Master of Theology (MTh)
Martin Luther University College
The purpose of this essay is to identify aspects of Martin Luther’s view of moral agency and action. The study focuses on themes originating in the Treatise on Good Works, particularly the exposition of the Third Commandment: Thou shalt hallow the holy day. Here, the author presents the paradigmatic example of the experience of a participant in the liturgy of mass. The example shows that moral reflection about agency and action is inextricably linked, first, to the consciousness of the worshipper, second, to language—the use of metaphors, images and descriptive words—and third, to the normative, that is, a knowledge of the good. Moral change is a basic feature of Luther’s view of moral agency and moral reflection; it is construed as a transition from one state of consciousness or quality of mind to another such that moral life may be depicted under the metaphors of ‘pilgrimage’ or ‘journey.’ Applied to Luther’s example, this means that the one participating in the liturgical action of mass undergoes a progressive change through a sequence of states and qualities of mind. Unique to Luther’s view is the dominant role is explicated using a performative model to identify the several elements of faith including the related notions of cognition and volition. So construed, faith signals Luther’s attempt to identify a normative understanding of moral change at the heart of his theory of moral reflection. It does so by showing the development of faith through a series of gradations in levels of moral and spiritual awareness. As a person moves through this continuum there is a correlative and growing awareness of deception and reality, truth and falsity, good and evil as one seeks, struggles, learns and discovers. Moral life is thus envisaged as a process in which cognition and volition in the work of attention interact as the individual undergoes a process of education in faith. It is a process that moves toward a telos that Luther regards as a union of faith and love, eucharistia, and contextualized in an example of the marital relationship. While Luther’s understanding of moral-spiritual change is correlative with the development of a moral psychology, it is crucial to note that central to that psychology is the claim that the moral agent is enveloped in original sin construed as a destructive egoism which pits itself against any or all moral development. For the author of the Treatise on Good Works, the remedial strategies to address this are central in the struggle for Christian moral life, and they involve a serious attentiveness to powerful images as well as the repeated discipline of training known as askesis.
Irvine, Donald F., "Moral agency and faith: A construal of Luther" (2004). Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). 256.