Posts tagged with: philip melanchthon

The hugely influential reformer Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) writes in his commentary on Romans 13:

Meanwhile, the Gospel teaches the godly properly about spiritual and eternal life in order that eternal life may be begun in their hearts. In public it wants our bodies to be engaged in this civil society and to make sure of the common bonds of this society with decisions about properties, contracts, laws, judgments, magistrates, and other things. These external matters do not hinder the knowledge of God from being present in hearts or fear, faith, calling on God, and other virtues. In fact, God put forth these external matters as opportunities in which faith, calling on God, fear of God, patience, and love might be exercised.

There is a certain wisdom worthy for a Christian to know. God cast the church into the midst of these occupations because he wants to become known among men in a common society. He wanted all offices of society to be exercises in confession, and at the same time exercises of our faith and love.

Wise words on justice and the social and political implications of the Gospel from the reformer whose impact is still felt today, 450 years after his death.

I ran across the following quote from Søren Kierkegaard recently (HT: the evangelical outpost):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

On the surface, Kierkegaard’s critique of so-called “Christian scholarship” is quite powerful. The depiction amounts to a view of rationalizing Christianity that uses the wiles of reason, which Martin Luther in some of his more polemical moments said was “the Devil’s greatest whore,” to escape the implications of the gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely had Kierkegaard’s complaint, or something very much like it, explicitly in mind when he wrote in Discipleship that “we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks.” He goes on to say, “If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment’.” The point is that “all along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.”

Herman Bavinck, on the other hand, writes,

There are also many words put down in Scripture which God spoke to a definite person in peculiar circumstances, but which are not directed to us, and therefore need not be followed by us. Thus He commanded Abraham to offer his son, Phinehas to kill the adulterous man and woman, Saul to bring Agag, and, so as not to mention more, thus Jesus commanded the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Human society would be in a sad state if Christians had to follow this example literally and had to apply this in their surroundings. Yet a few have indeed tried this and have displayed by this their wrong interpretation of Scripture.

At this point he might have in mind the sort of radical pacifism practiced by certain kinds of Anabaptist groups, highlighted most recently in the case of the Amish and their reaction to the recent schoolhouse shootings. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession in its original form denounced the Anabaptists as anarchists, in part because they denied the power of retributive justice to the civil government: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Part of the difficulty comes in properly understanding what is a particular command or duty in an individual circumstance and what is a general and universally binding divine law. In agreement with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, I don’t think we should simply be able to move facilely and simply from the explicit and clear teaching of Scripture to something completely opposite. The interpretation of difficult passages in light of the whole of Scripture’s testimony, which may ultimately result in a doctrine like just war, should be as genuinely and equally principled as the Amish interpretation of commands to peace and non-violence.

I conclude with a final note I gleaned from my reading of Timothy Wengert’s study of the the debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola over contrition and repentance, Law and Gospel:

As important as it may be to notice the commentaries on an exegete’s writing desk, it is equally crucial to pay attention to the controversies raging outside the study door. In the days before it became stylish to pretend that exegesis was pure science or simple description of a long-dead world, the interpreter of Scripture, especially evangelical theologians like Melanchthon and Agricola, thought their task incomplete until they brought the word of God to bear on the issues that confronted them on every side.

With regard to the relevance of God’s Word to our times, I am in complete agreement. And as Bonhoeffer also said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

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.