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Help for Moral Good: The Spirit, the Law, and Human Agency in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations (1537-40)

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An important question in religious and theological ethics concerns the human capacity for moral action, but contemporary Christian theological anthropologies largely theorize the human person in terms of the imago Dei, not moral subjectivity. The following study contributes to this challenge an investigation of human moral agency in the theological anthropology of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Luther is known for rejecting human agency in justification. However, this dissertation argues that Luther narrated a new theological anthropology as part of his defense of the law during his Antinomian Disputations (1537-1540). This new anthropology saw the recreation of human moral agency to result from an altered relation to the Holy Spirit and to the law after justification in Christ. While Luther problematized human agency in justification itself, he worked to restore human agency for moral action on the law after justification by theorizing about the Spirit’s effect in elevating the human soul’s moral powers through penitential acts and prayer. In this way, this dissertation contributes the study of a historically-contextualized theological anthropology out of which the human person as a moral subject in relation to God emerges. The argument presented here requires investigation of three questions that plumb the human relation to the Spirit and the law in Luther’s thought. The first two questions ask, how does Luther see the gift of the Holy Spirit in justification to alter the human relation to the law? And how does this change make possible a new approach to human law fulfillment in Luther’s thought? Chapters two to four answer these questions by reconstructing a particular order of salvation that plots the changing human relation to the law and the Spirit in light of human sin. Particular attention is given to the way Luther inflected the function of law before and after justification by linking the law to a divine cause in the Spirit. By connecting the law to its divine cause in the Spirit and then the Spirit to the human soul as divine gift, Luther clarified new functions for the law in the Christian life after justification for the purgation of sin. These claims assume the human person possesses moral capacities for good works, however. Therefore, a third question must be resolved, which is how does Luther develop his theological anthropology to make this new human relation to law after justification possible? Chapter five explores this question by more carefully analyzing the Spirit’s effect on intellectual and volitional processes in the human soul after justification. Finally, chapter six suggests ways Luther’s anthropological insights about human moral agency in light of a robust pneumatology might contribute to Reformation research and the contemporary investigations of personhood in theological anthropology that ground theological ethics.

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  • 01/28/2019
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