Resourcing Martin Luther: A Gospel for the Common Person, not the Metaphysicians

I am about a third of the way through Mark Mattes’ new book Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty, and it is exquisite. His chapter on Luther and philosophy is insightful, and reinforces notions I’d already been exposed to (years ago) in regard to the way Luther saw philosophy’s role in the theological task—as a handmaiden, and as something that has more horizontal value (i.e. related to the biblical analogue of ‘law’) rather than vertical/theological (i.e. related to the Gospel and its implicates). There is a reason why Karl Barth quoted Martin Luther in his Church Dogmatics more than anyone else; Barth and Luther are very like-minded (in their own periodized ways) when it comes to the way they see a usefulness to philosophy. But that’s not what this post is going to be about; this post will refer to the Conclusion in Mattes next chapter: Luther On Goodness. I think, as I share this quote from Mattes, again, anyone who is familiar with Barth will see a likeness and even foreshadowing in Luther’s theology vis-à-vis Barth’s.For Martin Luther, according to Mattes, Luther’s theology of goodness was much more experientially based rather than metaphysically so; Mattes writes:

The doctrine of justification bears on how God’s goodness is to be understood. Unlike his contemporaries and forebears, Luther has no confidence in either metaphysics or mysticism to establish God’s goodness, in spite of the fact that both approaches influenced his theological development. Luther’s is a highly experiential theology—not that experience is a criterion for truth but that sinners can never detach emotionally when doing theology, and at some point in the lives all sinners will do theology….[1]

This resonates deeply with me; and it fits the vector of my own theological development, and one of the primary aims of my own theological blogging and writing. Maybe you haven’t picked this up yet, maybe you’re too ensconced in the current resurgence of classical scholastic Reformed theology to appreciate this type of counterpointing I am attempting to engage in. I want people to realize that not all historical theology is as entrenched in the mathematics and philosophics that we see constantly being “retrieved” over and over again by these Reformed retrievers. In other words, someone like Martin Luther himself, should be understood as, as Mattes reinforces for us, a theologian who sees experience of God, a personal Triune God, at the center of what sound theology of the cross is all about; it is inimically personal, because the God the creature is pushed up against is inimically personal—indeed, He is the personalizing God. So it’s not just the ‘modern turn to the subject’ or German Romanticism or existentialist theology that is to blame for a focus on the personaling  non-metaphysicalizing approach to God; nein, it is a basic emphasis that we can see present in THE magisterial reformer himself, Martin Luther. It isn’t just Søren Kierkegaard, Isaac Dorner, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and the other modern heretics who want to approach God through a personalist “I-Thou” relational theology; no, as Mattes underscores for us, it is Martin Luther himself. To be sure we wouldn’t want to read each of these folks in absolute ways relative to Luther, but as a thematic, they all share this urge to come before God (coram Deo) on experiential, soteriological terms; and those terms are to be grounded and regulated by the “preached God” in Jesus Christ.

To continue to elaborate this idea that for Martin Luther relationship to God was not of the metaphysical sort (even though he had plenty of the metaphysical categories floating around his theological universe—yet he reified them under the Gospel pressures just as Barth does), let us refer to Mattes at length now (we will see how Mattes summarizes the whole development of his current chapter):

Luther was vitally concerned to address the question of God’s goodness. It bears on salvation. His point was that people do not need merely an incentive and an example to be good. They need in fact to be made good from the core of their being, their hearts. Counterintuitively, God does this by granting sinners his favor and promising them new, eternal life in Christ. As believers’ status with respect to God is changed, so is their identity. The law accuses old beings who seek to be their own gods for themselves and so control their lots and the lots of others to death. Humbled by the law, despairing of self, sinners can look to none other than Christ for salvation. In Christ they have a new identity and a new calling—to serve as Christ served in the world—and so to help especially those in need. The gospel promise unites believers with Christ, and Christ impels believers to serve their neighbors freely.

All this grounded in God’s own goodness. Outside of Christ, God is encountered as sheer power, a terror and threat to humans because such omnipotence jeopardizes sinners’ own quest for power, status, and authority. But Luther admonishes sinners not to neutralize this power by harmonizing it with some modicum of human power, such as establishing a free will. Instead, only God has a free will (though humans indeed make choices with respect to temporal matters). If we are to see the content or center of God and find him as good, then se must cling to the gospel alone. It establishes God as wholly love and goodness, indeed overflowing generosity, and serves as a basis from which to affirm life and explore mystery in the world. Goodness can no longer be established as a transcendental through metaphysics. Instead, goodness as a proper name for God and as a means by which every creature can participate in God is established only on the basis of how God acts in Christ, and that is to reconcile, redeem, and renew. Insofar as beauty is tied to goodness, it too will only be established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.[2]

As we can see there is a lot of good coverage, and various themes of development that Mattes covers in his chapter. But what I want to highlight is this idea of ‘established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.’ I want to press this home because all too often we see the theological metaphysicians of today (largely those young evangelical and reformed theologians retrieving a certain aspect and mode of the history through a certain lens [i.e. provided for by the historiography of someone like Richard Muller et al]) asserting as brute fact that the theology of the past was simply wrapped up in the unadulterated metaphysics of St. Thomas, St. Scotus, and others. The sense we get, if we follow these 21st century retrievers, is that the only heritage, in the history, that evangelicals and other Christian disciples have access to, is a God who is actually only really available to a small egg-headed sector of Christian academics of a certain intellectual aptitude and bent. That if someone wants to know the God of the evangelical/reformed heritage they pretty much have to be trained (or budding) metaphysicians in their own right. But this just is not so; at least not for Luther and many others who operate within his theme and theological disposition. For Luther, the Gospel is visceral and has a grist to it that is palatable for the common Christian; the wisdom of God is to meet all of humanity through the wood of the manger and the cross, with afterbirth and corpse as component realities. There is a realness to the type of theology that Luther presents the church with, and it is real precisely at the point that metaphysics are brought low, and the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ for us is elevated as the boundary point through which all humans, and particularly all Christians are invited to sup from over and over again.

 

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 54.

[2] Ibid., 66-7. [emboldening mine]

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Donald W. Dayton · ·

    One must be careful in comparing Barth with Luther. One must carefully specify exactly what point is being compared. Have you seen COVERING UP LUTHER? The title of this study of Barth is based on the fact that in his library, Barth covered up the section of/on Luthet as a warning about following Luther.

    Like

  3. Hello Donald,

    I noted in my post that we should be careful about drawing absolute parallels between Luther and Barth et al. But it is also the case that Barth did refer to Luther voluminously in his CD. Yes, Barth was critical of some of Luther’s theology, but he was also constructively receptive at the same time. All I’m highlighting in this post—pretty minimistically—is that Barth and Luther have some parallels in the ‘spirit’ as it were. But there are other parallels as well, and intentional ones at that; Darren Sumner in some of his work develops some of those linkages between Barth and Luther’s Christology. And then there is some hermeneutical linkage in re to their Christocentric approaches. All that I’m noting is that there is some relative and constructive relationships, which Barth himself identifies in his writings.

    Like