Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Jesus Died for You"

Nothing highlights my theological naivete and incompetence better than intramural Lutheran disagreements. But I'm going out on another limb today.

At the urging of a dear friend, I have been reading (and in some cases, re-reading) Gerhard Foerde, late professor of theology at Luther Seminary and one of the most consistent and persistent exponents of a view of Lutheran theology that I find problematic. (Foerde's name should be spelled with that Norwegian vowel that is an "o" with a slash through it, but I don't know how to transliterate that. In my experience, most publishers simply print it as an "o," but the Norwegian in me takes umbrage at that. So I've done my best by using the convention for a German o-umlaut.) Now I have already admitted that I think there is much of value in Foerde's thought, but I am troubled by a insistent lack of room for "sanctification" or "growth in grace." It seems to me that his writing portrays the life of faith as a kind of Sisyphean circle of sin-forgiveness-sin-forgiveness, always returning to point "O" every day. But my friend (dare I name you, Paul?) insists both that I am being somewhat unfair and that there is, nevertheless, every reason for seeing things precisely that way (although he has denied my charge that Foerde runs close to antinomianism -- which is a very un-Lutheran path to trod).

Comes this sermon that I read last night: "Jesus Died for You" from the collection of Foerde's writings, A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, edited by Mark Mattes and Steve Paulson. I read the sermon because it's short and I thought that, because it's a sermon, it might give me insights that I miss from the more academic stuff I've read. Well, it gave me an insight all right, but not one that I am at all comfortable with.

Let me quote: "Jesus died for you. This is all he really did in the days of his flesh that is truly for you. He died. He refused to do anything else. ... So his mission was -- finally -- to die. And it was -- for you."

Surely, I immediately thought, that is not right! Oh, I have no problem with "and it was -- for you." Pro nobis, pro me -- what Christian thinker will deny that? But is it true that all the earthly Jesus (and there was no other Jesus, it seems to me -- although I'm wrestling with how to fit the human-Jesus into the Trinity after the Ascension) did that ultimately matters is to die?

Even if you give it the spin I did in the previous sentence, it's still all wrong, it seems to me. While the shadow of the cross lands across the manger, the birth of Jesus was "for you," too. The teaching, and healing, and exorcising, and excoriating, and eating with outcasts and sinners, and making wine, and forgiving sins was also "for you." And all of that is of a piece with his dying. The face of God shone forth in all of his life -- not just in his death. Oh, we cannot overstate the importance of the death, but we cannot divorce that death from the rest of his life -- any more than we can overlook that his death was ultimately meaningless without the Resurrection. (Foerde also seems to suggest in the sermon that the meaning of the Resurrection was simply to put the imprimatur on the death -- not on the man and the life!)

Lamentably, I think later paragraphs of the sermon highlight that he can't make his claim stick. He implicitly acknowledges that the death of Christ was perhaps an inevitable outcome of his life and living. "He dies. That is all he can do in the end." And that isn't nearly so problematic as the dogmatic statement at the beginning of the sermon.

Foerde concludes this way: "... So now, he alone gives us life, life triumphant over the law, sin, and death that threatens [sic] always to consume us. Jesus died to give us this gift. Jesus died for you."

But did not he also live to precisely that point? And if that "life triumphant" is a reality, does it not begin in the world where we live? Isn't it more than some airy dream "in the sweet by-and-by"?

I'm tempted to raise the question asked of me by my favorite skeptical interrogator while I was a pastor: "But of what earthly good is this Jesus?" On what seems to me to be a similar line (and I don't mean to be utilitarian): Why do the Gospels spend so much time on Jesus' life, if all that matters was his death? And similarly, doesn't this give credence to the claim that for Lutherans, what really matters is the crucifixion -- with the Resurrection as a kind of add-on?

Sorry, dear one, but I'm not convinced yet!


Thuloid said...

Well, first, I ought to be up front and say that I think Forde may have been as incisive a proponent of Lutheran theology (and here I really mean the theology of Luther) as we've seen since Luther. I think he "got" Luther very well, and if we find him disturbing it's largely because he's insisted we look at what a radical thing Luther's theology was.

I'll start with your last objection--why do the Gospels spend so much time on Jesus' life, if what mattered was his death? I think you have that backwards. Read them, look at the amount of time in each Gospel spent on the passion narrative, as compared to Jesus' public ministry. The climax of each is the cross. Then look at it book by book: Mark has 16 chapters, and the last 6 of them are the events of Holy Week. The Resurrection is in this Gospel only an ellipsis. Matthew has 28 chapters, the last 8 of which are Holy Week (and again, the Resurrection is treated very briefly). In Luke, 5 and a half of 24 chapters are spent on this span. And in John, 10 of 21 chapters are located then.

And then look at Paul, if you like. What does he say of his mission in 1 Corinthians? "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power." And again, "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power fo God." And again, "For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified." Here the cross and the gospel are identical. And in Romans, again the focus is death: "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death...," "For if we have been united with him in a death like his...," and "We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be dsetroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin." This by no means discounts the importance of the Resurrection, but the climax we locate in the cross (the Pauline statements I just quoted are followed by statements of the Resurrection--" that just as Christ was raised from the dead," "...we will certainly be united with him in a Resurrection like his," and "But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him." The order is significant--the cross enables the Resurrection, not just for Jesus, who was already Lord, but for us). Forde says, in fact, that the theology of the cross presupposes the resurrection--the resurrection makes possible the negation of the law as a way to glory (more on that later).

This isn't just Paul and Forde (and I'll get to Luther)--heck, it's an old idea. Take Athanasius' On the Incarnation of the Word. He says, (I apology for the clunky translation--it isn't mine) :

"For He made even the creation break silence: in that even at His death, marvellous to relate, or rather at His actual trophy over death—the Cross I mean—all creation was confessing that He that was made manifest and suffered in the body was not man merely, but the Son of God and Saviour of all. For the sun hid His face, and the earth quaked and the mountains were rent: all men were awed. Now these things shewed that Christ on the Cross was God, while all creation was His slave, and was witnessing by its fear to its Master’s presence. Thus, then, God the Word shewed Himself to men by His works. But our next step must be to recount and speak of the end of His bodily life and course, and of the nature of the death of His body; especially as this is the sum of our faith, and all men without exception are full of it: so that you may know that no whir the less from this also Christ is known to be God and the Son of God."

But now we move on to Luther. I don't think there's much doubt that Luther puts the cross at the center of his thinking. From the Heidelberg Disputation (and incidentally, if you want a great, short, clear book read Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518:
"Thesis 20: That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross." And he goes further in his explanation of thesis 21: "This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering....God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said."

So yes, for Luther, what really matters is the cross. This is where look if we want to see God--Jesus on the cross is where God is for us, and who God is for us. This, then, is also the lens through which we look if we want to see God in all the other things you cite--in Jesus' life, the teaching, the healing, the forgiving. Forde's rhetoric impresses the point that we cannot first look anywhere else--we must look at the cross.

From there, it's a bit tricky, but I think you can work backward to your issues about possible antinomianism. No, Luther (and Forde) aren't antinomian, but the understanding of the law is negative. Thesis 1 of the Heidelberg Disputation: "The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them." The law accuses and exposes sin--it condemns us and multiplies our sin. And this must be done--it exposes our need for the grace of God.

Sisyphean? Only if God's promises were not to be trusted. But the cycle is certainly there--in Luther as much as in Forde. Consider the Small Catechism, on Baptism: "What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer.

It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?--Answer.

St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."

Now, these are certainly controversial aspects of Lutheran theology--but I think it indisputable that they are Lutheran theology, and that there's at least a strong argument to be made that they're authentically Pauline as well.

Dwight P. said...

Thuloid, I can't and don't mean to discount much of what you say. I think, however, that you suggest the great Lutheran blindness when you expressly divorce cross from resurrection. My reading of Pauline scholarship (admittedly my reading is neither vast nor deep, but I do try to keep a finger in) is that it is nearly unanimous that Paul does not separate cross from resurrection. To see the cross as the summit of the work of God simply does not make sense unless it is related integrally to the resurrection.

And if Luther somehow sees them as two separate, though related, events, then he is quite frankly wrong.

Of course, at root, one of the great issues you raise is the importance of Luther himself in defining Lutheran theology. We are a confessional, not a personality, tradition. For example, I think the Finnish Lutheran scholarship is frequently criticized by "conservatives" because it focusses too much attention on Luther, when what we ought to look at is the Book of Concord.

At any rate, I think I am personally unwilling to buy into a point of view (regardless of "radical" it is claimed to be) that separates the cross and resurrection -- and even more one that seems to play down the radicality of the resurrection.

And, respectfully, if we take the resurrection and the sending of the Spirit seriously, then I think my critique has not been answered yet.

Thuloid said...

I don't think I actually said that the Resurrection is separate from the cross--but this depends, I think, on what you mean by separate (oh, and I apologize for the long posts, but it's kind of hard to make any sort of positive point in a shorter space). Some Paul scholarship (I'm thinking here of at least some of the New Perspective) will largely ignore the cross in Paul's theology, merely subsuming it under the Resurrection. If you want a small example of this phenomenon, take NT Wright, who is fairly moderate as far as New Perspective folks go. Then look at his most accessible book, Simply Christian--supposedly a basic summary of the Christian faith (and in many ways quite a good one). It has a good deal (relative to the length of the book) to say on the Resurrection. Almost nothing on the cross, aside from the fact that Jesus was crucified. The point, as Wright would have it, is that in the Resurrection Jesus is proclaimed Lord and Messiah, demonstrating the authority and victory of God. In this, it's typically Calvinist--what matters is the authority of God, quite apart from any inkling of God being for us (we're preached God in the abstract, not the living God we see, touch, eat and drink in Jesus Christ). And following this, we get what, exactly? Yet another opportunity to fulfill the law, as the covenant has been extended through faith to cover Gentiles. Now, the New Perspective folks do very serious Pauline scholarship, and certainly their partisans would claim no "separation" between the resurrection and the cross. But what they really mean by it is that the cross is barely relevant except as preface to the Resurrection.

I doubt you mean this, either--I'm just pointing out how fuzzy the language can get on such a matter. But here's the heart of it--for Luther as well as for Forde, the radicality of the Resurrection is the radicality of the Cross. The Resurrection is meaningful because Jesus, God and man, really died up there in the flesh, in plain sight. The cross is our interpretive matrix--the Resurrection is just an appearance unless we're talking about Jesus, the eternal living Word who suffers and dies for us on the cross. Then it's the mystery of the world, God made flesh even to death on a cross and raised to life as first fruits of a new creation. Then it makes sense for heaven and earth to quake and the temple curtain, the dividing line between the abode of God and the abode of man, to be torn in two--as the Gospels have it, the cross is the absolute climax of history. The Resurrection proclaims this--Jesus dies on the sixth day, rests on the seventh day, the Sabbath, and on the first day the world is made new in him. So it's creation, too--nothing at all is really separate from it. But if we want to know for sure who this God is, we look to the cross.

Good point on the Finnish school. I'd go further, though, and say that it hardly makes sense to me to go trawling around for excuses to say that Luther really believed something other than what's in the confessional statements, when he explicitly signed onto them.

I think, if by your critique you mean insufficient focus on sanctification, then you misread the Resurrection and the sending of his Spirit. The short form of this is that almost everyone who wants to focus on sanctification really means "I think good works are still required." Some will say this explicitly, which is nice (it's clarifying). But look at the effects of it--among the Orthodox, you get a theology such that justification is just step one of that long road of theosis. We keep perfecting ourselves, with the aid of the Spirit, gradually closing that absolute chasm between our sin and the holiness of God. Roman Catholic theology, too, makes justification into merely an intro--oh, isn't that nice, now you have baptismal grace. Now go and do the good works so that you merit salvation. And among Protestants of pietistic bent, as with Wright's Calvinism, it's really the same story--to be crucified with Christ and raised with him isn't, somehow, enough. The really important thing becomes to fulfill the law ourselves.

But for Luther, sanctification was something of a different story, and Forde makes this point well. Christian liberty comes in that we are set free in Christ to be human, dead to sin (it has no claim over us) and alive to Christ (he most certainly does), even while we are yet sinners (simul justus et peccator--a theology that does not accept this misunderstands Paul). Forde quotes Luther saying as much:

In the kingdom of his humanity and his flesh, in which we live by faith, he makes us of the same form as himself and crucifies us by making us true humans instead of unhappy and proud Gods: humans, that is, in their miseary and their sin. Because in Adam we mounted up towards equality with God, he descended to be like us, to bring us back to knowledge of himself. That is the sacrament of the incarnation. That is the kingdom of faith in which the cross of Christ holds sway, which sets at naught the divinity for which we perversely strive and restores the despised weakness of the flesh which we have perversely abandoned...
But in the kingdom of his divinity and glory he will make us like unto his glorious body, where we shall be like him and shall be no longer sinners, no longer weak, but shall ourselves be kings, the sons of God, and as the angels that are in heaven. Then we shall say "my God" in real possession, which now we say only in hope.

So what is gift of the Spirit? Well, we believe, do we not? And so we have the faith of Christ and are crucified and raised in him--but we are still sinners. Now we are free to do good works, which previously were impossible for us. This is no law, no gradual process of perfection or reformation, but the work of the Spirit to give new life--and it does not deny sin at all. Any other understanding of sanctification effectively nullifies grace and does not take seriously God's holiness.

But maybe I misunderstand where you think a focus on the Resurrection should go? If not, I think it's very problematic.

Clint said...

Forde can be very inspiring in many ways, but there are gaping holes in his theology one can walk through- you've pointed one out. I think even Forde knew about these holes.

As for whether he is the greatest Luther since Luther, well, that seems questionable. He reads Luther quite narrowly. Those parts that don't fit his system he ascribes to Luther's redactors. You be the judge.