Rachael Denhollander and Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Like many of you, most likely, I watched Rachael Denhollander’s powerful testimony and statement made at Larry Nassar’s sentencing for his molestation of not only her but of more than a hundred other USA Gymnasts; he was the team doctor. Denhollander, I’ve since found out, is now a lawyer, and I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that she was largely motivated to become a lawyer to pursue Nassar through legal means (I’m sure there is more to her choice to become a lawyer than that). Be that as it may, Nassar was sentenced to over a hundred years for his molestation of countless young female gymnasts under his care for years and years; but he did not leave the courtroom without hearing from many of his victims, and not without hearing most eloquently and forcefully from Rachael Denhollander herself (she was the first one, as I understand it, to break her silence about Nassar and bring charges against him).

Someone else shared a link to this story on Facebook, and here is what I shared there:

It sounds like she has been reading Luther. I watched the video of this earlier (TGC shared it). It is powerful; her words are cutting and right; and she deploys Law/Gospel in a way that I think would make Luther, if not the Apostle Paul proud. Beyond that, it is sobering to hear the power of God—the Gospel—proclaimed in such a context as this.

If you listen, or read her statement you might see why I was left with this impression. Here is the full transcript of the pertinent part of her statement to Dr. Larry Nassar:

You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.

Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says:

My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?

Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.

When a person can harm another human being, especially a child, without true guilt, they have lost the ability to truly love. Larry, you have shut yourself off from every truly beautiful and good thing in this world that could have and should have brought you joy and fulfillment, and I pity you for it. You could have had everything you pretended to be. Every woman who stood up here truly loved you as an innocent child, real genuine love for you, and it did not satisfy.

I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from ever experiencing, and I pity you for it.

I have been there for young gymnasts and helped them transform from awkward little girls to graceful, beautiful, confident athletes and taken joy in their success because I wanted what was best for them. And this is a joy you have cut yourself off from forever because your desire to help was nothing more than a facade for your desire to harm.

I have lived the deep satisfaction of wrapping my small children up in my arms and making them feel safe and secure because I was safe, and this is a rich joy beyond what I can express, and you have cut yourself off from it, because you were not safe. And I pity you for that.

In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.[1]

The reason her statement brought Martin Luther’s Law/Gospel and theology of cross thinking to mind, primarily, is because I just finished reading Mark Mattes’s really good book on Luther’s theology of beauty: Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. Let me share an excerpt, and section that I think is pertinent and corollary with the sentiment that Denhollander expressed in her statement to Nassar. Mattes writes this of Luther’s theology:

Already in Luther’s early theology of humility we see the beginnings of what would be his unique approach to theology: God must kill us as sinners before he makes us alive as new creatures, ones with clean hearts. God forensically regards those who are nothing on the basis of their own merit as the raw material of his new creation. Luther’s whole approach in the theology of humility is one increasingly governed by a forensic approach to the human relationship with God. That is, what counts in the human relationship with God is how God evaluates us. As we admit our nothingness, so are we embraced by God. Through his study of specific mystics, such as Johannes Tauler (ca. 1300–1361), Luther claimed that the core Christian identity before God—as all human identity—is one that is wholly passive. New creations are active with respect to their fellow creatures, their neighbors, by serving others in their need, but before God they know that they are entirely receivers. Hence, the humility of the earliest phase of Luther’s theological career is transformed over time into a theology of the cross, Through various “trials and sufferings” and the accusing voice of the law, God is crucifying the old Adam or Eve so that humans lose confidence in the old being’s claims for its own self-deification and ability to control life. As a result, sinners put their trust in God’s goodness—and beauty—granted in Jesus Christ. But such beauty is hidden. It is grasped by the eyes of faith alone. Smug sinners appear to their own thinking as beautiful but in fact coram deo are ugly. Accused by God’s law, repentant Christians know their complete dependence on Christ, who before the world had “no form or comeliness” (Isa. 53:2 KJV) but who grants them the beauty of his righteousness. Such beauty is trust in God’s word, which as law reduces sinners to their nothingness and as gospel allows them to claim Christ’s righteousness of their own. Thus, rid of self-justifying egocentrism as definitive of the core of their being, they live extrinsically, outside themselves, first in Christ in whom their confidence is centered, but also in their neighbor in whose service they now become “Christs.”[2]

All of the themes we see in Luther’s theology we see Rachael Denhollander hit upon and emphasize in her statement to Nassar. Her statement bore witness to a power not her own, but one that is contingent upon the power of Godself; the power of the Gospel. We see her statement emphasizing the work of the Law, but then the Gospel; we see goodness and beauty hit upon in Rachael’s statement in contrast to the ugliness that the Law reveals. Her statement was powerful because it did not mitigate the reality of what happened, it did not wash away what Nassar did (indeed it magnified it), but it became powerful the moment repentance and the Gospel were elevated as “greater thans” than the evil Larry Nassar perpetrated upon these innocent young girls. The Gospel ultimately brings life, not death; but it doesn’t pretend like death and its ugliness is not a reality, nor present. The Gospel magnifies the ugliness of sin and death by providing light and exposure that the darkness of sin and death cannot finally overcome. This is what Denhollander’s statement eloquently underscored and communicated; it communicated the power of God, the Gospel; and it allowed Rachael to become a “Christ” to Nassar and the watching world.

[1]Source. [emboldening mine]

[2] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 85-6.

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Martin Luther the Theologian of Beauty: Contra Analogy of Being, David Bentley Hart, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Nouvelle Théologie, and even Karl Barth (?)

I can go with beauty as a way into knowing God, but I cannot go with beauty as an a priori transcendental as identified by the philosophers as a way to know God; I am with Luther in identifying God’s beauty through the prism of the incarnation and cross of God in Jesus Christ—a stuarologically shaped beauty. This is the way Mark Mattes has been developing Martin Luther’s theology of beauty (I would say in close alignment with Luther’s theologia crucis ‘theology of the cross’) in contrast to the mediaeval ways into metaphysical beauty, and now, as we will see in the following quote, in contrast to modern ressourcements of beauty through Nouvelle Théologie (cf. Henri de Lubac et al).

I have been very outspoken against analogy of being, particularly Thomas Aquinas’s version. Indeed, I’m still not on board with analogy of being, whether that be articulated through someone as contemporary as David Bentley Hart or as old as Thomas. Interestingly Mattes argues that Luther was contra analogy of being (which I knew), but that he’d also be against more Kantian critiques of analogy of being of the sort that we might (I’d suggest) find in Karl Barth’s or Thomas Torrance’s theologies. I am open to Mattes’ argument and development (haven’t read it yet), but I’m curious to see how he contrasts Luther’s cross-shaped approach to God with someone like Barth’s more ‘modern’, dare I say ‘Kantian’ styled ideas on knowledge of God and the cross. In an effort to introduce you all to how Mattes summarizes the going-ons with all this, and to see how he segues into his claim that Luther offers an alternative third way into a discussion about knowledge of God, I thought I’d share, in full, his prologue to his chapter 8 entitled: Luther and Nouvelle Théologie.

The last half century has seen a renewal of the topic of beauty in theology, led by those following the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) and David Bentley Hart, and who work is dependent on the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others. These theologians have sought to recover beauty in response to modern and postmodern thinking that focuses not primarily on aesthetics but on epistemology, on whether the conditions for knowing anything can be met. For Kant, whose philosophy has dominated modern thinking, humans can know how they experience the world (the phenomenal), but they have no access to reality as such (the noumenal). In this view, beauty belongs not properly to reality but instead is a feature that the human mind brings to experience. In contrast, for von Balthasar and Hart, modern and postmodern skepticism about knowing is unwarranted and unproductive: skepticism presumes at least some knowledge as a basis from which to determine the knowable from the unknowable. Indeed, mathematics and the hard sciences, those disciplines less vulnerable to skepticism, imply the need for some ontology, drawing inferences about underlying structures of reality as such, regardless of how it should be articulated. For these thinkers, like many ancient Greek fathers (and presumably Augustine and Aquinas at their best), all beautiful things point to the transcendental reality of Beauty itself. The Christian faith witnesses to this beauty: the gospel is inherently attractive. God is the ultimate end or purpose for which humanity can find the fulfillment of its deepest hunger and desire. Grace helps creatures reach their perfection. Appreciating beautiful things directs us “upward” to seek God as the source and goal of beauty. In order to restore beauty as a proper theological topic, von Balthasar and Hart oppose Thomistic Scholasticism, which , beginning in the sixteenth century, separated the “natural” from the “supernatural” and so offered a trajectory of thought that, along with trends in modern philosophy, unintentionally bifurcated public and private spheres. In such bifurcation, the public realm is secular, independent of God as its final end, and religious experience is private affecting people’s inner lives without bearing on public life.

Influenced by the Roman Catholic nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac and others, these theologians interpret beauty through the lens of the analogy of being (analogia entis), which as formulated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reads: “One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them.” The analogy of being, as developed for instance in the work of Erich Przywara (1889-1972), acknowledges an approach to God in which ontologically realistic propositions can be made about God while simultaneously honoring God’s apophatic mysteriousness. Attempts to reclaim beauty in contemporary theology have sought in various ways to appropriate the Neoplatonic heritage latent in patristic theology. Through this Christianized Neoplatonism, beauty is retrieved as a way to reclaim mystery for the world, a “sacramental ontology,” in the face of the modern tendency to disenchant the cosmos by mapping or carving up all reality through quantification, and in the process nihilistically flatlining it, rendering it a cadaver for dissection. The appropriation of a Christianized Neoplationism is said to provide depth and meaning in contrast to nihilism, since God is the mystery present in all reality. All particular things are in some way or another icons of God, directing us above to find our ultimate happiness in God. Hence, these theologians claim beauty as a transcendental, descriptive of and instantiated in all finite things, in opposition to modern tendencies that make beauty a private, subjective matter, latent not in reality as such but only in how the mind works. So David Bentley Hart employs the analogy being in order to show metaphysically that beauty is definitive of infinity, the basis from which to quell postmodern descriptions of competitive violence allegedly lying at the core of all relationships. All this raises questions for a contemporary appropriation of Luther: If Luther is not on the same page with these scholars on the analogy of being, then does he lead us to a disenchanted view of the cosmos? Is he a contributor to secularism? Apart from the analogy of being, is Luther able to offer a satisfying account of beauty in which beauty accords with reality and is nor a mere accidental epiphenomenon of human mental processes? The purpose of this chapter is to critique contemporary theologies of beauty in light of Luther’s approach. Contrasting Luther’s view with current thinking will bring out aspects of his theology that have been ignored by existentialist interpretations of Luther and will help position the Reformer as offering a path more faithful to the gospel than recent theologians of beauty. In contrast to contemporary theologies that tend to default to a Platonism, such as the nouvelle théologie, or to a Kantianism, such as mainline Protestantism, Luther offers a third path.[1]

Beside the fact that this is a really good sketch of the landscape currently present when it comes to big things like analogy of being and theology of beauty, Mattes offers a very provocative and then weighty challenge for himself in his presentation of Luther’s own theology of beauty. I’ll be interested to see how he comes against what he identifies as existentialist, or Kantian theologies of beauty (he already intimates in what I shared from him where he sees some of the deficiencies). His critique of Hart, von Balthasar, de Lubac and others will be less surprising to me since he has already been making a case against that approach throughout his book; nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how he pins them down vis-à-vis his treatment of Luther’s theology in juxtaposition.

I am genuinely open to his development of Luther’s theology here, and am definitely willing to use it to reify maybe even some of Barth’s and Torrance’s thinking on analogia entis. But I will be curious on this front since I think Barth himself, like in his Romerbrief for example, is quite correlate, with Luther’s theology of the cross (which is present in the way Mattes’ is developing Luther’s theology of beauty); even in Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline where he appears to be a little critical of Luther’s theology of the cross, it is only because Barth thinks there remains an imbalance to it (not that it is inherently deficient) that needs to be buoyed by a thicker doctrine of resurrection. Mattes has my attention; hopefully he has yours too, and you might tolle lege his wonderful book on Luther.

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 155-58.