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Afterword of “Luther’s Exposition of the Joseph Narratives” (1999)

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Returning to the Subject: ANOTHER AFTERWORD

(Luther’s exposition of the Joseph narratives can be found in his Commentary on Genesis, Luther’s Works, volumes VI, VII, and VIII.)

This study on Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Word and Language of God, written under the spell of Prof. Robert Goeser, dates back to the Spring of 1993. Now six years later, I have gained more perspective on the subject. (I will write this brief Afterword because I do not have the time for the basic revision this study requires.)

For example, now I understand the Theology of the Cross as represented in Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation more clearly. Joseph needed to despair at his own ability (or strength) before he was prepared to receive the grace of God. (Thesis 18) When Joseph was reduced to nothing by God, he could be recreated ex nihilo: out of nothing. When he reached his end, God made a new beginning – and Joseph’s evening and morning became another day – of God’s continuous creation.

Paradoxically when there is still human hope, it is against divine hope: hope against hope. During Joseph’s suffering and despair, he learned to hope in God. Luther’s disputation continues:

And that person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks on the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Romans 1:20). (19) [S/he] deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. (20) A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. (21)243

The theologian of glory is fooled by surface appearances. S/he does not see the hope that is against hope, for example. The theologian of the cross knows that the experience of suffering and the cross make visible and manifest the things of God. The human reversal of good and evil, the human distortion of God’s creation, is itself reversed by suffering and the cross of Christ. Not only does the theologian of the cross tell it like it is, but also catches a glimpse of God’s miraculous creation. Because the Joseph narrative is all about suffering and the cross, things of the heart become articulated, and the things of God begin to become revealed.

Back in 1993 I had not yet studied the Philosophy of Language under John Searle. He had the uncanny ability to get inside performatives, as complex as they are, and explain what makes them tick. Luther’s language is, therefore, rightly described as performative, because he subsumed the law and gospel categories into command and promise speech-acts, which are among the very first performatives J.L. Austin discovered. And because Luther uses direct speech, the dramatic present, and language of address, he does not merely talk about promises, he  makes them. Theologically, then, that conclusion makes it possible to speak of divine performatives in the Word and Language of God.

1. Performative Language

John Searle jokingly refers to the speaker and the hearer as the characters in the little drama of the speech-act. In the promise, the accent or onus or obligation is on the speaker. In a directive, like a command, it falls on the hearer. This supplies some explanation for Luther’s insistence on the passivity of the hearer when promised divine grace. Because God is the speaker making the promise, the hearer is stirred by a divine encounter, and struggles to believe that God will keep it. The saving acts of God flow out of this divine speech, continuous creation, and people and all manner of things that are not, are called into being, into existence, into things that are. Faithfulness to God’s promises is of the essence, because, maddeningly, the promises may first be kept in the form of their opposites, as the Joseph story fully illustrates.

2. Luther’s theology and the depth theology of  Heschel

Luther’s Theology of the Cross in his Joseph Commentary has not only changed from discursive to narrative theology, but in expanding the story itself, it has become a dramatic achievement in and of itself. Heschel wished for such a depth theology that did not separate the acts of religious existence from the statements about it. When Prof. Robert Goeser recasts Luther’s law and gospel doctrines into drama of life and journey of life, then in the same vein, the Theology of the Cross can also be recognized as a drama whose acts and events are orchestrated by God. Luther leaves abstract conceptual theology behind, and brings a concrete, experiential theology to the fore. Much of the experience comes in terms of suffering and the cross, providing more theological vision into the providence of God, as well as into the human condition. Luther’s theology thus may be said to plummet below the surface, to reach and move the heart. True to his purpose, Luther goes to the meat of the nut, the marrow of the bone, through the shell to the kernel of the grain. In sentences discovered throughout his writing, Luther articulates matters of the heart of the human condition so lucidly, he “obtrudes the substratum.”

Again I find myself trying to explore these thoughts further instead of just reporting the new perspective I have won. It seems that the complexity derives from a global approach, which all wants to be presented at once, and which is very difficult to present in a lineal fashion. It seems to involve the world inside language, which seems to have space and time, and history, and then a narrative, a drama within it, which can explore life in a more powerful fashion. Goeser’s reinterpretation of law and gospel from doctrine to drama and life-journey show that kind of a promise; the Theology of the Cross seen as a drama of life, or as a genre of “history” in the Language of God, that powerful language of “sending” Luther refers to so often, may promise fresh understanding of the fundamental issues in life. What does it mean to move from the discursive to the narrative, from the logic of the conceptual to the plot lived by characters? In Prof. Goeser’s seminar on advanced readings in Martin Luther we are also reading Joseph Conrad interspersed with our Luther readings, and each work of this novelist seems to explore the world and life in it with characters rather than concepts, and in doing so it reveals much more than a discursive method is capable of doing. Perhaps more accurately, the way poetry is the mother of prose, the discursive is the abstract distillation of narrative. The heart of the matter seems to remain in the narrative, however.

If we remain with an abstract, propositional veneer, then all the other elements which enter into consideration because of concretion need not be dealt with. J. L. Austins speaks not of abstract sentences, but of utterances within the total speech act. That concretion in language brings the formation of a world within. That is what makes it have internal space and time. That is what makes language three dimensional. And three dimensional characters come alive in it.

In this study we noted Gerhard Ebeling’s observation: Luther’s theology is one of paradox that “points to a struggle fraught with conflict and full of temptation, which cannot take place in theory, but only in life itself, by the maintenance of the extreme contradiction it implies.”244 Luther’s dialectic does not remain abstract and theoretical, to use Ebeling’s language, it opens up and issues into life.

Thus Luther argues that some matters cannot be understood by reason, but only by experience, and he means the experience of suffering and the cross. He is not speaking with an exclusive focus on logical contradiction, but the contradictions between speaker and spoken, affect and words, and ultimately between life and death. He thinks in the clash of opposites. In so doing he seems to be trying to open up the human mind, to tear open the world of human language, in order to catch a glimpse of the language of God, and the heaven in which God resides. God always comes in terms of contraries, may mean that the contradiction in our world has to be faced courageously so that the truth of God can overcome it, displace, and reorient it, to use Ricoeur’s dialectic.

This kind of language is difficult to grasp. Robert Preus illustrated the human attributes Luther gave to words, e.g., veiled, naked, embodied, etc. Thus a Christology of the Word, seemed to emerge deriving from their embodied and incarnational nature. Christ is the Word of God. Persons, like little christs, can be little words. Words are persons, persons are words. It is a small step to argue that persons can act like larger concepts exploring life in narrative plots designed to make larger inroads into understanding the human condition before God.

Another thought relates to the concept of a Christology of words. Dead languages do not only refer to the unspoken ones of yesteryear. Our language can be dead or it can be a language that comes alive and gives life. Christ can be dead and buried in language or raised up in power therein: perhaps that is the import of the creedal assertion: “was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures.” Through the Language of God Christ rose from the dead, and continues to raise us.

Luther’s Joseph commentary is, therefore, not just a story, but a story that issues into life, a story that comes to life, and swirls readers into its vortex. The Language of Address makes the reader become part of it. The reader participates.

The reader is drawn into its world. In its narrrative nature, logic becomes replaced by plot. The reader is among the characters and experiencing them. When addressed, when the language strikes home, the reader cannot be detached. The essence is relationship, involvement, and commitment in this peculiarly religious language world. Luther, somewhat like a novelist, articulates the Theology of the Cross by means of a dramatic plot. Meanwhile his multifarious, concrete imagery becomes like thick description of the Theology of the Cross. His images become primary, embodying reality. Here it is evident that the resymbolization of his language is taking place, as the drama of life unfolds in the Theology of the Cross, a drama of promises, a life-journey under the promise of God, seemingly unfulfilled for an eternity, but still trusted in the hope against hope.

Robert Goeser speaks of this drama of life as “history.” God left eternity and entered human history. It is history as in medias res. He never tires of explaining that we do not know how it will end, can’t know the outcome in advance, don’t know where it will take us. Becoming vulnerable, we participate in human existence, learn to say, ‘I’, which means to finally take responsibility for ourselves, and stop saying, “They…,” and join the human race. For Goeser, history becomes a genre that issues into life, and affirms the creation, rather than distorting it, by isolating ourselves, and trying to be one of a species, and considering ourselves to be better than others. Robert Goeser never tires of rehearsing these insights, giving them ample illustrations from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Measure for Measure, and other literary achievements.

3. Luther’s language

Luther has a three dimensional perspective on language and its use. The new Word Perfect 8 word processor has developed its text art further. Now it does not only allow shadows for the letters, but they can be three dimensional, with every letter having height, width, and depth and maneuvered and rotated in spatial perspective. Luther is so concrete, he sees the speech-act in the concrete and total speech-act utterance, and often focuses on the use to which such language is put. Thus he can flip language around and see it wholly from another antithetical perspective. An example in Luther’s writing brought the term performative contradiction to mind, here the contradiction between the speakers and the spoken.

Thus sin is always true to its own nature; it wants to be pure, chaste, beautiful, and holy.245

Now these wonderful attributes are all attached to sin. But Luther is saying this statement in the context of the brothers of Joseph, blaming their father for a hidden sin. They injure him with impunity, because they have been hiding their own crime against Joseph from their father for 22 years.

Luther is depicting their sin in the appearance they give it, and he is also focusing on the reversal they falsely try to give reality to cover up the lie of their own existence. That reversal is like flipping a 3-D text art image around. It shows that Luther was aware of the use of language in a concrete relational situation.

It would be easy to be fooled by the cover up these brothers have mastered so well over the years. Luther penetrates below the surface. “Being true to its own nature, pure, chaste, beautiful, and holy,” Luther obtrudes the substratum, to use the language of Alter and Heschel, to the underlying layer of sin, deceit, and crime beneath the holiness they are using as their cover-up.

4. Language event and Language world

Luther seemed to do more than merely understand the Word in Scripture. He seemed to experience it as well. When Luther struggled with Romans 1:17 and suddenly understood divine righteousness as making the sinner righteous, he experienced that as a language event. When Preus tells of his reaction to Psalm 115:10: “I have believed, therefore I have spoken.” Preus seems to describe Luther experiencing a language event. It is as if Luther empathetically entered the world of Scripture, encountered Paul, the Psalmist, or the Word, and experienced a fundamental reorientation because of it. This seems to be like entering the Kingdom of the Word, the Kingdom of Language. As if the Roman civilization had been absorbed into Latin, and its world was accessible inside the language, or the Hellenist civilization, inside Greek, or the peculiar Jewish moral and religious sensibilities inside Hebrew; and heaven itself, inside the Language of God. In this world of language, the participant becomes acted upon, refashioned by its environment, hammered into its characteristic mind-set and ways.

A. C. Thiselton noted that experiencing a language event gave the participant a new command of the language. A speaker like Luther attained a command of language that transcended thought and communicated life as well. The language of life catches a glimpse of the Language of God that Luther depicts as divine sending. The language of God contains the drama of the Theology of the Cross, the acts of which are those of God fashioning people for his purpose. Perhaps these considerations will make some sentences from this study more comprehensible: The people of promise are the vocabulary of the language of salvation. They are the living words of God spoken by the Word, the Christ of God. They are the poets of promise.

May 18, 1999


243Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther‘s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 31.

244Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, (London: Collins, 1970), p.171.

245In Luther‘s Works, vol. VII, p. 282-283.

When reading this conclusion, you are like a graduate student, who reads the conclusion of a book in order to capture the main insights the author brought to bear on a subject. A more complete comprehension of some of these insights necessitates some reading of what thoughts worked up to them. The many references necessary are also not included here, while they are in the body of the book.

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Written by peterkrey

December 10, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Luther, Theology

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