Works and Cicada Christians

Probably the most difficult thing to explain about Orthodoxy is its emphasis on effort and how that differs from salvation by works. I ran across yet another Martin Luther quote that helps to frame the question. (It’s hard to imagine, by the way, a theologian more opposed to salvation by works than Luther.) (And, yes, I’m still studying Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith.)

The medieval scholastics (as well as the Protestant spiritualists, the original form of what we would call Evangelicalism today) described salvation as human love striving after grace. It was earthly human love striving upward (toward heaven or toward transcendence) to grasp hold of God’s grace. Luther rejected the idea as yet another form of works salvation. Luther insisted the direction was wrong; the only option is for God in Christ to come down to us.

That is indeed precisely the point of justification if it is to mean anything at all. We can’t strive for it; it must be a gift.

We are coming to the end of cicada season in northeast Nebraska. There is a cherry tree just off our back patio that the cicadas like to sit on. Earlier this summer I had the privilege of watching a cicada molt. It had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the too-small old shell. It would pause every now and again to rest and then struggle again. Eventually it worked it’s way free and then it spread its wings wide to let them dry. The whole process probably took an hour, and then it flew off to do cicada stuff leaving the old empty shell stuck to the tree trunk along with about a half dozen others.

There was nothing the cicada could do to make itself grow. It’s life and growth process was not of its own making but was pure gift. But for that gift of growth to continue normally, the cicada had to struggle mightily to work its way out of the old shell. I’m guessing if it would not have done that, the old shell would eventually constrict it so much that the cicada would die.

Luther is correct that we cannot strive upward to get grace; that movement is all wrong. Grace happens only when Christ comes down and indwells us as Luther described. But when Christ does come down and indwell us, true life occurs and growth begins to happen. This is the place where Christian striving becomes a necessity. Like the cicada, we must put off that old shell so that the new life gifted to us has the opportunity to grow and expand. Spiritual growth and divine grace always remain pure gift, but the effects of that grace (ie, spiritual growth) creates a situation where we must strive in order to make room for it – and note: not to grasp it, but to make room for it. (A completely different biblical metaphor with a rather different emphasis, but compare to quenching the Spirit; one might think of it as a passive action – verb tenses simply cannot do justice to the process.)

2 Timothy 2:5 compares the Christian life to athletics. If you don’t strive for it, you don’t get crowned. This is the sort of striving the Orthodox are fond of talking about. It’s not striving for justification. It’s not reaching up to heaven to take hold of God, because we can’t; it is God that takes hold of us. It is rather the hard work required to let go, to work our way out of the old skin that constrains us so the new can grow and do what it is supposed to.

Let me be clear that this is not Luther’s view (nor is it the view of Formula of Concord style Lutherans today). Luther tended to view things in black and white and as either/or. My description of proper Christian effort doesn’t fit into that stark view of things. In his Lectures to the Galatians (Mannermaa, p. 40), Luther says, “This attachment to [Christ] causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ and into his kingdom.”

There seem to be no cicada Christians struggling to get out of their old skin in Luther’s view. They remain helpless until Christ “pulls” them out. Lutherans (and Protestants in general) and Orthodox differ on this point and I won’t pretend the difference doesn’t exist. But with the differences noted, there is a definite distinction between the striving upward after grace (ie, works salvation) and the striving to put off the old skin of death after new life and growth has been graciously given.

And thanks be to God that cicada season is nearly over!

What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

The Bondage of the Will & Christian Liberty

I’ve been reading parts of Luther’s Bondage of the Will again to make sure I’m not misremembering his argument. Luther’s argument is quite similar to Calvin’s later argument that gets filed under “predestination,” although there are differences. In both cases I have no doubt that the Reformers are trying to figure out things that are simply beyond figuring out. They reached a bit too far.

The Reformers are certainly in line with classic Christianity when they declare that our will is in bondage. We do need to keep in mind that when we consider these ideas today there are a cluster of words which we tend to jumble together as vaguely synonymous that need to be distinguished when speaking of this bondage.

Choice, for instance still exists. I can choose to follow God or not to follow God. At the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people they have to make a choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19). But just because the people chose God and thus chose life did not mean that they were actually able to make good on that choice. They failed over and over because their wills were in bondage. Being free to choose for or against God in principle is far different than the ability to actually follow God’s paths and do what God wants us to do.

Liberty is another one of those ideas that tends to confuse us. Paul says, “[C]reation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). A cursory reading of this verse might lead one to think that bondage and liberty are opposite and if my will was once in bondage (reading Luther back into Paul) then in Christ my will is no longer in bondage but now has liberty (or “freedom” in the NRSV) to do what it chooses (reading pop culture back into Paul). But that reading misses the point.

Many years ago, in my first steps out of Dispensationalism, I discovered R.J. Rushdoony, a “theonomist” who believed that civil law should be based on Old Testament law (a Christian version of sharia, to put it into a contemporary context). In spite of his misguided attempts in this direction, he was a pretty good historical scholar. In a monograph entitled, “The Changed Meaning of Liberty,” he wrote the following: “Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ’s personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law.”

Rushdoony is putting it into the civil context between the Christian church and the Roman empire, but originally this is what Paul was talking about in relation to the Old Testament law. As Christians, who are dead to the Law and alive to Christ, we have “liberty” as an immunity to the Law. We can no longer be charged as lawbreakers because those laws don’t apply to us in our new context. This is how the U.S. Navy uses the term. When a ship enters port most of the sailors are let off duty to go wander the town. They are “at liberty.” This means they are no longer under the strict rules of life on the ship, although they are under obligation to follow local law and if they are in uniform they still have to salute a uniformed officer, etc.

This sort of “liberty” is very different than actual freedom as we think of it today. Comedian Ron White, in his well known “They Call Me Tater Salad” story, said that when he was talking to the cops after a bar brawl he had the right to remain silent but he didn’t have the ability. Christian liberty is like that; it doesn’t imply we have the ability. Even with our Christian liberty, our wills are still bound. We can choose to follow God, but, like Ron White, we don’t have the ability.

Christian transformation is a mysterious process where Christ’s will operates through us to transform us in spite of our best efforts. Transformation requires our cooperation. We have to choose God on the level of choosing or rejecting that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy, but our wills are unable to follow through with our choice, so we keep on doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7). But in spite of all this bondage, Christ works in us to do that which we cannot do and transformation actually happens.

There is also a lifelong process of taking back the will and turning it to the purpose that God intended when he instilled it in human beings. But that process is not what you might think. Once Christ is at work within us, his will guides our hearts and directs us in what we should do and how we should think. (This is the ultimate goal, anyway.) So the correct way to battle our own stubborn will is to ignore it. Of course this is easier said than done. We will never win an outright fight over our wills. We can, in contrast, learn to ignore its insistent directions, and over time it becomes more and more quiet. The will lies at the center of what we must put to death in our Christian struggle, and the way we do that is to starve it by ignoring it. And as it dies, it simultaneously comes to life, but in this new life, it imprints on Christ’s will within us, and thus is tamed. Although throughout our earthly life, it will no doubt always have a tendency to rise up and say, “My will, and not yours be done.”

So freedom, as we think of freedom in the modern world, is never possible. We humans were not created to be free and we quickly get out of control if we try to act on our supposed freedom, like a balloon zipping around a room when we let go of it. We were created with the purpose of allowing God to drive, not us. Luther describes this as bondage to Christ (hearkening back to Paul’s imagery of the bond slave). That’s imagery that we naturally shrink back from, but it is there that we find true liberty – like sailors on shore liberty: freed from the concerns of the ships rules and free to truly joy in God.

Some Thoughts on Mannermaa the Ecumenist

I begin with a rabbit track …

I am rereading Tuomo Mannermaa’s little bombshell Christ Present in Faith:  Luther’s View of Justification. (Yeah, I know the original “little bombshell” was Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, but Christ Present in Faith had a similar effect on continental Lutheranism a century later.) This all came about because John Webster, best known for bringing Eberhard Juengel’s brilliant thought to the English speaking world, died a few months ago. In memory, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School released his 2007 Carl F.H. Henry lecture series on Soundcloud. I listened to the first one and Webster took a couple of cheap shots at Mannermaa, quoting him in just such a way and without context so as to paint him a heretic. It really ticked me off. On the other hand, it did cause me to dust off my copy of Christ Present in Faith.

But back to the actual subject …

Tuomo Mannermaa spent much of his career involved in the ecumenical dialog between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. This experience led to a different reading of Martin Luther. Critics say he has read Orthodox theology (and specifically the ancient idea of theosis) into Luther. Allies say that because of an historical accident of timing (Luther was Medieval and the Formula of Concord and most Lutherans ever since are under the sway of Modernity) Luther’s theology was transformed into something that Luther never actually espoused. As Carl Braaten and Robert Jensen describe it, “[T]he Mannermaa school is revising a century of Luther interpretation dominated by German Protestant theologians, who notoriously read Luther under the spell of neo-Kantian presuppositions.”

So what’s the difference between Medieval and Modern in this context? The philosophers of  Modernity (and Kant is certainly part of this process), put distance between us and reality. Some said that what we experience is not reality itself but our interpretation of the experience of reality. This is why Kant’s famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” is such a big deal. It describes a human being one step removed from reality itself, with my brain (or my interpretation) standing between me and what actually exists.

In Protestant theology this same sensibility comes to us in how we separate the Creator and created. Modern theology has tended to say that we cannot experience the Creator (ie, God) directly because we are created beings. In classic Lutheran language, what we receive in the salvation process is not Christ in and of himself but rather the gift, which we might describe as “grace” which is not exactly the same thing as Christ himself. (And I offer a caveat here: While I consider myself a Reformed scholar, I am not a Lutheran scholar, so my language may not be a precise as some Lutherans would like.)

According to Mannermaa, this is not what Luther taught. This is a neo-Kantian reading of Luther. Being medieval, and thus having no problem with unmediated reality, he read Athanasius and the other classic explainers of the faith  and he interpreted justification as they did. But within a couple of generations, Luther’s words were being read through the Modernist lens and justification took on an exclusively forensic sense rather than Luther’s realist (or “ontic,” if you want Mannermaa’s term) sense.

It is important to realize that Luther (b. 1483) was born right on the cusp between Medieval and Modern. He also had a predominantly religious education and as a result he was steeped in a Medieval cultural-linguistic environment. John Calvin (b. 1509), on the other hand, was Modern, including his education, which was primarily in secular law rather than theology. It is literally true that by the generation after Luther and certainly the one following that, Lutheran’s assumptions about mediated reality (ie Modernity) would have shaped how Luther was read and understood.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is true (because Mannermaa’s critics vociferously disagree with his thesis). How is it that Mannermaa was able to cast off the blinders of Modernity, and for the first time in at least a couple of centuries, read Luther as Luther himself intended? This process is one of great gifts of authentic ecumenism. To be effective in ecumenical dialog (or political compromise, or statecraft for that matter … but that’s a rather different topic) one has to learn to “indwell” the other’s cultural-linguistic environment. Mannermaa spent years doing just that with the Russian Orthodox Church; and the Orthodox are definitely not Modern in their way of thinking.

As Mannermaa did this he was also reading Luther, and especially his lectures on Galatians. Reading Luther with these new eyes he recognized that Luther was dipping into the same well as the Russians (ie, the Chalcedonian fathers, and especially Athanasius), and Luther was understanding them in much the same way as the Russians. In essence, dialog with the Russians allowed Mannermaa to read Luther in his proper Medieval context rather than the Modern context in which he had been interpreted for generations.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I believe Mannermaa was on to something. But there is a profound weakness in this sort of ecumenical theology that I want to point out. The penultimate goal of ecumenical theology is to develop common language, ideas, and practice so that two communions (in this case the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – so these would be called “bi-lateral talks”) can enter into communion with each and ultimately share Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (to use the words of the Faith and Order Commission). The ultimate goal is to totally break down the barriers between the various communions, but that is even more of a pipe dream than BEM! Even the Orthodox can’t manage that among themselves!!

This process, then, works primarily with the foundational documents of each communion. In the case of the Finnish Lutherans this would be the Formula of Concord and their specifically Finnish constitution. In practice, this means focusing specifically on Luther, and the question inevitably becomes, “What did Luther teach?” rather than, “What is the Gospel?” The effect of this subtle difference is that the process tends to focus on theology rather than transformation, on academics rather than the spiritual life.

But with that caveat in mind, I find this sort of thing (because the Finnish-Russian dialog is not the only significant bi-lateral discussion going on) to be one of the more fruitful and interesting things occurring in the Church today. And it is all the more reason to take the late Prof. John Webster to task for his small-minded snideness toward Mannermaa’s attempts to learn to mean the same thing when we of different communions say the same words.