“Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion” by Paul Hacker: A Review


Faith in Luther Book Cover

This book[1] is a re-publication of an older work by Paul Hacker originally published in 1970.  Hacker was in a unique position to write about Martin Luther.  A born-and-raised German Lutheran who spent an “intense immersion in and interrogation of Luther’s theology”[2], and coupled with an extensive study of the patristic theologians, Hacker left Lutheranism and entered the Roman Catholic Church.  He even became friends with Joseph Ratzinger and the two had “frequent intellectual exchanges.”[3]  (There’s a temptation to add the “fly-on-the-wall” cliché here but I’m certain their conversations would be far too over my head.)

Of this book, the subtitle alone is thought-provoking and Hacker immediately jumps into his topic on page one by quoting at length an American version of Martin Luther’s creed.  Here are just a few of the lines of that creed quoted in the book:

“I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them….that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all evil.”  “I believe that Jesus Christ…is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins….”  “The Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the faith.”  “He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life.”[4]

Hacker notes, “The most striking feature of its style is the preponderance of the pronouns of the first person singular (I, me) and the corresponding possessive adjective (my).”[5]

To be sure, the word “I” is necessary to a profession of faith.  After all, Creed comes from the Latin credo which means “I believe.”  But the content of the profession in the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds do not contain “me” but are rather focused on something else outside the self or as a plural—the Trinity, the Church, salvation for “us” men, or Jesus’ suffering for “our” sake.

This sets up an introductory analysis by the author that moves into the main point of the book.

“Luther’s exposition of the Creed teaches the believer to profess the faith and at the same time to look back at his own self.  This is not just a pastoral suggestion compensated elsewhere by other doctrinal statements.  Rather, Luther intends to present here an exercise in the sort of faith which he conceived to be justifying.  The reference to the ego is not a meditation beside the act of faith but a part, and the essential part, of the act itself.  Within the very act of faith, the ego bends back on itself.  This sort of faith may fittingly be called reflexive.”[6]

But this view of faith was new and not part of the Christian tradition.  Hacker goes on to explain why this reflexive faith is so wrong.

“Pure Christian faith is an act of obedient self-donation.  The believer surrenders himself to the transcendent God in the assent of adoration.  This makes him understand creation and the Church as parts of God’s saving dispensation and assigns to him his place and his shelter in the order of Providence.  Thus he can trust in God the Creator, the Redeemer and Sanctifier, and move spiritually away from himself in love for God.  The more his faith becomes mature through loving cooperation with God’s grace, the less is it possible for him to turn his attention back to himself within the act of faith.”[7]

From here, Hacker begins to present his case that egocentric faith is the root of Luther’s new conception of faith.  Throughout the book Hacker quotes Luther at length.  For example,

“There are statements in which Luther expressly says that it is man’s confidence that constitutes the acceptability or agreeableness of his person to God….Positively, he teaches: ‘If you find your heart confident that the work is agreeable to God then it is good.’  Negatively: If ‘the conscience does not dare to know for certain or be confident that this or that is agreeable to God then it is certain that it does not please him.’  ‘If you think God is wrathful then he is so.’  In summary: ‘As (your heart) feels so Christ is behaving.’  ‘As a man believes so he has.’[8]

“Luther urged time and again that the believer should ‘assert with certitude’ (certo statuere) that his person is agreeable to God.”[9]

“The Galatians’ commentary admonishes: ‘Everyone should accustom himself to assert with certitude that he is in a state of grace….If, however, he feel that he is doubting, he should practice faith and struggle against doubt and strive for certitude.”[10]

This sort of faith takes the objectiveness of Christianity and makes it subjective.  Salvation is based on one’s certitude and feelings.  But this also means doubt essentially becomes a sin!  Hacker notes, “If certitude of salvation, equated with faith, is the means to obtain, or is identical with, salvation, then incertitude must be coterminous with certitude of perdition.”[11]

Throughout the book, Hacker details how Luther’s obstinate clinging to his view of faith affected and warped his views of other doctrines (love, works, sacraments, charity, etc.) and how Luther forces the Bible to align with his view.

Hacker says,

“That the doctrine of reflexive faith is contrary to Scripture is shown by the strained nature of Luther’s arguments.”[12]

“Nowhere in Holy Scripture, neither in the Synoptics, nor in other writings of the New Testament, nor in the Old Testament, can any instance be found of a person obtaining remission of sin because of his firm belief in the sin being forgiven.”[13]

“That an assertive spirituality is alien to the New Testament, becomes clearer still if a passage is considered where it is really an individual who speaks of his salvation.  At Philippians 3:12f Paul says: ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect….I do not consider that I have made it my own.’  The King James Version translated thus: ‘I count not myself to have apprehended.’  This is quite the contrary to fides apprehensiva.  It is the attitude of humble incertitude which has at all times been the mark of devout Christians.”[14]

Is egocentric faith still around today?

It sure seems to be.  Just look around.

If Paul Hacker’s analysis of Luther is correct, then what is Oprah’s “God within” if not a progeny of Luther’s egocentrism?  What is Bruce Jenner and transgenderism (I believe I’m a woman, therefore I am) if not a fulfillment of Luther’s “assert with certitude” and “As a man believes so he has”?  What is relativism (you have your truth and I have my truth) if not a natural development of Luther’s confidence that “For to each one God is as he is believed to be”?[15]

Paul Hacker seems quite aware of all this when he ends the book with “there is more than one movement in the later history of modern thought which is indebted to suggestions that can be traced to Martin Luther.”[16]


[1] “Faith in Luther” by Paul Hacker, Emmaus Academic; Steubenville, Ohio, 2017 (http://www.emmausacademic.com/publications/2017/8/18/faith-in-luther-martin-luther-and-the-origin-of-anthropocentric-religion)

[2] Page viii

[3] Page viii

[4] Page 1-3

[5] Page 3

[6] Page 8

[7] Page 8

[8] Pages 21-22

[9] Page 22

[10] Page 26

[11] Page 49

[12] Page 82

[13] Page 67

[14] Page 77

[15] Page 170

[16] Page 170


One thought on ““Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion” by Paul Hacker: A Review

  1. Pingback: Purgatory: Why some likely find it difficult | I Must Follow if I Can

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