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Luther's Six Great Paradoxes

1. Saint and Sinner (simul justus et peccator)

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner (Vol. 48, pp. 281-3)

[see also my posts “Simultaneously Saint & Sinner“, “Frail Identity” and “Frail Identity, Part II“]

2. Law and Gospel

It’s the supreme art of the devil tha the can make the law out of the gospel. If I can hold on to the distinction between law and gospel, I can say to him any and every time that he should kiss my backside. Even if I sinned I would say, ‘Should I deny the gospel on this account?’ It hasn’t come to that yet. Once I debate about what I have done and left undone, I am finished. But if I reply on the basis of the gospel, ‘The forgiveness of sins covers ti all,’ I have won. On the other hand, if the devil gets me involved in what I have done and left undone, he has won, unless God helps and says, ‘Indeed! Even if you had not done anything, you would still have to be saved by forgiveness, for you have been baptized, communicated, etc.

…The distinction between law and gospel will do it. The devil turns the Word upside down. If one sticks to the law, on is lost. A good conscience won’t set one free, but the distinction [between law and gospel] will. So you should say, ‘The Word is twofold, on the one hand terrifying and on the other hand comforting.’ Here Satan objects, ‘But God says you are damned because you don’t keep the law.’ I respond, ‘God also says that I shall live.’ His mercy is greater than sin, and life is stronger than death. Hence if I have left this or that undone, our Lord God will tread it under foot with his grace (Vol. 54, pp. 105-7)

3. Perfectly Just and Perfectly Merciful

Our Lord God is always in the wrong, no matter what he does. He condemned Adam for disobedience when he ate of the fruit of the tree. Reason considers only the object of obedience, and so God is said to have gone too far. On the other hand, God freely forgives all sins, even the crucifixion of his Son, provided men believe, and this is also regarded as going too far. Who can bring these two into harmony—the greatest severity and the greatest liberty and indulgence (as it seems to reason)? Therefore it is said, ‘Become like children’ (Vol. 54, p. 105)

4. Lord of All and Servant of All

A Christian is perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully (Vol. 31, p. 344)

5. Already and Not Yet

Consequently, even if we are not perfectly holy, Christ will wash away our sins with his blood and, when we depart from this life, will make us altogether pure in the life to come. In the meantime we are content with that righteousness which exists in hope through faith in Jesus Christ. Amen (Vol. 54, p. 375)

6. Scripture Interprets Scripture and Read It As It Stands

Occam did not want the term to be univocal but equivocal, so that humanity is one thing in Peter, another thing in Christ. In philosophy man, according to his nature, does not signify a son of God or a divine person. This is the very thing which we say by the term “communication of properties.” A syllogism is not allowed with regard to the mysteries of the faith and of theology. philosophy constitutes an aberration in the realm of theology (Vol. 38, p. 272)

Christ gives himself to us in many ways: first, in preaching; second, in baptism; [third,] in brotherly consolation; fourth, in the sacrament, as often as the body of Christ is eaten, because he himself commands us to do so. If he should command me to eat dung, I would do it. The servant should not inquire about the will of his lord (Vol. 38, p. 19)

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Frail Identity, Part II

As we have looked at before, the bifurcating logic of proper-clean and improper-dirty are simultaneously constituted in a given symbolic system. This is no less true for the religious, especially for peoples of the Book. Only on this account it is logicizing between abomination and the sacred. In the tradition of what I’m calling the “peoples of the Book” impurity is always what departs from the symbolic order, or divine precepts in this case. Of course the anthropologist or psychoanalyst would way that there is nothing impure in itself; “the loathsome is [only] that which disobeys classification rules peculiar to the given symbolic system” (Powers of Horror, p. 92).

For the religious, impurity generally becomes a metaphor for idolatry and immorality. Therefore, whatever has no immediate relation to the sacred is excluded from the given symbolic order. Holiness then is the struggle individuals face in attempting to become subjects to the Law. By logically conforming with the established taxonomy of pure/impure distinctions the subject is protected from falling outside the bounds of religious orthodoxy.

The great threat to identity is intermixture. If we might think of purity as a symbolic oneness then defilement is that which unsettles boundaries between the pure and impure. Therefore idols in particular are those objects that erase the differences between strict identities and introduce confusion and disorder to the prevailing symbolic establishment.

However, the prophets of the Hebraic tradition revealed the inescapable and inseparable abjection of our selves. “The impure is neither banished nor cut off, it is thrust away but within—right there, working, constitutive” (p. 106). To put it otherwise, the abject is interiorized. This logical complicity with abjection in fact permeates the entire Bible and is found in such notions as “leaven” in the Old Testament and “tears” in the New. What happens in Christianity is precisely a new arrangement of differences; the impure/pure topological demarcation remains but is reversed from being an external logic to an internal one. As Kristeva puts it, “Christian religion is a compromise between paganism and Judaic monotheism. Biblical logic remains nevertheless, even though it is inverted (the inside is to blame, no longer the outside): one uncovers it in the persistence of processes of division, separation, and differentiation (116-7). In other words, “the threat comes no longer from outside but from within” (p. 114). The internal danger, which was previously an external threat, is a heterogeneous and a potentially condemnable self. The self no longer is characterized by unity but is internally, contradictorily split. He is tormented from within rather than from without. Jesus’ pronouncement, following those of the prophets, is that man is defiled by what comes from within, rather than by what surrounds or enters him. This means for Christians that they are always divided, incomplete and lapsing in respect to the ideal Christ sets forth. In this internalizing move the boundaries between pure and impure become much more porous and an unsurpassable heterogeneity arises.

The sort of ambiguity is further confounded in another insight of Christianity, the origin of sin. The fall of man [sic] usually belongs to the feminine temptation to eat the fruit of a particular tree in the Garden of Eden which promised an epiphany of knowledge. It was Eve’s enticement of Adam that implanted the power of sin within the flesh.

And yet, the tale of Adam’s fall opens up two additional channels of interpretation throwing light on the ambivalence of sin….Man would thus accede to divine perfection only by sinning, that is, by carrying out the forbidden act of knowledge….It takes only one further step to suppose that the invitation to perfection is also an invitation to sin….In that instance, the fall is the work of God; founding knowledge and the quest for consciousness, it opens the way to spirituality (pp. 126-7)

These two currents on the ambiguity of the flesh engender a hermeneutical plurality on the constitution of sin. Furthermore, it also seems as though defiling sin is the proper condition for remission. Sin appears with law which appears with grace.

By the same token, abjection will not be designated as such, that is, as other, as something to be ejected, or separated, but as the most propitious place for communication—as the point where the scales are tipped towards pure spirituality….abjection becomes the requisite for a reconciliation… (p. 127)

As a final example, blood carries a particular ambiguity when it comes to pure/impure demarcating strategies. Menstruation was clearly a defiling element that targeted women in Hebraic societies. But while it indicated the impure, blood also signified a vital element to life. Not only did blood represent death, but it also referred to the assurance of life and fecundation. “It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection where death and femininity, murder and procreation, cessation of life and vitality all come together” (p. 96).

Simultaneously Saint & Sinner

It is a truism in Lutheran theology that the human psyche is complicated and the human will is divided. This is especially true when in comes to distinctions between law and gospel, obedience and disobedience, sanctification and justification, saints and sinners. That is because there is great ambivalence in the Christian struggle of discipleship. For instance, there is always the existential possibility that any action performed by a Christian can simultaneously be interpreted as disobedient and journeying away from God’s will or, on the other hand, as taking refuge in the grace of God. It is no wonder then that Christians may radically doubt at any point whether they have made any progress towards perfection in their lives. At such moments, the theological art of caring for souls must make a distinction between law and grace; an openness to condemn the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. In short, it must have the transforming power to cause a doubting soul and a penitent heart while, at the same time, lead the believer to experience the gift of forgiveness.

There is no easier or less complicated way to capture the full significance of the fact that in this life the Christian remains simul justus et peccator [simultaneously saint and sinner]. That formula must always be taken in two somewhat different ways; for God’s grace in Christ is both transforming power and declaration of pardon (Gilbert Meilaender, The Freedom of a Christian, p. 32)

The paradoxical situation of a deeply divided self that is simultaneously redeemed and damned is further complicated by the difficulty of distinguishing actions that follow Christ and those that do not. Clearly, there are some wrong steps in the journey of obedience but for the most part the situation is much greyer. In other words, life is beset less with questions of right and wrong than with deciding upon the undecidable—morally ambiguous decisions. Then again, on closer scrutiny, every decision has a radical impact on the thick web of cosmopolitan relations; e.g. what you consume, where you work, how you spend your free time. And due to the noetic effects of sin and/or structural evil, sometimes “sinning” is virtually impossible to avoid. As the saying goes, sometimes evil is necessary.

As Meilaender puts it, “at any moment we may experience ourselves as caught between the continuing hold of sin and our liberation in Christ” (p. 40). Meilaender’s ostensible solution is not to view this chronic grip of sin as the failure of a Christian. Rather, the only decision contrary to the path of discipleship is resting content in this stasis. He conceives of Lutheran theology in a dialectical framework which dispenses with linear notions of progress and growth in righteousness; eschatology over teleology (see here). In the end, justification and sanctification are not entirely safe without the other.

Spirituality of the Cross

martin_lutherAs far as simple accounts of Lutheran theology go, the spirituality of the cross has been a lasting strength and alternative to cultures centered upon success and glory. As Gene Veith puts it, “Lutheran spirituality begins by facing up to imperfection” (Spirituality of the Cross, 17). Thus, spirituality is not about our own activity but rather our passivity in allowing God to break into our life. Hence the obvious Lutheran commitment to salvation described in terms of what Christ does for us in contrast to later evangelicals that focused attention upon personal decisions and experiences.

Infant Baptism, in fact, is perhaps the best illustration of justification by faith… In justification, the human being is purely passive, purely receptive… A helpless child becomes our role model for conversion (44)

Furthermore, in the Lutheran tradition, the Christian is never encouraged to look inward but to look to the cross and God’s promises. This is because the self is characterized by sin rather than perfection. A big duh to be sure. But even the Christian, who surely should see some inward renewal, is left wondering about his/her own salvation. In other words, God is hidden even to those who claim to be Christ’s followers.

This is not permission to avoid being good though, quite the opposite. Even if justification has nothing to do with good deeds, the Christian’s relationship with others is put into action through love and kindness. Therefore, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation affirms that by fulfilling the demands of one’s earthly role is to do so for God and through God. Although there are serious limitations to the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” (i.e., doing one’s job does not always align with kingdom ends), it does a remarkable job owning up to the physical world and ordinary life. It provides a way to actively engage the world without utopian expectations that frustrate and cause schizophrenic lives. In other words, it’s a good alternative to all-or-nothing thinking.