Saturday, March 24, 2007

More about Marburg

(Note: The first part of this post can be found here). At Marburg, Zwingli felt he had a sure-fire argument against Luther’s belief in the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar: If Christ’s body, after his ascension, sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, then it cannot possibly be found on the altars of the church. It is ironic that Zwingli, who insisted upon a figurative understanding of the words “This is my body”, interpreted the phrase “the right hand of the Father” in such a literal sense. Modern Christians, of course, are more likely to understand heaven in a metaphysical sense, and thus Zwingli’s objection probably carries much less force today. But since both sides of the Marburg debate, Lutheran and Reformed, thought of heaven as a physical place where Christ’s human body resides, this was not a matter that the Lutherans could take lightly. In response, they provided an explanation of how Christ can be both in heaven and on earth – a doctrine known as “ubiquity” – that also yields compelling insights into the Incarnation and Creation.

The doctrine of ubiquity is based on a key element of Lutheran christology: the communicatio idiomatum, or exchange of attributes. This teaches that the human nature of Christ participates in God’s divine attributes (his omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.) and vice versa. Thus, Lutherans can speak of God suffering, even dying, because the divine Son of God participates in the human suffering of Jesus Christ. Moreover, because the humanity of Christ shares in God’s omnipresence, Luther could teach that “Christ can be present in heaven and on earth and in fact everywhere, not only in his divine nature but also in his perpetually human body” (Braaten, Principles of Lutheran Theology). This explains how Christ’s true body and blood can be present on the altars of the world in the sacrament.

To the Reformed, the doctrine of ubiquity has always seemed like blatant pantheism. After all, if Christ’s body is everywhere, then it’s in every piece of bread and the sacrament is meaningless. To this charge, Luther replied “that there is a difference whether Christ’s body is there or whether it is there for you; whether it is there or whether you can find it. You can find it only where Christ Himself has promised that He would be found, and that is in the sacrament” (Sasse, This is My Body).

It goes without saying that Lutheran and Reformed positions are based on two dramatically different understanding of the relationship between God and Nature. The Reformed, with their assumption that the “finite cannot carry the infinite”, conceive of God and Nature as mutually-incompatible opposites. But the Lutherans doctrine of ubiquity makes it clear that all of Creation participates in the Incarnation, since it was only through Christ that “all things were made.” Every rock, tree, and bird shares, not just in “being” or “being-itself” (to quote Tillich), but in the triune life of God. Thus, the sacrament (and the incarnation itself) should not be viewed a miraculous deviation from the natural order, but instead as the culmination and fulfillment of God’s eternal dealings with the world.


Lee said...

This is rank speculation on my part (and therefore very un-Lutheran), but I wonder if there might be seeds here of a Lutheran theology of other religions. Granted that Lutherans want to say that it's only in the Word and Sacrament that God promises to be present for us, might the doctrine of ubiquity and least suggest the possibility that God might be present for others elsewhere?

Thomas Adams said...

Lee – You make an interesting point. I think the doctrine of ubiquity could help Lutherans affirm that Christ gives gifts to all humanity (and even to animals and plants), as his presence fills the entire cosmos. Of course, most Christians - with or without “ubiquity” - would probably affirm such an idea, so perhaps not much is gained in the end.

By the way, I’ve never really considered what a distinctively Lutheran theology of other religions would look like. My guess is that the hidden/revealed, Law/Gospel dichotomies would come into play, but I wonder if this is really sufficient. Do you know of anyone who has tackled this issue from a Lutheran perspective?

Thuloid said...

If memory serves, there was a Carl Braaten book called No Other Gospel! relating to this issue (Lutheran theology of other religions).

Lee, as to your more specific suggestion, the trick about God being present for others elsewhere is that the for part (vs., say, against) is only apparent in proclamation. No proclamation (that is, no Gospel), and what we're dealing with is the unpreached God, God in his naked, terrifying majesty. Present? Sure, and surely hidden. If we insist on delving deeply, we should expect Balrogs.