Reading Paul with the Reformers— Part Eighteen

Reading Paul with the Reformers— Part Eighteen December 3, 2017


Ben. Trying to pin down Luther’s view of Christ’s alien righteousness is more than a little difficult. Sometimes he seems to be talking as if the believer has as his Siamese twin, Christ. They are joined together at the hip, but all the righteousness is in the twin, and none of it is in the believer who still is stuck with being in bondage to sin. On the other hand, when Luther does talk about ‘Christ in us, the hope of glory’ he is still so concerned about keeping that righteousness ‘alien’ that it sounds like he’s talking about a metroyska doll— Christ is in us, and he has perfect righteousness, but we don’t actually have that righteousness or it hasn’t much changed our nature, it hasn’t really bled over into us the outer doll, we are still stuck with our sins, even though Christ indwells us.

Some of this I suppose comes from a misreading of Paul’s use of the term flesh as if it refers to the whole Christian person, and throughout their Christian life, whereas it is far more likely that it is referring to the ‘yetzer hara’ Paul’s teachers talked about— the sinful inclination which tugs persons in the wrong direction, but which in no sense is more powerful that the leading and drawing of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Paul in 1 Cor. 10 tells even the Corinthians that they have a way to overcome temptation, God providing the means of escape at a minimum. This hardly sounds like the believer being in bondage to sin. The other passage that led Luther down the wrong garden path was of course reading Rom. 7.7-25 as referring to Christian life. What are the shortcomings you see in Luther’s evolving views on ‘the alien righteousness of Christ’?

On p. 191 you say the union with Christ doesn’t work on the basis of transforming of the existing self of the Christian. Luther insists on taking Gal. 2 hyper-literally. We cease to exist as that self, and Christ lives in us and through us rather like the opposite of demonic possession. Here is where a little training in Paul’s rhetoric might have helped Luther! Paul did not cease to be Paul when Christ entered his life. Yes the old passed away, and he became new creation, new creature, but Paul was still Paul, and still a ‘self’. He did not suddenly become Jesus! If all Luther means is that one has abandoned one’s previous self-centered existence and now has a Christ oriented one and self-sacrificial one, well and good. But when Paul says we have become new creatures, he is referring to a change, a conversion that affects human nature in various way, not just in terms of belief, but also in terms of affections, willing, and behavior. At the end of the day, Luther’s various statements about alien righteousness prevent him from having an adequate theology either of conversion or of sanctification. And yet, the quote on the bottom of p. 194 shows a Luther who is prepared to say faith changes us, kills the old Adam, makes us altogether different persons in spirit, mind, powers. One is tempted to say— Which is it Martin? Is the Christian still in the bondage to sin and the old self, or not? Comments?

Stephen. You read Luther in interesting ways! Usually he is accused of inflexible dogmatism but you seem to see him as floppy and inconsistent! Whether he is right or not in how he interprets Gal. 2:19-20, I find Luther to be completely consistent here and not that difficult to understand, but certainly challenging. He takes Paul to be saying not that there is no longer a self but that continuity, the sense in which as you put it, Paul was still Paul, is the continuity of the sinful self. It has been crucified with Christ and it is now Christ who is living, speaking, and acting through Paul. The believer not only receives an alien righteousness but also must live the alien life of Christ. For Paul to continue to live as Paul would be death for him, but to die and for Christ to live in him is life. The old person and the new creation, the self under sin and the individual in Christ, are opposite possibilities. This means that the believer faces constant strife between two modes of existence occupying the same body. When the believer lives out of union with Christ (living the Christ-life, not the life of the self), then he or she is truly and wholly righteous because Christ is truly and wholly righteous. But when faith falters and the Christian lives from the self (living the life of the self and not the Christ-life), the Christian is then truly and wholly a sinner. The Christian daily dwells victoriously in Christ and under his lordship or falls back defeated into captivity to sin. The Christian lives each day on an apocalyptic battlefield where the Spirit and the flesh are locked in combat.

At one level I find this immensely helpful. Perhaps I am just not very sanctified, but Luther’s concept of a twofold competing servitude where the life of Christ in the power of the Spirit is locked in combat with my enslavement to sin, seems closer to my actual experience of the Christian life than the concept of a steady, linear growth in holiness. However, there certainly are issues. If the self has died so completely, what are we to say about Paul’s continued use of “I” the first-person pronoun? And, even if his account of a two-fold competing servitude is realistic, what account is to be given on that basis of the growth and development of individuals in discipleship? So, I am not committed to the view that Luther is completely correct here but I do find his interpretation of Gal 2:19-20 stimulating to think about and also find in it a set of ideas that might give us valuable leverage in engaging with modern and postmodern senses of the self and identity. This is something I hope to pursue further in future research.

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