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As many scholars have noticed, there is a sense in which the Lutheran (German) reformation (in contrast to the Swiss reformation, for instance) emerged out of a personal struggle with the question of salvation, of how a righteous God was to have relations with sinful Luther (as Luther might put it). Important as background to Luther’s personal struggle is the traditional explanation of salvation offered by the so-called via moderna, the “modern way” (in the late middle ages), in which Luther had been trained as a scholastic (schoolman) in the university, only to reject it in his own re-discovery of Augustine.
This tradition within scholasticism emphasized the notion of a covenant between God and humans, as Alister McGrath explains (for the following, see Reformation Thought, pp. 53-61; compare Ozment, Age of Reform, 22-42, 231-39). This covenant, initiated by God alone, set up an arrangement wherein God would accept and provide salvation for humans if a person strove to “do his / her best”. In this view, God was not unfair in expecting more than what humans could do.
Scholastics who adopted the “modern way” were sometimes accused of being Pelagian. Pelagius (not to be confused with pope Pelagius) was a Christian who, in the early 400s CE, was concerned with what he perceived to be problems of moral laxity among Christians. Ultimately Pelagius had a run-in with Augustine of Hippo precisely over the question of how humans were to relate with a righteous God (i.e. salvation). On the one hand, Pelagius stressed that God had given people an ability to do what is right (otherwise his requirements would be unfair, since God created people, according to most Christians). On the other, Augustine stressed that humans could do nothing to overcome sin, as they were born inherently sinful (original sin at birth), and salvation could only be given by God as a gift, as grace (see Augustine’s On Nature and Grace, against Pelagius and On the Proceedings of Pelagius). So the university-types of the scholastic “modern way” were accused by some of being Pelagian, of being too optimistic about the abilities of humans to overcome sin and do the good works or moral behaviours that were necessary in God’s view (in this perspective).
Some among the “modern way” (in the late middle ages) responded that they were not Pelagian by using the economic analogy of the king who recalls gold coins for emergency purposes (e.g. a war). When a king recalls all gold coins, he offers lead replacement coins with the promise that, once the crisis is over, the king will ascribe the value of gold to the lead and do the exchange. Worthless lead was counted as if gold. In the same way, so these schoolmen would explain, God has made an arrangement (covenant) wherein he has decided to provide salvation by accepting the best works that humans can do (however inadequate and lead-like they may be) as if they were deserving of salvation (gold), so long as they strove to do what was right (keeping their side of the covenant).
In his own personal experience, Luther strove to do his best but continued to feel that it was never enough and he was anxious about his own personal salvation: “I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. . . And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough’. . . ” (as cited by McGrath, p. 72). Luther ultimately rejected the “modern way” and much of scholasticism as a whole for a (new to him) Augustinian way in which salvation was solely an action of God with no human good works involved in the process of salvation itself.