Detachment. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2011.Find this resource:


(1.) Gerhard Ebeling, Lutherstudien (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1971), 24 (orig. 1951).

(2.) Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 156–157 (orig. 1953).

(3.) Ebeling, Lutherstudien, 24.

(4.) Lennart Pinomaa, Der existentielle Charakter der Theologie Luthers (Helsinki: AASF, 1941).

(5.) Otto Hermann Pesch, Theologie der Rechtfertigung bei Martin Luther und Thomas von Aquin (Mainz, Germany: Grünewald, 1967).

(6.) See e.g., Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther im Spiegel der deutschen Geistesgeschichte (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1970), 95–96.

(7.) Bornkamm, Spiegel, 118–119. Wilfried Joest, Ontologie der Person bei Luther (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 32 gives references to Gogarten.

(8.) Joest, Ontologie, 233–353. This meaning of “eccentric” has recently found its way to English-speaking theology. Cf. David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

(9.) Joest, Ontologie, 237.

(10.) Joest, Ontologie, 370–382.

(11.) Joest, Ontologie, 380–382.

(12.) WA 3:413, 21; 3:378, 6; LW 10:317; and WA 4:305, 24; LW 11:415.

(13.) WA 3:248, 33; LW 10:206; and WA 4:75, 25; LW 11:224.

(14.) WA 4:319, 34; LW 11:434.

(15.) WA 4:317, 26–39; LW 11:431.

(16.) WA 4:319, 26–320, 1; LW 11:434.

(17.) WA 4:320, 1–10; LW 11:434–435.

(18.) WA 4:318, 1–6; LW 11:431–432.

(19.) WA 10/I.1:661, 2.

(20.) Grammar: WA 5:121, 12; 316, 38; 446, 31; 473, 12. Trinity: WA 5:185, 28. Story: WA 5:211, 23.

(21.) WA 56:269, 14; LW 25:257; and WA 56:220, 5; LW 25:205.

(22.) WA 56:187, 1; LW 25:168; and WA 56:455, 22; LW 25:448.

(23.) WA 56:45, 15; LW 25:39; and WA 42:451, 38; LW 2:266.

(24.) WA 56:268, 26–269, 19; LW 25:257–258.

(25.) WA 56:269, 8; LW 25:257.

(26.) WA 56:269, 13; LW 25:257.

(27.) WA 56:269, 16–19; LW 25:257–258.

(28.) See e.g., Bo Holm, Gabe und Geben bei Luther (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006) and Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).

(29.) WA 9:16–23 on Augustine, De trinitate. Relations are mentioned on pp. 19, 4–34. See also the new edition: AWA 7:581–585 (On De trin. Book 5).

(30.) Theses 11–19 in WA 39/II:339, 26–340, 18.

(31.) See Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther (Mainz, Germany: Zabern, 1999); and Simo Knuuttila and Risto Saarinen, “Luther’s Trinitarian Theology and Its Medieval Background,” Studia Theologica 53 (1999): 3–12.

(32.) Theses 23–25 in WA 39/II:288, 15–20.

(33.) Cf. Pekka Kärkkäinen, ed., Trinitarian Theology in the Medieval West (Helsinki: SLAG, 2007).

(34.) WA 39/II:291, 23.

(35.) WA 39/II:292, 16; 295, 13–21.

(36.) Ebeling, Gegensätzen, 463–475.

(37.) Ebeling, Gegensätzen, 462–463.

(38.) Karl-Heinz zur Mühlen, Nos extra nos. Luthers Theologie zwischen Mystik und Scholastik (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1972), 58; Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II/1 q28 a3.

(39.) WA 56:158, 9; LW 25:136.

(40.) WA 56:158, 10–14, 22–23; LW 25:136–137.

(41.) WA 56:159, 4–6; LW 25:137.

(42.) WA 56:159, 10–24; LW 25:137–138; and zur Mühlen, Nos, 93–94.

(43.) Zur Mühlen, Nos, 95–97, referring to Tauler.

(44.) WA 56:269, 2–8; LW 25:257.

(45.) WA 56:279, 27–32; LW 25:267.

(46.) WA 56:305, 28; LW 25:292.

(47.) WA 56:393, 1–20; LW 25:383.

(48.) For Eckhart’s ideas of being “beyond oneself,” see Markus Vinzent, The Art of Detachment (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2011).

(49.) WA 18:695, 37–40; LW 33:155.

(50.) WA 18:696, 20–25; LW 33:156.

(51.) WA 18:696, 25–34; LW 33:156.

(52.) WA 18:636, 28; LW 33:68.

(53.) WA 18:728, 30–31; LW 33:205.

(54.) WA 18:632, 30–36; LW 33:62.

(55.) WA 18:634, 14–25; LW 33:64.

(56.) Cf. zur Mühlen, Nos, 210–216.

(57.) Theses 32–35 in WA 39/I:176, 33–177, 4; LW 34:139.

(58.) Theses 4–8 in WA 39/I:175, 9–19; LW 34:137.

(59.) Joest, Ontologie, see above.

(60.) Pinomaa, Character; cf. Bornkamm, Spiegel, 96, 114–115.

(61.) See Paul Hacker, Das ich im Glauben bei Martin Luther (Graz, Austria: Styria, 1966), Benedict XVI, Encyclical Spe salvi (2007), §8.

(62.) Cf. Richard Sorabji, Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Stoizismus in der europäischen Philosophie, Literatur, Kunst und Politik, eds. B. Neymeyr, J. Schmidt, and B. Zimmermann (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2008).

(63.) For useful introduction to this, see H.–J. Fuchs, “Desappropriatio,” Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie 2 (1972): 116–118 and Fuchs, “Eigenschaft,” Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie 2 (1972): 334–337.

(64.) See e.g., C. Bultmann, A. Lindner, and V. Leppin, eds., Luther und das monastische Erbe (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007).

(65.) Fuchs, “Eigenschaft.”

(66.) For this doctrine, see Maximilian Forschner, “Oikeiosis: Die stoische Theorie der Selbstaneignung,” Stoizismus, 169–191 and C. Horn, “Zueignung (Oikeiosis),” Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie 12 (2004): 1403–1408.

(67.) See also Forschner, “Oikeiosis,” 178–179.

(68.) See Horn, “Zueignung.”

(69.) For the Aristotelian figures, see Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2001).

(70.) See Hamm, Early Luther, 228–232.

(71.) Forschner, “Oikeiosis,” 169–170, considers that the Stoic theory corresponds to the modern notion of personal identity.

(72.) Risto Saarinen, Recognition and Religion: A Historical and Systematic Study (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(73.) For this, see e.g., Mark Mattes, “Justification by Faith,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther, eds. L. Batka, I. Dingel, and R. Kolb (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 264–273.

(74.) See also my remarks on the relationship between God’s favor and gift in Risto Saarinen, “Justification by Faith: The View of the Mannermaa School,” The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther, 254–263.

(75.) Eberhard Jüngel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 62.

(76.) See Lodi Nauta, In Defense of Common Sense: Lorenzo Valla’s Humanist Critique of Scholastic Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

(77.) zur Mühlen, Nos; Albrecht Peters, Der Mensch (Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1979), 54–56; and Sibylle Rolf, Zum Herzen sprechen: Eine Studie zum imputativen Aspekt in Martin Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre und zu seinen Konsequenzen für die Predigt des Evangeliums (Leipzig: Ev. Verlag, 2008), 81–82.

(78.) Gerhard Ebeling, Dogmatik des christlichen Glaubens (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1979), 1: 219–224; and Ebeling, Theologie in den Gegensätzen des Lebens (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1995), 460–475.

(79.) David Steinmetz, “The Intellectual World of the Sixteenth Century” in Relationen: Studien zum Übergang vom Spätmittelalter zur Reformation, eds. A. Lexutt and W. Matz (Münster, Germany: LIT, 2000), 19–29, here: 27–29.

(80.) See Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, eds. C. Braaten and R. Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) and Engaging Luther, ed. O. P. Vainio (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010).

(81.) Hamm, The Early Luther, and Berndt Hamm, “Martin Luther’s Revolutionary Theology of Pure Gift without Reciprocation,” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (2015): 125–161.

(82.) Kelsey, Eccentric Existence.