Saturday, January 20, 2007

Luther's Two Theodicies

Midway through Bondage of the Will (section V), Luther takes up the problem of theodicy, which is intimately connected to the matter of free will. After all, if there is no free will and all occurs by necessity, then God becomes the author of evil and suffering. Indeed, this constitutes one of Erasmus's main arguments in favor of free will: if God gives us freedom, then we can blame the presence of evil in the world on sinful humanity, thereby absolving God of any possible crimes. But Luther will have none of this. He deals with the question of theodicy in two separate ways, which I will label "existential" (for lack of a better term) and "speculative". In this post, I argue that these two approaches are somewhat at odds with each other, and that this may be an area where Luther's thinking is not entirely consistent.

The point of departure for this discussion in BotW is the following passage from Exodus: "The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh". Erasmus writes: "It seems absurd that God Who is not just but good, should be said to have hardened the heart of a man so that by means of his iniquity God should show his power." To resolve this absurdity, Erasmus argues that God did not actively harden the heart of Pharaoh, but merely permitted Pharaoh's heart to harden itself. That is, God did not correct Pharaoh's sin, thus allowing it to take its own evil course. But Luther rejects this interpretation for many reasons. Firstly, he thinks it goes against the plain meaning of Scripture. He also points out that it doesn't really absolve God in the matter, since presumably He could have corrected Pharaoh's behavior instead of allowing him to languish in sin. Finally, and most substantially, Luther argues that this whole business of trying to justify God is misguided to being with. It is not the job of human reason to justify God. Instead, reason must be silent before the holy mystery of God:
Reason will insist that these are not acts of a good and merciful God. They are too far beyond her grasp; and she cannot bring herself to believe that the God Who acts and judges thus is good; she wants to shut out faith, and to see, and feel, and understand, how it is that He is good and not cruel... It is along this line that reason storms and contends, in order to clear God of blame, and to vindicate His justice and goodness! But faith and the Spirit judge otherwise, believing the God is good even though he should destroy all men...

This must be said: if you want the words 'they were very good' to be understood of God's works after the fall, you will notice that the words were spoken with reference, not to us, but to God. It does not say: 'Man saw what God had made, and it was very good.' Many things seem, and are, very good to God which seem, and are, very bad to us. Thus, afflictions, sorrows, errors, hell, and all God's best works are in the world's eyes very bad, and damnable. What is better than Christ and the gospel? But what is there that the world abominates more? How things that are bad for us are good in the sight of God is known only to God and to those who see with God's eyes, that is, who have the Spirit.

Here, Luther rejects any speculative theodicy that presumes to reconcile the existence of evil with the goodness of God. In its place, he offers an existential theodicy based on faith, not understanding. For Luther, as for Kierkegaard*, the highest expression of faith is to believe that God is loving and good even in the deepest suffering. Indeed, a central insight of Luther's "theology of the cross" is that God's presence is to be found, not in glory and happiness, but in the dark night of suffering. As he says in the Heidelberg Disputation: "He deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." Or as Kierkegaard wrote: "Faith sees best in the dark."

So far so good. The problem is that in the following sections (starting with V(iv)), Luther engages in the same type of speculative theodicy that he just condemned in Erasmus. Granted, he appears somewhat reluctant to do so, saying that he is only attempting to "humor reason". But, nevertheless, he pushes forward with his own apology for God. Luther says that God works on all humans "according to what they are, what He finds them to be: which means, since they are evil and perverted themselves, that when they are impelled to action by this movement of Divine omnipotence they do only that which is perverted and evil." Thus, God is the engine, so to speak, of all human action. But if the machines themselves are wicked and evil, then this divine power will result in evil acts.
Here you see that when God works in and by evil men, evil deeds result; yet God, though He does evil by means of evil men, cannot act evilly Himself, for He is good, and cannot do evil; but He uses evil instruments, which cannot escape the impulse and movement of His power. The fault which accounts for evil being done when God moves to action lies in these instruments, which God does not allow to be idle.
As with all speculative theodicies, this explanation raises more questions than it answers, and it in no way lets God "off the hook." After all, why doesn't God make the evil instruments good, as he certainly has the power to do so? More to the point, how is Luther's position different than the one offered by Erasmus, which he trashed just a few pages ago? In both cases, God allows evil to remain; the only difference is whether he tolerates evil actively or passively. And that doesn't amount to much of a difference from the perspective of a suffering humanity.

In the end, all speculative theodicies flounder upon the following paradox: that a God who is loving and omnipotent has created a world in which suffering and evil run rampant. No explanation that takes both God and evil seriously will ever be able to solve this contradiction. The advantage of Luther's existential approach is that it doesn't try to resolve the paradox, but instead incorporates it into faith itself. Of course, this won't satisfy the theologian of glory who craves an all-encompassing explanation, but it will suffice for those who "know God hidden in suffering."

* Not to beat a dead horse, but Kierkegaard and Luther are on the same "wavelength" here. In his Gospel of Sufferings, SK writes: "If God is love, then he is also love in everything, love in what you can understand and love in what you cannot understand, love in the dark riddle that lasts a day or in the riddle that lasts seventy years... Right here is faith's struggle: to believe without being able to understand."


AmandaLaine said...


Just wanted to let you know I really enjoy reading your blog. I've been having a lot of thoughts about free will and was recommended to read Luther's work on free will. And then you started writing about it, which is great.

So, I may have a substantive comment to make later. But, for now I just wanted to let you know you've got a random reader out there.


Andy said...

Of course you're right that no theodicy will ever suffice, but let me, for the sake of argument, take Luther's side here. I've been reading Augustine recently, and I think I see one of Augustine basic theodic points behind Luther's argument. Augustine says that a good God would not allow evil to exist in the world unless God could bring good from the evil.

Now in the Exodus story, Pharaoh is evil from the outset. God's intention is to deliver the Israelites from bondage. God is going to do this regardless of the circumstances. In the process, God's actions cause Pharaoh's heart to be hardened (Luther's slant). And so even the hardening of Pharaoh's heart becomes a part of God's good work. It is precisely because God was doing good that the evil of Pharaoh's heart being hardened came to pass.

As far as consistency, this is precisely Luther's theology of the cross. Though the works of God appear (to Pharaoh) to be evil, they are actually good.

By way of earthy analogy, if I intend to flip a hamburger, it sometimes happens that I have to push the hamburger across the skillet until it hits the side and the spatula slides under it before I can flip it. Even so, the good work of God (even on our behalf) pushes us deeper into our own evil until we hit the wall (Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 18).

That said, I think Luther is deluding himself a bit in saying that he has taken this saying in its plainest sense when he says that Pharaoh's heart was hardened as a side effect of the good that God was doing. It think the plainest sense is that it was God's intention to harden Pharaoh's heart.

Thomas Adams said...

Amandalaine – Glad to hear that you’re enjoying the posts. I’ll try to write a few more about Bondage of the Will, although I highly recommend that you read the book yourself. It’s Luther at his most “punchy”.

Andy – I see what you’re saying with respect to the hardening of Pharaoh, but the explanation still doesn’t satisfy me from a logical standpoint. The problem is this: at a few points in the Exodus narrative, the works of God (namely, the plagues) seem to the have the desired effect on Pharaoh. He “hits the wall,” relents, and permits the Israelites to leave Egypt. One would think that God would be pleased with this turn of events and simply declare “mission accomplished.” But then God decides to harden Pharaoh’s heart anyway, deliberately steering Pharaoh back onto the road of evil. It’s as if God is determined to this thing the hard way! I agree with Luther that this story indicates that we have no free will, but it doesn’t make the hidden will of God any more clear to me.

As for Augustine’s idea that “a good God would not allow evil to exist in the world unless God could bring good from the evil” - it just doesn’t cut it for me. Perhaps this rationale works in the Exodus story, but history is full of evil acts that seemingly brought no good, or where the resulting good was nowhere near the scale of the initial evil. So the “good from evil” argument doesn’t really make sense to me in a world-historical sense (that is, speculatively). But I do agree with your delightful hamburger analogy as it applies to sinners – sometimes God must terrify and plunge us into misery before he can save us. But, to use my earlier terminology, this type of theodicy is more “existential” than speculative, and my point was that I prefer the former to the latter.

Andy said...

I agree with you regarding Pharaoh. Exodus obviously goes further than Luther is willing to.

Augustine's precept is meant as a general belief rather than a solution to a specific problem (it's part of his doctrine of creation), and as such I think it's not that far from what you wrote about believing, in spite of everything, that God is good.

lockwoodm said...

It is worth noting that the Scriptures actually give a reason for why God hardened Pharaoh's heart: so that God would get glory over Pharaoh (Exod 14:4, 17-18). From Luther's perspective, God's name must be glorified not for God's sake, but for our sake. We need to see his name glorified so that we are led to trust in him. So yes, it does appear that God was deliberately doing things the hard way, so that it would be evident to all that his mighty hand was at work.