"The Cross is Our Only Theology"- Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Two REALLY Bad Ideas from Reformed Scholasticism.
I've been reading one of my Christmas presents, Heinrich Heppe's Reformed Dogmatics As Illustrated from the Sources. It's a compilation of 16th and 17th century Reformed scholastics similar to Heinrich Schmid's Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (which I'm certain many of you are familiar with). It's very interesting, although he does occasionally make historical interpretations that I'm certain would not entirely please Richard Muller. In it, Heppe fleshes out some ideas that I was aware of, but have previous not understood how problematic they were. They are the following:
1. The Covenant of Works: This is the idea that prior to the Fall, God set up a covenant between himself and Adam. Interesting that the Bible never says anything about covenants prior to the Fall! Anyways, the covenant was that if Adam didn't eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for a certain period of time, then he would go to heaven and have eternal fellowship with God. In other words, the law in the primal state actually worked as a way of interacting with God. The gospel is not, therefore, the restoration of the primal relationship of grace, but rather plan B after the law failed. By contrast, both Luther and more recently David Scaer have described the primal state as one where human were placed in what one might be called the "circle of grace." Everything was given freely and the law as an external command only existed to give humans a "channel" to express their gratitude for God's goodness. In other words, the God's grace wasn't something earned and the commands in the garden were not a "test" (a term the Reformed scholastics like to use), but rather the divine-human relationship of grace was already fully actualized. Of course, it was possible to step outside that circle of grace, just as David Scaer points out (using a kind of weird analogy) it's possible to electrocute one's self if you don't follow the warning label on an electric shaver and you use in the bathtub. That is to say, you don't achieve the goal of not being electrocuted, you are in that state. By not following the directions a boundary is crossed. In the case of Adam and Eve, once one crosses that boundary of grace and enter into the demand and condemnation of the law, they couldn't get back in unless God puts them there. If you try to get back one your own, then that's self-justification and you simply make yourself more sinful by contradicting God's condemning word against you.
2. Communicable and Incommunicable Divine Attributes: Interestingly enough I've been eying Michael Horton's systematic theology for a while (I'm presently trying to increase my knowledge of Reformed theology) and one the first chapter is entitled "Communicable and Incommunicable Divine Attributes." What is the idea here? The idea here is that God's majesty can only communicate itself to a certain extent to creation. Whereas creatures can be good, wise, and beautiful, they cannot be omnipotent or omnipresent. If they were, then God would just made a second God. This is rooted in the Thomistic concept of the analogy of being. According to Aquinas, our language about God is based on analogy with our language about creatures. So, when we say God is "good," we are speaking in analogy to how Coca-Cola, Soft Ball, and Hot Dogs are good. These things really are ontologically good, but God is infinitely more "good" than these things. Hence, the goodness we experience in creatures is similar, but not identical to the goodness of God. There's of course a number of problems with this, but the biggest is that it makes creation into a worse version of God. Creation is in a sense fallen just by being created along side God as something like his goodness, but inferior to it. Primarily the Reformed used their idea to reject the Lutheran concept of the communication of the attributes of glory to the man Jesus (genus Majestaticum). Within their own scheme, Jesus possesses a human nature that is good and wise (among other things), but not omnipotent or omnipresent, etc. Jesus does not have these qualities because of his participation in the divine person of the Son, but rather according to his humanity he possesses a created similitude to the God. We can observe then how they misunderstand the Lutheran position. For the Reformed scholastics, the Lutherans are saying that the human Jesus is transmuted into the divine essence. Following Aquinas' metaphysics, they can only understand the divine essence as communicating itself through created similitude. So the Lutheran claim that the fullness of the divine glory being communicated to the human nature must to their ears sounds like the Lutherans are arguing that the human nature is created as a second-second person of the Trinity! What the Lutherans are of course actually saying is not that at all, but rather because of the unity of the person of Christ, the divine nature which divinizes and saturates the human nature so as to gives it a personal participation in the possibilities of the divine essence. This continues not to be understood by either them or the Catholics.
I am a Lutheran layperson and an adjunct professor of theology at the Institute for Lutheran Theology and Aquinas College. I grew up in Oregon and attended Luther College in Iowa (B.A. History and Religion) and Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN (M.A. Doctrine and Theology). I graduated in 2009 from Marquette University with a Ph.D in Systematic Theology. I am the author of the following articles: "Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux on the Bridal Mystical Motif," (Journal of Ecclesiastical History) "Creation's Praise: A Short Liturgical Reading of Genesis and Revelation," (Pro Ecclesia) "Kenosis and Vocation: Christ as the Exemplar and Agent of Christian Freedom," (LOGIA) "Gerhard O. Forde on the Law" (Concordia Theological Quarterly). My systematic Lutheran Christology ("The Self-Donation of God: A Contemporary Lutheran Approach to Christ and His Benefits" preface, David P. Scaer) will be published in 2013 by Wipf and Stock Press. I am married to the historian Dr. Bethany M. Tanis (now Kilcrease).