The words ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness of God’ struck my conscience like lightning. When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified.
With these words, Martin Luther began describing his “tower experience” to his students. It was an encounter with the Holy Spirit that led ultimately to the Protestant Reformation.
Why did Luther’s conception of God’s righteousness terrify him? Because he knew that a righteous God must punish sin. Not stopping with this dismal thought, Luther’s thinking went further:
But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’ (Romans 1:17) and ‘the righteousness of God’ (Romans 3:21), I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy. My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ. These words (which had before terrified me) now became more pleasing to me. The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower.1
Essentially, Luther had experienced a profound paradigm shift. According to Thomas Kuhn’s in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, such a shift occurs when a previous paradigm no longer successfully explains the facts. Moving to the presuppositions of a new view solves the explanatory problems of the old one.2 Luther’s fear of judgment under the Catholic paradigm was relieved by a new Christian paradigm. The two presuppositions of the Protestant Reformation paradigm became sola fide (“by faith alone”) and sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”).
Kuhn also states that words and concepts are redefined in a new paradigm.3 Luther reinterpreted the meaning of “faith” as used in the Book of Romans. Under the Catholic paradigm, it meant agreeing with church doctrines. In 1522, Luther redefined faith in the Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, as translated by John Dillenberger. He said, “Faith is a living and unshakable confidence, a belief in the grace of God so assured that man would die a thousand deaths for its sake.”4 Faith had now become trust in God’s salvation, a concept missing from Catholicism.
Redefining terms, in Kuhn’s model, makes communication between two paradigms difficult or even impossible.5 A Catholic paradigm that depended on the authority of the church fathers, the Pope, and a sacramental view of faith could not comprehend or communicate with the new Christian paradigm.
Understanding the Protestant Reformation in terms of Kuhn’s revolution model illuminates the reasons Protestants and Catholics have trouble communicating today as in the past. For a full treatment of this concept, please see my paper “Martin Luther’s Redefinition of Faith,” posted in Friends’ Papers on the RTB website.