May 12, 2003

The Catholic Luther

Category: History,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

I’ve recently been reading The Catholicity of the Reformation, edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. The book is a collection of essays, all but one from Lutheran authors, demonstrating that the intention of the early Reformers wasn’t to create a new kind of Christianity but rather was to reform and renew in keeping with the historic catholic (note the lowercase c) Christian tradition.

On Saturday, I read David S. Yeago’s essay, “The Catholic Luther.” Yeago, himself a Lutheran, offers an interesting approach to Luther’s story.

The traditional Luther-story goes like this: Luther was a young priest with a very troubled conscience, which nothing in the Catholicism of his day could help because it kept pointing him to his works. Then he had the famous Tower Experience in which he discovered justification by faith alone. After that, he got into controversy, first with regard to indulgences and then with regard to justification itself.

More recently, scholars have argued (convincingly, says Yeago) that the Tower Experience happened in 1518, which is to say that it happened after the 95 theses (which don’t talk about justification by faith alone) and the beginning of the indulgence controversy.

Yeago agrees that the Tower Experience did take place in 1518. But his read of Luther’s history up to and including that point is quite different from either of those other interpretations.

If we look at his earlier writings (as opposed to his reflections twenty-five to thirty years later), we don’t find Luther wrestling with a troubled conscience or asking how he can find a gracious God. Rather, we find him wrestling with the question of idolatry and how we can find the true God.

The problem, says Luther and much of the catholic tradition at the time, is that people want a god who benefits them. They love God for his gifts and not for himself, which, they say, is a form of idolatry (“I worship the God who makes me feel good”).

So then how can you know that you’re worshipping the true God (who can’t be used) instead of this idol of your own imagination? Luther’s response is the theology of the cross: the true God comes to you in sufferings — the sufferings of Christ but also our own sufferings — such that we are left clinging to him even when he doesn’t seem to benefit us at all. In fact, if we’re clinging to him even though it appears to be his intention to damn us (and we should be willing to be damned if only we have the true God, he says), then we know that we’re not worshipping an idol.

Yeago agrees that Luther did talk about uncertainty of salvation during this point, but Luther didn’t see it as a problem. In fact, Yeago says,

It should be clear that this strategy utterly excludes the sort of confident assurance of God’s favor that Luther later came to teach; on the contrary, for the early theologia crucis our uncertainty of salvation plays an important role in weaning us from self-interested piety: we must learn to cling to God even though it seems most likely he will damn us (p. 23).

There is a marked difference between this early Luther of the “theology of the cross,” whose view leads to and embraces a lack of assurance of salvation, and the later Luther, who proclaims assurance. What made the difference? In 1518, Yeago says, Luther began to study sacramental theology.

To the question “What is the sacrament good for, anyway?” Luther finally responds: the concrete, external, public sacramental act in the church is the concrete, external, public act of Jesus Christ in the church. When we come to the sacrament, we run into Jesus Christ: his word, his act, his authority. The question with which every participant in the sacraments is confronted, therefore, is simply this: Is Jesus Christ telling the truth here? Can he do what he promises? Can we count on what he says? (pp. 25-26).

Luther’s basic question remains the same: How can I find the true God, as opposed to idols of my own imagination? But the answer changes. His earlier answer appears to have been this: “the one who I am to adore and in whom I am to put my trust is precisely the one whom all experience says is bent on destroying me” (p. 27). His new answer would have been different:

“The true possessor of deity is the one whom I encounter here — in the particular flesh of Jesus Christ and in the concrete sacramental sign.” It is the particularity and concreteness of God’s presence that now bear the brunt of the task of foreclosing idolatry; the true God, who by definition cannot be used, is the God who makes himself available as he chooses, here and not there, in the flesh born of Mary and the specificity of his church’s sacramental practice, not in the groves and high places consecrated by our religious speculation and self-interest (p. 27).

The whole theology of the cross changes:

[I]n Luther’s early “theology of the cross,” God hides his saving presence in the torment he visits on his elect; in the mature theology, the gracious hiddenness of God is primarily a matter of his lowliness, his kenosis in the incarnate Son, in his chosen signs, and in his saints. The tribulations of the faithful are no longer identical with the grace that saves them, although they drive them to seek that grace and are the veil under which it is hidden from the proud and mighty of this world (p. 28).

Yeago’s thesis seems quite radical: far from being driven by his troubled conscience to find a new solution for his sins which meant that he had to break from the version of Christianity in which he lived, Luther originally thought that a troubled conscience was a good thing (“theology of the cross”) but then began to study the historic, catholic tradition of sacramental theology and adjusted his thinking so that he now proclaimed the certainty of forgiveness in Christ, a forgiveness received only by faith (“Does Jesus Christ mean what he says?”).

Yeago’s essay is brief (you’ll find a still briefer, earlier version of it here) and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. He admits that in the short compass of this essay (originally a speech) he can only assert, though he plans to offer a more extended argument for this reading of Luther’s history in the future. As he says, “I will, so to speak, describe the shoe; readers may let Luther wear it if they find that it fits him” (p. 13).

Anyone else read this essay? Have any of the other Luther scholars responded to it? Has it caught on in Luther scholarship? Is Yeago coming out with his extended argument anytime soon? At any rate, it’s certainly an interesting and thought-provoking article.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:26 pm | Discuss (0)

Leave a Reply