We can imagine the Christian tradition as a ship sailing out into a wild, uncharted sea. Seeking to orient itself, it looks back to the past, to the great lighthouses erected by the masters of its theological tradition. These are receding, and do not provide all the illumination that is required, but they remain priceless points of reference. After Scripture, Luther’s light is the one that shines brightest, the one that provides the most vibrant contact between tradition and modernity. Roman Catholic thinkers have sensed this in the twentieth century, and have gradually entered into dialogue with the Reformer. The first generation of sympathetic Catholic Luther scholars, led by Joseph Lortz, thought of Luther as one who had missed a good understanding of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose thinking on grace and justification he would have found fully acceptable. A ripe fruit of this entente is Otto Hermann Pesch’s thesis on the theology of justification in Luther and Aquinas (1967). The new appreciation of Luther facilitated the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification accepted by both churches at Augsburg on October 31, 1999. Denounced by critical theologians such as Ingolf Dalferth as not worth the paper it was written on, rejected as a betrayal of the Gospel by many Lutherans (see D. Preus), and having had as yet little impact on the life and thought of the Churches, the Declaration has at least the merit of allowing Catholic preachers and theologians to draw unselfconsciously on the riches of Lutheran thought, even if few have chosen to avail of this.
Dissatisfaction with the apparently bloodless categories of Neo-Thomism opened another Catholic path to Luther in the sixties. The popularity among Catholic philosophers of Heidegger’s call for an ‘overcoming of metaphysics’ brought a new sympathy for Luther’s struggle with scholasticism and for the counter-metaphysical theologians in the Lutheran tradition, such as Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack. At the height of this movement, in the seventies and eighties, it was not known that Heidegger’s project had been incubated in its very beginning by intensive study of Luther’s writings as well as of Harnack’s History of Dogma, with its thesis that ‘Dogma is a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel’. This has now been shown in detail by Christian Jaedicke-Sommer (71-142). In a 1920 lecture Heidegger talks of “der Weg zu einer ursprünglichen christlichen – griechentumfreien – Theologie” (the way to an original Christian theology – free of Hellenism) (Gesamtausgabe 59.91). Had Heidegger devoted his talents to theology, he would undoubtedly have pursued this idea. That is why, as he said once or twice, the notion of Being – the quintessentially Greek concern to which Heidegger devoted his entire work – would not have figured in such a theology at all.
But the platform on which Luther and Roman Catholicism have most warmly met is neither the doctrine of justification nor the critique of metaphysical theology, both of which still remain primarily Protestant specialties. Rather it is the Catholic rediscovery of the theological centrality of the Word of God, culminating in Vatican II, with its Constitution Dei Verbum, that has most brought Luther near. If Tridentine Catholicism insisted overwhelmingly on the sacraments as channels of grace and ignored the role of the preached word (see Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik I/1.65-71), the Catholic Church today is much more a Church of the word. We may discern an indirect influence of Luther in the prominence of the Word in the theologies of Balthasar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx and many others of the Vatican II years. It was not the ‘Luther renaissance’ of the early twentieth century that thrust this theme to the forefront of awareness, but the Dialectical Theology of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Rudolf Bultmann. Though Barth was an heir of Calvin rather than Luther, his Dogmatics is founded on the Word of God, the theme of its first two massive volumes, Die Lehre vom Wort Gottes (1932 and 1938), which quote Luther, often at length, more than two hundred times. Barth was very well received in Catholic circles, in major studies by Henri Bouillard, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hans Küng, and in the acclaim of Pius XII. It was largely under Barth’s influence, too, that Luther scholars such as Eugen Bizer, Gerhard Ebeling and Ernst Wolf had begun to stress the importance of the ‘word-event’ in Luther’s thought and especially in his ‘reformation breakthrough’.
In the present essay, I shall attempt to sharpen my understanding of Luther’s key contribution to theology by focusing on its linguistic aspect, its discovery of a new relation to the scriptural word. Faced with the massive bulk of Luther’s writings and the sophistication and complexity of German Luther-research (perhaps the most fascinating sub-discipline in historical theology), I cannot claim scholarly mastery of the sources or the debates. Instead I offer a free meditation on aspects of Luther’s word-theology that can guide and challenge faith today.
DATING THE REFORMATION BREAKTHROUGH
Many scholars now distinguish between Luther’s reformational turn (reformatorische Wende), the process by which Luther worked out his original position in the writings of 1513 to 1518, and his reformation breakthrough (reformatorisches Durchbruch), the event, recalled in his 1545 preface to his Latin works, in which his theological vision definitively crystallized, and which can plausibly be dated to February-March 1518. A feature of this crystallization that has been given prominence by such scholars as Eugen Bizer, Matthias Kroeger and Oswald Bayer is the role of language.
Luther had been sensitive to language, and above all to the particularity of scriptural language, from the start. In his marginal notes on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, penned from 1509 to 1511, we already find him denouncing Aristotle as a ‘rancid philosopher’ (WA 9.43). This was not an innovation; his teachers Bartholomew of Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, and the Sentences commentary of Pierre d’Ailly, conveyed a similar sentiment (see Zumkeller, 494). From the start Luther asserts that only God’s word speaks well of God, quoting Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate VII 38: “Non relictus est hominum eloquiis de dei rebus aliis quam dei sermo. Omnia reliqua et arta et conclusa et impedita sunt et obscura” (For human utterance about divine things there are no other words than God’s word; all else is straitened, closed in, encumbered and obscure) (WA 9.29). The theologian must adapt his speech to the words of Scripture, and not vice versa: “linguam illis aptare et non econtra” (WA 9.84; see Metzger, 39-47). Luther begins an early sermon on John 3.16 with the remark: “Mira est emphasis in istis verbis et proprietas, sicut est mos Spiritus sancti. Nam non est locutor ullus, qui tantam in sermone proprietatem et energiam habeat sicut ipse” (There is a wonderful force and aptness in these words, as is the custom of the Holy Spirit; for there is no speaker having such propriety and energy in speech as he) (WA 4.595). Clarity and force are the qualities Luther admires in Scripture and emulates, from the start, in his own speech. But in the reformation breakthrough his relation to the biblical word takes on a new and more concrete character, one that entails an overcoming of traditional metaphysical conceptions of the nature of language itself.
Luther now hears the biblical word, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Mk 2.5), as bringing a certitude that he had previously missed. From 1515 he had stressed that ‘the righteousness of God’ (Rom. 1.17) was a gift to be received in faith, and that no merit or effort of human beings could secure it. But his thinking on this doctrine remained trammelled by residual philosophical habits of thought from his Augustinian and scholastic background, and the gracious gift of justification was overshadowed by the sinner’s uncertainty as to whether he had actually received it. Assurance of salvation had still to be earned by spiritual acrobatics, by the practice of deep humility, self-abasement and self-condemnation. The practice of resignatio in infernum, resigning oneself to damnation if it be God’s will, derived from German mysticism, sounds like a kind of moral blackmail: “Verumtamen sicut seipsos ita pure conformant voluntati Dei, sic est impossibile ut in inferno maneant. Quia impossibile est, ut extra Deum maneat, qui in voluntatem Dei sese penitus proiecit” (Since they conform so purely to the will of God, it is impossible that they remain in hell, for it is impossible that one who has entirely cast himself on the will of God should remain outside God) (WA 56.391).
The righteousness conferred in this first apprehension of justification as a free gift was only a righteousness in spe, not one that could be confidently appropriated here and now. Luther cleared the simul iustus et peccator of the suspicion of contradiction by pointing out that in Aristotle “opposita non possunt simul esse eodem respectu” (opposites cannot exist at the same time in the same respect) (WA 39/1,89,19). We are sinners and righteous in different respects. In the early writings we are sinners re vera, righteous ex promissione Dei certa (WA 56.272,17-18), an unfortunate explanation, which makes it seem that God’s promise is vainly struggling against the reality of our sinfulness. The iustus in this early understanding of simul iustus et peccator is almost a mere ideal, or a fiction, compared with the depressing weight of sin. Later, Luther will insist that we are righteous in very truth, when we embrace Christ in faith, sinners only “quatenus respicio ad me et ad meum peccatum” (insofar as I look to myself and my sin) (WA 39/1.508,5-6; see Dieter, 305-7). The struggle between sin and righteousness is equally dramatic early and late – for the simul is no peaceful cohabitation, no complacent ability to live with contradictions. But the later language makes clear that in justifying us Christ has definitely won the struggle, and that we cling to him not in hope of a future justification but as claiming in the present the justification he has granted. From a Liberation Theology standpoint, one might solicit Luther’s teaching as follows, giving it a less individualistic cast: Insofar as we are trapped in unjust social structures, we are sinners, however ‘blameless’ our personal lives (as Paul Surlis suggested to me); but insofar as we cooperate, as a community, with the divine will that overcomes these structures of violence and injustice, we are a holy people bringing the Kingdom to birth.
With the 1518 breakthrough, the event of justification is seen primarily as a concrete gracious word of promise, addressed to the sinner here and now, and taken to heart in joyful trust. The righteousness of God, the ‘passive’ righteousness whereby a merciful God justifies us by faith, was identified as the core of the Gospel in the Romans commentary: “revelari per evangelium iustitiam Dei, scilicet passivam, qua nos Deus misericors iustificat per fidem” (WA 54.186). But only when heard as a message of complete assurance, in the word of absolution, is this revelation fully grasped; this is the discovery to which Luther refers in his 1545 retrospect as the opening of the gates of Paradise. The gloomy atmosphere of the earlier writings is now dispelled. The invigorating impact of the rediscovery of the Gospel as glad tidings can be felt in the writings that he hurled forth with such confidence in 1518-21.
Kroeger sees the first emergence of the new conception in the exegesis of Hebrews 5.1 in October 1517. Bayer, who dates the passage to early spring 1518, independently reached the same conclusion (Bayer, 14). Martin Brecht, in his persuasive and influential essay ‘Iustititia Dei’ and in his biography of Luther, has clarified the respects in which the early writings are not fully reformational. He finds in them the masked signs of the malaise that Luther mentions in the 1545 preface, a malaise that led him to hate divine justice, which he imagined as punitive, rather than as the gift of righteousness conferred on sinners in Christ: “non amabam, imo odiebam iustum et punientem peccatores Deum, tacitaque si non blasphemia, certe ingenti murmuratione indignabar Deo” (I did not love, indeed I hated, a just God punishing sinners, and silently I protested against God, if not in blasphemy, certainly in a murmur of intense discontent) (WA 54.185). The idea that fully emerged in 1518 had been brewing in the early writings. What brought it into definitive focus was the realization that the Gospel is not a doctrine to be appropriated by exercises in spiritual zeal such as the resignatio in infernum, but a word of absolution to be heard in faith. Imputed righteousness is not something one must struggle to be worthy of, but is effectively granted when one hears and believes the word of forgiveness. One cannot doubt of one’s justification, indeed it would be sinful to do so, for the authority of Christ speaking the word of forgiveness overrides all doubt. While Brecht tries to define what differentiates the reformational breakthrough from the level of insight reached in the Romans commentary without giving prominence to the word-event, it is hard to formulate the breakthrough without reaching for that category. The reformational ideas are all present in the early writings but they click into place with total conviction only when they are reduced to the powerful simplicity of a word of forgiveness addressed to the sinner and commanding his faith.
Bernhard Lohse and Martin Brecht caution against exaggerating the centrality of the linguistic aspect, and point out that Luther stresses the pure gratuitousness of God’s gift of righteousness to the sinner rather than the verbal medium of this conferral. Lohse (1999:92) points out that the key discovery in Luther’s thinking concerned the ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans 1.17 was developing richly in Luther’s thought for years before the specific discovery of the role of the word. Nonetheless, it does seem that the new clarity and certitude of Luther’s message in 1518 goes hand in hand with a new relationship to the scriptural word, and that this change in Luther’s understanding of language precipitates the crystallization of the Reformation vision expressed in the 1520 manifesto on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Bayer is not in disaccord with Lohse on the essentials: ‘That in the years 1518 to 1520 the entire skein of traditional motifs is first torn apart, is not an objection to the assumption that the breakthrough in its decisive aspect occurred earlier, but shows the historical and not mechanical way in which the new approach found for itself extensive confirmation’ (Bayer, 225).
THE TORTUOUS PATH TO FREEDOM
The rediscovery of Luther’s pre-Reformation writings early in the twentieth century has unfortunately caused Luther to be seen as a gloomy, tormented theologian, which is what he was before the breakthrough of February 1518. A monastic theology of humility prevailed in the first Psalms commentary and in the Romans commentary. The mark of justification was not certitude but constant worry about one’s own condition, as one trod a middle path between the extremes of presumption and despair. God’s promise of salvation was objectively certain, but it was not subjectively certain that the sinner had actually appropriated it. It was amid pastoral activities that Luther came to his more robust understanding of the Gospel as an effective word of absolution, the Freispruch wherein God transfers the sinner to the realm of righteousness.
Full awareness of the opus proprium of the Gospel is expressed in a sermon of December 21, 1516: “Proprium officium Evangelii est nunciare proprium opus Dei i.e. gratiam, qua pacem et iustitiam et veritatem omnibus gratis dat pater misericordiarum, mitigans omnem iram suam” (WA 1.113,6; text as in Clemen, LW 5.421). Yet the condemnatory work of the Gospel as an alienum sonum (114) is what is most stressed. The good news of forgiveness is to be believed, but it does not claim the believer with the total certainty required to overcome the terror of the condemnation. Luther still seems unaware of the full significance of the contrast of Law and Gospel, and in his exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms early in 1517 he is still harping on the idea that “wer ym selb ungnedig is, dem ist gott gnedig” (he who is graceless to himself, to him is God graceful) (WA 1.211,12-13). This presents the grace following on the self-abasement as an inherent consequence rather than as the surprising announcement of another, different word (see Bayer, 144-58). In setting up God’s grace as the rightful counterpart of confession of sin, Luther holds at bay the sinner’s dependence on a word of forgiveness spoken freely to him by a gracious God. The dialogal quality of the relation to God is still subordinated to a quasi-legal pact.
In the commentary on Hebrews 5.1 Luther cites St. Bernard as a corrective to his earlier combination of objective certitude and subjective incertitude about salvation: “Oportet, ut credas Deum posse remittere tibi peccata, conferre gratiam et dare gloriam. Nec hoc satis est, nisi tibi remissa peccata, collatam gratiam et donandam gloriam certissime credas” (You should believe that God can remit your sins, confer grace and give glory, Nor is this enough, unless you believe with complete certainty that he has remitted your sins and has accorded grace and will give glory to you) (WA 57.170; paraphrased from Bernard, In festo annuntiationis I 3). To approach the Eucharist worthily, one must be purified by faith: “Si credant et confidant sese gratiam ibi consecuturos, haec sola fides facit eos puros et dignos, quae non nititur in operibus illis, sed in purissimo, piissimo, firmissimo verbo Christi dicentis: ‘Venite ad me omnes, qui laboratis et onerati estis, ego reficiam vos’ (Mt. 11.28). In praesumptione igitur istorum verborum accedendum est, et sic accedentes non confundentur” (If they believe and trust that they will obtain grace there, this faith alone makes them pure and worthy, who rely not on those works but on the most pure, pious, firm word of Christ saying: ‘Come to me all ye who labour and are heavy laden, and I shall give you rest’) (WA 57.171). Presumption is no longer a sin of pride to be avoided but the trusting presumption whereby one hears and accepts Christ’s word of salvation. The concreteness of the encounter with the Word dissolves the fretful introspective to-and-fro between despair and presumption. The drama of salvation is not taking place in a murky introspective realm but in an open encounter in which the announcement of the Gospel is met by the believer’s repentant acceptance of it.
Luther had followed a theory of Peter Lombard that was rejected at the Council of Florence in taking the words of absolution in the sacrament of penance as simply declaring that God had already forgiven the sinner:
Thus the word of absolution is understood as a judgement in the sense of a statement. Luther at first still remains entirely within the framework of the ancient understanding of language, especially the Stoic one, which Augustine inherited and which still widely prevails today. According to it, language is a system of signs that point to objects or states of affairs, or of signs that express an emotion. In both cases the sign – as statement or as expression – is not the matter itself. That the linguistic sign itself is already the matter itself, that it does not represent a matter that is absent but one that is present: this was Luther’s great hermeneutical discovery, his reformational discovery in the strict sense... The word of absolution does not register, but constitutes. It is a linguistic performance that itself produces an active rapport, inaugurates a relationship, between the one in whose name it is uttered and the one to whom it is uttered and who believes the assurance. (Bayer, 6)
The new view of language allowed Luther to refocus the sacrament of Penance. In freeing the word of forgiveness at the heart of this sacrament from all the other aspects that had accrued around it, Luther relegated the sacrament itself to obscurity. As Seeberg remarked, the reformation doctrine of justification can be seen as a replacement for the sacrament of Penance.
Luther’s interpretation of the maxim ‘not the sacrament but faith in the sacrament is what justifies’ (WA 1.544,40-1), and his stress on the subjective certitude of the penitent who receives the word of absolution in faith, became the major issue, alongside the controversy about indulgences, in the debate with Cajetan at Augsburg, October 12-14, 1518. To Cajetan, Luther’s stress on the certitude of faith seemed the charter for founding an entirely new Church. But on better acquaintance with Luther’s writings Cajetan later discovered an orthodox sense in the claim that certain faith was a requirement for absolution; the certitude concerned the efficacity of the sacrament but not its actual effect in the recipient (see Wicks 1992:175). That would not have satisfied Luther, for he would see it as undermining the power and authority of the divine word spoken to the sinner. If the word is embraced in faith it cannot miss of its effect. Perhaps Luther misstated the nature of the certitude of faith, making it seem a reflexive exercise in self-persuasion. Sometimes it is necessary to save Luther from himself, that is, to select his most articulate presentations of the Gospel from among others that are more opaque. Noting Jared Wicks’s retraction of his earlier judgement that Luther’s stress on certitude in faith of being forgiven ‘drained the earlier themes of the rich spirituality’ they had in the pre-1518 writings (1969:273; retracted 1992:118), we draw the lesson that the way to bring out the coherence of Luther’s message is to look to where it is shaped by the concrete address of the Gospel word, rather than by residues of tradition that this word overrides or relativises. Sometimes Luther falls short of evangelical insight, sometimes he overshoots the mark in exaggerations, but wherever he is found listening to the word of the Gospel, that is where his authentic insights are being generated.
Luther’s vision of absolution as a word spoken to us from outside means that ‘In distinction from every metaphysical construction of the doctrine of God, God’s truth and will are not abstract attributes, but something related in an oral and public manner as a concrete address to a specific hearer in a specific situation’ (Bayer, 49). Bayer insists that Luther won his way to this clear identification of how God works for our salvation through a long process of deliberate theological questioning, and he rejects talk of ‘originalities that are not to be clarified’ and generic accounts of the ‘primacy of the Word’ or the ‘priority of Word to sacrament’ (Jetter, 255-93. 339, 191), pointing out that it is precise developments within these basic notions that bring the specifically reformational insight (Bayer, 105, 114). Salvation was located in many different places in the medieval fabric of theology. Luther located it in the word of Christ addressing the sinner with forgiveness. “Neque enim deus (ut dixi) aliter cum hominibus unquam egit aut agit quam uerbo promissionis. Rursus, nec nos cum deo unquam agere aliter possumus, quam fide in uerbum promissionis eius” (Nor does God ever deal or act with humans otherwise than by the word of promise. Again, neither can we ever deal with God other than through faith in his word of promise) (WA 6.516). ‘It was a liberation for Luther to overcome both the fixation on pious activity, and the fixation on the inwardness of true love of God, in hearing the word of the Gospel that declares one free and thereby through the reception of saving righteousness outside us – extra nos’ (Hamm, 44). Very often piety becomes a cocoon, and people enclose themselves in a sytem of ritual habits, instead of listening to others or to the Lord, somewhat as if one were to hum one’s favourite melodies to oneself rather than hearing them performed anew. Luther is always trying to shake his hearers out of this spiritual autism, showing that the Gospel is not a treasury of pious thoughts or practices, but a challenging and strengthening word addressed to us, to be heard afresh each time it encounters us. Today we would stress more strongly that the word bears directly on the structures of our society and summons us to action as a prophetic community.
The language of the Gospel, Luther shows, is not an objectifying metaphysical language, nor is it an inner word heard only in the depths of the heart. It is an incarnate language, one actualized again and again in real-life exchanges – between the preached word and its hearers, and between believers who administer to one another the assurance of Christ’s mercy (this was his understanding of the sacrament of Penance). This incarnational sense of language owes much to the humanists’ rediscovery of language in all its historical richness and variety by the human. Luther saw all human languages as sanctified when the divine word was translated into them, and he saw the revival of linguistic scholarship in Renaissance humanism as a significant event in the history of salvation (Meinhold, 18, 28-30). Luther’s thought is self-consciously embedded in rhetorical discourse, and he inherits the humanist conception of rhetoric as a power to shape the real world. He ‘saw the enthroning of rhetoric once again as the regina artium as a necessary prerequisite for a purified and affective theology’ (Spitz, 386; quoted, Maaser, 21). The Reformation is often regarded, notably by Nietzsche, as having tragically aborted the development of humanistic culture and thought. Yet Luther can also be seen as having effected a humanist renovation of the theological landscape, by putting his hearers in touch with the sources and by allowing the sources to speak in the vernacular, in preaching and in hymnody. His recovery of the word is nourished in hidden ways by the humanist concern with language. The word he recovered was not the Hellenic one but the biblical one. Modern German was shaped on a biblical basis, with Luther’s Bible as its central text. The Weimar Classicism of Goethe and Schiller would reactivate in Germany the humanist recovery of Greece. This cult of Greece was no doubt a necessary strategy to gain freedom from the prison-house of Lutheran language. It has no equivalent in England, where the pagan abundance of Shakespeare had already supplemented the language of the Bible. Later Hellenizers such as Hölderlin, Nietzsche and Heidegger battle to create and sustain a word-event as powerful as the Lutheran one.
WHAT IS MISSING IN LUTHER’S EARLY WRITINGS
The key role of the spoken word goes hand in hand with a new emphasis on the believer’s certainty of salvation. The Commentary on Romans, 1515-16, regarded by Karl Holl as containing the full form of Luther’s theology, lacked this understanding of the Gospel as an authoritative word, dispelling fear and doubt. The focus on Luther’s pre-Reformation writings early in the twentieth century had the unfortunate effect of causing Luther to be seen as a gloomy, tormented theologian, which indeed is what he was before the breakthrough of February 1518. Like Holl, Reinhold Seeberg in his volume on Luther in his History of Dogma gives excessive prominence to the early works, and conveys a rather depressing image of Luther’s teaching, as a constant battle with guilt feelings, if not a losing battle. Seeberg is fascinated by the way the medieval heritage is gradually transformed in these early writings as the reformational vision takes form, but he does not adequately convey the simplicity and force of the reformation breakthrough, or its joyful, liberating impact.
Luther in these early years was working with the pactum or covenant theology of Gabriel Biel: ‘God, in his mercy and liberality, ordained to enter into a pactum with man, by which he is prepared to ascribe a much greater value to human acts than they are inherently worth Thus although a man who does quod in se est has done nothing of any particular inherent value, God accords it a much greater value within the terms of the pactum’ (McGrath, 104). For Luther, the act that would attract God’s reward was one of self-abasement and self-condemnation, which God consented to count as salvific. Biel falls into semi-Pelagianism in holding that the first step in our redemption, doing what in us lies, does not require the prior intervention of grace converting the will. Aquinas had insisted on the necessity of this grace, but Biel failed to notice this (see Farthing, 150-80). McGrath points out that Biel intended to refute Pelagianism, but that is a poor argument for his immunity to this most insidious of theological errors. In practice, Biel’s ‘optimism about the human capacity to contribute actively to one’s own justification before God had the effect of setting up a theology of self-reliance that leaves the viator subject to a potentially terrifying sense of responsibility to merit God’s grace (even if only de congruo) by disposing himself for grace (faciendo quod in se est) without any additional assistance or enablement beyond his purely natural endowment as a moral and rational creature (ex suis naturalibus)’ (Farthing, 178).
Hans Joachim Iwand, in his gripping volume on Luther, also gives prominence to the early writings. He is critical of Melanchthon, accusing him of replacing the transformational understanding of justification with a merely imputative one. He says that ‘Holl has reformed the Melanchthonian approach to the doctrine of justification and made the authentic, young, bold Luther perceptible again’ (51). Holl (123) sees justification as grounded in God’s aim to sanctify the sinner; justification is the means to this ‘making righteous’ as the end. ‘Unlike Luther, Melanchthon was not able to grasp the entire new life as a coherent divine work, as the goal toward which God is aiming in justification’ (Iwand, 49). I fail to see this alleged incoherence in Melanchthon’s account of justification and sanctification, an account which the later Luther, of the 1531 Commentary on Galatians, apparently shares. To say that justification is a free gift given independently of the goal of sanctification does not exclude that sanctification begins immediately with justification. Luther included this new life under the rubric of justification in his early writing, but differentiated it out in his later writing, no doubt to keep at bay the idea that justification is logically consequent on sanctification, which would undermine its sheer gratuity.
Iwand evokes the ‘joyous exchange’ whereby Christ takes on our sins and gives us his righteousness instead, but in the same breath notes that ‘there is a real forgiveness, but no ablation of sin, except in hope’ (71). Justification begins the transformation of the sinner, but is in no way contingent on this transformation. Justification is a free gift whereby the sinner is clothed with Christ’s righteousness, so that when he looks to himself he is still a sinner, but when he looks to Christ in faith he is a saint, transferred to a new realm of being. The simul justus et peccator is an exodic structure; isolate the sinner in his present state and he is a sinner, place him in the dynamic open horizon of the Christ-event, which he embraces in faith, and he is free, and can stand confidently before God in righteousness. The variety of the rhetoric in which Luther recreates his Anfechtungen and his release from them by the word of the Gospel dramatizes the unexpectedness of grace in a thousand forms. For the justified sinner, sin is no longer regnans but regnatum, and is thus no longer imputed as sin (WA 56.274; WA 8.93). God wills our sanctification, but his graciousness is shown first and foremost in his imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us while we are yet sinners. Fear that the celebration of justification may lead to moral slackness seems to underlie much of the scholarly insistence on justification as transformational. There is also an ontological anxiety, a wish to make justification more rational and logical.
A focus on the early Luther also weighs down Alister McGrath’s account of Luther’s theologia crucis, which he sees as the heart of the reformational vision. It is not just any theology of the cross that identifies the reformation message. What marks it as specifically reformational is that the cross is grasped not primarily as an inner experience but as a word, the verbum crucis of I Corinthians 1.18. “Luther’s discovery of the righteousness of God [in 1515] is but one step in the process leading to the theology of the cross” (99). It would be better to say that the discovery of the righteousness of God, as a gift ‘passively’ received by the sinner in faith, is deepened and clarified as Luther reflects on the dialectic of the cross, and that both are fully clarified only when concretized in a concrete address, the Gospel word of absolution. When McGrath refers to the word of the cross, he does not stress the nature of that word as an act of forgiveness. “The word of the cross reveals the gulf between the preconceived and the revealed God” (160) – yes, but the important thing is how this gulf is revealed: in the miracle of God’s free justification of the ungodly.
McGrath stresses excessively the hiddenness of God in the cross. He interprets the cross as showing God’s mercy hidden under God’s wrath, and quotes the early Psalms lectures to this effect (155). But Luther moved beyond this paradox, or at least gave it a richer sense. In the post-1518 vision, it is not by being humbled and condemned that the sinner is saved; the humbling and condemnation effected by the Law yields to the word of the Gospel that raises the sinner to life. McGrath tries to make the Law do the work of the Gospel when he writes: “the Word of God, by passing a severe judgement upon man, makes him a sinner, and thus executes the opus alienum – but in that this moves man to cry out to God for mercy and grace (which are immediately forthcoming!), it indirectly executes the opus proprium” (155). But the word of the cross as a word of redemption should emerge in dramatic contrast to the word of condemnation, as in Romans 3.21-6; the two words cannot be telescoped into one. Luther’s rhetoric of finding salvation under the disguise of condemnation is very powerful: “Bonum enim nostrum absconditum est et ita profunde, ut sub contrario absconditum est. Sic vita nostra sub morte, dilectio nostri sub odio nostri, gloria sub ignominia, salus sub perditione, regnum sub exilio, caelum sub inferno, sapientia sub stultitia, iustitia sub peccato, virtus sub infirmitate.” (For our good is hidden, and so deeply that it is hidden under its opposite. Thus our life is hidden under death, love for us under hate for us, glory under shame, salvation under damnation, kingdom under exile, heaven under hell, wisdom under stupidity, justice under sin, strength under weakness) (WA 56.392). But that this is not the last word of reformation insight is clear from the fact that Luther is still thinking along the lines of Pseudo-Dionysius’s Theologia Mystica, which he goes on to paraphrase: “Ut fides locum habeat in Deo, qui est negativa essentia et bonitas et sapientia et iustitia. Nec potest possideri aut attingi nisi negatis omnibus affirmativis nostris” (So that faith may have its locus in God, who is negative being and goodness and wisdom and justice, and who cannot be possessed or attained except when all our affirmations are negated) (WA 56.392-3). This structure of thought is still far from the concreteness of the encounter with the saving word of Christ that becomes central in 1518. Commenting on Colossians 3.3, ‘Our life is hidden with Christ in God’, Luther says that it lies “in negatione omnium quae sentiri, haberi et intelligi possunt. Sic et sapientia et iustitia nostra non apparet nobis omnino” (in the negation of all that can be perceived, possessed or understood. Thus our wisdom and justice does not appear to us at all) (WA 56.393). But in the reformation breakthrough our salvation does appear, in a word that we can hear, understand and grasp in faith. The negative theology of the Romans commentary yields to its opposite, a confident kataphatic theology building on the Gospel word.
Is the contrast I am drawing here completely clear and luminous? Do authors like Bizer and Bayer overemphasize the differences in order to bolster their own theological vision? It is not impossible that as he continues to wield the theologia crucis in his later writings Luther may occasionally have fallen back from the positive force of his reformation insight, so that the exegete of Luther has to bring out the main line of this thought, deciding what to stress and what to ignore. So mobile a thinker as Luther demands an equal mobility and critical freedom from the reader who wants to draw from him what makes for theological edification. The scholarly checking of one’s reconstruction of Luther’s vision against the complex detail of his texts is an endless task, but it should not be allowed to impede our encounter with the Reformer’s witness to the Gospel.
McGrath stresses the ‘wonderful exchange’ in which the condemnation falls on Christ while the sinner is mantled with Christ’s righteousness. But he misses the modality by which this is brought home to the doubting sinner. “As we contemplate the grim spectacle of the angefochtene Christus on the cross, we come to realise that Christ did not undergo Anfechtung for his own benefit, but for ours... Reason is totally unable to comprehend this astonishing mystery, by which we are made the righteousness of God” (173). What is missing here is the experience of being addressed by a concrete word. The cross is not a mute spectacle whose significance ‘we come to realise’ in silent contemplation, and if it baffles reason it is not due to any murkiness. The sense of the cross is lucidly presented in the joyful tidings of the Gospel, and it is in hearing these tidings that we first come to know the cross as an event of salvation. McGrath speaks as if finding the gracious sense of the cross was an exercise in spiritual discernment that we are left to carry on with no help from an external public word: “If God is understood to be hidden in his revelation, the believer will always be prone to doubt as to whether the opus proprium really does lie behind the opus alienum, or whether God really is hidden, and not simply absent altogether” (172). In the full reformational vision, the believer is ‘prone to doubt’ only when he falls off into unbelief. Faith itself clearly recognizes presence of God in the word of forgiveness, a word that in itself offers no grounds for doubting it.
McGrath is overly prudent about calling Luther a ‘theologian of the Word of God’, which he claims would be a ‘serious anachronism’ (159). But there is no anachronism in finding a community between Luther and twentieth century theologies of the Word, for the latter arose in conscious dependence on Luther. Late in his account he does stress that “the Word of God, and especially the preached Word, is the means of grace by which the sinner is justified” (174), but his characterization of the Word lacks the dynamism of a living address. “Luther insists that the word to which all theology must be related is the word of the cross” (159). But the cross makes sense only as part of the Gospel, and the word of the cross is redemptive only because it is the word of the Gospel. McGrath points away from the Gospel to the cross, with the result that the cross is characterized as an unwieldy metaphysical paradox. When he says that ‘All responsible Christian discourse must be based upon the cross, and must be subject to criticism on that basis’ (159) he points to Moltmann’s book The Crucified God, with its strained kenotic speculation, as a model of what he means. There is a whole world of passion-mysticism and passion-speculation, flourishing within Lutheranism as much as anywhere else, which distorts the Gospel interpretation of Christ crucified.
McGrath has Bayer’s book in his bibliography but ignores it in the course of his discussion. Bayer clearly points out the specific impact of the reformation breakthrough that McGrath misses. In the Romans commentary, Luther talked of judgement turning into grace: “adversario huic consentiendum est et sic fiet amicus” (we must agree with this adversary and thus let him become a friend) (WA 56.368,28). Here, “the Gospel meets the human being from the outside in one sole form – as opponent –, but acts in a double fashion in the inner turn-about: in judgement lies grace. It goes forth as accusation in a fully public way, as word of absolution in a fully concealed way – not loudly and audibly as ‘the other word’ (WA 7.24,9). However this hiddenness of the turn-about that refrains from any oral address is the basis of its intrinsic uncertainty. Yes, it must be believed; but since it does not present itself as an unambiguous word faith in it remains uncertain, that is, in hope” (Bayer, 37-8). McGrath talks of the hidden God, but misses the difference between the way God is hidden (absconditus) in the early theology of the cross – having to be discovered as gracious under his presentation as condemning, and the way God is hidden in the mature theology, in which ‘Deus absconditus and revelatus (or praedicatus) are not identified but distinguished – a distinction that precisely serves to create certainty. The revelatio still appears also as absconditas; otherwise one could not speak theologically of unbelief’ (Bayer, 62). God is hidden only to unbelief in the mature theology; the word and the faith that accepts it are characterized by certainty through and through.
THE STRUGGLE TO APPROPRIATE THE CERTITUDE OF FAITH
“Ich hab nichts getan, das wort hatt es alles gehandelt und aussgericht” (I have done nothing; the Word has taken care of it all and carried it through), said Luther in a sermon of 1522 (WA 10/3.19). The scriptural word, actualized in his preaching and polemic, was the major protagonist in Luther’s life. Luther spoke boldly, with an air of infallible certitude. But he did not speak in his own name. The private man was beset by doubts and temptations, Anfechtungen, but when he placed himself under the Word, boldly asserting its authority, he found himself lifted to a different sphere, placed before God as sinner and as justified at once, simul iustus et peccator. Perhaps there is a double register in Luther’s discourse. When he preaches or writes as a theologian, he speaks from the position of certitude granted by the divine word, or indeed lets the divine word articulate itself in his own words. “God has placed His Word in our mouth to preach, so that He reaches and preaches through us, and we are nothing more than His mouth and tongue” (WA 37.437). Luther had a strong sense that God speaks not only through the words of scripture but through the words they call forth from the preacher or theologian in response; he counted Melanchton’s 1521 Loci Communes as a canonical book (canone Ecclesiastico dignum, WA 18.601, 6) in that it clearly expressed the Gospel.
When he looks to himself, however, he confesses a gulf between his certitude in faith and his lack of grip when faith loses its vigour: “I myself am not certain of this article night and day. I cannot grasp it as firmly as I should. I am better at writing and talking about it than at feeling it from the heart” (WA 34/1.234). “Spiritus sanctus non est scepticus” (the Holy Spirit is no sceptic) (WA 18.605), he declared against Erasmus. It was the Word that brought the certitude of the Spirit to bear on his own wavering spirit. “Since the Holy Ghost is no sceptic and writes assertions (assertiones) in our hearts, the human being must speak just as decisively – this statement indicates not so much certitude in theological judgement as much rather a care-filled summons to oneself... It is the effort of the timid soul to attain steadfast faith by using words as steadfast as a cliff. What Luther expresses in an apodictic manner rests entirely on a biblical basis and indicates a lack of self-warranted ego-certainty. The question of personal identity is still undecided. It will first come to decision in trust in the expounded Word of God, written in the human heart and therefore undismissable: quale est verbum, talis ab eo fit anima (as is the word, so is the soul made by it) (WA 7.53)” (Lorenz, 78).
His own subjectivity was fragile and uncertain but his salvation came ‘from without’ (extrinsice) in the word that spoke pardon, the Freispruch that was the event on which Christianity is founded, ‘the essence (Kern und Stern) of the whole Gospel’ (WA 37.549). This liberating word crystallizes the meaning of all the events of salvation. The birth, death and resurrection of Christ and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist all have their meaning in this word coming to the sinner from outside and transporting him or her into a new manner of being. In a sermon on Mt. 11.25-30 Luther stresses that Christ’s miracles are less full of comfort and security than his words: “Nam quod praedicatur Christus fecisse miracula, non est so trostlich et securum, ut fidas illi, ut videas plus ligen in verbis Christi quam factis... Non solatur te ut haec Christi verba, quibus proponit mihi misericordiam et gratiam” (For that Christ is preached as having worked miracles is not as comforting and full of assurance, as that you should trust in him, and see that more lies in the words of Christ than in the deeds... They are not such a comfort to you as these words of Christ by which he offers to me mercy and grace) (WA 17/1.38). If for Luther the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the essence of Christianity, the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, the article whereby the Church stands or falls, the central enactment of that doctrine is the event of hearing and believing the word of forgiveness, conferring grace and righteousness on the sinner. This vision implies a new understanding of language that breaks with traditional philosophy.
LAW AND GOSPEL
The moral law is also brought home to us by a divine word. The secret murmuring of conscience is crystallized and attains full clarity when confronted with a word of judgement spoken from the Lord. The voice of the Gospel in its sweetness is heard in contrast a prior word of condemnation. In the terrible voice of Moses God condemns humanity by holding up to them the Law that they are powerless to fulfil and that reveals the bondage of their will to sin. “Mosi vero et legislatoris opus est contrarium, ut per legem homini miseriam suam patefaciat, ut sic contritum et confusum in sui cognitione ad gratiam praeparet et ad Christum mittat, et sic salvus fiat” (The work of Moses, of the legislator, is the opposite: to reveal to man his misery through the Law, that thus crushed and abashed in the knowledge of himself he can prepare him for grace and send him to Christ, that so he may be saved) (WA 18.679,33-6). For the Law, Luther often uses the imagery of writing rather than speech, following Pauline usage: “the letter kills, it is the Spirit that gives life”, and the Augustinian text that meant most to Luther at the time of the reformation breakthrough, De Spiritu et Littera. The Spirit is associated with the gracious voice of the Gospel, and a spiritual reading of the Old Testament means the discovery in its pages, too, of the Gospel voice. Conversely, the Law is preached within the pages of the Gospel. Luther’s earliest sermon, on Matthew 7.12 (WA 4.590-5), insists that failure to share one’s goods with one’s neighbour is the equivalent of robbery. Charity here is the most demanding of laws. Note that in Luther the demands of the Law are not directed primarily at stirring up sexual guilt, but at bringing home to us how trapped we are in a cocoon of egoism. The Spirit can work through the Law to show us our sinfulness. ‘The content of the law is Christ as demand; the content of the Gospel, to the contrary, is Christ as gift’ (Prenter, 119).
Regin Prenter casts the Law in the role of a dead letter and claims that only the Gospel is authentically the word of God (107). I think it is better to say that both are God’s word, through which he deals with us in different ways. The Law can be known by rational conscience, without faith, but when it is preached to us, especially by the voice of Christ, it lays claim on us more undeniably. Then the Spirit uses the Law to make sin manifest (see Prenter, 217). The Law pushes us to “the definitive bankruptcy of all piety based on Law” (220). The Law is not a mere forecourt to the Gospel, as it tends to become in Melanchthon, and the crisis into which it plunges us is not a mere transitional phase, but a dramatic ordeal, Anfechtung, a spiritual death and annihilation, from which the Gospel raises us to life.
When God condemns us in the Law that is a work which is ultimately alien to Him, the opus alienum Dei. His proper work, the opus proprium Dei, is the free gift of forgiveness, conferring the righteousness of Christ on the sinner, who receives it by faith in the word. The application of this existential dialectic in one’s spiritual life and in one’s understanding of Scripture is not automatic but demands what Luther calls ‘the highest art of Christianity’ (WA 36.9, 28-9, die hoechste Kunst jnn der Christenheit), the discernment that knows when and where to apply the notions of Law and Gospel (see Weymann 2003; Ebeling 1964:120-36; 1995). The distinction is a dynamic one, which we learn to apply again and again. It also allows some flexibility of manoeuvre, a judgement about when to play on which register.
Luther’s distinction of Law and Gospel makes him one of the sunniest of theologians. The Gospel limits the Law “so that it no longer reaches the human being in his conscience. Christ steps between the Law and the human being who is sought by it and threatened by it with accusations and with death” (Iwand, 75-6). The Law has its claims, but serves chiefly to show us our weakness, and thus to prepare us for the reception of the totally gratuitous gift of justification. (See the joyful celebration of this in the Advent sermon in WA 34/2.443-9). Christians do not even need it (Seeberg, 253); salvation is granted apart from it; but the Law has validity as an innate moral code and as a charter for the right ordering of church and society. The worst perversion of Christianity is to change it from a message of redemption into a religion of laws and regulations.
In the quarrel about sexual ethics now dividing the Anglican communion, there is much insistence on grounding ethics in Scripture, and a quite Lutheran insistence that the Church is born from the Word. All parties to the conflict claim to be hearers of the Word. Some have attended to the letter of the Law, in a fundamentalist sense; others are concerned with the Law in its full Christian expanse, and may recognize the need to reformulate our conceptions of morality in light of new knowledge; others again emphasize the Gospel, as granting freedom of conscience and setting up the field of agapeic covenant relationships, with same-sex versions in the relations between Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan; others finally hear the Word as eschatological liberation.
Luther himself would probably fit in a liberal position on this spectrum, though Lutheran tradition is often more conservative. In his exposition of the Law Luther does not invariably dwell on its terrors, and when he does, he locates them more in the call to righteousness as such rather than in particular difficult precepts. In a 1525 sermon on how Christians should read Moses (WA 16.363ff.) he does not mention the condemnatory role of the Law (usus elenchticus legis) at all, but stresses that the Law is oriented to our works; it is what God demands of us; but the Gospel deals with God’s work and what God gives us. The Mosaic law, intended for the Jews, offers some wise commandments that Christians may adopt if they wish to; the ten commandments are treated as a natural law inscribed in our hearts; the books of Moses also give examples of upright living, and above all contain promises of Christ and Gospel. Striking a blow against fundamentalism, as represented by the Anabaptist Schwärmer, Luther stresses that not all the words of God in Scripture are addressed to the contemporary believer; we must discern between words addressed to us and archaic commandments never intended to be binding on everyone. Here a monolithic conception of divine speech yields to a polyvocal conception of Scripture, one that could be much further developed to demystify the Church’s relation to Scripture today, at a time when scholarship has laid bare the immense pluralism of outlooks reflected in the scriptural texts.
THE PRIMACY OF THE WORD
Early on, Luther opposes the scriptural sense of ‘substance’ to the philosophical one. The scriptural usage indicates that which sustains one – the wealthy is sustained by wealth the voluptuary by pleasures, as long as they last; in this sense substance is more an external quality than a thing’s essence, “quia Scriptura nihil curat quidditates rerum, sed qualitates tantum” (Scripture is not concerned at all with the essences of things but only with their qualities) (WA 3.419). Even God is in a certain sense de-substantialized in Luther’s theology. Likewise, the reality of Christ is first and foremost that of a word-event. We have access to Christ only in the word of the Gospel, and apart from this word, received in faith, there is no Christian salvation. “Wie erlang und hab ich aber den? Ei, den magst du nit anders haben denn im Evangelio” (How to I attain and possess him? Well, you can have him no other wise than in the Gospel) (WA 10/3.349). ÉChristus wird nicht erkannt, allein durch sein Wort, sonst hülfe mir Christus Fleisch nichts und wenn es gleich heute käme” (Christ is known only through his word; otherwise Christ’s flesh would help me not at all even if it came today) (WA 10/3.210,11). Christ comes to human beings in a historical, human way, so that the event of salvation happens as the word of forgiveness spoken by a man to his fellow-humans. The oral and public character of this word is stressed. Salvation comes from the encounter with a word outside oneself, not from listening to a mystical word in the depths of the heart or even from reading the Scripture in the privacy of one’s study. Christ is no longer an invisible judge, or the inscrutable substance presented in the Eucharist, but is accessible through hearing his concrete word of forgiveness, addressed to us. The word is found in Scripture, especially when reactivated in preaching, and in the sacraments, which centre on the word. Christ’s substance or person is identical with his saving office, expressed in the word-encounter, and we should not seek to go back behind this encounter to know its ontological foundation. Christ is known not as some neat dogmatic explanation but in an incarnational way, in the give and take of human language.
The Word has a primacy over the letter of Scripture as well. Luther exerts great critical freedom in his reception of Scripture, and in fact inaugurates the crisis of Christian tradition that would become more marked with the rise of critical study of Scripture (see Baur, 72-81). Sola scriptura does not mean blind submission to the letter of Scripture, nor is it primarily a statement about the ultimate authority to which the church appeals in its teaching. Rather is declares that Scripture offers the sole recourse and refuge, the sole source of life for the afflicted sinner, insofar as Scripture contains the saving word of Christ. We do not listen to this word in silence, but respond to it in creative speech. This response is an active interpretation and even critique of Scripture. The clarity of Scripture, on which Luther insists in his polemic with Erasmus, is not that of transparent rational propositions but that of a saving process genuinely encountered as we wrestle with Scripture in a critical hermeneutic. The claim that Scripture is its own interpreter, sui ipsius interpres should be taken in this sense, and not as a slogan of dogmatic closure. Scripture is its own interpreter, but this means that it is also its own critic, and the theologian and preacher can participate in this self-interpretation and self-critique of Scripture.
The Lutheran orthodoxy of the seventeenth century, represented by such figures as the Wittenberg theologian Johannes Quenstedt (1617-1688), reacted against this freedom, tightening the identity between the letter of Scripture and the divine Word. Quenstedt says: “The act of writing, just as the act of preaching, is incidental to the Word of God and is only an external accident [pathos] of the Word, an auxiliary mode of proclaiming and communicating the Word, which does not alter the essence of the divine Word” (quoted by R. Preus). From the Calvinist viewpoint of Karl Barth, in contrast, the event of hearing the Word is occasioned by the letter of Scripture and the voice of the kerygma, but not in such a way as to allow any automatic identity between the Word and these vehicles. He rejects Quenstedt’s idea that there is a divine actus primus in Bible and preaching independent of the actus secundus in the heart of the hearer (KD I/1.113). ‘Church preaching understands itself only as service of the word of God, as a means of grace in the hand of the free God’ (KD I/1.55).
Luther himself speaks of the biblical word as charged with spiritual dynamis, and as the carrier of a divine spirit that is ‘hidden’ in it. However, “God has not delegated his spiritual power to the Word, but acts through the Word in his freedom always in a present and actual way; he does not give his Spirit into the hand of the preacher” (Althaus, 45). The Spirit can make a word effective for one ten years after one has heard it (WA 31/1.100,1). “Sic ego ago poenitentiam, quando Deus me trifft lege et Evangelio. De tempore et hora non possumus dicere, ipse novit, quando velit me convertere” (Thus I do penance when God touches me by Law and Gospel. Of the time and hour we cannot tell; He knows, who wishes to convert me) (WA 39/1.369,12).
The primacy of word over substance and over the letter of Scripture is matched by a certain primacy of the word over the Spirit as well. German mysticism had spawned what today we might call a New Age reliance on the movement of the Spirit within one’s heart, expressed notably by Sebastian Franck, who stressed the inner word and devalued the outer one. Luther recalled such movements of religious enthusiasm to the authority of the Word. God speaks inwardly in the heart through the Spirit, but only if one has first heard an outer word, as the Schmalcald Articles emphasize (WA 50.245). Spirit and Word are correlated in the early Luther, but bound together integrally in his mature theology. “Luther’s considerations on philosophy of language build on the premises that since Augustine have shaped Western thinking on the connection of spirit and word” (Meinhold, 56). But Luther overcomes the dualism in Augustine’s conception. ‘This close binding of Word and Spirit allows Luther to ward off any spiritualism that slights the outer word, and that could appeal to Augustine with some justice. At the same time it preserves for the divine word the freedom of its action, in that God through the use of this instrument acts “where and in whom he wills” (Marburg Articles, 8; Schwabach Articles, 7)’ (Meinhold, 56-7). ‘The Word is for Luther first and last an oral word, and thus a living proclamation, always in the present. Yet the living word is also bound’ (Althaus, 71).
Prenter finds a tension between Luther’s insistence on the inseparability of Word and Spirit on the one hand and the continuation of an Augustinian model, in which the word can become a dead instrument when divorced from Spirit on the other (109-11). He refuses to see, like Seeberg, a development from the Augustinianism of the early writings to an overcoming of residual dualism in the later. But such a tension is only what one might expect, given the way in which metaphysical habits of thought cling to us, and are built into the very structure of our language, as Heidegger points out. Prenter resolves the tension by invoking Christology and the notion of predestination. ‘Only when the Holy Spirit makes Christ present in the word does it become God’s own, living word. If that does not occur, the word is only letter, Law, description of Christ. Conversely, however, the Spirit cannot act without being bound to the outer word, since it is his task to make Christ present’ (111).
THE SACRAMENTS AS WORD-EVENTS
Luther’s understanding of the Eucharist is informed by his rediscovery of the word-character of salvation. He locates the meaning of the sacrament in Christ’s words of institution. The sacrament is a seal affixed to the testament announced in those words about a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. “Est itaque Missa, secundum substantiam suam, proprie nihil aliud, quam uerba Christi praedicta: Accipite et manducate etc. ac si dicat: Ecce o homo peccator et damnatus, ex mera gratuitaque charitate, qua diligo te, sic uolente misericordiarum patre, his uerbis promitto tibi, ante omne meritum et uotum tuum, remissionem omnium peccatorum tuorum, et uitam aeternam. Et ut certissimus de hac mea promissione irreuocabili sis, corpus meum tradam, et sanguinem fundam, morte ipsa hanc promissionem confirmaturus, et utrunque tibi in signum et memoriale eiusdem promissionis relicturus. Quod cum frequentaueris, mei memor sis, hanc meam in te charitatem et largitatem praedices et laudes, et gratias agas” (The mass, according to its substance, is, therefore, nothing else than the words of Christ mentioned above — ‘Take and eat’. It is as if He said: ‘Behold, condemned, sinful man, in the pure and unmerited love with which I love you, and by the will of the Father of all mercies, I promise you in these words, even though you do not desire or deserve them, the forgiveness of all your sins and life everlasting. And, so that you may be most certainly assured of this my irrevocable promise, I give my body and shed my blood, thus by my very death confirming this promise, and leaving my body and blood to you as a sign and memorial of this same promise. As often, therefore, as you partake of them, remember me, and praise, magnify, and give thanks for my love and bounty for you’) (WA 6.515). The sacrament like the word is presented to faith, faith that can save even without the sacrament: “fidem in sacramento adeo necessariam, ut etiam sine sacramento servare possit” (WA 1.533,36). It sounds as if the Eucharist is performing the same function as the sacrament of Penance, and as if both are dispensable, since the one thing needful is the hearing of the word. A narrowness of focus in Luther’s thought may prevent him from developing a wider theology of the Eucharist as the meal of the Kingdom and as promising transformation of the earth.
Luther denounces the abstruse language of scholastic theology of the Eucharist: “Absurda est ergo et noua uerborum impositio, panem pro specie uel accidentibus panis, uinum pro specie uel accidentibus uini accipi. Cur non et omnia alia pro speciebus et accidentibus accipiunt? Quod si caetera omnia constarent, non tamen liceret, uerba dei sic eleuare, et cum tanta iniuria suis significationibus exinaniri” (Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words, to understand ‘bread’ to mean ‘the form, or accidents of bread’, and ‘wine’ to mean ‘the form, or accidents of wine’. Why do they not also understand all other things to mean their forms, or accidents? Even if this might be done with all other things, it would yet not be right thus to emasculate the words of God and arbitrarily to empty them of their meaning; trans. Albert T. W. Steinhäuser) (WA 6.509). The root of this linguistic degeneration is the influence of Aristotle: “Sed et Ecclesia ultra mille ducentos annos recte credidit, nec usquam nec unquam de ista transsubstantiatione (portentoso scilicet uocabulo et somnio) meminerunt sancti patres, donec cepit Aristotelis simulata philosophia in Ecclesia grassari, in istis trecentis nouissimis annis, in quibus et alia multa perperam sunt determinata. quale est, Essentiam diuinam nec generari nec generare, Animam esse formam substantialem corporis humani, et iis similia, ut ipsemet confitetur Card. Camera” (Moreover, the Church had the true faith for more than twelve hundred years, during which time the holy Fathers never once mentioned this transubstantiation — certainly, a monstrous word for a monstrous idea — until the pseudo-philosophy of Aristotle became rampant in the Church these last three hundred years. During these centuries many other things have been wrongly defined, for example, that the Divine essence neither is begotten nor begets, that the soul is the substantial form of the human body, and the like assertions, as the Cardinal of Cambrai himself admits) (WA 6.509). The Cardinal is Pierre d’Ailly; the nominalist critique of Aristotle carries over into this key document of the Reformation. “Cur non explosa ista curiositate, in uerbis Christi simpliciter haeremus, parati ignorare, quicquid ibi fiat, contentique uerum corpus Christi uirtute uerborum illic adesse? An est necesse, modos operationis diuinae omnino comprehendere?” (Why do we not put aside such curiosity, and cling simply to the word of Christ, willing to remain in ignorance of what here takes place, and content with this, that the real body of Christ is present by virtue of the words? Or is it necessary to comprehend the manner of the divine working in every detail?) (WA 6.510). Here the rhetoric of negative theology no longer takes us beyond the empirical into self-abasing contemplation of the inscrutable depths of God. Rather it serves to bring us right back to the empirical, and to focus all our attention on the concrete word of Christ, stamped and sealed with the gift of his body.
Luther says that Holy Orders is not a sacrament, since “nullam habet promissionem gratiae” (WA 6.560). The lack of scriptural warrant, also, obliges us to see the rite as a human custom rather than a divine institution. “Conandumque sit, ut certa et pura nobis sint omnia, clarisque scripturis fermata, quae pro articulis fidei iactamus” (We ought to see to it that every article of faith of which we boast be certain, pure, and based on clear passages of Scripture). (WA 6.560). To reduce the articles of faith to what is pure, clear, certain, and evidently found in Scripture, is a form of linguistic therapy. Non-scriptural doctrines establish themselves through tortured ingenuity in the over-interpretation of scriptural texts, the creation of neologisms, and the construction of a bad, hybridized metaphysical sub-discourse that distracts from the main scriptural path of theological thought. The Church invents new languages to clothe the supplementary doctrines that it adds to those warranted by Scripture. “Nec habet Ecclesia potestatem, novas promissiones gratiae divinas statuere, sicut quidam garriunt, quod non minoris sit autoritatis, quicquid ab Ecclesia, quam quod a deo statuitur, cum regatur spiritu sancto. Ecclesia enim nascitur verbo promissionis per fidem, eodemque alitur et servatur. Hoc est, ipsa per promissiones dei constituitur, non promissio dei per ipsam” (The Church has no power to make new divine promises, as some rant, who hold that what is decreed by the Church is of no less authority than what is decreed by God, since the Church is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But the Church owes its life to the word of promise through faith, and is nourished and preserved by this same word. That is to say, the promises of God make the Church, not the Church the promise of God) (WA 6.560). As the community of those who have received the promises in faith, the Church is radically subordinate to the promises, as the elements are to the word of promise in Baptism and the Eucharist. The Church is not seen as a divine mystery but as a finite, created reality, infinitely below the divine Word: “Verbum enim Dei supra Ecclesiam est incomparabiliter, in quo nihil statuere, ordinare, facere, sed tantum statui, ordinari, fieri habet, tanquam creatura” (The Word of God is incomparably superior to the Church, and in this Word the Church, being a creature, has nothing to decree, ordain or make, but only to be decreed, ordained and made) (WA 6.560-1). A two-way dependence of Church on Gospel and of Gospel on Church would mean that the Gospel promise would lose its purity and autonomy. The language of Church and theology, likewise, must subject itself to the language of the Word. It cannot aim to control and improve the free address of God in and through the biblical Word. The entire machinery of salvation is mediated by the word: “Primum vero et summum omnium, in quo omnia pendent alia, est docere verbum dei. Nam verbo docemus, verbo consecramus, verbo ligamus et solvimus, verbo baptizamus, verbo sacrificamus, per verbum de omnibus iudicamus, ut cuicunque verbum cesserimus, huic plane nihil negare possumus, quod ad sacerdotem pertinet” (What comes first and is the summit on which all else depends is to teach the word of God. For by the word we teach, by the word we consecrate, by the word we bind and loose, by the word we baptize, by the word we sacrifice, by the word we judge of all things, so that to whomever we concede the word we can deny nothing that pertains to being a priest) (De Instituendis Ministris Ecclesiae 1523, WA 13.180). This emphasis promises to make the actions of the Church transparent and self-explanatory and to do away with hidden processes that are expounded in parasitic, non-biblical discourses.
AGAINST THE LANGUAGE OF METAPHYSICS
From the start, Luther struggled against the language of metaphysics and sought to cleave to a scriptural language. In the early writings, the horizons of his thinking remained philosophical rather than being thoroughly defined by the encounter with the word of salvation. He uses the language of negative theology, stemming from Pseudo-Dionysius, whom he was to denounce as a blind alley in De Captivitate (WA 6.562) – though there are some earlier criticisms. God appears dialectically in the overthrow of human presumption, not primarily in the utterance of the ‘other word’ of Gospel forgiveness. A similar dialectical abstraction, centuries later, affects Karl Barth’s talk of God as the ‘totally other’ in his early writings, overcome, but perhaps even then not fully, in his richer account of the Word in the Dogmatics.
The early Luther meditates on the gulf between the way of speaking of Paul and that of the Scholastics, the modus loquendi Apostoli. He struggles against Aristotelian language in theology, and denounces it as a perversion in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, which could just as easily have sparked off the Reformation crisis as the Ninety-five Theses on indulgences of October 31, 1517 (Lohse 1999:99). The logic of the scholastics is the chief target, but their language also irritates. “Theologus non fit nisi id fiat sine Aristotele” (One does not become a theologian unless one does so without Aristotle) (no. 44); “Totus Aristoteles ad theologiam est tenebrae ad lucem” (All of Aristotle is to theology as darkness to light) (no. 50, WA 1.226). Aristotle is again targeted, along with Scholastic misreadings of Aristotle, in the Heidelberg Disputation of April 26, 1518. The ‘folly of the preaching’ is extolled: “Qui sine periculo volet in Aristotele Philosophari, necesse est ut ante bene stultificetur in Christo” (Who would philosophize in Aristotle without peril must first be fully made foolish in Christ) (no. 29; WA 1.355). This polemic against scholastic language is a secondary theme in Luther, and is not developed as substantially as the main theme of justification (see Brecht 1985:234). It does not exclude all use of Aristotle but sets stringent conditions for it (see Dieter, 431-53).
Luther’s vision of the Eucharist, unlike Zwingli’s or Calvin’s, is as realistic, as substantial, as metaphysical as one could wish. But the ontological aspect is secondary to the word that confers on the sacrament its meaning. The word-event and the relations it establishes are not subordinated to ontological realities seen as grounding them, but are themselves the founding realities, in regard to which ontological implications or consequences are secondary and derivative. At this secondary level Luther, at least in the early writings, shows himself surprisingly appreciative of Aristotelian resources when they serve to clarify his primary message. Aquinas discusses justification as a change in the soul, with the help of categories from Aristotle’s Physics; so does Luther, though taking those categories in an Ockhamistic interpretation (see Dieter, 276-377). Luther sees the scholastics as having distorted Aristotle, and claims to understand Aristotle better than they did, in the humanist spirit of a return ad fontes. “Dubium est vehemens, An sententia Aristotelis sit apud latinos” (It is very doubtful whether the Latins have the opinion of Aristotle) (WA 1.226). That is a theme that frequently recurs in Heidegger.
The persistence of such reasoning even after 1518 (see Dieter, 345) suggests that metaphysical reasoning has a legitimate place in the texture of Lutheran thought. The overcoming of metaphysics need not mean the exclusion of all metaphysical reasoning from theology. The arguments for the existence of God, the problems of the divine attributes, of theodicy, cannot be whisked away by adopting a fideistic posture. What Luther teaches us is that such metaphysical reasonings must not be allowed to dictate the shape of revealed truth and to decide which matters are important. The metaphysical discussions pursued in most analytical philosophy of religion are in basic disharmony with the perspective of biblical faith, to which they give only cursory attention. They have not been ‘first made foolish in Christ’ as the Heidelberg Disputation urged. Their theological unrootedness, despite occasionally useful argumentative gambits, is due to a failure to deepen awareness of the concrete conditions in which sinful humans stand before God.
Medieval scholasticism had in many ways reshaped classical ontology. Trinitarian doctrine gave a prominence to relation among the ten Aristotelian categories, and the entire creation was conceived of as in relational dependence on God. Bonaventure saw the essence of the created world as relation: “relatio creaturae ad Creatorem non est accidentalis, sed essentialis” (The relation of creature to Creator is not accidental, but essential) (Hex. IV 8, quoted Schönberger, 77). The nominalists, in contrast to Aquinas, had emphasized will over intellect within the simplicity of the divine nature, making for a more dynamic and relational sense of reality. They stressed the concrete order of the universe as contingent, being dependent on a choice of the divine will that might have been other. In Luther, these metaphysical innovations cross the threshold to phenomenological eventhood, as they are sublated into the concrete situation of a person addressed by the Word. They are no longer just a general ontological structure of dependence, but an ever-actual address. Luther’s Deus semper actuosus is a present phenomenon or event, unlike the actus essendi or ipsum esse subsistens of Thomist ontology. The sighting of being as act in Aquinas, or the promotion of relation over substance, are intra-metaphysical accomplishments, but when a theology of the Word is set up over against metaphysical conceptuality, we have a new kind of Christian thinking, one that espouses the contours of the drama of salvation. I note that Heidegger is often refuted by German philosophers on the grounds that the Neo-Platonists or Aquinas had already overcome the forgetfulness of being, by discovering being in its difference from beings as the actus essendi – examples of this reception are J. B., Lotz, G. Siewerth, R. Schönberger, W. Beierwaltes. In reality, the difference between Heidegger and Aquinas is analogous to the difference between Luther and Aquinas – a difference that consists in the opening up of a phenomenological access to the reality of God or of being.
God and creation are no longer thought of in terms of causality, but in terms of the dynamic speaking of a divine word. If Christ is present to us not as a static substance but as a living address, always speaking to us anew, Christus actuosissimus. The realities of creation too are living words addressed to us by God. “The ‘Word of God” is God himself in his universal power that creates and that sustains what is created” (Meinhold, 11). Thus, “opera dei sunt verba eius” (God’s works are his words) (WA 3.152 = 55.248). God does not speak “mere grammatica vocabula, sed veras et subsistentes res… sic verba dei res sunt, non nuda vocabula” (the words of God are realities, not bare vocables) (WA 42.17). Although medieval metaphysics was often a metaphysics of act and relation rather than static substance, its vision of God and creation was primarily that of an unchanging system of causality. Now, the Aristotelian structure of the cosmos yields to a biblical structure, whose backbone is not causal ontology but the creative divine word. The promise-relation between the sinner and the God who addresses to him the word of forgiveness is not a matter of some transcendental anthropological Word-situation or existential structure as Gerhard Ebeling sometimes suggests (Bayer, 194). Luther’s concern is the actual event of hearing the word. The continuity of the life of faith is the continuity not of a structure but of a relationship with a word that is constantly heard anew whenever the Gospel is preached.
Luther’s thorough experience of the dialectic of Law and Gospel, condemnation and justification, exposed not only the futility of seeking salvation through works, but also the ungroundedness of intellectualist discourses about salvation. The deployment of Platonic and Aristotelian categories in theology from Origen to Ockham was a distorting objectification, based on an inadequate grasp of the point of departure, the event of saving faith in God's promise. Luther experienced God’s justification as ‘against all reason’, including ethical reason. ‘All Luther's invective against “reason” takes its origin from this point’ (Holl, 77). From a distance one might rationalize the justification of the godless, but from within that drama the impotence of reason is apparent.
Luther’s self-identification as a ‘theologian of the Cross’ rather than a ‘theologian of glory’ has a linguistic aspect. It implies a taste for the paradoxes of God’s glory being manifest in humiliation, his strength in weakness, his wisdom in foolishness. It implies a preference for a speech grounded in physical realities, in the weakness of the suffering body, rather than in immaculate abstractions. Down-to-earth proclamation rather than academic exposition becomes the central style of theology. Some Catholics imagine that this means that Luther has banished thought from theology; but in reality it signifies the struggle toward a thought adequate to the theme of theology, a thought carrying the stresses of the incarnational economy in its very texture. Luther is always thinking furiously, from the thick of his dramatic struggle.
In his scholastic disputations Luther focussed on doctrine and logic, but when he turns to exegesis, as in the Operationes in Psalmos (1519-21), the clash of the two theological worlds becomes a specifically linguistic battlefield. Luther shows how Aristotelian habits of speech present themselves to the commentator at every turn, preventing the biblical text from breathing and from unfolding its full sense. Again and again, he overcomes them by turning to the paradoxical language of the stultitia Christi. Luther has a fine ear for the incompatibility of biblical and metaphysical diction, and will sometimes rehearse what a scholastic would make of the text under discussion, before going on to show how startling different is the approach of an exegesis led by Scripture itself – that is, by the paradoxical dialectic Luther has found in Scripture. He discerns superficiality and frivolity in metaphysical language, as an objectifying medium that misses the brunt of the struggle of faith. Justification does not fit Aristotelian logic. It is not a quality or a habitus or a form, but a divine act that is extra nos, that places us outside ourselves. The scholastic categories create an entire way of speaking that is at odds with the existential reality of justification.
Discerning the mismatch between these categories and the lived reality of justification is not only a theological insight, nor even a prophetic one, but is also a literary insight. Overcoming these categories is not a matter of nagging about their limitations, but of creating a new, superior language, drawing on the Augustinian and, still more, the Pauline sources. The overcoming of scholastic categories by Pauline language is not only an intellectual critique but a powerful rhetorical achievement. Luther’s language gains much of its impact from the frequent recalls of the pallid and distorting scholastic language whose overcoming it enacts. The Reformation was the product in part of Luther’s ear for language, and of his impatience with a language that lacked pith or that substituted a mechanical logical clarity for the existential clarity of Scripture. He sought a language for theology proportionate to the realities with which it deals, in opposition to one that kept those realities at a safe distance and replaced their inherent structure with a flattening rationalizing scheme, externally imposed.
In addition to his vigilant critique of scholastic language, Luther also brings suspicion to bear even on the technical terms used by the Councils of the early Church. “Paulus praecepit et praecipiendi ius habuit, ut vitares prophanas vocum novitates et loquereris, ut ipse loquitur, et sacris vocum antiquitatibus inhereres... Quod si odit anima mea vocem homousion, et nolim ea uti, non ero haeriticus” (Paul commanded and had the right to command that you avoid profane novelties of vocabulary and speak as he speaks, adhering to the sacred ancient words… If my soul hates the homoousios and refuses to use it, I am not thereby a heretic) (WA 8.117,16-18,33-4). He functionalized the doctrine of Christ’s two natures in terms of a lived dialectic of salvation, in the spirit of Melanchthon’s dictum : “This is to know Christ, not to scrutinize his natures, but to know his benefits” (Loci Communes 1521). As for the person or hypostasis of Christ, he regarded it as an unhelpful abstraction, contrary to Melanchthon’s insistence on it in his commentary on Colossians. In his very critical study of Luther, Theodor Beer builds on such declarations to portray Luther’s Christology as Nestorian and as fundamentally incoherent. But the freedom of Luther’s wrestling with the language of the Fathers is a more fruitful hermeneutic of tradition than faithful recitation of formulae that have lost their salvific point. Scott H. Hendrix calls this process ‘deparentifying the Fathers’, that is, moving from a servile to a mature, dialogical relationship to them. And in fact the dust settled in positions of perfect trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy, in such confessional documents as the Book of Concord.
THE WORD-EVENT IS IRRECUPERABLE BY METAPHYSICS
“Luther claimed philosophical concepts became ‘nova vocabula’ when used theologically (WA 39 II, 94:17-26). Theology thus forms a ‘nova lingua’ over and against philosophy (WA 39 I, 231:30; 39 II, 5:32-38)” (Bielfeldt 1997:92). The irreducibility of Luther’s concern to metaphysical frameworks, and the way his voice frees itself from the shackles of Aristotelian conceptuality, anticipates the Heideggerian project of ‘overcoming metaphysics’ and of constructing a language that could not be recuperated by metaphysical categories. Heidegger’s existential treatment of discourse (Rede) in Sein und Zeit indicates an overcoming of metaphysical conceptions of language. It was only when he opened his philosophical thought to the poetic word of Holderlin, who became for him what Scripture was for Luther, that Heidegger acquired a radical sense of the language-event in which speech itself speaks, Die Sprache spricht, no longer reducible to a communicative instrument manipulated by its speakers.
This word-event at the centre of Luther’s thought does not fit into any metaphysical theory of language. Language is no longer located between the ideas in the mind, the external objects to which it refers, and the interlocutors to which it is addressed by a human subject using it as an instrument of communication. Language is an event in its own right, which creates the identity of the subject to whom it is addressed, or who assumes it in boldness of speech. This existential event-centredness of Luther’s vision is missed again and again by theologians who aim at a speculative comprehension of Christianity. It is also missed in the flat-footed commonsense metaphysics that asks about the ontological grounds in the human soul for the event of justification. The debate on justification is falsified when it forgets its existential origin and remains content with metaphysical resolutions of the points of difference between the Reformation and the Council of Trent.
Sometimes the quest to free language from metaphysics goes wrong, and instead of producing a non-metaphysical language relapses into the language of bad or primitive metaphysics. Luther’s “theological crossing of boundaries in the talk of deus absconditus” (Wabel, 221) is no doubt a case in point. God is hidden in his revelation in Christ; that is part of normal theological discourse. But Luther also talks of an absolute divine hiddenness, which lies beyond the knowledge of faith. In De Servo Arbitrio, this ultimately hidden God is hidden not from unbelief, but from believers as well, and could contradict the God revealed in the Gospel; here Luther forgot his own principle that “the cross alone is our theology” (WA 5.176,32-3; see McGrath, 165-7). “This limit-concept cannot be meaningfully thought and articulated within the theological thinking and speaking about God that is determined by the incarnation of God” (Wabel, 221). However, this is an instructive excess. Wabel says of both Luther and Wittgenstein that “in this struggle for clear expression both often enough pushed speech to its limit and thus became conscious of the limits of the thinkable” (Wabel, vii). “From the point of view of method, Luther makes the same mistake as Wittgenstein in the Tractatus: In the effort to show from within the limits imposed (by God) on speech, he goes beyond these limits” (222). The gesture toward ineffable ultimacy undermines the inner consistency of what is given to be thought and spoken. In terms of the Buddhist notion of the two truths, one could say that here the relation between the world-ensconced truth of revelation and the truth of ultimate meaning becomes a disruptive dualism. Luther conveys the shock of ultimacy, but he does not allow this to emerge from within the revealed data but rather in a leap away from these data. The effect is to evoke a Gnostic abyss, a silence beyond language, which recalls thought-forms of negative theology, medieval mysticism, and the nominalist stress on God’s potentia absoluta as opposed to his potentia ordinata.
RECENT METAPHYSICAL INTERPRETATION OF LUTHER
The entire architecture of Luther’s world of thought is bound together by word-events. Creation and redemption themselves are the utterance of a divine word. This linguistic element of theological thought tends to disappear in confessional or dogmatic summaries of Lutheranism, notably in efforts at ecumenical accommodation. The situation of the sinner believing in the words, ‘Thy sins are forgiven’ is missing, Dalferth claims, from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The freedom and relationality of the word, in its primacy over substance and over inner spiritual states, is incompatible with efforts to present Christianity as a systematic metaphysical doctrine. The dominance of metaphysical habits of thought is perhaps the chief reason for the tone deafness, or even total deafness, to Luther’s message that has persisted for centuries in other churches, and that continues in ecumenical dialogue carried on in a spirit of bureaucratic compromise. Alastair McGrath complained that whenever he consulted the Weimar edition of Luther’s works in Oxford’s Bodleian Library he had to cut the pages himself, a clear sign of the indifference to Luther prevailing in Anglican and Catholic circles. Even a theologian who calls herself ‘post-Christian’, Daphne Hampson, has expressed indignation at this non-reception of Luther. She rejects the irenical vision that finds complementarity rather than opposition between the ‘sapiential’ vision of Thomas Aquinas and the ‘existential’ vision of Luther. Rowan Williams has responded by pointing that ‘there is a fair amount in Catholic theology about the fact that the activating source of grace is always the free and uncreated act of God’ (Williams 2004). Indeed, this is true even of William of Ockham and nominalist theology (Vignaux, 87-91, correcting Harnack). But the insights of Luther go beyond this. If there is a tone-deafness in Catholicism to Luther’s message, it is because the deep and authentic Augustinianism of Catholic theology fails to take the extra step that would appreciate the novel twist given by Luther to the doctrine of grace, a twist most apparent in his concretization of justification as a word addressed to us. That step could be characterized as a movement from metaphysics to a post-metaphysical phenomenology.
But the doctrine of justification, in its verbal and non-metaphysical aspect, is not popular among Lutherans either. Commenting on the Fourth Congress of the Lutheran World Federation held in Helsinki 1963, Carl E. Braaten claims it showed two things : ‘(1) Some Lutherans believe that justification is existentially irrelevant to the modern generation, which presumably is asking other questions to which justification does not relate, and (2) there is a fundamental disagreement on the interpretation of justification’ (13). Justification as the free gift of forgiveness, given to a sinner, and received in faith – a faith which is itself a free gift of grace, is falsified when it is understood ‘analytically’ by Karl Holl and those who follow him, that is, when it is understood not as declaring the sinner righteous but as registering a transformation of the sinner. Braaten finds the origins of this in Melanchthon, who in the later editions of his Loci Communes qualified his earlier sense of the gratuitous imputation of righteousness and began to fret about the conditions of justification, making the non-resistance of the will a human contribution to the process, so that justification became something to be attained rather than something granted before a human response to it. ‘We have no reason to expect that the doctrine of justification with its three “alones” [sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura or solus Christus] will ever become popular in the church. It is a critical principle, always arising as a matter of prophetic protest against every vainglorious attempt to storm the gates of heaven’ (Braaten, 17).
Luther seeks to overcome the calm objectivity of the sapiential vision, by recalling it to its existential origins. A Lutheran sapiential vision of creation and salvation history would hang on the heard Word of God, and could not take form autonomously. Luther’s criticism of particular Thomistic theses is of minor significance besides the conversion of fundamental attitude that he demands of theology (see Root 2004). There is a fear even today of letting the voice of Luther resound. Instead, we pretend to have grasped and integrated his message. But perhaps Luther’s theology is intrinsically something that cannot be grasped and integrated. For it is the enactment of a series of encounters with the divine word, an open-ended drama, not to be mapped and synthesized in a series of tidy theses. We are always decentred by the divine word, thrown into confusion when it condemns, surprised and overjoyed when it forgives. Luther reminds theology that its theme is outside it, in the freedom of God’s word, which is always actualized in new ways by the Spirit. Doctrines of justification, of Law and Gospel, of sacramentology and ecclesiology, serve merely to keep the space clear for the encounter with the divine word in the full range of its impact on us and on the world. Lutherans who tie the spoken word of the Gospel tightly to the written word could be seen as trying to bring the existential force and openness of Luther’s preaching under metaphysical control. Fundamentalism itself can be viewed as a kind of metaphysics subordinating the living word to the rigid letter; one might call it as form of grammatocentrism.
One reason that Lutheran theologians reach after metaphysics is that the theological vision of Luther has come to seem insufferably narrow. Jörg Baur, expressing fatigue with the endless discussions of grace and justification, sees Luther as basically concerned with ontology, and places him in the history of modern thought culminating in Hegel (Baur, 13-28; harshly criticized in Maaser, 157-60). No doubt Luther’s shaking up of the metaphysical objectifications of the medieval world had immense ontological implications, which would be registered in German Idealism and in phenomenology centuries later. But ontology is not a primary concern of Luther’s thought. On a broader front, the concern with sin and justification seems remote from the true needs of modern humanity, and so it is sublated into a wider metaphysical quest for meaning. As Brecht observes, ‘Faith in the gospel, which proclaims nothing but the reconciling and justifying Christ, forms the new and enduring center of his theology. Today this may be regarded as annoyingly monolithic and unmodern, since here he speaks primarily not about man, but about Christ, and it does in fact present a very serious question for contemporary heirs of Luther’ (1985:230).
The Finnish school is the chief bulwark of a metaphysicizing interpretation of Luther. Their website presents it as follows:
The real presence of Christ in the believer is seen as the core of Luther's theology and a central feature (perhaps even ‘the’ central feature) of his doctrine of justification. The idea of this real presence becomes connected with an ‘ontological’ understanding of theology. Whether this means a philosophical (e.g. relational) metaphysics, a theological (e.g. eschatological) ontology of the Word, or simply an affirmation of the view that Christian message deals with the concrete created reality, remains to be discussed… We claim that the post-Enlightenment Luther research has been seriously burdened by confessional and philosophical preconditions, among which the overall hostility to ‘ontological’ issues is one of the most important ones. (http://www.helsinki.fi/~risaarin/luther.html#overw)
Following Andreas Osiander, they stress a real ontic presence of Christ in the believer. ‘The imputation of righteousness depends upon the inhabitation of Christ, and the inhabitation of Christ depends upon that imputation of righteousness’ (Bielfeldt 1997:94). If the imputation of righteousness depends on a logically prior reality, we have an ‘analytical’ account of justification; but the talk of a two-way dependence suggests that what is being stressed is simply the inseparability of justification and sanctification (which is here described as deification). The search for an ontological foundation to justification is likely to undermine the sense of it a gift that is extra nos, and that transfers us to a new mode of being.
DOES LUTHER STILL SPEAK TO US?
The objectivity and authority of Luther’s discovery is difficult for us to estimate in our postmodern context, in which we are likely to think of sin as a topic now decentered or recontextualised by the supervening question of meaning. Are we still today capable of finding our way into the situation Luther describes and of settling in it as the essential Christian mode of existence? Hearing the word of gracious absolution, and accepting it as the unsurpassable horizon of the life of faith, no longer seems to be the key experience of many Christians, Lutherans included. Faith becomes more a question of spiritual questing, interreligious dialogue, trust in the cosmos and ecological awareness, and when the language of justification by the word embraced in faith is stretched to cover such topics it loses all contour. The focus on sin and justification in Reformation theology may seem a luxury and a distorted emphasis. The messages of Paul, Augustine and Luther may come to appear as outdated ‘technologies of salvation’, provisional attempts at clarity within a Christian project that has been irreducibly pluralistic from the start, and marked by an epochal and cultural heterogeneity – or incommensurability – that foils synthesis. While such a pluralistic vision would dedramatize the stark confessional oppositions of the sixteenth century, it should ideally free us to be open in a new way to the freshness and power of Luther’s witness, rather than creating a blasé levelling of alternative viewpoints.
Yet though we may dislike Luther’s picture of sin as something we can never cast off in this life, we can hardly deny the moral realism of one of Luther’s earliest statements: human beings find it easy to choose evil, difficult to choose good. “Beati enim necessario eligunt bonum et impossibiliter malum. Miseri autem impossibiliter bonum et necessario malum. Sed, nos faciliter malum et difficulter bonum” (The blessed necessarily choose good and cannot possibly choose evil. The damned cannot possibly choose good and necessarily choose evil. For our part, we easily choose evil and choose good only with difficulty). (WA 9.71).
The process by which we are reconciled to God is already grasped under a plurality of models in the New Testament. The pictures given by Paul, the Synoptics, the deutero-Pauline letters, Hebrews, the Pastorals, John. Luther’s clarification of the biblical event is not the definitive focussing of what the various accounts aimed at. Rather it is a modern construction, in response to the particular problems of a community whose image of God had become clouded by paralysing fear and uncertainty. Today what most stands in the way of a firm and confident relation to God is not this moral confusion but the remoteness of the very notion of God; a clarification of the Gospel that could overcome this, in our changed epistemological context, would be something quite different from Luther's vision. Augustine and Luther were liberating in their day, but now their message seems couched in all too predictable terms, within a framework that we would question at every point. We do not receive their teaching as the definitive gospel of grace, but only as a powerful variation, the characteristically Augustinian or Lutheran one, on the gospel themes. Even Paul and John have to be received as one form of witness among many, if their words are to resonate freely in the complex pluralistic awareness of today. A preaching of grace adjusted to present conditions would be aware of its own provisional status, as an adroit actualization of some themes from the traditional repertory. Awareness of the imponderable degree to which our idea of God is a human projection forces us to renounce the attempt at permanent definition of the human-divine relationship and to be content with a language that, despite its metaphorical texture, can hold water for the here and now.
“An adequate reception of Luther in modern times cannot be a Luther repristination; rather it implies a transformation of reformation theology” (Hofmann, 4). As Barth observed, ‘The situation of the Church, which forms the space for dogmatic work, is not always the same, but imposes on this work particular conditions for different times’ (KD I/1.25). In the medieval world, wrestling with the problem of sin and salvation by inadequate strategies of outer penance and inner piety, Luther’s discovery of the Gospel word, ‘Thy sins are forgiven’, was a tremendous liberation and clarification. The effort to transform Luther’s central doctrine risks losing its contours, either through pressing it into a metaphysical scheme, or reducing it to an existential attitude. The core event of the sinner’s hearing of Christ’s word of forgiveness has to be kept at the centre of attention. The wider social and political implications of this word, as a basis for mutual reconciliation, can then be unfolded.
Seeing Luther as a theologian of the Word rather than confining his thought to the sole issue of justification, one can rescue his thought from the cul de sac into which an obsession with justification threatens to lead it. Junghans proposes that Luther’s grasp of the word is the point of departure of his theology, which led to his new understanding of the righteousness of God. ‘He was led by the will to grasp the content of the word of Holy Scripture and to set aside the conceptuality of scholastic theology. And that the God who acts through his word confers rather than demands righteousness with the help of this word, is an integral part of this doctrine of the word. Thus the doctrine of justification would be only a part of Luther’s theology of the word, like the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms’ (287).
Iwand urges us to think of the Word of God ‘beyond Law and Gospel’ as a divine force breaking into the world and overcoming the powers that hold the world in bondage. It is the eschatological presence of God himself, conquering not only sin but death. “Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen”, wrote Luther in the hymn “Ein feste Burg” – a little word can bring down the Prince of this World. This vision gives the Christian strength and certitude in face not only of sin, guilt, and the bondage of the will, but in face of death, wars and natural disasters. Taken thus, Luther’s writings become an apparatus for a renewed hearing of the divine word in our time, if we can shake off the must of old quarrels and pursue with new courage Luther’s strategies of exposure to the word as it condemns sin, raises up the sinner to new life, and inaugurates the triumph of God’s Kingdom.
I give page references to the Weimar Edition of Luther (WA), but for the text I have generally drawn on secondary literature and on the editions I have had to hand: Otto Clemen, Luthers Werke in Auswahl (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1959-66), and Hans-Ulrich Delius, Martin Luther Studienausgabe (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1987).
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