Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Command as Promise

The nagging problem of free will, which I discussed in a recent post, has compelled me to read Luther's Bondage of the Will in its entirety (previously, I had only read excerpts). I'm approximately half way through the book and, frankly, I'm ashamed that I didn't read it sooner. It's truly Luther at his best - polemical, insightful, often quite funny.

Most of Luther's arguments in BotW are familiar ones, at least to those acquainted with his theology. But one theme was new to me. In section IV(ix), Luther challenges Erasmus' interpretation of three Old Testament passages: Zech 1.3, Jer 15.19, and Ezek. 18.23. The first two verses exhort the listener to "turn" (or return) to the Lord. Erasmus, of course, argues that these passages contain an implicit endorsement of free will, since they seem to suggest that the individual is capable of choosing whether or not to "turn" to the Lord. However, Luther understands these passage quite differently:
The word 'turn' is used in the Scriptures in two ways, one legal, the other evangelical. In its legal use, it is an utterance of exaction and command, requiring, not endeavor, but a change in the whole life. Jeremiah frequently uses it in this sense, saying: "Turn ye unto the Lord' (Jer. 25.5, 35.15, 4.1), where it is plain enough that he includes a requirement of all the commandments. In its evangelical sense, it is an utterance of divine consolation and promise, by which nothing is required of us, but the grace of God is offered to us. Such is this, in Ps. 15: 'When the Lord shall turn again the captivity of Zion'; and this in Ps. 22: 'Turn again unto thy rest, O my soul!'. Zechariah has therefore set out in the shortest compass the proclamation of both law and grace. It is the whole sum of the law when he says: 'Turn ye unto me'; and it is grace when he says: 'I will turn unto you'. -- Bondage of the Will (165-166)
Luther interprets the command as promise. God, in effect, says to the sinner: "You will return to me, not on the basis of your own power, but because my Spirit will work in you. Do not despair of fulfilling this command. Instead, hold on to my promise, that you will return to me because I will see to it." The command is both law and grace, which "raises up and comforts the sinner as he lies under [the] torment and despair" of his sin.

After thinking about Luther's remarkable words for a time, it occurred to me that I had heard a similar approach before. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard, while discussing the command that one "shall love his neighbor as himself", briefly mentions what a blessed comfort this shall is. In fact, like Luther, he asserts that the divine command cures the despair it creates:
"It is indeed most strange, almost like mockery, to say to the despairing person that he shall do that which was his sole desire but the impossibility of which brings him to despair... Who would have the courage [to say this] except eternity, which at the very moment love wants to despair over its unhappiness commands it to love... When eternity says, "You shall love", it is responsible for making sure that this can be done. What is all other comfort compared to that of eternity!" -- Works of Love (41-42) [Note: for Kierkegaard, eternity = God].
Viewed this way, the command to "love our neighbors as ourselves" acquires a whole new dimension. It loses its heaviness and becomes positively light. The command still stands, but we are no longer abandoned to our own resources. It is as if Christ says to us: "Trust in me and I will teach you to love. You shall love, I promise." What a merciful thought!

P.S. The similarity of Luther and Kierkegaard on this point is further proof of my proposition #4, which asserts that "Kierkegaard was a very good Lutheran". In my estimation, few theologians have so thoroughly internalized Luther's law/gospel dialectic as SK.

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