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  • Kenton E. Biffert

Did Luther Recycle?

Recently, I enjoyed a dialogue with a passionate Anglican. I listened intently as he bemoaned the state of his ecclesial community with its incessant harangue over the need for more social justice programs because the parishioners were no longer engaged with doctrine, scholastic arguments, conservative policy, moral theology or holiness. On the contrary, the people were quite comfortable with the minimal, the left agenda, mediocre morality and felt good about themselves when they boxed cans of food for the local outreach. His angst echoed my own frustration as a teacher in Catholic schools where the measure of our Catholicity is found in our displays on protecting the environment and ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’.

This whole dilemma is a bit of a catch-22. The faithful are obligated by Christ Himself to perform corporate works of mercy. Thus, it is difficult to berate an ecclesial operation that does so. However, as my Anglican friend explained to me, social justice has become the bush to hide behind so that we don’t need to talk about sin and holiness. It has become a way to ease our conscience without the having to travel down the difficult path of penance, mortification, fasting and prayer.

Is this all just a result of lax teaching from the pulpit? Or perhaps it is the result of our men being emasculated. Or perhaps it is the logical consequence of our ideologies.

The root, I believe, lies in the continental Reformation and in particular the influence of Nominalism on Luther’s theology.

Let’s begin with Nominalism. In order to understand Luther’s theology, we have to understand the intellectual context in which he was living and learning. Nominalism was the prevalent philosophy in the 16th century and Luther, in Erfurt, was immersed in the teachings of William of Occam (1285-1347). Occam was a voluntarist who praised the omnipotence of God. He acclaimed it so much that it overshadowed God essence of Divine Fatherhood. For Occam (of whom Luther was a devoted disciple) God’s will is the governing force in all his acts. His will, however, is arbitrary - powerful and arbitrary. So much so that He is not bound to any laws of the nature in His creation. Thus, all creation, for Occam, is contingent. A tree need not be a tree. If God chooses to change a cow into a cauliflower, He can and would. We wouldn’t have the faintest idea why He would do so, but we’d know that it must be good because God willed it. Occam claimed God could’ve used a donkey to atone for our sins and further, God could even will a man to hate Him and this act of hate would become a meritorious and good act because God willed it to be so. The result: the only difference between good and evil is what God arbitrarily decides. Nothing is intrinsically good or evil in themselves.

Where did Luther fall prey? At the very heart of his theology - his theory of justification.

For Luther, God is hidden. We couldn’t know God from the Devil (as they both can will evil) except through God made Man in Jesus Christ. Thus, with Christ now at the right hand of the Father, we cannot know God’s will. We can only know with certitude that nothing happens unless God wills it. Man’s will, on the other hand, is in captivity by his depravity and he cannot do any good whatsoever. Every act we perform that is good, is actually evil because it is coming from a nature that is completely deprived of good. Man is in perpetual bondage.

What is the answer for man? How can man be made righteous and be released from bondage?

Grace. Man needs God’s grace and cannot in any way put himself in a disposition to receive that grace.

Luther, in his Treatise on Christian Liberty, insists that man’s works of fasting, praying, sacred duties or attending sacred places has no affect on his soul. If they did, we could dispose ourselves for receiving grace and this would be Pelagian. The only answer to receiving grace is by having faith. Faith, Luther teaches, is not a theological virtue, but a response to hearing the Word of God preached. The preaching must be from Scripture alone and our response to it engenders faith and this faith justifies us.

So where does Nominalism fit into Luther’s schema and how does this lead to a ‘feel-good about myself and recycle’ Christianity in our modern western world?

Luther believed that grace effected no inward change in man. Justification was extrinsic. We remain debase sinners covered by a cloak of righteousness. We are declared just by a Nominalist God who can declare something to be just that is not. If justification is extrinsic and our actions don’t affect the state of our soul, then any moral law remains extrinsic as well. Our morality is not and cannot be grounded in anything intrinsic in man (for man’s nature is completely corrupt). It has to be externally imposed on us either explicitly in Scripture or through the State.

Thus, the modern Christian does what is externally imposed. In a Christian State this works quite well. However, as a society becomes more secularized, the State imposes less and less moral obligations. The modern Christian then, having certainty of salvation (as he is justified by faith alone), imposes less and less moral obligations on himself.

The modern Christian becomes secularized when the rule of morality begins to become what feels right, when it becomes subjective. If the State decides that birth control (for example) is morally neutral, the modern Christian, not finding anything blatant in Scripture (alone) against birth control, begins to find his morality in what feels right.

The result: for one that isn’t a murderer or terrorist, the greatest moral obligation imposed externally is that of recycling. The implied message our children receive in our schools is not one of sin, repentance, holiness, penance, fasting, and prayer but of the need to recycle. In other words: Recycling is our path to heaven.

So did Luther recycle?

Probably not. Back then it wasn’t necessary (yet) for salvation.

Kenton E. Biffert

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