Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer, reviewed by Dennis Bielfeldt

[1] Bayer’s “contemporary interpretation” of Luther’s theology is must reading for anyone interested in Luther and Lutheran theology generally. In this ably translated book deriving originally from 30 hours of lectures from a general studies course at the University of Tübingen in 2002, Bayer compares his approach to Luther to a documentary that draws upon a deep repository of archival footage to present a topic from multiple perspectives. Of course, as with all such documentaries, sustained examination of a particular issue is sometimes sacrificed to achieve an orderly, organic presentation.

[2] While not yet as well-known among English readers as his Tübingen colleagues Moltmann and Jüngel, Oswald Bayer has been engaged in sustained systematic reflection on the fruits of Luther’s theology since his 1971 publication of Promissio: Geschichte der reformotorischen Wende in Luthers Theologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht). In addition to Review of Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretationoffering a highly readable, faithful account of the Reformer’s theology, Bayer declares a concern in this text for the question of truth.

[3] Specifically, Bayer asks what answers have enduring value “within the river of historical changes” to these fundamental questions: How should we talk about the relationship between God and human beings? How does salvation and life relate to a world of sin and death? Can one be confident of salvation? How does one live in a world viewed apocalyptically? He calls his treatment a “re-presentation in the double sense of the phrase (xix):” The “historical subject matter,” which itself has determined modern consciousness, must be brought again into modern consciousness and its truth claims critically evaluated. Because Bayer’s concern is with truth, this review will focus predominately on this issue.

[4] Informed by forty years of research on various Luther text genres — “sermons, treatises, written polemics, table talks, lectures and dispositions,” and especially “catechisms, prefaces to biblical books, and hymns” (xix) — Bayer’s book does not disappoint. His work with Luther is masterful, and his systematic theological emphasis is everywhere apparent. Moreover, the book is highly engaging and easily readable by those who routinely read neither Luther monographs nor systematic theology tomes.

[5] Bayer divides his presentation into an introduction laying out the “rupture between ages” of the old and new eons, a four chapter prolegomena on basic themes (e.g., Luther’s view of theology, his understanding of sinful humanity before the justifying God, the Reformational turning point in his theology, and his understanding of the authority of the Holy Scriptures), and finally 12 chapters dividing into two sections reflecting the two eons: the first dealing with creation, its orders, human being, sin and evil, and the second with Christ, Holy Spirit, Church, faith and works, the doctrine of the two realms, eschatology and prayer. Bayer points out the Trinitarian nature of his project and that “every aspect of the Small Catechism … is thoroughly interwoven throughout” the work (xviii).

[6] There is much to be praised in the book. Bayer’s knowledge of Luther is detailed and nuanced, he succeeds in combining sound Luther research with a systematic theological emphasis, and he adroitly pulls forth themes from Luther that speak to our time and context. Throughout he shows how deeply Luther is concerned with pastoral issues.

[7] Bayer’s truth question, however, haunted much of my reading. Precisely what of the sixteenth century are we leaving behind in discerning, with Bayer, that having “enduring value within historical change”? Furthermore, what about the truth of Bayer’s own systematic presentation of Luther?

[8] I find myself nowadays fascinated by the dissimilarity between the ontological and semantic presuppositions of theology in Luther’s time and those of many of his interpreters today. In Germany, I believe, the Kantian prism has made it difficult at times to grasp Luther’s theological work on its own terms. Kantian presuppositions, such as those denying the substantiality and causal efficacy of God, have often impeded theologians from getting clear on crucial questions for Luther such as the nature of theological truth-conditions: What states of affairs finally make theological propositions true? Bayer alludes in his book to virtually no theological scholarship outside Germany; the Kantian paradigm is simply assumed.

[9] In friendly dialogue with Bayer’s text, I offer three questions that arise for one who does not assume the standard moves of the Kantian-inspired theological tradition in studying Luther.
Is it possible to account for the authority of Holy Scriptures solely in terms of the existential effect the texts have upon their readers?
Is it possible to build systematic theology and a Luther interpretation on the basis of fundamental theological language being primarily performative?
Is it possible to deal with creation without raising explicitly the causal question?
[10] All of these questions are weighty, challenging, and profoundly important in evaluating the ultimate success of Bayer’s project. If, as Bayer and many assume, existence is linguistically-constituted, then divine promises make all the difference, not only to who we ultimately are, but to who God ultimately is. Furthermore, if we follow Bayer in claiming that the Word is what it does (52), then we need clarity not only about the identity conditions of what the Word does, but also about the conditions accompanying what the Word does, for what the Word does is profoundly dependent upon the horizon into which it is spoken, a horizon of presupposed ontological, semantic and epistemological commitments. It is likely that the Word strikes the auditor differently if she believes that Word represents and presents a God who has reality apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, a being who is causally engaged in creation and redemption.

[11] Bayer believes that Luther’s thesis, Sacra scriptura “sui ipsius interpres,” is not primarily claiming that the parts interpret the whole and the whole interprets the parts, but is instead a statement of the effect the text has on the one reading, hearing and interpreting it: “the text itself causes one to pay attention” (68). Bayer declares that “the authority of Scripture is not formal but is highly material and is content driven. It is the voice of its author … Scripture can in no wise be confirmed as having formal authority in advance, so that the content becomes important only as a second stage of the process. The text in its many different forms — particularly in the law’s demand and the gospel’s promises — uses this material way of doing business to validate its authority” (69).

[12] This statement accords well with Bayer’s claim that the Word is what it does. Bayer supposes what many contemporary theologians find obvious: The text has no properties that establish its reliability outside of its meaning. Thus, there are no syntactic or causal facts about the text itself that would properly dispose one to believe that what the text announces is true.

[13] Bayer also defends the text’s autonomy. The meaning of the text is not established or constituted in the act of interpreting it. The text’s external meaning confronts the reader and transforms her. The Bible is the Holy Scripture because of the power the Bible has, as Luther says, to “draw the individual into itself, and into its own power” (71). Bayer thus must square the following claims:

The authority of the text is constituted not in its formal features (e.g. intrinsic syntactic or extrinsic causal) but in its material meaning.
The meaning of the text is objective; it exists apart from my act of interpretation.
The Spirit is involved in the delivery of the meaning of the text to me.
[14] Bayer quotes Notger Slenczka with approval: “The normative function of Scripture demonstrates its claim to be normative by basing it on the way it is existentially verified when it interprets itself, in the way Scripture conveys its own intended meanings” (77).

[15] While I am sympathetic with Bayer’s attempt to jointly affirm (1), (2) and (3), I don’t see how it can be successful. A crucial question has to do with the text’s reliability. How exactly does it arise for Bayer? Obviously, if one were to trace some kind of causal chain back from the text to God, as was done in former years, then it would have an authority that would entail its reliability. (By alluding to ‘reliability’, I do not mean that each and every proposition of Scripture must be timelessly true — whatever this might mean — but simply that there is some epistemic warrant for regarding the text as saying what is generally the case with respect to God and God’s relationship with human beings.) Eschewing this path, Bayer must offer a deeper account of how the “material way of doing business” grants textual reliability. Let us see why.

[16] Allow s to be the Bible and p some other text. Assume cultural context c and individual i, such that i encountering s in c is a necessary part of a sufficient condition for bringing about existential meaning m, i.e., meaning that is of a life and death matter. Now consider i encountering p in c also gives m. What then makes s more authoritative than p?

[17] It would seem that in the absence of claiming s is somehow caused by the divine, the only response possible is that the Holy Spirit is causally efficacious in bringing m from s but not p, that is, as a matter of contingent fact, the activity of the Holy Spirit must form part of the causal chain eventuating in m. But would Bayer want seriously to hold that the real causal activity of the Holy Spirit makes the one text authoritative and the other not, for would not this commit him to a different formal account of authority, one where the causal chain traces back through the external activity of the Holy Spirit rather than a divinely-produced textual origination and transmission?

[18] One must distinguish between the purely descriptive truth that the Bible and many other books can and do strike readers with existential truth, and the normative claim that the Bible ought to do so. Until we can give an analysis of why the Bible ought to strike one as salvific truth, we have not engaged the issue which the claim of the formal norm was trying to answer.

[19] Imagine a time where the Bible does not strike people as giving life-saving existential truth. (This time has already happened in much of the first world.) In the absence of a formal norm — either the text bears an artifact/artificer relationship to God or the Holy Spirit causally operates only upon it — what position is left for the theologian? Would he not have to say that the Bible is not the Holy Scriptures any longer, for it no longer salvifically empowers us? It is not clear how Bayer would respond to this problem.

[20] Bayer quotes a statement from Luther’s Tishreden as stating a general principle in Luther’s semantics: “Signum philosophicum est nota absentis rei, signum theologicum est nota praesentis rei” (“The philosophical sign is a mark of an absent thing; the theological sign is a mark of a present thing”). Bayer declares that “the signum itself is already the res; the linguistic sign is already the matter itself (52).

[21] The promissio that Bayer locates at the center of Luther’s theology is thus unpacked by equating the word in language with the reality itself. In promises, words are not to be interpreted extensionally or intensionally, but are themselves their own reality. This position Bayer regards to be the deepest presupposition of Luther’s theological semantics, a position which Bayer claims is akin to the views on performative language advanced by John Austin in his 1955 Harvard lectures later published as How to Do Things with Words. Bayer writes:

[22] “In contrast to every metaphysical set of statements that teach about the deity, this assertion [e.g. “To you is born this day a Savior”] declares that God’s truth and will are not abstract entities, but are directed verbally and publicly as a concrete promise to a particular hearer in a specific situation. ‘God’ is apprehended as the one who makes a promise to a human being in such a way that the person who hears it can have full confidence in it” (53).

[23] Bayer clearly supposes that there exists a firm distinction among performative utterances like promise-making, constative utterances which describe or report states of affairs that can be true or false, and imperative utterances. He further explains:

” … one cannot take the promise, which is not a descriptive statement, and transform it into a descriptive statement. Secondly, one cannot take the promise, which is not in the form of a statement that shows how something ought to be done, and transform it into an imperative…. The truth of the promise … is to be determined only at the very place that the promise was … constituted. This means it is located within the relationship of the one who is speaking … and the one who hears…. If it is correct that the one individual is in the position of hearer in the relationship that is constituted by this promise, and if that is verified, it excludes the possibility that he himself can verify the promise…. To seek to verify this oneself would be atheism….” (54–55).

[24] It is true, of course, that there are statements such as “I promise to pay you $1000,” and that such statements cannot be given a complete analysis in terms of a set of descriptive statements. Reporting is a different linguistic activity than promising. It is also true that such statements cannot be reductively analyzable into a set of imperative statements. However, one must distinguish between a reduction of the performative and a delineation of its palpable presuppositions, presuppositions that can be stated in terms of the descriptive and imperative.

[25] In “I promise to pay $1000,” the following are presupposed: “I exist,” “you exist,” “$1000 exist,” and “I ought to pay you $1000.” The first three are descriptive statements and the fourth imperative. Notice that here the verba of the sentence do not themselves constitute the rem, but instead presuppose a set of definite res: the existence of two agents, the existence of money, and the taking on of an obligation. This is not to say that ‘x promises z to y’ can be reduced to the existence of x, y and z, and a set of imperative statements, for while there is more to promising than the taking on of an obligation, an obligation is nonetheless presupposed in the promising.

[26] In the divine promise of salvation it would seem that the same structure obtains: God exists, I exist, some state of affairs to which ‘salvation’ properly applies exists, and God is under obligation to bring about salvation to me. (Admittedly, it is rather jarring to think of God being under obligation, but the logic of promising seems to demand it.)

[27] Bayer further claims that the “truth of the promise is determined where it is constituted,” that is, in the one speaking and hearing. But what exactly is this to mean? Clearly, Bayer is not talking about a correspondence, coherence, or even pragmatic notion of truth. We are told, in fact, that the individual cannot verify the truth of the promise, for to do so would involve one in atheism.

[28] If ‘Bob’ promises to pay me $1000 on April 1 and does not do so, he has broken his promise. We would not normally say, however, that his promise is true or false. A broken promise is, to use Austin’s language, an “infelicitous” performative utterance. Since on Austinian grounds, truth and falsity are not properties of promises qua promises, it is not clear what Bayer means by a promise’s truth.

[29] One might say, I suppose, that some descriptively-stated presupposition for the keeping of the promise did not obtain and thus that statement is not true. Yet this is not to say that the promise is false, but merely that the falsity of the promise’s presupposition makes it true that the promise is infelicitous. Statements about promises have definite truth conditions even if the promises do not.

[30] Bayer’s claim that atheism is entailed in the effort to verify a divine promise also demands comment. Given a peculiar set of assumptions, it might be regarded as atheism to claim that one can verify the truth of the statement that state of affairs S obtains such that S makes true the truth of, ‘God has kept promise P.’ But this scenario is not likely. Not verifying (or falsifying) ‘God has kept P’ has, I think, much more to do with the problem of specifying what could count for or against the claim. I think it likely that ‘God keeps his promises’ is an analytical truth, part of the “grammar” of the Christian God.

[31] Bayer’s very adept treatment of Luther presupposes a nexus of ideas we might associate with the so-called “existential Luther.” Such a reading of Luther thematizes the situation of the believer confronted both by Law and Gospel, the believer justified by faith and living the freedom of the promissio. From this center it moves outward to interpret the other theological loci. While the “existentialist” Luther has been dominant in Germany for over six decades, it does offer some interpretive challenges with regard to the other loci. I will close by discussing the problem of interpreting divine creation from this center.

[32] Think about the phrase “creatio ex nihilo” (“creation out of nothing”). Taken metaphysically, the phrase connotes the substance of the universe coming into being by the causal activity of a divine being transcending the universe. But Bayer, following the path he set forth in his 1983 Schopfung als Anrede, declares that it “is a term for the doctrine of justification” (97). Accordingly, the meaning of the term contradicts “in the sharpest way possible the universal human desire for creating oneself, for self-realization.” From this position, Bayer goes on to argue divine creation “is the establishment and preservation of community” and that it is essentially a speech-act.

[33] Bayer’s treatment here is consistent with what he does throughout the text. One can do marvelous theology while yet denying theological realism, the notion that God is a being that exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. Clearly, Bayer does theology very well. It is equally clear that Luther was a theological realist.

[34] Over the last decade I have become convinced of the truth of the maxim that “to be real is to have causal powers.” After reading Bayer’s book, I am left with the question of what causal powers need be ascribable to God on his interpretation. Perhaps divine causal impotence is consistent with everything that Bayer writes of Luther in this book. If so, it is lamentable, for the question of truth for denizens of the 21st century is everywhere connected to the question of causality.

Purchasing Information
Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation by Oswald Bayer
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008
398 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-2799-9, $32 (Paperback)

Dennis Bielfeldt

Dennis Bielfeldt is Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.