Luther: By Faith Alone

If you know anything about Luther, you’ll probably be familiar with his idea of justification by faith. It’s basically the idea that you don’t get justified or saved by your actions, but by faith alone. You might also be familiar with the things that he was writing against – indulgences is the main one that sticks out for people, but he’s also even just against a culture of guilt. As far as he’s concerned, you don’t have to feel guilty about being a bit shit, because we’re saved by faith alone, and not by any inherent qualities that we bring to the table. That’s all fairly obvious. What’s interesting, and what I want to talk about today, is how those beliefs impact the way that Luther talks about baptism.

So we’re dealing again with Luther’s Babylonian Captivity. He’s talking about baptism as a sacrament, and his basic point is that it revolves around faith and not the baptismal act. “The first thing in baptism to be considered is the divine promise, which says ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved.” He’s quoting Mark 16:16 there. Luther leans heavily on the ‘believing’ part of that line, arguing that baptism is much more in the faith of the one who receives it than in the act or the minister. In fact, he says that if you have an evil minister doing baptism selfishly, it can still be received as a proper baptism by the individual, assuming that they receive it in faith. The actual event doesn’t have anything magical in it: all of the spiritual work happens in the relationship between the individual and God. Baptism itself is just a sign.

And this is really the interesting thing about Luther’s argument. It’s similar to the argument of Aquinas from a while back, Is God Hot? The basic question there is whether things in the world have causative power, or whether they’re effectively flags for God to come and do something. So for instance, when you have a fire, is the fire itself hot, or is fire basically just God being hot? Aquinas comes down on the idea that God gives things properties: so there’s this thing called fire, and fire can cause heat. That’s a property of fire. Luther is asking a similar sort of question, but about baptism. He’s wondering whether baptism as an event has any power, and coming down pretty heavily on the side of ‘no’. As far as he’s concerned, there’s no inherent power in the event itself. It resides in the faith of the individual. That’s one of the implications of faith over works.

So a few different times throughout this passage, Luther says things like “it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in the word of promise, to which baptism is added.” Baptism is just a sign: “This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies.” That’s a really interesting position, because it raises a bunch of questions about how spirituality works. For instance, say you’re taking communion, and someone prays over the bread before it goes out. Once communion is over, is the rest of the bread still holy? Some people would say yes, because it’s been sanctified and all the rest of it. Luther might say no, because it’s really just a symbol. There’s nothing that’s been put into the bread, it’s just a symbol. Luther actually talks about his views on transubstantiation in this text; to me the most compelling part of his argument there is when he starts talking about the simple faith. “For my part, if I cannot fathom how the bread is the body of Christ, I will take my reason captive to the obedience of Christ, and clinging simply to his word, firmly believe not only that the body of Christ is in the bread, but that the bread is the body of Christ.” So he’s not himself arguing that communion is purely symbolic – but I think his argument about baptism could be extended towards that conclusion.

Alternately, if one doesn’t push towards communion as commemorative or purely symbolic, rather than in some way transforming or transmuting the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, we could probably deploy the same questions that Luther asks about baptism. If the act of baptism is meaningless without faith, shouldn’t the same be true of communion? If faith justifies and fulfils that which baptism signifies, shouldn’t faith also justify and fulfil what is signified by communion? And if so, doesn’t that imply that communion is also a signifier, one fulfilled through faith rather than doing anything in itself? It would seem to adhere to Luther’s wider vision of justification by faith, and not by works.

I don’t know – I’m not really very invested in Eucharistic theology, so I’m not trying to push a particular agenda here. I’m just trying to make sense of the ideas. For instance, Luther also says in the same text that the difference between Old Law and New Law sacraments is that the Old Law sacraments were “sacraments of works,” where people were saved by doing the signs: “he that observed them fulfilled them, even if he did it without faith.” The New Law sacraments (communion, etc) are positioned as sacraments of faith: “Their whole efficacy, therefore, consists in faith itself, not in the doing of a work. For whoever believes them fulfils them, even if he should not do a single work.” The key element in Christian sacraments is the faith of the one who observes them, such that without faith those sacraments are powerless. But if the bread of communion is transformed into the body of Christ, it sounds like there’s something special about the act of communion, outside of the faith of the individual. Surely the bread is still the body of Christ even if it’s taken by a non-believer, right? Maybe the bread doesn’t have any effect on a non-believer, because there’s no faith to ‘activate’ the sacrament – but if that’s the case, then what does it mean for the bread to be the body of Christ? It’s not really doing any work. It’s not making anything happen. So why not just write it all off as symbolism?

One of the arguments that Luther raises elsewhere in the text is that when Jesus institutes communion at the Last Supper, he says “Take; this is my body,” referring to the bread. Luther thinks that verse is definite proof, but, like, does he know what a metaphor is? When Psalm 60 describes God as throwing His shoe at Edom, does Luther know that God doesn’t actually wear shoes? Or in Psalm 22, when the speaker says that he is a worm – like, a worm didn’t actually write that psalm. I’ve written about this issue before: some Christians just seem to have issues with understanding what metaphors are. Just for those in the back, a metaphor says that one thing is another, even when it’s not. The moon is a silver coin. The moon is obviously not literally a silver coin, but the metaphor directly says that one is the other, expecting that readers will pick up on the fact that it’s not meant to be taken literally. God isn’t literally throwing His shoes at Edom. Surely it’s equally possible that when Christ says the bread is his body, he’s speaking metaphorically, rather than literally. Again: I’m not really that invested one way or the other. It’s interesting to see how Luther’s theory of ‘by faith alone’ applies to baptism, and I wonder whether the same logic would apply to communion. It’s curiosity, more than argument.

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