Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridal Imagery in Luther's "Freedom of a Christian."

I've been going over Freedom of a Christian again for my Luther class. In light of my knowledge of Luther's use of the earlier tradition, a couple of interesting things strike me about the use of the bridal mysticism tradition in this work.

Let's start with how Augustine, the medieval tradition, and modern Catholicism think about sin. Augustine's understanding of sin is rooted primarily in his Neo-Platonic anthropology. Humans are desiring subjects, Plato and Plotinus tell us. In the dialogue The Phaedrus, Plato tells us that our desires for earthly things (in this case quite specifically, erotic desire- Phaedrus is composing a homosexual love poem!) are simply a misdirected desire for the "Good." Since as most Patristic authors do, Augustine thinks that Plato's "Good" is actually a fuzzy knowledge and affirmation of the Triune God of the Bible, he argues that the essence of sin is desiring things that aren't God. Prior to the Fall, Augustine argues in bk 14 of City of God, Adam and Eve wouldn't have really even have enjoyed sex. Why? Because Augustine says, when you have an orgasm, your mind goes blank. Hence you're not being rational or thinking about God or desiring him. Enjoying sex is actually a punishment for sin, because its a big distraction from doing philosophy/theology and contemplating God.

But does that mean that we shouldn't engage in any earthly activities that we might enjoy? No, says Augustine, but there is a distinction between "enjoyment"and "use." The hard fact is that if don't eat or get married, then the human race will die out- hence we need to "use" these things for those ends, but enjoying them is sin. Hence, Monasticism makes a lot of sense within this scenario. Cut off as many distractions from pure desire for God as possible. In the subsequent tradition, other theologians are a little more tolerant. Aquinas for example compares our movement towards our final enjoyment of God in heaven as being like walking down a road. You can, he says, enjoy the pleasant scenery and you don't have to look at every step that your taking. Nevertheless, everything has to feed into getting to the final vision of God in his essence in heaven and the ultimate enjoyment that brings.

This is the reason why the Catholic Church continues to complain of the ripping asunder of the "unitive" and the "reproductive" aspects of sex. On one level, I agree with the Catholic position that sex can't be divorced from the family, not least because it creates intimacy between a man and a woman who in turn are able to use that intimacy to create a happy and safe home for children. On another level, the Catholic understanding is tied up in an Aristotelian ethic of telos and a Platonic one of our erotic desire for God. The Catholic assumption is that, in a word, sex is a distraction from enjoying God, period. Now, it can be redeemed if in having sex there might be a possibility that you create a human being who will eventually see God in his essence and enjoy him. But simply doing it for fun it is sinful (Pius the XII actually claimed that a person could commit adultery with their own wife!). It is a distraction from enjoy God in a quasi-erotic sense.

This carries over into the bridal mysticism of the Middle Ages, which mainly manifests itself in the forms of allegorical commentaries on Song of Songs. If you think about it, this is actually an incredibly necessary theological strategy in light how the tradition understands sin and righteousness. If Song of Songs is an affirmation of human sexuality for its own sake as a gift of God, then this is a problem if you consider sin to be desiring things that aren't God for their own sake. Hence, one kills two birds with one stone if you make the whole thing about Christ and the Church. Now, this isn't entirely invalid, since Paul does tell us all marriages is an allegory of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5), and in fact it is a way of reading the poem that goes all the way back to Judaism (one Jewish group I read about actually reads as an allegory of Israel and the coming Messiah, and therefore reads the whole text at a synagogue service every Friday night!). Nevertheless, if you believe that what the text is telling you is that you should actually be having erotic feeling for God, then it gets a little creepy real fast. In fact, much of the mysticism of the Middle Ages that centers on this theme represents a field day for Freudian psychologists.

This bring us to Luther, who as we know, studied Medieval mystical texts from the years 1511-1518/9. In a sense, beyond his use of the Bible and its description of the YHWH/Israel-Christ/Church relationship as bridal, this explains his use of the marriage image for justification in Freedom of a Christian. Nonetheless, as we can observe from the text of this work, Luther uses the bridal image in a very different way. In Luther's reformation breakthrough and prior to this, there is a developing distance between Luther and the Augustinian Neo-Platonic anthropology. The problem of sin ceases to be one of wrong desire and becomes one of wrong trust. Luther comes to define sin as trust in things that aren't God, chiefly, ourselves.

This has two effects on how Luther appropriates the bridal images. First, he doesn't think of Christ relationship to the soul of the believer as one of the union of desiring subjects. We don't have any qualities that would make God feel desire for us (this is the entire Roman Catholic concept of grace- grace makes God find us attractive and thereby desire us). Conversely, we are not the bride of Christ because by grace we have come have quasi-erotic desires for him as the highest object of longing. Rather, Luther uses the image to describe the mutual of exchange of goods between us and Christ (sin and death for life and righteousness). It also describes the self-giving and trustworthiness of Christ. Christ surrenders himself to the believing soul just as the husband surrenders his person to the wife.

The second effect is that desire for earthly things is now ok. In Freedom of a Christian, this expresses itself in the second half with the emphasis on vocation in the created realm. In other words, sin is not loving earthly things, but trusting in an ultimate sense in earthly things. Wanting and desiring earthly things- the stuff of every day life- is ok. In fact, not delighting in them or enjoying them is a sin against God the creator. This rhetoric runs all through the Large Catechism's description of the first article.

On a side note, it's interesting to see how the more things change the more they stay the same. American Evangelicals have definitely picked up on the pre-reformation tradition of sexualizing God in a big way. They constantly write books title things like "desiring God." In fact the whole contemporary worship movement is based on trying to eroticize God. Specifically they do this by playing soft-rock sounding music which reminds people of their romantic encounters down through the years. Playing that music in church gives people a erotic association with church and thereby psychologically manipulates them into attending. Again, also, the whole emphasis is about enjoyment and person potential to become enjoyable to God. Hence, the Joel Osteen "be a better you" books.


  1. Jack,

    I am a Reformed believer and I have been reading Luther and I have been curious to ask this to modern day Lutherans and wanted to get some feedback. Take your time.

    1. In Luther's Bondage of the Will he seems to be more predestinarian than the Lutherans I know.

    2. Martin Luther A Treatise on Good Works, XVII says, "This Sabbath has now for us been changed into the Sunday, and the other days are called work-days; the Sunday is called rest-day or holiday or holy day. And would to God that in Christendom there were no holiday except the Sunday."

    Yet every Lutheran church I know of uses a liturgical calendar and practices holy days.

    3. Luther used very abusive speech regarding the organ, he seemed to hate it, but every Lutheran Church I go to uses one.


  2. Drake- Thanks for reading!

    "1. In Luther's Bondage of the Will he seems to be more predestinarian than the Lutherans I know."

    That's because American Lutherans are influenced by American Evangelicalism like most Reformed folks I know.

    Also, it must be born in mind that Lutheranism apostatized en mass from the true doctrine of Luther in bondage of the will from about the early 17th century to the mid-19th century. In the American scene, the founder of my denomination, C. F. W. Walther restored Luther's teaching on predestination and that of the Formula of Concord in the US. Officially, the WELS, ELS, and the LCMS support the orthodox doctrine of predestination (which nevertheless differs still from Calvin's- a topic for another day). Even in the liberal ELCA, most theologians I encounter now accept the doctrine of predestination as Luther taught it.

    "2. Martin Luther A Treatise on Good Works, XVII says, "This Sabbath has now for us been changed into the Sunday, and the other days are called work-days; the Sunday is called rest-day or holiday or holy day. And would to God that in Christendom there were no holiday except the Sunday."

    Yet every Lutheran church I know of uses a liturgical calendar and practices holy days."

    This is an early writing and not Luther's mature position. Remember Luther also says in "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" that I woman should cheat on her husband if he's impotent. This isn't what we read in the Catechisms under the 6th commandment!

    So, Luther changed his mind like he did about a lot of things.

    "3. Luther used very abusive speech regarding the organ, he seemed to hate it, but every Lutheran Church I go to uses one. "

    Well, he wrote a lot hymns which are presumably to be played on an organ. Forgive me (and this might reveal ignorance), but I've never read a single statement of Luther's that was abusive towards organs.

    A couple of comments though.

    First, the Lutheran Church does not go on the basis of what Luther says, but rather the Scriptures as they are properly interpreted and confessed in the Lutheran confessional writings (Book of Concord). So, since neither the Scriptures nor the Book of Concord reject organ music, then its not considered wrong to use it.

    Secondly, Lutherans distinguish between three different sort of activities within the Church. The first are things commanded by God. The second are things rejected by God. The third are things that God neither commands nor rejects. They are referred to as "adiaphora."

    Because of Christian freedom, Christians can do or not do these things as they please or not if they don't please. Organ and liturgical festivals fall under this.

    Also, if some one came along and told us that we needed to do them in order to be saved, then in order to witness to that freedom we would need to not do these things (think the circumcision party in Galatians!). In Lutheran history, this came up a number of times. Karlstadt told Luther that people should not elevate the host during communion. Luther insisted that it was a matter of indifference and therefore continued to do so in order to witness to Christian freedom. Later, after Luther's death, Melanchthon insisted that to create peace between Catholics and Lutherans that people should adopt Catholic ceremonies. Flacius said that was wrong, because it was merely meant to pretend to be Catholic in order to get out of persecution. Using many Catholic ceremonies was technically ok insofar as many of them didn't violate Scripture, but at the same time it would avoid witnessing to Christian freedom from having to do them.

    Reformed folks think about this differently than we Lutherans. Namely, Calvin thought that if a thing was neither commanded or nor denied, then you shouldn't do it. Hence, the rejection of Church art work, hymns, and organs, even though there is not a single Biblical injunction against these things.

  3. Dear Jack,

    Re American evangelicalism and "desiring God" ... spot on analysis! How true. Couldn't agree more! You could have also mentioned the modern-day heir of Puritanism and revivalist, John Piper ("Christian Hedonism") ... :-D

  4. Dr. Kilcrease - While lutherans have derived significant understanding from St. Augustine, his view of love is somewhat clouded by his youth (I gladly accept any correction if I err.) Augustine was well versed in erotic love during his youth which, I assert, carried over into his later theology.

    What Augustine failed to distinguish was the difference between eros and agape. I would not expect Plato nor his disciples to grasp this distinction, but we who claim Christ's name should be aware of this meaning. Erotic love focuses inward to the self whereas agape looks outward to our neighbor. I am not qualified to profer any Freudian analysis of Augustine's sexual habits, but your reference to "The City of God" does indicate a paradigm born of the old adam. I would remind St. Augustine that woman was created for man to be his helper - and this was not limited to tending the garden. Imagine the joy Augustine was robbed of by not realizing orgasisms are very good according to God. For this alone, we should readily, nay, immediately be willing to shun all neo-platonic notions.

    The reality of our old nature is demonstrated in the Rome's persistent view of sex and creation to which Lutherans have not entirely divorced themselves. How many sermons have Lutherans heard which focused on Song of Songs. I had the priviledge to hear one preached in Kramer Chapel by Dr. David Scaer. I'm not sure if it was the preacher or the topic which drew such a large congregation, but many heard that Word on that day.

    The sad reality of our times is the return of so many "christian" churches to a focus on erotic love - the "it's all about me tune." I would suggest these preachers comb their Novum Testamentum Graece for eros, agape and philos. There is no eros to be found for Christ did not become incarnate, suffer and die for himself; this was accomplished as we say, for you, which is agape love. So we should be for our neighbor, whether it be our spouse, the person living next door or whomever we meet.

  5. Thank you for your feedback Dr. Jack. I am also curious about your views of Triadology. I know some Lutherans that hold to the Eastern Monarchism view of the Trinity, a view I must admit I have quite a hankering for and when I'm asked it is the view I also take. 1. Do you take that view? Is it common amongst Lutherans?

    2. In reference to Luther's view of the will, I have been reading Jospeh P Farrell's Free Choice in Maximus the Confessor. He makes the argument that our Reformed view of the bondage of the will posits a monothelite view because as in the monthelite view the will of the logos usurps the will of the human nature as in say, irrisistable grace and effectual calling. He seems to make a number of assumptions before he accuses us of this, and I am not convinced that Reformed soteriology (which Iassume we both hold to)necessitates a dialectic of opposition as Origen and the monotheiltes posited. Have you dealt with this issue at all and if so could you refer me to something on this? Thanks!

  6. Drake- Sorry not to get back to you soon. Google messed up my ability to get on here and I just finally fixed it.

    1. I think what you mean is the idea of making the starting point for discussing the Trinity the monarchy of the Father and then adducing the different subsisting relations from that. This differs from Augustine's method of beginning with the unity of the divine substance and then moving to the distinctness of the persons.

    I can't say that it's a hugely popular method among Lutherans. Jenson and Pannenberg who consider themselves to be "Lutheran" certain seem to follow something like that, though in my view they verge on tritheism.

    I would tend to favor the Eastern way of doing things because it seems closer to the unfolding of the Trinitarian mystery we find in the Bible, where in we move from the different persons to the unity of the divine being. Of course, if you want to do it Augustine's way as well, I have no problem with that. Also, contrary to the Easterners (and Pannenberg and Moltmann!) I would say that one must also assert the dual procession of the Spirit.

    2. All the monothelites were synergists because all Easterners are synergists. So, it doesn't necessarily follow. In the same manner, both Luther, Calvin, Beza, and Chemnitz affirmed the 6th ecumenical council and were yet monergists.

    Nevertheless, I would see some parallel between emphasizing the unity of the agency of the theandric person of Christ and being a monergist.

    For example, Aquinas views human free will cooperating with divine grace and therefore his view of Christ is essentially of a human agent in union with the second person of the Trinity in the highest manner possible and thereby working salvation. In a word, his Christology mirrors Catholic synergism. In the same manner, Luther's accent on the unity of Christ mirrors Lutheran monergism.

    Again, thanks for reading!

  7. >>The Catholic assumption is that, in a word, sex is a distraction from enjoying God, period. Now, it can be redeemed if in having sex there might be a possibility that you create a human being who will eventually see God in his essence and enjoy him. But simply doing it for fun it is sinful

    Given this view of the matter, why doesn't the pope forbid marital intimacy during pregnancy, lactational or other amenorrhea, known infertility on the part of either spouse, or post-menopause? The Roman church even teaches people how to have non-reproductive sex via NFP.