Sin, Human Powers … and the Flacian Heresy?

Reading the Formula of Concord one quickly discovers that at the time two basic questions for Lutherans kept arising: what happens to my “me” in salvation, and don’t I have to do something? We answer quickly and in order: “death and resurrection; and nothing at all…”

But staying with these questions one will learn that the great insight of Martin Luther and the chief article of the Reformation, justification by faith alone, has proved enormously difficult for the tradition that bears Luther’s namesake — there has always been one group whose shipwrecked on the question of “substance” – correctly a crisis for Lutheran theology, that refused applying death and resurrection to our persons — and a second group which has historically shipwrecked on the last cry of the dying Adam: “If you cut me do I not bleed, if you save me, do I not at least cooperate?—I’m not a block of wood, am I?”

This brings us up against the Flacian—original Sin controversy. It was formally a crisis of substance categories for sin and righteousness. Or, as I call it, “Defending the Spark” as the last resort of scoundrels. It was a first article debate, but not first historically — this is part of a bigger matter called “Synergism,” that at the time reflected growing theological concerns by Philip Melanchthon and his students about the veracity of objective justification.

Thus one reads in the Formula the students of Melanchthon fighting amongst themselves over this matter, and occasionally against Luther’s own students—all to fine tune justification by faith alone apart from works of the law.

One of Melanchthon’s students, Viktorin Strigel, started experimenting during his classroom lectures and decided to call sin an “accident,” of the human—even though it is “horrible” rather than a “substance,” in order, he thought, to protect the goodness of God’s creation, while still taking sin seriously. This is an attempt to use an old way of describing “being,” by Aristotle to identify what was dignified about human beings—even while they are sinning.

This completely misses the point of the Confessional understanding of sin—not trusting God’s word. A relational and biblical way of describing sin. So instead of flesh and Spirit, and as St. Paul distinguishes in 2 Corinthians, old and new, in this article we end up battling on foreign soil: Aristotle’s distinction of accident and essence. That is, that which makes a thing what it is, without which it is not; and that which adheres to an essence, but could be changed or lost without affecting the essence. When this is done, one will be swinging rather wildly between two heresies: Pelagianism and Manichaenism: one side trying to say as much bad about our condition as possible, and on the other trying to preserve some powers that we can call “good.”

This does two important and bad things: one is to consider justification as a process that has a beginning, middle and end—a story, in which the sinner is being changed, but something in him doesn’t change—original goodness. So, predictably, Strigel went back to the notion of “original righteousness,” and, following Anselm, sin as a loss, a “lack of a corruption of nature.” So, when the Bible says, “You have died with Christ,” Strigel tames that to mean that the sinner “died to the good.”

The second important thing is that inevitably the body gets identified with the basic problem, or tinder, that remains of sin even after baptism—the soul comes out squeaky clean—or at least has a “spark.” This is the real Manichaenism, that the body is evil and the soul chooses sides between evil and good.

Flacius, our Gnesio-Lutheran hero was Strigel’s colleague, and saw the problem coming from miles away—Strigel was starting to defend “the spark,” in humans to let the free-will return from its exile, into Lutheran theology and preaching. A Disputation was set up at Weimar (1560) between Strigel and Flacius.

Strigel started braying about “substance” and “accident,” so that he could say sin had no effect on our internal choosing mechanism, the supposed “image of God,” and so sin did no more than impede the free will. Then Strigel set his trap: He asked if sin, according to Flacius, was a substance or accident.

If Flacius says sin is not simply an “accident” but an “essence,” then he would seem to be calling God’s good stuff of creation evil, and if he agreed with Strigel, that sin is merely an accident– not only is Lutheranism done for, but so is a real sinner. What should he have said? Neither—sin is being under God’s eternal wrath, not trusting God to be God for you, which ends in death to the sinner. But as Christ was raised, so are we in faith itself, trusting that Christ’s righteousness not our own makes us right with God.

But Flacius charged right in like a preacher instead of a a sophist, and correctly identified sin as an essence according to Strigel’s way of setting it up—and announced that Strigel had better repent of this whole mess or lose his faith–but then the trap was set, he was hung by his petards on the charge of Manichaenism.
Flacius said: “no difference at all between human nature or the human essence and original sin.” Here we hear him declaring that human essence equals original sin. That looks like a denial of God’s good creation.

Of course what Flacius is trying to do is maintain our theology of the cross, in which Luther observed that it was not the lower pull of bodily desires alone or even mostly, that caused sin, it was all that was highest and best about us, especially reason and will that actively oppose God. The best things are used badly because they can’t trust God, and so actively work at trusting not-God. Luther, called this sort of thing “nature” or “person-sin.”

When the whole person is under the wrong Lord, even your best is used in the cause of evil. There better be another relationship with God than through the law, because according to it, when I look at my members its nothing but sin as far as the eye can see. Further, if sin were an accident, then salvation would not be a new creation, but an accident too—it could change just as sin changed, and then where is faith? Back we go with no certainty!

Both men are thus right to be condemned for their assertions during the debate, but for Flacius’ sake we add the warning that only the experts could handle tricky Aristotelian language. When it comes to preaching stick with the Bible—fine advice.


Sin, Human Powers … and the Flacian Heresy? — 4 Comments

  1. “This completely misses the point of the Confessional understanding of sin—not trusting God’s word. A relational and biblical way of describing sin.”

    So, regarding the issue of sin, are you saying that it is not a real thing or power only according to Aristotle’s understanding (i.e. essence, substance, or accident), or that it is not a real thing or power altogether – i.e. making it only something “relational”?

    “Further, if sin were an accident, then salvation would not be a new creation, but an accident too—it could change just as sin changed, and then where is faith? Back we go with no certainty!”

    SD I, 57? Ep 1: 22? Is original sin not an accidental attribute or quality that inheres in the substance of man? Yes, we believe justification is relational, but is the correlate of sin faith – or is it original righteousness? (see SD I, 58)


  2. Interesting article, however, the author errs in not permitting the normative Lutheran Confessions to carry the day here. And the author errs quite seriously when he says Flacius “correctly” used the term “essence” or “substantia” to refer to original sin as being of the essence of what it is to be a human being.

    While the Formula does say that terms like “accidens” and “substantia” are “unknown to ordinary persons” and “should not be used in sermons before ordinary, uninstructed people. Simple people should be spared them.” (FC Ep. I.23).

    But, the Formula does say, “In the schools, among the learned, these words are rightly kept in disputed about original sin. For they are well known and used without any misunderstanding to distinguish exactly between the essence of a thing and what attaches to it in an accidental way. The distinction between God’s work and that of the devil is made in the clearest way by these terms. For the Devil can create no substance, but can only, in an accidental way—with God’s consent—corrupt the substance created by God.” (FC Ep. I.24-25).

    “Is sin part of mankind’s very essence? No, for if it were, God could be accused of creating sin. However, sin is a very deep and thorough corruption of our human nature—a horrible and terrible corruption. No one except Christ Jesus, our Lord, can overcome this corruption for us and save us from it. Because of this sin, spiritually we are utterly and completely dead. But there is hope! As Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, so today He brings us to life again through His Gospel in Word and Sacraments. The Biblical basis for the Lutheran position on original sin is explained in Article I and II of the Formula of Concord. See also AC II; Ap. II; SA III.I; FC SD I.

    It is important that we remain with the clear terms, phrases, categories and definitions set forth in the Book of Concord and not stray from them, for the sake of our unity in doctrine and practice.

  3. Very interesting article! It is crucial for the topic, as the Book of Concord points out, that God not be the cause of sin. It is interesting then that Quenstedt, in using Aristotle’s causes, he discusses the efficient cause of sin (Systema, Part 2, Chap 2, Thesis IV, page 903). He says that God is in no way the cause of sin, “neither in part, neither totally, neither directly, neither indirectly, neither per se, neither per accidens…”

    Quenstedt definitely found no problem using Aristotilian terms and categories, but the way he deals with sin here reflects what you wrote in your article.

    Thank you for that. It was very educational.

  4. The case of Flacius is interesting, in that it is a classic example of falling into the ditch on the opposite side of the road in attempting to defend the truth.

    What I have never been able to determine with any certainty, is whether Flacius actually fell into the ditch, or rather was just too stubborn to see that he his accusers were not supporting Strigel’s heresy. Flacius always seemed like an old mule to me — once he stood his ground, he was incapable of seeing any response to his position as anything other than an assault on the doctrine of total depravity. But, as is often the case, his defenders certainly fell into the ditch.

    The Formula is truly a treasure, and a model for dealing with controversies of every kind. It is astounding to me with what apparent ease it cuts through gnarly messes like the Flacius-Strigel debate, and clearly and cogently lays out the plain truth of Scripture, without getting mired in the particulars of the debate (who said what, etc.) which end up obscuring the truth rather than revealing it.

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