Luther And Melanchthon On Justification: Continuity Or Discontinuity? -- By: Aaron T. O’Kelley

Journal: Global Journal of Classical Theology
Volume: GJCT 09:3 (Feb 2012)
Article: Luther And Melanchthon On Justification: Continuity Or Discontinuity?
Author: Aaron T. O’Kelley

Luther And Melanchthon On Justification: Continuity Or Discontinuity?

Aaron T. O’Kelley

Instructor, Bible/Theology and Latin

Augustine School, Jackson, Tennessee

Editor's Note: A modified form of this article is to appear in Justification in the Reformation, ed. Michael Parsons (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012)


Although some scholars have argued that Philip Melanchthon departed significantly from Martin Luther’s theology of justification, analysis of the two reformers within their own theological context indicates that they stand within a broad pattern of continuity in opposition to Rome. Both affirm a divine demand for perfect obedience, which in turn requires a doctrine of alien righteousness and a clear law-gospel distinction. Melanchthon forged his own path on some issues pertaining to justification—free will, the nature of faith, and the uses of the law—but within a broad pattern of continuity with Luther.

Is it possible that the instigator of the Reformation, the theologian of justification par excellence, Martin Luther, has been misunderstood on the very question of justification, not only by the theological tradition that bears his name, but also by Protestantism as a whole? Moreover, is it possible that such a misunderstanding has arisen largely from an imposition of Philip Melanchthon’s heavily forensic doctrine of justification onto Luther himself? Scholarly discussion surrounding Luther’s theology in relation to that of Melanchthon sometimes suggests that Melanchthon departed radically from the teachings of his colleague and subsequently led Lutheranism as a whole down a faulty path, one that essentially buried Luther’s rich, life-giving teaching under the dry soil of legal fiction. For example, after tying Luther’s doctrine of justification to that of Osiander, Stephen Strehle writes, “No matter how one might feel about this matter or other details of Osiander’s system we must at least recognize that the church has become greatly impoverished in adopting Melanchthon’s one-dimensional concepts to the exclusion of other tensions in Luther’s thought—tensions that Osiander had hoped to bring forth.”1 Mark Seifrid similarly argues, “. . . it is clear that Melanchthon and Luther differ dramatically from one another on the question of justification because they proceed from radically different perspectives.”2 This “Luther against the Lutherans” thesis has gained a bit of traction in recent years with the rise of the so-called “Finnish School” of Lutheran interpretation, representing an ecumenical agenda that ties Luther’s doctrine of justification closely to Eastern Orthodox theol...

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