Review of Mark C. Mattes, The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology

[1] Every time I read Mattes’s Justification I am struck by its freshness, newness and, well-since there is no better word-promise. This remarkable little book starts by categorizing what has gone before, as theology must. Mattes’s ordering of the great, recent Lutheran or Lutheran-like theologians will no doubt be its most controversial aspect, since theologians have much invested in how thought, act and feeling are portrayed, and especially concerns may be raised about Mattes’s use of the distinction between accomodationist and non-accomodationist systematics. Who, for one notable example, would ever have taken Eberhard Jüngel for an accomodationist who seeks to build theology on some other sure foundation than the word of God itself and alone? And who would then go on to assert that what Jüngel builds on is precisely an experience, a feeling, however “meta” that experience may be? It is counterintuitive to take one of the most important Barthian, and at the same time Bultmannian, scholars of the past generation and consider him to accommodate theology to some original, divinely created nature? Yet Mattes has already proved himself one of Jüngel’s most important interpreters for the English speaking world, and this insight into this great theologian is penetrating, so much so that it also reveals something extremely important about the influence of Barth himself, who is usually considered the inoculation against Schleiermacher, natural theology and attempts to found theology on something other than the Word. Yet Mattes recognizes that an experience with experience is, after all, experiential. What is being fought over is merely the type of experience, despite whatever intentions to the contrary its theologians have. Mattes has a way of showing unexpected connections and distinctions between “types” of theologians that makes this categorizing worthy to place along with the likes of Lindbeck and Tracy and Frei.

[2] Yet in my estimation this already significant contribution remains the least part of the import of the book. There is another sense in which Mattes’s book is eye-opening. He categorizes so as to truly analyze each one of the major figures of his book, anyone of whom normally takes a book of his own. Since Mattes is using justification as his light to shed, it is no wonder that the heart of each theologian’s work can be revealed in such a short, pithy exposition. I have found that for graduate students this text is one of the best, short introductions to the major figures of Lutheran theology (or for theology generally for that matter). When you open up the chapter on Pannenberg, for example, you find a helpful, compact and fair summary of the polymath’s commitments to a comprehensive metaphysics and the reasons why a visible church united in one public institution defines the man’s work.

[3] But then Mattes goes further yet. He categorizes, analyzes and then criticizes in a way that allows us to assess the key differences in the systems of the major theologians who divide up according to the Holy Trinity of modern theology: Schleiermacher, Kant and Hegel. Once the differences become clear, his critique demonstrates the considerable, agreement which is rather surprising on first glance. Accomodationist and non-accomodationist alike all agree on Hegel! More specifically on the single matter of the import of history, and more specifically yet, on how that worldly history affects God. It is an agreement in what Oswald Bayer calls “a natural theology of the cross” which actually makes the cross a mere presupposition or prelude to what each theologian considers the real thing. Mattes flirts with the conclusion that I will simply draw outright from the assembled narratives here. Once the cross becomes a speculative Good Friday, transcended in the particular sturm und drang of history as it proceeds to God’s own developing future, then God becomes all Future Spirit. They are all futurists. But the future can be elusive. Spirit in this sense becomes unmediated participation in God’s being on the legal basis of righteousness in one’s own being. Our best “Lutheran” theologians have become Schwarmerei. They use all sorts of Lutheran formulae along the way, especially “the finite is capable of the infinite,” or “not substance but relation,” or “life is ecstatic,”or” hearing and faith, not seeing and love justify.” Yet only one bit of theology needed “correction” in order use all sorts of Lutheran dicta, but only to end up swallowing the Spirit feathers and all, and that is to make God’s word into one. They only needed to get rid of the distinction of law and gospel and so weave law and gospel into a higher, unified “Spirit.” They are then able to accomplish just what Hegel said we should accomplish with history, that is to remove its contingency, which is another way of saying to remove God’s unwarranted election of the ungodly, which in turn solves the recurrent problem with preaching the gospel in the present so as to elect-it accounts for how history as human agency affects God in such a way as to make God greater, not lesser. To make more of God, not compete with or limit or (for goodness’ sake) not to compete with God’s divinity-but (as they all say) to “correspond.” They were able to do this, that is to say, in the realm of ideas, but that doesn’t quite pay the bills

[4] One of the things that makes Mattes’s book so good is that he doesn’t say what I just said. He has, apparently, learned much from the new influence emerging through Bayer (and others) of Hamann, and that is to reveal truth indirectly. He takes you to the edge of each of these theologies, and asks you to see what you see. He does not confront; he suggest. He opens up and asks that you take a look. In a review like this I simply am taking the liberty to tell you what Mattes’s book let me see. It is, after all, strange that the one great agreement among the most notable, most quoted, most honored Lutheran theologians of the last generation (almost all) is that the distinction of law and gospel as old and new on the basis of Christ’s cross is wrong. Whatever you readers will decide from Mattes’s presentation, the service of putting these theologians side by side in light of the descriptions of law and gospel is a great service, and since the owl of Minerva flies at dusk, this in turn helps us to see exactly what our own “context” is, what the herd instinct is telling us we must hold onto, and how exactly we will take our God and how we will not. The assumption that divine and human agency do not compete, but enhance each other, and that any suffering that does not kill only makes us and God stronger is a very strong tonic indeed.

[5] Of course the differences that exist between the modes of theology (feeling, doing and thinking), make for fascinating alterations on this common theme. The way that each figure systematically rejects the aspect of Platonic thought that cannot account for history, but then requires another aspect of Platonism is truly an inspiring discovery. This helps explain one of the great turnarounds exercised by Robert Jenson. Jenson initially portrays Augustine negatively for his teaching on the nature of the Trinity, but in book two, praises Augustine as the hero of the ongoing presence of the Trinity in the church in terms of the totus Christus.

[6] We could spend all our time reviewing this book simply by combing through the details of Mattes’s categorizing, his explicating and his critiques of these theologians and it would be time well spent. But the real impact of this book lies elsewhere. It is in what the kinds of theologians represented here used to call the “constructive” proposal of Mattes’s own systematics. That language will have to change according to Mattes’s own argument. Mattes learned from Bayer, who learned it from Hamann, that theology is not the work of constructing a system (which is to eschew the proper distinction of law and gospel in the first place), but it is something more like discerning, distinguishing, interpreting (in the proper sense) what God is saying to us. Bayer is the one who gives Mattes this basic, fresh orientation: “For Bayer, theology is not done to integrate all knowledge, either theoretical or practical, into an abstract unity, but to limit reason to its proper fields. It is the art of discerning what God is saying to us, not peering into the divine” (Mattes, 149). Luther used to say that a theologian is one who distinguishes-specifically who learns how, in the middle of great theological distress, to distinguish the word of law and the word of gospel. For this reason Mattes sets up the whole book by saying that justification is a matter of discerning, or justification serves as the discrimen (since there really is only ever one).

[7] One of the really interesting things going on here is that Bayer has been trying to find a way of dealing with Kant and the Enlightenment that is neither a retreat behind it that romantically repristinates Luther or the Reformation, nor simply accepts the form of the limitation placed on theology by Kant (and so all of the attempts subsequent to do theology as an accommodation to the law by means of feeling, doing or thinking). Language in this line of thinking is one damn thing after another, one word that needs discarding after another in order to truly convey the inner meaning by using variations of outer husks for different people in different places at different times. Bayer found Hamann again, and with him an immediate recognition of the power and danger in his friend’s description of enlightenment. This is really where the next wave of theology will arrive since in academy and church the end results of accommodations and non-accommodations have both been abysmal. Here I will take issue in one sense with Mattes’s own categories. To describe Jüngel, Pannenberg and Moltmann as accomodationists and Jenson and Bayer as non-accomodationists does accurately describe one key difference between the groups which is mostly the relation each has to language, and subsequently what happens to each as they relate what we usually call Christ and culture. There is a deeper sense to accommodation that brings these theologians together (to which I hope Bayer continues to be the exception). As Mattes’s own analysis shows, each one accommodates the gospel to the law. In fact, each one thinks of this as his great theological contribution, especially to Lutherans. I would like to see accommodation used at this most basic level, but this really is one of those cases of terminology in which words can be exchanged, and precisely where and when to apply the term “accomodationist” most effectively is open to debate. It does not change my admiration for what Mattes is setting out for his own future work and what I hope will be a renaissance of the law gospel question that doesn’t immediately attempt to resolve it by theology, or as Mattes often says, doesn’t attempt to unmask the hidden God.

[8] What I fear will make most theologians unhappy is something in this book that first appears just like Kant. Mattes begins by setting a limit to theology, or better yet he simply acknowledges a limit is there. For theologians this is maddening. It was what drove Hegel over the edge and into his speculation since Kant had removed the “best part.” Theologians act no different in front of this limit. I remember that one of the dismissive quips about Gerhard Forde in this regard was that he had simply “lost interest in doing systematic theology.” Ha! A theologian who identifies a limit to theology is going to be taking away the favorite toy of theologians, and it will never be popular. But the limit here is not Kant’s kind of limit-which of course implied that he was already somehow beyond in terms of knowing something from the position of a transcendental ego. Neither is this limit a Platonic type of dualism between spirit and material. Mattes proceeds to describe this limit in terms of language, but decidedly opposes the typical theory/practice or first and second order split that appear in discussions of words and their use. The limit is set by what God actually says to us, but neither is this the typical distinction between revelation and nature. Mattes accepts that God speaks through creation as well as through Scripture, and even Scripture does not actually speak until it is spoken. However, there is no foundation, no foothold outside address by God on which to rest one’s certainty in the form of a feeling, an act, or a thought. But here is the real thing. We are not speaking about theoretical address, or address in some ideal, pure substance; we are speaking of actual (historical) address; that means historical, concrete and specifically address to you. We don’t speak first of the form of words, then get to their content. The most surprising aspect here is that God’s actual speech is law and gospel, and this not in terms of abstract categories, but in terms of judgment and promise. All of Scripture is this way; all of creation mediates this specific address to you.

[9] That means, further yet, that law and gospel are not words that merely refer to feelings or experiences people have, nor are they referring to deeds people should do (first restrain evil, then love), nor are they thoughts such as Pannenberg’s two “epochs,” nor are they marks of whether one is in true community or not, nor habitual traditions developed by a particular tribe. They are actual words God uses to destroy or create. One of the reasons Bayer is becoming so fascinating is that he is working with the fact that language creates, and so is able to incorporate some of J.L. Austin and Anglo-American thought in what otherwise has been a discussion dominated by German idealism. Bayer is helping to create an alternative to the challenges of the Enlightenment that is not reductionism or romanticism. He helps overcome this consistent misuse that Mattes observes with the slogan, “the finite is capable of the infinite.” Over and over again this is used as the means by which to peer through created things to see the real divinity hiding behind-or in the modern sense, in front of. This was something Luther observed early on in his Heidelberg Disputation that was the temptation of a theologian of glory, who then comes to interpret the cross as a natural theology, a lens to divinity rather than specifically a mask by which God destroys or gives. Instead Bayer is beginning to work out some of the implications of the great maker of epithets (greater than Nietzsche), Hamann: “God speaks to the creature through the creature” (153). As we look forward to Mattes developing this in future work, he will no doubt mark the difference between God speaking to us in a fugue by Bach and Apollo’s torso and what it means to have a specific, historical preacher who tells the truth of the law plainly and who gives a word that none of these other created things can give so directly as to carry the proper application of the pronoun, “for you” (as Luther liked to say).

[10] There are many jewels for discussion in this book. If a person simply decided to read this book on justification to understand something of the longstanding discussion of promise in theology and philosophy it would be a worthwhile endeavor. Bayer is the wellspring again, but Mattes is able to show how a grammatical description of promise can become misconstrued. Moltmann does this, for example, when he tries to distinguish present and future, faith and hope, and only ends up making faith into a beginning of justification and promise into a motivating idea. A promise that does what it says, that creates, is, despite the temporal help provided by Austin’s performative language, still beyond the ken of most theologians because of prejudice regarding language– to say nothing of problems that we all have with a God who creates by speaking. There are many other themes worthy of attention here, including the understanding of reason, or as Mattes would prefer, reasons. Much of this book also traces a sidelight (that has its considerable impact in the way we teach theology) in the longstanding German discussion about how theologians can justify their positions in the academy and so their discipline as somehow related to science. In this vein, Mattes often incorporates into his text a dispute with Weber’s fact/value split and to this end Mattes uses Wayne Booth’s proposal of “rhetoric of assent.” Mattes is adding layers to the arguments of Bayer, and I will look forward to hearing him develop this further. I believe his work here will not be quite the same as those theologians attempting to adopt communicative social theories that search for a universal consensus, and the difference will be worth waiting for.

[11] Mattes’s text should be a great banquet for ethicists and teachers of moral theology as well as those interested in dogma and systematic theology. The section on Moltmann naturally spends much of its time addressing what justification and ethics have to do with one another, but each chapter concerns itself with what happens to ethics when the law is displaced and ends up in the conscience. It is typical for Mattes to show what happens to the very good intentions of someone like Moltmann, who wants to liberate victimized creatures, but who gets turned upside by the old assumption that nature is in the process of being perfected by the Spirit. Or what really happens to the church in Jenson when the law must be the thing that gives it shape.

[12] I am also interested in what happens to theology once the resurrection of Christ becomes the end of time that has already happened rather than the cross. Mattes could have made an even stronger demonstration than he has made of the agreement among most all of his theologians that the resurrection of Christ, and not the cross is the real matter of salvation. I am also waiting to hear how Mattes works with the relation of justification and creation in Bayer-which is a rich and subtle matter. But asking Mattes to elaborate on any one of these themes is asking for another book and I for one am grateful that he constructed this book parsimoniously. Besides, Mattes really should elaborate in other books than this one.

[13] Mattes is now the major English interpreter of Bayer, and through him of Hamann, but he also continues the specific preaching tradition that can be identified with the likes of Gerhard Forde. How he puts these together will be worth the wait, though we can see the outline already. He refuses to let theology become what Hegel made of philosophy-profound and tempting as that is. He won’t make theology into theodicy. That is and remains the project of modernity, and it will be the epitaph for this last generation of Lutheran greats. A new way is needed and Mattes is heading there. I especially like the way Mattes summed up Bayer’s critique: “For Bayer, this approach to science ultimately is tantamount to a kind of theodicy in which we aim to protect ourselves from chaos by dissecting or ‘cutting up’ nature in order to attain as much power as possible over nature’s uncontrollable forces.” Everyone wants the church to be more public in the sense of being more powerful. Then Mattes characteristically brings back to theology what justification is about, the proper discrimen that identifies, shines a light in the dark, or better yet, brings back the real thing in theology that law and gospel both serve: “The sciences, like the Mosaic law, ought rather to be a ‘schoolmaster’ that leads us to Christ, who alone can set us free” (154). Imagine that. Theology interprets so that creatures can hear Christ. Theology is not our own experience with faith, or our own gift of visibility to the hidden kingdom, or the parts becoming whole, or the church, the church, the church! Instead, Christ speaks the word to sinners and thereby creates out of nothing. This is what I find most exciting, fresh and promising about Mattes’s contribution in this book.

[14] There is a bit of a new wind blowing here, and the minute one is no longer pursuing the Spirit apart from Christ, apart from the proclamation, as a Spiritualist, as one escaping creation through hedonism or transcendence, it seems something really new is possible-even in tradition-bound theology. Mattes’s book is an opening to the communication of this new wind.