Thursday, August 11, 2005

Luther, Theologian of Filiality

What makes Luther’s theology special? To me, Luther stands out for his deep consciousness of filiality as the foundation of the moral life. Look at how filial devotion runs through his theology. It is no surprise that Luther saw the Christian life beginning with infant baptism, that rite in which Christian parents pass on, half trembling with anxiety for their future in this wicked world, the one most precious gift they can command to their children. Luther's devotion to his parents taught him skepticism toward any claimed virtuous way of life that would abrogate childrens' obligations to their parents. (One of the most homely, yet touching, images of the Reformation is the relief Luther’s father, the miner Hans, felt on Luther renouncing his monastic vows and marrying; now Hans and Margaretha would be taken care of in their old age!) The thinly veiled attack on "bourgeois" family life and the glorification of adolescent rebellion sometimes found in monastic saints’ lives – joining the monastery was a good way to get away from obnoxious parents – was something completely alien to his spirituality. Filiality also meant reverence and honor for the temporal authorities who are fathers to the people, and Luther’s filial loyalism was offended by the humiliations the Popes had dealt out to the German emperors in past centuries. Loving one parents all through one's life must encompass loving the world and daily life into which one was born and being thankful for the simple things which we children receive from our mothers and fathers: daily meals, shoes, kisses, cuffs, instruction, blankets and bedding, a last name and a reputation. Isn’t this the root of the lay-centered spirituality of the Reformation? And wasn’t his high view of marriage also related to his recognition that what every mother and father wants most from their children is not a monk's cowl but grandchildren? Finally filiality shaped Luther’s vision of original sin, which consisted fundamentally in being by nature a child who neither acknowledges nor recognizes his Father. Children do naturally fear, love, and trust their parents (although hardly as they ought), but they don’t do the same for their heavenly Father. Thus for Luther, the idea that one could be a "good person" without loving and trusting in God was as nonsensical as saying one could be a good child without loving and trusting in your own mother and father. Thus original sin–this cursed ability to live perfectly well without ever knowing or acknowledging one’s heavenly Father–was no external burden but a deep sin and guilt.

For all these reasons I call Luther the theologian of filiality. (One can reread his exposition of the Fourth Commandment here.)

Originally posted at Here We Stand.