The Heart and Soul of the Reformation

The concept of “the righteousness of God” was at the heart and soul of the Reformation. Not only, “how is God righteous?” but “how can we, sinners, be righteous before a perfectly holy God?” That’s the question Martin Luther wrestled with. It’s the question that was at the heart and soul of the Reformation, and it’s the subject I discuss in my latest post:

The nature of the “righteousness of God”: Martin Luther was right

God’s wrath is his penultimate and not his final word

What follows here is a continuation of a message from the Theology of the Cross series, The Christian’s Most Precious Treasure. That article provides more background on the opus alienum and opus proprium of God, which are two “perspectives” on why God does the things he does, and why they don’t seem quite “God-like” to us.

God humiliates man, in order that he may justify him; he makes man a sinner, in order that he may make him righteous – and both aspects of this matter are increasingly seen by Luther as works of God. Although Luther initially appears to have believed that man humbled himself, there are clear indications in the later stages of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms] that he is moving towards a more theocentric understanding of the various aspects of justification. God induces in man a state of total humiliation – a term which Luther prefers to ‘humility’, on account of the latter’s associations with the monastic virtue of humility – and then he accepts this as the righteousness which he demands of man if he is to be justified. Once Luther has grasped the fact that it is God who takes the initiative in Justification, and that he must be regarded as active rather than passive at every stage of the process, he is increasingly obliged to recognize the problems which are raised by this assertion. It is not man who humbles himself – it is God who humbles him. Even in the earlier stages of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms], where Luther allows man a greater role in his own justification, God is still seen as instigating man’s humiliation, even if man himself must cooperate with God if this humiliation is to be properly effected.

How does God humiliate man? Through the experience of the wrath of God, the threat of hell and eternal damnation, through Anfechtung and suffering. It is through experiencing the wrath of God that man is humbled, and forced to concede that he cannot, by himself, stand in the presence of God – and thus he turns to God in his helplessness and hopelessness, and by doing so, is justified. Paradoxically, it is thus through God’s wrath that his mercy is able to operate, in that man would not seek that mercy unless he knew how much he needed it. It is considerations such as this which lead Luther to distinguish two aspects of the work of God in justification. Even at the earliest stages of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms], Luther may be found to employ the concepts of the opus alienum [“the work alien to God”] and opus proprium [“the proper work of God”] to deal with this paradox…. While the impenitent taste nothing but the severity of the wrath of God, the penitent recognize the merciful intention which lies behind it, in that they discern that it is intended to move them to repentance, humility and faith, and thus to receive the grace of God. God, having ordained that he will bestow grace upon the sole precondition of humility is obliged to stand by his primordial decision – and thus, if man is to receive grace, he must meet this condition. The intent underlying the opus alienum Dei is to enable man to fulfil this precondition, and thus to receive the grace of the merciful God who is hidden in his strange work. As we showed on the basis of our analysis of the soteriology of [Luther’s 1513-1515 lectures on the Psalms] in the previous chapter, Luther appears to interpret fides Christi as sibi iniustus esse ita coram Deo humilis [“unjust to him to be humble before God”], where fides Christi is the righteousness which God requires of man if he is to be justified.

If man is to recognize his own unrighteousness, and thus be moved to humility he must first be forced to concede his own utter unworthiness, and the futility of his situation, if left to his own devices. The merciful intention of the opus alienum thus becomes clear, although this may only be recognisable to faith…. The Word of God, by passing its severe judgement upon man, makes him a sinner, and thus executes the opus alienum – but in that this moves man to cry out to God for mercy and grace (which are immediately forthcoming!), it indirectly executes the opus proprium.

It is of considerable significance that Luther later illustrates the concepts of the opus alienum and opus proprium in the Heidelberg disputation with specific reference to the justification of the sinner: ‘thus an action which is alien to God’s nature results in an action which belongs to his very nature: God makes a person a sinner, in order to make him righteous.’ The fundamental insight, recognized by faith alone, is that God’s wrath is his penultimate, and not his final, word.

Roman Boastfulness

Those of you who read this blog to find out news about Beth may have noticed that I also write about theology and church history, and the things I write are distinctively not flattering to Roman Catholicism. I want to assure those of you who are devout Roman Catholics that I do not intend to question your sincerity or your devotion to Christ at all. Those are between you and Him.

What I do intend to question is the legitimacy of the whole “Roman” component of Roman Catholicism: the church hierarchy, the very presupposition that the “universal” church was destined to be based in Rome. From that presupposition flows everything else. But those very presuppositions need to be challenged.

As I was growing up, I was the geekiest, nerdliest little “good Catholic” boy that you can imagine. My mom has a photograph of me in a suit, my hair combed back in a wave, my new missal in my hands and my eyes clad with a 1967 version of “coke-bottle” glasses ready to dive into that missal.

But as I grew older, I became exposed to conservative Protestant understandings of Christianity, and as I read through the New Testament, a kind of cognitive dissonance was unleashed in my heart that it has taken decades to sort through: How could an institution as old and as seemingly authoritative be so different from the vision of Christ and Christianity that’s given in the New Testament?

In this attached posting, entitled In his Theology of the Cross, Luther follows Paul in rebuking Roman boastfulness, I provide some of the background for how this could occur.

The Righteousness of God

I’m continuing to talk about Martin Luther’s “discovery” of both “justification” and “the Theology of the Cross,” both of which emerged in his thinking at the same time, and which were inextricably related to each other. As McGrath (“Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990) pointed out:

There are two aspects to Luther’s discovery of ‘the righteousness of God’. The first relates to the nature of this righteousness: Luther discovered a ‘wonderful new definition of righteousness’ which stood in diametrical opposition to human understandings of iustitia. The second relates to the mode by which this righteousness comes to the individual: man cannot perform good works which are capable of earning justification on a quid pro quo basis, but he can totally abase himself, and cry out to God for grace.

This is one of those McGrath statements that has been picked out of his various works and used by Roman Catholics with some glee – recently as David Anders has McGrath lamenting “The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum.” It is a novum because, after Augustine got it wrong, Luther was the first one to get it right. The “infallible” Roman church had gotten it wrong for a thousand years and counting.

More here.
Triablogue: The Righteousness of God

The Christian’s most precious treasure

John Calvin famously began his Institutes of the Christian Religion stating, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Before Calvin wrote these words, Martin Luther wrestled with the first of those concepts, “the knowledge of God”.

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-23).

* * *

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

* * *

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:2-5).

Yesterday I noted that while Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses is the traditional and probably the best known event as the start of the Protestant Reformation, they didn’t contain the bulk of his theology. Rather, “Luther came gradually to understand the great themes and doctrines of the Reformation between 1513-21, as he taught the Scriptures.” And he introduced the heart of his theology, his theologia crucis, his “Theology of the Cross” at an event known as the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518.

I started looking at this Theology of the Cross because I thought it might have something to say to my wife and me in the light of her current suffering. But I found as I studied it that it was really Luther’s response to the Medieval Church. It contained the heart and soul of his message. I’ve written about it in bits and pieces over the last month or so. Beginning today, and over the next several days, as we get closer to the “anniversary” of the Reformation, I’d like to go into a bit of detail about it more directly:

For Luther, the sole authentic locus of man’s knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that revelation.…

God is revealed in the passions et crucem – and yet he is hidden in this very revelation. In the very things which human wisdom regards as the antithesis of deity – such as weakness, foolishness, and humility, God stands revealed in the ‘humility and shame of the cross’. We may summarise the leading features of the theologia crucis as follows:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2) This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33:23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recognizable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei (“back of God”) which [is] made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God – but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognized in the sufferings of the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognizes it as a revelation of God Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14:8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father – which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). For the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross – and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the center of the theology of the cross. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.

(5) God is particularly known through suffering. Although this is essentially a reference to the passiones Christi, a far deeper spiritual truth is involved: a fundamental contention of the theologia crucis is not merely that God is known through suffering (whether that of Christ or of the individual), but that God makes himself known through suffering. For Luther, God is active in this manner, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God. This brings us to the dialectic between the opus proprium Dei [“the proper work of God”] and the opus alienum Dei [“the work alien to God”], which Luther introduces in his explanation of Thesis 16 [from the Heidelberg Disputation].

The basic paradox involved is illustrated with reference to the justification of an individual. In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognise that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature (opus alienum Dei) results in an action which belongs to his very nature (opus proprium Dei): God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ The opus alienum is a means to the end of the opus proprium. The significance of suffering, whether this is understood as passiones Christi or human Anfechtung [“challenge” or “temptation”], is that it represents the opus alienum through which God works out his opus proprium. In his important study on Anfechtung, Beintker demonstrated that Luther regards God himself as the source of Anfechtung: God assaults man in order to break him down and thus to justify him. Similarly, studies on Luther’s understanding of the role of the Devil in the Christian life have demonstrated that he regarded the Devil as God’s instrument, who performs the opus alienum Dei on his behalf in order that the opus proprium may be realized.

Far from regarding suffering or evil as a nonsensical intrusion into the world (which Luther regards as the opinion of a ‘theologian of glory’), the “theologian of the cross’ regards such suffering as his most precious treasure, for revealed and yet hidden in precisely such suffering is none other that the living God working out the salvation of those whom he loves.

Alister E. McGrath, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990, pgs 149-151 (bold face emphasis supplied).

Note this statement, for it shows well the God that I have come to know and love: “Similarly, studies on Luther’s understanding of the role of the Devil in the Christian life have demonstrated that he regarded the Devil as God’s instrument, who performs the opus alienum Dei on his behalf in order that the opus proprium may be realized.”

The Devil works on God’s behalf. God has created a universe such that, the more that the Devil “devils”, the harder he works on God’s behalf. He is caught in his own net. He works his own mischief in a mighty way, [and he certainly has the free will to do this], but this very mischief is turned to God’s service. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

“If God is for us, who can be against us? In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Our second potential donor is approved

Yesterday I learned that we have confirmed a second 10/10 donor, and we may learn of testing results from a third. That would mean we will be able to select from among three potential qualified donors. Given that there are 10 million people in the US database, and seven million people in the international database, to come down to only three potential matches … that’s just an amazing number to me.

One of these individuals is from the United States, by the way; the other two are from the International list. So in that case, we may have to wait for an international flight to bring in the stem cells on “transplant” day.

In agreeing to submit to all of the additional testing we’re asking them to do, all three of these folks are tacitly consenting to be donors, but once the doctors select the best donor, then that person will need to be recruited — that is, I guess there is all kinds of paperwork and legal stuff to be filled out. I don’t know much at all about that process, but there is some further work to be done.

We’ve been under the impression that it will take about six weeks from the time a donor is selected until “transplant”. So if the donor is selected next week, that would put “transplant” for us right in the middle of December. And that, in turn, would mean a week or more in the hospital, followed by 30 solid days’ worth of running to the “medical short stay unit” at West Penn, where Beth would have daily blood tests and would then receive transfusions of whatever might be needed on that particular day, whether that be additional hemoglobin, or platelets, or intravenous antibiotics, or whatever.

I say “30 solid days’ worth of running”, but that’s only if she’s healthy. There is a 75% chance during this time that she will need to be admitted because of some kind of infection. In fact, the whole first 100 days, Beth will be in an extremely vulnerable condition – not having an immune system of her own, but dependent upon the immunities of the new stem cells that are implanted into her.

It’s a long and convoluted process, and given that this is the only cure for the leukemia that Beth has, as bad as it gets, the cure is not worse than the disease. Although, we are told, it may seem that way at times.

The good news is that God Rules. That is the one constant in the world that we can truly count on.