Review: Enemies of the Cross: Suffering, Truth and Mysticism in the Early Reformation by Vincent Evener

[1] Evener’s revised University of Chicago dissertation explores relationships between selfhood, suffering, and the knowledge of truth in the early Reformation writings of Martin Luther, Andreas Karlstadt, and Thomas Muntzer.  Through meticulous textual work, this account also carefully attends to ways that each author drew differently on earlier traditions of Christian mysticism.   Evener notes that the mystics stressed the importance of individuals realizing their own insufficiency before God. They also posited that spiritual growth, and the knowledge of truth required a willingness to accept the suffering that God sent into their lives. The book proceeds to chapters on Luther, Karlstadt, and Muntzer before moving to a constructive summary of the exploration.  It then chronicles each of the reformer’s reactions to the Peasant’s War.

[2] Evener shows the various ways that the mystics argued that it is only after despairing one’s ability to know and love God, that one begins to empty oneself in a way that allows God to fill an individual and allows that person to become an individual before God. Because of the nature of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, my review of this book focuses primarily on Evener’s treatment of Luther. Even though I do not discuss them in detail, the book’s nuanced treatments of both Karlstadt and Muntzer are important reading for historical theologians and those interested in the varying shapes of the reformers’ social ethics. This volume also helps put Luther’s theological anthropology of the self in relation to suffering and truth in comparative perspective to the other options circulating during the Reformation.

[3] Karlstadt and Muntzer began as Luther’s allies, but eventually developed their own accounts of anthropology, especially the relationship between self-emptying and divine pedagogy. Evener shows how each reformer’s anthropology shaped their differing visions for church life and reform, as well as their relation to secular authorities.  This is explicitly a work of history, so Evener does not explore what his work might mean for how confessionally faithful Lutherans might approach suffering in their own lives in the present day, an important question for ethicists. However, the book does detail how each reformer developed a program of social ethics. In addition, the final chapter treats each reformer’s response to the Peasant’s War.

[4] Luther’s mystical influences came from his readings of German mystic Johannes Tauler and the so-called German Theology. Evener provides a nuanced discussion of Luther’s reception of these texts.  Through careful textual work Evener shows that the Wittenberg reformers had access to Eckhart’s teachings through later mystics via the German Theology and the writings of Henry Suso.

[5] Evener argues that Luther drew on mystical thinking and helped move its insights from the monastery into the lives of everyday Christians.  The reformers drew on mystics especially in arguing that  Christians need to  accept their own “nothingness before God in order to be born into true faith and to become instruments for God’s work in the world.” (p. 7)   Evener notes that Tauler took a critical stance toward asceticism and emphasized, instead, that the work of emptying the self is the work of the Holy Spirit, not a human work, something that dovetailed well with Luther’s theology.

[6] The book points out that Luther’s account of God’s formation of the self draws from multiple sources, including: the mystics, Luther’s readings of Scripture, and his critique of Catholic practices of formation.  Luther rejected the efficacy of what he called “self-chosen suffering”, that is, the suffering that Christians undertook on their own in an attempt to form holier selves. Such suffering was often connected with monastic vows or acts of penance. Luther also rejected the notion that one Christian could draw on the merits of another’s suffering. Instead, Christians would be formed into faith by the suffering that God allowed them to undergo after they began to trust the Word. Hence, for Luther, true suffering happened in the course of the life of faith, one did not need to seek it out. God would use the Christians’ trust in God’s promises during these times of suffering to grow their faith through the Holy Spirit. It was trust rather than yielding that would become key to Luther’s anthropology, a departure from Eckhardt.

[7] Evener’s theological sensitivity and careful textual work make this book convincing. The book leaves key terms in the original language along with its translations, which will make it helpful for specialists. Historians will appreciate the book’s careful comparison of the differences in the theological anthropologies of the various reformers, even as they began from similar starting points.  This book is also important for ethicists and pastoral theologians, given the light it sheds on how early Protestant Reformers understood the nature, purpose, and cause of suffering.  Evener’s work gives us tools to think about the role of suffering in our present-day lives in light of past Christian traditions.   Some might find Luther inattentive to suffering caused by what contemporary theology calls social or structural sin. I wonder how Luther would respond to our current thinking about multiple sources of suffering, including the suffering that results from unjust systems and structures, social sin and natural causes, rather than primarily seeing it as sent by God.  How should ethicists in the Lutheran tradition think about suffering today, when it is more common to think about suffering in terms of social systems and structures, than it is to think about how God might form individual Christians through the suffering in their own lives? How do we address both?



Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.  He received his MAR is Systematic Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, his M.Div. from Yale and a ThM with a concentration in Ethics from Duke Divinity School.