I recently learned that many scholars think Luther did not hold to the concept of imputed righteousness. The scholars who belong to this camp are typically associated with the so-called “Luther Renaissance” that took place in the first half of the 20th century, mainly under the influence of the German church historian Karl Holl (1886–1926).
Holl argued that Luther’s discovery of the Protestant doctrine of justification occurred earlier than typically thought, during the time of his lectures on the Psalms (1513-14), before his lectures on Romans (1515-16), and before the 95 theses (1517). The problem is that at this early stage, Luther had not yet made his break with Rome. He was an Augustinian but not yet a Protestant. In his lectures on the Psalms and on Romans, he confuses justification and sanctification, views justification as a process of moral transformation, and does not affirm imputation. Holl elevated the young Luther as the benchmark of Luther’s thought, and explained the rise of the doctrine of imputed righteousness by claiming that this was Melanchthon’s creation and that this doctrine of Melanchthon was then later made the standard of Lutheran orthodoxy in the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord. It is the Lutheran version of the (now discredited) “Calvin vs. the Calvinsts (aka Reformed scholastics)” thesis.
The Holl thesis has influenced many. For example, Mark A. Seifrid, in his chapter in the book Justification: What's At Stake in the Current Debates (ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier [IVP/Apollos, 2004], 137-52), argues that Melanchthon is the father of the concept of imputed righteousness, and that this is a betrayal of Luther's more dynamic view in which justification is a verdict that takes place through the event of the cross and resurrection.
I found out the hard way about Seifrid's dependence on the Holl thesis when I received his comments on my dissertation as the external reader. Seifrid was criticial of me for being too influenced by classic Reformed theology and not grasping the interpretation of Luther promoted by "the Luther renaissance," which Seifrid seems to equate with his reading of Paul's view. Seifrid also lamented the fact that this view of Luther is widely accepted in Europe but hardly known in America.
I was taken aback by Seifrid's comment and decided to dig into this issue a bit. I discovered three good responses to the view that Melanchthon and Luther were widely different on the issue of imputation:
Armand J. Boehme, “Tributaries into the River JDDJ: Karl Holl and Luther’s Doctrine of Justification,” Logia 18.3 (2009): 9ff.
Lowell C. Green, How Melanchthon Helped Luther Discover the Gospel (Fallbrook: Verdict Publications, 1980). [I want to thank John Fesko for alerting me to this helpful book. It’s a little hard to find, but used copies are available at various online used bookstores. Providentially, Fesko's lecture at the ETS Far West Region Meeting this past April was on Melanchthon's understanding of union with Christ.]
R. Scott Clark, “Iustitia Imputata Christi: Alien or Proper to Luther’s Doctrine of Justification?” Concordia Theological Quarterly 70 (2006): 269-310.
“Scholars have too often focused on what Heiko Oberman called the ‘romantic and unrealistic’ notion of a ‘one-time breakthrough.’ For example, Holl failed to recognize the development of Luther’s theology in the period 1513–1521. As a consequence, he used as a baseline to determine Luther’s doctrine of justification things Luther said in that period but that he later rejected. It is more historical to say that gradually, from 1513 to 1521, Luther came to reject the doctrine of progressive justification in favor of the forensic doctrine of definitive justification” (287-88).
According to Clark, the three places where Luther most clearly expounds his mature doctrine of justification are his lectures on Galatians (1535) (especially his comments on Gal 2:16) and in two disputations on justification (both held in 1536). To give one quote from the second disputation of 1536 in the home of Johannes Bugenhagen, right at the very outset, Melanchthon asks Luther if he believes that man is righteous by intrinsic renewal, as Augustine taught, or by a truly gracious imputation which is outside of us. Luther’s response is straightforward and unambiguous:
“I think this, and am most persuaded and certain that this is the true opinion of the Gospel and of the Apostles, that only by a gracious imputation are we righteous before God” (sola imputatione gratuita sumus iusti apud Deum) (quoted by Clark, 303).
The Latin text of this disputation is found in Melanchthon’s supplemental writings, and is available on Google books (go to page 344).