Ascent theology

Useful and broadly applicable paradigms from Pastor Matt Richard:

During the time of Martin Luther there were theological presuppositions that had been ingrained in the lives, thoughts and actions of the people. For the sake of simplicity, two things summarized the theological culture and attitudes of the day: ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness.

It was commonly held from medieval teachings that mankind needed to ascend to God. It was taught that one needed to climb a metaphoric ladder towards a Holy and Righteous God through: pious good works, devotion to God, accomplishments, indulgences, holy living, penance, religious duties, etc… Eugene Klug comments on this saying,

“Ascetics (i.e. those trying to climb to God) desired to achieve more and greater conformity with the will of the holy God, climbing rung by rung the ladder of God-pleasing acceptance before the throne of the loving Lord and Savior.” (Note: Parentheses added)

People during the time of Luther saw themselves in a spiritual journey that required strenuous effort and endurance to elevate ‘self’ to the same level of God.

In ascent theology the emphasis is placed on mankind and the strategic goal becomes mankind’s climbing pursuit of God. As a result, man does not need a descending Christ; which means that Jesus becomes a simple model of holiness that needs to be emulated in the ascending journey. Consequently, how does one know if he/she has ascended enough? What are the best methods to ascend to God? What methods get the best bang for the buck?

The other presupposition that was commonly held during the time of Luther was the theology of active righteousness. Active righteousness simply taught that if one were to be considered righteous that he/she needed to achieve righteousness by the way of the Law and effort. For example: the Law says, “Do” and the person actively “Does it” which results in a presumed “Righteousness.”

The teaching of active righteousness goes right in line and is in harmony with ascent theology. Both put the emphasis on mankind’s efforts. Both have a starting point of mankind. Both appeal to the flesh. Both undercut the centrality of the work of God in Christ. . . .

According to some historians, the Heidelberg Disputation is considered as more important to the 16th century reformation than the 95 theses of 1517. The reason being, the teachings of the Heidelberg Theses adamantly argue against ascent theology and active righteousness and shows forth from scripture a completely contrary and opposite way of seeing the Christian life: descent theology and passive righteousness.

The theology of descent puts the emphasis on Christ and His strategic goal of drawing close to and pursuing mankind. As a result, man does not (and cannot) ascend to God; which means that Jesus is the one who descends to mankind as to rescues and bring sinners home to God. Consequently, one is granted confident assurance as scripture continually reveals the glory of the descending Christ to a bloody cross to completely atone for mankind, us!

The teaching of passive righteousness taught by Luther and the scriptures puts the focus on what Christ has accomplished on behalf of mankind. Passive righteousness simply teaches that if one is to be considered righteous that he/she needs to receive this righteousness by the way of the Gospel and Gift. The Gospel says, “Believe This And Receive It As Gift” because “Everything Is Already Done For You.” (Note Theses 26 of the Heidelberg Disputation)

via Steadfast Lutherans » The Laying Of Our Foundation: The Theological Framework Of The Reformation For The Church Today.

Happy Augsburg Confession Day!

On this day 482 years ago–June 25, 1530–the Reformation princes and free cities confessed their faith before Emperor Charles V at the Diet (the governing assembly of the Imperial states) held in Augsburg, Germany.  The 28 articles drawn up by Philipp Melanchthon (not Luther!) became known as the Augsburg Confession.  It was the first confession of faith of the Reformation and, to this day, it is perhaps the most succinct and definitive summaries of Lutheran theology.

Part of its genius is that it spells out what did NOT change in the Reformation churches–the continuity with historical Christianity that later protestants would throw out–as well as precisely what elements in the medieval church did need to be reformed.  The Augsburg Confession is still startlingly relevant to today’s controversies of theology and practice.

Honor the day by reading it:  Augsburg Confession – Book of Concord.

Southern Baptists cracking down on Calvinism

So what’s this about Southern Baptists cracking down on the Calvinists in their midst?

See As Baptists Prepare to Meet, Calvinism Debate Shifts to Heresy Accusation | Christianity Today.

Do Lutherans have a dog in this fight?

The Law in the life of Christians

As promised yesterday, here is Jono Linebaugh discussing the role of the Law in the life of someone who has faith in the Gospel of Christ.  I know the Third Use of the Law is a big controversy in Lutheranism.  Paul McCain, for example, has been warning Lutherans–including some theologians  in the ELCA–of forgetting that Christians are, indeed, obliged to follow God’s Law.  Dr. Linebaugh, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary (a Reformed institution)  here seems to be downplaying the Third Use as it is often understood in Luther, but I think he is mainly fighting the Calvinist understanding and that he is restoring a properly Lutheran understanding of the Law in the life of Christians.  But, hey, I’m no pastor or theologian.  Let me ask those of you who are:  Does this account properly explain the use of the Law in the life of the Christian? What is the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran understanding of this issue?  When they both use the same term (“Third Use of the Law”) are they meaning the same thing?

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). . . .

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” (i.e. a use of the Law after the gospel and thus unique to Christians) is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses [ordering creation and accusing sinners] still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell

Luther the detective: Getting your hands dirty

Luther is the acclaimed British crime drama now available to Americans on BBC America.  Here is the Wikipedia description of John Luther, played by Golden-Globe winner Idris Elba:

He is obsessive, possessed, and sometimes dangerous in the violence of his fixations. But Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication; he has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication is a curse and a blessing, both for him and those close to him.

Sound like any other Luther you know?  Sound like any doctrine you know?  Anyway, as we said yesterday, Jordan Ballor has an article in Cardus arguing that the series is, in fact, Lutheran.  I’ll let him tell you about a story line:

John Luther’s willingness to suffer, to be despised, and even to be killed for the sake of others is manifest throughout the series. In a line of work that is characterized by the daily risk of life and limb, the risks Luther takes on a regular basis are foolhardy, at best. When Jenny Jones’s mother, with whom Luther has a complicated history, comes calling, Luther finds himself unable to follow his safer judgment and remain uninvolved. He feels responsible in some way for the plight of Jenny, who after her father’s death has become addicted to drugs and a victim (“actress” seems like the wrong word) in the pornography business.

Luther ventures onto the set just as filming is about to begin and (to put it delicately) “removes” Jenny from the situation. He follows through and delivers Jenny to her mother, and the task he had been asked to complete has been finished. But everything is not well. Jenny knows that living with her mother will not be healthy. She knows she needs help and she pleads with John to help her. Again, despite his “better” judgment, Luther cannot resist helping. He cannot bring himself to simply tell her, “Go and sin no more,” and leave it at that. John Luther is thus in a very real way a natural lawman. His innate sense of justice and of obligation is so deep that he simply cannot stand by and leave broken things alone. He has to try to help, even if it means risking his reputation, his livelihood, and indeed his life.

He ends up risking all three in Jenny’s case. Those who run the porn ring have orchestrated the whole arrangement in order to get Luther into a position where he is exposed and compromised. At one point the gangsters nail Luther’s hand to a table: Luther is literally pierced for Jenny’s transgressions. He has put himself in this position willingly, knowing what it might cost. In the process, the gangsters do end up getting some leverage on Luther so that he has to appear to do their bidding, at least for a time.

To Luther’s colleagues, Luther seems to have been compromised. When DS Erin Gray asks Luther’s friend and protégë Justin Ripley about Luther’s suspicious actions, Justin expresses full, even perhaps credulous, faith in Luther’s fidelity. “There’s loyalty, and there’s naivety,” says Gray. Justin responds, “There’s a difference between getting your hands dirty and being dirty.” Justin knows Luther, and he knows that Luther will risk getting his hands dirty in order to do what he feels morally obligated to do. Likewise Justin doesn’t hesitate to get his own hands dirty to protect Luther. Luther’s brand of responsible action is contagious, it seems.

In this difference between “getting your hands dirty and being dirty,” we have a seminal expression of Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representative action and Luther’s idea of moral ambiguity. We don’t always know when the line is crossed and we become dirty. But getting dirty, and even being dirty, is a risk we are bound to take, a risk we are bound to take in trust that it is not on the basis of our clean hands but rather on the redemptive work of Jesus that we might be justified. Jesus, in fact, is the exemplar of this vicarious representative action, the scapegoat of the Old Testament, who takes on the sins of others. As the Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Because of Christ’s atoning work, we are free to risk getting our hands dirty.

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God’s preserving work in the world.

The series is on Netflix–instant play!  So I’ve seen the first couple of episodes.  Just as crime drama–in the genre of police procedural–the show is excellent.   It has everything you might like in Law & Order, NCIS, etc.–action, suspense, intriguing mysteries, ingenious police work–but it’s grittier, more textured, and better written.

I had assumed that the theology Jordan Ballor sees in the series is unintentional, as when an honest work of art  finds truth, which by its nature is going to be consistent with the truth of Scripture.  But the show is full of explicit Christian–yea, Lutheran–language:  talk about evil,  (sinful) human nature, nothingness, Bible quotations (“why do the wicked prosper?”), the devil, guilt, “your calling.”  Then there is the character’s name and business such as nailing his hand to the wall.  The creator of the show knows some theology.

The character of John Luther is complex and compelling.  He’s something of a rogue cop (think the protagonist of The Shield but more sympathetic), brilliant but tormented.  His estranged wife who left him for another man, which tortures Luther, defends his preoccupations with “life and love.”  This is not romantic love or the kind of love that solves all your problems.  This is love that multiplies your problems and makes them worse.  But love is absolutely necessary.  At one point,  Luther identifies who the murderer is because when everyone else yawns, but she doesn’t.  Being able to resist the contagious yawn, he says, means this person has no empathy, the sign of someone who could kill without mercy.  (And  that woman, Alice, what a piece of work!  Though the unwillingness to yawn is not evidence that will stand up in court, he knows she did it, and she knows he knows.  They get together to torment each other and discuss medieval philosophy.  The shows’ villains are as complicated as they are chilling.)  John Luther,  struggles with the conflict between his compassion and his own lawlessness (when a serial killer is hanging on for dear life, he is not above stomping his fingers).  He is simultaneously a saint and a sinner, but he doesn’t understand that yet.  He is Brother Martin before his conversion.  Sherlock Holmes is characterized by logical deductions; Adrian Monk by obsessive compulsive disorder.  John Luther is characterized by Anfechtungen.

 

Luther the detective: Vocation

There is a TV show on BBC called Luther about a British police investigator, a black man played by Idris Elba.  According to Jordan Ballor, Luther is also Lutheran, a dramatic exploration of vocation and what it means to be a little Christ to your neighbor.

I haven’t seen the show, but I’ve got to now.  Ballor’s essay is worth two blog posts.  First, I appreciate his explanation of vocation, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s application.  I’ll post that today.  Tomorrow I’ll post some of what he says about the TV show.

The reformer Martin Luther is justly famous for his doctrine of vocation, or calling, and its implications for the Christian life. Luther understood vocation as a Christian’s place of responsibility before God and for others in the world. One of the critical aspects of Luther’s view of vocation was that we represent God to others in our service to them. He said that Christians act as masks or “coverings” of God (larvae Dei), the visual and physical representations of God’s action on earth. In some real and deep sense, the hands of Christians serving others are the hands of God. Even non-Christians, in their roles in the social order, can be said to represent God’s preserving action in the world.

Luther also understood the ambiguity inherent in any action undertaken in a fallen world. His doctrine of justification made it clear that on no account might humans presume to stand before God with a presumption of innocence or merit based on their own works. No matter how faithfully a Christian might work, or what good things a Christian might seek to do, none of this can justify us before God’s righteous judgment. Our justification in this sense depends solely on the righteousness imputed to us on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. . . .

The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes this Lutheran understanding of vocation and radicalizes it in his doctrine of “vicarious representative action” (Stellvertretung). In Bonoheffer’s view, we act as representatives of God to one another precisely in our ability to take on, in a limited and provisional way, the guilt of others. For Bonhoeffer this action means that we live “for others,” just as Christ lived, died, and was raised “for us.” As Robin Lovin puts it, “Responsible action is a true imitation of Christ, a willingness to be despised and abused for the sake of those who have themselves been despised.” This idea of vicarious representative action, of living for others in a deeply sacrificial way, is what animates the life and work of DCI John Luther.

via Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther | Comment Magazine | Cardus.


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