“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]

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[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

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A Social Religion by Frank Sheed

I have been finishing reading Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed.  It has been a long chore because he is taking my mind to heights I did not realize we would ascend when first we set out.

The following is a section called “A Social Religion” which I found fascinating enough to post.  Why this section and not others probably more worthy?  Not a clue.  Perhaps because my old Protestant individualist thinking still holds sway in some areas and therefore this section impacted me particularly.  Whatever the reason, it seems a good reminder to Catholics in an individualistic religious culture.

Enjoy!

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Looking at man, almost the first thing we see about him is that he is not an isolated unit independent of others, but a social being bound to others both by needs which cannot be satisfied and by powers which must remain unused save in relation to other men.  It would be strange if God, having made man social, should ignore the fact in His own personal dealings with man.  To treat man as an isolated independent unit would be as monstrous in religion as it would be in any other department of human life.  It would be to treat man as what he is not.  But the one being who would not be likely to do that is God, who made man what he is, and made him so because that is what He wanted him to be.  A religion which should consist in an individual relation of each person directly to God would be no religion for man.  A social being requires a social religion.  Within that social religion the individual will have his own religious needs and experiences, but they will be within and not external to, or a substitute for, his approach to God and God’s approach to him in union with other men.

Individualist religious theories there have always been, even among Christians.  They have never been able to carry out the full logic of their individualist theory because their nature as men stood too solidly in their way.  Something in religion that have had to get from other men.  So the Bible Christian, despising the priesthood and minimizing the Church, has yet had to fall back upon the Bible, and the Bible, although it is given to us by God, is given through men, the men who under His inspiration wrote it.  A religion wherein the soul finds and maintains a relation with God with no dependence upon men is impossible, and what makes it impossible is the nature God gave man.  The only question then is whether religion shall do its very utmost to elude the social element in man’s nature, accepting only so much as it can by no possibility avoid; or whether it shall wholly accept and glory in the social element as something given by God, something therefore to be used to the uttermost in religion as in the rest of man’s life.  In giving man the religion of the Kingdom, God showed what His own answer is.

Christ did not leave His followers free at their discretion to form their own groups if it seemed good to them or to remain isolated if it seemed good to them.  He banded them into a society, a Church.

“He gave Himself for us, to ransom us from all our guilt, a people set apart for Himself.”

What the Jews had been, the Church now is.  We remember Moses’ words:

“This is the blood of the covenant.”

But now we have Christ’s words:

“This is My blood in the new covenant.”

There is a new covenant and a new people: not just millions of redeemed individuals: a people.  The brotherhood of every Christian with Christ involves the brotherhood of all Christians with one another.  His normal way of giving them His gifts of truth and life was to be through the society: in other words, the whole Christian life was not to be a solitary relation of each soul to Christ, but of each to all in Christ, this is what the Apostles’ Creed means by the Communion of Saints.  In solidarity with other men we fell in Adam and rose again with Christ; in the same solidarity we live the new life.

God can and does give this or that man what he individually needs.  But the great needs of the soul are not peculiar to the individual, but the same for all.  There is the need for the Life which Christ came that we might have more abundantly; and the need for Knowledge—knowledge of what God is and what man is, and of the goal of life and how we are to attain it.  It is through the society that God offers men the spiritual gifts by which these needs common to all are supplied.  The relation of Christians with one another is essential in their relation with Christ.  They are related to Him not one by one, but in virtue of their membership of His Kingdom.

–Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity; chapter 21 Dispensing the Gifts, section 1