Learning Luther: April

Editors’ Note: The Virginia Synod is encouraging pastors and laity to read Luther’s writings through the year 2014/15 via reading guides. They have kindly agreed to let us reproduce them here month by month.

In his Commentary on Psalm 23:2 (LW 12:160-3), Luther exposits the green pastures and still waters of the much-loved psalm as similitudes of the Word and the Sacraments that constitute the Christian community and keep the flock safe through its sojourn.

The “meaning of the whole psalm,” Luther tells us, is “that whoever has the Lord as a Shepherd will not want.” That is the literal sense, in other words, the cognitive claim being made about something in the world. So Luther continues, the psalm “does not teach anything more” than this supply of true needs but only emphasizes “the thought further by means of fine figurative words and pictures,” showing how those who have the Lord as a Shepherd want for nothing and are rather satisfied. “See how beautifully [the psalm] can speak!” Before we come to the provision of the Lord in the table spread for our nourishment in Word and Sacrament as Luther expounds, however, it is well to meditate a little on these initial comments about literal reference and figurative words or word-pictures. For there is a great deal of confusion today about what is literal and what is metaphorical.

“With what can we compare the rise of metaphor in recent theology, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like the kudzu plant, which begins as one sprout among many, but ends up hiding everything under its smothering embrace.”1 With this humorous parody of Mark 4:30-2, contemporary Methodist theologian R. Kendall Soulen spells out the problem of contemporary confusion in an important recent book. His book is about the root of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament’s knowledge of the God of the Exodus, “who will cause His Name to be remembered [the Father], to come [the Son] and to bless [the Spirit]” (Exodus 20:24b).

As we learned last month in the study of the conclusion to the Bondage of the Will, the Biblical God is incomparable and thus essentially incomprehensible, as second Isaiah teaches at the climax of his preaching (Isaiah 55: 8-9), because we worldlings only understand by way comparisons that make their way from the greater known to the lesser known. But the one, true God is not part of the world, whether we regard Him as greater known or lesser known. God is qualitatively other, Creator not creature. The one, true God is creator of everything that is not God. The one, true God is not part of the world or something in the world that is comparable to anything else in it.

As second Isaiah goes on to teach, then, we can only know God by virtue of God’s own initiative (grace alone), by His self-communicating Word (Christ alone; cf. Isaiah 55: 11), apprehended by faith alone from the Scriptures alone. Just this knowledge of the incomparable God by the grace or initiative of His own Word is true knowledge of the one, true God. Faith knows in whom it believes; it understands enough to follow in the obedience of faith; and in hope it believes that belief shall give way to sight, the light of grace turning into the light of glory.

Notice, then, that reverence and respect for the essential mysteriousness of God does not come as a natural insight but as a gift given with the advent of knowledge of God by the light of grace. In the past generation, however, it has been something of a theological fad to come to knowledge of God’s incomparability by way of the light of nature rather than the light of grace.

Let us see what an enormous difference this makes. By the light of reasoning from comparisons within our experience of the world, theologians come to the negative conclusion that God is infinite, beyond, unknowable, unlike anything here and now. Because they arrive at this negative conclusion that all our worldly words, concepts and images can capture or contain the infinite, they are put into the position of acknowledging that all of our “metaphors” for God are our own projections. None of them are, or can be, literally true. None correspond adequately to the infinite reality to which they point. They are empty signs substituting for the thing signified, which is absent.

Manifestly, this is a very bad result for Christian theology, at the center of which is the Incarnation, the coming of the Word of God in the flesh, and Pentecost, the coming of the Messiah’s Spirit to “call, gather and enlighten” faith. Yet, this bad result is necessary medicine, so the argument goes, to arrest in its tracks Christian fundamentalism which takes the metaphors literally. (Thus we are to suppose, I suppose, that “fundamentalists,” upon hearing the psalm’s petition, “Hide me beneath the shadow of your wings,” would have to insist that God is a chicken. This over-wrought critique of fundamentalism is little more than a caricature).

In any event, self-described “metaphorical theologians” remedy the disillusionment that their negative theology works by recommending the Bible, not as a source for our theology or knowledge of God (the “pure, clear fountain of Israel,” as the Formula of Concord puts it). The Bible is not authoritative because God has allegedly spoken by delivering Israel from Egypt and raising Jesus His Son from the grave and exalting Him as the coming Lord of the cosmos, to which the word of God that is the Bible attests. Rather, the Bible is a precedent and pattern for contemporary metaphor-making. The need is for metaphors today as liberating as the ones Jesus is alleged to have spoken, following the pattern of His speech, to tell us what God is like in liberating ways. Whatever liberates is thus Biblical, while the Bible itself can say or claim nothing that is literally true about God.

This line of argument is quite confused. Metaphors have a literal meaning or they are just nonsense. As I often illustrate to my students: If I said to my beloved, “Fly to me on the wings of your love,” and she, under the passion of her desire, were to climb to the roof of West Hall, up to the clock tower, and leap into the sky expecting the sheer power of eros to fuel the journey into my waiting arms, she would have literally as well as lethally misunderstood the sense of my invitation. Janet Soskice makes the same point with another humorous example. “Don’t touch the wire. It’s live!” If I were to reply, “That’s only a metaphor. It is not literally alive,” and then confidently grasped that wire, I would be literally not metaphorically electrocuted. The wire is literally electrified and that literal truth is expressed by the metaphor “live wire.”2

This is how Luther thinks. Biblical interpretation is a matter of discerning the literal sense of the comparative metaphor, the similitude, how it makes sense by referring to something in the world by comparing a lesser known to a greater known. If such metaphors are not seen to refer to something in the world, all one is left with is a collage of suggestive words and allusive images shifting like a kaleidoscope – not a bad description, by the way, of some contemporary “postmodern” theology!

But taken in Soskice’s or Luther’s “literal” way, look at the fruit that this method of interpretation yields. Luther’s commentary on Psalm 23:2 yields a pretty timely critique of the “prosperity gospel” that has captivated the TV preachers and megachurch hucksters. “We, too,” Luther writes, “should learn this art, namely, to let the world glory forever in great riches, honor, and power. For these are indeed loose, uncertain, perishable wares that God lets men scramble for… To His children, however, as David says here, He gives the genuine treasure.” How important it would be for Luther that preachers, today more than ever, preach prophetic critiques of our rampant envy and regnant greed, beginning with the religion business, and all the more proclaim the imperative, “Seek ye first the reign of God and its righteousness,” with its promise, “and all these things shall be added unto you!”

This is to present as the true object of desire our Lord Jesus Christ. He, Luther writes, is the “pearl of great price… sure and eternal and better than all worldly possessions.” We find this pearl, moreover, in the green pasture that is “God’s people and the Holy Christian Church.” Here God “commits to the Holy Christian Church the office of a shepherd, entrusts and gives to it the holy Gospel and Sacraments, so that by means of these it may care for and watch over His sheep, and so that these sheep may be richly provided with instruction, comfort, strength and protection against all evil.” In all these ways, Luther discerns interpretively the literal sense of the psalm’s metaphors. And he focuses on this: the good Shepherd gives to the community under-shepherds, “pastors” as we still say in the congregation, who shepherd the flock of God, not with rules and regulations but with the holy gospel and its sacraments.

The bureaucratic speech of our denomination, however, erases the Biblical metaphor and obscures its literal meaning by speaking of “rostered leaders” rather than “pastors.” We should recognize, honor and justly compensate all sorts of official church service, that is, diaconal ministries, just as we should see vital differences in these ministries.

First, for Luther, all the baptized are priests, that is to say, not for themselves but for others, “little Christs to the neighbor in need,” as we learned last October when we studied The Freedom of a Christian. Thus all the people of God in their secular stations are summoned to transform these worldly tasks and duties into vocations of Christian service.

Second, of these baptized people, some are called and ordained to minister to the Word and the Sacraments so that it gets spoken well and aptly, just as Luther describes the office of the pastor above, namely, to see to the performance of the lifegiving means of grace for the sake of making and keeping the community in Christ Christian.

Third, of the baptized people, some others may be commissioned from the Word and Sacraments to perform works of mercy on behalf of the local Body in its parish or neighborhood. Thus you have the general priesthood, the pastoral office of Word and Sacrament, and diaconal ministries. How much heartache and confusion of expectations we have experienced because we do not pay attention to these important distinctions!

In my view, we could add to this list a genuine ministry of oversight serving the unity of the local congregations with others, a pastor of pastors and congregations. But then, if we really meant that, we would give our overseers, that is, our “bishops,” indefinite calls, just as we normally do with congregational pastors. Moreover, we would give them the corresponding power to instruct, comfort, strengthen and protect against all evil by asking them and expecting them to be our local theologians, apt in teaching the Word. Then they would be bishops literally, not metaphorically, in reality not only in name.

Needless to say, in all such offices persons are held accountable to the duties with which they are entrusted. The people of God, for Luther, have the right and duty to judge their performance by the standard of God’s Word, as Jesus says in John 10: “My sheep hear my voice and will not listen to the voice of a stranger.” But we elect “bishops” like politicians. Why are we disappointed, then, when they act like politicians? May the same be said of the way we elect pastors today? Food for thought: if we take Luther’s way of deciphering of Biblical metaphor for its sense in such literal references in the world, perhaps we today get far more meaning from the Bible than we are prepared for!

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College and Professor of Systematic Theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

1. R. Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 238.

2. Janet Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 70.

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