Posts tagged with: martin luther

In a plenary address a couple weeks back to the Evangelical Theological Society, law professor and journalist Hugh Hewitt spoke about the religious affiliation of political candidates and to what extent this should be considered in the public debate (Melinda at Stand To Reason summarizes and comments here). In advance of his forthcoming book, A Mormon in the White House?: 10 Things Every Conservative Should Know about Mitt Romney, Hewitt used Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as an example as to why evangelical Christians should not withhold their votes for a particular presidential candidate purely based on theological disagreement.

In the intervening time, the so-called “Mormon question” has received a great deal of media attention. (Hewitt says that yesterday was “a day of interviews about and with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.”) Here’s just one example, Time magazine’s story, “Can a Mormon be President? Why Mitt Romney will have to explain a faith that remains mysterious to many.”

A number of people, including Glenn Reynolds, have wondered about the potential hypocrisy in examining Romney’s Mormonism so closely, while apparently giving a free pass to politicians like Harry Reid. But for Hewitt, the appropriate treatment of a Mormon politician would look more like the reception Reid has gotten than the scrutiny that Romney has gotten.

Hewitt’s argument goes like this: if the long knives are brought out by Christians to attack Romney on the basis of his religious commitments, it won’t be long before secularists attack Christians on similar grounds. This is a sort of “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” argument, and it is one that is shared by “Evangelicals for Mitt,” who note that most of the objections to Romney’s fitness for the presidency are on theological matters that are “absolutely irrelevant to the presidency.”

David French of “Evangelicals for Mitt” does address one of the questions I had coming out of the Hewitt talk, which was whether Hewitt’s claims that the religious and theological commitments of candidates should be off-limits was true for practitioners of all religions (or even strands of individual religions). French writes, “Let me be clear: I am not saying that theology is never relevant. When theology dictates policy, it is fair and proper for a voter to take that theology into account.”

These are not the types of theological issues to which evangelicals are taking offense, however. Says French, “The questions we receive deal with the Mormon view of the Trinity, the Mormon doctrine of salvation, the Mormon view of the afterlife, etc. Not only are these questions not relevant to the presidency (though certainly relevant if the Governor were applying to be your pastor), by even attempting to inject them into the debate evangelicals play a dangerous game. Do we think we can reject a candidate for theological reasons and then cry foul if the media or political opponents attack our own theology?”

This distinction between theological positions that bear directly on matters of public policy and ones that do not may indeed be helpful in distinguishing when it is appropriate to discuss faith commitments ad hominem. It would certainly seem to distinguish Romney’s Mormonism from, say, an Islamo-fascist faith which would attempt to impose and enforce Sharia law with government coercion.

Moreover, disqualification of Romney simply on the basis of his Mormon faith is a mark of a theocratic tendency which holds that only Christians are fit to rule. An apocryphal saying attributed to Martin Luther is his expression that he would “rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” We’ll get to more of what Luther actually did say about Islam in a bit. But for the moment, let’s reflect on how this sentiment bears on the conversation.

The idea is essentially that the office of government can be rightly exercised by those who from the Christan perspective hold heretical theological views. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The state possesses its character as government independently of the Christian character of the persons who govern. There is government also among the heathen.”

Acknowledging this truth does not mean that it is of no consequence whether the politician is or is not a Christian. It may simply be of no political consequence. “Certainly the persons who exercise government ought also to accept belief in Jesus Christ, but the office of government remains independent of the religious decision,” says Bonhoeffer.

Back to Luther. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 6, 2006

This article by Mary D. Gaebler, visiting assistant professor of theological ethics at Gustavus Adolphus College, “Eros in Benedict and Luther,” from the Journal of Lutheran Ethics argues, “Lutherans, insofar as they derive their theology from Luther, should welcome Pope Benedict’s Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Luther, I think, would find this latest word from the Vatican surprisingly congenial.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

One of Gaebler’s main goals is refuting the interpretation of Luther characterized by the work of Anders Nygren, which radically dichotomizes the concepts of agape and eros. She asks whether Luther “categorically” rejects “the kind of self-love that Benedict points to in his use of the term eros? There is much in Luther’s work to suggest that he does not. My own reading points to a more Catholic Luther on this matter of eros, particularly in his mature work.”

The crux of the argument is whether, as Benedict states, “Fundamentally ‘love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions. At different times one or [an]other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions [eros and agape] are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love.”

Whereas Nygren argues that Luther finds no legitimate place for erotic love, Gaebler says that in Luther’s later and mature theology (during and after the 1520s), “Here we see the very interesting conflation between caring for others on the one hand, and preserving one’s own life on the other. No longer does the earlier “either/or” duality define the character of an action. No longer a matter of either self or neighbor, now both neighbor and self are addressed in God’s command to protect life.”

The strict and radical opposition and separation of agape and eros and the characterization of the former as divine and the latter as merely sinful is simply untenable. You can find great evidence for erotic elements of divine love, I think, in the covenant language of the Old Testament and the corresponding concept of chesed, or covenant-love. The Puritans certainly place a lot of emphasis on this and biblical wedding imagery.

In conclusion, I’d like to pass along this bit from Jonathan Edwards that seems to agree with both Luther and Benedict on this point (contra Nygren). It is taken from his Miscellanies (no. 301) and is titled “Man’s Nature, Self-Love, and Sin”: (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 25, 2006


The amount of media attention over the past week’s devoted to President Bush’s utterance of a “naughty” word has been incredible. Maureen Dowd uses it as just one more bit of proof supporting her depiction of the president as a frat-boy, who “has enshrined his immaturity and insularity, turning every environment he inhabits — no matter how decorous or serious — into a comfortable frat house.”

She writes, “No matter what the trappings or the ceremonies require of the leader of the free world, he brings the same DKE bearing and cadences, the same insouciance and smart-alecky attitude, the same simplistic approach — swearing, swaggering, talking to Tony Blair with his mouth full of buttered roll, and giving a startled Angela Merkel an impromptu shoulder rub. He can make even a global summit meeting seem like a kegger.”

Harry Shearer of Simpsons fame takes the same tack with this, umm, “rap”. In an impression of Bush, Shearer intones, “Now sure I’m a moral man who has God-fearin’ ways, I wouldn’t use a dirty word or worse, a smutty phrase, I’ve restored dignity to the White House…”

It reminds me of a preferred tactic of progressive Christian speaker Tony Campolo, who in the 1980s would often begin speeches in the following way:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a s#!%. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said s#!% than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

Is George W. Bush a hypocrite because he’s a Christian and he cussed? And why is it such a big news story? What a scandal the words of Martin Luther, or even the apostle Paul himself, might be…

Here’s how the NIV translates Philippians 3:8: “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

The word that appears as “rubbish” is the Greek word skubala, a form of skubalon. The most immediate and core sense of skubalon seems to be the equivalent of the word President Bush uttered, e.g. “the excrement of animals,” with the somewhat more remote sense being that of “things worthless and detestable.”

Jerome uses the Latin word stercus to represent the Greek in the Vulgate, which still comes over as a technical medical term in English for feces. The KJV translates that part of Philippians 3:8 as “dung.”

This is to say nothing at all of all the rather “earthy” imagery of many parts of the OT. Whatever else you or I think of him, on this one point at least, maybe Tony Campolo is on to something. And it seems to me that conclusions on this point will have important implications for just how Christians are to engage the culture.

More on Christians and swearing:

More with Tony Campolo:

  • “An Exchange on Christian Compassion,” (2-CD Set). This spirited debate was recorded on October 29, 1996. The exchange centered on the question of whether liberals are more compassionate than conservatives, and featured Rev. Robert A. Sirico and Doug Bandow arguing for the conservative side, and Rev. Tony Campolo representing the liberal side.

For those of you who are going through World Cup withdrawal after the defeat of the French by the Azzurri have a little comfort. I give you the World Cups of Philosophy and Theology.

‘Nobby’ Hegel leads the Germans onto the pitch.

The first is a two-part video of the Monty Python skit featuring German philosophers against the Greeks (text here). The German side touts Leibniz in goal with strikers Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Greeks have Plato in net, with Aristotle as sweeper and Socrates at forward. The two assistant referees are, by the way, Augustine and Aquinas, while Martin Luther manages the German side.

I find it fitting that theological figures have primacy in this way over the philosophers, since this reflects the proper relationship between the two, with philosophy as the ancilla, or handmaiden, to theology. Karl Marx is a late second-half substition for the Germans.

Heraclitus captains the Ancients to victory.

You’ll need to have Google Video installed to view Part 1 here and Part 2 here (HT: The Sports Economist and Disorganizational Behavior).

Speaking of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, they give me a good segue to the Theology World Cup, hosted by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman, which was searching for the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century. Amazingly, Karl Barth did not make the field, and Pannenberg, the odds-on favorite, was knocked out rather early, losing to eventual finalist Hans Urs von Balthasar. The final featured Jürgen Moltmann against Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Moltmann being declared the victor. This proves rather convincingly that 20th century theology is much more about style than substance.

Karl Rahner was victorious in the consolation match. You can view the championship bracket here, and see how Karl Barth might have fared in the competition here (Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did not make the finals, while such dark horse candidates as T. F. Torrance did).

In Part 4, we saw that post-Enlightenment philosophical currents such as Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism are the real culprits in the demise of natural law and not theological criticism from within Reformation theology, as many today take for granted. If this is so, why is contemporary Protestant theology so critical of natural law?

The most common reason why contemporary Protestants reject natural law is because they think it does not take sin seriously enough. And the second, which we will address in Part 6, is that natural law is thought to elevate “autonomous” human reason above divine revelation and therefore to rival God and Scripture.

To many Protestants, natural law seems to suggest that the order of being in the original creation has not been sufficiently disrupted by the fall. Moreover, they think reason is viewed too optimistically because it is still able to discern a rough outline of God’s will in creation. They think natural law is guilty of elevating reason above revelation as the standard of what is right and wrong, true and false. In other words, they think natural law leads to rationalism where reason is the standard by which everything is judged. Following Barth and his mediators, many think the divine image was fully destroyed with the result that nonbelievers now only experience God’s wrath and judgment and never God’s general providence (or common grace as it is called in some traditions).

Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and sympathetic critic of Barth, says, since the fall, we confront at best “orders of preservation.” Yet, despite his affinity with Barth, Thielicke could not fully jettison natural law. He saw that it had abiding significance as a sign of the human quest for justice and right. For him, natural law is a goad to the pursuit of justice in an imperfect world. But it is difficult to respect the common search for justice without more solid theological and anthropological reasons.

But the modern Protestant view of natural law as simply an order of preservation does not do justice to the status it had in the older systems of theology. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, and Wolfgang Musculus, contrary to popular opinion, incorporated large segments of the medieval as well as the patristic past into their systems of theology.

To be sure, they opposed certain high profile doctrines of late medieval and early sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. But, as historian Richard Muller points out, “It is worth recognizing from the outset that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci [or topics] of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.” Importantly, the Reformers did not discard the custom, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, of treating ethics as a subdomain of the more fundamental doctrines of God and providence, which, as Muller contends, were carried into the Reformation without any significant alteration.

In Part 6, we will address the second most common Protestant criticism of natural law, namely, that it elevates autonomous human reason and therefore rivals God and Scripture.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

In Part 3, we examined why many contemporary Protestants have something of a bad conscience when it comes to natural law. But, of course, the blame for this cannot be laid fully upon Karl Barth. Even a hint of a fuller explanation has to address intellectual currents that begin to gather momentum in the so-called Enlightenment. One popular explanation within the academic mainstream for the demise of the natural-law tradition in modern Protestant theology attributes it to a form of implosion. And this is what I want to take up here.

Why did the natural-law tradition fall on hard times in modern Protestant theology? Many have speculated that the reason somehow lies deeply embedded in the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, John T. McNeill, the Reformation historian and editor of Calvin’s Institutes, reached a far different conclusion:

There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law. Not one of the leaders of the Reformation assails the principle. Instead, with the possible exception of Zwingli, they all on occasion express a quite ungrudging respect for the moral law naturally implanted in the human heart and seek to inculcate this attitude in their readers. Natural law is not one of the issues on which they bring the Scholastics under criticism. With safeguards of their primary doctrines but without conscious resistance on their part, natural law enters into the framework of their thought and is an assumption of their political and social teaching. . . . The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality, the positive utterances on natural law scattered through the works of the Reformers. . . . For the Reformers, as for the Fathers, canonists, and Scholastics, natural law stood affirmed on the pages of Scripture.

The pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment philosophy, especially Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism.

The post-Enlightenment era can be characterized in terms of a loss of belief, not only in special divine revelation through Scripture and church teaching, but also in the ability of reason to discern a natural moral order in human affairs. These losses become visible in Europe and North America after 1850 and prepare the way for law to become an instrument of power. With the eclipse of natural law, positive law lost its transcendent moorings and soon came to be an instrument of the totalitarian state. Appeals to “higher law” were dismissed as relics of the past, and moral questions were reduced to legal decisions. With the collapse of the religious and metaphysical foundations of justice, the totalitarian state could now manipulate law as a mere function of absolute power. This is the meaning of the famous statement by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Thus there was no other criterion of validity for the law than the will of those who had the monopoly of force.

The twentieth century has paid a high price in legalized atrocities and crimes against humanity. After World War II, for a brief moment in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, Protestant theologians and ethicists seemed to entertain the idea of a “baseline morality” that all people could be said to know and thus be responsible for. But they were in a quandary about natural law, and found it difficult to move beyond Barth’s objections. Carl Braaten captures well the ambivalence of Protestant theologians during this period: “Natural law came to be seen as a kind of necessary evil, or as an illegitimate child that could not be completely abandoned but whose rights must be severely restricted.”

In Part 5, we will shift our focus slightly and address the two most common Protestant criticisms of natural law.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.