Friday, February 03, 2006

The Promise, Ex Opere Operato, and "Performative Word" in Luther's Thought

The central image of Martin Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church is the idea of the church being despoiled of her birthright and brought into slavery. Interestingly, he introduces this picture just when he comes to the idea of the mass as being efficacious ex opere operato, "by the work performed." In this view point, performance of the Mass not only nourishes the faith of the recipients, but as a propitiatory sacrifice also generates merit which may be applied to those absent or dead in purgatory. This merit is made by the simple performance of the Mass and may applied to whomever the Mass is dedicated to. The original use of the term was emphasize that the goodness or evil of the priest did not derogate from the sacrament's validity -- a point Augsburg Evangelicals have not problem with. But it was also associated with the belief that the Mass propitiatied God and could be performed for the benefit of those absent (especially in purgatory). It was Luther's conviction throughout his life that this was the worst blasphemy of the Mass:

Hence we see how angry God is with us, in that he has permitted godless teachers to conceal the words of this testament [Christ's words of institution] from us, and thereby, as much as in them lay, to extinguish faith. And the inevitable result of this extinguishing of faith is even now plainly to be seen, namely, the most godless supersitition of works. For when faith dies and the word of faith is silent, works and the traditions of works immediately crowd into their place. [Emphasis added; I think this sentence ought to be as well known as "the law always accuses" or "Law and Gospel" as a succint summary of Evangelical teaching.] By them we have been carried away out of our own land, as in a Babylonian captivity, and despoiled of all our precious possessions. This has been the fate of the mass; it has been converted by the teaching of godless men into a good work, which they themselves call an opus operatum [a work performed] and by which they presumptuously imagine themselves all-powerful with God. Thereupon they proceeded to the very height of madness, and having invented the lie that the mass works ex opere operato [ simply by virtue of being performed], they asserted further that it is none the less profitable to others, even if it be harmful to the wicked priest celebrating it. On such a foundation of sand they base their applications, participations, sodalities, anniversaries, and numberless other money-making schemes (pp. 156-57).

Luther then returns to his constant theme, that the mass, like all of God's gracious dealings with man is a promise and thus shares the character of a promise. This character clearly excludes any sense of merit being made by the recipient of the promise:

We have seen that the mass is nothing else than the divine promise or testament of Christ, sealed with the sacrament of His body and blood. If that is true, you will understand that it cannot possibly be both a work, and that there is nothing to do in it, nor can it be dealt with in any other way than by faith alone. And faith is not a work, but the mistress and life of all works. [Emphasis added; another little known Luther gem.] Where in all the world is there a man so foolish as to regard a promise made to him, or a testament [i.e. will or bequest] given to him, as a good work which by his acceptanc of it he renders to the testator? What heir will imagine he is doing his departed father a kindness by accepting the terms of the will and the inheritance bequeathed to him? What godless audacity is it, therefore, when we who are to receive the testament of God come as those who would perform a good work for Him! This ignorance of the testament, this captivity of the sacrament -- are they not too sad for tears? When we ought to be grateful for benefits receive, we come in our pride to give that which we ought to take, mocking with unheard-of perversity the mercy of the Giver, by giving as a work the thing we receive as a gift; so that the testator, instead of being the dispenser of His own goods, becomes the recipient of ours. Out upon such godless doings! (p. 157).

Luther then makes a comparison with baptism. As he will later explain, he regards baptism as the only sacramental action of the church which had not being taken into such Babylonian captivity, and which had preserved its original meaning as a promise to be received, not a meritorious work to be done.

Who has ever been so mad as to regard baptism as a good work, or to believe that by being baptized he was performing a work which he might offer to God for himself and communicate to others? [Today's credo-baptist Christians, that's who, and all the other people who see baptismal regeneration as somehow compromising justification by faith alone.] If, therefore, there is no good work that can be communicated to others in this one sacrament or testament, neither will there be any in the mass, since it too is nothing else than a testament and sacrament. Hence it is a manifest and wicked error to offer or apply masses for sins, for satisfactions, for the dead, of for any necessity whatsoever of one's own or others (pp. 157-58).

Luther then enunciates it as a principle, that the promise of God must be received in faith by each individual for himself. No one can believe for another:

Therefore let this irrefutable truth stand fast. Where there is a divine promise everyone must stand upon his own feet, everyone's personal faith is demanded, everyone will give an account for himself and will bear his own burden, as it is said in the last chapter of Mark: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Even so everyone may derive a blessing from the mass for himself alone and only by his own faith, and no one can commune for any other; just as the priest cannot administer the sacrament to anyone in another's stead, but administers the same sacrament to each individual by himself (pp. 158-59).

Who can receive or apply, in behalf of another, the promise of God, which demands the personal faith of every individual? Can I give to another what God has promised, even if he does not believe? Can I believe for another what God has promised, even if he does not believe? Can I believe for another, or cause another to believe? But this is what I must do if I am able to apply and communicate the mass to others; for there are but two things in the mass -- the promise of God, and the faith of man which takes that which the promise offers (p. 158).

In any conversation between Augsburg Evangelicals and Reformed and revivalistic Christians, these passages must be always kept in view. Despite the impression sometimes given (by opponents and even by some well-meaning defenders of the Lutheran position), Luther's belief in the objectivity of grace is not bought at the price of making faith unnecessary. Far from it, as we see here. Justification by faith apart from any works, and the objectivity of the promise of forgiveness in baptism and Holy Communion are both asserted clearly and compatably at one and the same time. The key to understanding how this can be is that for Luther, sacramental grace is objective because Christ's universal atonement means that He has mercy on all, desires the salvation of all and gives the promise to all. While rarely if ever mentioned by Luther, this is the taken-for-granted foundation of his thought.

In Pontifications, the Pontificator has recently summarized a very fine article by Philip Cary, on the differing syllogisms that the Reformed and Augsburg Evangelicals use in reaching assurance of salvation:

Reformed syllogism:
Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Major Premise: Christ promises absolution of sins to those who believe in him.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

Evangelical syllogism
Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

Major Premise: Christ says to me, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

But Cary (and the Pontificator) also brought in the concept of the performative word as Luther's modification of ex opere operato. The Pontificator's post wrote “But Luther reconstrues the ex opere operato as performative word: The sacraments do not work impersonally but work precisely because they speak God’s promise. They are an embodied form of first- and second-person discourse. Because they are external to the hearer, they are objectively present for faith.” As I noted in the comment box, I believe that seeing baptism and absolution as "performative word" (a word that effects what it states, as when one with the proper authority says "I now declare you husband and wife," he is not describing a fact, but bringing a new state into existence) distorts Luther’s thought in a subtle but significant way.

Of course baptism and the Lord’s Supper objectively speak grace. But Luther’s view of them, as I have emphasized all along, is that they are both simply species of the genus “promise.” Preaching the Gospel (in the Lutheran sense, of Christ’s unconditional promise of pardon and peace) is a promise, and baptism is the same thing, only with a visible sign (water) attached to it. Like any promise, however, if I do not believe I need it, I will not pay any attention to it (i.e. those who believe they are already in God’s favor simply for being who they are, pay no attention to His promise of pardon and peace). In this connection I really don’t see what the concept of “performative word” or any “ex opere operato” however modified, actually adds to the concept of promise.

Indeed, such a broadcast promise as baptism and Gospel preaching is can have reality only if every individual on both sides (the preacher and the preached to) can be utterly sure that Jesus really meant this promise to apply to this particular person. But to deal with this problem, Luther’s theology does indeed have a syllogism:

Major Premise: Jesus promise to every single child of Adam His pardon and favor
Minor Premise: Christopher Atwood is a child of Adam
Conclusion: Therefore Jesus promises to me, Christopher Atwood, his pardon and favor.

Since the Reformed do not believe the major premise, this syllogism cannot work for them.

Cary is of course correct that the intent of Lutheran preaching is to prevent the need for such syllogisms. The point about first and second person discourse is great. But certainly from the point of view of Luther’s own theological structure, and (I think) from the point of view of the Bible and evangelical theological, it is this syllogism, not a kind of combination of ex opere operato with performative word that undergirds the confidence a Lutheran pastor can have that when he baptizes a baby he cannot possibly be acting beyond his powers. It is not that the pastor has a power derived from Christ to address the promise of Christ to this child of Adam and not to that one, a promise which then “performatively” transforms the recipient, it is that this promise is to be given indiscriminately to all who want it; what then transforms the recipient is faith in the promise and the rebirth through the Holy Spirit, who always goes with this proclamation. The contrast with marriage (the prime example of "performative word") is striking: justices of the peace or pastors do not go around indiscriminately declaring men and women to be husband and wife, and then seeing who believes it and lives accordingly. No, they must first see if the couple fit the criteria, and then selecting those two people out of all the crowd, and make them married. Although both the wedding service and baptism make use of the personal name, they do so in very different ways.

This "indiscriminateness" of the promise becomes particularly clear in absolution, where the Lutheran pastor is under an obligation to proclaim Christ’s pardon to whoever needs it, and has no power to extend or withhold forgiveness based on his perception of the degree or sincerity of contrition. Jesus’s universal atonement covers every sin, but unbelief, and the Lutheran pastor can never make an error in announcing it to any sinner — all he can do is try to address it to those who need it and will believe it.

This is why any discussion of Luther’s theology of predestination that does not underline universal atonement fundamentally misunderstands the whole foundation of Luther’s theology.

The next issue to discuss is how Luther thought the then traditional notions of sacrifice and the prayer of the mass were to be understood, and a final consideration of the significance of the body and blood of Christ in the mass.

Previous post in this series here.