I am currently in the protonic stages of a commentary on Luther’s commentary. My running thesis (to let a cat out of my bag of cats) is that Martin Luther’s doctrine of man (and, by extension, that of the Lutheran Church) is frequently misinterpreted and misrepresented in contemporary Lutheranism. This is due in large part to the influence of modernist intellectual trends far extraneous to theology proper, specifically that of the “post-Kantian milieu” of analytical philosophy and existentialism. I do not mean to imply, nor do I believe, that modern and post-modern philosophy have exerted no salutary influence on the modus loquendi of Lutheran theology. However, I purpose to show that philosophic modernism is inimical to much of what we Lutherans would consider “fundamental doctrine.”
As a sub-thesis, I will be contending that the opening chapters of the book of Genesis contain the lineaments of what comes to be referred to as “substance ontology”, and that this latter concept is by no means an invention of Hellenistic philosophy. Philosophic realism is foundational not only to Lutheran theology (specifically the doctrine of man and, relatedly, the doctrine of creation), but to orthodox Christianity in toto (but I repeat myself…haha). The philosophia perennis which had served as handmaiden to the Church for nearly 1500 years by the time of the Reformation was not thrown out by Luther and the Lutheran fathers; rather, it was reappropriated, i.e., put back into proper relation to theology as its handmaiden. In philosophy as in theology, the early Lutherans were not revolutionaries, but reformers.
Basically, Luther wasn’t an out-and-out nominalist, nor was he a “proto-Kierkegaardian”, and it’s a good thing, too…
The following is a modernized excerpt from Luther’s Great Galatians Commentary (A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians By Martin Luther, eds. J. F. W. Tischer, S. S. Schmucker; Philadelphia: Smith, English & Co.: 1860), picking up in the middle of Chapter 5. The complete PDF of Luther’s comments on Ch. 5 is available for free here. As you read, ask yourself whether the explications of “the simul” that you hear from Lutheran theologians today comport with what the Blessed Doctor has to say here. They may; they may not! Luther reports; you decide.
It occurs to me that the foregoing announcement might seem to have little to do with what follows. Oh, well. I think it’s germane!
Here are some questions to consider as you read:
- What is meant by “kill the flesh”?
- Does Luther speak of “the flesh”/”Old Adam” as a separate personal identity?
- Does Luther speak as though it is within the Christian’s power to resist sin?
- According to Luther, what is at stake in the battle of flesh vs. spirit?
- According to Luther, is the Christian just hosting the fight between flesh and Spirit, or is he actively participating in it?
Without further ado…
From Blessed Doctor Luther’s Great Galatians Commentary…
…starting in medias res…
And when I exhort you to walk in the Spirit, that you obey not the flesh and fulfill not its concupiscence, I do not require that you should utterly put off the flesh or kill it, but that you should bridle and subdue it. For God will have mankind endure even to the Last Day. And this cannot be done without parents, which do beget and bring up children.
These means continuing, it must be that flesh also must continue, and consequently sin, for flesh is not without sin. Therefore in respect of the flesh we are sinners; but in respect of the Spirit, we are righteous: and so we are partly sinners and partly righteous. Notwithstanding our righteousness is much more plentiful than our sin, because the holiness and righteousness of Christ our mediator far exceeds the sin of the whole world, and the forgiveness of sins which we have through Him is so great, so large, and so infinite, that it easily swallows up all sins, if we walk according to the Spirit, etc.
Here it is to be noted that Paul writes these things not only to hermits and monks, who lead a single life, but to all Christians. This I say in order that we should not err with the Papists, who dreamed that this commandment belongs only to their clergymen, and that the Apostle hereby exhorts them to live chastely by subduing the flesh with watching, fasting, labor, etc., so that they should not fulfill the concupiscence of the flesh (that is to say, carnal lust), as though the whole concupiscence of the flesh were overcome when this fleshly lust is subdued—which, notwithstanding, they were never able to suppress and keep under with any yoke that they could lay upon the flesh! Of this Jerome (to say nothing of others), who was a marvelous lover and defender of chastity, plainly confesses:
Oh how often have I thought myself to be in the midst of the vain delights and pleasures of Rome, even when I was in the wild wilderness, which, being burnt up with the heat of the sun, yields an onerous habitation to the monks!
I, who for fear of hell had condemned myself to such a prison, thought myself oftentimes to be dancing among young women, when I had no other company but scorpions and wild beasts. My face was pale with fasting, but my mind was inflamed with desires in my cold body, and although my flesh was half dead already, yet the flames of fleshly lust boiled within me.
If Jerome felt in himself such flames of fleshly lust, who lived in the barren wilderness with bread and water, what do our holy belly-gods the clergymen feel, who so stuff and stretch themselves with all kinds of dainty fare, that it is a marvel their bellies do not burst? Thus these things are written not to hermits and monks (as the Papists dream) nor to sinners in the world only, but to the universal Church of Christ and to all the faithful, whom Paul exhorts to walk in the Spirit, that they fulfill not the lust of the flesh—that is to say, not only to bridle the gross motions of the flesh, as carnal lust, wrath, impatience, and suchlike, but also the spiritual motions, such as doubting, blasphemy, idolatry, contempt and hatred of God, etc.
Paul (as I have said) does not require of the godly that they should utterly put off or destroy the flesh, but that they should bridle it so that it might be subject to the Spirit. In Romans chapter thirteen, he bids us to “cherish the flesh.” For as we may not be cruel to other men’s bodies, nor vex them with unreasonable labor, even so we may not be cruel to our own bodies. Thus according to Paul’s precept we must cherish our flesh that it may be able to endure the labors both of the mind and of the body, but yet only for necessity’s sake, and “not to nourish the lust thereof.” Therefore if the flesh begins to grow wanton, repress it and bridle it by the Spirit. If it will not be, marry a wife, “for it is better to marry than to burn.” By doing this you walk in the Spirit—that is, you follow God’s word and do His will.
But as I have said, this commandment to walk in the Spirit, etc., belongs not only to hermits and monks, but to all Christians, even if they feel no carnal desire. So the prince fulfills not the concupiscence of the flesh when he diligently does his duty and governs his subjects well, punishing the guilty and defending the innocent. Here the flesh and the devil resist and tempt him, provoking him to make unrighteous war, to obey his own covetousness, etc. and unless he follows the leading of the Spirit and obeys the good and holy admonitions of the Word of God concerning his office, then he fulfills the lust of the flesh, etc. So let every man in his calling walk in the Spirit, and he shall not fulfill either his carnal lust or any other of the works of the flesh.
“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh”
When Paul says that the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, he warns us that we will feel the concupiscence of the flesh—that is to say, not only carnal lust, but also pride, wrath, sloth, impatience, incredulity, and suchlike. Notwithstanding he would have us feel them in order that we do not consent to them, nor accomplish them: that is, that we neither think, speak, nor do those things which the flesh provokes us unto. If it moves us to anger, we should be angry in such a way as we are taught in the fourth Psalm: that we do not sin. It is as if Paul would say thus: “I know that the flesh will provoke you to wrath, envy, doubting, incredulity, and suchlike, but resist it by the Spirit so that you do not sin.” But if you forsake the guiding of the Spirit and follow the flesh, you shall fulfill the lust of the flesh, and you shall die, as Paul says in Romans chapter eight. So this saying of the Apostle is to be understood not regarding fleshly lusts only, but regarding the whole kingdom of sin.
“And these are contrary to one another, so that you cannot do the things that you wish”
These two captains or leaders, the flesh and the Spirit, are against one another in your body, so that you cannot do what you wish. And this witnesses plainly that Paul writes these things to the saints—that is, to the Church believing in Christ, baptized, justified, renewed, and having full forgiveness of sins. Yet notwithstanding he says that she has flesh rebelling against the Spirit. After the same manner he speaks of himself in Romans seven: “I am carnal and sold under sin”; and again: “I see another law in my members rebelling against the law of my mind,” etc.; also: “Oh, wretched man that I am,” etc.
Here not only the schoolmen but also some of the old fathers are much troubled, seeking how they may excuse Paul. For it seems unto them absurd and unseemly to say that Paul, that elect vessel of Christ, should have sin.
But we believe Paul’s own words, wherein he plainly confesses that he is sold under sin, that he is led captive of sin, that he has a law in his members rebelling against him, and that in the flesh he serves the law of sin. Here again they answer that the Apostle speaks in the person of the ungodly. But the ungodly do not complain of the rebellion of their flesh, of any battle or conflict, or of the captivity and bondage of sin, for sin reigns mightily in them. This is therefore the very complaint of Paul and of all the saints. Thus they have done very wickedly who have excused Paul and other saints to have no sin. For by this persuasion (which proceeds from ignorance of the doctrine of faith) they have robbed the Church of a singular consolation: they have abolished the forgiveness of sins, and made Christ of none effect.
Wherefore when Paul says, “I see another law in my members,” etc., he does not deny that he has flesh and the vices of the flesh in him. It is likely therefore that he felt sometimes the motions of carnal lust. But yet (I have no doubt) these motions were well suppressed in him by the great and grievous afflictions and temptations both of mind and body, with which he was in a manner continually exercised and vexed, as his epistles declare. Or if he at any time being merry and strong felt the lust of the flesh, wrath, impatience, and such-like, he resisted them by the Spirit and suffered not those motions to bear rule in him. Therefore let us by no means suffer such comfortable places (whereby Paul describes the battle of the flesh against the Spirit in his own body) to be corrupted with such foolish glosses. The schoolmen, the monks, and such other never felt any spiritual temptations, and therefore they fought only for the repressing and overcoming of fleshly lust and lechery, and being proud of that victory (which they still never obtained), they thought themselves far better and more holy than married men. I will not say that under this holy pretense they nourished and maintained all kinds of horrible sins, as dissension, pride, hatred, disdain, and despising of their neighbors, trust in their own righteousness, presumption, contempt of godliness and of the Word of God, infidelity, blasphemy, and suchlike. Against these sins they never fought—maybe rather they took them to be no sins at all! They put righteousness in the keeping of their foolish and wicked vows, and unrighteousness in the neglecting and condemning of the same.
But this must be our ground and anchor-hold: that Christ is our only perfect righteousness. If we have nothing in which we may trust, yet these three things—as Paul says—faith, hope and love do remain. Therefore we must always believe and always hope; we must always take hold of Christ as the head and fountain of our righteousness. He that believes in Him shall not be ashamed. Moreover, we must labor to be outwardly righteous also: that is to say, not to consent to the flesh, which always entices us to some evil; but to resist it by the Spirit. We must not be overcome with impatience for the unthankfulness and contempt of the people, which abuses Christian liberty, but through the Spirit we must overcome this and all other temptations.
Look then how much we strive against the flesh by the Spirit, so much are we outwardly righteous, albeit this righteousness does not commend us before God. Let no man therefore despair if he feel that the flesh oftentimes stirs up new battles against the Spirit, or if he cannot by and by subdue the flesh and make it obedient unto the Spirit. I also wish myself to have a more valiant and constant heart, which might be able not only boldly to condemn the threatenings of tyrants, the heresies, offenses and tumults which the fantastical spirits stir up, but also that I might might by and by shake off the vexations and anguish of spirit, and might soon not fear the sharpness of death, but receive and embrace it as a most friendly guest. But I find another law in my members, rebelling against the law of my mind, etc. Some others wrestle with inferior temptations, as poverty, reproach, impatience and suchlike.
Let no man marvel therefore or be dismayed when he feels in his body this battle of the flesh against the Spirit, but let him pluck up his heart and comfort himself with these words of Paul: “The flesh lusts against the Spirit,” and: “These are contrary to one another, so that you do not do those things that you would.” For by these sentences he comforts those who are tempted, as if he should say: “It is impossible for you to follow the guiding of the Spirit in all things without any feeling or hindrance of the flesh; nay, the flesh will resist and hinder you so that you cannot do those things that you gladly would. Here, it shall be enough if you resist the flesh and do not fulfill its lusts—that is to say, if you follow the Spirit and not the flesh, which easily is overthrown by impatience, covets to revenge, bites, grudges, hates God, is angry with Him, despairs, etc.”
Therefore when a man feels this battle of the flesh, let him not be discouraged by it, but let him resist in the Spirit, and say, “I am a sinner, and I feel sin in me, for I have not yet put off the flesh, in which sin dwells so long as it lives; but I will obey the Spirit and not the flesh—that is, I will by faith and hope lay hold upon Christ, and by His word I will raise up myself, and being so raised up, I will not fulfill the lust of the flesh.”
It is very profitable for the godly to know this and to bear it well in mind, for it wonderfully comforts them when they are tempted. When I was a monk I thought by and by that I was utterly cast away if at any time I felt the concupiscence of the flesh, that is to say, if I felt any evil motion, fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother. I attempted many ways, I went to confession daily, etc., but it did not profit me, for the concupiscence of my flesh always returned, so that I could not rest, but was continually vexed with these thoughts: “this or that sin you have committed”; “you are infected with envy, with impatience, and such other sins, therefore you have entered into this holy order in vain, and all your good works are unprofitable.”
If then I had rightly understood these sentences of Paul—”the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,” etc., and “these two are against one another, so that you do not do the things that you would do”—I should not have so miserably tormented myself, but should have thought and said to myself, as now commonly I do: “Martin, you will not be utterly without sin, for you still have flesh; therefore you shall feel the battle thereof, according to that saying of Paul: ‘The flesh resists the Spirit.’ Therefore do not despair, but resist it strongly, and fulfill not its lust. In so doing you are not under the Law.”