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Some Theses on Luther’s Theology for Prof. Robert Goeser 3/23/2000

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Some Theses on Luther’s Theology

Pr. Peter D.S. Krey 3/23/2000

* According to Luther, Sadoleto shows his complete ignorance of theology by thinking Psalm 51 is referring to an actual or particular sin. The issue is not sins, but sin. “This is really to be looking at sin, not this or that misdeed, but our whole nature and our universal sin, with all our powers, with all our righteousness and wisdom of the flesh.”[1] Thus Luther insists that at my very best, I am sinful. It is under the presumption of righteousness that sin is concealed.

* Scholastic theology cannot comprehend what Luther is pointing out, because it needs to be grasped by experience. In The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion, Heiko Oberman and Charles Trinkaus point out that scholasticism at this time maintained a divorce between faith and daily experience, and represented a fearful clinging to the authority of the church.[2]

* Scott Hendrix in Luther and the Papacy argues convincingly about Luther’s pastoral theology,[3] but he does not notice that Luther is speaking not only to clergy but consciously and intentionally to the laity. Thus his theology should be characterized as experiential.

* Luther’s theology is not logic driven like scholasticism, but based, surprisingly, on experience!

* Reality is what a person goes through, not just what they know. A corollary: a relationship is much more than an analysis of it.

* One must go through an experience, it requires going through the moments of time, and in the process, a person cannot stay in control. One kind of knowing tries to maintain the illusion of staying in control. Marriage is an apt analogy for experiential knowing: one can never know how it will come out. One cannot participate in reality without experience.

* Oberman argues that Nominalism was the source of Luther’s emphasis on experience.[4]

1. Note his contingency emphasis.

2. Our world, according to Luther, is not a mere reflection and shadow of higher levels of being. Nominalists insisted on the full reality of our experienced world.

3. Ockham slashes away the hierarchy of being, of ideas and concepts, which sheer speculation invented.

4. Nominalism emphasized coordination, not subordination.

* Luther’s Word of God Theology needs to be understood in a new sense. In a Marxist sense words cannot be equated with reality, for example that the word “state” is really the material existence of the state, because materialism requires a separation of word and referent. But for Luther’s creative language, the spirit and the word are one, much like Hegel’s concept of the concrete spirit. The Word of God is the source of all creation, like, mystically speaking, creatures arising out of an abyss. All creation has its source in the Word of God, as the Second Person of the Trinity, but also in the sense of the living voice, the speech of God. In his commentary on Genesis, Luther speaks of God saying “birds” and behold they fly up out of nothing.[5] “[God] does not speak grammatical words; he speaks true and existent realities….we are all words of God….: Thus the words of God are realities and not bare words.”[6]

Luther maintains that God speaks creation into existence:

Here men have differentiated between the uncreated Word and the created word. The created word is brought into being by the uncreated Word. What else is the entire creation than the Word of God uttered by God, or extended to the outside? But the uncreated Word is a divine thought, an inner command which abides in God, the same as God and yet a distinct Person. Thus God reveals Himself to us as the Speaker who has with him the uncreated Word, through whom He created the world and all things with the greatest ease, namely, by speaking.[7]

These citations help to explain Luther’s passages at the end of his commentary on Psalm 51.[8] “The sacrificed ox is a witness of grace, or, so to speak, a ‘working voice’ of gratitude, or a manual gratitude, through which the hand pours out gratitude as through words of action (realibus vocabulis).”[9]

* In that style of the sociology of religion which uses the cultural linguistic method, Luther would be considered to be thinking in unitive language.[10]

* Luther makes a distinction between the Word of God and human words and teachings, to my way of thinking, very hard to follow.[11] He delimits the circumscribed competence of human reason in the mundane realm. Human beings who refuse to recognize these limits make a false ultimate of themselves. In this sense our reason, wisdom, and holiness become confusion and darkness. If the human being accepts the affliction and humiliation of these limits, then there is a realm outside of us.

This realm is extra nos, as Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his lecture, “Luther’s Contribution to Christian Spirituality” pointed out.[12] He underscores the extra nos in that great paragraph from “The Freedom of the Christian Person.” – The person is lifted above herself (to use our language) by faith into God, and descends below herself through love into the neighbor.[13] And thus the person is outside herself, in the faith and love that comes from the Spirit of God, from outside the circumscribed human sphere. When reason, wisdom, and holiness are not made a false ultimate, they recognize that only grace can bring about participation in creation. A false ultimate distorts and destroys God’s continuous creation and justification by faith overcomes this alienation.

* “Then we shall praise the sacrifices which we earlier condemned, and they will please Thee.”[14] Thus the Church is afflicted and humiliated by having been demoted into the human sphere, and it is not at all justified or worthy except by looking up and receiving the marvelous grace of God from the Spirit, extra nos, in the Word of God. With that the Church has undergone reform, so to speak.

Remember, according to Luther, at its very best, humanity is sinful, when it usurps God’s place, and asserts itself as a false ultimate.

Thus what is as sinful as the Holy Church which identifies itself as the Kingdom of God on earth? It may well be the crown of creation. It may well be that canon law, in my early modern period of study, far surpassed the civil law in quality. As an ultimate, however, it becomes the most subtle and severe distortion of God’s creation, and will leave it twisted and evil.


[1] Jaroslav Pelikan, editor, Luther’s Works, volume 12, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), p. 335.

[2] Heiko Oberman and Charles Trinkaus, editors, The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion: Papers from the University of Michigan Conference, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974), p. 11.

[3] Scott Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

[4] In The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion.

[5] Jaroslav Pelikan, editor, Luther’s Works, volume 1, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), page 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., page 22.

[8] LW 12:408-410.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The concept of the “unitive” comes from a course by Prof. Robert N. Bellah in the Sociology of Religion at the University of California at Berkeley, Spring Semester, 1996.

[11] LW I, page 143.

[12] Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his lecture, “Luther’s Contribution to Christian Spirituality,” a lecture held at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA on October 7th 1999.

[13] D. W. Krey and Peter D.S. Krey, translators and editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), page 90, section 30.

[14] LW 12, page 408.

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Written by peterkrey

December 9, 2008 at 5:50 am

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