Luther on the Self: A Work in Progress

[1] Reinhard Hütter has argued eloquently for a double center to Luther’s theology, suggesting that an Enlightenment view of “freedom” has badly distorted our understanding of the law in Luther’s work. George Lindbeck has similarly identified a kind of rabbinic appreciation for the law in Luther’s thinking, especially in his Catechisms, which represent the pastoral Luther at his best. The suggestion of both is that the systematic ordering of Luther’s theology around the single center of the sola fide confession has distorted important aspects of Luther’s thought, particularly in relation to the law.

[2] The question I bring is the one articulated by the many who seek redemption from a bondage to passivity or neglect emerging out of a distracted and diffused “self” – those for whom good works frequently do not “spring spontaneously.” They are the faithful who are driven to confession and prayer by a neglect of “responsible dominion,” rather than “self-assertive pride.” Martha Ellen Stortz has provided a very helpful discussion of Lutheran resources for Spiritual empowerment, focusing on the “practices” of worship, catechesis, and individual prayer. I am interested in extending this conversation through an examination of the ways that Luther’s theology builds up the faithful “self,” by way of the tasks one is contextually “given.” These two paths towards a “growth in faith” are not, of course, unrelated – since it is precisely by way of recourse to prayer that a Christian’s calling is faithfully engaged.

[3] Key to this debate, is the matter of Luther’s later assessment of creation and the temporal realm. I argue, along with Pannenberg and others, that there is an important later shift in Luther’s work, which is the result of unfolding implications inherent in his mature schema of God’s two-fold reign. Both hidden and revealed, the God who is experienced according to the radical dualism of death and life coram deo, becomes, over time, more and more integrated under the one aspect of a divine love, operating through both the temporal and spiritual realms for those who “have eyes to see.” Thus the “either/or” approach that was regularly applied to both the temporal and spiritual realms (reflecting the eschatologically decisive authority of the “inner self”) in his earlier theology, gives way to a “both/and” construction of reality in the temporal realm. Reflecting the “part/part” anthropology associated with the temporal regeneration of the self (as residual “flesh” is incrementally overcome by the Spirit), a faithful self-interest takes its rightful place as a penultimate, but immensely important, focus of theology.

[4] Correlatively, Luther now adopts a “both/and” approach to neighbor and self, so that these need not be viewed as mutually exclusive matters of interest. Marriage rightly brings one temporal pleasure, even while it serves the wider good of society, as do education, the nurturing of children, the work of self-discipline and the protection of one’s health. Temporally, God’s love is grasped in the tasks one is given, and in the loving relationships these tasks generate in one’s life. A faithful “dominion” over creation however, (including a regenerated dominion over oneself), requires one to accept, not only the potential pleasure associated with these tasks, but also the responsibility and the dangers such relationships entail.

[5] Even in his most dualistic period, Luther never rejected the turn to the self as a legitimate object of interest in the work of “crucifying the flesh,” but in his later work he took up the question in earnest. Luther’s observation that sloth, rather than good works, was growing among many who had heard the Gospel, moved him to warn of the loss of Christ in complacent acquiescence to sin. The seriousness of these warnings calls us to a re-consideration today of the incremental transformation in the Spirit to which believers are called in faith. Whether one refers to such exhortation as a “third use of the law” or a “second use of the gospel” seems less important to me than the re-appropriation of this aspect of Luther’s theology in the context of our present situation. Nor is it necessary to see this as a battle between “orthodoxy” and “pietism;” for nothing could be clearer than Luther’s conviction that the synergistic struggle in the Spirit built up, rather than corroded, an orthodox faith in God’s monergistic work of justification.

[6] That many will disagree with me, I have no doubt. On the other hand, the complacency and despair that is undeniably present and thriving in many of our congregations provides the occasion for us to address the challenges that women, in particular, have leveled against a “self-abnegating” Lutheran theology. We may begin, I suggest, with a re-examination of Luther’s own response to the passivity he encountered among those called to faithful action.

Mary Gaebler

Dr. Mary Gaebler is Associate Professor in Religion; Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies; and Peace Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter MN.