Friday, August 14, 2009

Theology of Martin Luther: A Contemporary Interpretation

In the preface to Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Dr. Oswald Bayer raises the question whether Martin Luther was a systematic theologian in the sense of laying out a framework of loci, or an all-encompassing summa like Thomas Aquinas. Bayer suggests that with Luther, the character of theology is rather formed more organically by the experience of Scripture particularly the daily practice of praying the psalms, and a lifelong “intercourse” with the Word and promises of our Lord. In this way theology is not merely a set of theological propositions but rather the oratio, meditation, and tentatio in the Word made flesh – the pattern of hearing and laying claim to the promises of God within the drama and tension of faith.

The finest Luther scholarship will naturally move in one direction in their studies, toward Martin Luther the pastor. Bayer’s presentation of Luther’s theology captures the Pastoral Luther in a way that, I believe no other work has done. Bayer takes the brilliance of his theology and opens it up for a contemporary reader, who of necessity must grapple and confess in a religio-philosophical marketplace dominated by Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and the broader conclusions of the enlightenment.

Bayer identifies in Luther’s work the starting point of theology: the sinning human being and the God who justifies. The foundational motif of Luther’s theology is a “summons to freedom” which flows forth from “justification by faith alone.” Bayer sees in Luther’s explanation to the first article of the Creed the introduction of a theology of justification, coming into being ex nihilo, and “without any merit or worthiness in me.” Therefore creation must be confessed as an article of faith in the triune God who acts in both the old and new creation as one, who for Bayer, is “categorically the one who gives.”

“…justification is not simply an isolated topic, next to which other topics can exist, it has essential importance and is connected with every topic. Justification does not affect just my individual life, not even just the history of the world, but impacts the history of nature as well; it affects all things. It is thus not sufficient to speak of the article on justification solely as the articulus stantis et cadentis eccesiae – as the article on which the church stands and falls. Instead, the meaning of justification must be taken seriously in its breadth, with ramifications that have application for a theology of creation and for ontology. In a prominent position in the Smalcald Articles Luther says: ‘One cannot go soft or give way on this article, for then heaven and earth would fall.’ ‘Without the article on justification the world is nothing but death and darkness.”

There is an especially helpful treatment on the doctrine of the three estates, church, household, and government (status ecclesiasticus, status oeconomicus, status politicus), which provides a biblical and catechetical model for more fully opening up a robust theology of creation. Luther’s teaching on the three estates, though holding remarkable consistency and continuity throughout his career (from early Psalm lectures to Genesis lectures), have been largely neglected, with greater weight given toward two kingdom theology. By Luther’s own judgment, the catechetical unfolding of the three estates was more significant than the teaching about the two realms. The unintended consequence is that an overemphasis on the two kingdom theological framework often causes an irresponsible divorce of the “temporal” from the “spiritual” that profanes the former, creating a forced dichotomy in creation. Bayer’s succinct and insightful interpretation of the three estates provides a holistic way to look at God’s holy orders in the world as spaces of freedom granted by God out of pure goodness and mercy.

Over and above all else, this work serves as a theological handbook that drives at pastoral care, homiletics, and catechesis. I find three particular points of theological emphasis that frames Bayer’s work into an inexhaustible tool and reference for the cure of souls. The first point is that Bayer identifies in Luther’s theology the reformational hermeneutical breakthrough that God is bound up inextricably in a word of promise. The Triune God exists as a linguistic speech event, narrated by the person of Jesus Christ in His Word and Sacraments. The linguistic speech events – that of baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s Supper actually bring about a new state of affairs which has not existed previously. Though this may seem a rather intuitive idea, we must confess and teach among a theological battleground still is many ways dominated by the work of Bultmann and Schleiermacher, both of whom were occupied with moving beyond the text, seeking either an existential or transcendental experience in the religious consciousness or affection. In so doing the church erroneously seeks to move beyond Christ our Lord himself, and therefore also the sure forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the dead.

Secondly, Bayer highlights Luther’s understanding of sin and the bound will, as to its constitutive role in all theology. The perversion of the human will is taken seriously as to its implications in how we confess and appropriate the work of Jesus Christ. Thirdly, Bayer provides a fresh way of thinking about the brilliance of Luther’s theology and moves the struggles that he engaged with into a contemporary context which both addresses like-struggles and also new ones – with new philosophical and theological foes to deal with.

The spirit in which Bayer engages the modern and post-modern mind is not in intellectual loftiness but rather in the wisdom of confession – making particular use of the Small Catechism. In March of 2009 I had the pleasure of attending an international conference on the work of Johann Georg Hamann held at Hunter College at the University of New York, of which Oswald Bayer provided the keynote address. His own work and presentation of Lutheran theology is evangelically directed in such a way that it greets the ontological and soteriological curiosities of our time in a way that confesses the gift and wisdom of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, by speaking simultaneously to our contemporary situation in a faithful and enlightening way.

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