33 Posts on Martin Luther: Remembering the 500 Year Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

In celebration of the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I thought I’d share a link to my Martin Luther category here at the blog. Luther is probably my favorite Reformation theologian, and his theology of the cross has got to be one of my all time favorite ways to think about theological endeavor; and more significantly knowledge of God. In remembrance of what Luther did, and the theology he produced, here’s my Martin Luther category containing 33 posts (some of them are reposts): Click Here

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The Real Reason for Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation: And How that Confronts and Contradicts what is Known as Reformed Orthodoxy Today

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theology, for real, in my 2002 Reformation theology class, during seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. Ron Frost (who I would later serve as a TA for, and be mentored by). Ron had written an essay for the Trinity Journal back in 1997, which caused an exchange—by way of rejoinder—by Richard Muller; who wanted to dispute Frost’s arguments (which I think he failed, because he didn’t really address Ron’s basic thesis and thus subsequent argument). So I wanted to share, with you all, just the first few opening paragraph’s of Ron’s essay in order to give you a feel for what he argued.

Given the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that is upon us, I thought it would be more than apropos to get into this through Frost’s essay. It throws how we think of the reason for the Protestant Reformation into some relief; relief in the sense that for Luther the indulgences weren’t the real driving force for him; what really motivated him had to do with Aristotle’s categories infiltrating Christian theology—primarily through Thomas Aquinas’s synthesis. What Frost convincingly demonstrates in his essay is that Luther’s primary concern had to do with a theological-anthropological locus; i.e. that humanity’s relation to God was set up under conditions that were philosophical and intellectualist rather than biblical and affectionist.

Here is a lengthy quote from Ron’s essay; I will follow it up with a few closing thoughts.

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.1

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.2

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms.4 A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

It is interesting that we rarely if ever hear about Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology; Luther posted 97 theses a month prior to his famous 95 that kicked off, at a populace level, what we know of as the Protestant Reformation of today. But because the “indulgence theses” are elevated to a level wherein we associate the Protestant Reformation with that, we miss the real reason Luther was so invigorated to Protest in the first place; and insofar that we miss his motivation we, as Frost notes, may well be living in the wake of a ‘still-born’ Reformation; a Reformation that has very little to do with Luther’s real concern in regard to the impact that Aristotelianism has had upon Christian theology.

Furthermore, as we can see, as Frost is going to argue (and does), because of folks like Richard Muller who have championed the idea that what happened in the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period of the 16th and 17th centuries, wherein an Aristotelian Christianity developed, the theology that Reformed and evangelical theologians are largely retrieving today—for the 21st century—lives out of the hull of a theological development that if Luther were alive today would cause him to start Protesting once again. This is ironic indeed!

And so maybe you, the reader, might gain greater insight into what has been motivating me all these years. I am really a Luther[an] in spirit; along with Frost et al. I am desirous to live out Protestant Reformation theology that is in line with Luther’s original intent; i.e. to genuinely get back to the Bible, and to think and do theology from God’s Self-revelation in Christ in a kataphatic key (or the via positiva ‘positive way’). When I came across Thomas Torrance’s (and Karl Barth’s) theology the original attraction and hook for me was that he was operating under the same type of Luther[an] spirit; in regard to recovering the original intent of the Protestant Reformation. To be clear, Ron Frost’s work has no dependence whatsoever on Torrance (or Barth), his work is purely from a historical theological vantage point; indeed, Frost is Augustinian, whereas Torrance et al. is largely Athanasian. So while there is convergence in regard to the critique of Aristotelianism and its impact on the development of Reformed theology, the way that critique is made, materially, starts to diverge at some key theological vantage points. Frost finds reference to Luther, Calvin, Augustine, and to the Puritan Richard Sibbes as the best way to offer critique of the Reformed orthodox theology that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Torrance et al. look back more closely attuned to Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Jonathan McLeod Campbell, and Karl Barth.

For me, as I engage with all of this, you might see how I have viewed both streams of critique (the Frostian and Torrancean, respectively) as representing a kind of full frontal assault on something like Muller’s positive thesis in regard to the value he sees in Aristotelian Christianity. It’s like opening all canons, both from an Augustinian and Athanasian, a Latin and Greek movement against an Aristotelian Christianity that has taken root; and contra what is now considered ‘orthodox’ theology when it comes to what counts as the Reformed faith.

Evangelical Calvinism, on my end, involves all of these threads; it is not just a Torrancean or “Barthian” critique. And the relevance of it all is that it alerts people to the reality that: 1) The Reformed faith is more complex than it is represented to be; 2) the Reformed faith is much more catholic in its orientation; 3) popular developments like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God (i.e. John Piper), and the theology they present, is given proper context and orientation—i.e. there is historical and material resource provided for in regard to offering challenges and critique to what they are claiming to be Gospel truth; and 4) the theology that we find in something like the Westminster Confession of Faith, insofar as it reflects the Aristotelian Christianity that Richard Muller lauds, is confronted with the sobering truth that Martin Luther himself would be at stringent odds with what they have explicated for the Reformed faith in general.

I hope you have found this interesting.

 

[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24.

Responding to Paul Tripp’s Sweeping Generalization against Christian Theologians and Academics: The Theology of the Cross as Antidote

[Qualification: My response in this post has more to do with the sentiment that the Tripp quote ostensibly communicates; it is a sentiment that I know many of us have experienced in our own ecclesial settings. The quote from Tripp is contextless for me, so maybe he qualifies or develops it in such a way that it eludes my critique; I hope that is the case. So read my comments more in the direction of targeting the sentiment of the Tripp quote (and how it was used from where I lifted it) rather than Tripp himself; even though I do tend to attach things to Tripp, in my post, that would make it seem like I have an absolute context I’m working with in regard to the quote, I don’t.]

I wanted to quickly respond to a quote from Paul Tripp I just came across on Facebook; shared by someone I know. It has to do with what he perceives to be the false-faith of evangelical academics (I wonder what he would think of non-evangelical albeit Christian academic circles?). Tripp writes:

True biblical faith is always something we live. If our faith does not reshape our lives, it is not true faith. I’m afraid that is what faith looks like in evangelical academic circles. But real faith radically rearranges our lives. Three examples of how real faith in God transforms the way we live 1. Faith redirects and recaptures the worship of our hearts. (Cain) 2. Faith produces in us hearts of obedience.  (Enoch) 3. Faith causes us to submit to the calling of God. (Noah)True, living, biblical faith causes us to submit all three of these shaping influences to God.[1]

There are at least a few ways into engaging with what Tripp writes: 1) His critique can apply equally across the board with all Christians (not just academics); 2) his critique helps to create a culture, within the church, of an us versus them (i.e. the laity/pastors versus the academics among them); 3) his critique, theologically, is grounded on soteriological (i.e. having to do with salvation) assumptions that flow from an experimental predestinarian approach. I will address the first two in this post, and leave the third way of critique for another post; or maybe I’ll never get into that one at all (even though I have multitudes of posts here on the blog in a variety of ways and developments).

All Christians& “Us versus Them”

The reality is, is that all Christian people struggle with walking faithfully with God in Christ; not just Christian academics. That’s what God’s grace is all about; the reality that no matter what our personal dispositions and personalities lead us to, in our fallen bodies, that his grace (in Christ) enters into our lives and redeems them from the inside out. The struggle for people disposed towards intellectual ventures is that they will struggle with not boasting in knowledge; indeed many folks will fall prey to such boasting for a season of time, if not their whole life. Nevertheless, God’s mercy and grace prevails, not just for folks oriented in this way (an “intellectualist” direction), but for any Christian; and any disposition. For some people the struggle is more relationally oriented; in other words, many Christian people will assert that what genuine Christian faith looks like has everything (in an exclusive way) to do with establishing good nuclear family life, and having good Christian “fellowship” all of the time. But when such things are elevated what happens is that the experience, the “good” itself begins to push God out of the center and elevates the good of family life and human relationships above God; or at least it names such thing as “God” (Focus on the Family and James Dobson comes to mind). My point is, is that all people, no matter what predisposition they have (they might be good at business, at real estate, etc.), all Christian people, I should say, have their own temptations, and their own struggles. And some times, as noted, some of those struggles are with things that are actually “good”, just as intellectual endeavor can be; the problem arises when that good is taken captive by our own sinful hearts and turned into an idol rather than a means or instrument for bearing witness to the reality of God in Jesus Christ.

So Paul Tripp is wrong to single out evangelical academics in his discussion; he ought to discuss, in a responsible manner, the dangers present not only for academics, but for anyone who is a Christian. The battle is real, and the “enemy” will attempt to take us out no matter what our place is in this life; no matter what our career is; no matter what our family and relational life is. It’s not Christian academia that is inherently evil; it’s that it is inhabited by sinful (but redeemed) people; just as every other sphere in the Christian world is.

Concluding Remarks

My concern with comments like Tripp’s are that the laity, when they hear this, are led to believe that any Christian academic they come across forthwith (say in their church context or elsewhere) will be profiled and labeled with Tripp’s sweeping generalization in regard to evangelical Christian academics (in the theological sphere; I’m imagining that’s Tripp’s target in this). This will have multiples of negative consequences for the local church. I.e. it will keep Christian theologians from wanting to attend churches where the culture of the church is antagonistic towards Christian scholars; it will keep these churches from benefiting from the gifts and knowledge God has given such individuals precisely for the purposes of edifying the local church; it will keep people who are predisposed this way, either from cultivating who they are as God’s children, or it will completely push them away from the church allowing them to reenergize their intellectual predispositions maybe (and most negatively) for tearing down the church (there are plenty of atheist academics out there with precisely this background).

Because of all of this, and more, I think Tripp’s comments are very dangerous, and at the least sloppy; but in fact both. A teacher in the church (who himself has a doctorate) should not be disparaging whole groups of Christians in the church just to make oneself look more noble than they (i.e. like you have escaped the lures and dangers of being a Christian academic in a nobler way than the others you are referring to).

Is the danger that Tripp notes a real one? Yes. Martin Luther, the original Protestant Reformer called such a danger a theology of glory; his antidote was what he called a theology of the cross. I know plenty of Christian academics and theologians who have chosen to go the way of cross; of course, yes, I know (or know of) plenty of others who have chosen the way of glory; and I know others who are struggling somewhere in between on that continuum. But we shouldn’t engage in sweeping generalizations, as Tripp has, just to elevate our own status as a teacher in the church that belongs to Jesus. Hopefully you can see why I’m so concerned; enough to write a post about Tripp’s remarks. I know the sub-culture he’s speaking into, and it only reinforces the wherewithal of said sub-culture; a sub-culture that could use the rigor and thought provided for by genuine theologians of the cross, who love Jesus, and express that, in their own way, as deep thinking and researching Christian people—people I would contend that Jesus wants to gift the church with.

 

[1] Paul Tripp, source unknown. Accessed from friend’s Facebook status, 10-05-2017.

If You Are Not a theologian of the Word You Are a theologian of Glory: Why Philosophy Has No Place in a Genuinely Christian Frame

I really only want to be a theologian of the Word. I realize the trend out there among guys and gals who take theology seriously is to pursue advanced studies in some sort of theological trajectory that has at its base much to do with philosophical underpinnings; whether that be directly or indirectly (think of the Post Reformed orthodox for example, their theological program, even with all the surrounding biblical citations is funded deeply by Aristotelian philosophy; not just materially but methodologically). Personally, if I believed this was the only way to be a theologian I would stop such pursuits immediately. This is why Martin Luther (Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance) is so appealing to me; he was dead set on being a theologian of the Word. He offered stringent critique of the Aristotelian theology of his day, as that was primarily mediated through Thomas Aquinas and the Roman Catholic church, and I see no reason why that critique should stop. It’s always a seductive temptation for the thinking type Christian to push deeply into the analytics of smart people, but for Luther, and for me, this usually only produces a theology of Glory. Geoffrey Bromiley offers a good word on Luther here:

With his concentration on God’s Word, Luther finds himself in almost unavoidable antithesis to philosophy. This comes out most clearly in relation to Romans 8:19. Here Paul’s theological or eschatological view of creation contrasts sharply with the philosophical or metaphysical view. Problems of essence, accident, activity, and motion have no importance for Paul. What counts is the expectation of creation and, even more so, what it expects.

On this basis Luther feels constrained to speak out against philosophy and to turn us to scripture. Having spent time in philosophical studies, he has come to regard them as “the study of vanity and perdition.” If we must engage in them, our concern should be “to treat them as we do when we learn worthless skills to destroy them and study errors to refute them.” At most they can help us to learn how to speak with those who are trained in them. But “it is high time that we undertake new studies and learn Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Philosophy deals with the “mechanics” of creation and not its goal. The supreme folly of philosophy is to extol the knowledge of that very creation which is sad about itself. Only a fool laughs at one who is crying and says that he sees him happy. This is precisely what philosophers do. “With a marvelous display of power” they “derive a happy science out of a sad creation.” One can only conclude that “whoever searches into the essence and action of creation rather than its groaning and expectation is without doubt a fool and a blind man.” Theologians of the Word will take another path, for they realize, as philosophers do not, that “creatures are also a creation of God.[1]

Give me a hermeneutic over a metaphysic any day; and call the regulative reality of that hermeneutic, Jesus Christ, who cannot be reduced even to a regulative principle, but who indeed is a person who I can and do talk with as I read His Holy Scripture.

I know it’s trendy to be an analytic theologian, a neo-post reformed orthodox theologian, and other types of theologians who appeal heavily to some sort of philosophical apparatus; but along with Luther I think that this all reduces to his so called theology of Glory. At the end of the day it is only the Word of the LORD that will endure forever; as theologians why not do theology that is premised directly upon the Word of God rather than the word of men? Let God be true and every man a liar.

[1] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 213.

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What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

My 2002 Synopsis of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, 1521

The following is a synopsis I wrote for my Reformation Theology class in seminary on Melanchthon’s, Loci Communes, 1521. Forgive me for some of my grammatical sloppiness. At this point I had never read any Karl Barth nor Thomas Torrance, but you might see how what I was seeing in Luther and Melanchthon would make me open to receiving Barth and Torrance with open arms.

MELANCHTHON, LOCI COMMUNES, 1521

The Publication of the Work and its Impact

The Loci Communes was embarked upon, by Melanchthon, in April (1521). There were many printings of this work (i.e. 1522, 1525, 1535, 1541, 1543-1544, 1555, 1559, 1595), some of the prinitings were actual revisions, and others were re-printings. The important thing to note about this work, is that Martin Luther had high praise for the contents of it. And he believed that the Loci Communesshould be canonized and included within the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The actual contents of this work, were the teachings of the man, Martin Luther.

Loci Communes Theologici, The Text Dedicatory Letter

The Loci Communes were evidently obtained and printed before Melanchthon was desirous for this to happen. Nevertheless it did happen, and he wanted people to understand the two things he had intended the Loci Communes to accomplish. First, “. . . What one must chiefly look for in Scripture . . . ,” and second, “. . . How corrupt are all the theological hallucinations of those who have offered us the subtleties of Aristotle instead of the teachings of Christ.”

Melanchthon points out that he wrote the Loci Communes to encourage people to bypass extra-biblical sources, and go straight to scripture. He does not believe it makes sense to try to integrate philosophy with the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures (e.g. Origen). It is at this point that Melanchthon bereates the scholastic methodology of dialectic. He discusses the skewing of scripture that those who employ such methodology foisted upon the interpretation of scripture.

Basic Topics of Theology, or Christian Theology in Outline

Here he discusses further his disdain for scholastic methodology, and the waste that has been produced by trying to study God this way.  He provides a listing of the normal topics looked at by the scholastics (i.e. Lombard and John of Damascus). Melanchthon points out that these men have twisted scripture because they have approached God via their own wisdom, rather than approaching God through His wisdom, the Theology of the Cross.

He says that Christian theology is comprised of, “. . . to know what the law demands, where you may seek power for doing the law and grace to cover sin, how you may strengthen a quaking spirit against the devil, the flesh, and the world, and how you may console an afflicted conscience.” (p. 22)

The Power of Man, Especially Free Will (Liberum Arbitrium)

He discusses  the fact that the scholastics, because of their high view of man, ascribed too much to the capacity of human reason and the will to choose to free themselves from the bondage of sin. Therefore they twisted the scriptures, as Melanchthon argues.

He proves this by pointing out that as in the beginning of the church Platonic realism was foisted upon the scriptures; thus obscuring the plain message that the scriptures truly communicate. Likewise he compares their time to that of the early church, but instead of Plato, it is now Aristotle who has taken the place of Plato in the twisting of the plain message of the scriptures. It is here that he describes his anthropology, and shows that man is divided into two basic elements: intellect and will (or affection). He points out that it is the affections that give preference to the particulars of the intellect. In other words, the intellect is instrumental to the affection’s placing of value upon that which the intellect has received.

Melanchthon, with the anthropological understanding noted, asks the question, ” . . . whether the will(voluntas) is free and to what extent it is free” (p. 24). He answers that indeed man’s freewill is non-existent, and that this is so because of the doctrine of predestination. He provides many scriptures to support this doctrine (cf. Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11, I Sam. 2:26, Prov. 16:4, etc.). He believes that the doctrine of “freewill” flows from the teaching of the scholastics and the philosophers/theologians of his day. Thus he argues that if men receive the simple teachings of scripture alone, he will be constrained to accept the teaching of “predestination,” as laid out in the scriptures.

Melanchthon argues that the philosophers have inferred from the external appearances of the freedom, that this is true for man and his choosing of God. In other words, if man is free to wear a blue coat rather than a red one — he has freely chosen to wear the blue coat. Therefore, if man chooses to obey God rather than self or Satan — then like the choosing of the coat, man can freely choose this as well.

He then transfers to the reality of the internal aspect of choice; and he argues in opposition to the sophists. He points out that the “will” should be termed as the “heart,” since scripture calls it that. And that there is a struggle between the “affections,” and man cannot freely overcome certain affections without God moving upon the heart and changing the affections. He qualifies this by pointing out that certain affections can be overcome by an individual. But that affection overcome by an individual is only overcome by another vain affection that serves the man, and not God.

He also discusses the fact that man might externally appear to overcome certain affections. But truly, that man has only masked the reality of his affection externally, by appearing to have overcome such evil affections (i.e. the Pharisees). Therefore, even if man appears externally to be living a godly life, he might be deceived by his wicked heart; unless that wicked heart and thus the affections have been shifted anew by the work and movement of the Holy Spirit.

Sin

He describes sin using biblical categories, and points out that there is no difference between “original sin,” and “actual sin.” For both of these in a reciprocating manner are one in the same thing.

Whence Came Original Sin?

Here he eloquently shows that sin has come from Adam, and that man was originally created in a state that was in unhindered fellowship with God. But when man chose to seek self, his desires were shifted and man now was dominated by a love of self. Thus his freedom to serve God was now constrained by his bondage to only serve self (he points out that the Sophists have defined “sin” as privation alone — he says this is not far enough, for privation flows from a heart that loves itself more than God).

Furthermore, Melanchthon proves the necessity of original sin, by pointing out Augustine’s refutation of Pelagius. He shows the significance of recapitulation of Romans 5, and points out if man was not originally corrupted and represented by Adam in sin; then likewise, man cannot be “represented” by the second Adam, Christ (cf. Rom. 5, I Cor. 15).

The Power and Fruit of Sin

He discusses that the “modern Pelagians” are a little different than those of Augustine’s day. He says that the “modern Pelagians” do adhere to the doctrine of “original sin,” but they do not believe that this reality so permeates man that every action of men is sinful. Contrarily, Melanchthon points out that man truly is permeated by sin, in every aspect of his life. And that those who affirm otherwise are only deceived by the very avarice that derives their denial of such a doctrine. He illustrates his point by describing the Greek philosophers of old. He points out that what they considered virtues, were in reality vices, because they were driven by love of self.

Furthermore, he lifts up Isaiah and David as providing discussion that man’s wisdom and vices are truly that. And that God will show such vices, in the end, to be a result of their own delusions devoid of the Spirit of God. Melanchthon points out here, that philosophy panders to the external vices of men. But that the scriptures truly uncover the external masks of philosophy, as they penetrate to the depths of of the motivations that drive the affections. Hence, it is the scriptures that show truly that man’s motivations are only wicked and evil, and the Sophists philosophy that skim over the motivations and go to the vices produced by a dead deceived heart. Essentially the point is, is that to use philosophy is only to engage in petitio principii (circular reasoning) never getting to the driver of this vicious circle.

He continues to point out the ineptness of the Sophists philosophy to accept the teaching of God. He shows that true repentance can only be a result of God’s movement upon man’s heart. Indeed, God commands things that are not in the abilities of man to accomplish (in contradistinction to the Sophist’s self-moved will). Therefore, making man look in dependence on God, to work His love into man through the Holy Spirit’s work upon man’s heart.

Conclusion

This work, by Melanchthon, is clear and to the point. In fact it is obvious, after reading the Heidelberg Disputation, that Melanchthon truly is compiling the work’s of Luther in a systematic way. Melanchthon via repetition pionts out that man’s will is not free, because it is in bondage to its own affections. Clearly, he points out that there are certain external freedoms. But he would not want to equate such freedoms with the notion of “free-will,” and man’s ability to lunge himself out of the bondage of his will.

Melanchthon uses the scriptures freely and conversantly to make his point. He clearly points out that human reason can never unearth the driving motives behind the heart. Therefore he shows that the Sophist’s philosophy, in all reality, is driving the very anthropology and philosophy that they are using to discern that which is “good” (virtuous) and “bad” (vice). But the scriptures are the only thing from whence an adequate true anthropology might come. And likewise, the only true instrument through which man’s genuine motives of self love (i.e. sin) can be detected and thwarted. Therefore, Melanchthon convincingly argues that the scriptures should take primacy over man’s reasonings. And, in fact, the philosophy of the scholastics ought to be discarded ipso facto.

Melanchthon’s teaching is so relevant for today it is amazing! For sure, the American Evangelical church is informed by an epistemology that comes from the scholastics of Melanchthon’s day. If the church could be exposed to this reality and embrace the true teaching of the scriptures through the lens of the cross, then the American church might be salvaged. But if the church does not take heed to scripture, and in fact Melanchthon and Luther (e.g. theology of the cross), then the trajectory the church is on now will only lead to continued impotence and irrelevance in today’s culture.

 

Myk Habets and the Evangelical Calvinists Against Apophatic Theology: How Cataphatic Theology and the Theology of the Cross are the Better Way

There seems to be a revival of apophatic theology taking place in our moment; I’m thinking of someone like Katherine Sonderegger and her newish Systematic Theology: Volume One. This trend seems prevalent, even as a mood, among others (because this is a blog post I’m not going to get into proving this further at this point). In contrast, we as Evangelical Calvinists are committed to the via positiva (‘positive way’), or cataphatic theology; thinking that is contingent, relative to its knowledge of God, upon God’s Self-revelation and explication in the eternal Logos made flesh, Jesus Christ. This commitment is based upon at least two realities: 1) that the noetic effects of the fall have so affected our constitution as human beings that any knowledge of God we might innately have is so polluted as to be useless and idolatry producing (so in other words there’s an epistemological and ontological issue); 2) more positively, we believe that the Incarnation and Accommodation of God in Christ therein implies that God himself understands that our need is such that without his stooping down to us in the grace of his life in Christ, without his Self-revelation, the gap between a genuine knowledge and him and us is unattainable.

In our newly released book (May 2017), Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion, Myk Habets, in one of his personal chapters wrote a chapter entitled: Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves. In this chapter Myk develops a Torrancean epistemology that is grounded in the objective life of God in Jesus Christ for us. His development is rich, and places all of the weight of epistemology vis-à-vis knowledge of God where it should be: on and in and from Christ. In the conclusion to his chapter, based on the catatphatic epistemology he just developed, he contrasts that with apophatic theology (via negativa) in this way (at length):

CONCLUSION

The epistemological stance developed in this essay has an obvious implication for Christian dogmatics, namely, that constructive theology is possible due to the work of the Word and Spirit. As a final note, this essay makes the claim that dogmatics is a cataphatic enterprise, and not, contra the current trend in some theological circles, an apophatic one. At the very least it is what A. N. Williams once described as “lukewarm apophaticism” which is nothing more than a qualification of cataphaticism.42

In light of 1 Cor 2:4, we do not rely on “natural reason” or “human logic,” which is fallen and in need of redemption. Rather, this human inadequacy forces us to rely on what has been given by the Spirit.43 It is the Spirit alone who grants us union and communion with God such that we can participate in the divine life and know the mind of Christ as we think out of a center in God and not in ourselves, something unattainable by human discourse or intellect alone.44

There is no denying that God is above and beyond human reason; Rom 11:33, to name but one text, is clear here. But to argue for a robust apophaticism is to deny either the ability or the intention of God to communicate with his creatures. Knowledge of God is basic to the Christian

life, and such knowledge comes via God’s self-revelation, most fully through the Word written; and never without the Spirit. Williams offers sage advice when she asserts that “Scripture thus declares our epistemological predicament, not so as to discourage us in our journey towards knowledge and love of God, but so as to spare us futile forms of striving, and the God whom Scripture proclaims to be unknowable is the very same who grants us enlightenment, notably through the sacred page.”45 “Come Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation.”[1]

I remember the first time I ever was confronted with this disjunction, between doing theology apophatically versus cataphatically, it was in seminary; it was tied into Martin Luther’s theologia crucis or theology of the cross, and it intrigued me supremely.[2] Luther’s theology of the cross fits into the cataphatic mood of theology that us Evangelical Calvinists are interested in. Fitting, particularly in light of what Myk has developed and argued (in his whole chapter); it is fitting because Martin’s theology starts with God’s Self-revelation right in the very climax of what needed to take place in order for humanity to have a genuine knowledge of God; i.e. naked human reason needed to be put to death, which is what was accomplished at the cross of Christ, and in the light of that reality, a kind of theological double entendre and dialectic, wherein not only was revelation happening, but the reconciliation between God and humanity, in order for the cross-work to be really appreciated as revelation took place at once in Christ. As Barth and Torrance assert (and argue): revelation is reconciliation; it is this that cataphatic theology orbits around and from—it’s a cruciform, staurological way of theology wherein out of the death of death, in Christ, comes the light and life of revelation. In other words, in keeping with Myk’s argument, apophatic theology, the idea that humans can conceive of God through discursive reasoning and speculation, doesn’t get off the ground because, as we believe, genuine Christian theology can only start from the ground up a posteriori (versus a priori) in the concrete reality of the dusty humanity of God in Jesus Christ wherein God is humbled and humanity is exalted at once in the singular and particular person, the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

In other words, as Torrance notes of Barth’s theology, all theological and biblical thought is circumscribed and sublimated by Christ alone (solo Christo); there is no free reign for thinking God but from the field of God’s life in Christ for us. Note Torrance on Barth at this juncture, and with this we end:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

[1] Myk Habets, “Crossing the Epistemological Impasse Thinking out of a Center in God and Not out of a Center in Ourselves,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 27-8.

[2] To be clear I am constructively building upon Myk’s insights; he doesn’t bring Luther’s theology of the cross into the mix in his chapter, but I think it fits.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

 

Knowing God: Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Thomas Torrance. Theologia Crucis against Analogia Entis

Knowing God, it is what we as Christians all desire; we want to not only know Him, but know that we have a more sure way of knowing God. In the history of the church and ideas there have been multiple ways to try and tackle this. There have been mystical (Platonic) types of attempts at this; there have been chain-of-being attempts at this (Thomism) wherein humans are able to work martinluthermiddleagethemselves back to their final source of causation (God) and know God through the analogy and point of contact between Him as Infinite cause over against us as finite causes (indeed effects of His cause) [think analogia entis]; and another way was simply by understanding that words as symbols within a Covenant relation between God and humanity become the source for knowing God in an authoritative way (Nominalism).

It was this latter convention for knowing God that drove the thinking of the spitfire, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. He repudiated the chain-of-being way, and yet was much more circumspect and concrete than the mystical way would allow for (although influences from this approach are present within the makeup of Luther’s overall attitude and approach to thinking God). As a result, Luther focused on what he called theologia crucis (theology of the cross) not analogia entis (analogy of being)—analogia entis was what gave the Roman Catholic church its authority in a hierarchical scheme for knowing God and mediating knowledge of God (as representative of Christ on earth [i.e. the Papal office] the medieval Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was a step above [in the chain of being between God and humanity] the laity and regular people, as such they held the keys to knowledge of God). Luther’s appropriation of nominalism (theologically, not philosophically) is what allowed him to forward his idea on a theology of the cross over against the analogy of being (or also what Luther referred to as the theologia gloriae ‘theology of glory’); it cut the link between an analogy to be found in human beings vis-à-vis God. For Luther’s theology of the cross the only way for us to know God was to be found in God’s Self-revelation, which meant the words of Holy Scripture, and more radically the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross (where Deus absconditus becomes Deus revelatus ‘the hiddeness of God becomes the revealedness of God’).

Richard Muller has written this of Luther:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ….[1]

Theology of the cross could later correlate to what some have called a theology of crisis (what we find in someone like Jurgen Möltmann, and even in the early Karl Barth). God is known as we meet Him at the cross over and again; as we are depleted of our resources and thrown on the mercy of His resources revealed to us as He freely and graciously met and meets with us through the cross of His dearly beloved Son. The cross is where God’s power and reality is revealed as: God humbled and humanity exalted in the unio personalis (the singular person), Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was one of the foremost and earliest theologians of the cross, this typifies the attitude that a theologian of the cross thinks and lives from:

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people.[2]

Closing Remarks

It is interesting, because when we think of the nominalist/Scotist types of dispositions that Luther had it would seem at odds with the realist/Thomist ones that we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. I think what brings them together constructively is their (i.e. Luther’s, Barth’s, Torrance’s) focuses on a theology of the Word. Barth and Torrance, it can be said, have an a posteriori approach to thinking God; i.e. from God’s Self-revelation in Christ back up to the ontological God (so a chain-of-being way of thinking, but instead of a this chain taking link from a general conception of human being back up to God’s being, it takes link from God’s being given and revealed in Jesus Christ as a center of God’s life). I think if Luther was around when Barth and Torrance came on the scene he would approve of this kind of christologically conditioned chain-of-being thinking, because it takes the christological focus of Luther’s theology of the cross and of the Word and understands that the Covenant between God and humanity that provides genuine knowledge of God is found nowhere else but in theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. Barth and Torrance actually take the insights that Martin Luther’s via positiva ‘positive way’ (kataphatic) of doing theology emphasizes while at the same time plundering the Thomist way of knowing God non-metaphysically (as it were) from God’s reality given in Jesus Christ. What Barth and Torrance don’t take over, and now in alignment with Luther, is the Thomist chain-of-being separation of cause and effect when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This might be where Luther, Barth, and Torrance are most closely aligned; for Luther, when we see Jesus, we see God / for Barth and Torrance when we see Jesus, we see God.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 223-24.

[2] II Corinthians 1:8-11, Common English Bible.

Assurance of Salvation in Martin Luther, with Reference to Barth and Torrance. ‘I absolve you!’

Myk Habets and I have edited our volume two Evangelical Calvinism book due out in the early half of 2017. My personal chapter in that volume is on John Calvin’s, Karl Barth’s, and Thomas Torrance’s doctrine of assurance of salvation. This topic has always been of luther_martin-3interest to me, at one point it was something I struggled with; and I’ve known others (who are very close to me) who have struggled with this as well. Currently, I’m not really sure many evangelicals struggle with this anymore; mostly, I would suggest, because of the kind of superficiality present in most evangelical churches today when it comes to actual doctrine and doctrinal understanding or interest (and I’m including the leadership levels as well). That said, the rest of this post will be dealing with this ancient doctrine; we will have particular focus on how this doctrine functioned in the thought and theology of Martin Luther.

Luther, as so many know, was an Augustinian monk; to say he was devout and driven would be an understatement. He, not unlike many in his day, struggled deeply with assurance of salvation. Because of the teaching of the medieval Roman Catholic church people could never really know with certainty if they had done enough penance and engaged in enough heartfelt contrition to know if they were right with God; the result was that people languished with a sense of doubt and fear before a perceived wrathful God. It was this framework Luther was succored in as a monk, indeed it was the air he breathed his whole life; and he was tormented.

Without getting into Luther’s whole biography, and theological antecedents, suffice it to say Luther needed a way out; he needed an assuaged conscience before God. He became a monk with the goal of finding such consolation; but would he find it? As most of us know, yes, indeed, Luther did think he found it; but as many of us might not know he didn’t find it by abandoning his Catholic medieval framework of thought, instead he found it afresh as he read the New Testament for himself. Luther came to realize that he could only stand before God by trusting God’s Word, by standing by faith with the understanding that the righteousness of God wasn’t something he could muster up, instead it was an ‘alien righteousness’ external to Luther and all humanity found in Christ. With this new found insight Luther reified the Catholic penitential system by grounding it in a theology of God’s Word, and understanding that as the priest spoke absolution over people it was in actuality the Word of God itself. Luther was finally able to find certainty of standing before God, not by cooperating with God in penance, or by mustering up heartfelt contrition, but by looking to the cross of Jesus Christ itself; by knowing that the righteousness he needed before God was not latent in him, but explicit in Jesus Christ. Stephen Strehle explains all of this for us this way:

Luther, the founder of the Protestant doctrine, often spoke of his fifteen (sometimes twenty) years as a monk in the Catholic Church as a time of bondage to the works of self-righteousness and the fear of God. As a monk he did not trust in the righteousness of Christ but in the incessant performance of vigils, prayers, and fasts—a righteousness that was a veritable “cesspool and delightful kingdom of the devil.” Such righteousness, of course, brought nothing but despair to Luther. His confessions did not bring help or solace, for his sins, he felt, were too great to mention and his contrition never sufficient to satisfy the demands of true righteousness. His experience was thus filled with fear, doubt, and torment, and his concept of Catholicism became slanted accordingly, as he imputed those anxieties to the church’s own teachings and practice.

Luther, however, did not abandon the practice of penance in order to rediscover his Gospel elsewhere, as is so often supposed among scholars, but found assurance and faith by reinterpreting the purpose of the sacrament along a direction other than the one that we have just witnessed. Instead of pointing to the worthiness of one’s own righteousness or contrition, which is indeed the kingdom of the devil and leads to despair, Luther pointed the penitent in another direction. He exhorted the penitent to listen and trust in the words of comfort, uttered by the priest in the sacrament, as the very word of God. He exhorted them to no longer trust in their “contrition of the heart, the confession of the mouth, or satisfaction of works,” but to listen to the mercy that God freely offers them through the priest. The priest’s role after all is said to bring comfort to those who are shackled with anguish over their sins. His words must be seen as God’s words; his actions God’s actions; his forgiveness God’s forgiveness. When he pronounces the simple words “I absolve you,” this must be seen as a special pronouncement from God to the individual that his sins have been forgiven.

This is how Luther first became so absolutely assured of his standing before God. God had told him personally. This word was not a promise spoken generally to all men or made contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions, always subject to human frailty and their misconceptions. It was a word spoken from God’s mouth to Luther’s ear. When the priest said, “I absolve you,” the “I” was God and the “you” was Luther.[1]

Strehle gives a sense of how Luther reified assurance of salvation; placing the referent for “certitude” no longer in self, but in Jesus Christ. In my view what Luther did serves only as a first step; he needs to be taken further.

Just as with Calvin, Luther offers pregnant contours of thought that are weighted with a Christ concentration just waiting for further development. I contend that that type of development is exactly what we’ve been given in the theologies of Barth and Torrance. Here’s what I mean with reference to a Barthian development. Here Barth offers critique of Calvin’s doctrine of election and assurance; while Luther was different than Calvin in some important ways (especially in the early Luther we just had elucidated for us by Strehle), the Christ-direction that Barth takes this would equally serve Luther just as well as it serves Calvin. Barth writes:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

The moral is the Word of God. What is missing, in an explicit way, in both Calvin and Luther is a focus on the vicarious humanity of Christ. We see the lineaments of that in both of them at important points, but not in explicit ways. For Barth, as for Torrance, the word of absolution that Luther found in the priest’s words, were actually first spoken by God over the humanity of Jesus Christ, for us. As we are in union with Christ and his vicarious humanity, the ground of our assurance isn’t found from the lips of a priest, or pastor, they are found in the very Word of God Himself; we look directly and thus not indirectly to Christ. The mediation isn’t through sacraments, it is directly given through Christ; the mediation isn’t through decrees, it is directly through Jesus Christ. We look to Christ.

Martin Luther and John Calvin, as noted, provided a very fruitful and rich trajectory; Barth and Torrance stood on their shoulders (and other’s), and took it straight to the heavenlies in Christ. Assurance isn’t a concept, it isn’t something we generate; it’s Jesus Christ.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 8-10.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason

I just finished, for the second time in thirteen years, Alister McGrath’s wonderful book Luther’s Theology Of The Cross. As the title indicates, the book is about developing the historical and theological context in which Luther had his theological and reformational breakthrough; a breakthrough that theologically led to his theologia crucis, or ‘theology of the cross.’ I have found this “breakthrough” intriguing, ever since I was first exposed to it by my historical theology professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Indeed, this topic spurred me on in my Master’s thesis research as
luthercranachI ended up writing an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1:17–25; precisely because of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to be exposed to its tenets, I thought I would put this post together to fill in that lacuna for you. Of interest, particularly to me, and maybe to you, is that the various loci or theological contours that make up Luther’s theology of the cross correlate very well with what we will find funding both Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s theological impulses, respectively. To that end we will look at a quote from Torrance that coheres very well with the emphases of Luther’s theology of the cross, and then we will hear from McGrath as he provides five points that help detail and unpack what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about (we will actually look at McGrath’s fifth point in a separate post from this one since it is long and quite detailed). We will close with a look at Barth’s resonances with Luther’s theologia crucis.

Thomas Torrance’s Theology of the Cross

Here Thomas Torrance is commenting on the type of  rationalist thinking that he thinks is necessary for arriving at the conclusion that the atonement is limited or particular to specially elect individuals (commonly understood as ‘limited atonement’). And then we also have Torrance commenting, in this same little quote, on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance writes:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[1]

Not wanting to get mired down in discussion about the merits or demerits of universalism and/or limited atonement, what I want this quote to do is illustrate how Torrance sees human ‘reason’ being put to death, and given occasion to be resurrected by the cross and death of Jesus Christ; again, something endemic to the theology of the cross in the theology of Martin Luther. To that end, here is McGrath offering four loci or ‘places’ that help us understand what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order (ea quae facta sunt) have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2)This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recongisable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14.8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father — which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). For Luther, the ‘theologian of the cross’ is he who, through faith, discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross — and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross: vivimus in abscondito Dei, id est, in nuda fiducia misericordiae eius. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.[2]

For Luther, according to McGrath’s explication, as for Torrance, the cross of Jesus Christ and what is accomplished therein, ontologically, in the hypostasized life of God in Christ, accomplishes the putting to death of the fleshy mind, and provides for the occasion of the mind of Christ to be the ground of all thought of God as revealed ‘hiddenly’ in the crucified God. So not only does the cross-work have impact upon all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Christ ontologically, as applied by the Holy Spirit, but Christ on the cross himself reveals who God is as the humiliated God who so loves his creatures that he is willing to become man, and suffer the consequences of what that means even to the point of being put to death on the cross.

Barth’s Theology of the Cross

In closing I think it would be interesting to look at Karl Barth’s theology in this regard, and observe how well, just as with Torrance, Luther’s theology of the cross coalesces with the emphases of Barth’s own type of incarnational theology and theologia crucis. One thing that is ironic about Barth’s critics is that because of his focus on the ‘hiddeness of God’ and the requirement of ‘faith’ in order to see God in the man from Nazareth, they often reduce his theology to working through the categories of Immanuel Kant and his noumenal/phenomenal paradigm for engaging with reality. It is true that Barth was a modern theologian working in a theological playground committed to a Kantian world of pure reason; but Barth was intent on exploding that playground of the theologians by correcting it with a theology of the Word. More ironically is that Barth’s most quoted theologian in his Church Dogmatics is none other than Martin Luther; I can’t help but think that Barth had Luther’s theology of the cross in mind when he was flipping Kantian “metaphysics” and “analytics” on its head. Bruce McCormack offers insight on Barth’s Kantian context and what in fact Barth was doing contrariwise to it (you will notice the themes of ‘hiddeness of God’ absconditus Deus and ‘revealed God’ revelatus Deus underwriting Barth’s thinking as McCormack describes it in Barth’s modern and Kantian context):

Alas, I thought I had the quote I wanted to use here from McCormack, but I don’t. It is given in Bruce McCormack’s Afterword in his edited book with Clifford B. Anderson Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. The title of the Afterword is: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. You will just have to take my word for it, at the moment, that what you will find described therein correlates well with the contours of thought we have been looking at in Luther’s theology of the cross.

So What!

For Luther, for Torrance, for Barth in their own respective ways they all were theologians of the cross; they all believed that human reason and rationality needed to be put to death in order to truly see God. The spectacle (to use Calvin’s imagery) necessary to see God in Christ; to see the hidden God hanging on a tree; was the faith of Christ. How that gets detailed and developed in our theologians is distinct one from the other, but the principle is there. The bottom line is that for all of them, and I would contend for the Apostle Paul himself, human thought on its own cannot conceive of God; particularly of a God who would become human, die on a cross, and rise again from the dead. It is this specter that was so inimical for Luther’s theology as he criticized, in his day, the Aristotelianized theology that placed such a high priority on the human intellect as the place where theological reasoning could peek-out, as it were. Torrance, in his own time, took aim at Newtonian metaphysics, among other intellectualizing modes for knowing God (including Aristotle’s closed system of thought). And Barth, for his part, offered critique of the intellectualized theology offered by Kant, Schleiermacher, and other moderns. For each of them, to one degree or another, the cross of Jesus Christ provided the central way forward, and the necessary move of God, in order for humanity to have the capacity to actually know and see God (encapsulated in this, particularly for Barth and Torrance, was the importance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

So what? I think if we follow the lead of Luther, Torrance, and Barth much of what counts as Christian theology today, given its informing theology found in the Aristotelianized Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, will be marginalized, as it should be, by the cross of Jesus Christ and the theologia crucis.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 187-88.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 149-50.