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Robert J. Goeser Lectures, Winter and Spring Semester, 1998

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PLTS Prof. Robert James Goeser Lectures

for the course “Advanced Luther Readings,”

February 9th 1998 through…May 12th 1998[1]

Notes Taken by Peter D.S. Krey, his Teaching Assistant.

Lecture of February 9th 1998: Luther wrote in the vernacular or the common language. He published a virtual media blitz of pamphlets starting in 1517. Pamphlets or tracts are called Flugschriften in German, libella in Latin, or again in German Büchlein, which are small books. They are polemical, meaning that they are fighting and argumentative; they are arguing something. These pamphlets are like a genre, a literary form, like for example a novel.

In 1520 Luther writes the famous treatises “The Freedom of a Christian,” the “Treatise on Good Works,” “A Treatise on the New Testament, That is, the Holy Mass,” “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate,” and the longer work in Latin, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”

First Reading: Martin Luther’s “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ — Against the Fanatics.” (1526)[2]

On Easter Day 1526 Luther preached two sermons that dealt with those on the left and the right [in the Reformation movement]. A variety of people were to the left. To these two sermons, associates of Luther added another of his sermons on confession and compiled the three sermons together to make the above tract. Luther did not publish it himself nor would he have put “Against the Fanatics” into the title.[3]

Huldrich Zwingli held that Christ cannot be on the altar and at the right hand of God at the same time. Luther held that Christ is everywhere because Christ is in the Word. The Word is more than words and the Word is less related to the Greek logos than to the Hebrew word, DABAR.

We have

Jesus and the logos

Time and eternity

History and eternal truth

Theology and philosophy

The Word is proclamation as address not as eternal truth. God speaks and it is done. God speaks and it is created. The Word makes Christ real in the bread. The Word calls me to responsibility. A parable uses the language of address, for example the Prophet Nathan addressing David: “You are the man!” The parable engages the hearer in such a way that she or he cannot weasel out.

For John Calvin, Christ has a spatial limitation. Luther held that Christ’s body was ubiquitous. He denied any circumscription of Christ’s body. The right hand of God was not spatial. The Ascension was not spatial. Heaven is not a place but a condition. We do not have a three story universe. The issue was not how to get Christ down from heaven and to the altar, but to get Christ recognized. For example, how do we recognize Christ in our neighbor? Christ is already present, too close, too involved. How do I recognize the Word Incarnate everywhere? How does the Word of Address make us responsible? I spend my life-time weaseling out. I use my intellect to weasel out. A great deal of literature addresses you like the Prophet Nathan did David, “You are the man” and you can’t escape!

In the novels of Joseph Conrad, a person cannot finally escape the truth. The question posed is how to open my eyes and make me own my past.

It’s not Christ from the right hand of God brought to the altar. We have to bring them together in one construct, [in the Word]. Luther writes, “Again I preach Christ and with my bodily voice, I bring Christ into your heart.”[4] That means in my heart and not that he sits there in a chair.[5] But Christ is at the right hand of the Father and is brought into the heart. By the way: in that sentence you have all the course of homiletics that you need. Make the “Right Hand of the Father come into your heart” work for you on all kinds of levels.

Now Luther is a peculiar 16th century fellow for us. We have many different problems issuing from him. But just hear to the text.

We do not have objective certainty, ecclesiastical or theological. Nor do we have subjective certainty, where you can believe anything you please. Christian communication has a special kind of certainty. It has a distinctive character. For communion, there is a uniqueness to Christian communication. Get beyond the theological definitions. The heart, for example, does not mean either the intellect or the emotions. [It is the center of the responsible self.] Luther’s imagery is not fair, but it is awfully good. He’s good at making catalogues. Luther connects belief and certainty. If Christ enters into the heart, Christ can enter the bread and wine. If Christ can enter the heart without putting a hole in it, then he can enter the bread without putting a hole in it.[6] Christ is around us, in us, and in all places. Ubiquity is not like a definition of the sacrament, but it is recognized in life. A function of a play is to bring characters to recognition and then bring the audience to recognize themselves. If it fails, it is a matter of language or the audience.

Luther opposes the arguments that

1. It is not fitting, appropriate, and reasonable that Christ is in the sacrament.

2. It is not necessary that Christ be in the sacrament.

For those who hold that argument you do not have an incarnation of the Word in the sacrament, but for Luther you do. He insists, “This is my body. Christ said it.”

Theology is not creating problems, but wrestling with

some real problems. If you do not mean the physical body, then what do you mean? We mean presence. What kind of an “is” is it? “Is” correlates exactly with what you mean by body, by presence. When the opposing side takes the literal or symbolic interpretation of “is,” then Oecolampadius, for example asks “Why do you need a baked God?”

The crucial term is “physical.” What is the importance of something physical in this? Are you getting a theology that is not well baked? The question arises, what is the relationship of the spiritual and the physical? Did Lutherans trap themselves in something as if the physical is the reality?

Theology raises these kinds of questions. They are real issues and you can come to different resolutions. What is the relation of the spirit to the body? For Luther the spiritual and the physical cannot be separated. The spiritual has to be embodied. What is the connection between creation and redemption? Is it the created which is redeemed or is only something spiritual redeemed? Do you leave your body behind when you go to heaven? Is the body irrelevant to salvation?

For Luther Christ always comes embodied, coming in, with, and under the physical, the created. You do not escape the fact that you are a creature. You do not escape body, time, and history.

Zwingli had another view of reality. In a certain sense he is a dualist with a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body. He held that the physical was not an adequate medium of the spiritual. [Finitum Capax Infinitum][7] Zwingli reflects a Hellenistic position that opposes spirit to matter. He feels that you always have to protect the spirit from the body. In a sense, he sees evil partly in the body and matter.

For Luther the problem is not the body but sin. Not “sins” but sin. The problem is not something external from me. It is not my body. The problem is my self; the problem is the person.[8] The problem is not external, but in here, in my responsibility. The problem is not that I have a body. It is the very best in me that gets distorted. It is “better-than-ness.” I want my identity by being better than you. An example is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, as well as in the Fall. I fall out of trust, because I do not want to be in relationship. I want to have it on my own and I want to have it on my own by being good.

The problem is not the limitation of my mind, body, or “creatureliness” but I want it in my isolation and I want to be better than you. We are so worried about sins, it never get to sin. I do not want to recognize evil for the wretched thing it is. I use people as things and I alone am a non-thing. I do not want to join the race. We continually say “they” and not “I”. Oh! We are happy to say “I” when it makes us special. Maturity, however, is to say “I” in responsibility. In taking responsibility we become strangely dumb and somehow we cannot utter the word, “I.” We do not want to take evil seriously and we distort the good ourselves and say “they” instead of “I”.

It is not the problem that we have a body, but our unwillingness to accept our “creatureliness.” I am an embodied self. I accept the physical. I am free. There is the “Bondage of the Will.” But the bondage does not come from the outside. It is my body. (Here in the sense of ownership.)

That Christ is in the sacrament is miraculous.[9] Luther takes issue with Zwingli’s view of reality. The heart is the problem. The problem is me. It is located in the realm of commitment, of decision, etc. The creature is a miracle. Look at a grain of wheat or a seed. The metabolic process is a miracle. The problem is not in the created. Creation is a miracle. You participate in creation and it is not the spirit against matter. It is creation versus sin, creation versus the heart.

In freedom I own that I did that. Just think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. The Rev. Dimmesdale is in the height of his glory while Hester Prynne is experiencing one more moment of absolute rejection.

For Hester: the quintessence of shame is good.

For Dimmesdale: the quintessence of good is evil.

This is enough for Luther’s tract, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ — Against the Fanatics.”

Next time Luther’s “Eight Sermons Delivered at Wittenberg in 1522” during the student uprisings.[10]

Assignment: write two pages each on the Word and sacrament, Law and Gospel, Theology of the Cross and just the basics about what they mean in life.


[1] I am a very slow typist and in this Winter and Spring Semester of 1998 at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, I took 114 pages of handwritten notes. I have not counted, but I have many notebooks full of notes, especially because I continued meeting with Prof. Goeser until his illness made it impossible to continue. Would anyone like to help get these into print?

[2] Timothy F. Lull, editor, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pages 314 – 340. Also see Helmut T. Lehmann and Abdul Ross Wentz, editors, Luther’s Works, Vol. 36, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959) pages 329-361. Also WA 19, 482-523., i.e., the Weimar Edition.

[3] LW 36: 333.

[4] Timothy Lull, page 319.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., page 320.

[7] The finite is capable of bearing the infinite. On the other hand John Calvin held Finitum non Capax Infinitum. For better or for worse, the finite could not contain the Infinite.

[8] Ibid., page 333-334.

[9] Ibid., page 318.

[10] Ibid., page 414.

Lecture of February 17th 1998.

A brief outline of the historical context of the Reformation: It began late in October, 1517 to 1520. Luther moves to the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. Here he formulates the Theology of the Cross opposing it to the Theology of Glory. They are related polar terms, just like justification by faith and justification by works. Again the 1520 tracts:

1. “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” treats the sacraments and the whole sacramental system.

2. “The Freedom of a Christian:” you don’t do the ethical for your salvation, but for your neighbor.

3. “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate” is written to the representatives of the civil government. Where do you draw the line between the two power structures? [That is the spiritual versus the civil authorities.] Luther released some intellectual forces [that were very powerful for the time]. What he proposed was not yet a church, not yet a well defined movement, but it was already breaking up with some rapidity. That means by 1522, before it was a well defined movement it was coming apart.

Now creation and redemption [for Luther] are closely related. That means the creature is redeemed, but not redeemed from being a creature, because creation is as much a miracle as Christ’s presence in the sacrament. In the Augustana Confession creation is considered a greater miracle than the redemption. The great miracle is creation not redemption and is prior to it. The fault does not lie in creation, not in God but it is a question of human freedom and responsibility. It is I who have placed myself into bondage. It is what I have done with creatureliness. My God, open your eyes! How can you deny your creatureliness? You participate daily in the miracle.

The heart is the center of my being a responsible self. Sin is not my creature, by body, sexuality, but my heart. It is we, not my body. It is we, not the physical. God always comes to you as a gift and creation and recreation are gifts. Only if you are a person who really affirms creation, can you know what evil really is. If it is all a mess then you are just making more of a mess. My body and my mind are good. God is not out there, but here affirming creation. Because I have a heart, sin and evil can mean anything. I can, for example, use human beings as things. I did not have to dehumanize and debase other human beings.

The Reformation was not a defined movement yet. First the issues were just raised. But people resonated with Luther, not, however, agreeing with him at every point. His theology reinterpreted the relation of spiritual and physical media.

Is an idol an image? Not for Luther. Others in the movement see the idol as an image: [thus the iconoclasm in the Zwinglian and later Calvinist reform movement.] What is the position of the physical in spiritual matters? That is the question of the sacrament from 1521 until 1526 and beyond. What is the connection between the physical media and the proclamation of the Gospel? We are now posing the question here about the ubiquity of Christ’s body the way Luther was raising questions about the medieval understanding of the sacrament.

What do you mean by the transformation of the physical elements into the body and blood of Christ? Transubstantiation was the Roman Catholic conservative position on the sacrament. Luther developed a new position, but it was not a purely memorial understanding of the sacrament much like that of Calvin. Luther rejects that there is a change of substance and substitutes the Word for substance. Central for Luther is the Word, with a capital “W” and not the transubstantiated elements, which was the way the medieval church joined heaven and earth and the transubstantiated elements required having the reserved host.

Luther emphasizes the Word and the recovery of the Word. The mediation between there and here was not the church hierarchy, the bishops, priests, or the sacrament. It is the Word that makes the connection. Then the relationship between Word and trust or faith [became of utmost importance]. You cannot manipulate the Word of God as it might seem with priests, etc., which is our interpretation, of course. Luther championed the Word of Address, which was not to be manipulated and from which you cannot weasel out. His emphasis does not amount to a verbalization [of religious realities] but to the Language of Address.

This issue revolves around the question of the nature of language and communication. The presence of God comes through the Word and that is not merely subjectivity and it is not controllable. The Word addresses me, comes from the outside and I cannot control it. It comes as a surprise, in a way that I do not expect. It calls my whole existence into question.

One of Shakespeare’s last great works is called Cybaline. It sets you up for the Prophet Nathan’s, “You are the man,” the self. This is the essence of music and the arts and it is most transparent in literature. “You are the man!” is not moralistic; it is more profound than that. It moves you from the position of being an observer [into responsibility] and tricks you into being right there when you can’t escape. The function of the artist is not moralizing, but to draw you in such a way that you cannot escape. It becomes your story, the language of your heart and your soul. It carries you from detachment to involvement and in so doing, it becomes your story.

One who illustrates this point is the great novelist Joseph Conrad, who did not know a word of English until he was 18 years of age. He wrote at the turn of the century until about 1920.

Thus the language at worship is in the participatory mode. But the Old Testament problem is right there: what about images? How does the Word relate to images? And religion can become mere verbalism. [Understand that] ubiquity means that the presence has to be everywhere, but never separated from the Word and has to use physical media. How is the Word mediated by the physical? It has to be mediated in such a way that it is an address, not available except in the reality of trust and is not to be manipulated. There is never demonstrable evidence; it always has to be taken on faith. So you cannot go to history for evidence: I want to prove it [in history] to be able to undo trust. Trust has to be for the future.

In the promises given in marriage, for example, you put yourself into the hands of another person. Total evidence would break your relationship up. What is required is trust. You place yourself into the hands of the other and you have only your promises to go on. This is close to Luther’s [position]: you do not have demonstrable evidence, which would relieve you from time and history. Abraham believes God’s promise. It’s ridiculous, but it is a significant view of history. You encounter God in history and time and you don’t know where it will all take you.

Presence cannot be verifiable physically, but if it is not physical, then it is not in time and in history. It is in the realm of trust. The Word and the physical are always related. This is articulated in terms of ubiquity of Christ’s body.

The question discussed by the class: how does Luther refer to the reality of creation in terms of God’s role in creation? He has a Sermon on the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel.[1] Luther states in it that creation is a product of speech, of speaking. The Word is not Platonic, but Hebraic. The Word of John’s Prologue is not the mind of God, not the thought of God, but the Word of Address. Luther is the most Hebraic thinker of Christianity up to this time. His Old Testament emphasis is enormous. In the American edition of his works, the first eight volumes are on Genesis, while even on St. Paul he has only a few volumes.

Augustine believed in the pure forms [of Plato]. Creation was in the mind of God and the logos came between the mind of God and physical creation. Creation came through ideas, upon which the physical followed. The physical world was an imitation or derivation of creation in the mind of God, of the idea. Luther shifts the language and makes it speech and language rather than the ideational world. The idea, the eternal ideas/logos brought the physical forth, [according to the Platonic scheme]. For Luther that in between [ideational] step is not there. He had a Hebraic notion of words and Word as a medium whereby the word became concrete and enters time. Thus the ideational world is not superior to the physical world. The ideational world is not greater than the world in time and history. Luther is amazingly incarnational and creational. The finite is able to bear the Infinite. The created, the finite, can bear ultimate infinite meaning for Luther.

The Word is always presented by something created, finite, historical, but never in a demonstrable, evidential way. We are putting our trust on the line on that which can never be totally verified. You can touch it and you can’t touch it…. It is only if you make this enormous move of commitment working might and main for you neighbor. You say, “I can accept it in the sacrament, but not embodied in my neighbor.” [Ah, that’s a problem.] It is always on the way and not there in your hands. Not this or this, but always in between. That makes it hard. One has to keep grappling with it for a long time. It is not only sacramental, but also true for the relation with a neighbor. It is likewise with ubiquity and the Reality of presence. It is not definable spiritually with Zwingli or completely physical perhaps in another extreme. But in between a new world opens up. Thus Luther is not an iconoclast, but champions music, the visual arts, and representational arts. On the other side, the North East Meeting House [Reformed] there is no place for painting, pictures, music, or even the singing of Psalms. Luther felt that sometimes God could get through to you not by the words, but by music. It was important to get to the heart and by that we do not mean something mushy, but something profound.

Our next reading together is a Luther “Sermon on the Gospel for the Main Christmas Service.” The text of his sermon is the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel.[2] Reading these pages, we remember that for Luther we always relate to something creaturely, not to reason. The logos is attached to what is creaturely. Luther includes natural life with natural light.[3] It is Augustine’s standpoint, which Luther refers to here, that you have a light which is independent de natura. Luther says, “No, the light comes by Christ.” And “the life is the light of men.”[4] Light comes for the blind, but it is still darkness. But when life is light, then it illuminates the believer within. Luther is asking, “Why not Logos and natural life?” Why take a position that it is only “logos and natural light, i.e., reason”? Luther holds that God’s presence is not merely rational and intellectual; it is not merely reason. It is enfleshed, body, physical and the Word is as important as Word and reason. I am not just an embodied mind, because I am never outside of time and I am never delivered from time in terms of trust. Life can be without light. The Word does not just illumine the mind. The Word takes us into the womb. “For this reason also the gospel is called a womb….The whole man must crawl into the gospel and become new.”[5]

The Word wants to turn the whole self, the whole body around. The Word is not just up there with the intellect, it is up against sin, not “sins.” That distinction means I am distorted. Sin means I have distorted my humanity, the very center of my being. I do not want the sacrament to come to me so that I have to discover all of my neighbors. Maybe I will recognize a few, that is, the ones that I like. When the Word comes to me, I discover my participation in humanity. The Fall is the movement out of the human community. The evidence of the Fall is that I want to be holy by myself. I want to be holier than you.

Luther was not talking about sins and being naughty. The quintessence of sin is for me to gain my identity from goodness, which separates me from the race, my being good for the sake of salvation. I want to be separated out of the common mass. What use is grace here? Luther is not speaking of a grace to balance [against] sins, but of a grace that tears me out of my isolation from humanity. It is the grace of Incarnation.

The problem of sin is not the limitation of reason, but the distortion of my being. I need to be pulled back into humanness. You need a new creation, not just forgiveness. Sin is not to just say, “I’m bad.” It is more radical than that. The logos is not there just to stimulate my reason, but to turn around this fundamental distortion. That I use the good precisely to separate myself makes sin very much more maddening. An impulsion takes place and in it there are no levels to humanness. We are only human beings. You have to make distinctions socially. But the Logos gives us an encounter. The mind is illumined, but the body is too, i.e., that which relates itself to the other creature. Luther is speaking about reason and the whole reality of life.

As Luther here speaks of “egotistical reason,” reason remains the old man.[6] A new being who looks differently at all things from the former way has to arise.

When Luther speaks of the Law and the Gospel, the Two Kingdoms, he is speaking about two ways of looking at reality: the Law is one way and the Gospel another. Tribulation and birth occurs. The word “reason” can be used pejoratively, where the self is turned in upon the self, instead of the other sense, where the intellect or achievements of reason are meant. Pejoratively reason can mean the whole way of trying to save oneself in isolation: it struggles and writhes and is loathe to reveal its thoughts and will. “The man’s entire life and powers must follow after the light and be changed.”[7] Some times those who emphasize that we must be born again forget that we are daily being reborn. “The whole man crawls into the Gospel” Luther operates in an imagery that is so very concrete, “and shed his old skin as does a snake.”[8] The snake crawls into a narrow hole and leaves his skin before the hole. [That means not being able to weasel.] Luther is speaking about a radical transformation after which [a person] looks at all things differently from the former way.

Luther says, “The divine birth, then, is nothing else but faith.”[9] The word “faith” here is trust.

Getting into Luther’s language means understanding the polarities of the words he uses in his vocabulary. “Reason” means intellectual capacity in the positive sense, but total distortion in the negative. The “heart” can also have a positive and negative polarity [the terms “world” and “flesh” can as well].

Behold then, a person must be born of God. No Carthusian order, no clerical status, not even an angelic one is useful or helpful for this filiation with God, this being made a son, a child,[10] that is, receiving this radical new birth. Reason, understood in the pejorative sense, remains the old man, the enemy of God and faith. When Luther continues on this page with the term “flesh,” it means total humanity, body and soul, not the body or the physical per se. “Flesh” used pejoratively is the distorted human being, distinct from the race. Positively, “flesh” simply refers to people in Hebrew.

Luther continues by making a distinction between an

image and an idol.[11] One can make an idol out of anything human and earthly. An idol is the use of an image. “God does not permit a heart to be misled that does not insist on its arrogance.” It is arrogance which misleads. The problem is falling out of trust, out of relationship. The physical image is not the problem. Idolatry can take place on any level, whether physical or spiritual. The Word is not present here and it is. A word in Luther’s vocabulary is “justification.” As soon as you make it the crucial word, a doctrine goes into the wrong place, [You have a reductionism of the experience to a doctrine.] voiding the radical transformation, which faith is. A death and resurrection is what the Word does. It is a radical experience, radical death and recreation. “Radical” means it goes to the very center of our being. The doctrine and right doctrine tradition is without the radical experience. [As Muhlenberg said, “They want the unaltered Augsburg Confession with unaltered hearts.”] You cannot talk about this in a detached way without involvement. It is not necessarily feeling good. In a profound sense it is feeling bad. Repetition is all right here. The radicality makes for the difficulty of talking about this.

Shakespeare’s Cymbalene is a dramatization of radical experience.[12] It is a radical kind of proclamation of the Gospel. In the Fifth Act of the play, betrayed by a friend, he delivers himself up to him and says, “The only power I have over you is to forgive you.” The play is vaguely like Lent with the Stations of the Cross. Some words seem like they had come out of the mouth of Jesus.

Luther is like a number of people in the Christian

faith, but he is unique for his incredibly shocking language. Shakespeare’s productive period ran from 1590 to 1616. Their grammar school was more like college education. Shakespeare is also constantly wrestling with responsibility, with sin and grace, but without naming them. Shakespeare and Luther are in the same thought world. Art gets at these truths in terms of an image, [like a snake entering its hole shedding its skin.] The Language of Address does not let you weasel out, “The only power I have over you is to forgive you!”[13]

Goeser told the story of a recent novel he had read. A

fellow had a father, who was a Lutheran pastor, who had rigid control over his family. But the father was also into social ethics. The son rebelled by defying his father’s pacifism and joined the army, becoming a soldier fighting in Vietnam. Perhaps he had been responsible for “friendly fire.” He returned. His father was dying and he could have no communication with him at all. He had to deal with his father and his feeling of betrayal. It was his own struggle and the answers for it could not be found in textbooks. He went to the North Woods where he had camped with his father and had had an Indian friend. He took his uniform and medals, which meant very much to him, and put them into a clear stream. Then he put them under a rock, struck the ground with his fist, saying, “Father, I forgive you.” Then to himself, he said, “I forgive you. I’m going home.” He realized he was now already home, because home is not a place, but a condition. The story was very theological, because it told of death and rebirth. The story embodied something. He was not in a new country; he was not a new person; he was still a difficult guy. And yet somehow he succeeded in “languaging” what we mean by death and resurrection, “languaging” what we mean by the Gospel. The book was an un-theological dramatization of what Luther is trying to articulate: the death of the old person – incredibly difficult, and the birth again into a new person. You cannot make a doctrinal category out of it. The author made it so powerfully existential that he made it existential reality. Luther’s “Prologue to John” about death and resurrection is also difficult to articulate and Luther does not use only doctrinal terms. At times this truth can only be articulated in literary terms.

In “How a Christian Should Regard Moses” [Luther tells

about how we should regard the Mosaic Law. It does not apply as such to Christians, except where it overlapped with the natural law.] In “The Eight Wittenberg Sermons,” Luther confronted and stopped the Wittenberg Uprising. Students [under Carlstadt] wanted to purge the idolaters and kill the priests. Luther is making the distinctions that look for the change of people rather than perpetrating physical destruction. Rampaging and wreaking destruction is no power. In the process people are being disconnected from the Word. Luther has a pastoral approach. Events were moving too fast and there was iconoclasm at Wittenberg, which Luther opposed. [A Schoolmaster] preached that students did not need education. They needed only the Scriptures. The spirit-filled Nicholas Storch and Carlstadt, who had taken over the leadership of the movement in Luther’s absence, were making the problem completely external. It was out there, a question of externals. Luther maintains that if we want to kill our worst enemy then we have to kill ourselves for we have no greater enemy than our own hearts.[14] Idolatry comes because of our hearts.

There is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In it a

group wants to transform society. They make a huge bonfire and throw the pope’s tiara in it, the bishop’s mitre, a royal scepter, and philosophy and theology books. They throw in all the symbols of physical and intellectual tyranny. A skeptic comes to the fire and says, if you want to throw on the bonfire the source of human tyranny, then you should have thrown in the human heart. Storch [the Zwickau prophet] asked, “Why tie the Creator to the created?” Luther answered that that was not the problem. It is the human heart.

Is the law of the Old Testament valid? Is the Old Testament valid? Luther draws a distinction between the law for that particular community and for the universal community. The question needs to be asked: who is this passage addressed to, to the Jewish liturgical community? Then it is valid for them. Some of the articulation of the Word reveals what is evil. We have to use critique and affirmation. Not every word is inspired. We have beautiful examples of faith, hope, and love. There is a sense of narrative that illustrates falseness, trust, love, and the cross. We have the embodiments of religious truths, not laws about what to do.[15]


[1] See the LW vol. 52, pages 41-88 reference below.

[2] Helmut T. Lehmann and Hans J. Hillerbrand, editiors, Luther’s Works, vol. 52, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), pages 41-88.

[3] Ibid., page 63.

[4] Ibid., page 65.

[5] Ibid., page 78-79.

[6] Ibid., page 80.

[7] Ibid., page 79.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., page 78.

[10] Ibid., page 80.

[11] Ibid., page 84.

[12] Goeser expands this illustration somewhat in this lecture. Sometimes he only alludes to illustrations that he used over and over again: Joseph Conrad, the Scarlet Letter, Measure for Measure, and other literary illustrations. Then a lecture of his needs to be found where he develops such an illustration fully.

[13] On National Public Radio I listened to the story of Israeli secret police. They were Jews hunting NAZI’s war criminals of World War II. They reported that feeling caught up in the revenge against them they were becoming like them. In much the same way, seeking revenge by viewing the capital punishment of the murderer, the victim’s families somehow also feel murder in their hearts.

[14] In Luther’s “Eight Wittenberg Sermons,” Lull, page 429.

[15] Lull, page 147.

Lecture February 24th 1998

H. G. Halle Reading, Luther: an Experiment in Biography.

Review: Luther’s was concerned with the embodiment of the spiritual. The spirit always came in the medium of the physical. He has no separation between the physical and the spiritual. Luther wrote another sacramental tract, “That these Words of Christ, ‘This is my Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm …”[1] Now the break with Rome begins to fragment with the Swiss, the Anabaptists, and even Calvin to the left of Luther. Some of those to whom Luther addressed the “Eight Wittenberg Sermons” even went beyond Zwingli. The Reformation was not a single movement. The medieval church which was a very cohesive system was breaking apart. It had been dictatorial, had power, and expansiveness, too. In the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther is acting pastorally to the Church. He has heard confessions and is responding. Luther writes [five] famous 1520 tracts. The Eight Wittenberg Sermons were preached in 1522. The movement which is not yet a movement is beginning to fragment.

By what authority do we raise these questions? Carlstadt was the senior theologian at Wittenberg, while Luther was the junior one. Why Luther’s authority? That is the same question Lutherans also ask. Why does Luther have such authority?

What is the relationship of the spiritual and physical?

What is the relationship of the physical media to the message? The Swiss said, “We want to separate the spiritual and the physical sharply. If you concentrate on the physical then you lose the spiritual reality.” This Luther tract is written against Zwingli of Zürich and Oecolampadius of Basel.

The structure of the tract is determined by the [order

of the] points argued by the antagonists. The tract is filled with argumentation and it is not a careful theological exposition. Luther’s theology can be described as occasional writing, [that is, his writing addresses issues that arise in the various crises faced in the Reformation.] Luther does not write expositions of the faith as a whole. His concern is with the authority of scripture.

Argument 1: if God is in heaven, how can God be present on earth?

Argument 2: The flesh is of no avail. If Christ is at the right hand of God, if he is purely a spiritual phenomenon, then how can he be present at the altar?

Luther has remarkably concrete language. His is not the language of Thomas Aquinas, Gabriel Biel, or Duns Scotus. He writes Büchlein, i.e., little books, libella, not Summas. He writes short texts in the vernacular and addresses them to the people as well as to the theologians. They eschew technical language. But he writes very good ordinary language, which he uses with much capacity. Luther remolds German as a language [and shows that not only Latin, but also German can be made adequate for the scriptures and theology]. Luther [speaks and writes] the Language of Address, not the language of analysis. No one in this tradition could write in German and create the language the way he did. [Because of his command of the language] the Roman Church had a great deal of difficulty countering him and because Luther’s tracts were in German, they also presupposed that the common people could evaluate theology. You feel Luther’s writing as the structure of spoken language, not written language. It always involves address, aimed at the heart and calls for a response. He communicates the Word and thereby he does not merely provide information. He engages the reader and because that is very new, he does it over and over again. The goal is to bring change in action – yes, but change at the very center of your existence. (As a professor, my job is to get rid of your boredom, and I might succeed and I might not.) Luther addresses your heart. The heart is the center of your person.

In German, because nouns are all capitalized, the noun

“Word” is always capitalized. In German it has to be considered capitalized on a higher level. We can make the distinction in English better by capitalizing “Word.” It addresses me at the center of my values, where I am a responsible self. Luther came from the Old Testament where the function of the Word is: “You are the man!” Thus it aims at touching you at a deep existential level.

This is also the goal of art: so to structure words to

engage persons at the most significant level of existence. That does not mean just at the level of feelings and emotions. You cannot touch the right hand of God. But why is there no reality that cannot be touched? Is the assumption that the right hand of God is a place, that it is something spatial? Zwingli and Oecolampdius have a spatial view, a spatial character to heaven and God’s presence. But it is not a place; it is everywhere and nowhere. God cannot be located in a place. Do not localize God. Luther seems to be localizing the presence in the sacrament, but that is not out there, it is in the created.

Christ is present in every part of reality and

[certainly] encountered in the ordinary everyday realities. The created is an adequate medium of the creator [Finitum Capax Infinitum]. Christ is present everywhere, but is present in a special way in the sacrament, because of his Word and by his Word.

Luther talks about Word very much in all these texts in

an un-Platonic, Hebraic view of Logos Word, i.e., DABAR. Word is one of the central elements of his theology. At stake here is a whole understanding of Word and communication.

There are two levels of Christ’s presence: everywhere

and in the sacrament. My faith makes that sacrament true. Without faith it stays on the first level of meaning. Hold off on ethics – Luther gets to it more than we think. Luther addresses the heart.

WORD — HEART — FAITH.

The Word addresses the heart, which responds in faith.

The response of the heart is trust. Here trust is a verb, heart is a noun, but trust is a verb. In this way the relational character as well as the activity character can be expressed and underscored. Trust has to come out of doctrine and go into relationship and even into the activity of response. Word and trust are an activity, a dialogue. We have a dialogical relationship where I am addressed and I respond by way of trust. Not by summarizing some doctrines, but having the experience of trust at the center of a person’s existence. It is more than knowing and doing. It is experiencing relationship and this experiencing is not all emotional. It goes beyond knowing and doing to experience as a fundamental reality, wherein the whole of yourself is involved. It’s not – Now do this! The whole self is involved. It’s not that I decide to act in this way, but I participate in something with my whole self. I am totally involved and it’s not like I am making the choice, because I am not totally in control. You are involved in a profound way, but it is not by your choice.

You come upon an accident on the freeway. You are compelled to act, given who you are at this point. You are under control of this or that, but you are in the “bondage of the will.” Under the bondage of the will, there is not just the choice of A. and B. Bondage is not simply an experience of being trapped. This is me at this point and if I should change, something has to come from the outside. There is a reality of freedom and bondage.

Do not forget that the term world” is an ambiguous

word. “World” can mean the goodness of creation and it can have a pejorative meaning. In the Fourth Gospel, Christ is detached from the pejorative meaning of the “world,” because for this gospel the “world” is understood as creation. World = creation. Christ is detached from the [distorted] world ≠ creation.

For Zwingli, God created this pure thing called mind,

and then this mudball of the body. In life it gathers mud and dirt. The illustration is one of a stream sullied by mud. We start with the mind, unsullied, but it then gets sullied by the body. Zwingli is afraid of the physical. The risen Lord should be totally pure up there. So do not get mixed up or messed up with the physical.

Luther has a rich understanding of creation. His is a positive affirmation of the created and [his position is that] we will always encounter ultimate reality in the created[2] as well as the incarnation under the created.

Carlstadt smashes the images. But the real question is,

how are the images used? The physical is not the problem. The problem is the human heart. [This is a new] anthropology and view of reality. Sexuality is not the problem. There is a total physicality of existence. Do not move into a spiritualizing direction, which takes you away from the physical and the created.[3]

“How Christians should read Moses”: This [tract]

illustrates Luther’s Old Testament hermeneutics. In so far as the Ten Commandments are an expression of the natural law, they are valid. They are not valid because they are a revelation. The Decalogue is valid because it is a nice expression of the natural law, (i.e., what everyone universally accepts as valid.) It concerns what works, the order. It is not revelatory, but is in the order of human reason. We can look at the structure and order of the world and deduce natural law from it.

The crucial thing is whether or not the law serves your

neighbor and not just [that it is] the law [there for it own sake,] per se. You have a mind. Use it to try to discover what your neighbor needs. Decalogue says, “Don’t do this.” The law of love, however, [affords] the opportunity of using your mind for determining what your neighbor needs.

God creates with his presence, not with tools. God is

not out there. My existence presupposes God’s presence. [God is in] creation and not way out there. We cannot get away from Gods presence. Because I am a human being I am in relation with God. [It is not only a matter of] obeying or disobeying God. It is not a matter of pantheism, which increases the problem of separation. God is in all that is, but is not identical with all that is. The latter is pantheism. God’s presence pervades my existence as a human being. I do not fall, but I deform who I am as a human being. Sin is when I move out of relationship with my neighbor and God. [To understand sin] we have to go beyond this good and bad stuff. Sin is a turning away from God.

Christ walls on earth and the entire Godhead in person

is with him and walks with him.

There are bad notions of sin and creation. God is

present in the most minute things, holds reality together, holds together in relationship, not by means of commands and disobedience. We messed up a world, which was in its own way a community. God’s incarnation rests upon God’s prior presence in all of reality. God is in all and all is in God. Is this pantheism? God is in everything, then everything is in God.

Reading the tract: “This is My Body, etc.” There is a

difference about his being present and your touching.[4] Christ is free and unbound wherever he is and he does not have to sit there like a rogue bound in a stock of irons. There is a distinction between being present and being present for you. [Taking the farther step] for me, for you is a theological refinement. The presence of Christ is there, but not automatically for me. It is for me by the articulation of the Word, but in the Word that addresses me.

We grope here and there and we do not find God, because

God is not there for you.[5] You are always finding Christ in cabbage soup. God is present everywhere, but for me only by the Word. (Here Luther is distinguishing [his theology] from pantheism. Part of creation then is addressed by God and addressed by neighbor.

The fanatics are without the scripture on their side.[6]

Luther assumed he knew everything. Where did he get all this certainty? It was maddening. Other theologians took off against him and he took off against them. His theology came from his study of scripture. He lived from the study of scripture. He lived from the scripture. He lived out of the scripture; the vitality of it! He brings the scripture alive.

Late scholastic and medieval [thought] gave way to

late Renaissance humanism, which brings a return to the text. Luther was master of the German, molding the language even 400 years later. Not many have mastered it like he. Luther has a tremendous sense of language and languages. He creates literary German and theological German. Considering a creative person, we ask where did they get their creativity from?

Don’t ask whether Luther was right or wrong. It is

difficult just to get a hold of him. He was a student of the Old Testament. [He was completely familiar with] the stories and characters of the Old Testament. German Jews learn their Old Testament from Luther’s translation.

Luther was somewhat more bound to the medieval than

Calvin. Zwingli and Oecolampadius state the passage from John that “Flesh is of no avail.”[7] [Therefore Luther argues that] you could set aside heaven and earth, set aside of the savior. For him they would be of no use, because of “no avail” means of no use. The theological word “use” is what connects fact or religious phenomenon to the individual or the community. The word is not being used in the pejorative. Here is something separate. Now how does it become meaningful to me in my life? In Latin the word: prosum means “to be of use” and usus means “the use.” In German the same word nützen can be both a noun and a verb. “Use” for Luther is always a use of the heart.

We have heaven and earth, but if God’s Word is added,

then the Spirit makes use of the creation, the way food is of use for the body.[8] The physical reality is not meaningful to you until it becomes a kind of address to you.[9] To understand the word “use” in Luther is to carry you a long way into his language.

It is not the sight of the babe, [at Bethlehem] but the

word of the angel. The Word makes creation address us and then it becomes of use, meaningful. There arose in their hearts a spiritual seeing, i.e., a “use.” Now I see that Christ is there. Remember the ambivalence of the word “world.” Reality always impinges on us positively or negatively. Positively when it addresses us and we see the good. I can look at the same thing in totally different ways. I can look at God as a way of controlling him or in the way of [the trust of] a child of God.

Ethics can be about how I am saved or how I help my

neighbor. The physical is not bad as such. “Images become bad when you put them in the church as a good work.” They are given by such and such a family for the glory of God. But when the use of the image is really for self glorification and for self-justification, then the use of the image in this way is evil.

Spiritual seeing is faith. Physically looking at

it through works righteousness, i.e., through the law, is evil because creation is a good that comes to me as a gift, which is the opposite of it coming to me as earned. The heart knows well what the eyes see. It understands what the eyes see. Luther says that even if something is outward and physical, if God’s Word is added to it and it is done through faith, it is in reality and done spiritually. And he continues: “Nothing can be so material, fleshly, or outward, but it becomes spiritual when it is done in the Word and in faith.”[10] In Word, Spirit, and Faith an object can be physical or spiritual. The spiritual consist in the use, not in the object.[11] Here is a sentence from an important long paragraph:

According to [Christ’s] good pleasure, he has permitted himself to be physically and spiritually handled, seen, heard, born, suckled, carried, touched, and the like by whomever he willed. But here in the Lord’s Supper, he wants to be neither born nor seen, nor heard nor touched by us but only eaten and drunk, both physically and spiritually.[12]

[Thus to say that the physical is to no avail misunderstands the spiritual:]

Without doubt [s/he] who in faith physically eats Christ’s body in the supper eats spiritually and lives and walks spiritually precisely in the physical eating….They think nothing spiritual can be present where there is anything material and physical, and assert that the flesh is to no avail. Actually the opposite is true. The spirit cannot be with us except in material and physical things such as the Word, water, and Christ’s body and in his saints on earth.[13]

Luther also points out that “flesh” in the statement:

“The flesh is to no avail” refers to the Old Adam and not to the body of Christ.

For in the flesh, which is not spirit, there are of course the highest and best faculties: the intellect, sense, will, heart, and mind. If flesh is to no avail, then its senses, intellect, will, and all its actions and powers are of no avail…[14]

Thus flesh is of avail when [by it] we talk about creation; it is of no avail in the sense of creation’s distortion.

The ideas of Zwingli and Oecolampadius derive from the fifteenth century revival of the Platonic Academy by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). They created widespread interest in Plato in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.[15]

The bread in the sacrament then like the Word, is the food of eternal life. In the spoken Word, [we have] the living community and person saved by God’s Word. [Being in the Word of God, we have eternal life] because the Word of God remains forever. (Verbo dei manet in Aeternum.)

The use of the good for the sake of power and destruction is the evil of the church. Again the physical Word is the medium of the spiritual.

Now, death can be of benefit to me, in body and soul, if I have Christ’s word, which says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” [Matt 16:25]….If this is so, should not Christ’s body, which in itself is pure life and salvation, and full of God, be just as useful to me through the Word…”?[16]

Faith feels how something becomes useful through the Word. [Oecolampadius does not find the outward words useful. They do not teach us. His point of view is that from words we understand nothing but words.] In St. Augustine’s De Magistro, (The Teacher or The Master) words are only signs that point to the truth. They do not bear it. With these comments, Augustine is the ancestor of Zwingli, Calvin, and Luther [who differed from Augustine in this respect].

Read: Halle, Luther: and Experiment in Biography and Paul Hinlicky, “Luther against the Contempt of Women,” as well as Luther’s Commentary on Genesis, LW vol. I, pages 141-190.


[1] Helmut Lehmann and Robert H. Fischer, editors, Luther’s Works, vol. 37, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1961), pages 3-150.

[2] [Finitum Capax Infinitum.]

[3] My barber in Brooklyn was an Orthodox Jew and I noted how the women sat on one side of the synagogue and the men on the other. I asked him why? He responded, “If women are in front of me, how can I pray?” I realized that he could see women only as sex objects. Luther would say that the problem lies not in women but in the hearts of us men.

[4] LW vol. 37, page 68.

[5] Ibid., pae 69.

[6] Ibid., page 71.

[7] Ibid., page 88. It comes from John 6:63.

[8] Ibid.

[9] It would be interesting to relate these thought with the concept of the “Book of Nature” of those days.

[10] Ibid., page 92..

[11] Perhaps a weapon can even become spiritual, when the sword is used as in the martial art called Iaidō, traditional Japanese swordsmanship.

[12] Ibid., page 94.

[13] Ibid., page 95.

[14] Ibid., page 96.

[15] The ancient Egyptian believed that having one’s name in writing gave eternal life to the person.

[16] Ibid., page 135.

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Written by peterkrey

March 13, 2009 at 1:01 am

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