T h e o • p h i l o g u e

Home » research

Category Archives: research

Brothers, Let us Embrace Heresy!

I am through critiquing Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  Now I am going to draw some implications from our post series that will conclude something that in the prima facie will certainly seem quite absurd … namely, that we should embrace heresy.  How would I ever come to such a conclusion?  Well … the short of it is this.  The Reformed Traditions (at least in our day) have set up Luther as having recovered the gospel in his understanding of sola fide, and anything that contradicts sola fide is considered heresy to many protestants.  The problem is, sola fide must be defined historically according to what the major Reformers actually taught in their doctrine of sola fide.  As we have seen in our series on Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration / justification by baptism / sacramental mediation, Luther’s sola fide should be rejected.   

In short, if orthodoxy if defined by the Reformers, then I’d rather be a heretic (given Luther’s soteriology).     

Luther’s arguments reveal something potentially shocking about his understanding of grace, salvation and faith which have important implications for how we understand the reformation slogan sola fide (justification by faith alone) which has been accredited to Luther.  Although it is far from the scope of this paper to present Luther’s doctrine of justification, a fair summary of it can be given.  Luther supposedly believed that justification was a forensic declaration  in which a sinner is declared to be righteous on the formal basis of an alien righteousness through the instrumentality of faith.   

The part of sola fide which needs to be re-examined in Luther’s theology is the concept of instrumentality.  Many Reformed traditions held faith to be the sole instrumental cause of justification.  That is, one is justified by faith alone—only faith and nothing else.  Luther is mistakenly thought to be the champion of this sola fide doctrine which is thought to be wholly disjunctive with any “Roman Catholic” view of sacramental mediation of saving grace.  

For example, in a relatively recent treatment (2001) of doctrine throughout church history, John D. Hannah misrepresents Luther as believing in sola fide in such a way as to rule out sacramental mediation of saving grace.[1]  His misunderstanding is rooted in a misinterpretation of Luther’s phraseology of baptism as God’s Word.  Since Luther denies that water all by itself saves, but rather asserts salvation through the Word which is attached to the water and faith which receives it, Hannah concludes that Luther did not believe in the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism.  “The sacraments, then, have a subjective function as a witness to faith in God’s generosity; they do not have an objective function of being the actual means of acquiring God’s grace.”[2]  However, as we have seen, a quick overview of Luther’s teaching in the catechism reveals that when Luther emphasizes God’s Word in baptism, he does not have in mind the gospel per say, and faith which receives the gospel before baptism.  Rather, he has in mind water baptism as God’s promise of salvation (God’s Word of promise) and faith in that promise.  Although this is clear from what we have already observed, the following quote from The Babylonian Captivity makes this connection in Luther’s mind more obvious.

Thus you see how rich a Christian is, that is, one who has been baptized! Even if he would, he could not lose his salvation, however much he sinned, unless he refused to believe.  For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone.  All other sins, so long as the faith in God’s promise made in baptism returns or remains, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because he cannot deny himself if you confess him and faithfully cling to him in his promise.  But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction, along with all those carefully devised exercises of man: if you rely on them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before.  For whatever is done without faith in God’s truth is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit.[3] [emphasis mine]    

The “truth of God” in this passage is God’s promise to save through baptism.  “Unbelief” is unbelief in this promise.  Perseverance is maintained only for those who “faithfully cling to him in his promise” [emphasis mine].  Hannah seems to be completely unaware of Luther’s basic paradigm for baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word.  It is hard to understand, if Hannah has read Luther on baptism, how he could possibly miss Luther’s constant emphasis on baptism as the cause of all saving grace, and therefore the cause of justification.[4]  Although Luther did not believe that baptism could save unless faith is present, with faith present (whether before or after baptism), the sacraments are “‘effective in the sense that they certainly and effectively impart grace where faith is unmistakably present.”[5]     

We know that wherever there is a divine promise, there faith is required, and that these two are so necessary to each other that neither can be effective apart from the other.  For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed.  But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments. … Thus Christ says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”[6] [Mark 16:16, emphasis mine]. 

When Luther says “it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added,”[7] he is often misinterpreted (as with Hannah) as teaching a pure sola fide which rules out baptism as efficacious for salvation.  This is a typical case of Reformed bias reading into Luther’s theology what is not actually there.  The Reformed tradition will have to look elsewhere for a pure sola fide champion hero in the Reformation.  Luther’s view of justification in the context of his theology of baptism can only be viewed as heretical in many Reformed traditions today.  Likewise, the modern Reformed traditions which hold to a sola fide absent of sacramental mediation were considered heretical to Luther,[8] and he considered faith in baptism as salvific as part of saving faith.[9] 

Hannah is also guilty of not reckoning with Luther’s distinction between baptism as a work of God and not a work of human effort, which leads him to conclude that Luther could not have seen baptism as being an instrumental cause of the forgiveness of sins and of the removal of moral inability: “For Luther, water baptism does not cleanse the guilt and inability inherited through original sin.. … Thus, any notion of causative cooperation, even a gracious cooperation, is impossible because humankind has no merit to commend itself to God.”[10]  Luther, however, as we have seen, did not see baptism as man’s work, but God’s work.  Therefore, he did not see baptism as human merit commending itself to God, but as an act which “brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”[11]  In these two areas, Hannah reveals his bias by misrepresenting Luther.  

As should be blindingly unambiguous from reading Luther’s arguments for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism, Luther believed in a sacramental mediation of all saving grace, and therefore the grace of justification would also be mediated by the sacrament of baptism.  Luther not only allowed for “works” (baptism) to be an instrumental cause in saving grace, he demanded it with a passion, indicting anyone who opposed him as opposing God’s Word.  Since the slogans of the Reformation are usually attributed to Luther, this has implications for how we understand the doctrine of sola fide in its historical sense.  Is there really a singular “Reformed” position on the doctrine of sola fide?  Do we understand it as the sola fide of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or some other Reformer or Reformed Tradition?  This study also has implications for the ect debate over sola fide.  Are those evangelicals who signed the ect documents compromising sola fide because Rome believes in a sacramental mediation of saving grace?  Are those who remain “faithful” to the Reformation the ones who rule out sacramental mediation or demand for sacramental mediation?  It seems that if we are going to define the Reformation by Luther’s doctrine of sola fide, the latter would be the case.[12]

Although the conclusions I have drawn may seem provocative and controversial, they simply flow from a study of Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  Reformed traditions have invested so much energy making Luther their Reformation hero, their ranks who defend sola fide can hardly stand to read Luther for what he actually taught about baptism, and the implications it has for his doctrine of justification.  Instead, they paint him with a biased brush for the sake of ecclesiological and theological expediency.  Luther’s views of baptism and his argumentation for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism demonstrate a lack of hermeneutical discernment in Luther as well as a lack of logical discernment.  While we can credit Luther with many good things, such as his emphasis on faith, repentance, and piety in an age of ritualistic notions of the sacraments that did not include sincere inner spirituality,[13] we should be very careful about defining orthodoxy and heresy based on the so-called “Reformed position.”  If Luther’s position on justification is the orthodox view known as sola fide, then Reformation orthodoxy must be rejected and heresy must be embraced.[14]       



[1] John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 227-229.   

[2] Ibid., 229.  In the same vein, Hannah represents Luther has having a view in which “the symbol has no efficacy.” Ibid.  Lohse tries to correct this false interpretation of Luther’s “sign” language (pardon the pun).  “When Luther at times used the word ‘sign,’ particularly in his doctrine of the Supper, that use may not be construed in Zwinglian terms.  Luther never intended the term to be merely ‘symbolic.'” Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.           

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, 60. 

[4] “Luther thus places baptism in the center of the Christian life.  His understanding of baptism exactly expresses his doctrine of justification.  Through the sacrament of baptism we are ‘sacramentally’ or ‘because of the sacrament,’ made completely pure and innocent in God’s gracious judgment, that is, we are ‘children of grace and justified persons’. … His doctrine of baptism is basically nothing else than his doctrine of justification in concrete form.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 356.  

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, 67.  

[6] Ibid., 67. 

[7] Ibid., 66. 

[8] Lohse recognizes that Luther accused the Anabaptists, for example, of “works-righteousness and even idolatry.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 305. 

[9] Faith in the Word of God in the context of Luther’s theology of baptism means faith in baptism. “This is why Christ immediately adds, ‘He who does not believe will be condemned’ even though he is baptized, for it is not baptism, but faith in baptism, that saves.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 364.  

[10] Hannah, Our Legacy, 227.   

[11] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[12] Leonardo De Chirico, however, understands the ECT project to be guilty of a lack of systemic awareness for upholding agreement over justification by faith on the one hand, and baptismal regeneration on the other.  Leonardo De Chirico, “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: A Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together dialogue,” Evangelical Review of Theology 27 no. 4 (2003): 346. 

[13] Luther’s doctrine of baptism must be seen as reactionary to prevalent medieval notions of ex opere operato which “tended to ritualize and desiccate baptism.  In essence this Latin formula meant that the sacraments infused grace simply form the use of them, apart from any act of the soul. … Second, in the development of the medieval sacramental system, baptism tended to be associated only with the beginning of life, its chief role being to wash away the guilt of original sin.”  Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 25. 

[14] Another important feature to Luther’s arguments for infant baptism, which I did not have time to focus on, but which is probably almost as important is this: Luther held an extremely high view of tradition.  Althaus points out the fact that although church tradition “is certainly not Luther’s last word on the subject…it is certainly his first.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 359.  In Althaus’ estimation, Luther had a “high evaluation of the universal tradition of the church,” and used similar argumentation on other occasions.  Ibid, 363.


Was Martin Luther Even a Christian? A Critique of His Defense of Infant Baptism

Some might say … based on his defense of infant baptism, that Luther didn’t really believe in the gospel.  

In a previous post where I summarized Luther’s doctrine of baptism, I gave a summary of each of his arguments for infant baptism as presented in the Large Catechism.  This post will take a close look at Luther’s logic for defending infant baptism.  If you have not been following the post series so far, it is important to at least realize this: Luther was a virtual Roman Catholic when it comes to the saving efficacy of the sacraments.  Luther did not believe in the same sola fide that D.A. Carson, R.C. Sproul, and many other modern Reformed evangelicals consider to be fundamental to the gospel.  By R.C. Sproul’s standards, Luther should be considered a non-Christian for not believing in his version of sola fide.  This is an inconvenient truth, for Sproul and many others with his position actually believe they are the modern champions of Luther’s doctrine of justification.  But get this: Luther assumes that baptism saves, period.  As we have seen, he attempts to avoid the accusation of believing in salvation by works by retorting that Baptism is the work of God, and therefore not salvation by works (so argues Luther).  Now we will critique his attempt to establish the validity of infant baptism.  This post will be especially pertinent for baptists. 

Luther’s Defense of Infant Baptism as Involving Logical Fallacies[1] 

                 The Historical Fallacy

Luther’s first argument for infant baptism (based on the fact that infants who are baptized later demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit) commits the historical fallacy known as post hoc, propter hoc (“the mistaken idea that if event B happened after event A, it happened because of event A,”[2]).  His proposal begs an important question: Are the fruits of the Spirit caused by their baptism?  Luther assumes his doctrine of baptismal regeneration to prove his doctrine of infant baptism, but the former, as we have noted, has not been demonstrated on sound principles of interpretation.[3]  His logic could be summarized like this: Since the only way you can possibly receive the Holy Spirit is through baptism (Luther’s assumption), if an infant who is baptized is later shown to bear the fruits of the Spirit, we can safely conclude that their baptism “worked,” and that God blesses infant baptism according to the promise.  Luther assumes the very causal relationship between baptism and salvation which his critics would not be willing to grant.  Surely those critics who opposed Luther on infant baptism were not ready to concede that God saved infants through baptism.  Here we see the very same assumption we have previously observed Luther take for granted in his other arguments against those who deny baptismal regeneration. 

The second argument Luther makes in favor of infant baptism begs the same causal relationship as his first argument.  Luther basically applies the same logic to particular people, namely, the entire history of the church—particularly the early church fathers.  They were baptized in infancy, and we know that God gave them His Holy Spirit.[4]  Therefore, Luther concludes that God has endorsed infant baptism in church history.  His further argument is that God would be in conflict with himself if he were giving the Holy Spirit to people who were baptized as infants if indeed the practice displeased Him.  With this line of argument, Luther continues to assume the causal relationship between infant baptism and the salvation of the church.  I might use this same logic to prove that God obviously blesses sin, since all Christians have sinned by practicing infant baptism and yet God has given them the Holy Spirit.  It may have been (and indeed, I would argue was) in spite of their practice of infant baptism that God gave these men the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, how would Luther ever be able to demonstrate that anyone who bore the fruits of the Spirit after infancy received the Holy Spirit at their baptism and not some time after their baptism?  Luther seems to be wholly unaware that his arguments will only work for those who share his assumptions about the sacramental limitation of saving grace in baptism.

Begging the Question 

When Luther starts arguing that baptism is valid whether or not faith is present in the one being baptized, it is more difficult to follow his reasoning but easy to see that it is flawed.  When Luther declares that a lack of faith does not “invalidate” baptism because “when the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid,” he is continuing to beg the same question he has been begging in every argument we have examined so far.[5]  His further argument that “Baptism does not become invalid even if it is wrongly received or used, for it is bound not to our faith but to the Word,” simply means this: Since God promised to save through baptism without exception, we must assume he saves through baptism without exception.  Again, this begs the important question.  That “we know that God does not lie,”[6] is not enough to prove his case, for only if we assume God promised salvation through baptism could we consider God a liar if baptism did not save an infant.    

Ambiguity and Equivocation 

However, when Luther expands on this idea through illustration, his argument is further complicated by ambiguity.  First, Luther does not make clear whether he is speaking of “validity” from the vantage point of the one who administers the baptism, or from the vantage point of those who receive the baptism.  The illustration of the deceitful Jew who tricks a minister into baptizing him fails to draw the distinction between validity from the vantage point of the dishonest Jew and validity from the vantage point of the administer of his baptism.  The latter would be blameless in the matter.  As far as the rules by which the sacraments are supposed to be administered, he has administered validly.  However, the deceitful Jew has not experienced a valid baptism, because he was not only being baptized for the wrong motives, but without any faith in Christ whatsoever. 

The major problem with Luther’s argument for the “validity” of baptism without faith, therefore, could be described as either ambiguity or as committing the fallacy of equivocation (equivocating the on the term “validity”).  Luther’s illustration is supposed to ground his argument that the sacrament is valid without distinction, but his illustration only proves that baptism can still be administered validly even when it is not received validly.  Because of this, his claim that infant baptism is valid, is either too ambiguous to be proven, or if we assume he means “valid” in an unqualified sense, his illustrations do not help to prove the kind of validity necessary to make a case against his opponents. 

Fallacy of False Analogy 

There is another flaw with the illustrative part of Luther’s defense.  Proving that the baptism can be validly administered to an adult who claims to have faith in Christ but does not (the Jew in Luther’s illustration), is incapable of proving the validity of administering baptism to an adult who does not claim to have faith, much less an infant who cannot even claim to have faith.  If Luther’s illustration cannot prove his claim that baptism should be administered whether or not the recipient has faith, much less is it able to prove the validity of infant baptism.  His argument simply has no particular relevance to infant baptism, in which case the infant is not even claiming to have faith.  Yet this is what Luther is supposed to be proving—that infant baptism is valid because baptism in general remains valid even when “wrongly received or used.”[7]  There is not enough legitimate parallel in Luther’s illustration to carry any weight towards defending infant baptism.  

When Luther attempts to compare the Anabaptist position (that baptism is only valid if faith is present in the recipient) to the position that Christ is only Lord when people believe him to be so, he argues against a straw man.  The differences between these two positions should be painfully obvious, and they consequently nullify Luther’s argument.  Luther’s argument assumes that if his opponents hold that the recipient of baptism must have faith in order for baptism to be valid, we must also grant that things other than baptism are only valid or genuine if someone has faith in them.  Luther is embarrassingly sloppy at this point.  To say that faith is a necessary ingredient for a baptism to be valid (from the perspective of the recipient) is very different than holding that faith is a necessary ingredient for anything to be genuine or valid.  Luther, therefore, although claiming simply to press the logic of his opponents to its absurd conclusion, is in fact pressing the position of his opponents beyond what their position logically demands.  Thus, Luther is guilty of caricaturizing his opponent’s position.  We might return the fallacy by using the same logic against Luther, and so argue that his position (that baptism is valid even without faith) requires him to hold that the whole Christian life might be lived validly apart from any true faith.

Incoherency Within Luther’s Own Position 

An important point to notice about Luther’s defense of infant baptism is the tension which results from his separation of faith from the moment baptism is administered.  On the one hand Luther holds that baptism is not efficacious unless it is “received by faith,” but on the other hand he holds infant baptism to be “valid” even when the infant does not have faith before, during, or years after the baptism.  The necessary inference which must be drawn, then, is that baptism is not always immediately efficacious.  Although, as we have already seen, Luther admonishes his readers to believe (“if you did not believe before [when you were baptized], then believe afterward and confess”[8]), this does not resolve the tension between his holding to the efficacy of baptism on the one hand, and delayed effects of baptism on the other.  We might call this doctrine delayed efficacy, and it is a definite tension which goes unresolved in The Large Catechism.  If Luther holds out this possibility—that faith need not be present at the moment of baptism or even years after—then Luther would be wrong to say that baptism is efficacious in the normal sense of sacramental efficacy.  It would have been more logically clean for Luther to hold that infants receive faith through the baptism rather than holding out the possibility of infant baptism with a delayed efficacy.   

Another tension which is never resolved in Luther’s framework involves his warning about separating faith from baptism.  First of all, Luther himself is guilty of separating faith from baptism with his doctrine of delayed efficacy.  Secondly, his admonishment to others not to separate the two is out of place in his paradigm.  This second problem follows from the fact that real faith cannot exist apart from the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, who, in Luther’s paradigm, is received only through baptism.  In other words, if faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not received until baptism, then it does not make sense to admonish anyone to “receive” their baptism in faith.  It would make more sense to admonish them to receive their faith in faith, but this does not comport well logically either.

Furthermore, if faith must come through baptism (unless God is a liar who promised the Holy Spirit in baptism, with all his gifts)—that is, if faith cannot not be a result of baptism—what need is there to warn people not to separate faith from baptism?  Given Luther’s paradigm, there is no possible danger of separating faith from baptism, because faith is effectively produced in baptism by God himself.[9]  Yet Luther insists on not administering baptism when faith is not present: “Baptism helps no one and is to be administered to no one unless he believes for himself.  No one who does not personally believe is to be baptized.”[10]  Luther’s admonishments not to separate faith from baptism, then, are not fitting for two reasons: 1) He himself temporally separates the two from one another in infant baptism and 2) his view of efficacy makes such a separation impossible.  For these reasons, it is a logical headache to follow Luther in his incoherent attempt to justify infant baptism apart from faith.[11] 


[1] Luther was forced to use logic, because he admitted that there were no direct commands in the New Testament to baptize infants.  He thought that since the great commission was a simple command to baptize without any mention of faith as a condition, infant baptism was implicated in the command.  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 303.  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 361.

[2] Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 133.

[3] Karl Barth believed that “Luther’s defense of infant baptism is sustainable once the presuppositions of his wider theology of baptism are admitted.”  Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, 4.  This is precisely because Luther’s defense everywhere assumes his paradigm and begs the key questions.  

[4] It seems that Lohse misses this crucial part of Luther’s argument at this point.  Lohse summarizes this argument like this: “God would not have allowed something improper to be in force for so long.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 303.  However, Luther’s argument was not simply that infant baptism had always been practiced, but that unless God was giving his Holy Spirit through those baptisms, there would be no church.  “…in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 441.  If baptism is the only way God gives his Holy Spirit, and the church members were all baptized in infancy not as adults—the Holy Sprit had to have been given through their baptism or else there would be no church.  Althaus first gives a similar summarization as Lohse, but sees Luther as giving two arguments instead of one.  The second argument he summarizes like this: “It also must be said that if infant baptism were false and contrary to God’s will, then there would have been no true baptism and thus also no church for more than a thousand years.  For without baptism there is no church.”  Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 360.  Luther, however, never voices any such argument in the Catechism, but only speaks in terms of the Holy Spirit’s being present in the church.  Perhaps Althaus is aware of a passage that would shed more light on what Luther meant in the Large Catechism.  Otherwise it seems to be reading into the Luther’s argument.    

[5] Lohse rightly recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 302. 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 444. 

[7] Ibid., 443. 

[8] Ibid., 443. 

[9] “Yet even if they could establish that children are without faith when they are baptized it would make no difference to me … for faith doesn’t exist for the sake of baptism, but baptism for the sake of faith.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 40, Church and Ministry II, 240-41.    

[10] Althaus quoting Luther, The Theology of Martin Luther, 364. 

[11] Althaus says in regard to the problem of making faith necessary and still seeing infant baptism as valid, “Luther’s thoughts about this are not always constant but are in a process of development.”  Ibid., 364.

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 2

Luther’s Limiting of Saving Grace to Baptism as Presumptuous

One of the ways Luther attempts to acquit himself from teaching salvation by human works, as we have seen, is to claim that baptism is not merely an act done by men, but is ultimately God’s act.  He answers the accuser like this: “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s…”[1]  Luther actually turned this accusation around by accusing those who claimed that salvation was by faith apart from baptism to actually be the ones who are trusting in human works instead of the work of God (baptism).[2]  This reveals a great deal about the way Luther drew his dividing lines between human works and God’s gift of salvation.  That salvation is “not of works” does not, for Luther, rule out the possibility of salvation being by works in any sense, but only rules out works done apart from the divine and supernatural empowering of God.  Since Luther limited God’s supernatural saving grace to the sacrament of baptism,[3] trusting in anything but God’s salvific work through baptism—including faith in Christ—is to be guilty of trusting in human works.[4]

Although there is in fact a great deal of truth in Luther’s words of defense, he assumes without argumentation that God’s saving work of grace is limited to the sacraments.  It is true that even our “good works” (such as obediently[5] submitting to Christ’s command to be baptized) are done by the power of God’s grace, and are thus ultimately God’s work.  It is the Arminian mentality which divides certain parts of our obedience from God’s grace.  Anything good we do at all—whether acts of the will, such as coming to Christ, or our bodily actions of obedience to God’s commandments—it is all by the power of God’s saving grace.[6]  Luther is correct in assuming that grace is not to be conceived in opposing distinction to all works, but rather to anything done apart from the power of God’s grace.  Therefore, that salvation is by grace and not of works does not necessarily mean that salvation and grace do not include works done by the power of the grace of God.[7] 

Thus, Luther’s mistake is not in his dividing lines between works done in the power of God’s grace (which Luther would say are ultimately God’s works) and works done apart from God’s work of grace (which are mere human works which profit nothing).  Rather, Luther’s mistake is in his limiting God’s saving grace to the sacrament of baptism, and as we have seen, this limitation is based on a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 which Luther fails to demonstrate and which rests finally on an overly simplistic hermeneutic which does not take into account the totality of biblical teaching.  As with his hermeneutic, Luther does not argue that whatever God effects he effects through the sacraments, he merely asserts it. 

Furthermore, the logic Luther uses here to clear himself from the charge of teaching works salvation ought also to prevent him from accusing his opponents of teaching a works-based salvation.  So long as his opponents hold that faith itself is God’s work, he can no more charge them with believing in works salvation than he can himself.  I can hear Luther’s opponents now, retorting back to Luther: “If those works which God does are not human works, and we hold that faith is a work which God does in us, then you cannot suspect or charge us with any belief in salvation by works just because we hold that faith comes apart from water baptism.”  When Luther limits salvific grace to the sacrament of baptism and therefore accuses anyone who thinks a man can be saved apart from water baptism as guilty of trusting in human works (works done apart from the grace of God), he fails to reckon with his own logic.  If his opponents do not assert that faith is a human work done apart from God’s work, Luther would have to consequently withdraw his accusation based on his own principles.[8]  His attempt to justify himself and yet condemn his opponents is based on an uncharitable double standard.  


[1] Luther, The Book of Concord, 441. 

[2] See footnote 15.     

[3] See paragraph 3 in “Baptism as God’s Word Comprehended in Water.”

[4] See footnote 15. 

[5] I say “obediently” because it is possible to submit oneself for baptism without faith, and such an act would not be true obedience (Heb 11:6). 

[6] I say “saving” grace to distinguish from what is called “common grace,” which does not include the granting of true obedience. 

[7] In fact, I would even go beyond Luther and claim that when the Apostle Paul speaks of “not having a righteousness of my own,” (Phil 3:9) this does not by itself prove that the righteousness in which he wishes to be found on the last day is outside himself (an alien righteousness) or does not include good deeds done by the power of God’s grace.  That God’s gift of righteousness is “not of our own” does not necessarily mean it does not consist within us or our good works any more than Paul’s denial that it was him who “labored even more than all of them,” but rather, “the grace of God with me,” means that this grace did not include human labor (1 Cor 15:10, cf. Rom 2:4-16).  

[8] Luther also granted that faith was a work of God: “For faith is a work of God, not of man, as Paul teaches.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 36, Word and Sacrament II, ed. Abdel Ross Wentz, gen ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 62.   

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, a critique, part 1

Review: In our last post we looked at Luther’s doctrine of Baptism as systematically presented in his Large Catechism.  We noted that for Luther, baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word.”  By “God’s Word,” Luther has two very specific aspects of God’s Word in mind: 1) God’s commandment to perform baptism in the great commission, and 2) God’s promise to save those who are baptized.  Thus, for Luther, baptism is comprehensive in that it comprehends all of salvation—nothing less than God himself, along with all his gifts.  Baptism mediates all spiritual blessings.  Therefore, without it, no one can be a Christian.  Baptism does not merely symbolize salvation, it effects that which it symbolizes.  Luther counters the accusation that his gospel is works based by arguing that baptism is God’s work, not a mere human work.  He also accuses those who trust in faith alone apart from baptism as sufficient for salvation to be therefore trusting in something other than God’s work–human works.  Thus, for Luther, to trust in faith alone as sufficient for salvation (apart from the sacramental mediation of grace through baptism) is to trust in a false gospel of human works.  If you find this shocking in light of Luther’s famed reputation in Reformed circles as the one who defended sola fide, welcome to the enlightening world of theological research. 

We will now proceed to critique Luther’s view of baptism.  The critique must be broken down into three sections.  First I will show that Luther’s hermeneutic is unproven and therefore vulnerable.  Second, I will attempt to argue that Luther’s limiting of saving grace to the mediation of baptism is guilty of presumption.  Third, I will show that Luther engages in some logical fallacies when arguing for the rightness of infant baptism.   

A Critique of Luther’s Paradigm and Argumentation

Some of Luther’s arguments are valid.  For example, if Luther’s argument against those who say baptism is “of no use,” is interpreted to be directed at “some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century” who argued against practice of baptism altogether, his argument is simple but sound: “What God institutes and commands cannot be useless.”[1]  However, it is the burden of this series of posts to show weaknesses in his argumentation, both in his hermeneutics and his logic.  Therefore, we will only be focusing on those arguments which fit this purpose.   

Luther’s Basic Paradigm as Foundationally Flawed by a Wooden Hermeneutic

Luther’s paradigm of baptism as water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation) is based on the hermeneutical assumption that the promise in Mark 16:16 is to be taken at face value to teach that baptism is the instrumental cause of salvation.  Luther’s argument for baptismal regeneration, therefore, is very similar to his argument for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, where Luther also applies a wooden hermeneutic to Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper, “This is my body” (Mt 26:26).  While this kind of interpretation often worked in Luther’s favor, in the case of his view of baptism (and I would argue, the Lord’s Supper) this hermeneutic led him into grave error.  Nowhere is this assumption more clear than in the following quote:

In the second place, since we now know what Baptism is and how it is to be regarded, we must also learn for what purpose it was instituted, that is, what benefits, gifts, and effects it brings.  Nor can we understand this better than from the words of Christ quoted above, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  To put it most simply, the power, effect benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.  No one is baptized in order to become a prince, but as the words say, to “be saved.”[2] [emphasis mine]

It could be argued that Mark 16:16 demands a different interpretation on the basis of the sound hermeneutical principle to interpret the implicit in the light of the explicit.  This principle, along with the fact that as the narrative continues in Acts, the Holy Spirit is given completely apart from any water baptism, is enough to cast reasonable doubt on Luther’s prima facie interpretation of Mark 16:16.[3]  Furthermore, how is this passage in the gospel narrative of Mark to be squared with other gospel narratives and more didactic genre’s which seem to lay out the simple way of salvation without reference to baptism?[4]  Moreover, such a simplistic interpretation of Mark 16:16 seems to violently set itself against Paul’s mentality to the Corinthians: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor 1:17).  Any view of baptismal regeneration will have to see Paul’s comments here as a false dichotomy which, at best, confuses his readers about the relation of baptism to the gospel and to salvation. 

My point here is not necessarily to argue for a specific alternative interpretation of Mark 16:16 so much as it is to show that Luther never deals with the difficulties of his literal interpretation, nor does he argue for this interpretation.  Rather, he simply assumes this interpretation based on an overly simplified hermeneutic.  Most of his paradigm and argumentation from this point on, unfortunately, is based on this unchecked interpretation of Mark 16:16.  This places the rest of Luther’s teaching in The Large Catechism on a vulnerable foundation.      

While Luther’s assumption of a particular interpretation of Mark 16:16 can be seen as a lack of hermeneutical discernment, it can also be considered as a logical fallacy.  After this point in the catechism, Luther everywhere assumes his particular interpretation of this passage to argue against any view which does not see baptism as salvific.  In doing so, Luther commits the fallacy of question begging,[5] assuming what he has set out to prove.

Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. … But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand [the promise of salvation in baptism].  Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it. … Now these people are so foolish as to separate faith from the object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. … We have here the words, ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved.’  To what do they refer but to Baptism, that is, the water comprehended in God’s ordinance?[6] 

Here Luther accuses those who say that faith saves apart from water baptism as being guilty of separating faith from its object of belief.  How does this argument work in Luther’s mind?  If baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word, and this means that it is water comprehended in God’s promise of salvation, then faith in God’s Word includes believing God’s promise of salvation through baptism.  Thus, for Luther, a faith which does not include faith in God’s promise of salvation in baptism is not saving faith.  Faith must include faith in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”). 

Basically, Luther’s logic could be summarized like this: Since God promises to save through baptism, anyone who separates saving faith from belief in this promise has stripped faith of its content.  As should be obvious, this entire argument is begging the million dollar question, for Luther’s opponents obviously do not agree with his assumption that God has promised salvation through baptism.  Luther’s argument begins by assuming what he has set out to prove—that baptism is water comprehended in God’s Word (i.e. God’s promise of salvation in baptism).  If God has not promised salvation through baptism, then to deny baptism of salvific power would not involve separating the water from God’s Word.  In fact, as many would want to argue (myself included), to add such a meaning to baptism is to distort the totality of biblical teaching about salvation and thus shroud God’s Word of promise.

Luther’s ill conceived paradigm of baptism as “water comprehended in God’s Word” accounts for all the radical things he teaches about baptism in the catechism.  When Luther says God’s commandment and promise are “added to” the water, he means the same thing as when he says baptism is water “comprehended” in God’s Word.  Likewise, when Luther says that God’s Word is “attached” to the sacrament, he has both the command to baptize and the promise of salvation in mind: “For the nucleus in the water is God’s Word or commandment and God’s name.”[7]  It is also on the basis of God’s Word being “attached” to the sacrament that Luther makes his claim that baptismal water is not just water, but divine water.

It is nothing else than a divine water, not that the water in itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it….This shows that it is not simple, ordinary water, for ordinary water could not have such an effect.[8] 

Hence it is well described as a divine, blessed, fruitful, and gracious water, for through the Word Baptism receives the power to became the “washing of regeneration,” as St. Paul calls it in Titus 3:5.[9] 

It is on the basis of God’s command and promise that water becomes a divine sacrament. 

From the Word it derives its nature as a sacrament.… This means that when the Word is added to the element or the natural substance, it becomes a sacrament, that is, a holy, divine thing and sign.[10]   

When Luther says that baptism “contains and conveys all the fullness of God,”[11] he is best understood as meaning that through it we receive God’s work of salvation which includes nothing less than God himself—the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit gives inner renewal (regeneration), the granting of faith in Christ, and the granting of repentance, which Luther speaks of in terms of being delivered from the bondage of sin.  This gift is nothing less than eternal life in the kingdom of God.  Given this paradigm, it is difficult to think of anything which is not comprehended in some way by Luther’s doctrine of baptism. 

To put it most simply, the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of Baptism is to save.… To be saved, we know, is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil and to enter into the kingdom of Christ and live with him forever.[12] 

He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Sprit with his gifts.  [It is] priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.[13]

Any and all spiritual blessings whatsoever which are able to be experienced in this life are received immediately through water baptism, which blessings secure those eternal blessings which are still to come.  To be baptized, then, is to do nothing less than receive God and inherit the world with Christ.  In fact, “even the traditional description of baptism as a ‘means of grace’ is a less than felicitous phrase because it suggests the presence of something other than God himself.”[14]  It is no wonder that when Luther was in the midst of spiritual assaults (whatever those were about), instead of claiming the alien righteousness of Christ for himself, he “relied on baptism.”[15]   This is not the poster boy Luther of Reformed Orthodoxy’s rhetorical propaganda, but it is the real Luther.

In our next post, we will see that in addition to Luther’s vulnerable hermeneutic, his sacramental limitation of grace is guilty of presumption.



[1] Luther, Book of Concord, 437.

[2] Ibid., 439.

[3] See esp. Acts 8:14-17, Acts 10:44-48.

[4] See esp. Acts 10:43, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22, 10:9-13, Eph 2:8-9. 

[5] Or by Carson’s categories, we might call it the fallacy of mere emotional appeal.  D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, second ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books House Co., 1996), 106-07.  Luther’s appeal (“these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that…”) is similar to the example Carson gives of Prof. Smith.  “Sometimes a mild case of emotional abuse occurs when one writer responds to another with some such phrasing as this: ‘Astonishingly, Prof. Smith fails to take into account the fact that. . . .'” 

[6] Luther, The Book of Concord, 440.  Luther has intentionally prepared his readers to be ready for this argument by  emphasizing the necessity of not separating the water from the Word.  “I therefore admonish you again that these two, the Word and the water, must by no means be separated from each other.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 439.     

[7] Ibid., 438. 

[8] Ibid., 438-39.

[9] Ibid., 440.

[10] Ibid., 438. 

[11] Ibid., 438. 

[12] Ibid., 439. 

[13] Ibid., 442. 

[14] Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 31.

[15] Ibid., 24. 

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, the Large Catechism

The Large Catechism

 Our study begins with The Large Catechism for at least three reasons: 1) it is Luther’s explicitly systematic approach to the doctrine of baptism, 2) its brevity makes it more fitting for this short post series because it enables a more detailed treatment, and 3) The Large Catechism was written well after the initial controversy of the Reformation and thus can be representative of the “older” Luther.[1]  One cannot begin to understand where to start a critique of Luther’s arguments for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism unless one first comprehends his basic framework for understanding the nature of baptism—namely, that baptism is “water comprehended in God’s Word and commandment.”[2]  Once Luther argues for this definition of baptism in The Large Catechism, he bases most (if not all) of his varied polemical argumentation squarely on this foundation.  He uses this view of baptism against non-salvific views of baptism, against those who deny the validity of infant baptism, against those who would require faith before baptism, and against those who would desire a rebaptism under any circumstance.  Therefore, it is crucial to understand Luther’s teaching on the nature of baptism in order to appreciate and evaluate his polemical argumentation. 

Baptism as God’s Word Comprehended in Water

 Luther begins his treatment of baptism in The Large Catechism by giving a strong statement about the importance of having a good grasp on the two sacraments: “because without these no one can be Christian.”[3]  His treatment is intended to be systematic, including all things necessary to know concerning baptism.[4]  As we might expect from Luther, his teaching begins by quoting in full the two verses on which the rest of his teaching in the catechism is virtually a commentary—namely, Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16.[5]  These two verses contain God’s commandment as well as God’s promise, both of which demonstrate the opposite of the teaching of certain “sects” who were teaching that since baptism is an external thing, it is “of no use.”[6]  Since the Lord has both commanded it (“go and baptize,” Mt 28:19) and has promised to save us through it (“whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Mk 16:16), baptism is water “comprehended in God’s Word and commandment and sanctified by them.”[7]  That baptism is to be performed “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” means that “to be baptized…is to be baptized not by men but by God himself.  Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”[8]  Thus baptism is to be distinguished from human works and achievements to which we tend to attach “greater importance.”[9] 

The fact that God’s Word (the promise of salvation) is attached to baptism is sufficient (in Luther’s mind) to defeat the skeptics who say, “How can a handful of water help the soul?” (i.e. anyone who would deny baptismal regeneration).[10]  Here Luther spends most of his catechismal energy.  Not only are those who claim that baptism is merely an external sign having no spiritual effect “so foolish as to separate faith from the object [Gods Word] to which faith is attached and bound,” but Luther argues that they miss the point that God’s grace has been limited to being distributed only through the external sacraments.  “Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the sense and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation.  In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.”[11]  Therefore, faith alone will not do, because although “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably,”[12] faith apart from the actual administration of the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a faith which is mustered up apart from the power of God’s grace and severed from God’s Word—and thus it is a human work.[13]  Such faith is just as shaky ground for salvation as any other human work.[14] 

The Comprehensiveness and Permanency of Baptism 

Since baptism includes nothing less than all of salvation and God himself, Luther concludes that in the teaching about baptism, “every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.”  Luther considers all sanctification and repentance as nothing more than a “walking in Baptism,”[15] and “a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued.”[16]  Thus, when we find ourselves spiritually weak, having fallen into sin, or having pangs of conscience, we simply need to “draw strength and comfort from” our baptism, and “retort, ‘But I am baptized!'”[17]  “When this amendment of life does not take place but the old man is given free reign and continually grows stronger, Baptism is not being used but resisted.”[18]  With this logic, Luther is ready to concede that penance is sufficiently entailed in baptism and forever rid the need of separating these two as separate sacraments.[19]  

Justification for Infant Baptism[20] 

Luther’s teaching that through baptism we receive “perfect holiness and salvation”[21] raises a question in his catechism about infant baptism which leads him into a lengthy defense of it.  The question is whether “children” [and by this he means infants[22]] also believe, and is it right to baptize them?”[23]  Luther’s first line of argument is from the effects of baptism as seen in those who were baptized as infants.  Since only through baptism can one receive God’s Spirit and new life, when those who were baptized as infants live a life that attests “that they have the Holy Sprit,” they prove that God was pleased to bless their baptism and that infant baptism is pleasing to Him.[24] 

The next defense is an argument from church history.  Since infant baptism has been practiced and received by even all the early church fathers and through the ages and God has gifted these men and the church through the ages with the Holy Spirit, therefore God obviously is pleased with the practice, “for he can never be in conflict with himself, support lies and wickedness, or give his grace and Spirit for such ends. … For no one can take from us or overthrow this article, ‘I believe one holy Christian church, the communion of saints,’ etc.”[25] 

The nature of validity is Luther’s next argument for infant baptism.  He argues that the “validity” of baptism does not depend on faith because its validity depends only on God’s Word, and God does not lie.[26]  “When the Word accompanies the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be lacking.  For my faith does not constitute Baptism but receives it.”[27]  Even if baptism is “wrongly received or used,”[28] this would not make it invalid.  Luther illustrates this with a hypothetical case in which a Jew who does not really believe in Christ pretends that he wished to become a Christian and allows himself to baptized by the church.  Would the baptism then be “invalid”?  Obviously not, Luther thinks.  If we admit that the way one receives a sacrament has the power to nullify its validity, we would have to say that those who take the Lords Supper unworthily do not receive the “real” sacrament.[29]  Luther attempts to press the logic of the dissenters into absurdity: “Likewise I might argue, ‘If I have no faith, then Christ is nothing.’  Or again, ‘If I am not obedient, then father, mother and magistrates are nothing.'”[30]  Finally, the reformer attempts to reverse the objection that lack of faith makes a sacrament “invalid,” based on the “saying” that “Misuse does not destroy the substance, but confirms its existence.”[31]  While arguing that the validity of baptism does not depend on faith, he revealingly urges his readers, “Therefore, I say, if you did not believe before [when you were baptized], then believe afterward and confess, ‘The Baptism indeed was right, but unfortunately I did not receive it rightly.'”[32]  To urge the importance of faith for all who are baptized is necessary, but to hold that the validity of baptism depends on faith is, to Luther’s sensibilities, quite absurd.    

Baptism as Symbolic 

Although baptism is not merely symbolic for Luther, it does signify the very grace it imparts to the faithful recipient.  That is, it signifies nothing less than death to sin, and the resurrection of the new man, “both of which actions must continue in us our whole life long.”[33]  Baptism, therefore, both signifies and conveys salvation to the recipient who receives baptism in faith—regardless of whether this receiving in faith takes place at the actual administration of baptism or later in life.

In our next post we will critique Luther’s view of Baptism.


[1] Trigg argues that most studies done on Luther focus more on the younger Luther at the expense of the older Luther, and that this is especially true with regard to his view on Baptism.  Jonathan D. Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (New York, New York: E.J. Brill, 1994), 9.  Although Trigg specifically mentions a neglect of Luther’s theology of baptism after 1530, we might safely assume that if Luther’s catechism was never revised, and no further data demonstrates a significant change in his view, his teaching in the Large Catechism thus represents fairly the view which he held until the day of his death.  However, because we are dealing with the late Luther, we will not be engaging his arguments for infant baptism which include arguments concerning the faith of sponsors.  According to Althaus, this was an argument which Luther eventually quit using anyway.  Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1966), 364.     

[2] Martin Luther, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 438.  By “comprehended,” Luther means something like, “seen from the vantage point of,” or “empowered by.”   

[3] Ibid., 436.   

[4] “In order that it may be readily understood, we shall treat it in a systematic way and confine ourselves to that which is necessary for us to know.”  Ibid, 436.  

[5] The command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).  The promise: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who had disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mk 16:16). 

[6] Ibid., 437.  It is not completely clear whether Luther has in mind sects who teach that baptism is of no use for salvation, or of no use whatsoever.  Since he later argues against the former, I am inclined to think this is who he has in mind here.  The editor leaves the following footnote: “This was an argument used by some left-wing radicals in the sixteenth century.”  But this does not tell us which radicals he had in mind. 

[7] Ibid., 438.  As we will see later, this basic paradigm accounts for all the radical things Luther says about baptismal water, the utter reliability of baptism even if the recipient has no faith, the efficacy of baptism, and baptism as conveying more than just grace, but God himself.   

[8] Ibid., 437.  Herein also is Luther’s response to those who accuse him of believing in salvation by works.  “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation.  Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s…”  Ibid., 441. 

[9] Ibid., 438. 

[10] Ibid., 438.  Here Luther more clearly does not have in mind those who say that baptism is “of no use,” whatsoever, but anyone who would deny baptism to be a work which literally saves the soul.  That is, since God has commanded baptism and promised salvation through it (Mk 16:16), that is enough to silence any critic who would ridicule the notion of baptismal regeneration.  “Our know-it-alls, the new spirits, assert that faith alone saves and that works and external things contribute nothing to this end. … But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith must have something to believe—something to which it may cling and upon which it may stand [the promise of salvation in baptism].  Thus faith clings to the water and believes it to be Baptism in which there is sheer salvation and life, not through the water, as we have sufficiently stated, but through its incorporation with God’s Word and ordinance and the joining of his name to it.” [emphasis mine]  Ibid., 440.   

[11] Ibid., 440.  Later, I will refer to this in terms of a sacramental limitation of saving grace. 

[12] Ibid., 440.  “God’s works [such as baptism], however, are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith, for without faith they could not be grasped.  Just by allowing the water to be poured over you, you do not receive Baptism in such a manner that it does you any good.  But it becomes beneficial to you if you accept it as God’s command and ordinance, so that, baptized in the name of God, you may receive in the water the promised salvation.  This the hand cannot do, nor the body, but the heart must believe it. … Actually, we insist on faith alone as so necessary that without it nothing can be received or enjoyed.”  Ibid., 441.  

[13] Tranvik argues that Luther saw pre-baptism faith as a human work, not the work of God, and thus he considered anyone who believed faith came before baptism to be in the same heretical camp with Rome, trusting in human works and denying the gospel.  “Therefore, one dare not base his baptism on his faith.  For who can be sure if he really believes?  The Enthusiasts’ stress on subjectivity, like the late medieval view of penance and monasticism, troubles Luther because it put the question of salvation back into the hands of a frail and doubting humanity. … From Luther’s perspective, the dispute with the Enthusiasts is not merely about the nature of material things and whether or not they can be mediums of the divine.  Rather, the gospel itself is at stake.  … In his conflict with enthusiasm, Luther suspects that faith itself is being idolized, the very faith that is subject to the vagaries of human moods and emotions.  Faith simply cannot bear that burden and remain salvific.  Again, as was the case with Rome, Luther believes the enthusiasts are shrouding the life-giving promise.  God must move from the external to the internal.  To reverse the order is to make faith a work and set up a pernicious ordo salutis based on law.  What Luther did was expose the essential nomism of the Enthusiasts.” Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 32-33.  “And he most sharply rejects the attempt to determine whether or not an adult believes, particularly in the form in which it was practices by the Baptists.”  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Luther considered the Anabaptists to be sects of the devil.  “Here we come to a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.”  Luther, The Book of Concord, 442.           

[14] “I say the same thing about the baptized one who receives or grounds his baptism on his faith.  For he is not sure of his own faith….Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can maintain his position, for both are uncertain of their faith, or at least are in constant peril and anxiety. … For the verse does not say, ‘Whoever knows that he believes, or, if you know that anyone believes,’ but it says, ‘Whoever believes.’ Who has it, has it.  One must believe, but we neither should nor can know it for certain.”  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol 40, Church and Ministry II, ed. Conrad Bergendoff, gen ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 240-41. 

[15] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445.      

[16] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[17] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[18] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[19] Luther, The Book of Concord, 445. 

[20] Although Luther did argue elsewhere that “Children must believe for themselves and must believe at the time of baptism,” he does not make this argument in the Large Catechism.  Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365.  Althaus’ summary, however, is helpful to understand Luther’s argument that infant baptism does not depend on faith but on the Word of promise: “Children are to be baptized not because it can be proved they believe, but because infant baptism is scriptural and the will of God. … He is certain that children believe because infant baptism is right and valid—and for no other reason.”  Ibid, 365. 

[21] Luther, The Book of Concord, 442. 

[22] In the beginning of the next paragraph he uses the word “infant” as a synonym: “But if you wish to answer, then say: That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from his own work.”  Ibid., 442. 

[23] Ibid., 442. 

[24] Ibid., 442.  “Now, if God did not accept the Baptism of infants, he would not have given any of them the Holy Spirit nor any part of him: in short, all this time down to the present day no man on earth could have been a Christian.”  Ibid., 442-43.    

[25] Ibid., 443. 

[26] “I myself, and all who are baptized, must say before God: ‘I cannot build on the fact that I believe and many people are praying for me.  On this I build, that it is thy Word and command.’  We bring the child with the purpose and hope that he may believe, and we pray God to grant him faith.  But we do not baptize him on that account, but solely on the command of God.  Why?  Because we know that God does not lie.”  Ibid., 443-44.  

[27] Ibid., 443.  Although Lohse says that “Luther gave centrality to the duality of ‘promise’ (promissio) and ‘faith’ (fides),” he actually gave more prominence to promise and command, since he held that baptism depended only on these, and therefore is “valid” though faith “be lacking.”  Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.    

[28] Luther, The Book of Concord, 443. 

[29] Ibid., 443.  “Similarly, those who partake unworthily of the Lord’s Supper receive the true sacrament even though they do not believe.”   

[30] Ibid., 444. 

[31] Ibid., 444. 

[32] Ibid., 443. 

[33] Ibid., 445.

Luther’s Doctrine of Baptism, intro

The next several posts will be about Luther’s doctrine of baptism.  The point is to critique his doctrine and show that by the standards of many of today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy, Luther didn’t really believe the gospel.  This is because Luther didn’t really believe in sola fide, which many of today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy think is the essence of the gospel.  Of course, I think Luther believed the gospel.  But that’s because my understanding of the gospel is more basic than notions of the gospel that developed during the polemics of the Reformation. 

Although teachers from Reformed traditions tend to venerate Luther as the great reformer who rescued the church from a sacramental understanding of salvation to an understanding of salvation by faith alone apart from any external “works,” [as understood by today’s defenders of reformed orthodoxy] this caricature could not be further from the truth.  On the one hand, Luther scratched five of the seven sacraments off the sacred list.  On the other hand, when it came to a sacramental paradigm, Luther was virtually Roman Catholic.[1]  Of course, as one might expect, in his polemics against Rome he emphasized the need for faith.  Nevertheless, as we will see, in his polemics against certain protestant sects, Luther both denied the need for faith during the administration of baptism and boasted in the efficacy of the sacrament as conferring nothing less than the fullness of salvation.  While in different polemical contexts, Luther’s teaching on baptism had radically different emphases, his basic understanding of baptism never underwent a substantial change.[2] 

This blog series is an attempt to survey the great reformer’s most basic teaching concerning baptism in The Large Catechism in order to orient the reader to his basic sacramental paradigm for baptism, demonstrate that this framework of thought for baptismal regeneration and infant baptism in The Large Catechism is foundationally dependent upon an unproven hermeneutical judgment and that Luther’s defense of it is entangled in a number of logical fallacies.  In the conclusive post, I will make a brief suggestion concerning what significance Luther’s view of baptism bears on the interpretation of the Reformation slogan attributed to him—sola fide.       

[1] Lohse makes the judgment that although Luther “with his emphasis on the strict correlation of baptism and faith…gave new accent to traditional baptismal theology…on the whole [he] did not attack it.”  Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999), 303.  Lohse also recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism.  Ibid, 302.  

 [2] Mark D. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 24.

Human Emotions are of Supreme Importance to the Imago Dei

If the brightest colors in the biblical picture of God are painted with the brush strokes of emotional language, we might expect human emotions to be central in the biblical picture of mankind since humans are the most God-like of all creatures. Furthermore, if God’s perfect holiness, raging wrath, and passionate love are to be understood in terms of his emotions, we might expect that the holiness, virtue, and love of those made in the imago Dei are also to be understood primarily in terms of emotions—and this is exactly what we find. Not only are fear, contrition, joy, gratitude and love commanded, they are central to biblical ethics and receive an unparalleled place in glorifying God. If this is true, central to redemption is the redemption of human affection from centering on sin to centering on God, and central to the restoration of the image of God in people is the restoration of God-centered emotions. 

Ways to Distort the Biblical Teaching about Emotions – The numbers of angles through which this truth can be supported are so overwhelming that a denial of it can only be respectively achieved by running the emotive language in the Bible through a foreign philosophical grid. Such philosophical intrusion takes place on at least three accounts. First, as we have already seen, Thomistic theism creates unnecessary stumbling blocks to the importance of emotion by denying their existence—and therefore importance—within God himself. Second, non-cognitive views of emotion in philosophers such as Plato (who contrasts emotion with the intellect), René Descartes and Schleiermacher (who equate emotion with the physical effects of emotion), David Hume (who understands emotions as animal like), Immanuel Kant (who argues that emotions have no role in ethics), in evolutionary scientists who follow the non-cognitive theories of Charles Darwin (who argues that emotion developed before cognition as an adaptive survival behavior independent of the will), and especially the James-Lange theory of emotion in psychology (which reduces emotions down to changes in physiology) have made great headway in confusing the masses about the nature of emotion itself. This confusion has resulted in an unnecessary dichotomy between ethics and emotion, and has greatly influenced New Testament interpretation.

Third, certain popular philosophical notions of culpability make adherents uncomfortable with the idea that God would command an emotion. Such conceptions of culpability rely on the premise that God can only command that which the subject of that command is actually able to do. By extension, it is assumed that God would not make demands of humans with respect to realms over which they have no immediate control. Attempts to come to terms with culpability paradigms have caused many interpreters to exclude the possibility that emotions are commanded in the New Testament since humans are unable to have direct control over them. According to this culpability model, then, love, which is the central virtue and fountainhead of all ethics, cannot be an emotion since God commands it repeatedly. There are many other reasons why interpreters have a vested interest in de-emotionalizing the biblical language of human emotion. Although by no means do these three philosophical trespasses exhaust the complexities of anti-emotion bias in handling the biblical text on human emotion, I have offered a brief critique of the first of these three philosophical disorientations and will also offer a brief critique of the second and third.

Non-Cognitive Theories of Emotion Don’t Cut It – Several cases could be made which would be sufficient in themselves to doubt whether non-cognitive theories of emotion do justice to either the human experience or the biblical texts. These cases could be grouped into at least three categories: cases made from philosophy, the sciences and the biblical text. Arguments from philosophy and science might be summed up with this brief affirmation: cognitive theories of emotion excel in philosophical explanation and scientific research where non-cognitive theories are woefully deficient. Elliot points out further that 1) “there has been no definitive success in differentiating the emotions on the basis of physiology,” 2) “even if each emotion were linked to different physical reactions it would not prove that the non-cognitive approach was correct. This would only show that different cognitions have different physiological reactions,” and 3) “from our knowledge of neuroscience, the brain structures used for emotion and cognition cannot be readily separated.”

Let Philosophy Bow Down to God’s Utterance – There at least three ways of handling the objection that emotions cannot be commanded if the subject has no immediate control over them. The first is authoritarian. If the Scriptures are the ultimate authority and they everywhere command emotion, we must bow down to the mouth of God and conform our petty philosophical construals to fit more comfortably with God’s flawless utterance. The second rebuttal is both philosophical and theological in the sense of being a philosophical argument that fits comfortably within a Calvinistic theological framework. If faith and repentance are emotional in nature (and they are), then God’s holding people responsible for coming to Christ in faith and repentance—even though they are not able without the effectual drawing of the Holy Spirit—demonstrates that capability is not a necessary condition of culpability. The third refutation is more philosophical and is based on a cognitive view of emotion. Simply put, the argument is this: “If emotion is cognitive, love is about something, can be commanded and is emotional.” In other words, if emotions are cognitive, they reflect our belief system. Consequently, our emotions are indicators of our value system—what we believe to be most valuable. Inasmuch as we are responsible for our belief system and our value system, we can likewise be responsible for our emotional dispositions that necessarily result from them. These are only a few of the arguments that demonstrate that emotions can happily fit within the category of imperatives without biblical, theological, or philosophical strain.

Let Words Mean What They Mean: A Call Back to Sober Linguistics – Arguments from the biblical text are less complicated, yet more authoritative. Since the stumbling block has consisted mainly in the error of reading philosophical ideas onto the biblical language, one might push the burden of proof on those who interpret passages in such a way by challenging them to demonstrate whether or not their philosophical ideas about emotion are either explicitly in the text or likely to be inherent in the meaning of the emotive language of the Bible. An evenhanded search for such foreign concepts, however, will inevitably leave the seeker disappointed. In New Testament studies, for example, there were both cognitive and non-cognitive views in the Greco-Roman world, the latter “stresses the unreliable nature of emotion and the need for it to be controlled by reason,” while the former “underscores the need to change harmful emotions by correcting false beliefs.” While non-cognitive Greek ideas about emotion can be seen alongside Jewish ideas about emotion in the writings of Second Temple Judaism, even the most Hellenistic of these writers still rejected the stoic idea of emotional extirpation. Furthermore, some of these same writers found Old Testament views of emotion in tension with Greek Philosophy. The writings of the New Testament are in sharp contrast with more developed ideas about the “passions” from Greek writings that explicitly stress the use of reason and use emotional language pejoratively. Simply put, neither a study of the original languages, contemporary backgrounds, or the context in which emotive terms are used provide sufficient warrant for depleting the emotional words in the original text of their controversially emotive content. On the contrary, they afford merit to do just the opposite.

Conclusion: We Should Not Be Surprised

Although starting as far back as the church fathers, the emotions of God have been seen as metaphorical by many, such erroneous ideas about divine emotions ultimately have their roots in Platonic philosophy, not the sacred Scriptures. “We have been told that God’s emotions were ‘anthropomorphisms’, described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself.” From the prophets of the Old Testament whose prophetic lifeblood resided in provocative metaphors to get emotional responses from the people through “shock value,” to the emotional letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament—even down to the pervasive emotive language about God and from the lips of God himself—the Bible is unabashedly emotional. Even more important, if one desires to take the humble path to discerning what most glorifies God and most impressively reflects his image, one cannot find a more sure route than the commandments of God himself. When Jesus boils the whole law down to love for God and love for people, he virtually places all worship, all obedience, all attempts to glorify God, and all social ethics in an all-encompassing God-like emotion (Mt 22:36-40, cf. Mk 12:28-31, Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13:1-3, 13; 16:14; 1 Pt 1:8; 4:8; Js 2:8; Heb 13:1; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:10-24; 4:7-5:4). Since God is in nature a spirit, one should not be surprised that emotions—which are attributed to the spiritual realm—are the most customary characteristics of God and take center stage in the biblical cinematics of redemptive history. Since mankind is in the image of God, it should not be surprising, then, that the most important of the God-like features of creatures in his image should be their participation in those vigorous exercises of the heart that everywhere define their obedience, holiness, and relationship to God—namely, their emotions.


As far as making a case for the centrality of human emotions to the biblical picture of godliness and spirituality, Jonathan Edwards’ treatise, The Religious Affections, has not been significantly improved. Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2001 Edition). The only exception to this might be the developments made by John Piper in the ethical nature of pleasure and its relation to obedience. Piper, Desiring God. It would be laborious to rehash the multitudes of texts and arguments for this position in this brief paper. Sam Storms has attempted to make Edwards’ work of the affections more accessible to modern readers in Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007).

Edwards concludes “they who would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule by which to judge of the nature of religion.” Edwards, Religious Affections, 35.

Non-cognitive theories either define emotion exclusively in terms of the following three elements or put greater emphasis on one of the following three elements: 1) conscious experience, 2) emotional behavior, 3) physiological events. Non-cognitive theories create sharp dichotomies between cognition and emotion. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 20.

Here I follow the summary given by Matthew A. Elliott in his chapter “What is Emotion?” where he gives an overview of the history of theories on emotion with specific attention to the inadequacies of non-cognitive views of emotion in ethics and psychology. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 16-55.

The noncognitivist metaphysical view is philosophically responsible for denying that moral judgments had any meaningful reference to actual properties of actions, persons, policies and other objects of moral assessment and at best only expressed one’s personal attitudes toward something. Decognizers understand moral judgments to be incapable of being either true or false. David O. Brink, “Emotivism,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, gen. ed. Robert Audi (New York, New York: Cambridge Press, 2006 Printing), 260.

Elliot’s book to a large extent is a cataloging of these errors and the beginning of a new explicitly cognitive approach to interpreting emotions in the New Testament. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 124-235.

From ancient times the so-called “passions,” have been understood as passive from the perspective of the one who experiences them—that is, that emotions happen to a person. They are not something a person consciously chooses. The emotional pain, for example, that may result from an insult, might be compared to the nose bleed that may result from a punch in the nose. People do not make a conscious decision about whether to have a nose bleed when punched, it is demanded by the nature of physical chemistry. Likewise, our emotional responses are like necessary effects of our spiritual chemistry. In either case, emotions are, in a significant sense, out of the subject’s control. Robert M. Gordon, “Emotion,” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 260.

“Many others have agreed by defining love in non-emotional terms. This has often been in response to trying to answer the question of how love can be commanded. … This is also a prevalent misconception on Old Testament studies.” Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 138. Elliot’s work goes a long way in exposing the prevalence of these errors.

Elliot lists the following philosophical problems with the James-Lange theory: 1) The problem of naming specific emotion without reference to cognition: “Whereas the James-Lange theory implied that each emotion must have a unique physical manifestation, experimental evidence points to the fact that there are identical physical responses for different emotions,” 2) the James-Lange theory is woefully deficient in providing a framework in which motivational theory makes sense, 3) the same physical sensations can be interpreted as different emotions in different circumstances, leaving the means for differentiating different emotions in the James-Lange theory inadequate, 4) the failure of the non-cognitive framework to provide evaluation of emotion, that is, to provide a framework for judging whether an emotion is appropriate or inappropriate, right or wrong. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 23, 27-28.

This would include argument like these: Aristotle, who understood human emotion as the result of intellectual realization, had a better understanding of emotion than Plato, 2) Descartes created a false dichotomy by holding that emotion was not caused by cognition but was first felt and then interpreted (or labeled) in cognitive categories, since both are quite capable of coexisting as different stages of the emotional experience, 3) Darwin’s theory of macro-evolution from which he posits a theory of the development of human emotion is vulnerable to critical scientific cross-examination and should not be taken as “pure” and authoritative science, 4) William James’ comment that “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” flies in the face human experience of emotive causality, 5) the James-Lange theory of emotion is laden with anomaly where cognitive views of emotion excel in providing coherent explanation, 6) although the James-Lange theory of emotion held sway in the beginning of the 20th century, more recent work done by Cannon, Schachter and Singer have proven many of the details of the James-Lange theory false and represent a shift toward a more cognitive view of emotions in recent psychology. A close look at philosophy and the sciences actually demands for a cognitive theory of emotions and thereby takes the rug from underneath all philosophical theories relying on non-cognitive views of emotion (William James’ comment is quoted by Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 22).

Arguments against non-cognitive theories of emotion abound also in physiological evidence as set forth by Antonio Damasio:

1. Even when logical facilities are completely intact (as measured in numerous tests) an unfeeling person is unable to function normally or make good practical decisions. People who function as almost a logical computer, having a pronounced lack of emotion in normally emotional circumstances, are unable to function rationally;
2. It is beyond doubt that many different parts of the brain, both higher and lower brain sections, play an indispensable role in emotion;
3. It is probable, based on empirical evidence, that specific emotional responses are learned and not innate [Ibid, 29-30].

Ibid., 29.

As Elliot puts it: “The fact that these things are commanded is not disputed. What is at issue is: (1) are emotions actually commanded in these passages, and; (2) what do these commands mean in practice? The burden of proof is upon those who would argue that these are not commands of emotion. The meaning seems very straightforward. Whether or not we believe it is logical to command emotion, the simplest interpretation of these passages is that the biblical writers do, in fact, command emotion. … There is no evidence from the texts themselves that these terms have been redefined by the writers as theological concepts that do not contain an emotional core. On the contrary, the evidence points to these words retaining their usual meanings of simple emotions. The arguments of those who deny that emotion can be commanded seem to come from a desire to be consistent with their own philosophical understanding of emotion and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the writers of the New Testament. We must challenge the tenability of this position.” Ibid., 141.

See Piper, “Conversion,” in Desiring God, 53-74. Beyond Piper’s demonstration, it might be added that repentance must be defined in terms of the changing of one’s heart with respect to the law of God, which law might be summarized by the most important commandments to “love” God and people (Mt 22:36-40). Repentance might be seen, then, as primarily an emotional change in the heart of the individual who goes from loving sin (idolatry) to loving God and people in his image (reconciliation). This understanding is impressively confirmed, among other texts, by Ezekiel’s description of New Covenant conversion (Ezek 11:19-21, 38:24-27).

Ibid., 141.

Roberts, being influenced by Solomon’s proposal to redefine emotions as judgments, uses similar language define emotions as “concerned-based construals … they are states in which the subject grasps, with a kind of perceptual immediacy, a significance of his or her situation.” Roberts, “Emotions and Christian Teaching,” Spiritual Emotions, 11. For his argument on how this helps understand why emotions can be commanded see his chapter entitled, “Emotions and Christian Character,” Ibid., 22-31. Defining an emotion as a “judgment” or “construal,” however, seems to take the cognitive position too far. Rather, it seems more helpful to understand emotions as intense internal experiences based on one’s judgments/construals. With this sort of definition, one has the ability to maintain the distinction between the judgment itself and the emotion which results. Appreciation of this causality is lost when an emotion is understood as cognition (judgment or construal) rather than an experience based on cognition.

Eric L. Johnson teases out this thought briefly when he writes about emotions as “signs,” which “signify people’s deepest drives, understandings and values, often with greater accuracy than their thoughts about such things,” in his groundbreaking work Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 300-303. 

Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 79.

I have in mind Philo, Josephus, and the author of 4 Maccabees. Ibid., 117-121.

Ibid., 111.

Sandy believes that shock value was the prophetic strategy of metaphorical language because “metaphors speak with more emotion.” D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 70-73. The emotive and translucent nature of Old Testament judgment and blessing language leads Sandy to conclude that prophetic utterance was not mainly to inform the people concerning the future, but to provoke an emotional response that would arouse their hardened hearts.

The different positions typically discussed under the imago dei such as the substantive views (the image of God resides in a quality of combination of qualities), the relational views (the image of God is primarily having to do with mans experience of a relationship with God and fellow human beings), and the functional views (the image of God primarily consists in something someone does) easily overlap in fundamental ways and none of them do justice to all the ways in which we are like God if considered to the exclusion of the others. It seems better to accept each as a different angle on the imago dei rather than pitting them against one another. After all, Christians largely agree that our relationship with God is what is most important and that this relationship works itself out both through human capacities and human action. No matter how one slices the anthropological cake, growing in our heart-felt love for God and our sincere love for others is the surest way to the restoration of the image of God in us. However, since any action of the body is void of moral virtue unless it is attended by love (1 Cor 13:1-3), we must admit that moral action derives its ethical value from God-centered emotions. Not only is emotion the ultimate ethical priority, but also that which gives any and all action its ethical dimension. In this sense, while it is harder to see any of the imago dei views as the most God-like characteristic in degree, we can certainly affirm that emotions are the most prominent of the God-like characteristics in importance. Since all people are in relation to God whether they like it or not (either good relations or bad ones), reciprocating love between God and man is more basic to the image of God than mere relation. For a concise summary of the three major views see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006 Printing), 520-529. For a lengthier treatment of the doctrine see Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapdis, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994 Printing).

Although Elliot’s work may anticipate a resurgence of the Edwardsian paradigm for the importance of emotions to true spirituality, it is long overdue. Elliot’s work demonstrates that much work and thought is desperately needed in the study of emotions. He understands his work as only the beginning of a basic outline. Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 237. This work includes further untangling kinks in biblical exegesis, biblical and systematic theology, Christian philosophy, church history, historical theology, and most importantly, practical theology. For example, although writers in the Biblical Counseling Movement (BCM) have progressed in the amount of importance they place on emotion, I am convinced that their writings are still plagued with misunderstandings and false dichotomies with respect to the role of emotion in obedience in the Christian life. For example, the false dichotomy which is reflected in the approach which asks the question, “Are one’s sinful habits a result of one’s past or sin nature?” fails to grapple with the role of our past in shaping our emotional dispositions (including our sinful dispositions). The most prolific writer for BCM, David Powlison, however, still operates with this false dichotomy. Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 155. In spite of such errors, however, Powlison cannot avoid basing his whole motivational theory on the emotion of desire. His chapters entitled, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” and “What Do You Feel?” show how central emotion is in a practical approach to Christian counseling. Ibid., 145-62, 211-23. It is also my perception that much of the tension between secular psychology and biblical teaching that creates strong dichotomies in the counseling wars could be smoothed out with a mature development of emotion theory from a biblical perspective.

A Biblical Picture of God: A Passionate Deity

I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after idols.” – Yahweh (Ezek 6:9)

Because God’s Nature Never Changes, His Emotions Change


Although this Thomistic view of God might at first seem to find biblical support in passages that tell us God does not change (Num 23:19; Ps 33:11; 102:26; 103:17; Prov 19:21; Is 14:24; Heb 1:11-12; 6:17-18), other passages directly teach specific ways in which God does change (Ex 32:10-14; Jg 2:18; Ps 18:26-27; 106:45; Jer 26:19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jon 3:10; Prov 11:20; 12:22). In fact, sometimes these two realities are confirmed within the same passage (1 Sam 15:10-11, cf. 28-29). Christian theologians and philosophers seeking to be aligned closest with the text of the Christian Scriptures are calling for an abandonment of classical notions of divine impassibility. Such a hermeneutical move is not hard to make. These texts do not make it necessary to affirm that God never changes in any way but only that God’s basic nature and moral character never changes. In fact, it is precisely because his basic nature never changes that his emotions toward sinners always change when they repent. Passages affirming God’s immutable nature in no way force the interpreter to conclude that God’s emotional state is somehow static towards his creation, much less that his emotions are unreal.


Nothing to Warrent a Metaphorical Understanding of Divine Emotions


While the passages that teach God is a spirit (Jn 4:24) warrant a metaphorical understanding of depictions of God’s body parts, there are no comparable passages which force a metaphorical understanding of the portrayals of God’s emotions. Not having a body prevents God from using body parts, but we would have to conclude that God does not have a spirit in order to preclude him from emotional experience, for such experience is fundamental to spiritual existence. Since activities of the human heart—including human emotions—are attributed to the spirit (Num 5:14; Dan 2:1, 7:15; Ps 78:8; Mk 8:12; Lk 1:47, 80; Acts 17:16; Rom 2:29; 8:15; 2 Tim 1:7), we have no reason to believe that our human experience does not profoundly correspond to God’s, since God not only has a spirit but is a spirit. As we might expect, language about the emotions of God are also attributed to his spirit (Deut 2:30). Language about the heart of God is virtually interchangeable, therefore, with language about his spirit. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that divine emotive language is no more anthropomorphic than language about the very nature of God himself (i.e. that he is a spirit). We might rather conclude that God’s emotions (as his thoughts) are more real, complex, frequent, and intense than human emotions. Just as God is more knowledgeable than humans (in fact omniscient), so we should think of God as far more emotional than humans (in a sense, omnipassient).
Descriptions of divine emotion cannot be reduced to divine actions without doing violence to the biblical language. Reducing the point of analogous correspondence of divine emotion to a similarity with human actions associated with those emotions does not best suit the biblical picture of the nature of God’s emotions and their relation to his actions. For example, not long after the fall of man God was so grieved over human sin that he wiped out the human race through a universal flood, sparing no one but Noah and his family—not even infants (Gen 6:4-8). The burning wrath of God cannot be reduced to his action, however, for Gen 6:4-8 is a pronouncement of present grief with a promise of future judgment. The grief existed apart from and previous to the act of judgment. We best understand the biblical text concerning this universal flood when we see it as directly motivated by God’s grief and anger. The laments of God are his “inward feelings” (Is 16:11). Changes take place with respect to God’s feelings. His wrath and jealousy are said to be “spent” and “satisfied” in God’s acts of judgment (Ezek 5:13; 21:17; 16:42; cf. 6:12; 7:8). God’s wrath is not the same as his acts of judgment; rather, God’s wrath is demonstrated through his acts of judgment (Rom 9:22). God’s zeal is “aroused” like the zeal of a man of war and is the stirring of his heart (Is 42:13; 63:15). Divine acts of deliverance are not the same thing as his compassion; rather they are “in accordance with” (or a result of) his compassionate nature (Neh 9:17, 19, 27, 28). The analogy of choice in the Scriptures for God’s emotion is not human action, but human emotion—and divine emotion is said to be “just as” human emotion (Ps 103:13, cf. Num 25:11).


Emotional Language Saturates the Biblical Picture of God


What is more, the emotional aspects of the divine nature dominate the biblical mosaic of God. The God of the Bible is no stoic deity. From beginning to end, the Bible paints a picture of God as being driven by his intense emotions. God weeps bitterly and drenches nations with his tears (Is 16:9). The reason why God tells Israel not to worship any other god is because he is very jealous, and he will “wipe [them] off the face of the earth” if their hearts go after other gods (Ex 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; 32:16, Josh 24:19, 1 Kgs 14:22; Ps 78:58; Ezek 39:25, Nah 1:2, Zech 1:14; 8:2; Zeph 1:18; 1 Cor 10:22). As we might anticipate, God is “hurt” by the adulterous hearts of his people when they are “turned away” from Him (Ezek 6:9), yet because nothing thwarts God’s sovereign plans, he is also richly happy (1 Tim 6:15; 1 Tim 1:11). His tender compassion is described as a fruit of his loving kindness (Is 54:8; Lam 3:22-23, 32). Furthermore, the ubiquitous “zeal” of the Lord accomplishes everything from acts of mercy to acts of slaughter: his gracious acts of keeping a remnant in Israel (2 Kgs 19:31; Is 37:32), establishing justice and righteousness through the throne of David (Is 9:7; 59:17), protecting his people (Is 26:11), restoring his people (Joel 2:18), and judging his people (Ezek 5:13; 38:19; Zeph 3:8).
The entire redemptive history of the Bible centers on God’s love for fallen humanity that moves him to aggressively initiate all of redemptive history. Perhaps the following is the most often repeated list of God’s attributes in the Old Testament: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth” (Ex 34:6, cf. Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 145:8; Is 54:10; Jer 16:5; 31:3; 33:11; Lam 3:22; Dan 9:4; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). As one might expect then, God’s love also finds a central place in the writings of the New Testament (Mt 5:44-45, Jn 3:16; 15:10; 16:27; 17:24, 26; Rom 5:8; 8:35, 39; 2 Cor 9:7; Heb 12:6; 1 Jn 3:1). Not only is love “of God,” but “God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-12, 16-19; 5:2, Jd 2, 21; Rev 3:19). One cannot understand the holiness, justice, judgment, redemption, or history of God and his people without understanding how these themes are tied in the biblical texts on the emotions of God.
In my next post, I will argue that emotions are of supreme importance to the Image of God in man.




This seems to have come about (at least in great part) through the Open Theism controversy. Most of the recent works on the doctrine of God have been forced to deal extensively with the Open Theist controversy and consequentially the multitudes of biblical passages that lead Open Theist’s to criticize the Thomistic picture of God. When the Open Theists swung the pendulum in the right direction, they swung it too far, however, and deny the classical doctrine of divine omniscience. Conservative theologians in reaction to this pendulum effect were jealous to provide a more biblical alternative to both the Thomistic view and the Open view. In spite of many errors that have spawned from Open Theism, recent theological dialogue with Open Theists has at least yielded this healthy corrective to the classic understanding of God: many now reject the classical doctrine of divine impassibility.
“This [Thomistic] concept of God, I believe, does have serious problems and requires modification. My own study has indicated those points where alterations could be made. Pure actuality, impassibility, and simplicity could be eliminated, …” Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 114. “In light of the nuanced understanding of divine immutability, it is necessary to reject divine impassibility. The king who cares experiences real emotions; he sympathizes with our pains and can rejoice over our joys.” John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), 277. 

J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1993), 29.

For example, there are no passages that say, “God’s heart is not moved,” or “For I am the Lord, and nothing can harm me or excite my heart to pain,” or any such passages that would force us to question whether God experiences true emotions in the way an affirmation that God is a spirit forces us to conclude that God does not have body parts.

This analogy between the way we think of God’s thoughts and the way we think of his emotions came to me when I realized that just as one’s search for truth is an attempt to attain God’s thoughts (or think God’s thoughts after him), so our desire should be to feel the way God feels about everything we perceive. “So, we learn to pursue God’s pursuits after him, to act God’s acts, feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires. … No, we will never be all-knowing, or all-powerful, or all-present. But yes, we will be wise and loving, true and joyous. We will weep with those who weep.” David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003), 10.

Just as human wrath burns from “within” the human heart (Est 1:12, cf. Ex 32:19, Jd 9:30, 14:19, 1 Sam 20:30, 2 Sam 12:5, Job 32:3), so God’s “anger burned” against Israel and those who sinned (Num 32:10, 13). Just as humans are said to have fierce wrath (Gen 49:7), the same language is used to describe God’s wrath (Dt 29:28; 1 Sam 28:18; 2 Kgs 23:26). Even rage is found in God (Ezek 5:15). Human jealousy so closely corresponds with God’s, it is said to be the same as God’s jealousy (Num 25:11). His rejoicing over his people is compared to a bridegroom rejoicing over the bride (Is 62:5, cf. Zeph 3:17). This compassion is surely to be thought of as an emotion, for his compassion is described as being “just as” the humanly compassion of a father for his son (Ps 103:13, cf. Jonah 4:10-11) and they are described as the stirrings of his heart (Is 63:15). Matthew Elliot appropriately affirms, “God’s love is like a parent’s love for their child,” and asks: “Is there any stronger emotion?” Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2006), 106.

For a discussion on how God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his unshakable happiness, see “The Happiness of God” in John Piper’s Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 31-50.

“Set in the context of eschatological salvation, the NT macarisms have great emotional force. Often there is a contrast with false happiness.” F. Hauck, “makarios” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged Version, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003 Reprint), 549. Although makarios can have a broader meaning than just “happiness,” and may convey something more like “favored,” the emotive term “happy” is still inherent in the meaning, and thus translating makarios as “happy” is a good way to convey the cash value of the idea of “favor.” The concept of being favored or fortunate fundamentally depends on the concept of being happy. Who would want to be blessed if it amounted to pure misery? Being blessed only has its ultimate attraction in the happiness that necessarily coexists with it. Language of favor and blessing plays to our God-given desires for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Although I will argue later in this post series that there is no legitimate reason to deny that love (or any other emotional term in the Bible) is an emotion, for a detailed examination of the various words translated “love” and the common anti-emotion bias which seeks to suppress the emotive content these words, see Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 135-164.

Emotions, Starting with God’s

Exploring Some Stumbling Blocks

It is often said that Christianity is not about emotions. Even if one is willing to admit that emotions should not be altogether ignored (for such advice would seem impossible to human nature), we are warned by pastors and Christian teachers that they are not to become our main concern. We are told: “We must avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch upon feelings. Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.” “When we describe someone as ‘an emotional type,’ we do not intend to give a compliment.” It would seem that our emotions lead us into all sorts of trouble, and in lieu of such trouble it might seem like the best plan of action is to suppress them altogether and seek rather to be guided by our reason, or some other virtuous aspect of our nature. After all, does not the Bible itself teach that being “enslaved by all kinds of passions” is characteristic of the pagan lifestyle at odds with the new creation (Tit 3:3)?

This post series will seek to answer the above questions from a biblical perspective, not merely by looking at what the Bible teaches about human emotion, but rather, our study will begin by looking at the emotions of God himself. Several important conclusions will be reached from a study of the biblical text. Humans are “emotional” because God is emotional. Not only are our emotions valid or legitimate since they are simply a reflection of the nature of God, but they are a necessary component of all true virtue, holiness and righteousness. By the same token, human emotions are the most important among the God-like qualities of humanity. In the end, it seems unavoidable that an intimate and reciprocal experience of heart-felt love between God and humanity is precisely how God is most glorified, and therefore, there is no greater end for which people in the image of God exist than to experience deep emotions—namely, love and joy in God himself.
Emotional Language and Divine Immutability 

That human beings are emotional would seem to need no strained argument. On the other hand, there are at least two immediate stumbling blocks to a proper understanding of the relation of our emotions to God’s emotions: 1) the analogical nature of language about God as conceived by Thomistic Theism and 2) the logic of divine impassibility. We must keep both of these stumbling blocks from obstructing our path to the truth about emotions in the imago Dei.

Although all language about God is analogical, it became commonplace in classical theism to stress that God does not actually experience emotions any more than he actually has a human body based on the nature of anthropomorphic language. Just as we are not to conclude from passages that speak of God’s eyes, ears, and mouth that God actually has human eyes, ears and a mouth, so we are not to conclude from passages which speak of God’s anger, jealousy and joy that God actually experiences anger, jealousy and joy. This latter analogy is not between human emotion and divine emotion but rather between human emotion and divine action. Such passages are therefore thought only to mean “he acts toward us as a man would when agitated by such passions.” God’s emotions, then, according to Thomistic theism, only have correlation by virtue of his actions. 

The analogical nature of the biblical language about God, however, is not the only motivation for believing that God does not experience emotions. The doctrine of divine impassibility—which understands God to be incapable of suffering—is usually the motivating factor for a classical, Thomistic understanding of emotive language about God. A strong and strained emphasis on the immutability of God in classical theism—which understands God to be incapable of changing—has perhaps been an even greater impetus, therefore, for a widespread adherence to the doctrine of impassibility. Such emphasis has caused a long history of philosophical attraction in the church and theology. Here the argument does not lie merely in Scripture, but in philosophical extrapolation from passages on divine immutability. If God does not change (as the Scriptures affirm), then it would seem that his emotional state is also immutable. Besides, if God actually feels differing emotions toward human beings depending on what those human beings do, we make God’s experience dependent upon human experience, and God becomes vulnerable, as it were, to suffering emotional turmoil and injury. Can God actually be dependent on his creatures in any way—especially in a vulnerable way? Both the nature of analogical language and the doctrine of immutability have caused many to conclude that God does not actually experience emotion.
In my next post, we will see that this conclusion has been reached with a flawed logic and at the expense of the meaning of the biblical langauge about the emotions of God.


Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, 1990), 114-16.
Robert C. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 14. 

These problems are the most immediate because they relate to God himself.

A.A. Hodge quoted by Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 26. Italics are added by Culver.

Perhaps the popularity of the writings of Anselm is just as much to blame for the popularity of this pesky doctrine as the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Anselm wrote:

But how are You at once both merciful and impassible? For if You are impassible You do not have any compassion; and if You have no compassion Your heart is not sorrowful from compassion with the sorrowful, which is what being merciful is. But if You are not merciful whence comes so much consolation for the sorrowful? How, then, are You merciful and not merciful, O Lord, unless it be that You are merciful in relation to us and not in relation to Yourself? In fact, You are [merciful] according to our way of looking at things and not according to Your way. For when You look upon us in our misery it is we who feel the effect of Your mercy, but You do not experience the feeling [emphasis mine]. Therefore You are both merciful because You save the sorrowful and pardon sinners against You; and You are not merciful because You do not experience any feeling of compassion for misery.

Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 91.

%d bloggers like this: