A New Perspective Anglican Ponders a Presbyterian’s Luther

A New Perspective Anglican Ponders a Presbyterian’s Luther April 1, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 11.26.49 AMThis is not an April Fools day post. It’s a post appreciating the greatness of Martin Luther, with whom I’ve had my own struggles. I, of course, love his accomplishment in the Protestant Reformation, wish more would be made on the part of many in seeing how political that movement actually was, think his posing of law over against gospel is not only a false dichotomy but shatters the biblical narrative, and of course I know what he did to both Anabaptists and Jews. Yet… yet… yet… Luther must be seen for the Titan he was.

So, when I heard that one of my favorite church historians had written a book on Luther and the Christian life, I had to read it… and it is a very good book that I recommend enthusiastically: Carl Trueman, Luther and the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).

The book is about the Christian life but Trueman keeps a constant eye on the pastoral life and pastoral implications of Luther’s theological understanding of life. A pastor can read this entire book for its pastoral theology with great profit.

Carl’s got a way with words, and this one illustrates his indirection — and wit — for a big sweep of Luther:

For Luther, as someone not gifted in the matter of understatement, Anabaptists were allies of the Antichrist, another point of undoubted discomfort for modern evangelical appropriations of his theology. Not only was he a militant, unrepentant paedobaptist; he also ascribed rather negative eschatological significance to his opponents on this score (141).

Trueman loves Luther as a man and learns from him as a theologian and pastor and husband:

Over twenty years ago, I was being interviewed for what would prove to be my first tenured appointment at a university. Halfway through the ordeal, one of the interviewers asked me, “If you were trapped on a desert island, who would you want with you—Luther or Calvin?” My response was reasonably nuanced for a reply to an unexpected question: “Well, I think Calvin would provide the best theological and exegetical discussion, but he always strikes me as somewhat sour and colorless. Luther, however, may not have been as careful a theologian, but he was so obviously human and so clearly loved life. Thus, I’d have to choose Luther.” Later that day, I was offered the position of lecturer in medieval and Reformation theology (195).

In some ways Trueman’s task is to yank Luther from the clutches of some evangelical uses of him and his theology, not to show how Luther differed over and over with Roman Catholicism. Thus, Trueman knows his audience, knows what needs most to be said, and this book does it. But there is no idealizing of Luther in this book:

With a figure like Martin Luther, the tendency will always be to make him a hero or a villain. The stakes are so high in the Reformation debate, and Protestant and Roman Catholic identities so wrapped up in responses to him, that the temptation of a black-and-white, morally and theologically straightforward approach is significant. Yet even this brief overview of his life reveals not only the connections between his biography and his theology but also the human contradictions and failings that were part of who he was and what he did. His stand at Worms is magnificent; his later writings against the Jews are nauseating. What are we to do with him? (54)

Because Trueman has been teaching Luther for so many years he stands above the normal readings and points us all to what is most important to how many read Luther today:

The key texts for the popular evangelical understanding of Luther were all in place by then: The Ninety-Five Theses, The Heidelberg Disputation, The Freedom of the Christian Man, and The Bondage of the Will. One or two great texts were yet to be written (the great commentary on Galatians being the obvious example), but on the whole these four titles cover the working canon through which most Protestant evangelicals approach Luther (160).

Trueman probes other writings to sketch how he views the Christian life but that life is formed in a public context with surges of response, reaction and opposition. In that context Luther’s view of the Christian life comes to the surface:

 In a sense, the details are no longer important: the precise issues and practices to which Luther was reacting have long since vanished. What is important is the theology on which the theses were built: the theology of humility and the costliness of grace. Though Luther probably did not realize it at the time, these struck at the heart of the medieval sacramental system and thus at the authority of the church. In criticizing indulgences, Luther also did what is always guaranteed to precipitate a reaction: he hit the church where it hurts most, in her revenue department (38-39).

In his sketch of Luther’s life as the context for his theology and view of the Christian life, Trueman offers this proposal of when the Reformation began — not with the pinning of the 95 theses but… the Leipzig debate where Luther “also added that papal supremacy was a relatively recent innovation” (42). He drove — pounded — a wedge between the gospel and the Catholic Church’s teachings:

Arguably, this is the moment when the Reformation truly began in earnest, for it was then that the implications of Luther’s otherwise piecemeal attacks on indulgences and theological method became clear. If Luther was right, if humility was the key to salvation, then the whole medieval system needed to be rejected, and the papacy was wrong. Leipzig made this clear, along with the fact that there was no middle ground (42).

In the term humility (a theology of the cross and glory) Luther’s central note of the Christian life is heard. As Trueman says it

Luther believed that, outside of Christ, he was dead in trespasses and sins and desperately wicked. His attitude toward the Jews confirms his own opinion of himself (53).

Thus, for Luther at the core of the Christian life is justification by faith and this cannot be emphasized too much and it gets deeper and deeper into the heart of a theological view of life — he digs into the sinful heart to discover what grace means. This is not the Reformed experience so much as it is the Lutheran experience, and I pull here three quotations:

In the medieval understanding, justification was a process of growing righteous via the impartation of Christ’s righteousness connected to the infusion of grace via the sacramental ministry of the church. Thus, justification was simply one part of a much larger structure (67-68).

Thus, a man may appear outwardly righteous (before the world) but in reality be inwardly unrighteous. Likewise, he may appear outwardly unrighteous and indeed despicable but inwardly be perfectly righteous before God. This distinction is absolutely basic to Luther’s understanding of justification, for it is the basis upon which he asserts that no external thing (in terms of works righteousness) can actually affect standing before God (68).

We noted earlier how Luther in 1517, and even on into 1518, was committed to seeing humility as the key that made someone a passive recipient of God’s grace. By 1520, humility had been absorbed into, and transformed by, his broader understanding of faith as trust in God’s Word (68).

Salvation then, justification then, is epistemological and experiential all at once: it is the joyful exchange of Christ’s alien righteousness to us and prompts gratitude in spades. This then creates a new kind of life, a life of cross-shaped and grace-shaped freedom, the kind of freedom that is a theology of the cross and grace and death and resurrection and not one of happiness, victory or abundance:

Freedom for Luther must be understood through the incarnation and the cross: it is freedom to serve others and freedom to die for others. The whole of the Christian faith, and therefore the whole of Christian ministry, needs to be constructed in light of who God is for us as he is revealed in his incarnate Son hanging on the tree at Calvary (75).

The logic of the cross says that weakness and death, painful as they are, have been utterly subverted by God in Christ, that pain and mortality have ironically become the means of strength and power, and that the grave itself has become the gateway to paradise. And that is the lesson of justification by grace through faith too: the outer man may well be fading away, but the inner man goes from strength to strength (77).

Now hear this: Luther’s theory of the Christian life is corporate, ecclesial and centered in the fundamental categories of Word and sacraments.

For all of the post-Bultmannian [read: new perspective?] criticisms of Luther for developing an individualistic theology, in practice his emphases are really rather corporate: Word and sacrament demand a corporate context (79).

OK, fair enough,but I would say it is still quite individualistic for there is precious little interest in the church as community. Church is where a priest/pastor preaches Word and hands out sacraments. That is, go to church, hear the sermon, live out the catechism, take eucharist so you can live a responsible Christian life in the public sector. Perhaps I’m missing something here but I don’t see much community focus in Luther’s view of the Christian life. Having said that, I resume where Trueman was:

If the definition of ministry is set by Word and sacrament, so is the substance of the Christian’s life. Luther’s emphasis on Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper should surely point believers toward how they should understand their lives: the church service is fundamental to Christian discipleship. The answer to spiritual weariness, fear, and those dreaded Anfechtungen that afflict the Christian is found not in anything special or extraordinary as the world understands it. That is what the theologian of glory desires. Further, every theologian of glory probably thinks of himself as unique and thus as having special problems that require special solutions. The theologian of the cross, however, while acknowledging that every Christian is unique in that every Christian is a specific individual, also understands that the answer to every unique Christian’s problem is actually very general, and the means are very ordinary. The answer is always Christ crucified for me, and that Christ is found in Word and sacrament (158).

Running this, however, is his theology of law and gospel, a theology that will drive a human to the experience of humility and grace — the cross’s primary impact on the human. Hence, law and gospel run rampant and we find something very similar today in the beliefs of pastors like Tim Keller, Tullian Tchividjian and J.D. Greear, though probably not with the dark themes we see in Luther’s approach to preaching law in order to shatter the confidence of the congregants:

The distinction underlies much of the theology of the disputation but is explicit in thesis 26: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” Fundamental to Luther’s understanding of salvation, and thus of the Christian life, is the antithesis between doing and believing, between trying to earn salvation and receiving salvation in Christ, between works and faith, between law and gospel (91).

The task of the preacher, therefore, is to take the Bible and to do two things in every sermon: destroy self-righteousness and point hearers toward the alien, external righteousness of Christ (92).

Thus, as the law’s function is to bind and to crush, so the first task of the minister is to preach the law in such a manner that it does this. He must hold before the congregation a vision of the transcendent glory and holiness of God, and force congregants to see just how catastrophically far short of that they all fall. His task is not that of the typical American televangelist: giving people a pep talk and helping them have a good self-image and more confidence in themselves. For Luther, those are the lies of Satan. The preacher’s task is first and foremost to shatter self-confidence in his audience and to drive them to despair.

Once the preaching of the law has driven a person to despair, then the minister is to declare the gospel and point to Christ. That is what the gospel is: an account of the life, work, and significance of the Lord Jesus Christ, as Luther makes clear in his preface to the New Testament: “The gospel, then, is nothing but the preaching about Christ, Son of God and of David, true God and man, who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us the sin, death, and hell of all men who believe in him.” Thus, preaching represents dramatic movement from exposing the folly of self-righteousness and cultivating despair and humility to providing comfort in the Lord Jesus Christ, the promise of whom is grasped by faith (92).

In one of these sermons, he makes a most memorable statement about the power of the Word:

I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply , preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything (94-95).

Thus, we are back to the church context for the Christian life:

This points toward one of the striking aspects of Luther’s approach to liturgy: the church’s gathered worship is a catechetical exercise, not in the sense of catechisms that operate by question and answer, but in the broader sense of the school of faith. Gathered worship is intended for the education of the people in sound theology upon which to build their lives (103).

Luther’s vision is comprehensive:

Given Luther’s concern that worship fulfill a pedagogical/catechetical function, it is perhaps not surprising, though certainly impressive, that he sees the whole week as providing an opportunity for structured Christian education through the various liturgies of the church. Monday and Tuesday, the service is to focus on teaching about the Decalogue, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Eucharist. These are the established elements of Christian catechesis from the Middle Ages, and Luther clearly assumes them as foundational to the Christian life. Wednesday is to be devoted to teaching from the Gospel of Matthew, as Saturday afternoon is to be devoted to the Gospel of John. Thursday and Friday are to focus on other New Testament writings. Sunday is the big day, with multiple services and three sermons devoted to the Gospels. The overall purpose is “to give the Word of God free course among us” (104).

If anything, Luther values the pastoral life far more than most:

… the minister’s first calling is to be present with those for whom he has oversight. We might even borrow Lutheran terminology from elsewhere: the minister’s presence in his parish is not to be merely symbolic; rather he is to be there as a real presence: in, with, and among his people. This will not only inform his preaching such that it speaks more directly to the particulars of his people’s lives; it will also allow for catechizing, over which the minister has responsibility, and for the one-to-one confession and absolution that some delicate consciences require (108).

And Luther’s honesty comes to the surface in Trueman’s portrait, an honesty that leads to reflections on how to recover one’s fervor:

First, when I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little psalter, hurry to my room, or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled and, as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do (119-120).

What then comes to the fore in Luther’s theology of the Christian life?

1. Law and gospel
2. Cross and grace
3. Humility
4. Church receptivity
5. A private/social life shaped by the church’s teachings
6. Joy and fun.

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  • Scot,

    This post demonstrates one of the things I love about you and this blog: too many preachers and teachers I see only interact (positively) with folks from their own camp, interacting publicly with those outside only to criticize. I love that you express your disagreements with Luther clearly, but also heartily recommend this book and give praise both to the author and Luther.

    I totally agree with you that Luther is more about church services than church community: “Church is where a priest/pastor preaches Word and hands out sacraments.” Again, if we look at the early Protestant “marks” of a church, they are all focused squarely on the performance of the priest/pastor, which quickly, even if not intended by Luthor, became focused on the sermon. This line from the author bears this out, IMO: “Gathered worship is intended for the education of the people in sound theology upon which to build their lives.” There is a difference b/n teaching and learning. The church, from Luther on at least, has been increasingly focused on teaching rather than learning. But even “learning” isn’t the same as growing up in Christ. We need more holistic thinking, more holistic and mutual building up into Christ. Both the law/gospel division and the priest/pastor focused ecclesiology of Luther undercut that direction in deep ways.

  • Steve_Yellowknife_Canada

    I’ve not read this book (yet) but I’ve often loaded my iPod with Trueman’s talks and courses. He is great on portraying Luther in all his glory and with all his warts.

    One thing Trueman always comes back to is how the post-1525 Luther wrote so much on ethics and Christian living. This is helpful in deflating a lot of pop-evangelical misrepresentations of an almost hyper-lutheran view of law and grace/gospel.

  • JK

    Scot, thanks for this. It raises a bunch of personally relevant questions for me.

    At their heart is this one–can both salt water and fresh water come from the same spring? (No wonder Luther disliked James.)

  • Scot, I would echo the first paragraph above. thanks for your model.