Luther's Breakthrough

August 10th, 2017

In his new book, Luther vs. Pope Leo: A Conversation in Purgatory, Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College (Salem, Virginia), Paul R. Hinlicky, takes readers on a fictional journey into the afterlife where Martin Luther and Pope Leo X have been consigned to be purgatorial roommates until they work out the differences that divided them in their historical encounter.

In preparation for writing the Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther dove into the annals of canon law to uncover the origin of indulgences and wrote a genealogical account of it. What he discovered there amazed him and his contemporaries. In the earliest stage of church history when Christians were persecuted by the empire, the church developed a disciplinary procedure for reconciling lapsed Christians after persecution passed. Christians, especially clergy who had renounced Christ under threat of death to save their lives or to avoid arrest and delivered the Holy Scriptures for destruction into the hands of police, now wanted restoration to the communion. Recognizing the infinitude of divine mercy and the possibility of redemption in the notable figures of Peter, who denied Christ, and Paul, who persecuted Him, the church nevertheless also had the responsibility to test for sincerity of repentance before restoration to communion was granted. Before readmitting the lapsed to communion, church discipline imposed tests for genuine or “godly” sorrow (cf. 2 Cor 7:10) over sin (not over punishment). So the church imposed penalties to test for true faith in forgiveness of sin as a divine gift of mercy. The test consisted in reparative works such as almsgiving. Yet the penance, as a church-imposed penalty, could also be relaxed by the church if and when convinced of the sincerity of the penitent. In that case, the church indulged the penitent by suspending continuation of the disciplinary punishment. This relaxation of church-imposed penalties to restore the fallen in this life to ecclesial communion, subsequent to demonstration of sincerity by works of reparation, was the ancient origin of the practice of indulgences in Luther’s day.

The church’s early disciplinary practice of the martyrs’ indulgences evolved over the course of many centuries. What began as a measure to restore one to ecclesiastical communion from the special sin of apostasy in this life—the Letter to the Hebrews 6:4-6 seemed to deny even the possibility of restoration!—became generalized and thus torn from its specific context, which was then forgotten. It gradually came to deal with satisfaction due to the divine and eternal justice for all sins, forgiven but not yet punished, in the next life. So the notion of purgatory as punitive satisfaction of divine justice grew in tandem with the notion of indulgences. Out of the traditional test for sincerity by deeds that repair the injury done, almsgiving evolved into the payment made for the indulgence. Indulgences could now be bought and sold, even if the fiction that they were donations was still maintained. With this excavation of the origins of the sale of indulgences up to his own time, Luther was a pioneer in the genealogical hermeneutic of suspicion (which he had either learned from or found confirmed in the corresponding work of the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla, who exposed as forgery the document The Donation of Constantine, which purportedly had the Roman emperor granting temporal jurisdiction to the bishop of Rome).

There is, however, yet another way in which knowledge becomes fixed and thus immune from the salutary self-questioning that befits human knowing in the perplexities of social life through the changes and chances of life. This happens when one segregates and is never challenged in experience with others to see the same things from different perspectives or to focus empathetically on common matters with the concerns of others. A hermeneutics of charity, for which St. Thomas is justly celebrated, learns to love the neighbor as oneself cognitively, by imaginatively seeing things from another’s perspective. It affirms as a rule: “Do not presume to criticize until you have stated the opposing position with such precision and empathy that the opponent would exclaim, ‘That’s it! I couldn’t have said it better myself!’” Then, and only then, may critique proceed, for then, and only then, is one dealing with the real thing, not a convenient caricature.

When human beings stop learning this most basic social level of fellow-feeling, imagination fails, curiosity dies, and neighbors become nothing but manipulated objects, whether of desire or of aversion, in a vision that only sees but no longer listens, taking its own feelings absolutely as fixed and finished. The question, “Do you see what I see?” never gets asked about the same thing in a conversation, which will not quit until satisfied in common vision, rejoicing with the other in the truth: “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7 CEB). Consequently, a hermeneutic of suspicion, unchecked by the hermeneutic of charity, succumbs to the injurious fallacy of a collective ad hominem, demonizing those who see differently as if herds or, rather in Luther’s case, “hordes” of devils.

This failure in charity, alas, was Luther’s peculiar self-indulgence in the polemical caricatures of papists, peasants, and Jews (to name only the most significant victims of his impatient wrath), at which he excelled in his verbally violent culture. This failure in charity, moreover, dogged Luther’s rediscovery of the biblical gospel, when at times it descended into an equal and opposite hermeneutic of authoritarianism and obscurantism: Luther’s miraculous Bible against the church’s miraculous pope. In this dive into the gutter, “proof-texting” prevails, which settles arguments with citations from authorities like a trump card. Unnoticed in the process is the selective focus on certain statements, ignoring others, without any account to the other who finds such statements significant and why and whether their selection can be justified in view of the whole range of possible selections. Proof-texting thus imposes in authoritarian fashion a tacit and unwarranted selection from the body of evidence without the bother of learning what the selected statements were intended to mean from the speaker/writer’s perspective, or how they hang together with the canonical whole; instead proof-texts are weaponized from the perspective of its own absolutized and unchecked will-to-power.

On account of these not insignificant failures in love, Luther now found himself in purgatory. So he came to see, as he ransacked memory before God, that God had placed him together with his enemy in the anteroom of heaven. There was thus much more to ponder.

Luther’s Breakthrough

An earnest monk, Luther had come to hate the thought of the “righteousness of God,” which, as he read in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, was “revealed in the gospel.” He hated it because, if thinking philosophically of the perfect being, this alleged revelation poured salt into his wounded soul. He was already wounded by the dreadful thought of standing before the perfect being and justifying himself; indeed he hated this being who, he not unfairly reasoned, had set him up with all humanity to fail. Such hatred of the God who created him only to damn him further reinforced his sense of captivated desire doomed to damnation. The scruples learned from his schooling as a monk, coupled with a rare honesty about self and the actual desires of the heart, showed him that he could not will himself, so to speak, to will love of God. Coerced love under the duress of threatened punishment is phony; it is the love of a slave and not of a beloved child. It seeks self in averting punishment or securing reward and so never comes to a free and joyful love of God. If it were not bad enough that God’s strict standard of judgment was revealed in the law and the prophets, now Christ himself in the gospel appeared as the righteous judge of the living and the dead coming from heavenly perfection! Christ, the vicar of the perfect being! How will his heart be delivered from its altogether rational hatred of this perfect being to stand before the judgment seat of Christ? How will the perfect ever become lovable to him, created as an imperfect being? Resolution of that quandary is what Luther sought in seeking a “gracious God.”

The Joyful Exchange

Religious works, for Luther, are not good works. The conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus shows this dramatically. They do not deliver the servile self; they compound the bondage, playing on fears and enticing with promised pleasures until the unexpected word from God concerning His Son breaks in to shatter and transform the self-seeking self to make out of it a new creation. As in Paul, here an exchange takes place; an unexpected divine economy is revealed in it. For Luther the sinner-seeking Son gives Himself for the self-seeking sinner so that the one who would ascend to heaven is undone by the One who comes to earth. This salutary undoing and redoing of the subject, however, is no brutal fiat. It is exchange, circulation of life, economy. But it is a happy, amazingly good, joyful exchange, not tit for tat, quid pro quo.

The “joyful exchange,” as Luther named it, is from one perspective a divine thievery of the self-seeking self who wants to earn heaven: the Son demands and takes away the sin of the world, not with a magic wand that disappears it into thin air, but rather the Son takes it upon his own anguished soul and tortured body to bear it to death and bury it forever in the tomb. It is from another perspective a gift without remainder, since it gives precisely what is not deserved, thus outbidding and exploding every calculating economy based upon the suum cuique, not “giving to each its own,” but instead giving innocence for guilt, life for death, righteousness for unrighteousness. And from yet another angle, it brings about true justice in the truly good works that flow forth from the new self that give God the glory that is His due for all His mercy in Christ by working the justice of love seeking structures of mutuality and reciprocity. The sinner is justified by faith and faith in turn reciprocates, giving glory to God and love to the neighbor and hope for the world. So effective justice is aborning in the unjust world, not from demanding it, but by one-sidedly giving it in Christ’s joyful exchange.

Such had been Luther’s breakthrough, as he traced his course in memory now. Where had he somehow gone wrong that such beautiful theology would land him in purgatory with the antichrist?

comments powered by Disqus