Results tagged “Luther” from Reformation21 Blog

Why We Are Still Protestant

|

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This act in itself was relatively conventional: he was essentially initiating a debate about the use and abuse of indulgences in the Roman Catholic Church. But the pastoral concerns of this small-town professor set ablaze Europe with the flames of Reformation.

Within a short time it was clear that Luther's concerns had implications far beyond indulgences and relics; they went to the heart of the medieval Roman church. In the years immediately following the publication of his famous theses, Luther had occasion to engage in other highly significant debates on some of these implications. It was in Heidelberg in 1518 that Luther made it clear that humility was the key to salvation and theology. In Leipzig, about a year later, Luther declared that the decrees of the pope and of the church deserved close scrutiny; some were indefensible.

In 1520, Luther wrote treatises challenging the church's view on the sacraments, on justification and good works, and on the relationship between the civil authorities and the authority of the church. During the next year, Luther was summoned to appear before the Imperial Diet of Worms in a last-ditch attempt to get him to recant. He did not.

In further years Luther would turn his attention to the translation of the Bible into German, to the thorny problem of how a congregation freed from the grip of Rome should worship and operate, and to the perennial questions related to Christian work and the Christian family.

These kinds of questions and many more had to be addressed by Luther and the other early Reformers. This should remind us that the reform set in motion 500 years ago this October has a number of far reaching implications. While individual Christians might boil down the core of Protestantism to one or two major points, the reality was and is far more complex.

Over the next few weeks, across all of the websites of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, we'll be surveying many aspects of the Protestant cause. Some of the articles will be historical in nature, giving further detail about the specific figures, events, and debates that shaped the early years after the break from Rome. Some will be theological, bringing clarity to the animating ideas that drove Luther and so many others to pursue the truth of the gospel at great personal cost to themselves. Some will be polemical, making the case explicitly that what was true then is true today.

Our hope is that this series will renew your interest in the Reformation and its implications. But more than renewing interest, we pray that the posts will awaken in you a greater conviction of the importance of this great work of God in the history of the church.

Sometimes the nature of Reformed theology has been summarized by the so-called five solas of the Reformation. These five Latin slogans could be translated as: the Bible alone; grace alone; faith alone; in Christ alone; to the glory of God alone. Ultimately this series of articles, and every article we publish, has one final end in mind: that God would be glorified. As we look back to God's great and gracious work 500 years ago, may God be pleased to use this series to bring about a Reformed awaking in today's church.

Luther500.jpg
The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and WFIL 560 AM have had a long partnership. In addition to broadcasting The Bible Study Hour with James Boice and No Falling Word with Liam Goligher, they are one of the sponsors of this year's Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology taking place in Bryn Mawr April 28-30. Advance registration ends on April 23, we encourage you to attend. 

WFIL's most recent issue of their magazine FaithTalk features articles on the Reformation including "Luther, and the Creative Power of the Word" by Carl Trueman. Carl, co-host on Mortification of Spin, will be joining us as a conference speaker at PCRT. His article is shared here with permission. 


Luther, and the Creative Power of the Word
The importance of Luther to the Christian faith cannot be overstated. For many today, he is probably a figure who looks larger as a symbol of defiance or a heroic rebel against a corrupt church and decadent theology.There is much truth in such images. His stand at the Diet of Worms was a remarkable act of courageous defiance. And his theology represented nothing less than a self-conscious attempt to overthrow the medieval thought which he had been taught and replace it with a comprehensive understanding of God and the gospel as refracted the incarnate and crucified Christ.

Yet there is more to Luther. Indeed, perhaps his greatest contribution to the faith, and one that we can still learn from today, is his understanding of God's Word. When we hear this term, our modern evangelical minds typically go to the contemporary debates about inerrancy, infallibility, interpretation and the like. Certainly such questions are legitimate. But for Luther the central point about the Word of God was its creative power. God's speech is the means by which he does things - makes, destroys, blesses, curses.

The idea of the Word as creative is particularly evident in Luther's Lectures on Genesis.  In reflecting upon Genesis 1, Luther is constantly mesmerized by the fact that God's Word is what brings creation into being, what makes one type of creature out of material which cannot naturally do such - as in birds emerging from the waters on the fifth day. God says and it comes to be. The Word is a powerful, creative force.

This, of course, underlies his most famous of doctrines: justification by grace through faith. Unlike medieval notions of justification, where God's declaration that the believer is righteous is rooted in some quality intrinsic in the believer, Luther famously makes this a matter of extrinsic declaration. Sinners are righteous because God has externally declared them to be so, no matter what their actual, real outward condition might appear to indicate. I may be a thief and a liar but, if I turn and put my trust in Christ, I am clothed in his righteousness and God's Word will declare me innocent.  And this ties in with his understanding of the love of God. As he said in the last theological thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, the love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it. How does it do so? By the Word.

I would suggest that this is one aspect of Luther's theology which both pastors and congregations can benefit from meditating upon. For the pastor who preaches, the idea that when he declares God's Word he is not simply describing a state of affairs but is actually confronting people with God's Word in a manner that can and must transform them should surely be an awe-inspiring, exciting, and humbling thing. In the pulpit, Luther did not think he was simply explaining the Bible.He was blessing those who turned to Christ and cursing those who turned away from him, carrying some to heaven and shutting the gates of paradise to those who simply hardened their hearts. And congregants should go to church with a sense of expectation.  They go to church not simply to learn the Bible better - they can do that by sitting at home and reading good commentaries. No, they go to hear God's Word in all of its powerful, untamable creativity.   

The Word of God preached for blessing and for cursing - that is the heart of Luther's practical and theological Reformation.

I've been preparing a talk on Luther and education for a conference this summer, and so have been reviewing Luther's 1524 "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools." In examining this work, I've been especially struck by Luther's plea for a stronger dose of history in the curriculum of Germany's schools. "Among the chief books [needed for the education of German youth]," the reformer writes, "[are] chronicles and histories, in whatever language they may be had; for they are of wondrous value for understanding and controlling the course of this world, and especially for noting the wonderful works of God."

Luther particularly notes the need for national history in the school curriculum, and laments the lack of reliable German histories extant for that purpose. "How many fine tales and maxims we should have today of things that took place and were current in German lands, not one of which is known to us, simply because there was no one to write them down, and no one to preserve the books had they been written." Luther compared Germany rather unfavorably to ancient peoples in this regard, noting that "the Greeks and Romans and even the Hebrews recorded their history so accurately and diligently that if but a woman or a child did or said anything unusual, all the world must read and know it."

As intimated above, Luther viewed a knowledge and understanding of history as fodder for praise. God is sovereign over human history. Knowledge of history, then, equals knowledge of God's past doings. But Luther also demonstrated rather profound insight into a truth that philosophers of history have only recently made much noise about: the truth that history -- or more specifically, national history -- plays a crucial role in shaping national identity, and so too national mores. Indeed, history owns at least as much, if not more, power to shape national identity as shared language, ethnicity, and/or rituals. Luther, in other words, intuitively grasped the reality that--as Carter Lindberg puts it--"history is the thread of community identity" in much the same way that "memory is the thread of personal identity."

Most of us, I suspect, have known someone who has lost his or her memory (whether suddenly or gradually), and so have witnessed the loss of personal identity that follows from the dissolution of one's own story in life. Uncharacteristic (and sometimes rather unethical) behavior often follows from such a loss of memory and identity. But, as Luther keenly observes, communities that lose the thread of their identity -- i.e., their (hi)story -- are equally prone to unethical behaviors that communities with a stronger sense of their own narrative might resist. In Luther's words: "That [namely, a lack of national German histories] is why nothing is known... about us Germans, and we must be content to have all the world call us German beasts, who know only how to war, gorge, and guzzle." Warring, gorging, and guzzling, it seems, are the obvious activities of a story-less people.

Such insight into the connection between history, national identity, and public mores is, as noted, rather profound for a person writing in 1524. It sets Luther well ahead of the pack of popular historians in our day who typically discover nothing in history but material to mine for moral examples -- the historians who, for instance, seem bent on commodifying the Reformation this year as thoroughly as the constituencies who support them have commodified the Gospel in the rather dire course of American evangelicalism.

Of course, most things Luther thought and said are rather profound. In any case, Luther's grasp of the connection between history and public mores deserves recognition in any account of the role he played as educational reformer. This seems a fitting year to give him that recognition.

The details of Luther's mid-1520s tussle with Erasmus over the issue of sin's impact on human freedom are generally well known. Luther responded to Erasmus's 1524 De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio with his own 1525 De servo arbitrio [On the Bondage of the Will]. Erasmus, deeply offended when the faux charity and grace he displayed in his work weren't reciprocated by the German monk, responded in turn with a decidedly less magnanimous two-part effort titled Hyperaspistes (1526/27). Luther never bothered answering this later work, largely because he felt that Erasmus had done a fine job of hanging himself in it--clearly evidencing to all the Pelagian tenor of his thought. 

But Erasmus didn't completely fall off Luther's radar screen after 1527. In fact, as time went on, Luther became increasingly convinced that Erasmus was to blame for a considerable number of theological and social ills in Germany, not least the rising tide of Anabaptism. In 1534 Luther accordingly published an open letter to his friend Nicolaus von Amsdorf in which he expressed his distaste for Erasmus in no uncertain terms, calling him, for instance, a "palmerworm who [has] crept into the paradise of the Church, and filled every leaf with his maggots." Luther suggested that he himself had judged Erasmus too charitably in the past, finding him principally guilty of treating "the most sacred subjects" with too much "levity." He noted that his own effort to rouse Erasmus from his "snoring" -- presumably a reference to Luther's De servo arbitrio, which was addressed to Erasmus -- had only served to provoke Erasmus, like a deadly viper. Luther was now convinced, he confided to his friend (and anyone else who cared to tune in), that Erasmus's problem was "not simply levity, but [rather] malice and an entire ignorance of Christianity" (Henry Worsley, Life of Luther, 2:281). 

Compared to some of the shots Luther fired in his lifetime, his remarks on Erasmus in 1534 seem rather mild. But they were strident enough to elicit regret from Philip Melanchthon over Luther's "petulance," a "petulance" Melanchthon was quick to chalk up to "old age" rather than innate temperament. 

To be sure, Luther was quite capable of petulance, as any number of other exchanges might illustrate. But his concerns about Erasmus probably had more substance than Melanchthon realized. 

Luther's comments about Erasmus were premised on a brief review of several of Erasmus's notable writings, with observation of some flaws. Thus, for instance, he took stock of a catechism Erasmus had written for children some years before, and noted how the Humanist scholar had failed significantly in his effort to articulate very basic Christian doctrine to those in need of sound, straightforward teaching. Indeed, Erasmus's catechism, in Luther's judgment, even served to undermine orthodox Trinitarianism by raising rather unfortunate (and decidedly unnecessary) questions about traditional teaching on the relationship of the divine persons. "Why in the Apostles' Creed," Erasmus asked early modernity's youngsters, "is the Father called God; the Son, not God but Lord; the Spirit neither God nor Lord, but only Holy?" No matter what answer followed, Luther noted, the question itself could only serve to engender doubt in tender minds about the full divinity of Son and Spirit. 

In hindsight, Luther's concerns about Erasmus seem fairly well founded. The opening pages of Erasmus's Diatribe (for instance) do, it must be said, evidence a relative disinterest in, and disparaging of, fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity and Hypostatic Union in favor of (ostensibly) "clearer" biblical truths about how to behave one's self. Even Rome herself eventually turned on Erasmus, placing several of his works on the Index of Prohibited Books

In short, if Luther's concerns and criticisms of Erasmus -- driven by Luther's profound sense of the need for clarity and precision in articulating the basic truths of our Christian faith; driven too by sensitivity to the significance of what a basic catechetical text doesn't say about its purported subject in addition to what it does say -- constituted petulance (as Melanchthon charged), perhaps more petulance is precisely what's needed in our own day.
In 1524 Desiderius Erasmus, who until then had proven reluctant to challenge Martin Luther publically, finally caved to pressure from Rome to employ his literary talent against the impudent German Reformer who had caused, and was still causing, the institutional church of his day such problems. Erasmus chose to attack Luther where he believed the Reformer to be most vulnerable; he chose, that is, to challenge Luther's assertion that sinful man was wholly unable to contribute anything to his own salvation, and for such required not only Christ's atoning work on his behalf, but also the Holy Spirit's work of enabling him to believe in Christ and so appropriate Christ and his benefits.

Erasmus's defense of human free will -- his defense, that is, of man's innate ability to cooperate with God in his own salvation -- employed a well-worn Pelagian argument. The humanist scholar argued that biblical commandments imply an ability on (sinful) man's part to actually fulfill said commandments. So, for instance, appealing to Gen. 30:19 ("I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live"), Erasmus commented: "What could be put more plainly? God shows what is good, [and] what is evil, shows the different rewards of life and death, [and] leaves man free to choose. It would be ridiculous to say, 'Choose,' if the power of turning one way or the other were not present, as though one should say to a man standing at a crossroad: 'You see these two roads, take which you like' ... when only one was open to him!"

To be sure, Erasmus's argument has a certain logic to it. One would hardly excuse me as a parent if I ordered my three year old daughter Geneva to change the oil in the family car and then punished her when she failed to fulfill the required task(s). Commandments to fulfill impossible tasks, and subsequent consequences for failure to deliver, do seem cruel. Surely, then, God would not order man to "choose life" if such a choice genuinely lay beyond man's ability.

Luther's response in his 1525 Bondage of the Will takes cognizance of how high Scripture actually sets the bar for man's moral conduct ("You must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect," Matt. 5.48) as well as rather clear biblical statements that reflect man's spiritual depravity and (hence) inability to clear that bar ("Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin," John 8.34). The Reformer's response also, however, employs a very careful explanation for why God apparently commands sinful man to do things that sinful man has no ability to do.

That explanation begins with recognition that one critical component of natural man's perverse disposition and enslavement to sin is natural man's deluded perception of his own freedom and, if not moral achievements, at least ability to produce such achievements should he put his mind and energies to the task. "Man," Luther notes, "is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. [...] Accordingly, it is Satan's work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told."

In Luther's estimation man suffers from a spiritual version of Uncle Rico Syndrome. Uncle Rico, a character in the 2004 film Napoleon Dynamite, is a man utterly convinced of both his past and present abilities on the football field. In one memorable speech delivered in the film, Uncle Rico affirms his ability in earlier days to "throw a pigskin a quarter mile." After subsequently demonstrating his skills by hurling an overcooked steak at his bike-riding nephew Napoleon's head, Uncle Rico looks wistfully at the mountain range several miles distant and asks: "How much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?"

Rico is seriously deluded about his own abilities. But how might one best go about disabusing Rico of his delusion? One could, of course, reason with him about the actual distance of those mountains, the average distance that even professional quarterbacks can throw a ball, etc. A much quicker solution, however, would be to simply hand Rico a football and issue him a command: "Do it."

This, according to Luther, is essentially how God deals with natural man's delusion regarding his freedom and abilities in Scripture. Faced with sinful man's persuasion that he can, at any time he chooses, perform the works necessary to merit eternal life, God essentially tells man: "Do it." Luther explains: "Human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything; and for this pride and blindness God has no readier remedy than the propounding of his law." God's command to "choose life," then, implies no ability to do so. "By this and similar expressions man is warned of his impotence, which in his ignorance and pride, without these divine warnings, he would neither acknowledge nor be aware of."

Thus Luther undermines Erasmus's claim that commandments are somehow cruel if issued to persons incapable of fulfilling them. A commandment to Geneva to change the oil in the car, for instance, assumes a different character when one knows my daughter, a three year old possessed of more than her share of self-confidence. Geneva's favorite words at present are "I can do it myself." I have more than once in the last several weeks invited Geneva to do exactly what she claims herself capable of purely in the interest of disabusing her of her inflated confidence and guiding her towards the humble art of asking for (daddy's) help. I've not, to be sure, asked her to change the oil in the car. But on the off chance she tells me tomorrow that she's capable of doing so, I may very well invite her to do so, simply to rein in her perspective on her own innate abilities.

Similarly, divine commandments that are not actually matched by (fallen) man's ability reflect no cruelty on God's part. They are, rather, instances of divine kindness. It would be cruel for God to leave man in his state of delusion regarding his own freedom and abilities. It is kindness to lead man experientially to a knowledge of his inability and (hence) dire state, and so ultimately to lead man to seek salvation not in himself but in the work of Christ on his behalf. In Luther's words: "The work of Moses or a lawgiver is ... to make man's plight plain to him by means of the law and thus to break and confound him by self-knowledge, so as to prepare him for grace and send him to Christ that he may be saved." We're all born with spiritual Uncle Rico syndrome, and to varying degrees we suffer from it until the day we die. One function of God's law is to (kindly) disabuse us of our confidence in our ability to throw moral footballs over metaphorical mountains, and so to lead us to place our confidence and hope wholly in him who not only could but did meet God's standard of perfection, and that in our stead.

"One thing," Martin Luther writes in the Freedom of a Christian (1520), "and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is _______." Knowing Luther to be the author, we're quick to assume that "faith" belongs in the blank. And not without reason. Luther is keen to emphasize in this work and others the instrumental role that faith plays in laying hold of Christ and his perfect righteousness as the basis of our own perfect standing before God. But that's not where Luther starts. "That one thing," he writes, "is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ."

Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone is prefaced and contextualized by a doctrine of justification by God's Word alone; or more precisely, a doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone. It's well worth tracing his own train of thought on this score, because it helps us understand why faith, in Luther's (and hence Protestant) thought, ultimately plays the pivotal role that it does in apprehending salvation.

"The soul [that] has the Word of God," Luther begins, "is rich and lacks nothing since [that Word] is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing." Yet even this requires qualification since God's Word, in Luther's estimation, "is divided into two parts," and it's properly the latter "part" that proffers the benefits just named. God's word consists of "commandments and promises." The former "show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability." Once man has despaired, then God addresses him with His word of promise, that word that properly justifies. "Here the second part of Scripture comes to our aid, namely the promises of God." God's word of promise is the word "concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified" on behalf of sinners in need of rescue. This, again, is properly the word that justifies: "To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it."

And thus we arrive at faith. For faith, and only faith, is the appropriate response to this word of promise. "Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the [promissory] Word of God.... Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the [promissory] Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works."

As Luther goes on to explain, good works -- that is, any human striving after righteousness -- are really a blasphemous response to God's word of promise (if done in the hopes of securing salvation). After all, it is the height of ingratitude and unbelief (not to mention futility, given our sinful condition) to try to earn that which one offers to us as free gift. By way of analogy, the appropriate response to an invitation to my family's house for dinner is not to show up on our doorstep with a crock-pot and accoutrements in hand, but just to show up, hungry and confident that you will be fed. Efforts to merit that which God freely gives voice refusal to believe that God is as generous and liberal as he declares himself to be when he bids us to "come [and] buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isa. 55.1).

Luther's doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone provides critical context to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. It reminds us that there is in fact a (divine) logic to the instrumental role that faith plays in appropriating Christ and his righteousness as the ground of God's judicial declaration of our perfect standing before Him. Too often, I think, our Protestant talk about justification by faith alone fails to reflect that logic. Too often, that is, we fail to meaningfully consider the (promissory) nature of the divine word that faith answers to, and spring too quickly to a discussion of faith vis-a-vis love, hope, works, etc. We thus stand in danger of treating faith as some arbitrary thing that God has seized upon, a hoop to jump through (as it were) before he grants us entrance to eternal joy in his presence -- as if, indeed, he might have chosen some other thing (whether love, hope, or a daily diet of cheeseburgers).

Luther's doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone also helpfully reminds why a doctrine of justification by faith plus works (however conceived) is so heinous. A doctrine of justification by faith plus works is not merely dangerous to our souls (though it is that). A doctrine of justification by faith plus works twists God's word of free promise into a word of conditional promise, a word that dangles life in front of us if we will only meet some demand. As such, a doctrine of justification by faith plus works constitutes a perverse theological claim, representing God as someone or something different than he reveals himself to be in his own accomplishment of our salvation and application of the same to us.

Proper acknowledgement of the promissory nature of God's justifying word to us, by way of contrast, helps us appreciate why exactly "true faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison," a treasure "which brings with it complete salvation."

In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation of 1520, Luther takes aim at the Roman Church's "flimsy and worthless" claim to possess the exclusive authority and ability (by virtue of some unique spiritual gift) to interpret Scripture. "It is a wickedly invented fable," the Reformer writes, "and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone." Against that "fable" Luther produces biblical texts that emphasize the distribution of spiritual gifts throughout Christ's entire body and equally emphasize every Christian's need to humbly submit himself to, and benefit from, insights into the meaning of God's Word that Christ's body collectively produce. He also notes how persons in Scripture occupying legitimately authoritative roles in the life of the church -- Peter, for instance -- occasionally required correction from others. So much, Luther puts it elsewhere, for the pope's claim to get wine from the same cask that gives everyone else water.

Upon the surface, it may seem curious that Luther chases these comments about Rome's presumptuous claim of some exclusive prerogative to discern Scripture's meaning with equally fervent comments denying Rome's exclusive right to convene ecumenical councils of the church. "They have no basis in Scripture for their contention that it belongs to the pope alone to call a council or confirm its actions." Against this further presumptuous claim on Rome's part Luther recalls that both the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) and the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) are generally regarded as "Christian" (i.e., legitimate and authoritative) despite their having been convened by persons other than Peter or pope respectively. Luther also employs some common sense, in the form of an analogy for the problems presently pressing upon the church, to suggest how absurd such a claim becomes when popes refuse to actually call councils (for fear, perhaps, that such councils might point a correcting finger at them): "Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and [let] it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority of the burgomaster, or because, perhaps, the fire broke [out] in the burgomaster's house?" Translation: If the building's on fire and there's buckets and water standing by, you don't wait for the fireman to show up and shout directions, you just get busy throwing water in the general direction of the flames.

Why, one might ask, the concern for a church council -- why, in other words, the concern to address the church's theological and moral failings -- once one has succeeded in stripping Rome of any exclusive right to interpret Scripture? Why not just wash one's hands of the whole Roman affair and commit oneself to doctrinal purity and proper charity with like-minded individuals who embrace Scripture as the only infallible source and norm of Christian beliefs and practices?

For one thing, because in wresting the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture from the papacy's grip, Luther didn't intend to turn it over to himself or any other individual. He intended, rather, to return that right and privilege of biblical interpretation to the church (properly defined). Luther by this point in his career freely admitted that church councils can get it wrong. But he believed they were far less likely to than any discrete individual, not just because there's safety in numbers, but because the church enjoys specific promises from God that inform (without making infallible) her efforts to understand and apply God's Word to her own corporate existence. Luther's desire for a church council stemmed, then, from his perception that the true catholic church might, in relation to his own difficulties, exercise her prerogative of biblical interpretation in such a venue and decide in his favor on the issues of authority and salvation that now separated him from Rome.

But also reflected in Luther's call for a church council -- beyond the hope that such a council might, on the basis of Scripture, decide in his favor on the controverted issues of the day -- is Luther's simple love for the church. Luther, quite simply, wasn't willing to give up on the church as a (western) whole, or to rest content in the knowledge that at least a large part of that church agreed with him. This was true even after his excommunication and the establishment of state endorsed evangelical churches throughout the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia. For years beyond Worms -- even when a peaceful resolution to the Reformation controversies no longer seemed possible -- Luther continued to call for a church council.

In recently re-reading and teaching on Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility, I began to wonder whether we as Protestant heirs of Luther today possess any part of his love and zeal for Christ's bride, or specifically for her catholicity and unity. I wonder, in other words, if we haven't grown too comfortable in our fragmented Protestant existence, and in the opportunity that our stretched-thin and mobile and consumeristic lifestyles present to walk away from problems in the church (at least as such problems present themselves to us in concrete congregations and denominations). To capitalize on Luther's analogy, it seems to me that the church -- no matter what form she takes in our particular lives -- is always on fire to some extent, or at least, there's almost always a fire brewing. How often are we waiting for someone to come and shout directions, or simply walking away entirely, instead of grabbing a bucket and getting to work? Is indifference our principal response to a burning church -- indifference rooted, perhaps, in the fact that in our day we think not in terms of church but of churches, and are fairly confident when fire breaks out that we can find a different congregation or denomination where things are less hot (at least for another five minutes)? As for the fires we've just walked away from when we move on -- well, as they say, someone else's problem.

We need more bucket grabbers in the church these days. And bucket grabbing, I think, looks like greater commitment to the church in its local expression and, simultaneously, commitment to the church on a much larger scale. We need less rhetoric of "service to the church" these days -- rhetoric that often masks rather blatant exploitation of the church by "Christian" organizations and individuals -- and more genuine service to the church; service, that is, driven by love; service that might leave us with singed eyelashes and splinters in our hands, but might equally save a few people from getting burned.

 

Martin Luther: Fat Reformer?

|

By his own admission, Luther put on a few extra pounds in his later years. During a business trip (of sorts) to Eisleben (his place of birth) several days before his death, he joked to friends that he would shortly return to Wittenberg and "give the worms a fat doctor to feast on." In actual fact he never made it back to Wittenberg. He passed away in Eisleben early in the morning on 18 February 1546. 

luther's face in death.jpg

A sketch of Luther's face in death, completed by Lukas Furtenagel the same afternoon, lends some support to Luther's self-designation as a "fat doctor." Furtenagel's main purpose in drawing the dead Reformer was to capture Luther's calm composure. Furtenagel, in other words, wished to make it clear to anyone interested that Luther had died with complete confidence that God would welcome him into his eternal presence on the basis of Christ's completed work for him. But in the process, Furtenagel captured some rather telling fat rolls on the Reformer's neck. 

Furtenagel's portrait of Luther's face in death served as the basis for Lukas Cranach the Younger's fuller portrait of Luther on his death bed. Cranach's oil painting gave Luther a torso which more or less matched the plump facial (and neck) features discovered in Furtenagel's drawing and -- again -- gave some credibility to Luther's own apparent assessment of his weight.

Luther on deathbed.jpg

Even so, certain early modern Roman Catholic representations of Luther grossly exaggerated (pardon the pun) claims of his fatness. So, for instance:

Luther as Winesack.png

Luther's rotundness in this image serves to highlight (or suggest) his gluttonous character. Similarly, the enlarged (and rather fancy) chalice he carries in his hand suggests his proclivity for the demon drink (not to mention extravagance). The presence of the chalice likewise reminds viewers of Luther's rebellious insistence upon serving the laity the Eucharist wine. The downtrodden wife in tow suggests, perhaps, his tyranny. And the slew of children tucked into both ends of Luther's wheelbarrow suggest his addiction to another "vice," not to mention his (and his wife's) failure to observe the monastic vow of celibacy which he (and she) had taken in the years prior to the Reformation. Intriguingly, Luther's "illegitimate children" in this image are in fact other Protestant reformers (hence the otherwise alarming reality that many of them are bearded). John Calvin can be seen on the far right side of the front portion of the wheelbarrow (almost as if he were leading the pack, somewhat appropriately). All in all, Luther is represented here as fairly reprehensible.

Gauging Luther's actual degree of weight gain in later life might prove a difficult task, and for that matter, a rather worthless one. But perhaps his added pounds, whatever their number, have some theological significance. One could, at a stretch, argue that, much like his serene expression in death, they point to his confidence that God's evaluation of him rested, in the final analysis, upon Christ's obedience and suffering in his stead, not upon his own performance, even as such was reflected in his restraint (or lack thereof) at the dinner table.

Ever the reformer, Luther couldn't resist using his last will and testament to take a final stab at perceived corruption and advance his vision for a better way. The final target of his reforming efforts, however, was not the contemporary church and her doctrine or ways, but contemporary law in his native Saxony. That law, embodied in a text called the Sachsenspiegel which can be traced to the high medieval period, prohibited wives from inheriting their husband's house or possessions, thus rendering them financially dependent on the proper heirs (the man's children or closest blood relative). Luther had in fact criticized the law on this score some years before he completed his will. He noted in 1538 that wives were effectively reduced to the status of servants by the law, being turned out of the house upon their husbands' deaths with little more than the clothes on their backs and their knitting accessories. When Luther finally got around to writing his will in January of 1542, he made good on such earlier criticism of the law by purposefully flouting it and leaving everything he owned to his wife Katie.

Luther nearly missed the opportunity to thus agitate for change by virtue of his expressed reluctance to ever make a will. When his close friend Philip Melanchthon made his will in 1539, Luther expressed his own intent not to bother. "I have no intention of making a will," he stated, but went on to verbally appoint Katie his "universal heiress" and, somewhat contradictorily, to leave his library to his children in the hopes that by reading books they would realize they were "not smarter than their forebears." Whether Luther's hesitancy to actually write a will reflected preoccupation with other matters, distaste for such busywork, or sensitivity to the illegal character of naming Katie his "heiress" remains uncertain.

Regardless, by 1542 he had changed his mind -- perhaps because his property had increased substantially within those three years. In 1540 Martin and Katie had purchased the farm where Katie grew up from her brother Hans, who had inherited the same from their parents but couldn't afford to keep it up. The following year they had purchased a house in Dobien, a small town nearby to Wittenberg. And, of course, there was their rather large house in Wittenberg itself. The former Augustinian monastery, gifted to Martin and Katie as a wedding present from the Elector in 1525, served not only as the Luther family residence but also as a student dormitory, a bed and breakfast for visiting friends, a hospice for the ill, and a local homeless shelter. Luther apparently judged it irresponsible not to make his intentions for his belongings more definite -- albeit illegal -- at this stage.

Thus Luther put pen to paper, and entrusted everything he owned to his "beloved and faithful housewife Katherine as an endowment (or whatever one can call it) for her lifetime, which she will be at liberty to manage according to her pleasure and to her best interest." Luther expressed the greatest possible confidence in his wife in the balance of his will, noting his certainty that she would employ her inheritance to the "use and betterment" of their children, "since they are her flesh and blood whom she carried under her heart." He placed no stipulations whatsoever on her maintenance of his belongings, noting that even if "she would remarry" he was sure -- and wished "herewith to have such confidence expressed" -- that she would put the property to good use and provide for their children.

Of course, Luther was well aware that his will lacked legal force by virtue of its disregard for inheritance laws. He therefore included in the text a plea to the Elector of Saxony to honor his testamentary intentions: "I hereby also humbly beg my most gracious lord, Duke John Frederick, elector, etc., that his electoral grace will graciously protect and administer such a gift or endowment."

His gamble paid off. Shortly after the Reformer's death four years later, the Elector acknowledged and enforced Luther's will, all the while noting it to be "deficient in refinements and formalities which the laws require." Katie outlived Martin by six years, and retained ownership of all that he had left her during that time. Incidentally, she also remained unmarried.

One small gesture of civil disobedience and husbandly expression of confidence in (a) woman, one giant leap for womankind. 

Use of the "five solas" -- sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria -- to collectively summarize Reformation theology is apparently a twentieth-century thing. The reformers, to be sure, used these phrases (or very similar ones) to communicate distinct truths about Scripture's authority, God's initiative in salvation, the sufficiency of Christ's work for sinners, and faith's role in appropriating Christ and his benefits. They just never listed them the way we do today (or referred to them as the "five solas") to summarize the content of their objections to both Roman Catholic and radical perspectives of their day. Employed thus in our day, the solas -- like most summaries of the teaching of a given thinker or movement (think TULIP) -- can be simultaneously useful and misleading. Such summaries can, of course, lead us to overlook important aspects of a thinker or movement's teaching. The five most commonly noted solas, for example, fail to reflect in any substantial way Reformation gains made in ecclesiology and/or sacramentology. Noting as much, some recent persons have argued that sola ecclesia (at the very least) should be included in recitations of the solas, thus acknowledging the reformers' joint commitment to the (true) visible church's indispensability for salvation (see for example WCF 25.2).

If voting on who or what might make the solas cut is still open, I'd like to nominate "ears alone" for inclusion in the cast. I base this on Luther's observation in his biblical commentaries that "the ears alone (solae aures) are the organs of a Christian man." Such a claim might initially surprise present day evangelical Christians, since ears can neither read the Bible, nor pray, nor perform positive works of service towards others, things Christians presumably do. Why honor the ears thus?

Luther's privileging of the ears rested on his recognition that "faith comes through hearing" (Rom. 10.17). It rested, in other words, on his observation that God has appointed preaching as the peculiar means of creating and sustaining faith in those whom he has purposed to save. After all, the very same God who spoke the world into existence (Gen. 1.1-2.7) brought life to dead bones through the instrument of his prophet's proclamation (Ez. 37.1-14). That same God brings life to dead hearts, thereby creating faith, in our age of redemptive history through the proclamation of properly ordained ministers (those "sent" to "preach" in Rom. 10.15). "For if you ask a Christian what the work is by which he becomes worthy of the name 'Christian'," Luther's comment reads in context, "he will be able to give absolutely no other answer than that it is the hearing of the Word of God, that is, faith. Therefore, the ears alone are the organs of a Christian man."

The slogan "ears alone," then, emphasizes the critical role that preaching occupies in God's economy of salvation. It also, however, reinforces the truth that salvation is God's gift, not something we earn or seize through any endeavors of our own. Luther contrasts the ears not primarily with the eyes (by which we read) or mouth (by which we pray), but with the hands and feet, by which we work. "God no longer requires the feet or hands or any other member; He requires only the ears." Hearing is a passive enterprise, at least in comparison to the things we do when we put other body parts to use (hands, feet, mouth, etc.). The (relatively) passive posture we assume when God's word is preached is most appropriate, since that word's content is a stark reminder that we contribute nothing to our salvation.  

In sum, then, "ears alone" -- with its emphasis upon the method God employs (and the corresponding posture we should assume) in translating sinners into the Kingdom of his Son -- stands to complement the others solas with their emphases upon the message (namely, that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God's glory alone) and Scripture's unique status as the source and norm of that message. Solae aures may not, admittedly, roll off the tongue quite so smoothly as sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. But, if added to the solas roster, it would serve to preserve important Reformation emphases that are ever susceptible to neglect or abandonment.

"In time," Luther opined, "my books will lie forgotten in the dust." This was no lament on the Reformer's part. In fact, Luther found much "consolation" in the possibility -- or rather likelihood -- that his literary efforts would soon fade into oblivion. The dim view he apparently took of his own writings was intimately related to the high view he took of Sacred Scripture. Indeed, his high view of Scripture resulted in a rather dim view of all other writings, not just his own. "Through this practice [namely, writing and collecting books]," he wrote, "not only is precious time lost which could be used for studying the Scripture, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is also lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench." Making the same point in more colorful terms, Luther complained of the "countless mass of books" written over time which, "like a crawling swarm of vermin," had served to supplant the place which should belong to "the Bible" in the life of the Church and her people. In sum, Luther judged that folk would be better off reading and hearing the Bible than reading and hearing anything which he or anyone else had written, and the last thing he wanted to be found guilty of was producing words which distracted anyone from the Word.

On this score, Luther discovered hope that his own works would be soon forgotten in the sheer number of publications competing with his own in his day. "My books... will not last long. There is especially good hope of this, since it has begun to rain and snow books and teachers, many of which already lie there forgotten and moldering. Even their names are not remembered any more, despite their confident hope that they would eternally be on sale in the market and rule churches."

A second reason Luther took a dim view of his works is that he understood rather well how literary accomplishments can foster pride. In this regard, the Reformer offers some harsh -- and, true to form, fairly entertaining -- words to those who become inflated on the basis of their publications. I suspect, though it would be difficult to prove, that he addressed a proclivity he discovered in himself with his words. "If... you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books...; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it -- if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears. Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you and say, 'See, See! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books.'" If, in other words, you write with the intent of garnering man's praise, and/or find yourself thriving upon the same, then go the extra mile: deck yourself out like the ass that you are and really draw attention to yourself.

I would guess that Luther's acute sensitivity to the dangers of pride that exist to writers, and his warning against publishing towards the end of bolstering one's ego, hold special relevance in our day, where one needs merely an internet connection, rather than a willing publisher, to broadcast his/her literary words of wisdom. I suspect, in other words, that blog posts and tweets have exponentially increased the existence of that specific kind of pride which Luther names in the quote above. His words are, in any case, a worthwhile reminder of the perils that threaten anyone who finds himself or herself in a position to put words on paper (or screen) which others stand likely to read.

Luther also offers some wonderful advice on how to write in a way that isn't directed towards self-promotion and pride. "All other writing" -- that is, writing other than Scripture -- "[should] lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures," rather than lead from and obscure the same. Words written in the service of Christ, in other words, should lead others to "drink" directly "of the fresh spring" itself -- that is, the Bible.

In my judgment, Luther's works accomplish the very thing he here suggests should be wrought by "all other writing" -- they lead one into a fuller and richer appreciation of Scripture, and of the one whose person and work Scripture ultimately proclaims. Perhaps that's one of the reasons that Luther's books have far outlived his own expectations for them.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

The two kingdoms. Few phrases so short could be lobbed with such devastating effect into a parlor conversation at a Reformed theology conference these days--or a few years ago, at any rate, though perhaps new topics have now succeeded it as the favorite bones of contention. For many in our circles, the phrase instantly conjures up ecclesiastical battle lines, personal animosities, dark specters of half-guessed heresies; for others, it is a happy panacea, a cure for whatever ails you, theologically speaking. But for both friend and foe, the associations conjured up by the phrase often bear little relation to its historical usage, which was indeed extensive among our Protestant forebears. 

In this series of brief posts, I shall not try to clear up the historical question in any detail (I attempted that in introductory form a couple years ago at Political Theology Today), nor to engage polemically, any more than necessary, with the most popular versions of the doctrine currently on offer (having done my fair share of that some time ago, for instance here). Rather, I hope to dispel some of the contemporary confusion and suspicion around the issue by showing of what practical value the doctrine, classically understood, might be. I also hope to de-mystify the doctrine a bit, by showing how, rightly understood, many of its characteristic concerns are simply a matter of "Protestantism," full-stop. This will also hopefully help us avoid treating it as a simple panacea; to be sure, at some level, I will proudly proclaim that Protestantism is a theological panacea, but it has also been something of a Pandora's box. The teachings that we might characterize as belonging to classical Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine are shot through with tensions and even paradoxes, balanced often on a knife-edge between dangerous doctrinal pitfalls on either side. But so is all good theology. 

So, what are these teachings, these characteristic concerns? Well, Christian theology has always wrestled with "twoness," on seemingly every front: God and the world, special revelation and general revelation, redemption and creation, divine grace and human response, faith and works, justification and sanctification, soul and body, invisible and visible, church and world, etc. In the face of any one of these dualities, the oldest and easiest move in the polemicist's handbook is to cry "dualism." But this is merely a lazy dodge. Theology, quite clearly, cannot do well without clear distinctions between any of these pairs, even if, equally clearly, it can shipwreck by too sharply opposing any of these two terms to one another. At each point, a delicate balancing act is in order.

Likewise, it would seem careless to treat all these distinctions as just different versions of the same fundamental duality (a temptation that some overzealous two-kingdoms theorists have been prone to)--merely to pick one example, we obviously cannot equate the "redemption/creation" pair with the "soul/body" pair, since Scripture speaks clearly of the redemption and resurrection of our bodies. At the same time, it would be an untidy theology indeed that made no attempt to map these various dualities onto one another at all (i.e., for Protestants at least, divine grace, faith, and justification all fit together well on one side, in distinction from human response, works, and sanctification, on the other).

Martin Luther's theology, for all its notorious untidiness, was particularly characterized by its attempt to tie together these various dualities within a single framework, with plenty of appropriate qualifications (though it usually fell to his successors, particularly Melancthon, Calvin, Vermigli, and Hooker, to spell out those qualifications). For him, then, and for other magisterial Reformers who spoke of "two kingdoms" (or "two realms" or "two governments," to use perhaps clearer terms corresponding to Luther's Zwei Reiche and Zwei Regimente), they had in mind not primarily a pair of institutions (i.e., "church" and "state") but something much more fundamental. Human life is not a two-dimensional map onto which the two-kingdoms were drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction, but rather, a two-dimensional map with which the "earthly kingdom" is coterminous, and of which the spiritual kingdom might be said to form the third dimension--the vertical God-ward relation which animates all the rest. At every point, the Christian must be attentive to the voice of God as he speaks in his word, and the face of God as he presents himself in his world, through what Luther calls "masks."

When one puts it this way, it becomes clear that this dividing line must run right through the church itself. The Reformers could speak of the church, in its visible gathered form, with officers and liturgical orders, as part of the "earthly kingdom"; but as the company of the elect, mystically united to her head, she is the fullness of the spiritual kingdom. But while the "visible/invisible church" distinction is not far off here, it is not sufficient either, for it, like the language of "kingdom" is much too static for what the Reformers had in mind. The geistliche Regimente was the spiritual ruling and reigning of God, His gracious life-giving action through the power of the Spirit. While clearly invisible in itself, this liberating rule makes itself manifest in the powerful reading and preaching of the Word (and that chiefly, but certainly not merely, in the context of formal worship), in the sacraments, and in the loving, faith-filled acts of the saints. 

Of course, these acts of love, in which the Christian makes himself "the most dutiful servant of all" are the very stuff of which the "earthly kingdom," the space east of Eden and west of the new Jerusalem, subject to human authority and prudential calculus, is made. But this simply highlights the fact that the language of "the two kingdoms" ought not serve to neatly divvy up the various elements of the Christian life into one or another sphere, but rather, often, ought to be viewed as two different ways of talking about the same elements. We are simul justus et peccator, at the same time free lords and dutiful servants, at the same time alive with Christ in the heavenly places and toiling in murky paths here below, and even as we enjoy the liberty of a conscience set free by grace, we live under the laws (natural and civil) that regulate our lives with one another as human creatures. To confuse these two rules is to risk libertinism or legalism, triumphalism or despair. 

In the four posts which follow, I will attempt, with as much brevity as I can muster, to spell out what good old "two-kingdoms" thinking might look like in four different areas of Christian concern: Two-Kingdoms Pastoring, Two-Kingdoms Ecumenism, Two-Kingdoms Politics, and Two-Kingdoms Economics.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

So wrote Luther to Erasmus in his Bondage of the Will. Few if any phrases from Luther have been more misunderstood. One regularly sees Luther's words invoked to emphasize the transcendence, the otherness, of God. Luther criticized Erasmus, it is assumed, for failing to grasp God's freedom and sovereignty, particularly as those attributes find expression in the exercise of God's grace.

To be sure, Luther reserved plenty of criticism for Erasmus for failing to appreciate God's free and sovereign prerogative to discriminate between elect and reprobate sinners. But that was hardly his point when he suggested Erasmus's "thoughts about God" were "too human." These particular words were triggered by Erasmus's suggestion that some theological questions were unprofitable to discuss before the masses. Erasmus illustrated his point by recalling the scholastic question of whether God is present in the hole of the dung beetle. Not particularly savoring the idea of occupying a dung beetle hole himself, Erasmus had a hard time seeing any relevance or fruit in theological speculation that places God there.

Luther, somewhat ironically and uncharacteristically, came to the rescue of the scholastic theologians on this point, pointing out that God is very much in the business of occupying rather unpleasant territory. Indeed, God occupied the most unlikely and unpleasant territory of all -- the human womb -- in order to achieve the salvation of his people. The medieval divines who asked whether God was present in the hole of the dung beetle, then, weren't necessarily out of theological bounds in their questioning.

When Luther rebuked Erasmus for thinking "too human" thoughts of God, then, he was criticizing him for failing to grasp the immanence of God, for failing to realize the lengths God went to in the incarnation in order to rescue his people.

Here are Luther's words in full:

"You are wrong...in condemning as unprofitable the public discussion of the proposition that God is in the hole or the sewer. Your thoughts about God are all too human. There are, I admit, some shallow preachers who, from no motives of religion or piety, but perhaps from a desire for popularity or a thirst for some novelty or a distaste for silence, prate and trifle in the shallowest way. But those please neither God nor men, even if they assert that God is the heaven of heavens. But where there are serious and godly preachers who teach in modest, pure, and sound words, they speak on such a subject in public without risk, and indeed with great profit. Ought we not all to teach that the Son of God was in the womb of the Virgin and came forth from her belly? But how does a human belly differ from any other unclean place? Anyone could describe it in foul and shameless terms, but we rightly condemn those who do, seeing that there are plenty of pure words with which to speak of that necessary theme even with decency and grace. Again the body of Christ himself was human as ours is, and what is fouler than that? Are we therefore not to say that God dwelt in it bodily, as Paul has said (Col. 2.9)? What is fouler than death? What more horrifying than hell? Yet the prophet glories that God is present with him in death and hell (Ps. 139.8). Therefore, a godly mind is not shocked to hear that God is present in death or hell, both of which are more horrible and foul than either a hole or a sewer."

Luther's rebuke of Erasmus is a warning to us all. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking "too human" thoughts of God, of failing, in other words, to appreciate that God goes to much greater lengths -- or rather, depths -- than we creatures could ever anticipate or dream to be with us, to accomplish our salvation and to restore us to eternal fellowship with his Triune self.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

In scholastic theological discourse, 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence' represent two different ways of getting someone to do something. If my goal were, say, getting my four-year-old daughter to the dinner table, I might employ 'moral suasion' by promising her that she'd find her favorite dish when she arrived there, or by simply threatening her with consequences for refusing to follow my instructions to cease and desist from playing and join us for supper. I might, alternatively, employ 'physical influence' by simply picking her up, compliant or not, and carrying her to the table.

This distinction finds expression, among other places, in the Synod of Dort's explanation for how God brings his elect to faith and repentance. "God," the Canons of Dort argue, "not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to [the elect] outwardly, ... [but] also penetrates into the inmost being, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant."

The Divines at Dort described God's act of 'physical influence' upon the will in such terms to counter semi-Pelagians who professed that divine grace precedes every positive movement of the human will towards salvation, but -- when pressed -- were forced to admit that by 'grace' all they really meant was God inviting, threatening, pleading with, and otherwise attempting to suade [sic] sinners to embrace the Gospel. The underlying assumption of such persons was that sinners retain sufficient freedom of the will to respond positively to the Gospel when it is properly set before them. Grace in such a semi-Pelagian scheme need not entail any actual influence upon the will, and -- correspondingly -- remains something which can be resisted by those whom it confronts.

Though Luther never employs the exact terms I've outlined above ('moral suasion' vs. 'physical influence'), I believe this distinction lies at the heart of the difference he posits, in his Bondage of the Will, between God's work of regenerating those whom ultimately believe and God's work of hardening those whom ultimately perish in unbelief.

So enslaved, in Luther's perspective, is every human person's will to that human person's sinful nature -- i.e., so enslaved is every person's will to sin (cf. John 8.34) -- that Luther, though admitting that people sin freely and under no compulsion, is reluctant to attribute 'free choice' to sinners at all. For sinners to exercise faith in Christ, then, requires a divine act of physical influence upon their wills. "The ungodly does not come even when he hears the Word [moral suasion], unless the Father draws and teaches him inwardly [physical influence], which He does by pouring out the Spirit. There is then another 'drawing' [namely, one of physical influence] than the one that takes place outwardly [i.e., that of moral suasion]; for then" -- that is, when God employs his Spirit to bring someone to faith -- "Christ is [so] set forth... that a man is rapt away to Christ with the sweetest rapture, and rather yields passively to God's speaking, teaching, and drawing than seeks and runs himself."

For Luther, as for the Divines at Dort, 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence' coincide in the work of regeneration -- "it has thus pleased God to impart the Spirit, not without the Word, but through the Word" -- but the latter is utterly indispensable to any right response to the Gospel. Elsewhere Luther describes this "inward" work of God upon the will thus: "If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, ... willing and delighting in and loving the good just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil."

But Luther employs decidedly different language when he discusses God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart (and the hearts of all who die in final unbelief) in Exodus 9:12 (cf. Romans 9:17-18): "[God] provoked [Pharaoh] and increased the hardness and stubbornness of his heart by thrusting at him through the word of Moses, who threatened to take away his kingdom and withdraw the people from his tyranny, without giving him the Spirit inwardly but permitting his ungodly corrupt nature under the rule of Satan to catch fire, flare up, rage, and run riot with a kind of contemptuous self-confidence."

In other words, God hardened Pharaoh's heart through an act of 'moral suasion' alone. God confronted Pharaoh with a word which required Pharaoh to give up something he held dear, and in so doing provoked Pharaoh to cling more tightly to that very thing. Luther again explains: "It is thus [God] hardens Pharaoh, when he presents to his ungodly and evil will a word... which that will hates -- owing of course to its inborn defect and natural corruption. And since God does not change it inwardly by his Spirit, but keeps on presenting and obtruding his words... from without, ... the result is that Pharaoh is puffed up and exalted by his own imagined greatness, ... and is thus hardened and then more and more provoked and exasperated the more Moses presses and threatens him."

Thus God "hardens" all who are exposed to the Word without a corresponding work of God's Spirit to bring them to faith and repentance: "This provocation of the ungodly, when God says or does to them the opposite of what they wish, is itself their hardening or worsening. For not only are they in themselves averse through the very corruption of their nature, but they become all the more averse and are made much worse when their aversion is resisted or thwarted." In Luther's judgment the Gospel proves the ultimate "provocation of the ungodly," because it calls sinners to abandon their most prized possession -- their own self-righteousness.

This basic difference between God's act of hardening (through 'moral suasion') and God's act of softening (through 'moral suasion' and 'physical influence') human hearts should be carefully noted. It reminds us, among other things, that God is not the author of corrupt nature or sinful human acts as such. If, in fact, God hardened human hearts in some way analogous to how he softens them -- by an act of physical influence upon them -- Scripture's claim that God is "too pure" even to "look upon sin" (much less to be the culpable cause of sin) might seem to ring hollow. Persons who, like the Divines at Dort, accept with Luther the biblical truth that God has in fact predestined some (undeserving) sinners to eternal life (accomplishing their salvation in time) and predestined other (deserving) sinners to eternal death (accomplishing, in a fundamentally different way, there condemnation in time) would do well to articulate the difference in how God ultimately achieves those respective ends with as much precision and care as Luther.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

We tend, perhaps, to think of divine love as something akin to, albeit much greater than, human love. We tend, in other words, to assume that God's sentiments towards us are much bigger and stronger than, but fundamentally similar to, the sentiments we feel towards our most cherished friends and family members. And, in part, we are right. Theologians typically identify love as one of God's "communicable" attributes; the communicable attributes of God are, by definition, those which, by virtue of our creation in God's image, we recognize in ourselves in diminished and inferior form (e.g., power, knowledge, presence, goodness, justice, mercy, etc.).

Nevertheless we must remember, even when speaking of God's communicable attributes, that we predicate 'love' and other traits of God and man in common analogically. In other words, divine love and human love might be like one another, but they are not identical in kind (regardless of their difference in quantity). God's love is not only greater than, but also fundamentally different than, human love in significant regards. Exploring specific points of difference between divine and human love can serve to increase our appreciation of divine love (and thus of the divine Lover), perhaps even more so that mentally multiplying human love by a million whenever we hear God's love referenced.

Luther helps us in this regard, by highlighting at least one fundamental point of difference between God's love and human love in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. "The love of God," he writes, "does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

Luther deems the second half of that thesis rather obvious, and spends little time defending it. Human love, he observes, is responsive. It answers to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends, whether that object be another person, an animal, or some inanimate entity. To put it another way, we love that which is, at least to our perception, lovable. Even parental affection conforms to this principle.

By way of contrast, God's love (extra se) does not necessarily answer to something attractive or desirable in the object it apprehends. Rather, it creates something attractive or desirable in (or about) the object it apprehends. "God... loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive." God does not love that which is lovable; God loves, and in loving, renders the object(s) of his affection lovable.

It's doubtful that any good analogy to the way in which God's love creates, rather than responds to, that which is ultimately pleasing to God can be discovered in human experience (any more than good analogies for the Trinity can be discovered in human experience). That, in fact, is rather the point of Luther's thesis -- that God's love is un-like our love in this regard.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help thinking, as I re-read Luther's Heidelberg Disputation earlier this week, that my two-year old daughter Geneva's affection for one particular object (named "Puppy") in her ever-growing menagerie of toys and stuffed animals sustains at least some affinity to God's love as described by Luther. Geneva set her affections on Puppy, a gift from a friend of the family, at a very young age, and she has never looked back. Puppy accompanies her everywhere she goes, and he bears on his body the marks of her constant regard. He was never particularly attractive at any stage in his career, but after two years of receiving almost obsessive adoration, he is literally hanging together by a thread.

Were thieves to enter our house tonight, I'm fairly sure Puppy would be the last thing they'd want to steal. I'm also fairly certain that, barring the persons and (real) dog living under our roof, Puppy is the item my wife and I would be most keen to protect in our home. On more than one occasion my wife and I have feared that Puppy was lost. He always turns up (often in places no stuffed animal should frequent), but we have spent a few frantic evenings thinking he was lost for good and searching for a Puppy replacement online, wondering whether or not we'd be able to trick Geneva into believing something (or someone) other than Puppy was in fact her beloved. On such evenings, my admittedly absurd strategies for replacing Puppy and tricking Geneva into accepting the replacement have typically involved plans to lay replacement Puppy on the road in front of our house and repeatedly drive over him, in the hopes that what might miraculously emerge from such abuse would be something similar to the tattered brown and white dog currently touted here, there, and everywhere by her.

Geneva's affections for Puppy were initially triggered by some inherent virtue that she, at least, perceived in him. In that regard, her responsive affections for Puppy are not like God's creative love for us. But we can, I think, gain some insight into the value which God's love for us confers upon us from considering the value which Puppy has come to own in our home by virtue of Geneva's affections for him. The fact that I would much sooner turn over my wallet, my computer, or the keys to my car to someone than Geneva's Puppy in no way reflects Puppy's monetary worth vis-à-vis those other objects; it reflects, rather, the worth he has accrued by virtue, quite simply, of being loved.

So, too, our value rests not, in the final analysis, upon our intrinsic worth (even as creatures made in God's image), but in the fact that God loves us, and is at work creating in us those qualities he deems most desirable. Recognizing that God's love creates, rather than responds to, something God deems desirable in us is a rather freeing and exhilarating truth. However much we must labor to make ourselves lovable, and so sustain the love towards us of even those who are closest to us, we need not work to sustain God's love towards us or the value which God's love imputes to us -- no more than Puppy need work (as if he could) to sustain the affections of my daughter or the value which her affections imputes to Puppy in our home.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.

Our local veterinary clinic -- where our dog, for reasons I'd rather not relate, is not welcome -- has a letter board on their grounds which typically displays humorous messages about animals. The message on display earlier this week caught my attention as I was driving to work. It read: "If cats could talk, they wouldn't." I must confess, this made me smirk -- which is generally as close as I come to laughing. I'm no despiser of cats in principle, but they do strike me as the kind of creatures that, were they suddenly endowed with the ability to speak in human language, wouldn't condescend to actually say anything to anyone. The sign made me wonder, in fact, if cats might not actually have the ability to speak, and simply don't because they can't be bothered communicating their thoughts to human beings, creatures so clearly inferior to them in every conceivable way. Can we really be sure they cannot speak if, regardless, they will not speak?

As it happened, I read that sign as I was on my way to teach a class on Luther's Bondage of the Will, and it struck me as I was doing so that this particular possibility regarding cats -- that, in actual fact, they "cannot" speak simply, or more properly, because they will not speak -- provides an apt analogy for Luther's teaching on sinful man and his freedom (or lack thereof) to exercise faith in, and genuine love towards, God. As is well known, Luther argued -- contra the claim that sinners retain some ability to choose the good apart from grace -- that sinners cannot choose Christ unless (or until) God restores their wills and so renders them capable of doing so (or, indeed, incapable of not doing so). Critics then and now have often argued that Luther's doctrine of the "bound will" destroys man's culpability for his crimes (or, alternatively, his merit for his positive moral choices), rendering him a mere puppet who acts according to the dictates of forces he cannot control.

Luther, to be sure, employs some images that might seem to warrant such criticism, describing for example the human will as a "beast of burden" subject to the mastery of either God or the Devil. "If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills.... If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it." But when we read beyond the often quoted extracts, we quickly realize that Luther's teaching isn't really susceptible to the charge of reducing man to a mere puppet, free from moral responsibility. Luther's teaching is really that sinful man cannot choose Christ because he will not choose Christ. Like cats who, supposing they can actually talk, don't talk because they won't talk, sinners don't orient themselves towards the true Good because, quite simply, they want nothing to do with that Good. And, needless to say, sinners are morally responsible for that which they will not choose or do.

We see this, I suggest, if we pay careful attention to a distinction Luther repeatedly draws in his writings on the subject of the will, that between the "necessity of immutability" and the "necessity of compulsion." It is a distinction found in pre-Reformation writers, especially those of an Augustinian bent; Thomas Aquinas, for example, whose perspective on the will and human freedom was much closer to Luther's than either Luther or most modern scholars admit, makes this distinction in his Summa Theologiae (see I-II, 112, 3). The "necessity of immutability" describes the necessity that pertains to human choices, for good or ill, by virtue of the fact that God at very least foreknows (and, really, has fore-ordained) everything that comes to pass. The "necessity of compulsion" describes the necessity that pertains to human choices, for good or ill, by virtue of some outside agent effectively forcing those human choices.

Luther, much like earlier Augustinians and, for that matter, Augustine himself, acknowledges that everything happens according to divine foresight and design. There is, in other words, a kind of necessity (of immutability) that governs everything that happens, including the decisions humans make. But Luther vigorously denies that human choices happen according to any "necessity of compulsion." No man, in other words, does "evil against his will, as if he were taken by the scruff of the neck and forced to it." Man does evil, rather, "of his own accord and with a ready will." Man cannot do other than sin, in other words, because he will not do other than sin.

The converted man, likewise, chooses Christ not because he is compelled to do so by God, but because God has made that man willing to do so. "If God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion, so that it cannot be turned another way by any opposition, nor be overcome or compelled even by the gates of hell, but it goes on willing and delighting in and loving the good, just as before it willed and delighted in and loved evil." The converted man "cannot be turned" from Christ, in other words, because he will not be turned from Christ, whom he now delights in and loves.

Thomas, for what it's worth, put it this way: "If God intends, while moving, that the one whose heart He moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it, according to Jn. 6:45: Every one that hath heard of the Father, and hath learned, cometh to Me."

It never occurred to Thomas or Luther to illustrate the lack of compulsion that ultimately characterizes sinful or faithful choices by discussing snobbish cats and their refusal to speak. More's the pity, as no cat has ever said.

Now if someone could just devise some way of convincing cats to try to communicate, we might clear up once and for all the question of whether they can in fact communicate. I'm fairly certain, in any case, that dogs genuinely cannot speak. If they could, I'm pretty sure mine would never shut up.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL. Those who have met his dog, Oakley, know exactly why Oakley is not welcome at the local veterinary clinic.

A Roman Catholic at Death (with Luther near by)

|
My wife's step-father has attended a Roman Catholic church his whole life. But he has just been moved to palliative care, and likely has days or weeks to live.

He has a book beside his bed where he lies dying: not the Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church, but a book by Martin Luther on justification through faith alone. 

I left that book at his house years ago, and now it's at his death-bed. That's the book he chose to take with him as he left his house for the last time. As heretical as this might sound, and open to obvious misunderstanding, I am happier he has Luther beside his bed than a Bible in this instance. (Without the church's confession, which, of course, is grounded in Scripture, the Scriptures are ineffectual - Bavinck).

For about 10 years I've spent many hours with him in private, explaining the gospel and the need to renounce his "good works" and lay hold of Christ's righteousness that comes through faith. What sounds so easy is actually so hard for man to receive, especially someone who has grown up trying to justify himself - and, believe me, he did! Often, thoroughgoing Romanists are harder to talk to about free justification than atheists. 

But having a far greater advantage than his priest, who does not do pastoral visits, I was able to speak many times with my wife's step-father in simple terms about the gospel and his sin. He needed to be reminded about his "foot-wedge" on the golf course that he regularly used (thus breaking the 8th, 9th, and 10th commandments). But, more importantly, he needed to be reminded that the seed of every known sin lies in his heart and he is guilty before a holy God. 

To be made aware of the vileness of our sin - i.e., that we are internally what Naaman was externally - puts us in a position to understand the beauty of the gospel and justification by faith alone: "for," as John Owen said, "although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience,... yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration."

This is good news. We can be justified in this life (Rom. 8:1). And because of that we can be assured of our salvation (1 Jn. 3:2). As Cardinal Bellarmine said, assurance is the greatest Protestant heresy. And I'm exceedingly grateful to embrace this "heresy." 

The battle with Rome is not unimportant. We are dealing, quite literally, with matters of life and death. Rome gives no true comfort; Rome gives no true hope; and Rome cannot give true assurance. But the doctrine of justification that Luther recovered gives penitent sinners hope in a gracious God who welcomes sinners (immediately!) into paradise for the sake of his Son.

Rome does its worst; but Christ does his best. And in this case, Luther, not Benedict, sits beside the bed of a man who, I pray, knows (as Newton did) that he is a great sinner, but Christ is a greater Savior.

If we want to pontificate about these matters, it seems to me to be a good idea to spend time with people, especially dying people. And then - and perhaps only then - will we realize the importance of good theology, and why people have died at the stake in defence of these truths. Those who condone popery pour gasoline on the flames that engulfed Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, and others who died for the sake of truth. 

Pastor Mark Jones hopes that if a priest visits his step-father, the priest will see Luther's book beside the bed and take up and read!

"I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club." So observed Luther on March 11th, 1522, in a sermon to Wittenberg parishioners. Though his point was rather obvious, Luther felt compelled to make it because in his absence from Wittenberg during the preceding ten months, certain persons had grown impatient with the progress of reformation in the city and had resorted to means of legal compulsion and/or violence to bring about the changes in doctrine and worship they desired.

Luther had, in fact, made the same point in a sermon to the same audience the preceding day. Having insisted in no uncertain terms upon the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, from which faith love for God and others as well as pure worship necessarily springs, Luther emphasized in that earlier sermon that such faith itself properly springs from the proclamation of God's promises, not from the use of force: "I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith." Indeed, the use of force is ultimately, in Luther's estimation, unnecessary and unfruitful for the successful expansion of God's kingdom, because the divine word of promise -- first as it is encountered in Scripture and then as it is proclaimed by God's ordained ministers -- accomplishes that very task. "The Word created heaven and earth and all things; the Word must do this thing [i.e., achieve the conversion of men], and not we poor sinners." For our part "we should give free course to the Word and not add our works" -- that is, our means of coercion -- "to it." "We should," that is, "preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God's good pleasure."

Luther discovered a perfect example of the Word's ability to grow God's kingdom sans a baton or baseball bat in his own experience of the preceding years. "I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends..., the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything."

It's questionable whether Luther retained his position on the exclusive prerogative of the Word to accomplish the growth of Christ's kingdom in later years. Increasingly alarmed over time by the extreme efforts of Anabaptists to implement their own version of a spiritual/civil kingdom by force (which means, thankfully, they never possessed in sufficient measure), Luther grew ever more tolerant of the use of reciprocal force to keep the Anabaptists in line, civilly and (perhaps) religiously. One could, maybe, argue that his position remained consistent, and that the force against the Anabaptists he eventually endorsed was purely towards the end of political restraint rather than religious uniformity.

Regardless, the willingness Luther showed even in the 1520s to see civil offenders repressed by military/legal means reminds us that his doctrine of the Word's power was specifically a theological point about how Christ's kingdom is sustained and increased, not a generic endorsement of persuasion vis-à-vis coercion in every conceivable context.  A strong hand is sometimes required to keep wayward citizens -- or, for that matter, wayward children -- in line. Only the Word, however, can produce genuine faith, hope, and love directed towards God within a man, woman, or child.

Luther found a biblical example of the Word's exclusive power to bring about renewal and reform in the Acts 17 account of Paul's missionary work in Athens. "When Paul came to Athens, a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord."

Luther might, had he wished, have found a further illustration of his point in church history, from a consideration of how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries. The first three centuries of Christians spread the gospel exclusively by means of proclamation. Indeed, they had little choice. Because their newfound religion was deemed illegal, they were consistently marginalized from positions of political, social, or military influence, and were at least occasionally made the victims of intense persecution. They witnessed to the reality that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself with their lips and, on occasion, with their lives. By the very nature of their situation, they were prevented from promoting Christ's kingdom by establishing "Christian" nations or by commandeering the legislative or judicial machinery of existing states. Significantly, it was the greatest period of growth the Christian church has ever experienced, even in the absence of the factor of Wittenberg beer.

The early expansion of Christianity stands in marked contrast to the early expansion of Islam in this regard. From early on, Mohammed and his followers employed whatever military means they could muster to further the spread of their religion. Within a decade of Mohammed's death, Muslims had spread from their base in the Arabian Peninsula to conquer Palestine. Within little more than a century of Mohammed's death, Islam had conquered Syria, Persia, Northern Africa, and much of the Iberian Peninsula. All of this, of course, was by force, even if forced "conversions" as such grew thinner (being less politically expedient) the farther Islam stretched from its geographical home base. Such military accomplishments were remarkable, but not unprecedented (think, for example, of Alexander the Great), and thus no sure sign of divine favor. The rapid expansion of Christianity without means of force (indeed, in the presence of much persecution), by way of contrast, is remarkable, and arguably points to a providential kindness towards the doctrine championed by the earliest Christians.

Christians have rather often been a bit slow to learn the lesson that Luther, Scripture, and church history jointly teach us in this regard. The temptation to trust in force -- whether personal, financial, or political in kind -- for the expansion of Christ's kingdom, even when force is not actually employed, is constant. It is the flip-side of the temptation not to believe that God's Word can actually, in God's perfect timing, bring sinners into his Kingdom, or bring that Kingdom to its eschatological realization. One gauge of where our confidence for the success of the gospel actually lies might be the optimism/pessimism we feel over the outcome of political elections or particular pieces of government legislation. There is, of course, every reason to participate in political processes to bring about the best conceivable civil state for ourselves and our neighbors, believing and unbelieving alike. There is, equally, every reason not to get too worked up over either our successes or failures in such efforts; we are, after all, heirs of a kingdom which will not be achieved by political process, but will flourish through the proclamation of God's promise and the power of that proclamation to generate true (that is, justified, sanctified, and eventually glorified) citizens of the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Before we bid October 2014 adieu, and partly in recognition of today being "Reformation day," let me draw attention to the fact that this month marks the 485th anniversary of the Colloquy of Marburg -- that famous event in 1529 where Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli met and agreed to disagree on the subject of the Lord's Supper.

The Marburg Colloquy is often viewed as a colossal failure. In one sense, perhaps it was. The Northern German princes who had committed themselves to Luther's Reformation were undoubtedly disappointed that Luther and his ilk couldn't reach a perfect consensus on matters of faith with reformers from the Swiss cantons and free imperial cities to the south. Such theological consensus might have paved the way to a political and military alliance between the Swiss cantons and the Lutheran princes, who had rendered themselves rather vulnerable in the empire by their support for reform. It might also have persuaded the emperor, Charles V, that there was actually something to the reformers' criticisms of the institutional church. Charles could hardly have been impressed when, at the Diet of Augsburg one year later, he received competing calls for reform from Wittenberg, the southern German cities, and Zurich. Such disunity hardly spoke well of the evangelicals and their cause.

In another sense, however, the Marburg Colloquy was a roaring success. Defending that claim requires paying some attention to the half-decade leading up to Marburg, during which Luther and Zwingli traded published jabs at one another regarding the Lord's Supper. Luther held that Christ is genuinely present in, with, and under the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine; Christ is there to be offered as a precious gift to God's people in confirmation of God's promise of forgiveness to them. Zwingli took the line that the Eucharistic elements are merely commemorative symbols of Christ's body and blood, intended to incite faith and gratitude in God's people as they eat and drink these elements in remembrance of their Savior.

Noteworthy for gauging the success/failure of Marburg is not so much the specifics of these reformers' Eucharistic views but the manner of their interaction regarding them. Luther was convinced that Zwingli's doctrine of the Supper sold the Reformation farm (as it were), converting the Supper back into a work of the people (as it had been construed in medieval practice) when he had struggled so hard to highlight the Supper as a work of God for his people. He proceeded to label Zwingli "completely perverted," "unchristian," and "seven times worse than... a papist," and urged his readers to shun Zwingli's writings "like the prince of Hell's poison." Zwingli was never as gifted as Luther in name-calling, but he responded more or less in kind.

Against this backdrop, the decidedly charitable and moderate tone in which these reformers officially expressed their continuing disagreement on the Supper at Marburg is extraordinary. The participants at Marburg expressed their agreement on 14 articles of faith before turning, in their final article, to the subject of the Supper. Even with regard to the Supper they were able to express substantial agreement on certain points which jointly distinguished their doctrine from Roman teaching. Regarding their disagreement, they confessed the following:

Although at present we are not agreed as to whether the true body and blood are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless each party should show Christian love to the other, so far as conscience can permit, and both should fervently pray Almighty God that he, by His Spirit, would confirm us in the right opinion.

Again, given the terms of abuse Luther and Zwingli had traded on the basis of their disagreement up until this point, the shared acknowledgement of the need to exercise "Christian love" towards one another, which was implicitly an acknowledgement of the genuine Christian status of the other, was remarkable. So also was the joint confession of the need to seek the leading of God's Spirit in continued efforts to arrive at a true (and mutual) understanding. That confession was an acknowledgement that they couldn't both be right about the Supper, and an implicit acknowledgement on the part of each reformer that he could at least in theory be wrong.

I suggest that Marburg opened the door to a Protestant re-conceptualization of what Christian unity actually entails. Until this point the reformers had been acting on, even if they did not explicitly adopt, the principle that genuine Christian unity must proceed upon a basis of complete uniformity in conviction. Perhaps in this regard they were a bit hung over from the intoxicating nature of pre-Reformation "unity," which was typically achieved -- when push came to shove -- by an authoritarian imposition of uniform doctrine from above. Such imposed "unity," of course, was no more genuine than is the "peace" a parent imposes on squabbling kids in the back seat of a car by forcing everyone to shut up.

From Marburg onward, Protestants increasingly realized that genuine Christian unity must proceed on a basis of genuine agreement regarding certain conviction, but that it can comprise real diversity of opinion on some (secondary or non-fundamental, albeit significant) matters. Such a re-conceptualization of what Christian unity actually is allowed for the emergence of properly confessional identities -- the emergence, that is, of persons holding strong beliefs on a number of points who were, nonetheless, capable of acknowledge persons of other convictions as legitimate Christians.

But Christian unity thus described -- premised on uniformity regarding core doctrines and charitable disagreement regarding secondary issues -- is no easy thing to bring about; indeed, it can only ultimately be a work of the Spirit. Christian unity thus described is, however, something we as Christians are very directly and explicitly commanded to pursue (Eph. 4.3). That, quite frankly, seems to be something that we in the Reformed world regularly forget. Luther and Zwingli might provide some inspiration for us in this regard, no matter the merits of their interactions before or after Marburg.

One can't help wondering, as a final point, whether the charity and moderation that marked these reformers' interaction at Marburg in comparison to their literary spats had something to do with the fact that at Marburg they encountered one another face to face. It's one thing to label your opponent, who is concretely present to you only as words on a page, as unchristian and perverted from the safe enclosure of your home or office. It's another thing to call him unchristian and perverted to his face.

If so, one way we might ourselves labor to fulfill the imperative of Eph. 4.3 is by striving to make our interactions with one another -- especially when those interactions involve (theological) disagreement -- as personal as possible. Perhaps one of the greatest factors currently working against unity in the evangelical world is the reality of how impersonal our interactions have become. It's as easy for us to heap scorn on those with whom we differ from behind the safe glow of our computer screens as it was for Luther to disparage Zwingli from the safety of his study in Wittenberg. Perhaps we should, whenever possible, seek to channel disagreement into more concretely personal venues, or at the very least we might start regularly asking ourselves how our tone and words might change if we were interacting with a living, breathing person on the other side of, say, a dinner table, instead of some nebulous internet persona.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Here's a post on how to get a free audio download of a some key writings by Martin Luther.