Luther and the Euro crisis

From Lutheranism to its depths to Lutheranism in its shallows. . .

The BBC, of all media, has a feature on the influence of Luther and Lutheranism on Germany’s reactions to the current economic crisis in Europe.  This is at best a cultural influence, to be sure, not a theological one, but it’s worth noting, especially for a nation whose word for “job” is “calling” (Beruf), a legacy of the doctrine of vocation:

Exactly 500 years ago, one of Europe’s greatest thinkers was getting increasingly worried that good German money was being wasted.

Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners.

The 16th Century German thinker was Martin Luther and he was desperate to stay part of that great European project known as the Roman Catholic Church, but equally desperate not to support those who were ripping off German believers to pay to build St Peter’s in Rome.

The unfairness of the abuses fed popular resentment until German patience finally snapped. Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic Church, “protesting” in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestant-ism, the Reformation.

Nowadays, Germans – even those who are Catholic or non-Christian – cannot escape the Lutheran past.

It’s also the Lutheran present. The most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel, is a Lutheran believer, the daughter of a pastor. The new German president, Joachim Gauck, is a former Lutheran pastor.

And that cliche of “the Protestant work ethic” – hardworking German taxpayers, even if they are not actually Protestant, continue to bail out the euro while being caught in a squeeze as acute as Luther in the 16th Century.

In their hearts, from Merkel to the car worker on the Volkswagen assembly line, the German people are desperate to be good Europeans, just as Luther was desperate to be a good Catholic.

But in their heads, most Germans suspect there may be something wrong – something morally wrong as well as economically dangerous – about giving money to those who, in the German view, have been at best reckless and at worst dishonest. . . .

[After describing an interview with Chancellor Merkel.]  I was struck by Mrs Merkel’s political genius – quiet, cautious, the Hausfrau of her nation, so unlike the noisier, catastrophic male German leaders of the first half of the 20th Century.

The puzzle now is when her political decision to be a good European collides with her Lutheran conscience not to reward bad behaviour or be reckless with money.

I wondered whether for Frau Merkel, like Martin Luther, another reformation in Europe might be on the cards – not tomorrow, perhaps, but one day.

HT:  ABC3Miscellany

And yet, the reason Luther started the Reformation was NOT economic, though arguably the economic issues made people more receptive to the Reformation.   And wouldn’t Germans be tight with their money even if they aren’t Lutheran?  Don’t Catholic Germans feel the same way?  Or Reformed or “Evangelical and Reformed” members of the state church?  And does ANY European country really want to bail out the irresponsible Greeks?

Lutheranism–and the Gospel–in depth

On the surface, Lutherans often seem placid and easy-going, solid folks who don’t make much of a stir.  And yet their theology consists of stormy clashes between Law and Gospel, glory vs. the Cross, the dark struggles of anfechtungen, the ecstasy of grace.   Lutheran spirituality centers on things as ordinary as going to church, going to work, and spending time with one’s family.  And yet, there is an unfathomable depth to what Lutherans see in the Cross, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Two Natures of Christ, and the Word of God.  Underlying the conservatism are teachings that are deeply radical.

Larry, frequent commenter on this blog, alerted me to this book by Steven D. Paulson entitled simply  Lutheran Theology.  It’s part of a series demonstrating the ways different traditions “do” theology.  But this is far from a dry textbook.  As Amazon reviewer Judith Guttman says, “If this book doesn’t knock your socks off, you aren’t paying attention. It is electrifying, exciting — am I talking about a theology book? Yes.”

Paulson says that we usually think of religion in terms of a “legal scheme,” a set of moral assumptions involving award and punishment with everybody getting what they deserve.  The Gospel just sets all of that aside.  So does God’s wrath, actually, which condemns completely and without proportion.  (He says that Luther as a monk goes far beyond the New Atheists in his resentment of a God whose wrath against sin seems so unfair.  The atheists react to God’s wrath by denying God’s existence, an act of wish-fulfillment Luther did not indulge in.)  But then God becomes flesh in Christ, who though innocent “becomes” sin and takes the wrath of God into Himself, giving us sinners the promise of salvation, which breaks into our lives through the voice of a preacher.  The “legal scheme” is completely set aside, though we–including many theologians in the history of Lutheranism–keep trying to re-introduce it, though since we cannot fulfill it of ourselves, we need constant recourse to Christ’s promises.  And  the consequent Christian life is also outside the “legal scheme,” having to do not so much with rules and score-keeping but with a free, spontaneous, and grace-filled love of neighbor.

As I read this book on my Kindle for Lent I found myself bookmarking virtually every page, so packed it was with illuminating insights.  Sample it yourself with the Amazon’s “Look inside” feature.  Another Amazon reviewer, David F. Sczepanski, was kind enough to type out some excerpts:

Lutheran theology begins perversely by advocating the destruction of all that is good, right, and beautiful in human life. It attacks the lowest and the highest goals of life, especially morality, no matter how sincere are its practitioners. Luther said the “sum and substance,” of Paul’s letter to the Romans “is to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh.” (1)

This is no ordinary philosophy about life, nor is it ordinary Christian religion. For thousands of years Christians routinely described life using an allegory of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. They said life in general, and Christians in particular, were on an exodus out of vice into virtue. They were on a journey away from badness toward goodness. But Luther bluntly said faith is not a transition from vice to virtue, it is “the way from virtue to the grace of Christ.” (2)

`I forgive you’…Luther taught and demonstrated that these simple words give absolute, indubitable certainty, and no one is more dangerous than a person who is certain. The certainty was not based on human self-certainty; it was the opposite of that. It was the certainty of forgiveness because of what the Son of God did by taking the sins of the world upon himself and defeating them at the cross. The decisive cosmic battle of God against sin, death, and devil was already waged and won when Christ was raised from the dead to make a new kingdom of people who live with no law, nowhere to go, and nothing to accomplish. They were simply–free. (7)

God is always and ever God whether someone believes in him or not… God who is above time and space now enters the world with a steely determination…the sinner’s justification…so that the stories of God’s arrival to sinners make the great tales of Scripture (Abraham, David, Mary) and our own lives like Augustine’s Confessions. (55)

…the heart is not made for itself; it is made to go outside of itself and cling to that which speaks to the heart. Humans are therefore “hearing” creatures whose heart is always clinging to some word or other. (56

For Luther, fear…must be taught only so that it can be extinguished so that one will flee from this God [of wrath], not to him. We are to fear God who has no words (unpreached), and run from him to the place where he has given himself in words [of promise] — that is to the preacher. Only there do fear and wrath end in Christ incarnate as he gives himself to sinners… What is life like before a preacher arrives? Life is filled with voices that are “passing judgment” (Rom 2:1)…so that life comes under constant judgment. The judge could be outside one’s self like a father telling you to live up to your potential, or a written law that says, “Thou shalt not steal.” The judge can also be inside, called a conscience, holding itself to a standard of judgment. Life without a preacher is life with a knotted collection of voices that either accuse or excuse, but in either case end up used in the service of self-justification. Because judgment stands ever at hand…life becomes a search for an escape. (69)

Each time sins are forgiven it is experienced as a breakthrough, a miracle, a new and unheard of redemption that sets a person free — body and spirit — from an oppressive force. (89)

The crux of the issue in forgiveness is what happens to a sin which was real, actual, and loaded with consequences in many peoples’ lives… (90)

Sin is deep in the flesh; it is material, and it does not go away by wishing it so. It is not an idea that can be thought away, it is not a feeling that can be gotten over through great effort, it is a thing that corrodes life’s goods like debt; sin infects healthy life like a virus and it must be disposed of. (90)

Forgiveness first negates — by violently removing trust put in the wrong place. Then it puts faith in the proper place, which creates something new out of nothing… (90)

via Lutheran Theology (Doing Theology )) (9780567550002): Steven D. Paulson: Books.

“How Luther went viral”

The Economist tells how Luther, in effect, used social media:

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. . . .

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. . . .

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

via Social media in the 16th Century: How Luther went viral | The Economist.

The article also tells about the role music and visual images (with a shout out to Lucas Cranach), both of which also went viral, in the spread of the Reformation.

Can you envision a time and a cultural context in which this sort of thing–the spread of the gospel–could happen again, now that we really have the technology for it?

HT:  Joe Carter

Would Calvin have Occupied Wall Street?

Would even liberal Lutherans say this of Martin Luther?

The cause of demonstrators involved in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement would have been supported by John Calvin, the 16th century church reformer who helped shape modern-day Protestantism, says the General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

“I am sure he would have been in the streets of New York or London with a placard,” says Setri Nyomi of the French lawyer and theologian who wrote extensively about social and economic justice.

Nyomi makes his comments in a lecture delivered Tuesday at Princeton Theological Seminary in the United States. The Ghanaian theologian and Princeton graduate is delivering three lectures this week on the role of the church in the 21st century.

“Calvin expressed opposition to all forms of social oppression resulting from money”, Nyomi says. “Today, it is the global economic systems and practices that have more sophisticated forms of effects.”

Nyomi believes Calvin’s words resonate with life today. “The church of the 21st century needs to align itself with voices of justice … even if it means being out there in the streets,” he writes.

via John Calvin would have been in the Occupy Wall Street movement, says Reformed church leader | Bringing together 80 million Reformed Christians worldwide.

HT: Jordan Ballor

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

I’ve had some posts about Tullian Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson and the successor to D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.  He is a significant evangelical pastor who credits Lutherans (e.g., Bo Giertz; Harold Senkbeil; Rod Rosenbladt) for helping him to understand the full magnitude of the Gospel.  He has written a book about all of this–including how it impacted him as he went through some difficult times in his ministry–entitled  Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

I was asked to write a blurb for it, as were many others, including other evangelicals who resonate with what he has written.  They are all worth reading in themselves.  (Read them on the Amazon site that this post links to.)  I will just quote myself and Dr. Rosenbladt, whose work I also blogged about recently:

“Many Christians today assume that the gospel just has to do with conversion, for way back when they first came to faith. They have lost the sense, well known to Christians of the past, that the gospel is for every moment of their lives. As a result, they often fall into a moralism that can be, as this book shows, just as idolatrous, self-focused, and godless as immorality. This book shows how the good news of free forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ is the driving energy that makes the Christian life possible. Pastor Tchividjian tells about how he himself discovered the full magnitude of God’s grace in the midst of difficult times in his own ministry. He does so in a way that will bring relief, exhilaration, and freedom to struggling Christians.”
Gene Edward Veith Jr., provost, professor of Literature, Patrick Henry College; director, Cranach Institute, Concordia Theological Seminary; columnist; author

“In a powerful, concise, and popular style, Tchividjian announces, explicates, defends, and contrasts the gratuitous gospel of Christ’s person and work with the oft-misheld conviction of us sinners that, if we are somehow to be justified, it will have to be a matter of ‘making up for’ our offenses and of inward improvement. Chapter-by-chapter he argues that God’s saving plan is one of grace and not one of improvement. Filled with illustrations from his life as a pastor, this is no unapproachable, academic tome. But neither, thank God, is it today’s ‘Evangelical silly!’ Tchividjian wrestles openly with demons and their central lie in order that we truly ‘get’ what the Bible is really about. From every point on the compass, he contrasts ‘moral renovation’ with a free, one-sided rescue drenched in the blood of Jesus. Good news for everyone—but especially for Christians who are worn out by trying the other way, believing the lie, somehow knowing renovation isn’t working but knowing nowhere else to turn. Tchividjian is out to convince his reader that justification before God really is pure gift, is free, is by grace and through faith in Christ. . . sola!”
Rod Rosenbladt, professor of theology, Concordia University

via Jesus + Nothing = Everything (9781433507786): Tullian Tchividjian: Books.

Theologians of the Cross

Another non-Lutheran discovers a Lutheran insight.  Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, posts about theologians of the cross as opposed to theologians of glory.  He explains it pretty well, I think:

One of the things that is so striking about the current revival of interest in Reformation theology, broadly conceived, is the absence of perhaps the most glorious contribution of Martin Luther to theological discourse: the notion of the theologian of the cross. . . .

At the heart of this new theology was the notion that God reveals himself under his opposite; or, to express this another way, God achieves his intended purposes by doing the exact opposite of that which humans might expect. The supreme example of this is the cross itself: God triumphs over sin and evil by allowing sin and evil to triumph (apparently) over him. His real strength is demonstrated through apparent weakness. This was the way a theologian of the cross thought about God.

The opposite to this was the theologian of glory. In simple terms, the theologian of glory assumed that there was basic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is: if strength is demonstrated through raw power on earth, then God’s strength must be the same, only extended to infinity. To such a theologian, the cross is simply foolishness, a piece of nonsense.

Now, some will respond: But the theology of the cross has not been forgotten; it is often talked about and discussed and even preached. But here’s the rub: in the Heidelberg Disputation Luther actually refers not to a theology of the cross but to theologians of the cross, underscoring the idea that he is not talking about some abstract theological technique or process but rather a personal, existential, real way that real flesh-and-blood theologians thought about, and related to, God. A person’s theology, whether true or false, good or bad, is inseparable from the individual’s personal faith.

At this Reformation season, we should not reduce the insights of Luther simply to justification by grace through faith. In fact, this insight is itself inseparable from the notion of that of the theologians of the cross. Sad to say, it is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found. Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture. They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross. An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory. Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary. It is repentance.

via The Forgotten Insight – Reformation21 Blog.

What are some other applications?  If there is no “basic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is,” what happens to natural law?  natural theology?  How would this factor into various theological controversies today?

HT:  Joe Carter