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date: 25 February 2021

Martin Luther and Relational Thinkinglocked

  • Risto SaarinenRisto SaarinenUniversity of Helsinki


Luther believes that a Christian needs to constitute his identity “outside of himself” (extra se). This is because the justification of sinners and our spiritual existence are based on an external grounding, not on our own properties or contributions. In such relationality, Christians are heteronomous beings. Their actions, desires, and even bodily properties are attributed to them from outside as gift. This relationality is strongly present in Luther’s texts.

While Luther employs a rich variety of relational phrases, for instance, “before God” (coram Deo) and “for me” (pro me), he does not employ the concept of relation frequently. When this concept is used, it typically points to a situation in which the person must renounce his old, carnal, and natural properties and seek help from God. The new, spiritual way of life consists of the reception of God’s gifts that are external to oneself.

This view is based in monastic theology. Luther is not content with the monastic renunciation of one’s own properties. He employs mystical terminology without, however, aiming at dissolving the human subject in the manner of Meister Eckhart. Instead, Luther thinks that there is a new path of constituting the Christian person as something that is “external to oneself.” While this view differs from medieval mysticism, it can also be interpreted as a certain “intensification” of its aims. Proceeding on this path, the Christian no longer considers his hands, his feet, his choices, his actions as his own contribution. They are rather something that is attributed to him, a passive attachment.

Luther’s view of relationality helps to understand what he means by the Christian’s first-person involvement in phrases like “my faith” and “for my sake.” He does not have the post-Enlightenment sense of subjectivity in the manner of Pietism or other individualist variants of modern Christianity. On the other hand, the ideas of passive attachment and the attribution of gift-like properties to a believer enable a robust first-person involvement in faith. Within this framework of relational passivity, faith and its acts are not contributions in the sense of human works. At the same time, the Christian has the ability to receive good gifts and participate in them. There are certain parallels with the Stoic view of oikeiosis, the primary social attachment taught by Cicero and many Christian thinkers.

Luther is also well aware of the Augustinian view of divine persons as relations. For this reason, he can also understand in which sense relations can be primary “things” in theology. Sometimes the interpreters of Luther have extended the issue of relationality to cover all kinds of themes that assume a communicative interplay of different parties. Such extension can often highlight adequately the biblical background of an idea that is narrative rather than philosophical.

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