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Reformation views

Using virtue language to discuss faith, hope and love has not been without its critics. One of the most ferocious and influential of these critics was the German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546). As a university student and later as a member of the Augustinian Hermits, Luther was educated in the liberal arts, in Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics, the works of Augustine and medieval mystics and the thought of William of Ockham (1287-1347) as interpreted by his disciple Gabriel Biel (c. 1425-1495). It is unclear how much the young Luther read directly from Thomas Aquinas, but Luther did know contemporary Thomists and was probably familiar with the criticisms of Thomism offered by the followers of Ockham and fellow Augustinians. Luther even lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in 1508-1509 at the University of Wittenberg (the notes have unfortunately not been preserved).

From the same time period as his Ninety-Five Theses on indulgences, Luther also penned his 1517 ‘Disputation against Scholastic Theology’. There are many different polemic targets in the provocative ninety-seven theses Luther set out to be debated. While Augustine is the main hero of this work and Pelagius the main villain, Luther can also offer stinging criticisms of Aristotle, Aristotle’s account of the moral life and the use of Aristotle’s moral philosophy in the theology of justification and sanctification as put forward by various scholastics. Luther does not mince words: ‘Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light’.[1] Or again, ‘Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace’.[2] The crux of Luther’s disagreement with Aristotle and his account of virtue can be found in thesis 40: ‘we do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteousness, we do righteous deeds’.8 It is not by repeating certain actions that one becomes righteous and pleasing to God, but one becomes righteous and pleasing to God solely by the free gift of God’s grace. The existence of sin and grace means that Aristotle’s teaching on acts and a person’s character must be reversed. Given that the church sided with Augustine and not Pelagius, Luther thinks it should be clear that it is ‘Catholic doctrine’ itself which contradicts Aristotle’s teachings on happiness and virtue.

Luther’s view is that faith is the reorientation and turning inside out of the whole person. The gospel is preached in external words which transform and remake the ‘inner’ person. It is this new agent who then goes about doing good works. It is, then, not enough to say that faith perfects one faculty or power within the person. Faith does deeper than that. In Luther’s view, there is not one and the same person who has faith or who might not have faith. Here the one in control is the agent, the subject who does the works. Maybe this subject has faith, maybe not, but the subject in charge is the same. It is not the person who produces faith or the act of faith. It is faith which makes the person: fides facit personam.[3] [4] [5]

The mismatch between the life of virtue and the life of faith, hope and love is that faith, hope and love are a kind of ‘suffering’. Luther notes this contrast when he says, ‘other virtues may be perfected by doing; but faith, hope, and love, only by suffering; by suffering, I say; that is, by being passive under the divine operation’.10 11 Being ‘passive’ in English usually means lazily and quietly accepting anything. In this context, however, being passive means receiving divine grace as passio, as passion, a fierce disturbance of the subject. Faith, hope and love are passiones, things that are received and suffered rather than virtutes, things that allow certain acts to be done.

If Luther is highly suspicious of speaking about faith, hope and love as virtues, the equally influential Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) was concerned about the relationship between faith and love in Roman Catholic accounts of justification. In response Calvin argues that, at least in this life, faith enjoys a relative priority within the triad of faith, hope and love. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (final Latin edition 1559), Calvin agrees that ‘if we regard excellence, love of God should rightly take first place’.11 Love alone will remain in the end, while faith and hope are passing realties that one needs in life but not in the hereafter. That being said, however, Calvin thinks that in this life faith, as the ‘instrument’ by which we receive the divine mercy and forgiveness, has logical priority over love and hope, and yet is never without them.

One of the definitions of faith Calvin offers us is ‘knowledge of the divine benevolence towards us and a sure persuasion of its truth’.[6] When filled with the knowledge of God’s mercy, goodness and love in Christ, one becomes ‘wholly kindled to love God’.[7] It is faith, or knowledge of the divine beneficence, which first engenders love of God as a joyful and grateful response. Faith is also the ‘the foundation upon which hope rests’ and yet hope in turn ‘nourishes and sustains faith’.[8] Within this time of waiting, it is hope in God and his promises of eternal life which strengthens, refreshes, sustains and invigorates faith.

Similar sentiments can be found in Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians (1546).[9] In some aspects, love is superior to faith. Faith and hope can mean that one desires advantages for oneself, but love extends its benefits to others. Likewise, love will remain in the hereafter, while faith and hope will pass away. In many other aspects, however, faith is superior to love. For instance, faith is the cause, while love is the effect. In 1 Jn. 5.4, faith is called ‘the victory that conquers the world’. Finally, it is by faith that we become adopted children of God, inherit eternal life and have Christ dwell within us (Eph. 3.17).

Study questions

  • 1. How helpful is Aristotle’s account of virtue for discussing faith, hope and love?
  • 2. What sounds similar and what sounds different between Aquinas’ and Luther’s view of faith, hope and love as supernatural virtues and as things suffered?
  • 3. What sounds similar and what sounds different between Aquinas’ and Calvin’s view of the relationship between faith, hope and love?

Further reading

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1103a14-1103b26 (book 2, ch.1).

Aquinas, Thomas, Summa theologica, II—I, q. 62, aa. 1-4.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), III. ii, 41-43, pp. 588-592.

Luther, Martin, ‘Disputation against Scholastic Theology’, in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 13-20.


  • [1] Martin Luther, ‘Disputation against Scholastic Theology’, in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s BasicTheological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 13-20 (16).
  • [2] Luther, ‘Disputation against Scholastic Theology’, p. 16.
  • [3] Martin Luther, ‘Die Zirkulardisputation de veste nuptiale’, in Weimar Ausgabe (ed.) Luthers Werke,vol. 39/1 ( Weimar: Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1926), pp. 264-333 (283).
  • [4] Martin Luther, Commentary on the First Twenty-Two Psalms, trans. Henry Cole, vol. 1 (London:Simpkin and Marshall, 1826), p. 258.
  • [5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), III.xviii.8, p. 829.
  • [6] Calvin, Institutes, III.ii.12, p. 556.
  • [7] Calvin, Institutes, III.ii.42, p. 589.
  • [8] Calvin, Institutes, III.ii.42, p. 590.
  • [9] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John W. Fraser (GrandRapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1960), pp. 282-283.
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