Per Caritatem

It is commonly argued that the young Luther was a mystic, but then later, after dealing with the radical elements of the Reformation, he changed his position. Heiko Oberman, however, disagrees, pointing to numerous works of Luther over a large span of years and showing a continuity in his thought regarding mysticism, though of course with changes here and there. For example, Luther did not rule out “high mysticism” as impossible but rather cautioned against its dangers. For Luther, drawing from his spiritual (not “literal”)[1] exegesis of Leah and Rachel, accessus has priority over raptus—i.e., justification by faith through the incarnate and crucified word has priority over raptus by the uncreated word (the latter being that which was characterized by dangerous speculations not tethered to the Word). Commenting on 2 Cor 12:2 which reads, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (ESV), Luther writes, “who would consider himself so clean, that he would dare to pursue this, unless he is called, and like the Apostle Paul, lifted up by God.” As Oberman observes, “there is here transition here from ‘rare’ to ‘dare,’ […]; yet this transition is not so unexpected and is understandable in the light of the fact that in the prologue of the most important nominalistic Sentences commentaries, the Apostle Paul is introduced on the basis of II Cor. 12 as an exception to the rule de potentia ordinata according to which the status of the viator is contrasted with that of the beatus in that he is not yet a comprehensor, not yet face to face with God, and hence without immediate knowledge of God. Though Luther employs the concept of the potentia ordinata of God, so characteristic for nominalistic theology; in his commentary on Genesis, he gives it a Christological point instead of its primary epistemological meaning: the potentia ordinata is here not primarily the order established by the inscrutable free God who could as well have established another order, but it is clearly the order of redemption in Jesus Christ, established out of God’s mercy to provide sinful man with a refuge from danger” (The Dawn of the Reformation, p. 139)

[1] As Oberman notes, to insist on the literal sense (sensus litere) is for Luther to read Scripture as an unbeliever (consider Spinoza as a case in point)! Reading Scripture with the understanding of faith (sensus fidei) excels the sensus litere (p. 147).

9 Responses so far


I am very interested in your post, but am challenged in my poor grasp of Latin. What does Oberman mean by “de potentia ordinata according to which the status of the viator is contrasted with that of the beatus in that he is not yet a comprehensor…”

What I hear from Oberman is familiar to me insofar as it’s consistent with many of the re-readings of Luther that seem to be going on– the Helsinki school, David Yeago’s article on Luther’s Genesis Commentaries & John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor in The Thomist, etc. I see how these are re-thinking Luther’s relationship to Thomism and, more specifically, the doctrine of creation. I understand from this work that Luther had a much more positive construal of the created order and the human place in it. I assume that Oberman is somewhere in the midst of this thought.

I suppose that Oberman is extending these observations to determine the particulars of his (Luther’s) theology of the created order– it’s Christological. Am I on the right track? What might a nominalistic “order” look like.

Thanks for an interesting post. Look forward to learning more.


Hi Nate,

Regarding the passage you mentioned: “Potentia ordinata” refers to God’s “ordained power” in contrast to his “absolute power” (potentia absoluta). “Viator” means “wayfarer,” referring to the Christian as a pilgrim in this life in contrast with the “beatus,” the one having experienced the beatific vision.

At least one story of the movement to medieval nominalism and beyond goes as follows. In certain strands of Medieval theology, God had become rationalized to the point of nearly becoming intelligible in terms of the laws of nature which resulted in a kind of impinging of the ordered whole on the Creator. In response to these difficulties, nominalist theologians answered by positing a distinction between God’s absolute power (potentia Dei absoluta) and God’s ordained power (potentia Dei ordinata). Regarding God’s absolute power, the thought was that God, being utterly transcendent and mysterious, could do anything. On the other hand, God has also entered willingly into a covenant with his people and freely binds himself to this covenant. Thus, from the point of view of God’s ordained power, he is intelligible—such is of course not the case in regard to potentia Dei aboluta. Over time however, God’s absolute power was constantly invoked (e.g., Ockham) and resulted in a severing the Creator with his creation.

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with David Yeago’s reading and have not read the other works that you mentioned, so I am not sure whether what Oberman is doing is similar to what they are doing. As far as Oberman’s reading of Luther goes, this is my first read of his work, so I’m not really in a place to say much in terms of his overall take on Luther. So far, I do appreciate the way that he examines Luther in his medieval context.

I hope this helps.


If Luther’s emphasis is really Christological, the question to ask is, does God always will the mystery of his incarnation? Is the incarnation a response to the fall or something God planned all along as typified by the imago dei?

Hi Acolyte,

I haven’t read enough of Luther’s writings to be able to answer your questions, but it seems that given God’s omniscience, one wouldn’t want to say that God was “taken by surprise” by Adam’s fall and “responded” with the Incarnation. If human beings are essentially imago Dei (and not merely rational animals or willing animals or any other aspect absolutized) and Christ is Perfect Humanity and the Perfect image of God, then perhaps the Incarnation is the antitype that perfectly realizes who we are to be–fall or no fall.

Kind regards,


Thanks for your helpful explanation of the distinctions involved in nominalist theology, and your translations of Latin! They do help.

Oberman sounds exciting insofar as he places Luther into a more Catholic context.

Do you read the journal Pro Ecclesia? There have been several articles on Luther in the past few years (from Yeago, and a slew of Finnish Luther researchers) that have really made me think more about Luther’s take on the Christian life. They argue that rather than offering a static account of justification that is purely forensic, he has much to say about our transformation over the course of life. Thus, I hear some echoes in Oberman of what I’ve already been reading– we Christians are “viators,” so to speak, with a positive relationship to the created order in which God makes himself accessible.

I guess I can see some of the philosophical problems that brings up that nominalism tries to deal with. And as enamored as I am with the current Luther scholars, and Milbank & co, I don’t want to dismiss Ockham and Scotus entirely.

Hope to hear more in your posts about nominalism, and its merits and problems.

All the best,


Hi Nate,

If you happen to have any of the articles on Luther that you mentioned in electronic copy (or if you can PDF them), I would love to read them.

If so, my email address is
[email protected].

As to Scotus, I’m with you, I have serious doubts that he is the grand villian that he’s made out to be, either by RO or by certain Thomists.



I didn’t mean to suggest that the Incarnation would have to be thought of something unexpected but something God willed consequently, as in consequent willing rather than antecedent willing. Consequent willing just takes into account what God knows agents will.

That aside, many in the Reformation tradition seem to speak of Christology in purely functional terms, and separate the “ontological” (thats supposed to be a cuss word mind you) from that which is “revealed.”

From my vantage point to speak of “Christology” in purely functional terms seems to ignore what the NT has to say about Christ himself and make salvation extrinsic to Christ, thereby setting up the notion of union with Christ in extrinsic or forensic categories.

If the “plan” of what it is to be human is in Christ as Logos and gathered once again into himself in the INcarnation (Eph 1:10-11)this gives us reason to think that the Incarnation would have taken place even without the fall and places it on biblical rather than speculative grounds.

That said, Luther giving the ordained power of God a Christological emphasis doesn’t seem to me to bring him out of the nominalistic reading, since his Christology still seems like a purely functional Christology, for me. The subordinationalism should not be missed, Christ is the predestined man, he is necessitated by divine power, thereby injecting an attribute between the Son and the Father, weakening the notion of homoousious.

That is why I don’t think Luther is not out of step with the nominalism of his teachers there, even though he isn’t using it in epistemology. That is, just noting its employmen tin Christology doesn’t make it any less nominalistic, as other Nominalists made the same move in Christology, seeing humanity as a tool of divine will.

Hi Perry,

First, as I told Nate, I will have to wait until I’ve read more Luther and more Oberman before I can say something more “definitvely” in regard to Luther and nominalism. Also, it would seem that a fairly decent knowledge of Biel would be important in this mix.

Second, the charge of subordinationism to Luther seems to me a bit dubious though. It reminds me of a certain Reformed thinker (who will remain unnamed :) who imputes the worst possible scenario of the possible logical implications of a position to a person (completely overlooking other teachings from that person that read at face value implies otherwise) and then condems that person on the basis of how something might logically play out.

Who are the specific nominalists that you have in mind and in what ways do you see Luther “in step” with them? Would you also direct me to Luther’s texts that cause you to draw these conclusions?

Lastly, it seems that it is a common objection from EO that Reformed Protestant Christology teaches an “extrinsic” rather than “intrinsic” union with Christ doctrine. Would you explicate how EO thinkers understand “intrinsic” union with Christ and how such a doctrine would avoid conflating the creature and the Creator? From where I stand, union with Christ is one of those mysteries that we cannot (and likely never will) rationally penetrate, which like other mysteries, makes it difficult to discuss without seeming to elavate one aspect over another and thereby seeming to teach something heterodox.

Kind regards,


p.s. I do enjoy these exchanges, but for the record, I am quite happy being a Protestant.

Thanks for the interesting little reflection. It would seem, then, that with the potentia ordinata located in Christ, the tension between it and the potentia absoluta is, in fact, resolved toward the potentia absoluta — the ordinata being a function of God’s Word or revelation in Christ. Would you agree?

I’ll make this a little more interesting. Everywhere Luther engages the paradox of the hidden God, which in his commentary on Psalm 110 (and elsewhere, of course) is related in terms of (divine) weakness and (secular) power. Here Luther describes God’s true power as revealed in Christ as, from the perspective of the world, nothing but weakness. Thus one could say that in Luther we get a further twist on these philosophical categories of his day with the divine potentia absoluta becoming, in fact, infirmatate absoluta, which is the true condition on which the potentia ordinata is founded.