Saturday, November 17, 2007

Readings: Luther - CRUX sola est nostra theologia!

I had resolved to post concerning the book Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Alister E. McGrath (referred to hereafter as LTC), once I finished reading it. And so:

It seems that the genesis of Luther’s Theology of the Cross was the existential angst arising from his contemplation of the question: How can a righteous God justify and accept a perpetually sinful human being? We recall that St. Paul experienced similar psychological/spiritual pain :

Romans 7:18 For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. 7:19 For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. 7:20 But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.

It must be noted that Luther was not operating in a vacuum, but within the context of a current of theological thought (the via moderna) which prevailed in the Augustinian Order in which he had been mentored, and was in the process of himself becoming a mentor. I’m not going to dwell on the inside baseball of late medieval theological discourse here, however. My purpose is only to outline Luther’s eventual conclusions as they arose from the combination of his study and his prayer. His quest was to be centered upon interpretation of Holy Scripture:

“For Luther, scripture was to be respected because through it the theologian had access to the Word of God: the phrase sola scriptura was to be interpreted in an exclusive sense, meaning ‘through scripture, and through scripture alone’. “[LTC, p.51]

Luther’s doctrine of justification developed into a concept in which the causality of justification was to be found in God gratuitously offering man a covenant, or pactum. Through the acceptance of this offer, the sinner, though not worthy in himself of salvation, is made worthy in the eyes of God. In Luther’s own words:

“Even grace and faith, through which we are justified today, would not justify us of themselves…without God’s covenant. It is precisely for this reason, that we are saved: God has made a testament…and covenant with us, so that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. In this covenant God is truthful and faithful, and is bound by what he has promised.”

This faithfulness of God to his promise is assured, despite the fact that God must even move to supply the sinner with the grace and faith which render the human acceptance of the offered covenant possible. On his own, the man can do nothing to effect his justification. It will be noted that, in order for this covenant to make sense, ideas of human justice, as embodied in Roman law, must be abandoned for an understanding of a counterintuitive divine justice, through the workings of which that which is unworthy is deemed worthy and that which is unsalvageable is nonetheless saved.

These ideas, as I have very simplistically outlined them, lay the groundwork upon which the Theology of the Cross can be erected.

The paradoxical nature of the salvific covenant offered gratuitously to the unworthy sinner, which was based on a concept of divine justice that reason and logic did not seem to endorse, caused Luther to contemplate the nature of a God who worked in these mysterious ways. As stated by McGrath, “Luther’s answer to this question…can be summarized in one of his most daring phrases: the God who deals with sinful man in this astonishing way is none other than the ‘crucified and hidden God’ (Deus crucifixus et absconditus) – the God of the theologia cruces.” [p.147]

In a disputation at Heidelberg, Luther made these essentially significant statements in Theses 19 and 20:

19. The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian.

20. The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian.

Per McGrath: “For Luther, the sole authentic locus of man’s knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that revelation. Luther’s reference to the posteriori Dei serves to emphasize that, like Moses, we can only see God from the rear: we are denied a direct knowledge of God, or a vision of his face (cf. Exodus 33.23). The cross does indeed reveal God – but that revelation is of the posteriori Dei…but a genuine revelation nonetheless.” [p.149]

The truth of this revelation is discerned only by the eye of faith. That God is revealed in the cross means that the faith of salvation corresponds directly to a recognition and acceptance of the abandonment and suffering of Christ Crucified: God makes himself known through human suffering.

McGrath again: “For Luther, God is active in this matter, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God. …In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognize that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature…results in an action which belongs to his very nature: God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ “ [p.151]

An interesting component of Luther’s thought is that, in God’s project of bringing about the sense of utter helplessness and humiliation that allows for man’s ultimate salvation, the devil is God’s instrument – an idea similar to that which I formulated earlier, with reference to the Fall of Man.

A crucial term here is Anfechtung: “For Luther, death, the devil, the world and Hell combine in a terrifying assault upon man, reducing him to a state of doubt and despair. Anfechtung is thus a state of hopelessness and helplessness, having strong affinities with the concept of Angst.” [LTC, p.170] It is a form of temptation meant to test man’s faith by ordeal: the last and only refuge from the wrath of God is in God’s mercy.

At this point, we might well say, Wha'?—we know some Lutherans, and none of them seem to be going through anything even remotely like this stuff! Ah yes: cheap grace; I’ve spoken of it before.

McGrath writes: “Anfechtung, it must be appreciated, is not some form of spiritual growing pains, which will disappear when a mystical puberty is attained, but a perennial and authentic feature of the Christian life. In order for a Christian to progress in his spiritual life, he must continually be forced back to the foot of the cross, to begin it all over again…”

(Albert Camus, call your office: message from a Mr. Sisyphus)

But, in fact, paradoxical though it may seem, this mystery of the cross, this on-going Anfechtung, is to be regarded always--through the eyes of faith--as an occasion for joy, since it is the one and only way to salvation.

“Everything which is concerned with the theologia cruces hinges upon faith. Only those who have faith understand the true meaning of the cross. Where the unbeliever sees nothing but the helplessness and hopelessness of an abandoned man dying upon a cross, the theologian of the cross…recognizes the presence and activity of the ‘crucified and hidden God’, …who is not merely present in human suffering, but actively works through it.” [LTC, p.175]

In Luther’s own words: “The cross is the safest of all things. Blessed is the man who understands this.”