A Session with Prof. Robert Goeser, Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, LW 27, Friday, June 6th 2003
Goeser and Luther‘s Galatians: a New Perspective on Reality
Professor Robert Goeser and Dr. Peter D. S. Krey in “Advanced Luther Readings,” in the Session of Friday, June 6th 2003.
Transcribed and edited by Dr. Krey
June7th – 8th, 2003
“I mean, does anybody read Luther? I feel like I‘ve never read these words before. I know I have. Look at all the marks I have on this page.” (I look and he seems to have his penciled notes all over the margins, top, bottom and sides.) “I mean Lutherans themselves. Have they read these words? If they have, you never hear of it!“ Professor Robert Goeser‘s voice has become loud and intense.
We are looking at what stirred us in this week‘s reading of Luther‘s Lectures on Galatians of 1519. We have already gone through his second set of lectures of 1535, volume 26 of Luther‘s Works. Now we are in volume 27. “Look at page 290!” (WA II: 536) Prof. Goeser continues, “Where does Luther get that command of the language?“
I read Luther‘s words there: “They invent a love that is idle in the heart like wine in a barrel.“
“What writing! What a beautiful metaphor!” he exclaims.
I say, “Perhaps, we have to go back a page to see what Luther was referring to by love not being able to be idle. Luther is saying that a Christian is always en route.” We begin to read page 289 more extensively.
“He [or she] is son [daughter] or heir, not a slave,“ and similar expressions are not to be understood as having been fulfilled in us, but that Christ has fulfilled this in order that it may also be fulfilled in us; for they have all been begun in such a way that from day to day they are achieved more and more. For this reason it is also called the Passover of the Lord, that is a passing through (Ex. 12:11-12), and we are called Galileans, that is wanderers, because we are continually going forth from Egypt through the desert, that is, through the cross and suffering to the Land of Promise.
I throw in the observation: “Luther is not just saying that this is a story in the Old Testament. This is going on all the time in our own lives. We have to stop clinging to the comforts of life. And we dare not feel we are fulfilled, because Christ beckons to us from the fulfillment, which is the goal of our life. We have to wander out and be strangers in a strange land. (To draw upon another story.) We have to go out into the desert, experience the cross and suffering in order to make it into the Promised Land. We have to embark on our journey.“ Now to continue Luther‘s passage:
We have been redeemed, and we are being redeemed continually. We have received adoption and are still receiving it. We have been made sons [and daughters] of God, and we are and shall be sons [and daughters]. The Spirit has sent, is being sent, and will be sent. We learn and we shall learn.
And so you must not imagine that a Christian‘s life is a standing still and a state of rest. No, it‘s a passing over and a progress from vices to virtue, from clarity to clarity, from virtue to virtue. And those who have not been en route you should not consider Christians either. On the contrary, you must regard them as people of inactivity and peace, upon whom the prophet calls down their enemies. Therefore do not believe those deceitful theologians (like Peter Lombard in his authoritative medieval book called Sentences) who say to you: “If you have only one, even the first level of love, you have enough for salvation.“ – as with their stupid fancies they invent a love that is idle in the heart like wine in a barrel.
“Luther is speaking about life as a journey,” Goeser explains, “and saying that Christians have to be on a journey. They have to be en route, or they are not really understanding what it means to realize the fulfillment that Christ makes possible for human beings.“
In the pages this week I noticed Luther‘s very profound thinking and the way he is willing to bring an interpretation to passages that the great Bible commentators have not been able to understand. But it is hard to get to everything in a short, two-hour session with Goeser. So I decide to go to a passage about the “elements of the world“ (top of page 286). They are not the old earth, wind, water and fire, but the letters of the law. St. Paul calls the law the letter. Thus there is a sense where these “elements of the world“ are the outward things, externals. Now I am happy to point out to Goeser that Luther‘s internal world is one of the major themes of my dissertation, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron. Luther speaks of the internal ban, internal communion, internal word, inward person, internal spiritual church, and on and on. And continuing on page 286 of LW 27 (WA II: 533-534), I point out how Luther again describes the externality of the medieval church.
Consider how it is possible for the apostle to be understood by those who call tonsures, vestments, places, seasons, churches, altars, ornaments, and all that ceremonial pomp spiritual things. Indeed, they are forced to deny that these are worldly things, unless they too want to be called worldly themselves, a notion from which they shrink most vigorously. But in denying that these things are worldly they at the same time shut themselves off from understanding the apostle, since he includes all these things in the term “world,“ as with contempt he calls the decrees and doctrines that have been established in these external matters “elements of the world.“ Yes, he includes even the outward works of the Decalog. Therefore in our age spiritual things are riches, tyranny, arrogance, liberty, or – on the highest level – prayers uttered without understanding and vestments and places appointed by the doctrines of men. But works of mercy and all other works and places of men are physical, even though they are holy to the highest degree when they arise from a spirit filled with faith(LW 27:286).
In my dissertation I discovered that the canon law was habitually referred to as the spiritual law and the priests were called the spiritual estate. But how could that ecclesiastical estate with all its property, vested interests and with all its legal and political concerns refer to itself as spiritual? And by what right did they preclude the lay-people from being spiritual? Luther‘s interpretation was better. There was only the Christian estate and they could be spiritual or not, have and live in their internal dimension, or just live for outward things, be lost in external inconsequentialities of life: having food, shelter, sex, and some fun, and not be interested in the journey beyond such superficial things.
I asked Prof. Goeser the question from Professor Thomas A. Brady, Jr., “How could the pope protect the interests of the church from the territorial princes, if he himself was not also a territorial prince?“ The sense of his question I would further interpret to be: How could the pope protect the interests of the universal church without temporal power, that is, without a clerical estate that watched over its interests? To deny the papacy political and legal power was to have a Docetic church, a spiritual church without a body. That question will have to be faced sometime.
Professor Goeser said that in terms of spiritual attachment to externals, which Luther found disconcerting, “The spiritual always seems to be related to the Episcopal organization and always to ordination today, whether it is Anglican or Roman Catholic.“ He continued by asking, “How can a non-papal church end up by being so profoundly spiritual and a papal church so unspiritual?“
“What was the crucial factor that determined the difference?“ I asked. I felt that he could not possibly think that the papacy put the fly in the ointment.
“The papacy comes very close to making the difference.“ he said. “The papacy is into power and control while spiritual reality is Luther‘s real concern. Luther has begged off the papacy because there is something that remains fake about it. How can it be called the truly spiritual realm or by definition be declared to be infallible authority? When it has that position, where can any critique set in? The authority of the papacy is set up in such a way that it cannot be challenged by laity or priests and they have to consider the Roman Catholic Church to be divine. The papacy is above anyone and anyone‘s critique. How can an institution make a claim to having the final truth? That is a claim which I do not buy and which I find very offensive.“
“Perhaps Philip Melanchthon was not right in the statement he wrote beside his signature at the end of Luther‘s ‘Smalcald Articles.‘” I said. Here Melanchthon said and wrote among other things:
However, concerning the pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, we, too, may concede to him that superiority over the bishops which he possesses by human right, making this concession for the sake of peace and general unity among Christians who are now under him and who may be in the future.
His assertion that the papacy is established by human right would not at all be accepted by those who adhere to the concept of the Holy Catholic Church as an article of faith. Saying “if the pope would allow the Gospel,“ however, is still placing the papacy over the Gospel in a confusion about where the real authority lies.
Our discussion had gotten ahead of our mutual reading, so we went back to page 241 where another passage had stirred one of us because of the profound grace it expressed. Luther has just made the statement that “if anyone wants to be righteous it is necessary for him [or her] to believe in Jesus Christ with his [or her] heart.“
It follows that the [person] who is righteous through faith does not through himself [or herself] give to anyone what is his [or hers]; s/he does this through Another, namely, Jesus Christ who alone is so righteous as to render to all what should be rendered them. As a matter of fact they owe everything to him, since s/he has all things in common with Christ. His [or her] sins are no longer his [or hers], they are Christ‘s. But in Christ sins are not able to overcome righteousness. In fact, they themselves are overcome. Hence they are destroyed in him. Again, Christ‘s righteousness now belongs not only to Christ; it belongs to His Christian. Therefore the Christian cannot owe anything to anyone or be oppressed by his [or her] sins, since s/he is supported by such great righteousness (LW 27: 241, WA II: 503-504).
Luther gave these lectures in 1519, just before he wrote “The Freedom of a Christian Person,“ and the echoes of that paragraph are certainly in the section where he talks about the marvelous exchange, where the righteousness of Christ becomes the possession of the bride, who is our soul, and all her sins become those of Christ, who overcomes them, where all things are shared in common, and Luther starts speaking about the kind of grace that can lift anyone‘s self-esteem off the ground once again.
Professor Goeser fixed on the peculiar saying that the righteousness of Christ “now belongs to His Christian.“ Now the person had the righteousness of Christ and the person belonged to Christ. And when Professor Goeser read the last lines of that passage out loud once again, they were very simple words completely filled by grace. You didn‘t owe anything to anyone anymore, Christ rendered to all what should be rendered to them. “Therefore, the Christian cannot owe anything to anyone.“ In this way the reader is quite clearly addressed by forgiveness. And then the new reality can be taken to heart: you need not be oppressed by your sins anymore, because you are supported by such great righteousness. Thus when you stack the sins that give you a guilty conscience up against the mountainous righteousness of Christ, they melt away, because they cannot stand in the face of all that righteousness.
Prof. Goeser pointed out that “Luther is not using a special language. It is not recognizably theological or ecclesiastical. What Luther writes is common everyday language, ordinary language. It‘s normal communication. It is common, everyday language, but the quintessence of the spoken word. But what great power it has! His ordinary language is graced. If you are really doing ordinary language it embodies grace. You do not have to go to the papacy for the authority to say it. This ordinary language bears grace and you do not have find a bishop to authorize it nor ascend into language only scholars understand; it is near you on you lips and in your heart. (Romans 10.8 ) From Luther we are not getting something so extraordinary and powerful, but we get ordinary words that bear grace and reality and ordinary words are sufficient, and when they go beyond the ordinary they are insufficient. You cannot go beyond the ordinary for grace, you cannot go beyond the ordinary for this meaning.“
“The New Testament was not written in classical Greek, which is so difficult to understand, but by the common people in the common, everyday Greek, the Koiné.“ I put that in.
Goeser continued: “It is the ordinary language that bears grace and it is no longer a question of the papacy. It‘s the affirmation of the graced character of the natural. You cannot get something beyond the natural to be graced. It‘s the ordinary not the extraordinary that is the bearer of grace. These are simple words that are very offensive to the Roman Catholic Church, because it is a challenge to the heart of it, because it wants to make something special out of the faith speaking of the supernatural instead of the natural. Luther is saying that the natural is enough. The problem is only that we misuse the natural and the problem is not with the natural itself. His position opens up an enormous amount of change. The question is not, how can I become sacramental? The natural is the sacramental. That is why all the to-do over the pope and the church is offensive.“
Goeser then told about his Roman Catholic grandfather and the favorite uncle and the whole catholic side of his family to show his attachment to the people of the Catholic Church.
“The point, however, that Luther makes is that Christianity is about ordinary language and ordinary people, which precludes having a special spiritual estate that is set apart. A priest is no more and no less than a human being. A priest is not ontologically superior to a layperson. For a Roman Catholic there is no question that the priest is different. The being or nature of Protestant pastors has not changed; they merely have different responsibilities. The tonsure, the different garments and their celibacy to make Roman Catholic priests belong to another gender are all false externals and are not spiritual. In Luther‘s lectures on Galatians of 1519, he opens Christianity up. The ordained do not belong to a different human order. The idea of a celibate gender is really a way to separate the lay-people from the clergy. It is not just a question of practice, of having sex or not, but of making the priesthood part of a different order. Luther maintained that they were in the same order with the laity.“
I wondered out loud, “Is there no setting apart of the called for holy orders? Luther maintained that there was not a spiritual estate set apart from the lay estates, but that there was only one Christian estate, the priesthood of all believers, and the whole Christian estate was the spiritual estate, and even the laity had spiritual vocations and not merely the priests as a separate group. But sometimes it may be necessary to be called out and sometimes it may be necessary to be called back in. It is the process of detachment and return. Luther is fully into the process of return. Could Luther‘s theology be a corrective?“
Goeser did not pick up on that rather sweeping limitation of Luther‘s theology. I then continued, “Some Catholics argue that Lutherans do not even have a doctrine of ministry.“
“Lutherans have a different doctrine of the priesthood.“
Goeser argued. “While the Roman Catholic position wants many external differences between a priest and a lay person, the Lutheran position makes everyone an ordinary person, whether lay or priest, although if a Christian, then a member of the priesthood. Luther resisted the idea that ordination gave the person a different nature. It doesn‘t. Luther‘s ideas are still very radical.“
I said, “In the reading this time, Luther states quite explicitly that Christians have no distinguishing marks that set them apart. Then that holds for priests as well, because of his teaching of the priesthood of all believers.“ Meanwhile I was searching for the place. It was in the section where Luther explained “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female“ which is on page 280.
You are righteous, [says Paul], not because you are Jew and an observer of the Law, but because by believing in Christ you have put on Christ. Why then are you being dragged to Judaism by the false apostles? Just as in Christ there is no status for Jewish observance, so there is no other status either. It is characteristic of human and legalistic kinds of righteousness to be divided into sects, and for distinctions to be made according to works (WA II: 529-530).
“Luther encapsulated most of the history of Christianity in that last sentence.“ Goeser interrupted, before we could get to the marks of a Christian. “Human beings want to distinguish themselves. Luther is not attacking them, but merely describing the way humans are. They want to be distinguished by their works.“ But he continued with Luther‘s passage:
Some profess, advocate, and pursue this; others, that. In Christ, however, all things are common to all; all things are one thing and one thing is all things. Thus Paul says later in chapter 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith and the new creature.“ For this reason the Christian or believer is a [person] without a name, without outward appearance, without a distinguishing mark, without status. Ps. 133:1 says: “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] dwell in unity!“ Where there is unity there is neither outward appearance nor a distinguishing mark. Nor is there a name. As the renowned martyr Attalus, on being asked concerning the name of his God, answered very well: “Those who are many are differentiated by names, he who is one does not need a name.“ And for this reason Scripture calls the church concealed and hidden. (Ibid.)
“Luther does not only declare that a Christian has no distinguishing marks, but is throwing in many other insights to boot. Luther provides a unitive vision of oneness behind the level of differentiation, much like one would hear among Buddhists.“ I said.
Professor Goeser did not react to my Buddhism remark, which really stems from my teaching “World Religions“ this semester, but considered the cluster of Luther‘s assertions around “no distinguishing marks.“
Goeser: “Those statement are really earth-shaking: ‘without a name, without outward appearance, without a distinguishing mark, without status.‘ Luther is saying things that are earth-shaking! A Christian needs outward marks so that people can tell they are Christians. Everybody wants outward marks in order to distinguish themselves. And we certainly can‘t let these marks go.“
“A Catholic commentary I just read stated that Luther was no scholar, but the many thoughts and insights in this paragraph seem ready to burst out of the words.“ I said.
“Luther does not write in scholarly language that draws attention to its intellectuality or nor does he write in theological language so difficult that a layperson could not understand it. But look at what he is saying. Where there is unity no one has need of a name. Those who are many have names, while the one has no need of a name. That is why he says the Christian is not only without distinguishing marks, but also without name. The church is also concealed and hidden in that internal unity. Look how he continues to support the fact that there can be no sects and no status.“ Goeser continued the passage:
and one observes very well that as often as the righteous are described, they are described without any term for sect or status, as in Ps. 1:6: “For the Lord know the way of the righteous.“ (He does not say “of the Jews, of men, of the aged, of children.“ And in Ps. 15:1 we read: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?“ He answers (v.2): “He who walks blamelessly.“ (He does not say the Jew or the one of this or that profession.“) And in Ps. 111:1 it says: “In the company of the upright, in the congregation. (He does not say, “of priests, of monks, of bishops.“) One must pronounce the same judgment concerning every other status, because God does not regard the person. (Acts 10:34). Therefore there is neither rich nor poor, neither handsome nor ugly, neither citizen nor farmer, neither Benedictine nor Carthusian, neither Minorite nor Augustinian. All these things are of such a nature that they do not make a Christian if they are present or an unbeliever if they are lacking; but they are certainly undertaken and done for the purpose of training and improving a Christian (page 280-281).
Goeser exclaimed, “Look at that. ‘As often as the righteous are described they are described without any term for sect or status!‘‘And for this reason Scripture calls the church concealed and hidden.“ How can this man write like that? How come I can‘t write like that. I would give my life to be able to write a sentence like: ‘For this reason the Christian or believer is a [person] without a name, without outward appearance, without a distinguishing mark, without status.‘ It‘s not fair. How can one man be given all of that insight? My little daughter would always exclaim, ‘It‘s not fair.‘ It‘s just not fair that he could write like that. The one is she or he ‘who walks blamelessly‘. ‘God does not regard the person‘. Look at the last sentence. It has the definition of adiaphora in a nutshell. Yet it can be done for the improvement or training of a Christian.“
We turned to page 241-242 again because we covered the latter page with notes and exclamations all over the margins of both of our copies, notes such as: “Christus Victor, the great duel, the champion come to fight, strategizing for the coming battle, atonement not in terms of what is done or in terms of merits, but in terms of a cosmic battle.“ The difference between Luther‘s theology and medieval theology becomes very clear. The full paragraph on page 242 is an incredible paragraph and it is prefaced by the basic insight Luther had in his experience of justification by faith:
In the Scriptures the righteousness of God is almost everywhere taken in a sense of faith and grace, very rarely in the sense of sternness with which He condemns the wicked and lets the righteous go free, as is the custom everywhere nowadays (WA II: 504-505).
Goeser reread the sentence “the righteousness of God … in the sense of faith and grace, very rarely in the sense of sternness with which He condemns the wicked, etc.“ Goeser said, “Where did the Protestants forget this in the last 400 years? We certainly represent that sternness and condemnation of others more that the righteousness of grace and faith!“
The paragraph that then follows presents two parables in terms of the cosmic duel and our insufficiency up against
the powers and principalities of this world, and then this passage identifies the one who is our Champion, that for
our victory we need to rely upon Christ, and the whole paragraph is framed in the most profound understanding
of faith as the source of invincible strength. The paragraph enters one internal level of meaning after another, going
from the inner to the inner most, to the very heart.
But if rendering of ourselves to everyone what is his [or hers] must be called the righteousness of faith, then it is better to understand that we do this through a renunciation – as they call it – of all goods, as the Lord teaches in Luke 14:28ff. In the parable of the man building a tower and of the one who is going to fight someone stronger that him/herself (vv. 31ff.) For those who, in reliance on their own strength, seek to justify and save themselves through the works of the Law build a tower – after the example of those who began the Tower of Babel – and with their paltry supplies of works go to meet Christ, who will be the all-powerful Judge. He counsels them to reckon up the costs first. They will find that they do not have the ability. Therefore let them give up all presumptuous claims to wisdom, virtue, and righteousness; and while He is still far away, let them ask for peace as they despair of themselves and in complete faith cast themselves on the mercy of the King who will come. For this is how Christ concluded that same parable: “So, therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple“ (Luke 14:33). This means you will not be a Christian unless you cast away your own righteousness entirely and rely on faith alone. (Ibid.)
“Look at that interpretation! ‘Renounce all that you have!‘ Luther says, ‘cast away your own righteousness entirely‘. You cannot be a Christian unless you cast away your own righteousness entirely and rely on faith alone. What a sentence! It just isn‘t fair. I would give my life to write just one sentence like that and he just throws them off one after another as if they were nothing. It is not fair!“ Professor Goeser is not one to worry about repeating himself.
Luther is of course referring to three different stories or parables in the Scripture: first, the Tower of Babel, where in a Promethean spirit, the people tried to storm heaven by their own strength and fail in their powerful self-assertion against heaven; then, perhaps, one of Christ‘s allusions to the Tower of Babel story, but in a context of renunciation of a false reliance, according to Luther; and thirdly, the calculation and recognition that in a coming battle, one‘s earthly forces are insufficient; thus, relying on one‘s own strength guarantees failure.
Luther‘s words are transparent, because the cosmic duel of the Christ leading the forces of heaven against the evil one can be seen in the depths. Without the Champion coming to fight for us, for his believers, for his Christians, we do not have a chance, because the one in the world is more powerful by far than we are. But Christ, the One in us, is stronger than the one in the world. He can bind the strong man and plunder his house. If on our own strength we set out to do battle it cannot be won. In Luther‘s experience of justification by faith, we have to consider our own “righteousness as refuse” in comparison to the righteousness we receive from on high. We have to see our own strength as nothing and rely on the incomparable strength of God that comes from faith in Christ by grace.
“When Luther speaks of despair in one‘s own ability,“ I said, “that goes all the way back to the Eighteenth thesis of his Heidelberg Disputation“:
18. It is certain that a [person] must utterly despair of his [or her] own ability before s/he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
“And in a way Luther is more comprehensively Socratic. Socrates only proposed a renunciation of one‘s own knowledge, because he knew that he knew nothing, while Luther advises us to ‘give up all presumptuous claims to wisdom, virtue, and righteousness… while He is still far away‘. And from Luther I learned that one has to make another move beyond the intellect. Socrates says, ‘The more you know the more you know you don‘t know‘ and from Luther I learned, ‘The more righteous you are, the more conscious and aware you become of how sinful you are.‘” I said.
Professor Goeser then observed, “Luther is not just providing a doctrine of justification by faith but a whole new concept of reality. It is not a doctrine to Luther but an experience. In the abstract disputations of St. Thomas Aquinas, one will search in vain for such a living interpretation of the experience of the human condition.“
“Studying Immanuel Kant, I find that many of Luther‘s insights come up in his philosophy. I see Kant‘s autonomy clearly conceived by Luther on page 284, where Luther refers to ‘slavish fear of punishment‘ and ‘love of a reward’ which Kant would term heteronomy. And for the most part, theologians have used philosophers as the basis for their theology, for example, Augustine and Plato, St. Thomas and Aristotle, or to take a recent example, Moltmann and Ernst Bloch. But Ulrich Asendorf argues that the theology of Luther was the basis for Hegel‘s very fruitful philosophy. And some of Luther seems like sheer existentialism.“
Goeser responded: “This ‘despair with the self‘ is what I consider the quintessence of existentialism. Later in Lutheran orthodoxy, what Luther had was lost to a kind of generalized experience, and Pietism went over into affect which Luther, however, never disconnected from intellect.“
“We Lutherans often do not understand Luther, because our familiarity with his words, somehow obscures the radical nature of what he says, and we remain in our ‘dogmatic slumbers.‘ Those who criticize him from outside our tradition, have usually never read him – that, of course, goes for many Lutherans as well. They have never read him.“ I offered.
“What we are reading and experiencing here is not just a question of Lutheranism, nor of a question of Luther‘s being German. It is a question of a great thinker dealing with the human condition.“ Prof. Goeser concluded. “Let’s read 50 pages more for next week.”
Dr. Peter D. S. Krey
Theodore Tappert, The Book of Concord, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 316-317.
Timothy Lull, Martin Luther=s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1989), p. 31.
Luther und Hegel, (Wiesbaden:Franz Steiner Verlag, GMBH, 1982.)
The WA refers to the Weimar Edition and the LW, to the 55 volume American edition of Luther’s Works.