Easy Virtues and Cruel Mistresses:

Article by   March 2011
Basic Advice on How to Interpret Luther 

Before addressing a particular element of Rob Bell's new book, I want to make sure that anyone reading this understands exactly what I am and am not doing. 

First, to avoid the usual indignant reactions from the guardians of conscience in the evangelical world, I want to stress that I am writing at this point solely as an individual historian. I am not here speaking as a representative of my church, my seminary, nor of some nebulous movement known as `evangelicalism'

Second, life is, as Hobbes said, nasty, brutish and short. Too short, indeed, to waste on controversies that do not immediately affect one's own little world. Rob Bell has, as far as I know, no impact on my tiny world, whether conceived of as that of Westminster Theological Seminary, or as that of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Thus, my interest in engaging him here is not theological; rather, it is historical and concerns a specific claim he makes relative to the thought of Martin Luther. This claim, while only a brief passing comment in the book, might yet prove rather mischievous in terms of its wider impact.

What is this claim? On page 108 of his book (to be precise, an advance reader copy), Bell makes the following statement:

And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but insist that there must be some kind of "second chance" for those who don't believe in Jesus in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 he considered the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: "Who would doubt God's ability to do that?"

Again, a good question.

And so space is created in this "who would doubt God's ability to do that?" perspective for all kinds of people--fifteen-year-old atheists, people from other religions, and people who rejected Jesus because the only Jesus they ever saw was an oppressive figure who did anything but show God's love.

A number of comments seem apposite in regard to this statement. First, there is a basic problem of historical method here: it is illegitimate to take a small quotation from a single letter and use it to extrapolate to a person's general theology. Now, to accuse someone of taking statements out of context is not in itself a strong criticism. Is not all historical writing an example of things taken out of one context and placed in another? But to build so much on a single, short sentence, without examining what went before or after it leaves the argument at best half-done.

Second, to extrapolate from a letter to a person's general theology risks distortion, even if the whole letter is taken into account. If someone were ever to express an interest in my opinion on say, classic rock music of the seventies, I hope they would not focus simply on an email or two, or even on a couple of longer essays or papers. I trust they would try to read as much of my material as possible, and set each artifact in relation to others, so as to produce a coherent account of my thought on rock music as a whole. By so doing, they would create a framework for understanding the significance of any individual statement I might have made on the subject. 

Thus it is with Luther: one cannot legitimately draw theological conclusions from statements in occasional letters without taking into account the theological treatises and, indeed, the confessional documents to which he appended his name. Even the briefest reading of, say, Luther's Larger Catechism would indicate that his mature position allows no space for such postmortem second chances. Anyone can express themselves unclearly at points; anyone can make a statement that contradicts a position which he holds consistently elsewhere. Therefore, even if Luther did say exactly what Bell claims, it might prove little more than the fact he was having a bad day.

When we move beyond these two methodological problems, however, the next issue is that Luther does not in fact seem to have said anything like that which Rob Bell seems to imply that he is saying. Bell quotes the 1522 letter from Luther to Hans von Rechenberg but cites no source, itself a problem as I shall note in my conclusion. Such citation should be straightforward. The German text of the letter is readily available in the Weimar Ausgabe, the standard critical edition of Luther's works, in volume 10.ii, 322-26. It is also available in translation in the standard Philadelphia edition, volume 43, 51-54. Almost any theological institution will have one or both of these sets in its library.

When the text is consulted, the context in which this statement occurs is absolutely vital to understanding what exactly Luther is saying at this point. I quote here the Fortress edition, which seems to be an accurate rendering of the German. I have highlighted the phrase Bell is citing, while also reproducing the important wider context:

If God were to save anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself [II Tim. 2:13]. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and easily understood, no matter how reluctant the old wineskin is to hold this wine--yes, is unable to hold and contain it.

It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God's ability to do that? No one, however, can prove that he does do this. For all that we read is that he has already raised people from the dead and thus granted them faith. But whether he gives faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise every sermon, the gospel, and faith would be vain, false, and deceptive, since the entire gospel makes faith necessary. (Works, 43, ed. and trans. G. Wienke and H. T. Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], 53-54; WA 10.ii, 324.25-325.11)


In this letter, Luther is answering the question, raised by von Rechenberg, as to whether any can be saved without faith. Luther's answer is a clear 'no.' In fact, the letter is specifically aimed at refuting any notion that anyone can be saved by anything other than faith as Luther defines it. In this particular passage, Luther is raising, in a rhetorical flourish, a kind of question which was typical of the late medieval theological tradition in which he was schooled. It concerns the range of God's possible action (technically, his absolute power/potentia absoluta). He asks if God could give somebody faith after death and justify them on that basis. Yes, he replies, he could do so; but there is absolutely no evidence that he does do so. It is akin to asking 'Could God have made the earth without a moon?' The answer is 'Yes, there is no logical contradiction in that claim; but he did not do so.' 

Any medieval theologian worth his salt knows that the key to understanding how things actually are, how God actually works in relation to the created world, is his potentia ordinata, his ordained power, those things which he has actually determined to do. What Luther is focusing on here is not the possibility of postmortem evangelism but the absolute necessity of faith in the ordained order. Indeed, he goes out of his way to say that we have no basis for thinking that postmortem evangelism does occur, only that God could have established it that way had he so wished. Bell's mistake is that he draws a patently wrong conclusion about Luther's argument here because he either did not allow the wider context of the quotation to inform his understanding of its meaning or did not understand the medieval theology and rhetorical argumentation underlying Luther's point.

Now, I do not wish to comment on the theology of Bell's book. Others will no doubt do so with much greater competence and insight than I could ever muster. I would, however, like to suggest that the book seems to fall short in one very obvious way, of which the use of this Luther quotation is a good example. Popular books written for popular consumption are vital in the church; and Bell is to be commended for seeing that need. Further, when such books simply put forth an unexceptionable position, there is no real necessity for any scholarly apparatus; but when they self-consciously present themselves as arguing for significant or controversial paradigm shifts, the author really does need to cite sources. This is crucial because such citation allows the reader to engage in a conversation with the matter at hand. Indeed, the failure to do so actually prevents the reader from checking such for herself. In short, such an author does theology by fiat, adopting a dictatorial and high-handed approach which precludes constructive dialogue, whatever "conversational" rhetoric the author may use to describe his intentions. The message is not one of dialogue; it is rather 'Trust me: everyone else is wrong, though I am not going to give you the means to judge their arguments for yourselves.' That kind of approach lacks any real critical or dialogical integrity.

Building arguments on theological soundbites, especially from the works of prolific and sophisticated theologians such as Luther, is surely very tempting in today's instant internet age. We all want our fifteen minutes of fame but none of us want to spend any more than fifteen seconds doing the grunt work necessary to achieve it. Yet, like a lady of easy virtue, such an approach may have immediately seductive charms but ultimately proves a rather cruel mistress for the would-be historian. It also says much (and none of it flattering) about the competence of the editors at Harper, that they did not seize on this elementary error and correct it. Checking sources, especially when they seem to say something unexpected, is surely the most basic task of both author and editor.

The book will, of course, sell many copies, far more than anything I will ever write, I am sure. But then so did Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code; and that was a book with which, from the safely controversial content to the sloppy historiography, Rob Bell's latest offering would appear to have much in common.

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