Live and Let Love (Or, Luther vs. Augustine: A Showdown)

Augustine, among others, is a prize-fighter of the Evangelical church. His Confessions persists as an […]

August Smith / 8.1.19

Augustine, among others, is a prize-fighter of the Evangelical church. His Confessions persists as an essential read for every young believer, and his emphatic defense of the church in the ugly face of pelagianism is the stuff of legend within Mockingbird. While he certainly faltered in places because of his cultural milieu (he suggested deaf people were cursed by God), his innovative albeit essentially neo-platonic Christian trinitarianism proved foundational to the Catholic church for millennia.

Most Evangelicals consider the Reformation to be a return to the robust Augustinian theology away from which Rome had subtly drifted in the 15th century. Similarly, Luther was in many ways the second coming of the early church father, come again to root out pelagianism once and for all. However, it’s clear that Luther did not agree with some of Augustine’s neo-platonic ideas, notably including the way he suggested believers come to know God. In his recent The Meaning of Protestant TheologyPhillip Cary seeks to elucidate this discrepancy, among myriad others, to explain how the Reformation both departed from and returned to Augustinian theology. This section waxes academic, but don’t let that deter you from the deep theological insights. From 304-305:

[The difference between alien and proper righteousness] has raised important questions about the place of love for God in Protestant theology. The deep Augustinian notion that faith seeks understanding by love — so that all love of truth is ultimately the love of God — motivates a kind of spirituality that is not Protestant, for in Protestantism faith, love, and truth are related in a different way. Of course love desires its Beloved, but according to Luther love for God only gets what it desires by faith in his word. We take hold of Christ by clinging to the Gospel because it is the promise of God — and God is true to his promise even though every man be a liar (Rom. 3:4), including our sinful selves who love God only half-heartedly. So in contrast to Augustine, it is faith, not love, that unites us to our Beloved. It is (once again) like a marriage: no amount of love makes two people married if they have not given and received wedding vows, which are the promises that establish the covenant of marriage. Marital love does not establish this covenant but flows from it, for there is no married love without married persons, who only begin to exist as married persons because of the marriage promises. In just this way, Luther teaches that the Christian person must exist before doing good works with the implication that faith comes before love.

According to Luther, we have a divine Beloved not because of our love but because our Beloved has given himself to us, so that in faith we can say: “My Beloved is mine and I am his.” Faith alone can say this, for our imperfect love is never worthy of such a Beloved and never has the power to make him ours. This is why Luther describes faith as a passive righteousness: unlike Augustinian love, it is not something we do to come to God. Rather, it believes that God has already come to us. Its only work and activity is to take hold of the promise that tells us the Beloved is already ours, because he has given himself to us in his promise, as the bridegroom gives himself to his bride.

This has profound consequences for preaching, which are encapsulated in Luther’s distinction between law and Gospel. When the Gospel is preached, it is not — as one old saying has it — like one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread. Telling people what to do to get what they need is law, not Gospel. It is unwittingly cruel, for a beggar may die of starvation before he manages to get himself to where the bread is. Preachers need not be so cruel, because they can preach the Gospel instead, which gives a beggar nothing less than Christ himself, the bread of life, in person. As ministers of the word they have the authority to promise sinners, on the basis of Christ’s own word, that he is theirs. Thus the Gospel is not one beggar telling another beggar where to get bread, but one beggar actually giving another beggar bread. In the sacrament, on the basis of Christ’s own promise, one beggar can put the bread of life right into another beggar’s mouth.