Saturday, October 8, 2011

As Reformation Day approaches: Luther's question

It has become a sort of cliché to say that the question that Luther asked, "How can I, a sinner, be saved in the face of an angry, righteous God?" is not the question of today - that the Reformation is hopelessly time bound. Luther's question, folks say, is a question for a Christian culture, not a reverted pagan culture. So, the theory goes, to reach out to today's culture, our message should be changed/nuanced/finessed. Instead of justification, we should speak of (you pick) healing, victory, God-loves-you-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life, etc.

This is, once again, a basically Arminian analysis of the Reformation. The idea is that the Reformation doctrine of sin, grace, and justification just can't speak to people today. We need to speak the language of our day to get people to convert. The underlying assumption here is that people are on neutral ground and must be convinced to convert - that the sort of people who might convert change over time.

But I don't believe that there is a people of God today that is in any qualitative way different from the people of God of 1520 or 520 or 587 BC. The people of God are always the people of God. They are always fearful of God's just wrath against sin because the fear of the Lord is the beginning wisdom. They are always comforted only by the thought of salvation by grace alone and all that that entails, i.e., The Bondage of the Will.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not one of those Lutherans who hang on Luther's every word and revere him as a Hero with a Capital H. Rather, I accept the author's own opinion of his life's work:

Regarding [the plan] to collect my writings in volumes, I am quite cool and not at all eager about it because, roused by a Saturnian hunger, I would rather see them all devoured. For I acknowledge none of them to be really a book of mine, except perhaps the one On the Bound Will and the Catechism. [LW 50:172-73]

That's spot on. Luther is the "foremost teacher of the Augsburg Confession" because he got this central, vital, timeless truth right: justification by grace alone through faith alone and the doctrines that necessarily follow from this: the bound will and unconditional election. His question, and his importance, will never fade, will never be out of style or irrelevant to God's elect. As he himself knew, there was plenty of dross among his wheat. But for the great worth of that wheat he is rightly honored among us as a Doctor of the Church.

I don't know why so many Lutherans are afraid of this sort of statement. We regularly recognize these facts when it comes to men like Gregory, Augustine, Irenaeus, etc. Luther himself recognized it especially about Bernard and Aquinas. There is no shame in pointing out that Augustine was wrong in his valuation of monasticism or that Gregory was wrong about purgatory. Nor should there be any fear among us to say that Luther dropped the ball with Philip of Hesse's bigamy, or his meddling in government affairs (e.g., recommendations to burn synagogues to the ground), or his high-handed approach to the canon of the New Testament, or his monomaniacal tirades against the congregation in Wittenberg (see LW vol 58). Nor do I have any interest in rereading the various excuses offered for Luther's opinions and actions in these and other equally egregious cases; so they will be kindly ignored in the comments.

All the Doctors of the Church are sinners redeemed by grace. They also all had the humility to say something along the lines of what Luther said about his own work as quoted above. That is not false humility. It is just true. We honor these saints of God best when we acknowledge that truth and speak forthrightly of it.



  1. Quite well stated. A real saint - covered in the blood of the Lamb that atoned for his sins and silliness - just as ours. Bondage is truly remarkable. I just read it all the way through this year, I am ashamed to confess. I plan on reading it from start to finish again. Luther was right - it's simply his best work, outside of the catechisms. "Explain his actions in the kindest way" is still absolutely priceless.

  2. Although I do not know how admitting that the question that was undoubtedly more universal in Luther's day than our own somehow reduces Luther's importance or relevance. It simply means that we do not have the luxury of people afflicted with fear of God and the terror of never being able to please him as the prelude to the Reformer's great work of rescuing the Gospel from its captivity. The message dare not be different although the openings for us to speak that Gospel may be entirely different than in Luther's day. The challenge for us to speak the gracious Word of Christ in our own day and time is the very point of Luther and the Great Reformation. We do not change or abandon the message simply because the entry points in culture have moved.

  3. Fr. Peters,

    I'm not convinced the entry point has moved - it's still God's wrath against sin. That's the only problem the Gospel solves because that is the only problem. Although I think we are actually agreeing. I think you are saying that people may not be as alive to this fact as they once were in a society that preached it constantly in it's artwork, literature, and public life.

    Fair enough. But it is not as though the great masses were alive to it in Luther's day either. The intelligentsia (see Erasmus) certainly were not. And the great unwashed masses were happy with their indulgences, popes, and so forth.

    It's no coincidence that the Reformation took off only in those lands where church taxation to Rome via indulgences and dispensations from from fastings, etc., was viewed as bad on nationalistic grounds.

    In short - I'm trying to point out that "narrow is the path." The message of God's wrath against sin and his plan of salvation to save us from that wrath never has been, and never will be popular. We should stop trying to be popular!


  4. Luther evaluated Thomas highly? I didn't know that - Bernard, sure. Do you have a reference for this? I'd love to be able to have it at hand.

  5. Gropper,

    The passage I have in mind is, I think, in the Great Confession of 1528 where Luther uses Thomas against the Sacramentarians. The latter had said that the notion of the Real Presence was silly because of the question, "Well, which part of the Body am I receiving?" Luther says that Thomas dealt with this point already and quotes him favorably.

    I hope that's enough to help you track it down!


  6. You guys are silly. The New Perspective on Paul lets us know that Luther was actually wrong, so you don't have to believe anything he said anyways.

  7. Heath, That is exactly my point -- just because the people are less aware that the question of Luther is the only real question does not mean that his answer is irrelevant. It only means that we live at a point when God Himself has been deemed more irrelevant. Just as one may ignore the law of gravity but still suffer its effects, so ignorance of the question does not mean that the question and its answer is not relevant.

    The educated have always been more enamored with the pursuit than the answer, with questions instead of truth. The masses always more comfortable reducing faith to a business transaction in which something is paid and something is received for that payment.

    Which is really only to say that the Gospel makes no sense apart from the preaching of the Law as its prelude.

    In the end I would suggest that a slightly different version of Luther's question does exist -- hidden if not revealed -- in the hearts and minds of most people. That is the problem of pain. A friend and mentor once told me that if you preach to pain you will have no shortage of hearers. Today we have masked our pain but it is still there and it cries out for an answer that, in effect, is either a vengeful or gracious God. And that brings us back to Luther.

  8. Heath, old boy, let me indulge in the kind of passive-aggressive questions I get when I put forth some bold comments, it seems fun for everyone else, why not me?

    I'm puzzled by the harmonization of the statement in our Lutheran Confessions that Martin Luther is our chief teacher and what would seem to many who read your comments your eager desire to poo-poo the good doctor's writings?

    It's kind of hard for him to be the chief teacher of our church and for us not to read him closely with just a tad more respect than it seems to some who read this might think you are diplaying toward him.

    There, I feel so passive and aggressive, all at the same time.

    Like the second before I squeeze the trigger.


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