Saturday, August 13, 2005

Luther Between East and West

I just finished reading Hermann Sasse's This Is My Body: Luther's Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar (one of Josh's big influential books), and I thought I would highlight a few of the more fascinating insights. The meat of the book is the translation of the actual words of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 when Luther and Zwingli met and came to their famous inability to reconcile. That part can't be summarized, you've just got to read it for yourself. Along the way, however, Dr. Sasse throws out a number of fascinating sidelights, which I am blogging in this and the previous two posts.

While in some ways, the Lutheran church may be seen as a "hyper-Latin" church, Sasse convincingly shows that in others it represents a western revival or transplantation of the Greek patristic tradition. In some areas, Luther and the Lutheran church held strongly to the Latin father Augustine, but in others they implicitly rejected Augustine's authority.

Latin Features

Although Sasse does not deal with this topic, Luther's understanding of the bondage of the will and the complete gratuity of grace is clearly Augustinian.

Specifically with regard to the sacrament, Luther and Lutheranism have adhered tenaciously to the idea that the words of institution, rather than any invocation of the Holy Spirit (called in Greek an epiclesis) are what consecrate the bread and wine (see pp. 22-23, 137, etc.). Curiously Sasse himself links this teaching on the consecration with the Augustinian viewpoint of which he disapproves. He disagrees with Dix and seems to adhere to the view that the epiclesis was part of the primitive, most ancient liturgy. The Words of Institution without the epiclesis he treats as an African peculiarity (hence the connection to Augustine). In short he virtually implies that Lutherans too ought to have an epiclesis-style consecration (I'm a little skeptical on his history, here, and very much so on his connection of the Word of Institution-consecration to a "spiritualizing" view of the sacrament. More on this issue here.)

Greek Features

Sasse lays great stress on how Luther avoided the pernicious legacy of Augustine's definition of the sacraments in terms of visible "signs" of invisible grace (pp. 19-20, 300-04, 358-59; one of Josh's posts on theological method picked up on this theme). This way of teaching was followed by Aquinas and became a key presupposition of Zwinglian and Calvinist theology. Sasse first criticizes the whole idea of defining "sacraments" as a class first and then deducing the particular feature of each sacrament after that. He also criticizes the tendency of the "sign" viewpoint to empty the sacrament of its proper significance. He show that Luther, while never explicitly repudiating Augustine on this issue, never made significant use of either feature in the Augustinian doctrine of the sacraments. Sasse much prefers the Greek idea of mysteria, which covers concepts such as the Trinity as well. He also offers (p. 316 n. 48) his own eschatological definition of a sacrament: "a sacrament is an action instituted by Christ in which we receive even now, under earthly signs or actions, the gifts of our future salvation."

Sasse also notes that Luther belongs to the tradition of sacramental realism, rather to what he calls the spiritualizing understanding of the sacrament (pp. 147-50, 313-14). In the former, the physicality of the sacrament is important, while in the latter, the physicality is only a sign of the invisible reality. (Realism in this sense must not be understood apart from the Word.) The key mark of the realist view is the confession that Holy Communion is "the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death" and the ingestion of Christ's true body and blood is in some mysterious way directly linked to the resurrection of our own body on the Last Day. As he notes Augustine does not use these terms or concepts, while Thomas Aquinas allowed them only in a most indirect fashion. Later, diverse Catholic and Lutheran writers have both rejected and embraced these two points.

Finally, Luther understood Christ's sitting at the right hand of God in the illocal (no specific place) sense that John of Damascus taught, in which the "right hand of God" is the fullness of God's power and glory, and rejected the idea of His body being solely present locally in heaven (pp. 100, 118-20, 127 n. 53). As he shows, this local idea of the "right hand of God" was taught by both Augustine and Aquinas, whom Zwingli eagerly cited to prove his view that Christ's body could not be on earth.

Originally posted at Here We Stand