Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Florilegium on Luther's Theodicy

Way back when ( a couple of months ago, at least), I wrote a bit about Luther's feeling bad, and similar parallels to this feeling bad in other Christian and intertestamental writers. I put a polemic spin on it, and a few Catholic bloggers (here and here) responded by saying that I had obviously mistook the nature of Luther's feeling bad. Luther's feeling bad, they insisted was the purely personal issue of assurance -- I feel bad because I worry that God is going to damn me, personally. (Implication: Luther was unbalanced and spiritually rather self-centered.) What I had tried to say (here) is that Luther's problem of assurance ("How Do I Get a Gracious God?") and its famous solution ("justification by faith alone") is actually less fundamental than his problem of theodicy ("How Can a God Be Just Who Damns Those Who Cannot Help Sinning?") and its not so famous solution (that the man Jesus Christ loves and died for all Adam's race).

In fact the points I was trying to make are not very different from those made by David S. Yeago, in an article in First Things on "The Catholic Luther." In this article, Yeago explained that Luther's early issue was not "How Do I Get a Gracious God" but rather "How Do I Get the Real God?" His answer, early on, was by adopting Augustinianism: the double-predestinating God of Augustinianism is so scary it must be real:

How can we tell that we are really clinging to God and not to an idol of our own? Luther answers that the gracious presence of the true God is so excruciatingly painful and distastefully unpalatable to our nature that we can have no imaginable self-interested motivation for enduring it. . . . The problem is that we do not want to come into God's presence for God's sake, but for the sake of all the good things He can do for us: we want to use God. And Luther answers: If it is really God, then He will crucify and torture you as He did Christ, your pattern, and thus leave you no reason to cling to Him except for His own sweet sake.

Yeago then goes on to say that this point of view was quite comforting and satisfactory for Luther:

It has sometimes been assumed that this theology, and the piety of humble submission to spiritual suffering that accompanies it, must have been so tormenting that it only added fuel to Luther's spiritual agony and his quest for a gracious God. But there is little warrant for this in the texts. On the contrary, Luther seems to have found it comforting. Even though it forbids the undialectical confidence in God's mercy that Luther later came to teach, it nonetheless allows the sinner yearning for God under the cross a sort of paradoxical assurance, a sense of being at least in the appropriate place before God, which sustains the heart and enables it to endure to the end.

Well, I disagree. First of all, we have Luther's explicit testimony that this comfort came after Augustinianism pushed him into the "deepest pit of despair" (see selection 3 below) -- this passage in fact is closely paralleled by a similar one in his Commentary on Romans, chapter 9. (I may dig that up and post it some time soon -- I'm away from my usual library.) Secondly, one should ask oneself, if this solution was so satisfying, why did Luther eventually come to preach a different one? That solution in which he came to in the end is the rejection of all speculation about God in Himself, and about whether He can be seen or treated as just by the philosopher or theologian who does not start from His incarnation.

Yeago gives us no real reason to assume that the Augustinian -- indeed Edwardsian -- Luther is more worthy of consideration than the later Luther. I rather doubt that Yeago is really advocating Edwards-style preaching of divine sovereignty apart from the incarnation. Rather the whole point of the article seems to be to knock down what he calls the "the standard Protestant reading" of Luther and make sure no other usable reading is in its place. My point here is to start where Yeago left off and watch Luther as he revisits and reframes the question of Augustinian theodicy, to retain God's sovereignty, but to always place before our eyes His humanity. (Is this the solution Yeago is calling "undialectical"?) Of course, this was the solution in part because he could not reject the Biblical testimony that universalism and free will were not the solutions.

Here I present a florilegium of nine passages from his Bondage of the Will which present the problem of theodicy -- what I contend is the real, albeit covert, theme of the whole book. Free will is taught, he contends, in the end because no other teaching seems to man's intellect to acquit God of the charge of being unjust. But to make free will the reason why some are saved and some aren't, he argues, makes God no longer God. So what theodicy does he present? That of leaving God God, but insisting that He is also the Son of Man.

1) So it is 'absurd' [says Erasmus] to condemn one who cannot avoid deserving damnation. And because of this 'absurdity' it must be false that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and hardens whom He will. He must be brought to order! Rules must be laid down for Him, and He is not to damn any but those who have deserved it by our reckoning! . . . Suppose we imagine that God ought to be a God who regards merit in those that are to be damned. Must we not equally maintain and allow that He should also regard merit in those that are to be saved? If we want to follow Reason, it is as unjust to reward the undeserving as to punish the undeserving. (p. 233)

2) You may be worried that it is hard to defend the mercy and equity of God in damning the undeserving, that is, ungodly persons, who, being born in ungodliness, can by no means avoid being ungodly, and staying so, and being damned, but are compelled by natural necessity to sin and perish; as Paul says: 'We were all children of wrath, even as others,' created such by God Himself from a seed that had been corrupted by the sin of the one man, Adam. But here God must be reverenced and held in awe, as being most merciful to those whom He justifies and saves in their own utter unworthiness; and we must show some measure of deference to His Divine wisdom by believing Him just when He seems unjust. If His justice were such as could be adjudged just by human reckoning, it clearly would not be Divine; it would in no way differ from human justice. But inasmuch as He is the one true God, wholly incomprehensible and inaccessible to man's understanding, it is reasonable, indeed inevitable, that His justice should be incomprehensible; as Paul cries, saying: 'O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!. They would not, however, be 'unsearchable' if we could at every point grasp the grounds on which they are just. What is man compared with God? . . . If, now, even nature teaches us to acknowledge that human power, strength, wisdom, knowledge, and substance, and all that is ours, is as nothing compared with the Divine power, strength, wisdom, knowledge, and substance, what perversity is it on our part to worry at the justice and the judgment of the only God, and to arrogate so much to our own judgment as to presume to comprehend, judge, and evaluate God's judgment (pp. 314-15).

3) Doubtless it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, Who is proclaimed as being full of mercy and goodness, and so on, should of His own mere will abandon, harden, and damn men, as though he delighted in the sins and great eternal torments of such wretches. It seems an iniquitous, cruel, intolerable thought to think of God; and it is this that has been a stumbling block to so many great men down the ages. And who would not stumble at it? I have stumbled at it myself more than once, down to the deepest pit of despair, so that I wish I had never been made a man. (That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was and how close to grace.) This is why so much toil and trouble has been devoted to clearing the goodness of God, and throwing the blame on man's will. It is at this point that distinctions have been invented between God's will of appointment and absolute will, between necessity of consequence and of things consequent, and many more such. But nothing has been achieved by means of them beyond imposing upon the unlearned by empty verbiage . . . None the less, the arrow of conviction has remained, fastened deep in the hearts of the learned and unlearned alike, whenever they have made a serious approach to the matter, so that they are aware that, if the foreknowledge and omnipotence of God are admitted, then we must be under necessity (pp. 217-18).

4) God conceals His eternal mercy and loving kindness beneath eternal wrath, his righteousness beneath unrighteousness. Now the highest degree of faith is to believe that He is merciful, though He saves so few and damns so many; to believe that He is just, though of His own will He makes us perforce proper subjects for damnation and seems (in Erasmus's words) 'to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.' If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith (p. 101).

5) When, now [Erasmus's] Diatribe reasons thus: 'Does the righteous Lord deplore the death of His people which He Himself works in them? This seems too ridiculous' -- I reply, as I have already said: we must discuss God, or the will of God, preached, revealed, offered to us, and worshipped by us, in one way, and God not preached, nor revealed, nor offered to us, nor worshipped by us, in another way. Wherever God hides Himself, and wills to be unknown to us, there we have no concern. Here that sentiment: 'What is above us does not concern us,' really holds good . . . . Now God, in His own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish us to deal with Him. We have to do with Him as clothed and displayed in His Word, by which He presents Himself to us. That is His glory and beauty, in which the Psalmist procalaims Him to be clothed (cf. Ps. 21:5). I say that the righteous God does not deplore the death of His people which He Himself works in them, but He deplores the death which He finds in His people and desire to remove from them. God preached works to the end that sin and death may be taken away, and we may be saved. 'He sent His word and healed them' (Ps. 107:20). But God hidden in Majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life, and death, and all in all; nor has He set bounds to Himself by His Word, but has kept Himself free over all things (pp. 169-70).

6) I say, as I said before, that we may not debate the secret will of the Divine Majesty, and that the recklessness of man, who shows unabated perversity in leaving necessary matters for an attempted assault on that will, should be withheld and restrained from employing itself in searching out those secrets of Divine Majesty; for man cannot attain unto them, seeing that, as Paul tells us (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16), they dwell in inaccessible light. But let man occupy himself with God Incarnate, that is, with Jesus crucified, in whom, as Paul says (cf. Col. 2:3), are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (though hidden); for by Him man has abundant instruction both in what he should and what he should not know.

7) Here, God Incarnate says [to unrepentant Jerusalem]: 'I would, and the thou wouldst not.' God Incarnate, I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit He offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God's secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering. As John says: 'The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not' (John 1:5). And again: 'He came unto His own, and His own received Him not' (v. 11). It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish. Nor is it for us to ask why He does so, but to stand in awe of God, Who can do, and wills to do such thing. . . . Thus all that has been offered to men through the ministry of the Word from the beginning of the world may rightly be called the will of Christ.

8) But here Reason, in her knowing and talkative way, will say: 'This is a nice way out that you have invented -- that, whenever we are hard pressed by force of arguments [that seem to impute injustice to God], we run back to that dreadful will of Majesty, and reduce our adversary to silence when he becomes troublesome . . . I reply: This is not my invention, but a command grounded on the Divine Scriptures. In Rom. 11, Paul says, "Why then does God find fault? Who shall resist His will? O man, who are thou that contendest with God? Hath not the potter power?' and so on (Rom. 9:19, 21). . . . I think these words make it clear enough that it is not lawful for men to search into the will of Majesty (pp. 175-77)

9) I will give a parallel case, in order to strengthen our faith in God's justice, and to reassure that 'evil eye' which hold Him under suspicion of injustice. Behold! God governs the external affairs of the world in such a way that, if you regard and follow the judgment of human reason, you are forced to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust; as the poet said: 'I am often tempted to think there are no gods.' See the great prosperity of the wicked, and by contrast the great advesity of the good. Proverbs, and experience, the parent of proverbs, bear record that the more abandoned men are, the more successful they are. . . . Is it not, pray, universally held to most unjust that bad men should prosper, and good men be afflicted? Yet that is the way of the world. Hereupon some of the greatest minds have fallen into denying the existence of God, and imagining that Chance governs all things at random. [He cites Epicurus, Pliny, and Aristotle in different ways]. And the Prophets, who believed in God's existence, were still more tempted concerning the injustice of God. . . . Yet all this, which looks so much like injustice in God, and is traduced as such by arguments which no reason or light of nature can resist, is most easily cleared up by the light of the gospel and the knowledge of grace which teaches us that . . .: There is a life after this life; and all that is not punished and repaid here will be punished and repaid there; for this life is nothing more than a precursor, or, rather, a beginning, of the life that is to come.

If, now, this problem, which was debated in every age but never solved, is swept away and settled so easily by the light of the gospel, shines only in the Word and to faith, how do you think it will be when the light of the Word and faith shall cease, and the real facts and the Majesty of God, shall be revealed as they are? (pp. 315-16).