06.09.2020> Between God And Death / / The Longing For Reformation

Tonight I wrote what I envision as the very last scene of my novel. I am writing a series, or plan to, and I put down the bookend of the first one. Hopefully this makes it easier to fill in the rest, with the outline I have. Knowing where it leads shoud do that. I got a hint on the theme while reading a biography of Martin Luther I’ve been going through, and it gave me insight into my character’s fatal flaw. Who mourns the sociopath determined to prove to the world that he isn’t one? Mostly, he does. That’s the M.O.

“If Luther was terrified of death, was his terror not then proof that he did not believe sufficiently? He said as much many times. Here was his dilemma.

If have faith, I should not fear death; if I fear death, I do not have faith. I fear death; yet I yearn to have faith.

His “Reformation breakthrough” was, I believe, his discovery of a theological and existential means of transforming the dilemma into a paradox. Just as he could not will himself into perfect humility, so he could not will away his terror before death.

Part of the transformation involved the equation of faith to the promises of God. Bizer’s student Oswald Bayer has argued that in the earlier Luther, God’s promise was to save the sinner who fully condemned himself in fear and trembling. The motto simul justus et peccator, which appears in the lectures on Romans, would then simply describe the state of the contrite heart condemning himself. The sinner who accused himself had God’s promise of ultimate redemption.

But we know how difficult self-condemnation and submission were for Luther, for we have his witness that he rebelled, that sometimes he hated God and wished that God did not exist. This sort of rebellion is obviously not the attitude that demonstrates perfect contrition for one’s depraved state. Now, with his “tower experience,” a different conception of promise asserted itself. It involved a deeply personal identification with the crucified Christ and the questing Christian. The seeker no longer perceived Christ as a stimulus to condemn himself, but saw Christ dying and became united with the suffering Christ in the loneliness of death and in the promise of resurrection. Often afterward, he used the image of Christ as victor over death, the innocent son of God unjustly taken by death. In a sermon of 1526 Luther spoke of Christ, holy and guiltless, killed on the cross unrighteously by sin. Sin, here a synonym for Satan, became then God’s debtor and must pay for his injustice, and so Christ has with his blood won the right over all the sins of the world. It is hard to know how literally to take utterances like these-but their importance is clear. Christ hangs on the cross not merely as a example to prove our own wretchedness that we require such a sacrifice Instead he is our warrior chieftain, fighting on our side against the powers :: darkness, and we participate in his victory.

But promise includes a further meaning. A promise is a sign of a reality to come. It is not the reality itself; it depends on the one who makes it. Oswalc Bayer has pointed out how important Christ’s death is to Luther’s sermon on baptism and how closely repentance and baptism go together in his thought. Baptism is a sign that carries in itself the substance of victory over death, and the gospel and the sacraments are testaments of an inheritance that God freely gives us because of what Christ has done.

Although in Luther’s theology sign and substance are present both in the preaching of the gospel and in the sacraments, we locate the substance only by faith. Since God makes the promise, we can affirm to ourselves that the substance is present in those agents that he has ordained to signify it. But God is hidden from our immediate sight, and the substance of his promise remains hidden too. Its full disclosure will come only at the end of time. A promise by its nature looks to the future, something not yet complete. In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, and God does not reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Weak human nature will not let us believe in the promises of God with a confidence that purges from the soul the anguish of fear and unbelief, the Anfechtungen. Suffering agonies of doubt is part of the Christian way. Therefore, in Luthers discovery of justification the Christian was liberated from the self-imposed requirement to present a perfect mental attitude to God, to confuse belief with knowledge, faith with the direct intuition of an observed world. Whereas in the earlier Luther the fear of death was the ultimate form of unbelief, the Luther who discovered justification by faith understood that no matter how great our faith, it cannot be strong enough to stave off terror before death. In Luther’s particular case, the Christian was not required to have such faith that horror at death and annihilation and corruption could be considered a sign of unbelief and damnation.”

from ‘Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death’ by Richard Marius

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