Thursday, April 24, 2014

Luther's Legacy on the Gospel

In describing, teaching, and applying (if not defining) the gospel people in my (Protestant) circles seem inclined to use spectra and dichotomies: our works and God's works, living by law or living by grace, being justified or being condemned, heaven or hell, etc. In extreme cases (as I described last time), this can lead to a working definition of the gospel based more on what it is not—legalism, "works-righteousness", or the Pelagian system of soteriology—than on what it is. And what's left of what the gospel is—justification by faith—our working definition of "faith" can (and does) drift from what I consider to be the biblical definition which is related to "trust".

I tried not to overstate my case last time (but may have done so anyway). Just as plenty of pastors, theologians, and laypeople still have a strong definition of "faith", it's not as if we've totally forgotten to define what the gospel is. We are still able to describe it positively, even if the negative side often gets more weight in these descriptions (what I was arguing against last time). Lopsided definitions of "faith" and excessively anti-works definitions of the gospel both piously distort the truth rather than totally missing it. Though you may hear them at revivals or in individual sermons, testimonies, or blog posts like this one, you probably won't see much of them in creeds, confessions, denominational statements of faith, or serious theological writings.

But are these missteps simply distortions of sound theological truth, or ripples off an underlying gospel theology that is already distorted?

As I will try to show in depth, I think that the latter is the case—that very large swaths of Protestantism hold to and propound a gospel that I now consider, at best, to be incomplete and not very helpful for me personally.

Yet another disclaimer: please don't hear me as breathlessly proclaiming that "The church has been wrong on the gospel all along, especially since the Reformation!" (and, presumably, that I have just the insights and wisdom to set it right). The more I study, the more I know that I don't know, and the less I can stand when people make such claims. My reasons for writings this series on the gospel are nothing like that, but are much more personal—they are the result and fulfillment of years of struggling to understand the gospel and find what I "really" believe. Even if no one read it, I would still write it for catharsis' sake.

Additionally, I'm not trying to say that the large numbers of Protestants who hold to the gospel theology I'm going to critique have been horribly misled or are part of a false church. Or that I look down on them, for that matter; I still worship and minister alongside many of them. It's evidence of grace that God doesn't require perfect theology from us in order to call us His own or work through us any more than He requires perfect behavior (unintentional hint for next time). As N.T. Wright reassuringly writes, "We don't have to get everything right before anything can work!"

With that said, bear with me for a short tour of Martin Luther's early life. Studying his life and thought for a week in my master's program helped me to see how, though his desire for reform was far from unique in his day, the personal way in which justification by faith hit home for him, the steadfastness (some would say stubbornness) of his faith, and his willingness to act on his convictions made him the center of the rapidly-expanding Reformation. I saw how his experience of trying to believe and live the theology he'd been taught led him to see that it didn't add up (much as I am doing!), how he went from trying to change the Catholic church to rejecting it, and how he found himself under attack from both sides as more radical reformers quickly advanced his ideas further from the status quo than he would have liked. Without further ado, let's explore...

Luther's early life

Luther was born the son of a miner in Eisleben, Germany, 1483. His upbringing was strict—he later spoke of being physically disciplined both at home and at school—and his childhood probably contributed to his recurring existential depression and eventual decision to become a monk. But much more significant to these was the religious climate he lived in. In his biography Here I Stand, Roland Bainton describes this climate:
In the elementary schools the children were instructed in sacred song. They learned by heart the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Agnus Dei, and the Confiteor. They were trained to sing psalms and hymns. How Luther loved the Magnificat! They attended masses and vespers, and took part in the colorful processions of the holy days. Each town in which Luther went to school was full of churches and monasteries. Everywhere it was the same: steeples, spires, cloisters, priests, monks of the various orders, collections of relics, ringing of bells, proclaiming of indulgences, religious processions, cures at shrines. Daily at Mansfield the sick were stationed beside a convent in the hope of cure at the tolling of the vesper bell. Luther remembered seeing a devil actually depart from one possessed.
Just as young Martin's physical surrounding were saturated with religion, so his studies and thoughts became full of theology and reflection on God. From Bainton: "The entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God, and reverence for the church." And this wasn't fear of God as I've come to understand it, but actual religious terror of the awesome Judge who alone had the power to justify or condemn. The present life was thought of as merely training for the final judgment and life to come. Medieval theology alternately played on peoples' hope of heaven and fear of hell, driving them to the church and her sacraments with lurid descriptions of hellfire and them soothing peoples' fears with talk of purgatory or indulgences which could extinguish this fire. God and Christ were likewise depicted both as loving Father and Son as well as implacable, omnipotent judges, and people anxiously hoped that they would receive His favor when judged.
The Last Judgment, Albrecht Dürer, 1510.
This woodcut by Albrecht Dürer is a depiction of Christ with which Luther would have been highly familiar. Christ sits enthroned on the clouds (or a rainbow) as the heavenly judge, saying to those on His right, "Well done", and to those on His left, "Depart from me into everlasting fire." Below are human figures either being escorted by angels into the heavenly light of paradise or by demons into the mouth of a monster. Christ has a lily coming out of His right ear (symbolizing His mercy and tenderness to the redeemed) and a sword from His left (signifying His wrath for the damned). Before Him kneel the virgin Mary and another saint (Peter? John? Paul?) interceding on behalf of the faithful and pleading for His mercy.

Behind this picture was a soteriology influenced by both early Christianity and Greek philosophy, in which man's reconciliation with God was an ontological process of "divinization", becoming increasingly like his Creator. The Christian was suspended in the hand of God somewhere between heaven and hell, on a lifelong pilgrimage through this world. Sin was a sickness or handicap to this process of salvation which had to be dealt with by the medicine of divine grace which was administered through the church and infused into or imparted to the sinner, especially by the sacraments. Justification then, was the end of this journey, Christ's final verdict of the soul's full recovery, and an invitation into eternal paradise.

So Luther, per the church's design, grew up with an intense anxiety for the fate of his immortal soul. He sought to lay hold of all the medicine for his soul that the church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences, and the intercessions of the saints. But besides all these, he had to make sure he merited the saints' favor. The best way to pursue this heavenly merit was to become a monk; the very wearing of the cowl was thought to confer favor in the final judgment. Bainton: "Monasticism was the way par excellence to heaven." In a flash of lightning in 1505, Luther had a vision of death, Christ the terrible judge and demons rising up to whisk him off to hell. In terror he cried out, "St. Anne [the mother of Mary and patroness of miners] help me! I will become a monk."

Luther's "evangelical experience"

In the Augustinian monastery he joined, Luther lived a simple, ascetic life of prayer, devotion, song, contemplation and the austere pursuit of holiness. For a while his inner demons subsided. But when performing his first mass, he was pressed by feelings of his own unworthiness to perform the otherworldly rite that would transform the elements into the very body and blood of Christ. How could such a transgressor as he stand and minister before the majesty of the divine?

This question began to plague him not only at the altar but constantly. He realized that man stood before the all-holy God all his life; but how could he bear it, being as unworthy as Luther felt? So he redoubled his monastic efforts at holiness, fasting and praying in excess, but never felt that he had satisfied God or compensated for his sins. He went on a pilgrimage to view the holy relics in Rome, but was disillusioned by the ignorance and irreverence of the Roman priests and doubted whether the pilgrimage could confer any merit. After returning and being transferred from Erfurt to Wittenburg, he sought help by other means. It's interesting to note here that Bainton says, "Salvation was never made to rest solely nor even primarily upon human achievement. The whole sacramental system of the church was designed to mediate to man God's help and favor." Whether this was so in practice is debatable. Salvation was a affirmed to be by God's grace, but man had to take definite steps (said to be appointed by God) to receive and apply that grace in his life.

So Luther turned to the sacrament of confession, often spending hours a day on it, running through the seven deadly sins and Ten Commandments, trying to be sure he'd included everything, until his confessor began to grow impatient and at one point told him to "go out and do something worth confessing". Luther believed that sins, to be forgiven, had to be confessed, but even after leaving the confessional began to remember more sins he'd missed. He was also afraid that he had sins that he had simply not recognized or remembered, protected by his subconscious. He began to realize that there was something wrong with him beyond his individual sins. The penitential system was directed towards particular lapses of a soul in progress towards God, but his entire self was in rebellion against God and needed forgiving. He sought answers in Christian mysticism and was taught to simply love God, but how could he love this angry, judging, condemning, consuming fire of a God?

Luther's evangelical revelation began when he was teaching on Psalm 22, which he took to allegorically foreshadow the life and death of Jesus. The Psalm began with the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Luther was taken aback. This was the cry of his own heart, the expression of his feeling of filthiness and insufficiency before God's perfect, consuming holiness, but it was coming from the perfect, sinless Savior. How could Christ have been so desolated? Only, Luther thought, because Christ took on himself the sins of us all. Luther glimpsed a new picture of Christ: besides the heavenly judge, Christ also identified with the condemned through the cross, taking their rejection on Himself. The cross was where God's just wrath and love came together for us. By His self-abandoning goodness, He has taken our sin and given us His perfect righteousness.

And so, by being identified with Christ, though we suffer deep hurt and condemnation as He did, afterward we are raised with Him. Luther saw in the Greek of the New Testament a word to describe this vicarious vindication: the word for "justice", dikaiosyne, could also be rendered "justification". Bainton explains, "justification is a process of the sort which sometimes takes place if the judge suspends the sentence, places the prisoner on parole, expresses confidence and personal interest in him, and thereby instills such resolve that the man is reclaimed and justice itself better conserved than by the exaction of a pound of flesh." The iustitia Dei, a phrase which had previously struck terror into Luther's heart, became the means of his relief.

This justification came entirely apart from man's own merit, which (as Luther knew) was never enough; it was passively received by faith, as a free gift. It was not gradually imparted or infused, but simply imputed to the sinner in a conclusive declaration of "not guilty". The "justice of God" was no longer a source of death for him but of life. Luther had come upon a totally new view of Christ as both judge and justifier, and he clung to it in the face of his demons. About this realization, Luther later wrote,
I greatly longed to understand Paul's epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, 'the justice of God', because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. 
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by his faith.' Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors to paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the 'justice of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

The example of Luther

What was the point of that description? To attempt to show that in many ways, Luther is the prototype of modern (especially evangelical) Protestants in several circles, even those not descended directly from his theology. I mean this in at least three ways:
  1. Luther's experience is made into the normative salvation experience for all Christians. Luther's account of God wounding us with the law and then healing us with grace/alien righteousness through faith is how we are supposed to "get" the gospel. Our sin, clearly condemned by the law, is supposed to make us feel just like how Luther's sin made him feel, unholy and unworthy to stand before a perfect God, so that we can better appreciate how we have been forgiven, declared righteous, at no fault of our own. The most graceful thing you can know is how sinful you really are—because this makes clear how much you need the gracious gift of salvation through justification by faith. We are expected to go through our own version of Luther's pilgrimage to we can enjoy the same appreciation of the true gospel that he came to.
  2. Behind this, Luther's view of God is made into the "true" view of God. That is, God's being just means that He is relentlessly critical of sin, judging the inner secrets of the heart and condemning anyone who doesn't make the cut to an eternity in hellfire. (Can you see possible echoes of Luther's parents and schoolmasters in this God?) Luther saw this necessity to condemn and punish sin as essential to God's justice. He still saw merit, or righteousness, as the way to avoid this condemnation, except we can only get the perfect righteousness which God in His justice requires by imputation from Christ's perfect record. We have to be "good enough" for God, but on our own we cannot. And so the cross is where God's justice and desire to have mercy on people collide and both meet their fulfillment in Jesus' taking our sins on Himself and receiving condemnation, and our receiving of an "alien righteousness" as we rise with Him. In this strange economy, we are declared simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner).
  3. Finally, Luther's view of Scripture becomes our view of Scripture. This assertion must be weakened somewhat because the hermeneutics behind this (evangelical) version of the gospel are also influenced by Reformed theology and the Enlightenment. Nonetheless, like Luther we read our Bibles primarily as a testament to God's gospel, written for our salvation. We look for Jesus in every verse. And we cling to Scripture as the highest authority, though of course receiving its authority from its divine Author, over against all human tradition and authority.
Of course we readily admit that for all his vision and courage, Luther, like us, was far from perfect (he would have been the first one to assert this, and quite vigorously). If you happened to disagree with him, you would probably say he was kind of a prick. But we rarely look on his theology so critically. As I just pointed out, we tend to follow Luther much more than we question him (our differences on matters like communion, baptism, and the church/state divide are quietly swept aside). But should this be so? N.T. Wright astutely points out that "The greatest honor we can pay the Reformers is not to treat them as infallible—they would be horrified at that—but to do as they did"; that is, to continually test our lives and beliefs against fresh revelation through Scripture.

Which is just what I plan to do for the gospel account which Luther helped beget. Specifically, I'm going to explore how, in all three of these areas in which we follow Luther, though he brought much valuable reform, he left some errors uncorrected and introduced new ones in his (piously intended) zeal. Not that I wish, for even a moment, that Luther had led a quiet life as a lawyer, but I believe that what we need is not a reformed church, but a truly, continuously reforming church. May God edify His people through this exploration and work through it for just such an end.

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