Idolatry and Human Nature: A study of Luther’s theological anthropology

Luther’s concept of the human being as “simul Justus et Peccator” (Simultaneously Just and a Sinner) has often been criticized for promoting “pessimistic” anthropology. It is sometimes misconstrued to mean that a new person in Christ looks like the same old sinner and is, therefore, a false doctrine. However, such criticisms are not entirely valid because they do not sufficiently take into account the historical context in which Luther’s concept of human beings emerged.

Many scholars since Steven E. Ozment (1969) made notable contributions to this issue by putting Luther’s anthropology in the context of the medieval thought he was trained in. Recently, Notger Slenczka (2014) understood Luther’s concept of human beings in relatedness to God and viewed sin as, at its heart, the failure to trust God. Ilmari Karimies (2016) made faith a key to comprehending Luther’s anthropology. L’ubomír Batka (2016) argued that the beginning of Luther’s doctrine of sin was tied to his discovery of Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings.

In this project, while accommodating previous findings, the author argues that Luther’s concern in theological anthropology is largely connected to the traditional soteriological question of whether fallen human beings retain in themselves the capacity to accomplish acts that are of some value in the order of salvation.

To shed light on this issue, Luther’s concept of idolatrous human nature seems significant. Luther put idolatry at the center of the issue by stressing that it is a matter of sinful human nature rather than distorted human action. Luther comprehends idolatry mainly as an inherent tendency in human nature to justify oneself. In an attempt to justify and idolize oneself, a corrupt human nature almost invariably has a tendency to employ reason which builds an erroneous perception of God.

In developing his concept of idolatry, Luther appropriates Augustine’s notion of human concupiscence. To demonstrate these points, therefore, Luther’s idea of the relationship between idolatry and human nature is analyzed in comparison with Augustine, noting their similarities and Luther’s modifications. The first part investigates the relationship between sin and idolatry in Augustine’s major works, “On Christian Doctrine” (397), and “The City of God” (412); the second part will focus mainly on Luther’s works, Dictata super Psalterium (1513-16), Lectures on Romans (1515-16), The Large Catechism (1528) Lectures on Galatians (1535).

In addition to Luther’s theological anthropology, this study hopes to contribute to the field of spiritual formation by clarifying the pathological nature of idolatry which affects the whole human being.

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