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.

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

Reformation Day is coming up

I know I’m about a week early. But my hope is to continue to write this week on some Reformation-related topics, and I wanted to give folks a heads-up that it was coming. The Reformation wasn’t really started in a “day”, it was a whole season in church history, lasting hundreds of years – I’m a person who will say that the Reformation is not, or ought not to be considered to be “over”.

October 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the traditional beginning of the Protestant Reformation – the date Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the church at Wittenberg, with the intention of starting a discussion on the abuse, at the highest levels of the church, of the practice of indulgences.

But anger over this abuse only provided the spark. The Reformation had its roots a number of ongoing struggles, some of which had already been going on for centuries.

One of these was political, between the papacy and secular kings. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued one of the most infamous statements in church history, Unam Sanctam, in which he pronounced it “altogether necessary to salvation” “that every human creature” – including the king – “is subject to the Roman pontiff.”

Philip, the king of France, to whom the statement was addressed, did not agree. In the ensuing posturing, Philip had Boniface arrested. Boniface died shortly afterward, but as the 19th century church historian Philip Schaff says, “in the humiliation of Boniface VIII, the state gained a signal triumph over the papacy.”

Just three years later, a French bishop was elected to the papacy, but he refused to move to Rome. The “Avignon” papacy led further to a “Great Schism,” during which time there were two and even three competing popes, each having excommunicated the followers of the other.

In 1415, a council deposed all three “antipopes” and named an official successor. But papal corruption continued to grow.

The medieval writer Marsiglio of Padua (d. 1343) summarized a popular sentiment during this time, in his work Defensor Pacis saying: “only the whole body of citizens, or the weightier part thereof, is the human legislator.” He was excommunicated.

A parallel struggle within the church was unleashed, over who had ultimate authority within the church: pope or council.

John Wycliffe (d. 1384), who made the first translation of the Bible into English, embodied both of these struggles. He urged secular rulers to work to reform the church. He also espoused religious sentiments that foreshadowed many of the themes of the Reformation. The English historian A.G. Dickens said, “perhaps the only major doctrine of the sixteenth-century Reformers which Wycliffe cannot be said to have anticipated was that of Justification by Faith alone.”

But “justification by faith alone” was, according to many Reformers, the key doctrine of the Reformation. And as papal corruption grew steadily, reaching its zenith in the Borgia popes, Luther’s 95 theses merely ignited tensions that had been growing for centuries.

As the Reformation began to take shape, Luther came to see that, not only was the abuse of indulgences a problem, but that the indulgences themselves, and the related doctrine of purgatory, were the problem.

Scholars believe that Luther came gradually to understand the great themes and doctrines of the Reformation between 1513-21, as he taught the Scriptures. In his “Lectures on the Psalms,” Luther came to realize the utter sinfulness of humanity. As he lectured through Romans, he realized that it was only by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ that humans are justified before God. Lecturing through Galatians and Hebrews he came to understand that faith is not something we do, but rather, it is an open, empty hand that reaches out to God, “receiving and resting on Christ and his finished work for sinners.”

And as his dispute with the church came to the fore, Luther came to understand that popes and councils “can and do err,” and that only Scripture is foundational and normative for all doctrines.

Without question Christian history has its very bad moments. But within that context, the Protestant Reformation was a very good moment. According to the church historian Philip Schaff, the Reformation of the sixteenth century is, “next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history…. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.”

Another writer put it this way: “Reformation Day is a fine thing but let’s remember what the Reformation was: the assertion and defense and conviction that justification of sinners is by unmerited divine favor alone, that, in the act of justification, faith justifies by receiving and resting and trusting in Christ alone, and that Scripture is the magisterial and unique authority for faith and the Christian life.”