Sunday, April 29, 2018

Luther, a Forerunner of Trump? Quatsch! (Nonsense)

Martin Luther has been blamed for just about everything “bad” that has happened in the western world since the sixteenth century. That list is long, given those 500 years that separate us from him.  It includes everything from the multiple schisms within western Christendom and the promulgation of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry, to secularism, the Puritan Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, socialism, Bismarckian “blood and iron” ideology, the Russian Revolution, radical pluralism, ethical relativism, nihilism, and on to German National Socialism, Hitler, and the Holocaust. According to Michael Massing, one must now add to that list American-Evangelical support for President Trump. If you want to understand why an overwhelming number of white Evangelicals support Trump, look first to the sixteenth-century reformer. Luther has paved the way for Trump! So asserts Massing. For his article in the April 19th issue of The Nation, go here.

What are we to make of this thesis?

The number of errors and misrepresentations in such a short article are striking. The author has misconstrued Luther’s theology and social ethics and has misunderstood basic Christian teaching that is commonly taught across all Christian traditions. While no doubt many conservative Lutheran Christians in Michigan and Wisconsin helped to elect Donald Trump as president, don’t blame Luther for this. More to the point, midwestern American-Lutheran support for Trumpism is at odds with central theological and ethical emphases in Luther’s own theology.

Permit me to identify a few of the problems in Massing's article.

He has completely ignored Luther’s own sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and the reformer's basic teaching that "faith is to be active in love." As I point out in an online article about Bonhoeffer, Luther himself did not preach or teach that the Sermon on the Mount is merely an impractical ideal that Christians are incapable of heeding and obeying in the world. He rejected interpretations of the Sermon in his day that taught that the only way one could fulfill Jesus’ teaching was to withdraw from the world, for example, by living in a monastic community or by completely avoiding involvement in secular institutions or by radically reforming those institutions to form a Christian theocracy (as John Calvin would attempt to do later, actions that have had a far greater influence on American Evangelicalism—and the development of the republic—than Luther’s theology ever has had). There is no evidence in these sermons by Luther to conclude that Christ’s teaching is impossible for the baptized Christian to follow in the world or that this teaching was intended merely to reveal the sinful condition of the Christian. Rather, for Luther, the teaching of Jesus is directed to the individual disciple as a real summons to follow Christ concretely in this world (the world of sixteenth-century Saxony). The outcome of such faithful following will be faithful obedience, otherwise called “the fruit of faith, which the Holy Spirit must create in the heart” (WA 32:309; LW 21:15). At the same time, Luther taught that individual Christians cannot leave or forsake the world, but must live responsibly within it. This situation creates the deepest challenges for the individual Christian in the world: he or she is to live faithfully in obedience to Jesus’ statements and commands in the Sermon on the Mount and at the same time live as an individual in the world, taking part in its burdens, joys, complexities, and responsibilities. Luther was no antinomian. His sermons on the Sermon on the Mount are about as anti-Trumpian as they come.

Massing has mischaracterized the content, tone and tenor of the majority of Luther’s writings and sermons. If one spends even a little time reading through Luther’s multiple commentaries on various biblical books and his many homilies and catechetical materials (which altogether comprise more than half of the 120+ large volumes in the critical edition of his works), his demeanor is irenic and edifying, not polemical. To be sure, he could at times be mean-spirited, combative, harsh, repugnant ("I was born to war with fanatics and devils"), especially in his writings against the Jews (on this, see my post here), but he was hardly unique in this regard, especially in his context. Yes, Luther's words could occasionally be violent. There's no question about that. But in the totality of his writings, the feculent ones are thankfully a repellent minority. (I don't think Melanchthon’s quotation from Erasmus that he used in his sermon at Luther’s funeral offsets the opprobrium: Luther indeed displayed too much severity but "because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.” Erasmus, who suffered from thin skin and was prone to be Protean—the one condition of his that likens him to Trump—did write once that “Luther’s abusiveness can be condoned only on the ground that perhaps our sins deserve to be beaten with scorpions.”) It should also be noted that Erasmus did not criticize or shun Thomas More, despite the latter’s ability to be "as virulent and vulgar as Luther” (Bainton, Erasmus of Rotterdam, 241). Surely other debates were more vitriolic, e.g., More vs. Tyndale, Erasmus vs. Hutten. Even Erasmus could express anti-Semitic remarks that were just as reprehensible as Luther's.

He could also be bitingly sarcastic and even rude. He was not as "civil" as Massing suggests. For example, see what he wrote about Luther in his 1523 letter to Markus Laurinus, which was later made public, or what he wrote in his Sponge against Hutten (which indirectly attacked Luther), not to mention what he includes in the venomous first part of his Hyperaspistes.

The fact of the matter is, if Erasmus had wanted to stay in the Roman Church then he had to write against Luther. Erasmus gave in to external pressure, from Henry VIII and from the pope. As such, Erasmus started the conflict with the Wittenberger, not the other way around. Luther of course tried to persuade the esteemed humanist scholar to keep silent on matters about which he had only superficial knowledge, but that didn't work. Erasmus seems not to have been able to comprehend that he was attacking the very center of Luther's theology, not a mere unnecessary triviality about which the scholastics might have debated ad nauseam. (For his part, once the conflict got rolling, Luther didn't help matters by misunderstanding Erasmus' position on grace as well as his statement about being a "skeptic," nor was he particularly clear in a few statements that seem to assert that humans lack freedom even in earthly matters, something Luther elsewhere clarified he did not intend to do. While he tried his best to defend sola gratia sola fide, the mention of "reward" in the NT remains a sticking point against some of what Luther asserted. Still, Erasmus does not come off very well in this debate. Theologically, Luther's critique is largely justified. It certainly cannot be properly understood to be any kind of attack on humanism or on "reasoning" or against rigorous university scholarship. Humanism continued to thrive in Lutheran territories, especially in the universities there. Academic freedom is one of the positive consequences of Luther's reforms.)

At the end of the day, Erasmus and Luther had two very different understandings of human beings and their capabilities vis-a-vis God. While Erasmus thought otherwise, theological anthropology and the doctrine of predestination are not "useless," non-essential, adiaphoristic matters in the Christian faith. If faith is a gift of God—as all theologians in the sixteenth century agreed—and if God gives such faith to some and apparently not to others, and if justification can be received only by the gift of faith, then predestination is involved in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is a point that Augustine, the Council of Orange, and many other Christian theologians before and after Luther have underscored. God, who is omnipotent and omniscient, can foreknow only what God has foreordained, as Paul teaches in Romans (8.28-30; 9.15ff.; cf. Eph. 1). That being said, even some of us Lutherans hold out hope that God will ultimately have mercy upon all (Rom. 11.32). If Erasmus had trouble comprehending paradoxes, his trouble was not with Luther, but with St. Paul.

Nor was Erasmus able to avoid contradicting himself on Paul's teaching about predestination, when he elsewhere defined the church as “the hidden society of those predestined to eternal life….” How can one who denied the doctrine of predestination speak of the church “as the society of the predestined”? That Erasmus was persuaded in part by Luther’s theological arguments is evident in the fact that Erasmus later (in 1532) changed his commentary on divine election in Romans 9 to align more closely with Luther’s basic position. Erasmus struggled mightily to soften the rather plain teaching of Ex. 9.12, Mal. 1.2-3, and Isa. 45.9, which got re-worked by Paul in Romans 9-11 and then again later by Augustine. If all (both the outwardly good and the manifestly evil) are under the power of sin (Rom. 3.9) and in fact despise God, then “no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law” (Rom. 3.20). The justification of sinners is solely by grace, apart from good works. Such sinners receive the righteousness of Christ as a total gift by faith. As to the issue of theological anthropology, when one minimizes the power of sin within human beings before God, one minimizes Christ and what he has accomplished for all sinners.

Massing asserts that Luther prefigures modern-day American Evangelicalism, and he implies that American Evangelicals are familiar with Luther’s “fierce ideas, vehement language, and combative intellectual style.” He thinks that American Evangelicals are simply transferring that Lutheran style into the realm of American politics today. Based on my twenty-five years of teaching large numbers of students who come from American Evangelical backgrounds, 99.9% have never read anything by Luther, let alone any of his polemical writings. Massing’s assertion here strikes me as a perfect example of post hoc propter hoc. Might Evangelical anger have more direct and recent sources than Luther’s sixteenth-century polemics? Why now? American Evangelicals haven't always expressed such anger in public, even when they have been a minority presence in some parts of the country. Why the anger now? And why in this way? Luther is not a part of the answers to these questions.

Massing misunderstands Luther’s description of his so-called “Tower Experience” and confuses it for an example of what American Evangelicals call “a born-again experience.” The Tower Experience, which may or may not have happened in just the manner that Luther described in 1545, was a moment of joy, a discovery of God's graciousness toward the sinner, of God's gift of forgiveness, new life, and salvation, but it was not a "re-birth" experience in the manner of American Evangelicalism. For Luther, one is spiritually regenerated in baptism, not through some extra-baptismal emotional experience. Moreover, being “born anew” or “born from above” is not a one-time event, according to Luther. Rather, the baptized Christian dies daily with Christ through remembrance of his or her baptism, and then rises anew with him for loving service in the world. Luther did not oppose adult baptisms. He celebrated every baptism. (To be sure, in his day most people were baptized as infants.)

Massing completely distorts Luther’s actions during the so-called Peasants’ Revolt. Shortly after reading the Twelve Articles of the peasants, Luther wrote his Admonition to Peace. He began by chastising the princes and rulers and blamed them—not the peasants!—for the social unrest. He clearly stated that the peasants’ complaints about injustice were well founded and eminently just. Luther even underscored that for the sake of peace, the princes should accommodate themselves to the peasants’ demands. Only after chastising the rulers did he turn his attention to the peasants. He told them that their rebellion violated the gospel and both the teaching of Jesus and natural law. Their violent actions displayed a basic mistrust in God. While Luther sympathized with the peasants, he criticized their efforts to obtain earthly justice through violence. In the third and final section Luther chastised both princes and peasants and told both sides that each was acting contrary to Christian teaching. Only when he learned more fully about the open rebellion of the peasants, did he write his harsh treatise, Against the Robbing…. Given Luther’s apocalyptic views, he was convinced that no devil was left in hell; they had all gone into the peasants. While we today--500 years later--should rightly criticize Luther’s harsh words (and not merely because of what we know and he didn't, namely, that the world was not coming to an end in his time), one can understand why he wrote those words, given his theological presuppositions about social order, the rule of law, and the non-coercive nature of the gospel. Luther preached a gospel that promises that salvation is received, not achieved. It is not achieved through violence. (Since Massing refers in passing to Martin Luther King Jr., one is inclined to ask him what impact Luther had on Dr. King's father, so much so that Michael King changed his name after visiting Germany in 1936. What about that influence of Luther on America?)

Massing also misunderstands the place of the Bible in the life of all Christian church bodies, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant alike. American Evangelicals are hardly the only Christians who teach that the Bible is the central source and norm of divine Christian teaching. Massing’s favored Erasmus understood the New Testament as the written word of God, which is why he produced a critical Greek edition of it, one that Luther used when he translated the NT into German. Most of the writings of the church fathers are nothing but commentaries on biblical books, sermons on biblical texts, and devotional writings that seek to expound biblical teaching. What was the debate about between Luther and Erasmus, if not about how to understand certain disputed biblical passages?

What nonsense to assert that Luther taught that “ordinary believers” have been empowered “to define their own faith”! Christian faith is normed by the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, not by the personal whims of the individual biblical interpreter. Serious exegetes seek to avoid eisegesis. That is as true for Roman Catholic exegetes today as it is for those who belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church body that many within the contemporary American Evangelical world would not consider "evangelical." (How many members of the ELCA voted for Donald Trump? Probably many more laity than clergy. As my previous blog posts have indicated, I didn't vote for him.) Missing in Massing’s article is any reference to Luther’s biblical hermeneutics and his canonical criticism (e.g., Romans is far more central to Luther’s theology than the book of Revelation or the other antilegomena, all of which he suggested are non-canonical). Luther’s critical perspective vis-à-vis the biblical canon anticipates the development of historical-critical methods for biblical study (which American Evangelicals tend to reject). His understanding of biblical authority, grounded as it is in the sharp distinction between law and gospel--and the central witness to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen--is quite different from how conservative American Fundamentalists understand biblical authority. What American Evangelical will reject the whole law of Moses as outdated for the followers of Christ, as Luther did? Or will reject the apostolic injunction to avoid eating food with blood in it? (Luther loved blood sausage.) Or will reject as binding the NT command for women to wear a head covering? Did not Luther appeal to “clear reasoning” in his famous reply at Worms? The slogan “sola Scriptura” really tells us very little about Luther’s actual understanding of biblical authority and how biblical texts function within his theology. For him, Scripture was never alone. The one interpreting it was always using his or her reason, more or less. I would like to see the list of “the many key points” where the teaching of Southern Baptists parallels Luther’s university theology.

Massing asserts that Luther “refused to endorse measures that would concretely address [peoples'] needs.” This statement is false, as Luther’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and his Admonition to Peace alone demonstrate. What about Luther’s teaching that God’s law functions in civil society to restrain evil and promote the common good? What about Luther’s praise of human reason as a gift of God to be used to help the neighbor in need? While good works are not salvific (given what the apostles Paul and John teach about faith apart from human actions), good works do help those who need our loving service. Faith is to be active in love. What about Luther’s specific ordinances for poor relief? for setting up the common chest? for taking measures to alleviate local suffering? for establishing schools (for girls and boys)? What about Buggenhagen’s provisions for civic health care? for establishing hospitals? And what about Luther’s strong criticism against greed and usury? That alone is sufficient to see how vast a chasm exists between the Reformer’s teaching and modern American Trumpism. Luther was completely disgusted with “the calculating entrepreneur.” “He was convinced that the capitalist spirit divorced money from use for human needs and necessitated an economy of acquisition” (Carter Lindberg, “Luther on Poverty,” LQ 15 [2001], 85-101). Martin Luther was no American Evangelical capitalist. I think I can safely say that Luther would be disgusted with Donald Trump, were Luther magically to be transported 500 years from his world into our own. He would find much to criticize in our world, especially the greed, the excessive individualism, the fantasy of human autonomy, and how the poor are mistreated.

Suffice it to say, Massing’s article does not accurately present Luther’s teaching about “the two kingdoms.” They do not correlate to the terms “secular” and “spiritual,” nor are they “to be kept rigorously apart.” In addition to referring to “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of Satan,” which are in continual conflict throughout the world, Luther referred to the two dimensions of human life, namely, one’s relationship with God (“the kingdom of God’s right hand”) and one’s relationship to creation (“the kingdom of God’s left hand”). The “right hand” relationship with God is established by God’s gift of forgiveness and righteousness through Christ that is received non-coercively by faith in the gospel promise. The “left hand” relationship is also established by God in service to the neighbor for the sake of the common good of society. Unlike the right-hand operation of God through the word and sacraments, this “left hand” working of God in creation is coercive, grounded as it is in natural law and retributive justice. Moreover, God’s “left-handed” work in the world occurs through three “walks of life” (Robert Kolb's helpful phrase), namely, the church (as a human institution), political action, and the family. God has commanded duties and responsibilities for each of these “walks of life.” Important here, too, is Luther’s understanding of “vocation,” which Massing simply ignores. I wonder if he is familiar with John Witte’s excellent book, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation? Much in this book speaks against Massing’s unconvincing thesis.