Luther: The Church Is Not The Church

Still dealing with On the Bondage of the Will today. I thought we’d be through it in a couple of weeks, just a couple minor posts on free will or whatever – but I clearly didn’t know Luther. He basically starts with a preface where he’s reviewing Erasmus’s preface, and just sort of says a bunch of mean things about Erasmus and the Catholics more broadly. This week, we look at Section 32, a bit where Luther makes some deliciously dangerous claims about the institutional church as opposed to the Church Eternal. It’s very Reformation, and still very politically charged today.

So Erasmus criticised how Luther was coming up with new ideas about free will: “it is not to be believed that God would overlook an error in His Church for so many ages.” Luther replies that the church has always been correct, but argues that there’s a difference between the institutional church and the Church Eternal, the so-called True Church. He doesn’t use those phrases, but it’s what he’s getting at. He starts off with a relatively chill hypothetical: that God might have simply corrected every true Christian on the topic of free will moments before their death, so that they die being correct about it. (Fuck knows why that’s important.) Then, he suggests, maybe God did just allow Christians to be wrong about free will for a while. After all, he continues, the Israelites were always fucking shit up. “Not one king is mentioned [in the Bible] who was never in error.” So maybe all the previous Christians were just wrong.

And then out come the big guns. When Elijah was around, Luther says, everything was fucked beyond belief. “All the people and every thing that was public among them had so gone away into idolatry that he [Elijah] thought that he himself was the only one left.” But according to Romans 11, God was “reserving to Himself seven thousand.” God was preserving a faithful remnant out of the wider People of God. The Israelites were all shit, and yet God was preserving the true believers within the wider corruption of the religious community. Maybe that’s happening again, Luther suggests. After all, “from its origin, the state of the church was always such, that those who were called the people and saints of God who were not so, while others among them, who were as a refuse and were not called the people and saints of God, were the People and Saints of God.” 

This is a really potent idea, for a bunch of obvious reasons. Firstly, it’s a major part of the Reformation that Luther is trying to reinstate what he sees to be the real principles of Christianity. He’s trying to strip away the corruption and iniquity of the Catholic hierarchy – trying to bring the true believers together under one non-corrupt authority. But you can see why it’s a loaded position, right, because it’s essentially arguing that not all those who call themselves Christian are actually Christian. In the simplest sort of experiential way, that’s obviously true. We can think of people who were raised Christian and identify as Christian, but who don’t really have any meaningful faith of their own. But it’s also a really potent political weapon. If you disagree with somebody’s Christianity, you can just write them off as fake Christians. Christians in name only, not real Christians. Being part of the majority doesn’t make you Christian; being respected doesn’t make you Christian; being a king or a saint or a self-professed true believer doesn’t make you Christian. You might genuinely and authentically think that you’re a Christian, and according to Luther, it doesn’t mean shit. From the beginning, the true People and Saints were as a refuse among you. That’s the beginning of a revolution right there.

So alright then, what does qualify someone as a True Christian? What’s the criteria that we can use? Obviously it’s not enough to think that you’re a Christian – so how can we know who’s who? How can we try and improve and maybe get better, get closer towards where we’re supposed to be? And how do we relate to our fellow Christians, who all apparently exist under the same jeopardy? Well, on the second front, Luther talks about the laws of charity and faith. Under the law of charity, you might as well assume everyone’s a saint, just because it’s good to be charitable. At the same time, you don’t go as far as proclaiming that someone is a saint according to God: “but faith calls no one a saint but him who is declared to be so by the judgement of God, for faith is not liable to be deceived.” 

On the first front, Luther offers two types of judgement as to the goodness of different teachings. The first is an internal judgement, where the individual privately weighs the teaching against their own encounter with the Spirit. The second is an external judgement, which “especially belongs to teachers and preachers of the Word.” This is where we get back to Luther’s whole thing about the clarity of Scripture – because it’s all apparently plain and simple (“more clear than the sun itself”), we all just have to have a public debate and then the Scriptures are clear so there won’t be any problems. Obviously, with five hundred years’ hindsight, Luther was wrong on that front. We’re still going at the debate.

We’ll skip over that whole argument though, and come back down on Section 37. Luther has been arguing that Scripture’s entirely clear and it’s all simple and we just have to have a debate or something. He concludes with another little litmus test as to what’s correct doctrine. He starts by quoting Luke 21.15: “I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” Basically, he says, if people are able to resist your arguments, it’s clearly not true, and therefore it’s not God’s doctrine. Whoever wins the argument is therefore winning because they’re just eliciting God’s clear and true Scriptures which are totally clear and not confusing at all. Not all Christians are real Christians; the only real ones are the ones who can win literally every argument. Winning an argument is proof that God is on your side.

Now, there’s a problem with that idea – and not just that it’s obnoxious and silly. You might recall that earlier Luther was saying a bunch of other stuff about how not all Christians are real Christians. In that instance, he argued that the real Christians are often marginalised figures, on the fringe of society – he specifically used the term ‘refuse’. But if the real Christians are the ones who win every argument, why do they end up at the bottom of the social heap? Shouldn’t they all be renowned for having amazing and irrefutable arguments? Luther plugs this gap with the concept of persecution. Jesus spanked the Pharisees with irrefutable arguments, but they didn’t change their minds. They “still perseveringly continued His adversaries.” The same thing happened to Stephen: the Pharisees couldn’t defeat Stephen’s arguments, so they stoned him. This logic creates a psychological salve for any outcome in an argument. If you win, it’s proof that God is on your side. If you lose, it’s because your opponents persevere in their blindness even though your arguments are irrefutable. They’re Pharisees. They’re controlled by Satan. In Section 38, Luther explicitly articulates this problem, although he doesn’t recognise it as a problem:

“Suffice it thus to have premised… that the Scriptures are most clear, and that by them, our doctrines can be so defended that the adversaries cannot resist… but if there be any who do not see this clearness, and are blind… [they] manifest how great that dominion and power of Satan is over the sons of men.” 

If you win, it’s because you’re right, and if you lose, it’s Satan’s fault. Incidentally, Luther again here says that Satan can stop us from hearing the Word of God: he argues that when people aren’t convinced, “it is the wickedness of Satan enthroned and reigning in our weakness, and resisting the Word of God; for if Satan did not do this, a whole world of men might be converted by one Word of God once heard.” I’ll repeat my question from an earlier post: what’s up with Satan that he’s able to just stop people from hearing God’s Word? Is he given that power by God, or is he able to resist and deny God’s desire for all people to be saved?

We’ll leave that question aside for now, though – don’t think I’ll get an answer from Luther today. Instead, I’ll close by noting the wider political problems with Luther’s position. He’s creating this theology that’s almost sealed against external ideas and thoughts. If you’re deploying it strictly, you’re almost making yourself infallible by definition. It’s particularly a problem when we’re dealing with those headstrong Christians who’re convinced that they’re right on any given point. They’re so convinced by their own position that any contrary argument, even better ones, can be basically ignored. The whole system relies on the intellectual integrity of the individual, such that they’re willing to genuinely consider other positions and admit when they’re wrong. If you don’t have that, you’re trapped in Luther’s echo chamber.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s