Augustine and Love (Oberman)

The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications This is an excellent resource: The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications” by Heiko Oberman.  I just finished reading the chapter that covered mysticism in the medieval church; it was quite helpful.  It’s too detailed to summarize in one blog post, so for now I’ll just quote a section where Oberman summarized Augustine’s view of love.  This is worth thinking about – especially the two different “orbits”.

[Augustine was] a theologian of love. Not only is his great survey of history in ‘De civitate Dei’ (The City of God) shot through with the theme of love, but his ‘Confessiones’ (Confessions) take from the love of God and from God’s love a new definition of the person. Reason and intellect do not place us in the cosmic hierarchy, contrary to what Augustine had learned while studying philosophy, but love. Love is ‘pondus’ (weight), and ‘pondus’ is not a burden but rather gravity, and therefore determines the orbit into which a human being gravitates.

Augustine assumes that there are only two sorts of people, who move in two different orbits. One sort rotates around themselves, the other sort, around God. Both orbits are determined by the love that seeks the center, either by amor sui, self-love, or by amor Dei, the love of God. In order to make the jump from the ‘self-centered’ orbit to the other one, human beings need the help of a sovereign act of God. God alone makes this jump from the old to the new orbit happen—by his grace alone, ‘sola gratia.’

Heiko Augustinus Oberman, The Reformation : Roots and Ramifications (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 82–83.

(A paperback copy of this book is available on Amazon.)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


Horizontal Christian Ethics

 Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is probably my favorite church history (or historical theology) book of all time.  I highly recommend it – although it is an intermediate resource (probably college/university level reading).  Here are a few paragraphs I highlighted when I first read it ten years ago:

“Luther horizontalized Christian ethics: he transferred its goal from Heaven to earth.  Good works are not required for salvation but crucial for surviving in a threatened world.”

“Luther’s proclamation of the reformation-to-come, as well as his call to reform and betterment, are presented in a medieval vocabulary and can only be understood against the background of the Middle Ages.  Yet it is exactly this background which allows us also to discern the uniqueness of his vision.  This entails above all the rejection of any attempt to transform the world, whether it be advanced by the disciples of Joachim, by Pope Innocent III, or b the sixteenth-century peasants rebelling for their God-given rights.”

“Luther can be seen as a follower of Bernard of Clairvaux – but then a radical follower, because the situation since the days of St. Bernard had so deteriorated that the crusade now to be launched is no longer aimed at the liberation of the Holy Land but of the Holy People, the Church itself.  Because of the advanced time of world history, these crusades can no longer be waged by armies.  Only one weapon is left: the preaching of a powerless Christ, and Him crucified.”

“…In his [Luther’s] ability to show how to live a Christian life between-the-times, he was centuries ahead of today’s most advanced theological scholarship.”

Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 80-81.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond wi

Eric Metaxas, History Writing, and Martin Luther

Earlier, in my critical review of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, I noted that there were a few significant historical and theological inaccuracies in the book.  Later this week, having read Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, I hope to interact a bit more with Metaxas’ biography.  For now, I want to point out Metaxas’ inaccurate portrait of Martin Luther and the Jews.

The topic of Luther and the Jews is a large one and has been discussed by many scholars and theologians for many years.  It’s not an easy subject; there are quite a few angles and different nuances to consider (obviously we can’t do it all here).  Metaxas oversimplifies the issue by attributing Luther’s later polemical writings against the Jews to his crankiness, anger, and multiple illnesses.  In just three pages, Metaxas says that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings had everything to do with his ailments near the end of his life: Meniere’s disease, constipation, hemorrhoids, mood swings, depression, gallstones, kidney stones, arthritis, abscesses on his legs, short temper, and uremic poisoning.

Here’s how Metaxas explained it.

“As his health declined, everything seemed to set him off….  His language waxed fouler and fouler. … Luther seemed to have an absolutely torrid love affair with all things scatological.  So it is in this larger context that one has to take his attitude toward the Jews, which, like everything else in his life, unraveled with his health  …What he wrote during this time would rightly haunt his legacy for centuries and would in four centuries become the justification for such evils as Luther in even his most constipated mood could not have dreamed.  …As the lights began to dim, he became convinced that the Apocalypse was imminent, and his thoughts toward everyone took on darker and darker tones.  The thought of reasoned persuasion went out the window; at one point he called reason ‘the devil’s whore.'”

In other words, Metaxas said that Luther’s poor health and fanatical grumpiness near the end of his life showed he was coming apart at the seams – this is why he was so anti-Jewish later in his life.

Here we have an example of irresponsible historiography.  I’m wondering if Metaxas has even read and studied Luther.  Based on these statements, it doesn’t seem like he has.  In fact, Metaxas’ bibliography doesn’t include any of Luther’s writing or secondary sources on Luther’s life and theology.  He talks about the “larger context” of Luther’s life, but this is no larger context at all; it’s simply one of many things to consider when dealing with Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.

The last sentence quoted above shows that Metaxas indeed misreads Luther.  Luther didn’t write against reason simply because he was grumpy and constipated; there’s a ton of theology, history, and philosophy behind Luther’s distaste for unaided human reason.  For Luther, unaided reason had to do with the theology of glory, which attempted to climb up to God while avoiding the suffering and death of Christ on the cross.  The reformer discussed this already in 1518, well before the end of his life.  Concerning Luther’s scatological language, Heiko Oberman’s interaction with it is certainly more accurate than Metaxas’.

Metaxas is simply wrong here.  Luther’s writing on the Jews deserves more nuance.  It is foolish and inaccurate to attribute it to the end-of-life rantings of an angry and sick man.  (By the way, some of Luther’s later sermons are outstanding explanations of the gospel).  I’m not trying to absolve Luther here, I’m simply arguing for better history writing.  There are other such examples in other sections of Metaxas’ book where he muddles up history and theology, which is part of the reason I don’t recommend this book if you want an accurate picture of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology.

In case you’re interested, Carl Trueman discusses this very topic – Luther and the Jews – in chapter three of Histories and FallaciesTrueman takes a far more modest, contextual, and nuanced approach to Luther’s writings on the Jews.  In summary (read it for yourself!), he notes that Luther’s anti-Jewish writings were somewhat typical in the late medieval era and were based on religious and theological beliefs rather than ethnic distinctions.  Again, this doesn’t necessarily absolve Luther, but it gives us a more nuanced, balanced, and contextual approach than Metaxas does in Bonhoeffer

In Trueman’s words, “Every historian makes mistakes; the important thing is to gain an understanding of why they are mistakes.  Once that is done, they become much easier to avoid in the future” (p. 168).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

My Conscience is Captive to the Word of God (Luther)

(This is a repost from September, 2011.)

Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is one of those books that I’ll never forget reading.  I first read it around 10 years ago; I could not set this book down.  In fact, it led me to enjoy and appreciate church history in general, and Reformation history more specifically.  In my opinion, it is even better than Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (although that may be an apples/oranges comparison, and I do really like Here I Stand).

Here’s a little snippet from Oberman’s book.  It has to do with Luther’s famous answer while he was on trial for his writings: “…My conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary….”

“Luther’s appeal to conscience as the highest authority made an extraordinary impression on later generations.  Out of the understandable desire to declare Luther as the forerunner of the Enlightenment, the statement ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ was reinterpreted as the principle of freedom of conscience.”

“But that is missing the whole point.  Appealing to conscience was common medieval practice; appealing to a ‘free’ conscience that had liberated itself from all bonds would never have occurred to Luther.  Nor did he regard ‘conscience’ as identical with the inescapable voice of God in man.  Conscience is neither neutral nor autonomous: hotly contested by God and the Devil, it is not the autonomous center of man’s personality, it is always guided and is free only once God has freed and ‘captured’ it.  What is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils….”

“Luther liberated the Christian conscience, liberated it from papal decree and canon law.  But he also took it captive through the Word of God and imposed on it the responsibility to render service to the world.”

Well said.  In Reformation terms, we say that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (WCF 20.2).  The Lutheran Confessions (I’m thinking primarily of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession) also explain clearly and frequently that humans or human traditions cannot bind the conscience – only God can by his Word.  Commenting on Acts 15:10 and Galatians 5:1, the Apology says,

“Just as Alexander solved the Gordian knot once for all by cutting it with his sword when he could not disentangle it, so the apostles free consciences from traditions once for all, especially if they are taught to merit justification” (Apology XV).

The above Oberman quote is found on pages 203-204 of Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa