I’m continuing to talk about Martin Luther’s “discovery” of “justification” and “the Theology of the Cross,” both of which emerged in his thinking at the same time, and which were inextricably related to each other. As McGrath (“Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990) pointed out:
There are two aspects to Luther’s discovery of ‘the righteousness of God’. The first relates to the nature of this righteousness: Luther discovered a ‘wonderful new definition of righteousness’ which stood in diametrical opposition to human understandings of iustitia. The second relates to the mode by which this righteousness comes to the individual: man cannot perform good works which are capable of earning justification on a quid pro quo basis, but he can totally abase himself, and cry out to God for grace.McGrath considered “the second aspect of the matter,” “mode”, first. And at these two links I talked shared that discussion:
The Righteousness of God
God’s wrath is his penultimate and not his final word
Beginning his discussion now of the “nature” of this “righteousness of God”, McGrath says:
It will be clear that Luther’s early insistence upon the necessity of destroying human preconceptions of iustitia through the opus alienum Dei leads us on to consider the nature of the ‘righteousness of God’. In the opening of the scholia [commentary] of his lectures on Romans, Luther states his conviction that the letter represents a programmatic assault upon human preconceptions of wisdom and righteousness.Remember that it was not so clear-cut at all for young Martin Luther. Consider the world in which he grew up , and what “human preconceptions of wisdom and righteousness” were like:
The Church was still reeling from “the great schism,” when there were two, and even three competing popes were anathematizing each other and their followers, for a period that lasted some 78 years. This council ended the schism and in the year 1417 a single pope was elected, but that doesn't mean, by any stretch, that things had righted themselves.In 1492, the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, Alexander VI, widely regarded as the most wicked pope who ever lived, was elected:
The ensuing conclave saw Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia elected as Alexander VI (1492-1503), although he was the only non-Italian in an electorate of twenty-three cardinals, of whom eight were nephews of former popes. (Roger Collins, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, New York, NY: Basic Books 2009, pg 339).Alexander had bribed his way into the papacy:
Thirty five years as cardinal had provided him with much wealth, numerous offices and several palaces, all of which were offered to fellow members of the college in return for their votes in the conclave (ibid).And while pope, he maintained the same dissolute lifestyle that he had always exhibited. According to Collins, “he continued to live openly with his mistresses and in producing nine illegitimate children during his years as cardinal and pope.”
This was the “infallible Church”, allowing this man to be first a “prince” then “Vicar of Christ”, for nearly the 50 years that he was cardinal and pope. And note that there were only 23 Cardinals at the time; he would not have been hard to notice. And this “papacy” was one of two “pillars” of the medieval Church”. The other was the system which had evolved of “how people became right with God”. Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his “The Reformation: A History” ©2003 quotes the English bishop Ridley, noting that “Satan’s old world of false religion stood on two ‘most massy posts and mighty pillars … these two, sir, they are in my judgment: the one his false doctrine and idolatrical use of the Lord’s supper; and the other, the wicked and abominable usurpation of the primacy of the see of Rome.’ … the whole system of the medieval western Church was built on the Mass and on the central role of the Pope” (pg 10).
Of “the Mass”, MacCulloch notes, “the particular power of the Mass in the medieval West comes from its association with another idea peculiar to the Western Church: This most powerful form of public liturgical prayer may be concentrated and directed to steer individuals through the perils of death to God’s bliss in the afterlife” (11).Indeed, the Mass was a tool that the clergy used to enable “the faithful” to shape their stay in “Purgatory”, that “middle state, in which those whom God loved would have a chance to perfect the hard slog towards holiness that they had begun so imperfectly in their brief earthly life”. In fact, it wasn’t until the 12th century that the name “Purgatory” was coined.
Further refining of the system added a ‘Limbus infantium’ for infants who had not been baptized but who had no actual sins to send them to hell, and a ‘limbus Patrum” for the Old Testament patriarchs who had the misfortune to die before the coming in flesh of Jesus Christ, but these two states of limbo were subordinate to what had become a threefold scheme of the afterlife. Such theological tidy-mindedness suggests that there is something to be said for the view that when the Latin-speaking Roman Empire collapsed in the West in the fifth century, its civil servants promptly transferred to the payroll of the Western [“Roman Catholic”] Church.(11-12).This is the world in which Martin Luther grew up. “Masses” being said for deceased loved ones whom “the Church” said were in Purgatory (and for which “the Pope” had special oversight) eventually led to payments for “indulgences” which Luther also found to be so revolting, and paid for the great St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther not only found that economy to be distasteful, but he also questioned the received wisdom of how one becomes “right with God”. And as a great teacher of the Scriptures, he wrestled with them:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)In his commentary on Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, ©2007), Robert Jewett notes “That this passage contains the theme or thesis of Romans is almost universally accepted among commentators” (155).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 NIV)
Luther wrote, in an autobiographical preface to a 1545 edition of his “Collected Works”, outlined how he wrestled with this central verse, this central theme, “the righteousness of God”:
…I had returned to interpreting the Psalter again, confident that I was better equipped after I had expounded in the schools the letters of St. Paul to the Romans and the Galatians, and the letter to the Hebrews. I had certainly been overcome with a great desire to understand St Paul in his letter to the Romans, but what had hindered me thus far was not any ‘coldness of the blood’ so much as that one phrase in the first chapter: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it.’ For I had hated that phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ which, according to the use and custom of all the doctors, I had been taught to understand philosophically, in the sense of the formal or active righteousness (as they termed it), by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners.Douglas Moo, in his NICNT commentary on “The Epistle to the Romans” (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), writes, “For Paul, as in the OT, “righteousness of God” is a relational concept. Bringing together the aspects of activity and status, we can define it as the act by which God brings people into right relationship with himself. With Luther we stress that what is meant is a status before God and not internal moral transformation – God’s activity of “making right” is a purely forensic activity, and acquitting, and not an “infusing” of righteousness or a “making right” in a moral sense. To be sure, the person who experiences God’s righteousness does, necessarily, give evidence of that in the moral realm, as Paul makes clear in Rom. 6. But, while “sanctification” and “justification” are inseparable, they are distinct; and Paul is badly misread if they are confused or combined. To use the imagery of the law court, from which righteousness language is derived, we can picture God’s righteousness as the act or decision by which the judge declares innocent a defendant: an activity of the judge, but an activity that is a declaration of status – an act that results in, and indeed includes within it, a gift. In this sense, the noun “righteousness” in this phrase can be understood to be the substantival equivalent of the verb “justify”.
Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God; nor was I able to believe that I had pleased him with my satisfaction – I did not love – in fact, I hated – that righteous God who punished sinners, if not with silent blasphemy, then certainly with great murmuring. I was angry with God, saying, ‘As if it were not enough that miserable sinners should be eternally damned through original sin, with all kinds of misfortunes laid upon them by the Old Testament law, and yet God adds sorrow upon sorrow through the gospel, and even brings his wrath and righteousness to bear through it!’ Thus I drove myself mad, with a desperate disturbed conscience, persistently pounding upon Paul in this passage, thirsting most ardently to know what he meant.
At last, God being merciful, as I meditated day and night on the connection of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: the righteous shall live by faith’, I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous lives by the gift of God, namely by faith, and this sentence, ‘the righteousness of God is revealed’, to refer to a passive righteousness, by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous lives by faith’. This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself. From that moment, the whole face of scripture appeared to me in a different light. Afterwards, I ran through the scriptures, as from memory, and found the same analogy in other phrases such as the ‘work of God’ (that which God works within us), the ‘power of God’ (by which he makes us strong), the ‘wisdom of God’ (by which he makes us wise), the ‘strength of God’, the ‘salvation of God’, and the ‘glory of God’.
And now, where I had once hated the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’, so much I began to love and extol it as the sweetest of words, so that this passage in Paul became the very gate of paradise for me. Afterwards, I read Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, where I found that he too, beyond my expectation, interpreted ‘the righteousness of God’ in the same way – as that which God bestows upon us, when he justifies us. And although this is expressed somewhat imperfectly, and he does not explain everything about imputation clearly, it was nevertheless pleasing to find that he taught that ‘the righteousness of God’ is that, by which we are justified (Cited in McGrath, 95-97).
Next time, Lord willing, I’ll go on and pick up McGrath’s account of the “nature” of “the Righteousness of God” as it appears in his work.