Essay / Education

High Table: Luther

Our reading assignment: Martin Luther’s “Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation,” “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” and “The Freedom of the Christian” from Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings.

Faculty training at the Torrey Honors Institute puts our pedagogy to the test. We call our semesterly training meetings “High Tables.” Nothing as lofty as it sounds, we read a curricular text and, led by a colleague, discuss it for three hours.

Led by Dr. Matt Jenson (whose The Gravity of Sin includes some great work on Luther’s doctrine of the same), last week my colleagues and I spent some good words (and a few shabby ones) discussing what Luther might teach us about the gospel, faith, Christ’s finished work, virtue, and good works.

It is the bane of familiarity to breed contempt. But may it never be that the Christian tires of considering the mighty gospel and the great gift of faith. For my own part, I confess that I so often forget and pervert the gospel that I can all too often use a good reminder. I include my favorite section from “The Freedom of the Christian” here in case your memory, too, could use refreshing.

“The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed, the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s: for if Christ is a bridegroom he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. And Christ submitting to suffering, death, and hell, breaks their power: for his righteousness is stronger than all the sins of man, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.”

Some highlights of our discussion follow.

Overarching enquiry: Jenson began our discussion with the following question: Does Luther think the Christian should be virtuous? The question cleverly distracts from the more Lutheran terms “works” and “righteousness” to recall classical concepts of the ethical life, often appropriated for Christian constructs of spirituality. Can the Christian become good? Not in her own power. Should the Christian—knowing her life to be hid in Christ with God, her righteousness to be alien, her only hope the finished work of Christ—presume to become “righteous, free, and a Christian by means of some good work”? Only at the cost of her faith. But Luther, too, teaches that “faith does good works.” So, shouldn’t the Christian be virtuous?

Most radical enquiry: Is it good for a rich man to give his money to the poor if he believes that he is good for doing so? Luther, it seems, says no. In the Heidelberg Disputation Luther claims, “The works of men may always be attractive and seemingly good. It appears nevertheless that they are mortal sins.” Any presumption to be good apart from Christ kills my soul (my body, already mortal). Better for my neighbor to lie, cheat and steal than to be a “good person” because his works are “all the more deadly” when done with “pure and evil assurance.”

Most lexical enquiry: Of course, we asked what is “faith” in Luther. Luther rejects faith as a virtue, but still calls it a hard thing. Its object is Christ (rather than, say, the whole creed.) Are “trust,” “belief,” or “knowledge” helpful synonyms?

Most grammatically technical enquiry: Luther writes, “Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God.” It seemed to me that this sentence was syntactically awkward in order to suggest that the efficacious Word of God occasions faith. But is there an implied subject, the one who only uses the Word of God effectively when she believes what she hears and reads (or ministers the Word to the same end)? Who is the origin of faith: the one who hears and believes or the One who promises and speaks?

Most troubling enquiry: Does Luther make the gospel a legal fiction?

Most biographical enquiry: Johann von Staupitz was Luther’s confessor during the season of Luther’s life wherein the knowledge of his sin was making him inconsolable. How do his various counsels to the angst-ridden Luther contribute to Luther’s theology of the cross?

Most pedagogical enquiry: Which hymn might you sing with a class to prepare them for the discussion? Professor Henderson (our resident hymn-leader) prefers the more thematically apt “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” to the more obvious because the Luther-penned choice, “A Mighty Fortress.” Other options include “Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”

Most pastoral enquiry: What are good words for students who express anxiety about their faith: is it enough? Luther speaks hard words of peace to the introspective: stop looking at yourself. Look to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. Do not pervert faith by considering it a meritorious work. Despair of yourself, even with respect to your faith, so long as you look to Christ.

Most tacit enquiry: Talking doctrine, especially such historically divisive doctrine might seem combative and merely heady. But reading and talking Luther with my colleagues was much more hearty and lively than that. The core of our conversation suggested to me another Heidelberg reminder, this time from the catechism, a document that would have birthed a Luther had he not been one of its fathers:

Q: Christian, what is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

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