Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Karl Barth: Integrating the “Theology of the Cross” and Deus Absconditus

From a paper I recently wrote on Luther’s “Theology of the Cross”:

“No theologian receives a longer entry in the index volume to Karl Barth’s Chruch Dogmatics than Martin Luther… It suggests that Luther was a towering figure in Barth’s mind.”[1]In this article, George Hunsinger details several aspects of Barth’s theology that are heavily influenced by Luther. “Theology of the Cross” is one of the specific areas of influence, but the other areas are directly related to it as well: Christocentric theology, primacy of the word of God, simul iustus et peccator, and grace and freedom. In fact, Barth’s most distinctive theological notes can be seen as a transposition of Luther’s theology of the cross: “The christocentrism for which Barth is so famous would hardly have been thinkable without Luther’s reformation breakthrough.”[2] He follows Luther in using paradox to explicate this: “This One is the true God… the One whose eternity does not prevent but rather permits and commands Him to be in time and Himself to be temporal, whose omnipotence is so great that He can be weak and indeed impotent, as a man is weak and impotent.”[3] Yet, Barth refuses to follow Luther into his “hidden God” dilemma:

What is not so obvious, however is how far Luther really thought he could overcome this difficulty by his advice that we should worry as little as possible about the Deus absconditus and cling wholly to what he called God’s opus proprium, to the Deus revelatus, and therefore to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. For how can we do this genuinely and seriously if all the time…there is not denied but asserted a very different existence of God as the Deus absconditus, a very real potential inordinate in the background?[4]

The cross is “the deepest revelation of God’s being, not its contradiction.”[5] Barth is able to avoid this because he relativizes all of theology, including the cross, to the person of Christ himself: “The articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae is not the doctrine of justification as such, but its basis and culmination: the confession of Jesus Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”[6]Christ is the starting point of all doctrine, not merely one aspect of his work, whether justification or his accomplishment on the cross. By shifting theology from a cruci-centric to a Christo­-centric theology, he is able to include the absolutely necessary piece which is “Theology of the Cross” within a framework in which it can do its best work. “In a way that was foreign to Luther, he integrated the hidden God and the revealed God, making them two different aspects of the one God taken as a whole… yet such powerful themes as substantive christocentrism, the theology of the cross, the primacy of God’s work… are no small legacy for one great theologian to have bequeathed to another.”[7] In seeking to appropriate the Theology of the Cross, Barth, and not the Lutherans seems to be our best example.

[1] George Hunsinger, “What Karl Barth Learned from Martin Luther.” Lutheran Quarterly XIII (1999), 125

[2] Ibid, 132

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 129

[4] Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II/1, The Doctrine of God , 542

[5] Hunsinger, “Barth,” 135

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, 527

[7] Hunsinger, “Barth,” 147

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Barth on Luther; Luther on Aquinas; myself on neither

Karl Barth, in preparing for his discussion of Calvin’s theology, sets the historical stage with reference to “The Middle Ages”:

An even more striking example is the way i71IhRVGCeNLn which both Luther and Calvin avoided the man in whom they must have recognized, even if he was not then the most widely read author, and whom they ought to have fought as their most dangerous opponent, the true genius of the Catholic Middle Ages. I refer to Thomas Aquinas. We have in his case a demonstration how often even the greatest among us, precisely in fulfilling their deepest intentions, often do not know what they are doing. The reformers engaged in close combat with late scholastics of the age of decline, about whom we say nothing today, when all the time behind these, and biding his time, stood their main adversary Thomas, in whom all modern Roman Catholicism has come to see more and more definitely its true classic; and apart from a few inconsequential complaints by Luther [here Barth footnotes Seeberg, Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte, 74 and n. 2], they left him in peace, apparently not realizing that their real attack was not on those straw figures but on the spirit of the Summa, on the Gothic cathedral and the world of Dante. How could it be possible that in the first half of the 17th century a Lutheran theologian from Strassburg could write a book entitled Thomas Aquinas, veritatis evangelic confessor! All this shows strikingly, however, that the reformers did not see their work in the context of a great philosophy of history but in a fairly relative pragmatic context. Perhaps it is precisely the manner of truly creative people to take this view

The Theology of John Calvin, 22

Luther in “Against Latomus”:

His [Latomus’s] discussions of penance and of indulgences are worthless, for he proves everything from human writings. Neither Gregory nor any angel has the right to set forth or teach in the church something which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture. I think I have sufficiently shown from their own writings that scholastic theology is nothing else than ignorance of the truth and a stumbling block in comparison with Scripture. Nor am I moved when Latomus insinuates that I am ungrateful and insulting to St. Thomas, Alexander, and others, for they have deserved ill from me. Neither do I believe that I lack intelligence [to understand them]. This Latomus himself will admit, and it is certainly not difficult to see that I work hard. My advice has been that a young man avoid scholastic philosophy like the very death of his soul. The Gospels aren’t so difficult that children are not ready to hear them. How was Christianity taught in the times of the martyrs when this philosophy an theology did not exist? St. Agnes was a theologian at the age of thirteen, likewise Lucia and Anastasia–from what were they taught? In all these hundreds of years up to the present, the courses at the universities have not produced, out of so many students, a single martyr or saint to prove that their instruction is right and pleasing to God while [the ancients from their] private schools have sent out swarms of saints. Scholastic philosophy and theology are known from their fruits. I have the strongest doubts as to whether Thomas Aquinas is among the damned or the blessed, and would sooner believe that Bonaventure is blessed. Thomas wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine. What do I care that the bishop of bulls has canonized him? I suppose that my judgment in these matters is not entirely ignorant, for I have been educated in them and have been tested [in debate] by the minds of my most learned contemporaries, and I have studied the best writings of this sort of literature. I am at least partly informed concerning Holy Writ, and besides I have to some extent tested these spiritual matters in experience, but I clearly see that Thomas, and all who write and teach similarly, have neglected this. Therefore I advise him who would fly to take warning. I do what I must, so with the Apostle I again admonish you: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit”–this I confidently and emphatically apply to scholastic theology–“according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe”–these are the laws of the bulls and whatever is established in the church apart from Scripture–“and not according to Christ” [Col. 2:8]. Here it is clear that Paul wants Christ alone to be taught and heard. Who does not see how the universities read the Bible? Compare what is read and written in the Sentences [Peter Lombard] and on philosophy with what they write and teach about the Bible–which ought to flourish and reign as the most important of all–and you will see what place the Word of God has in these seats of higher learning.

found in Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 257-59

Might Barth have misread Luther, slightly? Might Luther have misread Aquinas, ever so slightly?  I’m not up for adjudicating this one, but I find the material fascinating.

Review: Calvin and the Biblical Languages

Calvin And The Biblical Languages by John D. Currid

Calvin – an inspiration to learn Greek and Hebrew

This short book is essentially a short biography of Calvin with reference to the biblical languages. It covers the fact that an essential factor in the Reformation was it’s recovery and emphasis on the biblical languages. “The Reformers,were, for the most part, seriously committed to the original languages of the Bible. It was a hall-mark of the Reformation.” (p. 66) This was true of Luther, Melanchthon, Beza, Erasmus, and of course Calvin. This was a time when there was an explosion of interest in Greek and Hebrew, oftentimes in the face of fierce opposition. When and how Calvin learned the Biblical languages is covered, including some historical controversies (only in academia 🙂 as to the specifics.

Calvin’s life as a scholar and preacher is given in detail, focusing on his use of the languages in that work. “His Hebrew was good but his Greek was outstanding.” (41)

A whole chapter, most interesting, is given to The Academy founded at Geneva for the training of pastors and scholars, with emphasis on the biblical languages. “His aim in the schola publica was to raise up and train pastor-scholars. These were men who could work well with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, who could perform proper exegesis of a text, and who understood theology and philosophy; yet, they could take all that intellectual work and translate it to the masses… Calvin himself was such a pastor-scholar.” (60) Especially interesting is how the faculty was assembled from the best scholars in all the world at the time.

Currid is a great scholar in his own right. This book is loaded with footnotes, (thankfully at the bottom of each page) for further research. The book demonstrates a thorough understanding of the time and the controversies in this very specific subject. The book is loaded with direct quotes from Calvin and other reformers themselves, as well as the current scholarship on them.

In all, this book had the effect of convincing me even more thoroughly of the necessity of learning the biblical languages for myself. Calvin is both persuasive in his arguing for this, and encouraging. I am inspired more than ever to press into this great task with discipline, and this book has played a part in that. I do recommend it for anyone interested in Calvin, the Reformation, or the biblical languages in the life of pastor or student.

Here are some other great quotes from the book:

Erasmus – “How much better…to learn Greek or Hebrew, or at least Latin, which are so indispensable to the knowledge of Sacred Scripture that I think it extremely impudent for anyone ignoring them to usurp the name of theologian.” (17)

Melanchthon – “The Scripture cannot be understood theologically unless it be first understood grammatically.” (20)

“[Calvin] knew and used the [Latin] Vulgate, but he did not trust it in the way that he trusted the [Greek] original.” (42)

“[Calvin] believed that ignorance of biblical languages resulted in mistakes in matters `easy and obvious to every one’ and those without skills are led `most shamefully astray.’ He concurred fully with the old rabbinic adage that studying the Bible without Hebrew is like kissing one’s bride through the veil.” (60)

Calvin – “I know for a fact that one who has to preach and expound the Scriptures and has no help from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but must do it entirely on the basis of his mother tongue, will make many a pretty mistake. For it has been my experience that the languages are extraordinarily helpful for a clear understanding of the divine Scriptures.” (67)

Calvin – “Once we understand the significance and weight of the words, the true meaning of Scripture will light up for us as the midday sun.” (68)

“How sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!”

Martin Luther on learning Greek and Hebrew:

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor–yes, almost without any labor at all–can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame! Yes, how sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!

“To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools,” quoted in Basics of Biblical Hebrewby Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt, p. 121

How much more is this true in the 21st century, with 3 different Hebrew lexicons on my shelf, half a dozen Greek grammars, computer software, parsing guides. How happy Luther would have been if he had had our opportunity.

Let us not be indolent in this matter.