The Incarnate Christ

John Warwick Montgomery
Thursday, January 1st 1998
Jan/Feb 1998

One of the primary objections to apologetics within Lutheran circles this century is the critique (offered especially by Bultmann and his followers) that Luther's central conviction that a man is justified by grace through faith and his concomitant refusal to confuse Law with Gospel eliminated for him all uses of objective evidences in "defend-ing" the faith. Luther's immediate followers, this critique continues, departed from Luther when they returned to Aristotle in endeavoring to establish the truth of faith by objective argument. Such argumentation is foreign to true Lutheran belief, we are told, and must be excised as a cancer.

Is Luther Opposed to Apologetics?

Energy need not be expended here in refuting the contention that Luther had no objective grounding for his faith. Merely his affirmation at Worms-"I am bound by the Scriptures that I have adduced, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God"-should be enough to show that for Luther truth was hardly subjective. (1) Our task here is the more specialized one of determining to what extent Luther's theology encourages the apologetic use of Christianity's factual character in setting forth the faith. Granted that for Luther God's Word was objectively true; does it follow that its truth can be established and defended in the marketplace of ideas, or is the sinful character of humanity an absolute barrier?

Former Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan argues that there is a dichotomy between an existential Luther and his Aristotelian-apologetic followers. In Luther, admits Pelikan, "we do have at least one passage in which he expounds what virtually amounts to an argument [for God's existence] from the analogy of being. The detailed commentary on Genesis, our chief source for the old Luther, deals with natural theology several times." (2) But note that Pelikan attributes this apologetic emphasis to "the old Luther," not to the Reformer in his theological prime.

Those of us who see no tension between Lutheranism and apologetics could answer with Luther editor E. M. Plass that Luther's Genesis commentary comprises the "longest and, in many respects, the maturest of his lectures." (3) However, this line of approach is unnecessary, for, as Luther scholars such as Philip S. Watson have shown, the Reformer's concern with natural theology was by no means limited to his later years. As early as 1525, Luther is expressly teaching in The Bondage of the Will that "knowledge of predestination and of God's prescience has been left in the world [after the Fall] no less certainly than the notion of the Godhead itself." (4) In his Galatians commentary (1531)-considered by many to be the greatest of Luther's writings-he condemns all attempts by the sinner to justify himself on the basis of the natural knowledge of God. Yet, at the same time, he stoutly defends the existence of such natural knowledge and encourages the Christian to dispute intelligently with unbelievers on the basis of it:

When you are to dispute with Jews, Turks, Papists, Heretics, etc., concerning the power, wisdom, and majesty of God, employ all your intelligence and industry to that end, and be as profound and as subtle a disputer as you can … Such arguments [for divine truth based on human and earthly analogy] are good when they are grounded upon the ordinance of God. But when they are taken from man's corrupt affections, they are naught. (5)

Though all efforts at self-salvation through natural theology must be unqualifiedly condemned, Luther sees the natural knowledge of God and of his law inscribed on every man's heart as the point of contact-the common ground-which makes the evangelistic task possible.

If the natural law were not written and given in the heart by God, one would have to preach to an ass, horse, ox, or cow for a hundred thousand years before they accepted the law, although they have ears, eyes, and heart as a man. They too can hear it, but it does not enter their heart. Why? What is wrong? Their soul is not so formed and fashioned that such a thing might enter it. But a man, when the law is set before him, soon says: Yes, it is so, he cannot deny it. He could not be so quickly convinced, were it not written in his heart before. (6)

However, retorts the anti-apologetic Lutheran, does this really penetrate to the heart of Luther's position? Though he held to natural knowledge of God, he nonetheless refused to allow such knowledge a place in salvation. As specialists on Luther's view of "reason" point out, Luther indeed encourages rational operations in the secular realm (the earthly kingdom) but categorically rejects reason as a normative rule in the realm of salvation (the spiritual kingdom). (7) Reason must never be allowed to operate magisterially in relation to God's Word; where this occurs, reason becomes Madam Jezebel-the Devil's Whore.

The Kingdom of Reason embraces such human activities as caring for a family, building a home, serving as a magistrate, and looking after cows. All that can be demanded of me by God in such a sphere of activity is that I should "do my best." The important thing not to overlook is that this Kingdom has its boundaries; the error of the sophists is that they carry the saying "to do one's best" (facere quod in se est) over into the regnum spirituale, in which a man is able to do nothing but sin. In outward affairs or in the affairs of the body man is master: "He is hardly," as Luther dryly remarks, "the cow's servant." But in spiritual affairs he is a servant or slave, "sold under sin." "For the Kingdom of Human Reason must be separated as far as possible from the Spiritual Kingdom." (8)

And what possible good can an apologetic do when, in Luther's thinking, natural knowledge of God offers no substitute whatever for the Word of God in Jesus Christ? Knowledge of the Deus absconditus (the hidden God) can only impart terror; the Deus revelatus (God revealed in Christ) offers the sole avenue to peace and salvation. He is accessible, not to reason and demonstration, but to the eyes of faith. Even Christ's miracles did not convince those who would not accept his Word: "When miracles are performed, they are appreciated only by the pious." (9) One must come in faith to the lowly Christ of the manger and there, paradoxically, one will meet the Divine Savior. Luther's theology calls for proclamation of this truth, rather than an impossible defense of it which invariably appeals to the "natural man" desiring to justify himself. (10)

Is Luther Kantian?

Luther carefully distinguished two kingdoms, the earthly and the spiritual (considering this distinction to be one of the most valuable aspects of his theology). (11) But does this distinction dichotomize the world into a secular realm where reason and proof operate, and a spiritual realm where evidence has no place? This is precisely the impression given by many interpreters of Luther. Especially revealing is Robert Fischer's declaration that for Luther "such insights [reason, experience, common sense] operate in what would later be called the phenomenal realm; they do not penetrate the noumenal." (12) The use of the terms "noumenal" and "phenomenal" (borrowed from the Kantian critical philosophy, which is itself dependent upon a Platonic separation of the realm of "ideas" or "ideals" from the phenomenal world of sense experience) is most significant. Luther is painlessly being absorbed into the idealistic-dualistic frame of reference characteristic of much of twentieth century Protestant thought. Why can neo-orthodox theologians and the like confidently hold to their "theological insights" while simultaneously accepting the most destructive judgments of biblical critics regarding alleged factual errors in the biblical material and the supposed historical unreliability of the scriptural accounts of our Lord's life? Simply because the (noumenal) truth of theological statements, they believe, is in no way dependent on the phenomenal, secular issues connected with biblical history. After all, they argue, the Bible conveys religious, not scientific or historical truth.

Is Luther to be assimilated to this Platonic-Kantian perspective? The answer depends squarely on what kind of connection Luther saw between the two kingdoms. If he, in fact, kept them in water-tight compartments, then a positive apologetic originating in the secular realm could not in principle prove truths in the spiritual sphere. Luther's belief in a natural theology, however, strongly suggests some kind of connecting link between the kingdoms in his thinking. But what precisely is the nature of the link?

Ernst Troeltsch is best known in Reformation studies for his negative views of Luther's social ethics. (13) Troeltsch claims that Luther's theology produced social quietism because, he argues, Luther never connected the theological insights operative in his spiritual kingdom with the activities of the earthly kingdom. This allegation has been decisively refuted by George Forell, who shows that Luther's two kingdoms are connected as to origin, for "these two separate realms are ultimately both God's realms"; and they are linked in practice by the individual Christian believer, who is a citizen of both simultaneously. (Forell writes, "Luther explains that a point of contact between the secular realm and the spiritual realm exists in the person of the individual Christian.") (14) Today, parallel vindication of Luther is needed epistemologically.

The Incarnation as Link Between the Two Kingdoms

As the individual Christian unites the two kingdoms in his person, thereby bridging the sociological gap between them, so the Incarnate Christ links the two realms epistemologically. The incarnational center of Luther's theology eliminates entirely the possibility of making him an advocate of "two-fold truth." In the sharpest possible opposition to Platonic dualism (and to the related modern dichotomies of Kantianism and of Lessing's "ditch" between historical fact and absolute truth), Luther declares that Jesus Christ, in his own person, offers immediate access to the Divine. One begins with the earthly and finds the heavenly. Luther's words in the final version of his Galatians commentary should be carefully pondered:

Paul is in the habit of linking together Jesus Christ and God the Father so frequently: he wants to teach us the Christian religion, which does not begin at the very top, as all other religions do, but at the very bottom … [If] you would think or treat of your salvation, you must stop speculating about the majesty of God; you must forget all thoughts of good works, tradition, philosophy, and even the divine Law. Hasten to the stable and the lap of the mother and apprehend this infant Son of the Virgin. Look at Him being born, nursed, and growing up, walking among men, teaching, dying, returning from the dead, and being exalted above all the heavens, in possession of power over all. In this way you can cause the sun to dispel the clouds and can avoid all fear… (15)

Luther insists that the search for God begin at the connecting link between earth and heaven which exists at the point of the Incarnation. There we find a genuine human being ("nursed and growing up," "dying") but also Very God of Very God ("returning from the dead and being exalted above all the heavens"). "Philosophy," which starts elsewhere, must be forgotten; absolute truth is available only here. Why does Luther concentrate relatively little on traditional proofs for God's existence (even though he considered such argumentation valid)? Because for him it did not constitute the proper point of departure:

If you begin your study of God by trying to determine how He rules the world, how He burned Sodom and Gomorrah with infernal fire, whether He has elected this person or that, and thus begin with the works of the High Majesty, then you will presently break your neck and be hurled from heaven, suffering a fall like Lucifer's. For such procedure amounts to beginning on top and building the roof before you have laid the foundation. Therefore, letting God do whatever He is doing, you must begin at the bottom and say: I do not want to know God until I have first known this Man; for so read the passages of Scripture: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life"; again: "No man cometh unto the Father but by Me" (John 14:6). And there are more passages to the same effect. (16)

Luther is not anti-apologetic; he is, rather, exceedingly careful in his starting-point. The point de depart must be Christ. In methodology one must "begin at the bottom" with the Incarnation, and no reasoning (or anything else, for that matter) can be legitimately regarded as ground for works-righteousness or self-justification.

Admittedly, Luther did not build a formal apologetic from this incarnational starting point. His task was not to defend the soundness of the biblical history or of its picture of Christ. In the sixteenth century no reputable theologians of any school of thought questioned the veracity of the scriptural text. The cold winds of rationalistic biblical criticism had not yet begun to blow. (To be sure, Renaissance humanists such as Lorenzo Valla would later be regarded as precursors of such criticism, but they posed no threat to biblical authority in Luther's time.) Luther often said that he did his best work when angry, i.e., he recognized that his theological activities were determined in large part by the contemporary pressures upon him. These pressures came, not from unbelievers doubting the authority of the Word, but from churchmen who misinterpreted it. Thus Luther's battles were hermeneutic rather than apologetic. (17)

But the fundamental themes of Luther's theology were most definitely hospitable to a positive apologetic, and bore fruit when, not so many years later, the very authority of the Word came under fire. We have already stressed the central role the Incarnation played in Luther's thought-offering a bridge from ordinary human experience to the divine truth of God's revelation. There are many closely related themes of great apologetic consequence in his theology. We will note four here: 1) Psychosomatic holism. Luther refused, in debate with Zwingli and others, to separate Christ's spirit from his body. He thereby avoided the trap of "spiritualist" theology which is, in the last analysis, unverifiable and indefensible. (Our century's modernists make this sort of dichotomous claim when they say that Christ rose from the dead "spiritually" but not necessarily in his body.) (18) 2) A constant epistemological insistence on the objectivity of Christian truth. Luther repeatedly asserts that to find the true meaning of the Gospel one must always go from "the outward to the inward," and that the Gospel lies entirely extra nos (outside of us). These two positions not only preclude subjectivism and auto-salvation, but also provide the foundation for the teaching of the orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians that notitia (objective fact) must always ground fiducia (personal, subjective commitment), and that Christian heart conviction can be justified by external evidence. (19) 3) Sacramental teaching. His firm maintenance of the finitum est capax infiniti (20) principle places him most definitely outside the Platonist camp and opens the way to the widest variety of apologetic operations. Luther believed that every fact in the world-"even the most insignificant leaf of a tree"-becomes a potential avenue to Christ. (21) 4) Inductive methodology. Luther required that one discover what Scripture is actually saying and not force it into alien categories (e.g., Zwingli's metaphysical speculations about the nature of "bodies"). This made possible the defense of the faith in a world soon to recognize the necessity of open, inductive, scientific procedures. Such scientists as Brahe and Kepler who followed Luther's hermeneutic were at the forefront of both scientific advance and the apologetic reconciliation of Scripture and scientific discovery. (22)

Though not an apologist in the strict sense, Luther provided, through such theological insights, the basic orientation necessary for the apologetic emphases of the classical Lutheran dogmaticians. Anti-apologetic interpreters of Luther have found it especially galling to admit that in the efforts of the dogmaticians and Lutheran scientists such as Kepler to harmonize science and Scripture, "Luther had led the way with related interpretations of Genesis." (23) But is it not far more reasonable to see a positive relationship between the apologetic activity of the great Lutheran theologians following Luther and the work of Luther himself, rather than to claim that somehow all of these theologians unwittingly managed to distort his theology?

But, these anti-apologetic Lutherans ask, did not these orthodox Lutheran apologists inevitably weaken the biblical picture of man's total depravity, de-emphasize the scriptural teaching concerning the Holy Spirit's work in salvation, and introduce a subtle synergism into preaching of the Gospel of divine grace? Not at all. In retaining Luther's view of the Incarnation as the center of theology, the orthodox dogmaticians rightly opposed any attempt to dehumanize man. No concept of the Fall should lead to a loss of man's ability to distinguish truth from falsehood in matters secular, or (which is the same thing) to distinguish true from false claims that God was in fact incarnate in the secular sphere.

Nor did this apologetic approach produce a "de-pneumatized" theology. The dogmaticians rightly maintained that the fides humana or "historical faith" could not in itself save. Notitia is possessed by the devils also, who tremble but are not saved because of it. There must be the personal commitment-the commitment of the whole person-to Christ for salvation, and that is brought about solely by the Spirit's work. At the same time, however, the orthodox theologians correctly refused to say (as the modern neo-orthodox do) that this personal commitment through the work of the Holy Spirit somehow "produces" the only evidence of its reality. Hardly! The facts of God's existence and of his incarnate revelation in Jesus Christ stand as objectively true and evidentially compelling wholly apart from belief in them. Faith in no sense creates their facticity. They stand over against man, judging him by their sheer veracity and compelling force.

"Synergism"? Hardly, for everything is done by God, nothing by man. The evidential facts are God's work, and the sinner's personal acceptance of them-and of the Person on whom they center-is entirely the product of the Holy Spirit. To argue that the Reformation dogmaticians fell into synergism because they defended the faith and expected a rational response from the sinner would require our condemning their preaching as well (and, indeed, all Christian preaching), on the ground that it presupposes a responsible decision on the sinner's part. But the same Paul who asserted that men are saved by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9, etc.) told the Philippian jailer to "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." He defended God's truth in philosophical terms on the Areopagus and cited historical evidence for Christ's resurrection in conjunction with his statement of the nature of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15). Lutheranism follows in the great apostle's train.

1 [ Back ] J. W. Montgomery, "Luther's Hermeneutic vs. The New Hermeneutic," in his In Defense of Martin Luther (Milwaukee, 1970), 40-85.
2 [ Back ] J. Pelikan, From Luther to Kierkegaard (St. Louis, 1950), 22. The Genesis commentary references are found in WA, XLII, 291-92, 374.
3 [ Back ] E. M. Plass, What Luther Says (St. Louis, 1959), III, 1618.
4 [ Back ] WA, XVIII, 618.
5 [ Back ] Luther's comments on Gal. 1:3 and 3:15. Cf. Luther's Tischreden assertion that he found Cicero's teleological argument for God's existence very moving.
6 [ Back ] WA, XVI, 447.
7 [ Back ] B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason (Oxford, 1962); and R. H. Fischer, "A Reasonable Luther," in Reformation Studies: Essays in Honor of Roland H. Bainton, ed. F. H. Littell (Richmond, 1962), 30-45.
8 [ Back ] Gerrish, 72-73. (The reference to "looking after cows" is added in Roher's MS.)
9 [ Back ] WA, XXV, 240 (a comment on Is. 37:30).
10 [ Back ] So Regin Prenter interprets Luther in Spiritus Creator (Copenhagen, 1946; second edition), especially chapters 2 and 3. Ratio and lex are presented as "belonging together"; faith is "in contrast to all sensus" (i.e., to all "experience which relies on that which can be observed in the visible world"); God's revelation in flesh as the Christ "is placed in absolute opposition to our human sensus and ratio"; "theological epistemology" consists of the transformation sensus by the Creator Spirit.
11 [ Back ] WA, XXXVIII, 102 ("Defense against Duke George," 1533).
12 [ Back ] Fischer, 39.
13 [ Back ] Expressed in his Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, in the section dealing with "Protestantism." Cf. K. Penzel, "Ernst Troeltsch on Luther," in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck, edited by J. Pelikan (Philadelphia, 1968), 275-303.
14 [ Back ] G. W. Forell, Faith Active in Love (Minneapolis, 1959), 121, 149.
15 [ Back ] WA, XL, Part 1 (published in 1535 and 1538), 79.
16 [ Back ] WA, XXXVI, 61 (Sermon of 6 Jan. 1532, on Micah 5:1).
17 [ Back ] Moreover, since he was especially confronted by the traditional Romanist on the right and the fanatic Schwarmer on the left, both of whom appealed to extra-biblical miracles in their midst, Luther preferred to fight on the common ground of the Word, emphasizing the truth-which must never be forgotten apologetically in our contingent world!-that those who want to discount the clear evidence of God's miraculous dealings can always find some way (improbable though it may be) of doing so.
18 [ Back ] See J. W. Montgomery, "Inspiration and Inerrancy: A New Departure," in his Crisis in Lutheran Theology, I (Grand Rapids, 1967), 15-44.
19 [ Back ] See J. W. Montgomery, "The Theologian's Craft," Concordia Theological Monthly, XXXVII (February, 1966), 67-98; reprinted in his Suicide of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, 1970), Part III, chapter 2.
20 [ Back ] In opposition to the Reformed position of "finitum non capax infiniti," this is the Lutheran doctrine that the finite humanity of Christ was capable of comprehending, or receiving, the infinity of God.
21 [ Back ] See J. W. Montgomery, "Cross Constellation, and Crucible," in his In Defense of Martin Luther (Milwaukee, 1970), 87-94.
22 [ Back ] Ibid., 94-113.
23 [ Back ] W. Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, I, translated by Hansen (St. Louis, 1962), 57. (The English translation is preceded by revealing commendatory introductions by J. Pelikan and ALC theologian Robert C. Schultz.)

Thursday, January 1st 1998

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