Dominus Mortis

Robert Jenson

David J. Luy.  Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ.  Fortress, 2014. 266 pp. $24.99/£24.99

 Professor Luy's book has a mostly polemical scope: refuting an interpretation of Luther's Christology and deploring  a strain of systematics that invokes it, both of which he fears are becoming dominant.  He labels the Luther-interpretation the "divergence" interpretation, since it views Luther as radically, and beneficently, diverging  from all previous christological tradition.  The divergence concerns God the Son's relation to suffering in general and death in particular.

It is ecumenical teaching that Christ passus est secundum humanitatem, suffered death "according to" his humanity.  The targets of Luy's polemic claim that Luther in effect paired this with a secundun deitatem, in a parallel sense of secundum.  Indeed, Luther  is said by them to teach that Christ's divine nature suffered per se, sheerly as such.  Luy grants that the divergers' theological purpose is in itself the laudable one of unambiguously confessing Christ's salvific solidarity with dying and suffering humankind.  But achieving this by positing a suffering divine nature is not, he argues, in fact supported by Luther-texts that may seem to, and unnecessarily so, break the historical continuity of  Christian teaching.

Ecumenical agreement states: Christ can and does suffer death secundum deitatem, on account of having human nature. Can we also say that in the Incarnation the same has become true also with respect to his divine nature?  According to the divergers, Luther did.

Disclosure. I appear in this book - in a thankfully minor way - among the divergers.  And I suspect that may be why I was asked to write this review; the editor perhaps hoping for some entertaining fireworks.  If so, I will disappoint him; for I fear I do not in fact qualify for Luy's list of malefactors. I certainly do not posit a secundum deitatem in parallel with the ecumenical secundum humanitatem. Nor do I think that Luther did, or anyway have not for decades thought so. That Luy has got me wrong is also suggested by the circumstance that his general Jenson-interpretation appears to be provided by Scott Swain's book. So I have no dog in this fight.

With that out of the way, what of the argument?  Luther certainly does talk an awful lot, and with notable vehemence, about God suffering death on the cross and Luy faithfully cites striking passages to make this position. But then he shows that medieval theologians often spoke in the same way. The medievals justified and interpreted such language by the ancient doctrines that Christ's humanity has no independent hypostasis, and is supported in being by the hypostasis of his divine nature.  And Luy shows that Luther also maintained these doctrines. All this is done at great and detailed length - let the reader be warned about that.

My judgment is: any who do hold the "divergence" interpretation of Luther are indeed well and truly  refuted.  And yet I am uneasy about just leaving it at that. 

For one bothersome thing,  Luy's analyses are pervasively conducted in terms of the relation between God's "transcendence" and his "immanence."  Sometimes, I suppose, one might use this language, but properly speaking God does not need to transcend, to go beyond, anything. Where would he start from? Nor is his presence in his creatures  exactly  a remaining in them.  And anyway these notions are in general too uncontrollable for use as analytical tools or markers in serious argument. 

So I do wonder how Luy's argument would work out if undertaken in more usable theological concepts, such as, for example ,identity,  person. and community. I wonder if we might not see a more interesting Luther emerge -  also perhaps with respect to divine suffering - than the rather pedestrian teacher who appears in Luy's pages.

Then there is the fact that medievals and Luther shared the affirmation of  inherited teaching that Christ's humanity lacked  its own hypostasis and was supported in being by the hypostasis of his deity, invoked as a key step in Luy's argument. This doctrine can, however, and also among the medievals did accommodate logically quite different discourses. And philosophers among Luther's immediate epigones judged that this was the case between Luther's and usual medieval affirmations of the shared propositions.  Luy does not delve into such history.  Again, if one did, the divergers themselves would still stand refuted, but livelier views of Luther's thinking might open, including of his thinking about divine suffering.

But finally - my worries registered - do read Dominus Mortis, a great title that embodies Luy's own laudable concern. You will learn a lot. I did.

Robert Jenson is Professor Emeritus of Religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota