Delivering the Goods: A Radical Lutheran Response to Deus Caritas Est

[1] In his first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI offers a vision of the Christian life with specific directives for the mission of the Roman Catholic Church. His argument is straightforward: God’s love given most concretely in Jesus Christ ought to be manifest in specific practices, such as charity, within the church. Indeed, “for the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” Benedict’s discussion of human love in general, divine love in particular, and the church as embodying God’s love will be a welcome contribution if it should foster discussion about the nature of love. Indeed, if the secular world, with its therapeutic view of life, can offer the troubled conscience any gospel at all, it would seem to be that there is no wound that a significant other cannot heal. However, the most important question that needs to be raised is whether the encyclical is true to the Christian gospel.

[2] Benedict’s letter seeks to clarify the relation between eros and agape, the Christian faith’s reinterpretation of love in light of Christ, and specific practices that the church, as a community of love, must uphold. The encyclical addresses nihilistic caricatures of an alleged Christian repression of eros-as typified by Friedrich Nietzsche-an exaggerated opposition between eros and agape that has been fostered by thinkers such as Anders Nygren (not explicitly named in the encyclical), and liberationist tendencies that favor the quest for justice over the distribution of charity as the primary mission of the church. Additionally, the encyclical seeks to set appropriate standards and boundaries for the proper exercise of charity.

[3] In spite of current ecumenical tendencies which advocate that Protestantism and Roman Catholicism share a generic core, albeit expressed differently, the encyclical’s most fundamental perspectives and directives should be challenged. At stake in the pope’s discussion is the nature of the gospel itself, and how that directs our views of human nature, the church, and ethics. If the truth of the gospel is at stake, Lutherans ought to find themselves vigilant and discerning. A Radical Lutheran perspective, dependent on the thinking of Gerhard O. Forde, can help here. This perspective accentuates the effective dimension to forensic justification as God’s action to make humans to be people of faith by crucifying their old beings with Christ and allowing Christ himself to be their reality.[1]

[4] Four specific questions arise from a Radical Lutheran reading of the encyclical. First, is the gospel primarily a promissory word independent of all human striving (Lutheran), or is it an invitation to ultimate human fulfillment (Roman Catholic)? Second, should human nature at its core be seen as receptive and needing liberation from sin (Lutheran view), or should it be seen as the raw potential for divinization, and needing perfecting by grace? Third, is the church a creature of the gospel (creatura evangelii) whose primary call is to proclaim this gospel (Lutheran), or is it a manifestation of the “total Christ” (totus Christus)–Christ together with his body the church (Augustine)? Finally, should ethics be conceived as a result of the freedom promised to the renewed human, independent of any external reward, or instead as the mimetic participation of the human in the divine by accruing higher levels of spiritual illumination and purification?

[5] There is only one reason for the existence of the Lutheran church and that is upholding the gospel. If the gospel promises sinners new life, actually delivering this new life within its very words, and does not primarily describe the world, direct human behavior, or express the innermost depths of the heart, then many of Benedict’s assumptions in this Encyclical must be challenged.

[6] In the encyclical’s Introduction, Benedict claims that the command to love is no mere heteronomous directive alien to human nature, but a response to the prevenient gift of divine love which initiates the human impulse to love. Implicit throughout the structure of the encyclical’s argument are Augustinian assumptions. True, for Augustine, we are saved by God’s grace alone. But it is not clear that we also live from faith alone. This is what Steven Paulson, following Luther, has referred to as the “Augustinian Imperfection.”[2] Paulson notes that for Augustine the law does not effectuate the death of the old being. Instead, grace permits the old being to be shaped to the divine life via conformity to the law. Augustine fails to appreciate the eschatological nature of grace. That is, he fails to understand that the last judgment has already been spoken in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that truth were to be acknowledged, then we would have to affirm that human virtue as well as vice are impotent, can claim no merit, before God. Law does not serve to shape human self-growth or potential, even when it is spiritual. Augustine fails to see that the law, condemning sinners to death, is, with respect to salvation, trumped by the gospel. God chooses only sinners as the recipients of love.

[7] In the Augustinian and Thomistic scheme of things, we are primarily pilgrims whose journey is initiated by grace. Grace awakens the trace of desire for unity with the triune life through mimetic participation of the theological virtues of faith, love, and hope. Specifically, love (caritas) impels our status as pilgrims on the path to the heavenly home. By enjoying (frui) God, and using (uti) all things on the basis of that enjoyment, our hearts are properly ordered both to their final end, to all other things, and even to their own selves. The opposite stance, using God and enjoying things, results in disorder both for the soul and for society. Problematically, if we are to grow in the divine image, we end up using other things or people for our own perfection. For instance, in medieval views, the poor provided an outlet for the wealthy to give charity and thus grow more Christ-like which, apart from the poor, they would not be able to do.[3]

[8] For Benedict, the heart of the Christian faith is defined primarily in anthropological terms as humanity’s quest for ultimate self-fulfillment via conforming to God as the true, beautiful, and good. God is love, as 1 John 4:16 teaches, and the human, made in the image of God, is capable of iconically perfecting this image by growing in grace towards beatitude. Benedict interprets the human primarily in terms of its potential to reach its telos. For Aristotle, the entelechy of the acorn is to become an oak. Similarly, for Benedict, human entelechy is gained by conforming our life to God’s through the exercise of our spiritual potential. The human serves not merely as a representative of God on earth, but is also to manifest the fullness of God in the glorified body of Christ within, ultimately, the triune life. This goal fulfills human nature. Communion between the divine and the human preserves each individual’s personhood. Human nature needs healing from the wound of sin so that it can be perfected by growing in imitation of Christ.

[9] When the primary Christian narrative is the pilgrimage of the Christian towards such beatitude, then the question must be raised: Is the heart of the Christian faith a story about us, about our reaching our telos, about our imitating Christ such that we might be conformed to the divine? This reading of the Scriptures, the Christian tradition, and even human history and nature itself is plausible only if the end has not yet happened. If, counter-intuitively, the last judgment has already been rendered, if the divine verdict on all humankind has already been executed, then human nature and behavior cannot be construed in terms of its ability to reach its final end. The end, both as telos and finis, has already happened. No sinner as a continuously existing subject survives this judgment. Yet in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, in which all humans have been judged, God has simultaneously condemned every sinner to death and has forgiven every sinner. It is not that God lets sinners off the hook, but that God raises them from the sentence of death under which they find themselves and to which their sin likewise contributes.

[10] In light of the resurrection event, human nature should not be understood as a continuously existing subject exercising potential towards ever higher degrees of purification. Rather, God has decreed human virtue, as well as vice, as non-negotiable with respect to the divine favor. It is toppled and negated, so that the new being in Christ alone might emerge. The new being is granted in the preaching of Christ (which seems foolish to the world). In faith we live outside our old being in Christ himself. Living outside ourselves we have no concern for ourselves. We thus have a royal freedom, the freedom of lords and ladies. The only concern before us is to honor God and to live for others, as servants, and for the earth, as stewards.

[11] Thus, in Benedict’s view of Christianity, the core of faith is about the ability of the human to conform to the divine through both God’s grace and human virtue. It is fundamentally a story about humans and their ability to reach spiritual perfection with the assistance of grace. If such perfection is not likely obtained for many in this life, then it is obtainable in the life to come. However, if we see the last judgment as already having been rendered, then the story is actually and primarily about God. True, no Roman Catholic would disagree that the primary Christian narrative is about God. However, that truth is undermined when the human is viewed as a continuously existing subject exercising potential toward deification. In that view, the focus is necessarily on the human, specifically the achievement of the human’s final telos.

[12] For Luther, the gospel signifies that this end has already been reached completely apart from the human. The ultimate goal for humanity is not in humanity’s hands at all. Only in that way can the human be genuinely free, heedless of merit. We may give to others and the world indifferently to whatever affect we might have on our final outcome because the final judgment has already been rendered: guilty but forgiven for Jesus’ sake!

[13] The upshot of these distinctions is that the relation between faith and love for Lutherans and Roman Catholics is strikingly different. For Roman Catholics, faith when not shaped by acts of love is “unformed” (fides informis), inauthentic, mere assent to church doctrine. Faith, however, properly expressed is formed by love (fides caritate formata). It engenders the hope that one’s merits, while not salvific in themselves, and not capable of claiming reward, will still be rewarded in the afterlife. For Luther, by contrast, faith is purely receptive, the most fundamental mode of our being. To be human is to have faith in something, either God or an idol. When faith is shaped by Christ-when Christ is one’s life through faith-then acts of love will follow spontaneously. A Christian is compelled to love as automatically as the draw to comfort a hurt child. To see a hurt child urges one to respond spontaneously with help.

[14] Benedict’s perception of the need to reclaim eros, properly channeled into the sacrament of marriage, is because it is the universal trace of that “restlessness” which directs the human to find rest in God. No doubt Anders Nygren’s sharp contrast of eros and agape overly-exaggerates the differences between them. For Nygren, eros is acquisitive, upward-directed, engages human effort, egocentric, seeks to gain life, places value in its object, and for which God becomes an object. While agape, conversely, is sacrificial, downward-directed, is receptive of grace, unselfish, looses its life, creates its object of love, finds freedom in giving, and for whom God is a subject. It is perhaps true that Nygren hasn’t been fair to eros and thereby hasn’t been fair to agape.[4] With insight, Karl Barth once said that seeing eros and agape as opposites makes as much sense as saying that Mozart (his favorite composer) and Beethoven were opposites!

[15] Benedict points out that eros is dehumanized when the body is commodified, distorting the trace of desire for eternity in the heart. Indeed, he argues for a kind of reciprocity between eros and agape as a general human trait. If eros is to achieve self-fulfillment, it will only be if one loses oneself for the well-being of the other. Benedict notes that a more thoughtful approach to eros recognizes that it must move beyond narcissism towards self-sacrifice. It must seek higher levels of self-fulfillment which can only be had through self-sacrifice for another and in this way be akin to divine love. Agape is thus latent in eros. Conversely, agape dies if it achieves no self-satisfaction whatsoever in its self-giving. Agape needs eros.

[16] Said more philosophically, since possessive love includes an inherent reciprocity between self and other, it implies oblative love. Such oblative love likewise requires the sense of desire that drives possessive love. Oblative love permits a higher ordering to possessive love, making it akin to the divine love, and enflaming it to seek fulfillment in the divine.

[17] Benedict seeks to reclaim eros in light of current culture’s idealization of human self-degradation, eros as the hedonic calculation of maximizing pleasure. One is entitled to as much pleasure as one can get provided it does no harm to anyone else. This could be called the “inverted golden rule”: Do not infringe upon another’s autonomy even as you would not want others to infringe upon your own. (In its Epicurean form the inverted golden rule would read: Do not infringe upon other’s self-pleasuring, even as you would not want others to infringe upon your own.) For Benedict, the pleasure of eros is reclaimed when it can move beyond a self-focused narcissism by finding true well-being in the pleasure of the other and channeling this justified pleasure into ever higher forms of behavior which instantiate the true, beautiful, and good.

[18] What is the place of eros from a Radical Lutheran perspective? Rather than redeeming eros by finding agape implicit within it, eros can be affirmed as an aesthetic dimension to creaturely existence, joy resulting from the giftedness of all created life. Such an appreciation of this life is an invitation to relish the gifts that God gives all creatures. The ethical opportunity to serve one’s neighbor follows upon this aesthetic. Creaturely life has its own integrity. The enjoyment of taste indeed echoes ultimate fulfillment of life in God. However, this is not as an instance of the true, beautiful, and good within us but as sheer gratuity on God’s part. “All this he does out of his fatherly and divine goodness and mercy…”

[19] From this perspective, the pagan, specifically Epicurean, view of eros, which calculates all experience in terms of its ability to deliver pleasure, criticized by Benedict as dehumanizing, has an inadequate view of the giftedness of creation. Unable to honor the Creator, such paganism, whether in its ancient or contemporary forms, reduces pleasure to a narcotic to help us cope with pain. Yet in evangelical perspective, our sufferings and trials likewise effectuate a profound aesthetic. It is through such pain that the Creator shapes us as people of faith. In suffering, we lose our ability to control ourselves and our environment and must grow in greater reliance on God as our comfort, strength, and hope.

[20] The encyclical looks to love’s growth “towards higher levels and inward purification” such that the “closed inward-looking self” is liberated through self-giving, noting that an implicit death of the self cannot be avoided: Whoever seeks to gain life will lose it. For Benedict, an aesthetic of ascent is driven by a movement of renunciation to purification, and then to healing. Sacrifice for the other is natural. In Radical Lutheranism, death and resurrection ends the self with all its entanglements that feed its quest for ascent. Its alternative aesthetic results from the last judgment which as sentencing death extinguishes egocentric desire.[5] Thereby, the senses, touching, tasting, hearing, seeing, and smelling, are opened up for the new being, whose life is recast, as Christ in action, for service to others and the earth.

[21] Far from the need to move beyond the temporal to the eternal, the material to the spiritual, which eros ultimately ought to lead us, we are drawn to the temporal and the material. We are given a sense and taste, not for the infinite, but for the finite.[6] Augustine was right to claim that God is closer to me than I can ever be to myself. However, this is true not just for the soul but also for the body and, indeed, all creation. God is so close to us that, as Luther said, God’s skin “smokes.”[7] The Augustinian metaphor of ascent is obviated when we realize just how close God is! There is no need to go up to God-God is already here, smaller than the most trivial puff of energy in far flung space and yet great enough to encompass all galaxies. Indeed, God is masked in all creatures. God is speaking to us in all things-most specifically and clearly in Scripture-but also in all created events. Thus, counter to Existentialism and other schools of “personalism”-which view the self as a spiritual reality housed in the body as a physical substance-there is thus no “I-thou” relationship between God and people or “I-it” relationship between God and the world. God’s relationship to us is always mediated through material things. If that is so, might we not conclude that God is also speaking to us, both as law and as gospel, even in eros?

[22] In eros, as law, God tells to us that we are not self-sufficient. Our desire for the other indicates our need for others. Only in reciprocal exchange with others can we live. We need the other, and the other needs us. In such reciprocity we find ourselves beholden to and responsible for the other and vice versa. Since this is a universal phenomenon, talk of rights and claims, the mutual accountability between self and other, makes perfectly good sense. The desire to be justified before the other when one’s status seems challenged likewise makes sense. The attempt to justify claims of recognition and entitlement, along with counter-claims, are interwoven into the reciprocal nature of desire between self and other. That means that in eros we encounter law right within the social structure of human nature itself.

[23] However, it is not only law that is evoked by eros. There is also, at least analogously to God’s claim spoken by the Christian community, promise. How so? Eros can and does find some measure of fulfillment. This fulfillment is always union with the other, in which the other fulfills the self and the self fulfills the other. Such reciprocal fulfillment is analogous to the happy exchange between Christ and the soul, in which Christ absorbs all the soul’s liabilities and the soul absorbs Christ’s righteousness. Eros is also experienced as pure gift.

[24] Eros, however, will not be experienced apart from wrath, at least until Christ’s return. We will experience such wrath if we turn from our interdependence on others, if we make the world too narrow or small. Likewise, we encounter it if through co-dependence we make a parody of genuine reciprocity between self and other. Either way, it is through faith in God’s promise in creation and the risen Christ that opens our hearts through faith into wider horizons of experience such that eros can be had in a wholesome, non-threatening way. And, thereby, God sustains the world in both order and novelty-new possibilities to the world that result from earthly love. Such possibilities, of course, include the birth and nurture of children, but also all works of human poiesis.

[25] The encyclical enjoins us to consider eros and agape as not merely human qualities but also divine. Thus, for Benedict, the Logos is a passionate lover, which ennobles and purifies eros. Again, one suspects that the attempt to see eros and agape as total opposites is being challenged here. Eros as created by God is good. But, if eros is indeed a property of God, then it doesn’t need to be elevated. Agape liberates eros; it does not elevate eros. Indeed, if eros and not only agape prompts God to turn against himself, love turning against justice, in order to save the sinful human, as Benedict claims, then we can be grateful for the divine eros with its desire for union with the human. The Radical Lutheran would want to add that union with the divine is itself a result of the justifying word of promise. The gospel is a word which does what it says and says what it does. Forgiveness of sin indeed also grants life and salvation. We are one with God, baked as “one loaf” with Christ,[8] because God will have nothing other than the sinner and the sinner can have nothing else if he or she is to be free.

[26] In that light Benedict is right to appeal to Holy Communion as the reality which effectuates such unity. However, again, it is not that we concelebrate the Eucharist with the priest, again making it a form of a higher hedonism,[9] but that the Lord’s Supper as Christ’s last will and testament delivers the very gifts of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation and thus opens us to sharing of ourselves coram mundo. It is not that faith is imperfect apart from love such that we must do those practices that help us in greater mimetic participation in our ascent to the divine. Rather the God who is everywhere all-so-very-close to sinners-bringing them to their end-now discloses the deepest core of God’s heart-that God is for us. Receiving such generosity cannot but help give birth to love-especially for the poor.

[27] Indeed, the Lord’s Supper helps shape a non-hierarchical community of faith which seeks charity in the world. The Lord’s Supper as a bodily word and a linguistic body,[10] through the promise joined to the elements, is administered for new life in the community. It impels us to return thanks to God and share such generosity in the world, particularly with the poor, the hungry, and the needy. This is not because the indicative of faith leads to an imperative in life which compels life analogously to conform to that faith. Such would assume the continuous existing subject of the sinner. Rather, in that we have died with Christ, it is now Christ who is active within us. Christ is the subject of the new being, both lord and servant, and ready to share God’s good gifts in the world.[11]

[28] Undoubtedly many mainline Protestants and some liberationist Roman Catholics will be discouraged with Benedict’s claim that it is charity, not justice, which is the proper social task of the church in the world. However, given the moderate-to-conservative theological orientation of Benedict, this claim ought not to be surprising. In no way does Benedict disparage the quest for justice. “Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.” For Benedict, church and state have separate spheres of mission under God.

[29] However, is it true that charity and justice are to be separated because the former is proper to the church and the latter to the state? It would seem that both charity and justice are quests that Christians ought to be doing in the world. Charity is indeed direct relief to the hurting. It is a task shared by Christians and non-Christians. Hopefully, establishing justice would obviate those structures that contribute to such hurt. And, charity received can help build up life such that justice can be established. In that light, charity and justice are not opposites. Both are forms of service, the former as more direct assistance and the latter more indirect. Both are important. Both flow from the renewal of the Christian life granted in the Lord’s Supper. Hence, Luther notes, “there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy.”[12] Charity and justice may be more intertwined than the encyclical suggests; they are both expressions of Christian social outreach.

[30] For Benedict, charity, as the direct contribution to the welfare of those in need, not the quest for justice in the civic realm; it constitutes the church, along with word and sacraments. However, is charity an essential property of the church? Surely where the church is active, one ought to expect to see acts of charity in progress. However, the church, properly defined, is where the last judgment is rendered now in word and sacrament. It is properly the orbit where God’s goods are being delivered. In that light, word and sacrament alone constitute the church.[13] Charity is an outcome or byproduct of God’s generosity to humans.

[31] In light of the gospel, we can ask: How is life configured now that one is dead to oneself and alive to God and neighbor? One certainly need not be concerned about possessions for oneself. Instead one can share one’s wealth with neighbors. In the church the goods of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are delivered. In the church we are fed by Christ. In the world, because we are fed, we can feed the hungry, cloth the naked, care for and heal the sick, and visit those in prison. In this liturgy of God’s service to us, we can serve others in the world-even seek to alter political community for the sake of the disenfranchised.

[32] The church is also a social institution in the world. Not definitive of the church per se, unlike word and sacraments, promoting charity is a proper work of Christians, along with the quest for justice. Institutions of the church should be providing charity to the needy. Christians as citizens should be working for just political environments. Certainly the vocation of the Christian in public life ought always to include the quests for both giving charity and for establishing justice. Genuine faith unleashes love. Such love is manifest in the world in charity as an expression of Christian generosity and justice as a goal for political life.

[33] Justice is nothing other than love expressed within the social transactions, the reciprocity of power that constitutes social life. The task of establishing justice is shared by both Christians and non-Christians of good will. However, we cannot assume that justice is understood in a sinful world, in which moral discernment is blinded. In a democracy, one will often need to persuade fellow citizens of the nature of justice.

[34] It is not true that the church deals with private matters and the state with public matters. Rather the church deals with ultimate matters, and the state deals with penultimate matters. This distinction needs to be honored. Both the political right and left quickly idolize their agendas in their respective quests for “justice” and “freedom”-this latter aim, viewed as autonomy, is the longtime North American idol. An important mission of the church is to demythologize such idolatries, knowing that in the quest for justice we will not always agree about either means or ends. Both the political right and left are expressions of the “grand narrative of emancipation,”[14] into whose vision the mission of Christ ought not to be squeezed.

[35] In today’s world, the most radical task of the Church is to exercise the Office of the Keys-retaining and releasing sins. No other public institution can claim this vocation of forgiving sins for Jesus’ sake. To deliver the goods of forgiveness of sins is also to share life and salvation. This office ought to be manifest in the Church’s public proclamation.

[36] Perhaps the next most important task of the Church would be judging doctrine, especially those doctrines with their legitimating mythologies which are espoused in the academy, the agora, and the polis. Lack of charity, as well as much injustice, can be attributed to the economic doctrine of “limited resources.” There is enough to go around in a sustainable manner. The truth is: we don’t wish to share.

[37] Into such a world of bound consciences, not only indifferent to but even bitter toward God, we must proclaim the Crucified who establishes a royal freedom. While many moderns are oblivious to the fact that their idols work only against them, we share with them both God’s commands and promises. Many who are not looking for a gracious God are at least looking for grace. That promises a start for our outreach.

End Notes

[1] See especially Gerhard Forde, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), Justification by Faith-A Matter of Death and Life (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982, Theology is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), and A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Mich.: Eerdmans, 2004).

[2] Steven Paulson, “The Augustinian Imperfection: Faith, Christ, and Imputation and Its Role in the Ecumenical Discussion of Justification,” in The Gospel of Justification in Christ: Where Does the Church Stand Today?, ed. Wayne Stumme (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), 104-124.

[3] Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 32-33.

[4] Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[5] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 15.

[6] Oswald Bayer, Schöpfung als Anrede ( Tübingen: Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1991), 95, 158.

[7] “Christ is so much within us in the muck and work of our lives that his skin smokes.” WA 4:608.

[8] LW 24:226 (John 15:6).

[9] Lindberg, 29.

[10] Oswald Bayer, Theologie (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 1994), 399.

[11] Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), 113.

[12] “Preface” to the Leisnig order (LW 45:172; WA 12, 13, 26f.).

[13] Confessio Augustana VII.

[14] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1991), 35-36.