Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Alien Righteousness of Christ

“By late 1514 Luther had arrived at the fundamental insight that the proper disposition for justification is humility” – Alister McGrath, Alister E. McGrath, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990, pg 153.

Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” is not a specialized or “side” theology. It is comprehensive attitude out of which arrives his way of understanding what God is doing in the world. It is the Biblical way of understanding God. (“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord…. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”)

In the decades immediately prior to what became known as “Luther’s breakthrough”, late medieval theology had arrived at the understanding that “the basic condition which man was required to meet in order to be justified was by doing quod in se est” (“doing their best”). “The righteousness of God was understood to refer to the equity within the context of the covenant that God made with man ‘which defines God’s manner of dealing with humanity’”.

McGrath’s work is an effort both to provide an overview of the “backgrounds” of medieval theology, and an effort to understand Luther’s thought at various times, based on his various lecture notes and publications. It is an effort to understand “what he knew and when he knew it”. That’s a complicated effort, but my understanding is that McGrath’s scholarship over the years, on this topic, is both thorough and precise.

The hallmark of “Luther’s breakthrough” is his understanding of the phrase “the righteousness of God”. That phrase had a certain, well-defined meaning during the middle ages, and according to McGrath, Luther had a very secure understanding of it:
It is this understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ which is represented by Martin Luther in the earlier part of his “Lectures on the Psalms (1513-15), as may be judged from his [marginal comment] on Psalm 9:9):
“Righteousness (iustitia) [“the righteousness of God”] is thus said to be rendering to each what is due to them. Yet equity is prior to righteousness, and is its prerequisite. Equity identifies merit, righteousness renders rewards. Thus the Lord judges the world ‘in equity’ (that is, wishing all to be saved), and judges ‘in righteousness’ (because God renders to each their reward).”
Luther here reproduces key aspects of [a late medieval] understanding of iustitia Dei (“the righteousness of God”): iustitia is understood to be based upon divine equity, which looks solely to the merits of humans in determining their reward within the framework established by the covenant. The doctors of the church rightly teach that, when people do their best (quod in se est), God infallibly gives grace (Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Third edition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, ©2005, pg 88).
This late medieval teaching on justification (especially Gabriel Biel and the via moderna school of theology) was genuinely a Pelagian teaching that was widely accepted within the Church of the day. No, Trent did not define it this way either, but there was no definition at all, and such teaching was rampant within the Church of that day.
Luther’s theological breakthrough is intimately connected with his discovery of a new meaning of ‘the righteousness of God’, and it is important to appreciate that his earlier works are characterized by the teaching of the via moderna upon this matter. Luther’s later view that anyone attempting to do quod in se est sinned mortally remains notionally within this framework, while ultimately subverting its theological plausibility.
McGrath goes on to say, “the covenant-theology of the via moderna is based upon the presupposition that man is capable of doing quod in se est without the special assistance of grace.”
The origins of Luther’s concept of the ‘alien righteousness of Christ’ must be considered to lie in his holistic understanding of man. In particular, Luther argues that ‘flesh’ (caro) and ‘spirit’ (spiritus) are not to be regarded as man’s lower and higher faculties respectively, but rather as descriptions of the whole person considered under different aspects. Thus caro is not man’s lower nature, but the entire man (totus homo), considered as turned in upon itself (homo incurvatus in se) in its irrepressible egoism and its radical alienation from God. Similarly, spiritus is to be understood as referring to the entire man in his openness to God and the divine promises. For Luther, justification relates to the entire person, both flesh and spirit: although the individual comes to put his trust in the promises of God, he nevertheless remains a sinner. Thus the totus homo is iustus et peccator simul – a sinner inwardly, and yet righteous in the sight of God….The believer is righteous coram Deo [before God], even though this righteousness cannot be detected empirically: indeed, those whose righteousness can be detected empirically are righteous coram homnibus [before man] and yet unrighteousness coram Deo – the hypocrites. The Christian is a sinner in re, and yet righteous in spe: his righteousness is hidden, known only to God.

As the totus homo cannot be partially righteous coram Deo, his righteousness must be alien and extrinsic to him – it is a righteousness which is in no sense part of his person, or which can in any way be said to belong to him. It is this consideration which appears to underlie the concept of iustia Christi aliena…. Extrinsically, the believer is righteous, through the alien righteousness of Christ; intrinsically, he is – and will remain – a sinner. This concept of justifying righteousness is, of course, totally different from that of St. Augustine, as Luther himself fully appreciates. This element of Luther’s thought would be developed by Melanchthon into a doctrine of forensic justification, which would become normative for Protestant understandings of justification.
Thus, McGrath concludes this chapter on “The Righteousness of God”, “Luther’s insight into the true nature of the ‘righteousness of God’ represents far more than a mere terminological clarification: latent within it is a new concept of God. Who is this God who deals thus with man? Luther’s answer to this question, as it developed over the years 1513-1519, can be summarized in one of his most daring phrases: the God who deals with sinful man in this astonishing way is none other than the ‘crudified and hidden God’ (Deus crucifixus et absconditus) – the God of the theologia crucis. How Luther developed his fundamental insight into the true nature of his ‘righteousness of God’ into the theologia crucis, with all that this entails, is the subject of the following chapter (pg 147).

For anyone interested in the development of Luther’s thought, especially regarding Justification and “the alien righteousness of Christ”, Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary, California, has produced an article, Iustitia Imputata Christi, which goes into quite a bit of detail.

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