The Thunderbolt of God

[1] One of the fruits of the 1997 North American Lutheran-Reformed Formula of Agreement was its development of the concept “mutual affirmation and mutual admonition.” Given a common core of shared belief, each brings to the other a fresh charism and a corrective of reductionist tendencies. The Journal’s request for a Reformed perspective on Lutheran ethics might suggest, therefore, some Reformed admonition about the importance of “the third use of the law,” or whatever it might be called, as in William Lazareth’s redescription of it as “the paranetic use of the gospel.” However, I want, instead, to welcome a gift and admonition given to the rest of the church universal, Reformed included. Lutherans speak of it as “the second office of the law,” or in Luther’s vivid metaphor, “the thunderbolt of God.”

[2] The “second office” has to do with the law as accuser, the decalogue that “lead us to the knowledge of sin.” This is the “theological” use of the law in contrast to both its “civil use” that orders society, and the “third use” in which the commandments guide the believer in the Christian life.

[3] Interestingly, there can be a convergence of the political and theological uses, as when the failure to grasp the reality of the fall leads to civil disaster. Case in point, Reinhold Niebuhr’s calling a naïve culture to account for its shallow introspection and naïve grasp of history that obscure the depth and pervasiveness of sin. I want to pursue that partnership here, but also note its ambiguities. For example, how is it that this awareness of sin can be acknowledged by that fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but not drive this colleague to his knees in Christian penitence and faith? Is it only the law read through the lens of Christ and in conjunction with the gospel that can do that, rather than apologetic argument?

[4] Luther’s figure is intriguing because thunderbolts do different things. For one, they can awaken us in the night, warning us of possible danger. Or, differently, they can strike us dead. Or they can prompt us to install a lightning rod. I think all three things are entailed in this provocative metaphor.

[5] Common to all aspects of the thunderbolt is the exposure of who we and our world truly are, “not the way it’s supposed to be,” as in title of Cornelius Plantinga’s fine work. And what is it we are not supposed to be? In the state of sin, of course. Plantinga sums this condition up in two words: lawlessness and faithlessness, the stiff neck and the hard heart of the imperial self arrogating to itself the place of the one God. Luther’s thunderbolt strikes at this hard heart and stiff neck, waking up the self, or knocking it dead, or bringing it to its knees in penitence and faith.

[6] How our times need to see and hear Luther’s thunderbolt! Leave it to a Lutheran to shake us up with its lightning. So Mark Ellingsen’s Blessed Are the Cynical, a work alerting us to dangers in the night for selves and society that know nothing of original sin As such, it stands in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, but finally one that goes back to the source of both, what the author calls “Augustinian realism.”

[7] Ellingsen argues that many of our country’s institutions have succumbed to Enlightenment naiveté about the human condition. Our therapeutic and narcissistic culture courts disaster because it assumes that feel-good self-gratification is the norm for both personal and public health. Government, business, education, sexuality, advertising, the arts and entertainment are shot through with illusions about our native goodness. The goals of self-fulfillment and self-development dominate society, an epidemic of “meism,” not letting the common good and binding commitments get in the way of our own self-interest. Or as Oliver Stone put it nicely, “I don’t want integrity to block my creative growth.”

[8] The flight from accountability, Pelagian assumptions about our nature, trusting our native good judgment and our own feelings is, according to Ellingsen, worlds away from not only Christian faith, but from the foundational texts of the country– the Constitution and Bill of Rights– reflecting as they do an Augustinian realism in their doctrine of the separation of powers and minority rights, Madison’s insights therein being themselves traceable to his pious Princeton teacher Witherspoon who passed on to him an understanding of original sin.

[9] While we might expect those profundities to be stewarded by the heirs of Witherspoon, such is not the case, the author argues. The churches too have been infected with these illusions about human nature, as in the “gospel of self-fulfillment” pervasive in mega-church circles, and the theology of Schleiermacher found today through-out the mainline churches. But surely not with the heirs of Luther? George Forrell in an interview with this journal opined recently about that:

Forrell: “It’s my claim that what you read on Monday in the newspaper about all the things that went wrong over the weekend is the result of disobedience of the Law. And you see, if you think about what aspect of Luther is not taken seriously by Lutherans today, it is often the Law. We don’t preach about the Law. We never speak about the Law as being a divine gift. We want to talk about the Gospel without ever talking about the Law. But the Gospel doesn’t mean very much if you don’t talk about the Law.”
[10] What? Even Lutherans forgetful of their legacy?

[11] When alluding to “the Law,” we must remember that echoes and images of the thunder are hearable and seeable by anyone. That is, insight about the human condition is not limited to special revelation, but has its counterpart, at least to some degree, in “general revelation” disclosed to a damaged but not destroyed imago Dei, made possible, in the language of my Reformed tradition, by a common grace. Both Reformed and Lutheran confessions have taught this overlap of revealed and natural law. An overlap but not an identity, for only special revelation knows of the gospel promise that saves us, finally, from the penalty exacted by breach of the law. However, our focus here is on the law, particularly on its accusatory function.

[12] Thunderbolts do more than warn. They may strike and kill us. If we have not learned the first lesson, we pay for it with a second. Thus Luther in the Smalcald Articles: “The thunderbolt of God destroys both the open sinner and the false saint.” Taken together, as warning and as punishment, we have to do with the opus alienum, the strange work of God’s left hand.

[13] This second kind of thunderbolt arrived this past year in two of our country’s prominent scandals, one in business and the other in church. The court appearances of the Enron executive and the diocesan bishop, incidentally, remind us of the linkage of the first and second uses of the law, in this case in their negative role of government as a “dike” against sin holding accountable those who break the law.

[14] As judgment begins with the household of God, we look, first, at ourselves. While the focus has been on the Roman Catholic Church, we cannot forget that the lightning is not confined to its altars. So noted by the press recently as it turned its attention to the 300 known cases of sexual abuse among the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In like manner, a group of us in Boston where the lightning struck first, Lutheran and Reformed clergy along with Catholic priests, acknowledged our common problem in a joint consultation in April on what we called “The Moral Crisis in Our Churches.”

[15] While the pedophilia and ephibophilia phenomena among priests, and its counterpart among promiscuous and adulterous Protestant clergy, show the breach of decalogic sexuality law, there is more here than meets the eye. Behind the problem of the penis stands the problem of power. Hence the linkage of business and church scandals. The misuse of power points to the commandment against idolatry, indeed the first table even more than the second one: usurping the throne that belongs to Another, succumbing to the invitation to “play God.”

[16] It’s at the pyramids of power where the Tempter is busiest. Victims of sexual abuse, trying to explain how it was they found themselves in compromised circumstances, time and again testified to the awe in which the priest was held in those days of infamy.

[17] Protestants do not escape the same indictment. While the minister does not live in a culture of awe, the pastor is regularly cast into counseling and other pastor-parishioner relations in which the deployment of abusive power is always a temptation near at hand. The evidence is much with us in the last decade’s outpouring of sexual harassment cases against Protestant clergy, and with it the cascade of new rules about the same.

[18] We might add, in passing, that “born again” evangelicals are no more exempt from the abuse of power vis a vis sexual promiscuity than mainline Protestants and Catholics. We will not soon forget the fall of the television titans–the Bakers, Swaggart–corrupted, as the media described it by “money, sex and power.” Contributing to their fall is the dualistic mind-set of popular evangelicalism, assuming that getting saved places us in the camp of the righteous and therefore beyond the enticements of sin. Such an illusion makes one susceptible to the temptations that infect even, or better especially, the righteous. Here in-out evangelicals have something to learn from the Great Tradition as well as from the Reformation. While the monastic way of cutting the triple ties that bind us to the earth is not the path taken by Luther, Calvin and their heirs, it has to be said that the vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience” exactly express a right realism about the seductions of money, sex and power.

[19] Lord Acton’s wisdom is as timely as ever: given sin, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When ignored, consequences follow. The one-two punch of the thunderbolt. of God “brings the mighty from their seats….” as Mary sings. As among the pious so among the industrious, with the leaders of Enron, Worldcom and one hundred high-powered executives under indictment, whose abuses are not unrelated to the absence of systems of accountability. Their story is that of naiveté about the depth of sin and thus dismissal of the law’s warning rumbles, then the direct hit of lightning punishments. The thunderbolt of God strikes the power lines of our time making a mighty clap.

[20] As if we didn’t need further evidence of the seduction of business barons, yet again this year we saw the exposure of the arrogance of the icon of the media that lays claim to “all the news fit to print,” with its tarnished reportage and editorial coverup, the thunderbolt striking the New York Times tower and as well as the skyscrapers of Enron and the spires of the Boston archdiocese. And can we now add the towers of Martha Stewart’s mighty kingdom, as well?

[21] Do the lightning strikes on business and church portend the endangerment of yet another locale, government? Would not our government be the least likely place to be so struck? After all, what country was founded not only on the idealism of democratic aspiration but also on realism about sin? The survival of this kind of democracy for such a long period is surely related to its sobriety about the human condition and wariness of absolute power.

[22] But what happens when our nation becomes itself a solitary superpower on the world scene? Could it fall prey to the same megalomania from which it seeks to protect itself internally? Sadly, there are signs of the temptations of pyramided power in foreign policy talk about American hegemony. And this paralleled by rhetoric of our legions of good confronting their “axis of evil.” This is more Manichaean than Augustinian. It is ignorant of “the persistence of sin in the champions of justice as well as in its foes.” Mitigating this imperial posture and program is the fact that American super-power is not able to be deployed without accountability to its own internal system of checks and balances. And by the profession of a Christian understanding of the fall and redemption in some of our country’s leaders?

[23] The critics of American hegemony are no less susceptible to the arrogance of power. In their (our) case it has to do with the hubris of presumed moral power. Echoes of the Manichaean mindset can be heard everywhere in the peace movements of the day. Like the saber-rattling right is the hauteur of the left only too ready to declare, “Thank God, I am not as others!”

[24] While making these kinds of points, it’s well to remember how to make them– with an eye to our own vulnerabilities to the same temptations of self-righteous fury. Thus if one is going to write a Book of Virtues, there had better be an appendix with a discourse on the Lutheran simul iustus et peccator..

[25] Speaking of that Book of Virtues and its author, William Bennett, in the winter of 2001, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington held a conference to discuss how politicians use religion for their own purposes. On the hot seat were some staff members of the Willow Creek mega-church, asked to explain why the pastor, Bill Hybels, had given a platform to President Clinton along with some apparent pious cover for his peccadilloes, a platform and cover shortly thereafter vigorously protested at a meeting of 600 of the church’s members. Bennett was on hand, having just written his book condemning Clinton for his promiscuity and lies, The Death of Outrage. I also addressed the group, as the editor the volume, Judgment Day at the White House. Bennett made telling criticisms. I spoke my piece, and we had quite a go-around on Hybels and Clinton, who happened to dwell at the top of their respective pyramids.

[26] Recently we learned that the custodian of American virtue is a high stakes gambler. There are some lessons here for us moralists touting the uses of the law. One of them is to be wary of that simplistic division of the world into the virtuous and the unvirtuous, the legions of light vs. the armies of night. It is innocent of the simul and thus the thunderbolt that may strike in unexpected places. But is Bennett’s problem only a moral one? Perhaps it has more to do with the first table than the second one.

[27] What really is gambling? James Luther Adams taught his students to understand it in the context of one of the church’s earliest theological battles, the struggle against the goddess Fortuna, a piety widespread in the ancient world. What would prevail, fortune or providence? Who controls the future, Lady Luck or the Lord Jesus Christ? When a player puts eight million dollars on chips in Las Vegas, how is that not the worship of the goddess Fortuna? How is that not a breach of the first commandment? Morality and theology are inextricable. And those who do not know it pay dearly. Not heeding the warning thunderbolt assures the dead-on strike of the second one.

[28] For all the importance of the second office of the law for the health, indeed, the survival of our institutions, this conversation with culture requires a P.S.. The full depth of sin is not gauged by a law that indicts alone, biblical or natural. The Solid Declaration, speaking of the law as “disciplinarian” puts it this way: “The proclamation of the law alone, without Christ…drives people into total despair, Christ took the law into his own hands and interpreted it…(Matt. 5:21-48)” Exactly. It is only as the decalogue is re-read through the lens of Jesus Christ that those lowest regions of the human soul and society can be discerned for what they are, and something seen about what has been done about their state. It has been said of old, “but I say to you…” Don’t murder? Yes, but if you even get angry, you’ll burn in hell. Don’t commit adultery? True, but even a lustful eye condemns you to eternal death. Not only that, I’ll show you what the living out the law really means. So the sinless Jesus turning the cheek, going the second mile, loving God as no one can…. Not to do that kind of perfect law as he did, and to know that we can’t even if we tried, and worse, that we don’t really want to and despise, and finally, crucify the one who is perfect love, that is the ultimate thunderbolt of God. To be hit by it is the most devastating punishment the law can exact, the second use of the law as the love that pours coals of fire on our heads and brings us to our knees in penitence.

[29] Yet we only survive the strike there on our knees because we can see, by the grace of God, the front side of the cross as well as this punishing backside. So the proper Work of Christ that follows his alien work, the Son of God….God… taking the consequences of the sin that the law exposes. The cross turns out to be the true lightning rod. Or in the words of a Luther who peered into the deepest of places, the “curse, which is the wrath of God…in conflict with the blessing” And in the end, before “God’s eternal mercy, the curse must yield.” On Golgotha, and thus in the heart of God, the divine mercy takes into itself the divine wrath. So the Law and its condemnations have met their match in the suffering Love of God in Christ. That is the last Word we have to say about the second office, its damning work done, its thunderbolt announcing a death in the night, but one heralding, as well, an Easter dawn.