Thursday, May 25, 2017

Luther the Freedom Fighter. . .

You probably ought to be suspect of most of the stuff you find in TIME magazine so when that weekly decided to print an article on Luther in the fifth centenary of the shot across the bow that launched the Reformation, one ought to read it carefully.

Unlike Luther the hero of the Germanic people or the ultimate Protestant or even the conservative reformer, this article sees Luther as the primordial modern man working to invent and protect such things as individualism, privacy, and freedom.
In helping to free the inner person from the power of external authority, Luther’s theology contributed to the weakening of the very concept of external authority, including that of divine authority. The freeing of the inner person from the power of external authority restricted the exercise of absolute authority in all its forms.
It is hard to figure out whether the article thinks this is a good thing or a bad one.  Is the article written from the vantage point of Rome and its accusations against Luther or the modern man who wants justification for his own rebuke of authority (except the authority of desire)?

Luther’s protection of the soul from secular imposition led to the paradox of inner freedom with external domination. Nevertheless, the coexistence of apparently contradictory relations to authority could not indefinitely survive without one giving way to another. The recognition of a sphere where political rule could not legitimately coerce the individual ultimately undermined the status of absolutist authority in all spheres of life. It soon became clear that once individuals are granted inner freedom they find it difficult to unquestioningly obey any form of authority.When Luther suggested that he could not but obey his individual conscience, he provided the basis for an argument that was soon perceived as subversive. The very suggestion that individual conscience could oppose external authority would, in the years to come, crystallize into the affirmation of the ideal of individual freedom. That is why the English historian Christopher Hill went so far as to claim that the "essence of Protestantism — the priesthood of all believers — was logically a doctrine of individualist anarchy."
Apparently, Luther, singlehandedly, created the undoing of nearly all moral authority except the individual conscience and thus set the stage for the modern world.  Well, except for the fact that Luther's conscience was captive to the Word of God and conscience not the single or even partial basis for his truth, moral authority, or freedom to act.  Read Luther's Bondage of the Will in response to the emerging ideas of individualism, freedom, and conscience that had their source less in Luther than in Erasmus.  Finally Luther had no notion of freedom to serve the self but always freedom to live in subjection to Christ and in service to neighbor -- not hardly close to modern idea of freedom from all subjection or service.

We must be prepared for the many ways in which Luther will be misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and mislabeled.  I know that our current President is fond of the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity and that all publicity is good.  On the one hand I am glad that more folks are paying attention to Luther.  On the other I often wonder who the Luther is that they are paying attention to!

Luther had much in common with Pope Francis.  Both were good for a thirty second blurb, a soundbite that titillates but does not necessarily inform.  Some of Luther's witticisms are better soundbites than theology.  But if you want to know Luther, you cannot only read Luther.  You much also read the Lutheran Confessions.  Luther in his earthy moments informs and even entertains but the Luther that binds Lutherans is the Luther of the Lutheran Confessions.  Most of the time it is rather straightforward and easy to reconcile the two.  But even Luther would find it hard to approve everything he said or wrote.  In the end, Luther himself esteemed only a few of his writings as worth the long haul.  History has given us more but with it have come the Luther interpreters who inevitably tell us more about themselves than about Luther.


Jason said...

You can always count on death, taxes... and secular media like Time, Life, Newsweek to totally screw up a religious story. They are Greeks, and cannot understand our foolishness. Sad and predictable.

Jason Kiefer

Anonymous said...

The work of the Law may be written on their hearts, but a conscience combined with conflicting thoughts can become confused and apply Acts 5:29, for example, when Romans 13:1-7 is more applicable. “Americanized” Christianity, like everything else that celebrates rugged individualists, holds choice and prerogative of the individual as the highest, dearest good which affords said individual the ability to decide what the Bible is really saying without coercion from officious authoritarians. And above all, institutionalized church, big government, big labor, and big industry are all suspect and, ultimately, become absolutely corrupt and are not to be trusted. Let freedom ring! Alas, a conscience, unless it has been honed with pure doctrine (the kind of doctrine Jesus refers to in John 14:26 when He says, “All things I have said to you”), is no reliable measure or canon. It’s that simple and precarious. The truth, it seems, is a thin slice in a big fat heretical pie. Can we really blame Time Magazine for politicizing Luther and the Protestant Reformation when the vast majority of Western Christian thought can’t even get it right? That’s our Luther: The Pancho Villa of Saxony!

Anonymous said...

"But if you want to know Luther, you cannot only read Luther. You much also read the Lutheran Confessions. Luther in his earthy moments informs and even entertains but the Luther that binds Lutherans is the Luther of the Lutheran Confessions."
Sound advice for us all, Pastor.Thank you.
Deacon Timothy Carter Kingsport, TN.