Nicholas of Lyra: A Late Medieval Reading of the Pauline Epistles

by Dr. Ian Levy

Nicholas of Lyra was one of the most widely read biblical commentators of the Late Middle Ages and Early Reformation era. His profound influence on later generations prompted the Carthusian Gregor Reisch in 1503 to coin the refrain: “Unless Lyra had strummed his lyre, no doctors of Bible would have danced” (Nisi Lyra lirraset, nemo doctorum in Bibliam saltasset). This assessment was more pointedly rephrased some years later by the Catholic bishop Julius Pflug: “Had Lyra not played so melodiously, Luther would not have danced: (Si Lyra non cantasset, Lutherus non saltasset). An exaggeration perhaps, but the young Augustinian friar Martin Luther was duly impressed by the sober exegesis of this fourteenth-century Franciscan exegete, even if he later criticized some of his methods. In any event, did not take Brother Martin to secure the reputation of Nicholas of Lyra. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Lyra was the most influential biblical commentator of the Late Middle Ages. Born in Normandy c. 1270, Lyra entered the Franciscan Order in 1300, and was a master of theology at Paris by about 1309. He is best known for his commentary on the entire Bible known as the Postilla Litteralis begun in 1322 and completed by 1331. The Literal Postill proved to be a tremendously popular work for centuries to come; it survives in more than 800 manuscripts and would later be printed alongside that other staple of medieval exegesis, the Glossa Ordinaria.

The Place of the Law in Salvation History

When Lyra commented on the Apostle’s remark in Galatians that “the Law is not from faith” (Gal. 3:12), he took the opportunity to address the larger issue of the role of Law within salvation history. Lyra argued here that in the Old Law the precepts were not given with regard to what one must believe, since that pertains only to the New Law where the content of the Christian belief is explained. Appealing to Romans 3:27, Lyra determined that the Old Law is aptly reckoned a law of deeds whereas the New Law is a law of faith. Yet Lyra was quick to point out that this does not mean that the people of the Old Testament were bereft of the faith without which it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Because Lyra believed that there is an inherent continuity to salvation history, he insisted that there must be a single faith all along. The Patriarchs were certainly holy and they pleased God, according to Lyra, although they did not possess an “explicit faith” like the people of the New Testament, where the truth was openly revealed through Christ. Thus, in addition to punishing sinners and moving people to yearn for Christ’s coming, the Old Law—functioning as a figure of the New Law—served to introduce people to faith in Christ. This is because the figure leads, albeit imperfectly, to an understanding of what it symbolizes. In order to make sense of the unity of faith across the ages, Lyra drew upon the classic medieval distinction between “implicit faith” and “explicit faith.” The Old Testament Patriarchs possessed only an implicit faith inasmuch as they lacked explicit knowledge of the content of their faith, which had not yet been fully revealed. Whether veiled or revealed, however, the content of faith remains the same from age to age.

It was along these lines, when commenting on Philippians 3, that Lyra addressed the cessation of legal obligations. Here, says Lyra, the Apostle spoke of receiving the spiritual, as opposed to the carnal, circumcision which had served as a figure of that true circumcision to come, namely the baptismal water which removes both penalty and guilt. So it is that the spiritual circumcision succeeds the carnal as the perfect succeeds the imperfect and as the truth follows the shadow or figure. Thus to say that the legal obligations are still running their course is to imply that Christ has not yet come; the figure must cease, however, with the arrival of the truth. Paul now counts all trappings of the Old Law as loss for the ‘surpassing knowledge” of Christ—a teaching that exceeds not only that of the philosophers but even the Old Testament. For Paul has been “found in him [Christ],” which is to say that he has been incorporated into Christ through a faith that is formed by love (per fidem caritate formatam). And it is this vein that Paul elsewhere speaks of “those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), referring to those who live through a faith formed by love and no longer under the Law.

When Paul does discuss those who are “under the Law” (Rom. 3:19), Lyra reckoned this to cover not only the Jews under the Law of Moses, but also the Gentiles under Natural Law. Consequently, the “works of the Law” (Rom. 3:20) covers both the Mosaic and the Natural Law. Here, though, we hit upon a conundrum. For Paul says that “through the Law comes knowledge of sin,” although not its remission, which only comes through grace. And yet there seem to be texts that contradict such an assertion—now we are back in the medieval lecture hall: “sed contra hoc videtur… .”  For one may cite the Book of Leviticus where it is frequently stated that an offering of sacrifice is made for sin; and so the priest prays on behalf of the people in order that it might forgiven. Lyra must, therefore, draw a distinction: it is not by the power (virtus) of the sacrifice in itself that the sins are forgiven. For as Hebrews makes clear: “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). Rather, such a sacrifice could be effective only insofar as it served as a declaration of Christ’s future sacrifice (protestatio passuri).  That this was in fact a proleptic action would have been understood more clearly by the Jewish leaders, although also to some extent by the common people. Thus it was by the power of the faith of Christ (virtute fidei Christi) operative in such Old Testament sacrifices that grace could be conferred. This would have been the same faith, moreover, that is shared among the ancient and modern believers who trust that sin was forgiven. Thus it was their faith, rather than the sacrifice itself, which allowed for the reception of grace and forgiveness of sin.

Christ is, moreover, “a priest forever” (Heb. 5:6) and thus stands in distinction to the temporal and figural priesthood of the Old Law. For, as Lyra notes, Christ’s priesthood is both eternal and genuine; and he leads us into the brilliant vision of eternal life. Not only a priest, however, Christ offered himself up the perfect sacrifice. When Lyra commented on 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made him to be sin for us who did not know sin …”, he determined that Christ himself was not actually rendered sinful, but rather that God had made Christ a sacrifice (hostia) for human sin. Lyra supports this reading by noting that sacrifice is often referred to as sin in Scripture, here citing Hosea 4:8, “They feed on the sins of my people.” Lyra takes to mean that they feed on the sacrifices offered for sin. Such an offering on Christ’s part is yet a further call to personal holiness on the part of the faithful for whom he offered himself. For “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him,” signals that Christ’s perfect sacrifice ought thereby induce us to present our own bodies continually as a penitential sacrifice for sins through works of repentance.

In light of Christ’s unique and final salvific act Lyra had to make sense of the those times in which the Apostle seemed to affirm the Mosaic Code, as when he proclaimed, “we do not overthrow the Law” through preaching the faith of Christ (Rom. 3:31). Lyra attempted to make sense of this statement by appealing to some basic principles of Aristotelian philosophy: When one thing is disposed to something else as its end, it then ceases having attained that end; although it is not said to be destroyed, but rather perfected. For even as it no longer exists under its previous form it still abides in a sort of potential state (virtualiter) within the other, better thing. So it is with the Old Law having been disposed to the New, and ordered to it insofar as the imperfect is ordered to the perfect.

This notion of the perfection, or full actualization, comes through again as Lyra comments of Paul’s declaration that “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom. 10:4). Here Lyra notes that the Apostle declares his intention: that the righteousness making one worthy of eternal life came not through the Law but through faith in Christ. In keeping with the discussion noted just above, Lyra writes here that perfection does not consist in the disposition of the matter, but rather in the introduction of the form to which the disposition is finally ordered. So it was that the Old Law was ordered to Christ as the imperfect to the perfect, which Paul had also pointed out in Galatians where he spoke of the Law as our pedagogue in Christ (Gal. 3:24). Eternal life could not have been found in the imperfect Old Law, therefore, but only in the faith of Christ which its perfection. Thus, as Lyra sees it, by speaking of the “end” (finis) of the Law, Paul wanted to convey that the Mosaic Law had reached its goal in Christ. In Aristotelian terms, we might say that Christ was the final cause of the Law—the purpose for which it was created.

Christians are now “walking according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4), doing those works which follow from faith. Lyra will supplement these words of Paul with those of James: “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). He invokes this same admonition again when clarifying Paul’s assertion that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Lyra insists once more that faith alone is not sufficient to achieve salvation. Here we have a prime example of Lyra’s appeal to the principle of intertextuality as one biblical text is employed to further clarify another text. Far from being at odds, therefore, the letters of Paul and James are shown to complement each other. Placing them side by side will then reveal the fuller meaning (sensus plenior) that the Holy Spirit has intended.


The Righteousness of God under the New Law

We began this essay by noting that Martin Luther had relied upon, and respected, Lyra’s Postill. That is not say, however, that he always agreed with the venerable Franciscan. A case in point occurs when Luther was lecturing on Romans at Wittenberg in 1515-16, as he encountered the fateful passage of Romans 1:17, “For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written: The just man lives by faith” (Iustitia enim Dei in eo revelatur ex fide in fidem). Here we are left to ask what is meant by the phrase “from faith unto faith.” Lyra contended that when Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed “ex fide in fidem” this marks a transition from an unformed faith (ex fide) to a formed faith (in fidem). For the unformed faith lacks charity (sine caritate) and thereupon is formed by charity. It is the formed faith which perfectly vivifies and justifies: hence the true meaning of Habakuk 2:4—“the just man lives by faith.” This reading is thereby in keeping with the traditional late medieval notion of “faith formed by love” (fides caritate formata) whereby—in Aristotelian terms—faith is moved from a state of potency to actuality through the addition of charity.


Luther would have none of it; having quoted Lyra, he promptly rejected his interpretation. A righteous person cannot live by such an unformed faith, says Luther, nor can anyone believe by means of it. Luther not only had Lyra at his side, but also Peter Lombard’s Magna Glossatura, where he finds that this phrase may refer to a movement from the faith of the Old Law to the faith of the New Law. Luther reckoned this an acceptable interpretation, but insisted that there is still only one faith by which people are justified, even as it may become clearer over time. Luther, for his part, concluded that the Apostle was speaking less about the progression from one covenant to another and more about a personal development whereby the believer’s own faith continues to grow.


No matter what Luther made of Lyra’s interpretation, the Franciscan was conveying a fundamental theological principle: the Christian life of faith is one marked by growth in charity. Thus in his commentary on Colossians, Lyra observed that to be rooted and built up in Christ (Col 2:7) is to be rooted in charity and built upon through the other virtues. He therefore concludes that faith in Christ forms the spiritual foundation of the salvific edifice, inasmuch as faith apart from good works is dead (cf. James 2:26).


Because faith must be actualized through love, so it is that justification does not merely consist in being counted as righteous, but actually becoming such. Thus when Lyra commented on Romans 5:1, he noted that justification (iustificatio) can be considered as a motion towards justice (ad iustitiam), just as being made white (albatio) is a motion towards whiteness (ad albedinem). On the one hand, justification is the simple state of glorification that does not involve a movement away from impiety. This was the sort of justification that Adam enjoyed in the state of innocence. Yet the other sort involves a change, that is, a movement away from guilt (culpa) towards righteousness; and it is in this way that man is now justified having been born in a fallen state. This is process whereby one moves from the starting point of guilt to the end point righteousness. Change, as Lyra notes, is specifically denominated based upon the end point of the transformation. Thus the process of being made white (albatio) is so named based upon the quality of whiteness (albedo) that the object finally acquires at the end of the process. In this way too justification is not denominated by the guilt or impiety from which it begins, but from grace of righteousness where it concludes. That is why, says Lyra, the whole process is more aptly named “justification” than “remission of sins,” although it includes both. And here we might just recall that the very Latin word “iustificatio” literally means to make (facere) one just (ius), whatever the range of meanings belonging to the Greek word “dikaiosune” that it translates.


Ultimately, though, the process of justification comes back to the presence of love within the believer; indeed, even the presence of the Holy Spirit himself. Thus when commenting on Romans 5:5, “The love (caritas) of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given to us, “ Lyra reckoned this love to be a pledge (arra) of future of glory, which is being poured out like precious liquid into a vase. It is the Holy Spirit who infuses the love that is given to us not only by his gift, but in Himself. For it is through love that the Spirit now abides within us in a new way.



It is remarkable how often Nicholas of Lyra steers the discussion of Pauline texts back to one central theme: the essential transformation of the human person through the power of grace manifested in love. Reading Ephesians 1:4, “Just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love,” Lyra addressed the question of predestination specifically as it relates to the call to sanctity. He noted that while election has taken place from all eternity, the effect of election takes place in time with the sanctification of the rational creature. That is why the Apostle Paul adds “that we might be holy” through grace in our heart; and “immaculate” through purity of our conduct. Predestination, says Lyra, is the preparation of grace in the present and glory in the future. Still, it must be said that even as we are called to holiness, predestination is not based upon our own merits. Divine election is the beginning of a process whereby we are made acceptable in God’s sight through the working of divine grace.


Along these lines, therefore, Lyra took Ephesians 1:6, “in which he gratified us (gratificavit nos),” to mean that God has made us pleasing (gratos) to himself. When Paul says that “by grace you have been saved through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:7),” We have thus been saved through the faith of Christ as opposed to the Law of Moses. “This is not from us” because the beginning of belief and all meritorious works depends upon God. Indeed says Lyra, among those who witness miracles and hear the same word, the one who believes has been moved by God. For, as Christ says, “No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:65). What we see here is that the act of sanctification is the result of a process that begins with divine grace; God is making human beings pleasing, or acceptable, in his sight by grace apart from any preceding merits—gratia gratum faciens. That is not say, however, that all human cooperation is excluded. As we noted above, Lyra by no means took the words “by grace you have been saved through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:7),” to be a Lutheran declaration of salvation by faith alone (sola fide). Rather, faith is contrasted here specifically with the ceremonial rites of the Mosaic law which has come to an end. The works of faith, however, will continue to flourish under the New Law as the human heart is infused with the love of the Holy Spirit.


We have seen that Lyra’s principal concern has been to place love at the center of the Christian life that is lived out under the New Law. Commenting on the Apostle’s discussion of the fulfillment of the Law in Romans 13:8–14, Lyra declared that in the time of the New Law the debt of love is maximally rendered; for it is the very law of love (lex amoris). All the commandments are ordered to the action of loving (ad actum diligendi) that is directed towards both God and neighbor. It is love, set into motion by grace, that brings human life into its fullness.

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