Saturday, August 18, 2007

"God Against God" in Luther's Theology

In an effort to get back to basics, I'm currently reading Paul Althaus's The Theology of Martin Luther. I would recommend this book for two reasons. First, Althaus was a Luther scholar of the first rank and he presents the various facets of Luther's theology in a clear and comprehensive manner - no easy task given the notoriously complex and unwieldy nature of Luther's thought. Secondly, he always supports his statements with extensive quotations from the Reformer's writings and sermons, both in the main text and in footnotes. Thus, the book serves as a sort of condensed version of the Weimar Edition, and is a handy reference for anyone (like me) who is always saying, "I know that Luther said such and such, but I'm not exactly sure how or where...".

Reading this book has certainly heightened my admiration for Luther's theology, but it has also reminded me of some of its problematic aspects. I found the chapter "Man Between God and Satan" particularly difficult, not because my modern mind has trouble believing that the devil exists, but because of what it implies for Luther's doctrine of God. Althaus stresses that Luther took the devil seriously in a way that exceeded the medieval tradition: "Luther's devil has, one might say, more hellish majesty than the medieval devil; he has become more serious, more powerful, and more terrible." This was borne out of his personal experience; Luther once remarked that "by the grace of God, I have learned to know a great deal about Satan." Althaus makes it clear that Luther conceived of the world as a battlefield between God and Satan, with humanity as the prize: "God and the devil are fighting for men, for humanity and for the lordship. Here there is no neutrality, no buffer state."

Thus "the devil stands in opposition to God." But this isn't the end of the story. Althaus continues:
"Although [Satan's] power and his claim are so great that he can be called the 'god of this world,' there is never any doubt that only the true God is God. Luther holds dualism within the boundaries set by God's omnipotence, which works all in all. This means that the devil must still serve God's will for men and for the world - in spite of the fact that his will and activity are directed against God. God keeps him in his service and uses him for his own work. He uses him primarily as the tool of his wrath. As Luther wrote, "God indeed uses the devil to afflict and kill us. But the devil cannot do this if God does not want sin to be punished in this way." What God's wrath does and what Satan does frequently appear to be one and the same. The devil is 'God's devil.' And yet at the same time he remains the devil, the enemy of God, who wants the opposite of what God wants."
It's passages like these that set my head spinning. Althaus himself admits that this aspect of Luther's thought is highly contradictory. Yet we dare not back away from the implications of God being God. "It is God himself who lets us die: 'Thou causest men to die.' In death man has to do with God. Under no circumstances may he attribute misfortune and death to some other demonic power. To do that would be to deny the unity of God."

But it is precisely the unity of God that seems to be compromised by this line of thought. Luther seems to require a dualism in the nature of God. This is evident is his distinction between the "alien" and "proper" work of God: "God uses Satan for his 'alien work' (opus alienum) but in so doing is always aiming at his proper work (opus proprium)... God uses misfortune, suffering of body and soul, and death in order to humble those who belong to him and to lead them from trust in something earthly to trust in him alone." Thus, God often acts in a manner contrary to his own nature. Indeed, although "wrath is the undeniable reality between God and [man], it is false to speak of God's wrath as though it were an essential part of God's true being." But this begs the question: how can God act in manner contrary to his own being? Is his wrath real, or is his love only perceived as wrath by a sinful humanity?

This is the "God against God" motif in Luther's thought. And like all aspect of Luther's theology, it is situated in a christological framework. It is Christ who reconciles the division within God: "Christ acts in the name and in the power of God in such a way that he not only deals with humanity and the powers to which it has succumbed but also with God himself. He acts also in relationship to God; he 'reconciles' God, or we may also say, he reconciles humanity with God (Luther uses the expression interchangeably). God in Christ deals also with himself, in himself, and in an inner trinitarian relationship." Luther makes this very clear in a dramatic passage from Bondage of the Will. Reflecting on Christ's weeping over the lost in Jerusalem (Matt 23:37: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together and thou wouldst not'), Luther writes:
"Here, God Incarnate says: 'I would, and thou wouldst not.' God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God's secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering.... It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish. Nor is it for us to ask why He does so, but to stand in awe of God Who can do, and wills to do, such things."
Here, Luther seems to be teaching that the will of God Incarnate is opposed to the will of God in his Majesty; or, said another way, that the revealed God and the hidden God are not necessarily the same thing. God the Son wants to save all, while God the Father condemns many. Such comments, if understood metaphysically (that is, as objective statements about the nature of God), would be highly unorthodox.* But it would be wrong to construe Luther this way. As I have discussed elsewhere, Luther is (usually) not interested in providing a comprehensive doctrine of God or a system that nicely resolves the thorny problems of free-will, evil, predestination, etc. Instead, he gives us a theology "from below", one that, through faith, is able to live with the paradoxes. Luther writes in BotW that "God in His own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish us to deal with him. We have to do with him as clothed and displayed in his Word, by which He presents himself to us." Faith means "against God to force its way through to God and call upon God, ... to break through to God through his wrath, through his punishment, and through his disfavor." The God that is against God and humanity is ultimately the God "for us" in Christ. Only faith in Christ is able to perceive this.

* With regards to this matter, I recommend an old post by Chris Atwood at Three Hierarchies in which he defends Luther's position against a Calvinist critic.


WTM said...

Thanks for this post. I have Althaus' book on my shelf by I haven't had a chance to read it yet. Oberman has a good biography of Luther entitled Luther: Man Between God and the Devil that you might be interested in checking out.

As for the 'God against God' stuff, I can't help but feel that this was in Luther the result of one or both of two trajectories: (1) coming out from under the metaphysical tradition of understanding God, (2) rhetorical flourish. Theologians are still working on the former, but all too often the desire to come up with a catchy or shocking way of stating something muddies things as well.

Lee said...

Good post, Thomas. I remember being troubled by what seemed to me to be the dualism Luther sees in God's nature the first time I read Althaus's book.

I sometimes wonder if a lot of theological gymnastics aren't motivated by fear of the dread specter of universalism. After all, if you affirm 1. God's universal salvific will, 2. The all-sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice to expiate human sin, and 3. God's complete sovereignty over the world, including human decisions, then you are sliding quite quickly down the rails to universalism, or so it would seem to me. So, we get the "hidden" will of God and God's wrath brought back in to keep the threat alive, as it were. Or, alternatively, we get a weakening of God's sovereignty as in Arminianism such that we open the door to human beings freely refusing to accept grace.

I think there is an ambiguity here that you rightly point out: is "wrath" the way we perceive God apart from the knowledge of his gracious will for us that is revealed in Jesus? Or is it something that really exists in God, requiring Christ's sacrifice to propitiate it? Which connects to how one understands Atonement: is Christ's sacrifice somehow necessary to enable God to be merciful to us, or is it simply God's love and mercy being enacted and embodied in history?

Thomas Adams said...

WTM and Lee -- Thanks for your comments. I think that WTM is right in suggesting that Luther’s penchant for dramatic rhetoric sometimes gets him into trouble, theologically speaking. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Luther is so quotable and fun to read, and you can’t say that about many theologians (on this matter, just compare Luther to the Formula of Concord). I don’t think that he was trying to be catchy, but he was certainly trying to shock people, especially in his sermons. But I often wish that the sermons I hear on Sunday were more shocking and less cautious.

Lee, I’m not sure that Luther was afraid of universalism. He often asserts that Christ came and died for all (as CPA points out, Luther never preached limited atonement like the Calvinists – indeed, nothing could be further from his theology). But he could not ignore the fact that many people seem to be on the road to damnation. So once again, he simply lets the tension remain and talks about the preached versus the hidden God, not knowing whether or not the hidden God intends to save all.

As for whether God is really wrathful or whether it’s just our perception, Luther would probably say that it makes no difference to the sinner. If somebody feels God’s wrath, then it does no good to tell him that God is not wrathful by nature. Of course, this way of thinking won’t satisfy those with a more speculative bent, but Luther would argue that such an inclination is inherently sinful.