Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lutheran Irony (no, not that kind)

There's a concept known as "Lutheran irony" which refers to the characteristically Lutheran idea that whenever we are behaving most religiously (striving to be pious) we are at our most vulnerable spiritually, because our pride weakens our dependence on Christ. That's not the topic of this post.

I noticed something else last night that involves Luther and those who have followed him spiritually and seems to me to be rather ironic. That's what I want to talk about.

I was reading David Brondos' book, Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross, specifically the chapter on Luther. Brondos writes:
For years, Luther wrestled with deep-seated feelings of guilt and with his enemy the devil, convinced that he needed to overcome the powers of sin and Satan in himself in order to achieve the standard of righteousness demanded by God for salvation. Yet no matter how hard he tried and how harshly he disciplined himself, he felt that his efforts were in vain and that he remained under God's wrath. Finally, however, through his study of the Scriptures, most notably Paul's epistles, Luther encountered another God, a God who forgave sins and accepted sinners out of pure grace and mercy through his Son, Jesus Christ.
That's a fairly standard and, I believe, accurate summary of Luther's major transformation.

The thing that occurred to me as I read this was that a very large number of people who see themselves as Luther's spiritual heirs -- not only, or even primarily, Lutherans, but evangelicals in general -- seem to have a theology that assumes that the young Luther who lived in fear of God's wrath was basically right. The common evangelical theology presumes a God who, apart from the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, would be a wrathful judge who condemned every living person for failing to meet the perfect moral standard of the Law.

What's up with that?!?

That's about as far as I got last night in Brondos' book, so I don't know what he's going to say about it.

Thinking back on my own reading of Luther, I'm not sure that the post-tower-experience Luther would have completely agreed with this idea. When he talks about looking upon God "naked" -- as opposed to clothed in Christ -- it might seem like he would agree, but he constantly tells us that we shouldn't attempt to know or understand this "naked" God. I'm not sure he would have agreed that God is "really" like that.

But regardless of what Luther thought, why would we still be carrying around that medieval image of God? Is this the image of God that Jesus offers us? I really don't think so.

Now someone will say that most mainline denominations don't employ or endorse this sort of thinking. That may be so but (a) too often they don't offer anything substantial in its place (i.e. they just don't talk about salvation), so (b) many of the people in the pews pick this up from other sources.

Beyond that, what really surprised me as I thought about this is that while I have a strong reflex reaction against it, I don't think I've completely cleared it from my own theological closet. I think I still have it in there somewhere, like a box of stuff I'm keeping in case I need it some day.

But it's wrong, isn't it?


Lee said...

I was re-reading Paul Althaus's book on Luther's theology recently and I do think there is an ambiguity in Luther here. On the one hand, he seems to suggest that God simply appears wrathful to the person who only knows him apart from Christ--that is, we are naturally inclined to construct an inflexible, law-enforcing idea of God. The revelation in Christ, then, is that God is really merciful toward sinners.

On the other hand, though, Luther does speak of God's hidden, inscrutable will that it's best not to look into; we should only look at Christ. But the idea is lurking back there that God "in himself" might not really be merciful. (This ties into the stuff on predestination too--if God is truly merciful, how can he predestine some people to eternal damnation?)

Andy said...

Yeah, Luther himself definitely has moments, maybe a lot of them, where he still thinks about God's wrath. I suspect he never completely got it out of his mental closet either.

It makes sense. Theological rhetoric aside, my experience is that you don't just do perfect 180 degree turns in your psyche. He may have realized that God was merciful, but the fear that haunted him so long wouldn't just go away.