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.

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.”

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.”

Waiting, but with much to do in the meantime

We’re still waiting for news on donors, but there’s a lot to do in the meantime.

Beth and I had a really wonderful day yesterday. Sandwiched in and amongst a gynecologist appointment, a blood type-and-cross-match, and a dentist appointment (me), we had lunch together, without any kids (who were in school). We had not done that for a very long time. It was a modest lunch, but it was a lunch together, alone, and it was a rare moment of peace and tranquility for us.

For Beth, there were “abnormal cells” on a pap smear, so her doctor had asked her to come in form more testing. We should hear the results of that in a couple of weeks. (And we remembered, we had been her before). And I’ve got a wisdom tooth that needs to be extracted, and a neighboring tooth that needs a root canal.

Today, Beth needs to have another blood transfusion. Outside of the Vidaza treatments, and seemingly because of them, she’s doing well, physically. But there are pesky, annoying reminders of the leukemia. Her red count continues to fall. Though her other blood levels rise and fall, her red blood counts have only gone in one direction.

And without knowing precisely what is the cause, she had a fairly major headache last night. (I chided her, it’s probably because she ate too much yesterday, but more likely, the headaches are associated with a low hemoglobin count. These come far too frequently, and “they’re excruciating” while they’re here.

So today will be another day of running. Zach’s car is in the shop, so I’ll need to drop my Vampire Bride off at the hospital for her transfusions, then take Zach to work at Best Buy, then drive to work myself, and some time in the afternoon, I’ll sort of have to reverse that process.

For anyone who’s interested, I’ve put up a new page on my Reformation500 site, on the topic of Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross”. At this blog, on those days when I’ve written about that topic, my readership numbers are about as low as they ever get. But I want to continue writing on that topic for a number of reasons, and so whenever I do, I’ll make a link available at this site.

Today I’ve written about “The Theology of the Cross and Justification”

Bone marrow biopsy today and other news

Today Beth has another bone marrow biopsy. Dr. Rossetti says this is just simply a matter of routine. The timing of it leads me to believe also that it will provide information that will help in some way as they select a marrow donor. We should know more about the donor selection, too.

In all, things should be moving into the next phase quickly, I would think. The most difficult thing about all this is the waiting. But of course, it is going to be a long haul, and we’re going to end up doing a lot of waiting.

We are due to be at West Penn at 8:00 am, which means leaving here around 7:00 am. “Nothing by mouth past midnight”. They are going to do this in the recovery room of the West Penn short stay unit, and instead of having the biopsy with just a local anesthetic, which did not seem to help her much with the pain last time, she’ll be under “conscious sedation”. Beth will be taken in at 10:00 am for the biopsy. I will probably miss a whole day at work.

Not long after I sent out my news release, we were contacted by Bill Zlatos, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Bill has been talking with Beth quite extensively over the last couple of weeks, and he’s planning to do a fairly significant story on her, her military experience, and of course, the notorious burn pits.

The Trib has already run a few photos, including Beth and Dani here, and Beth and me at a recent Vidaza session. But there’s more to come.

Finally, I’m continuing my series on Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross both at Triablogue and at my own Reformation500 blog.