This is a study of the doctrine of mortification and the opus alienum
Dei in Luther and four major Lutheran theologians: Philipp Melanchthon in the
period of Lutheran Orthodoxy, Philipp Spener in Lutheran Pietism, Alhrecht
Ritschl in the nineteenth century, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in contemporary the¬
ology. It has been prompted by the recovery of the doctrine of mortification in
the theology of Bonhoeffer after a long period of relative neglect.
In Luther's theology mortification is effected by the opus alienum Dei.
He saw the latter as the work of God's "left hand," as the dialectical counterpart of His opus proprium, the work of His "right hand." This "alien" work God
effects through Anfechtung, the law, and the cross of the Christian. Anfechtung
is an assault on man's faith, led by God, with the purpose of strengthening it
"by fire." The second use of the law of God leads man to a knowledge of his
sinfulness and his need for the forgiving grace of God. The cross of the Christian may not be chosen, but comes from God. It s essential nature is persecution in the cause of Christ. Through these God effects His "alien work" of destroying the spiritual pride and security of men in preparation for grace,
These four themes of mortification, Anfechtung, the second use of the
law, and the cross of the Christian, which supply the content of Luther's doctrine of the opus alienum Dei, are then traced in the work of the theologians
While all the subsequent theologians, except Ritschl, had a doctrine of
mortification, the conception of the opus alienum Dei was obscured and in the
process of being lost as early as the work of Melanchthon. It had too much to
say about Christian "experience" to be congenial to Lutheran Orthodoxy. Since
Spener, whatever understanding of the opus alienum Dei has survived has been
subsumed under the opus proprium Dei. In this way the dialectical relationship
was lost and the opus alienum Dei as a clearly defined conception progressively
obscured. Ritschl repudiated the conception altogether, for, in eighteenth and
nineteenth century fashion, he did not conceive of anything in man toward which
an opus alienum Dei might be directed. Bonhoeffer did not recover the conception
because, as a Barthian, it was necessary for him to regard the matter "Christologically"
and thus to reject an opus alienum Dei as "natural theology."
lly" and thus to reject an opus alienum Dei as "natural theology."
Therefore, the thesis of R. Prenter, that Lutheranism has never really
been Lutheran, is considered proved in regard to the doctrine of mortification
and the opus alienum Dei. The loss of the latter conception is serious, for
Luther's position on these doctrines underscored the initiative and activity of
God in the salvation of man. The task of mortification and the opus alienum Dei
is to teach man his need for God and the gospel as preparation for the reception
The opus alienum Dei has not ceased in the modern world, however, modern
man seems no longer to be the victim of the Biblical "Tyrants:" the flesh, sin,
the law, the world, death, etc. On the other hand, he is no less "tyrannized"
than his forebearers were. It is part of the task of contemporary theology to
help him understand this modern opus alienum Dei as an opus Dei, for where this
is not understood, the opus alienum Dei cannot lead to the gospel, but can only
end in despair. There is then a profound and satisfying answer to the widespread
despair of our time in Luther's dialectic of the opus alienum and the opus proprium DejL.