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What I want to do in this chapter is to convey the structure of Lutheran thought. One could of course do this in the abstract, as an ‘ideal’ system of thought, drawing on numerous Lutheran theologians by way of illustration. I have decided however that this would unnecessarily complicate the chapter and that it is preferable simply to turn to Luther as the progenitor of a tradition, leaving the discussion of later Lutheran theologians considered in their own right to subsequent chapters. I shall however draw on a whole variety of Lutheran commentators on Luther, thereby conveying something of a wider tradition, indeed of different schools of Lutheran thought and divergent emphases. Catholics, as we shall see, have too often treated Luther as though he were a ‘one-off’, his thought the result of some personal problem or disposition. On the contrary, Luther was the founder of a vibrant tradition, one way of structuring Christian belief. I shall make one exception to this policy of confining myself to Luther and those who commentate directly on Luther. I shall at points make reference to the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I do this both because I do not consider Bonhoeffer elsewhere (and he seems important) and also because no one more markedly than he took up and translated Lutheran insights, expressing them in other form. I believe that reading Bonhoeffer gives one insights into Luther and not simply vice versa.
Catholic thought and Lutheran thought are differently structured, embodying divergent conceptions of self and God. Failing to grasp the Lutheran paradigm, Catholics have wrenched Luther into an inappropriate framework. Roman/Lutheran ecumenism, culminating in the 'Joint Declaration' of 1999, attempts to reconcile incompatible systems, based on different philosophical presuppositions. Drawing on a wealth of material, both Continental and Anglo-Saxon, the author thinks through these structural questions within a historical context. But how - within a religion of revelation - can God be conceptualised as both foundational to the self and yet also as an 'other' with whom the self inter-relates? Kierkegaard is shown in a complex model to hold together strengths which historically have been exemplified by the two traditions. This is an important work in systematic theology which considers questions quite fundamental to Western religion. It should be of interest to theologians of all backgrounds and also to church historians.
Bultmann is the most imaginative and creative of Lutheran theologians. A dialogue with him will thus enable us to elucidate what may be problematic about the Lutheran structure of faith. For Bultmann's thought is nothing if not powerful. Every time I read Bultmann I am struck anew by the sweep of his agenda. He enables Christianity to be viable in the present age in a way which I should have thought not possible. He is also enormously appealing existentially. If at the end of the day I must reject Bultmann (and Christianity) it will then have to be on carefully thought-out grounds. I do not do so lightly. A debate with Bultmann must be the best possible way to think out where I myself stand and why. It will become apparent that in some ways I am closer to ‘Catholicism’, but it is a Catholicism shorn of revelation! The fact that one could speak in these terms must pose questions for Catholicism. How central is revelation to Catholicism? The Lutheran suspicion has been that it is not: that is the problem which Luther and Lutherans have raised in relation to the structure of Catholic thought.
Bultmann has not had a good press in the Anglo-Saxon world, perhaps particularly in England. There has been no context in which to place his thought and he has been thoroughly misunderstood. Commentators tend to start from his ‘demythologising’, which they depict in wholly negative terms.
Christian thought in the West has known one major disruption, that represented by the Reformation. The thought of Martin Luther may well be described as a shift in paradigm compared with that which preceded it. As is often the case with paradigm shifts, those who continued to belong to the previous paradigm (in this case Catholicism) have failed to appreciate what is at stake. The new system tends to be interpreted in terms of the old. Thus what is novel about it comes to be lost, or is simply not understood for what it is. Terms or concepts are taken from the new system and equated with what those terms or concepts meant within the previous system. The shift which has taken place, such that the new system revolves around a different axis and embodies different presuppositions, fails to be comprehended. Viewed through an inappropriate lens, the new system appears not to be systematic at all. What of course is needed is to jump wholesale from the old paradigm into the new, gaining a different orientation. Only then can comparisons between the two systems be made. But comparisons are also difficult, because the two paradigms are strictly non-comparable.
Catholic and Lutheran thought are differently structured. By way of shorthand, I shall designate Catholic thought as ‘linear’, whereas Lutheran thought by contrast revolves around a ‘dialectic’.
On the Catholic failure to comprehend Luther and the Lutheran structure of thought one could write reams. It seems to persist in all times and to be a constant among all schools of Catholics. A failure which is so universal cannot be attributed to individual blindness. It must tell us something fundamental about Catholicism itself, directing us to what is taken to be so axiomatic that nothing else can be conceived to be the case. Nevertheless it is astonishing in its breadth and depth. It will be the business of this chapter first to document that failure and secondly to probe the question as to in what exactly it consists.
It may be thought that the basis of the misconception lies in this: Luther is read as though he were an Augustinian. That is to say there is a failure to switch paradigm. It is thought, as I put it, that Luther is to be situated somewhere out beyond Augustine, given a Catholic spectrum which stretches from semi-Pelagianism on the one hand to a more pessimistic Augustinian position on the other hand. But this of course is a profound misunderstanding. Luther is not saying that ‘all grace comes from God’ upon an Augustinian model. Much Lutheran scholarship of this century has been directed precisely to distinguishing Luther from Augustine. Little of this however seems to have percolated through even to Catholic scholars who devote themselves to the study of Luther.
Kierkegaard was a Lutheran with a difference. Therein lies his interest in relation to our present concern. In the basic structure of his thought Kierkegaard was and remained profoundly Lutheran. But after 1847 he weaves in other themes not commonly found within Lutheran thought. At the height of his authorship in 1849 Kierkegaard develops an understanding of the self in relationship to God which seems to allow him to speak of both ‘faith’ and ‘love’ in one integrated whole. Kierkegaard has far more sense of the self coming to itself in relationship to God than one finds in a Lutheran author such as Nygren or Bultmann. We may think that precisely such a sense of self is necessary in the post-Enlightenment age. It is this which makes Kierkegaard's model relatively satisfactory and that of some other Lutheran thinkers problematic. At the same time he is of course working with a modern, post-Enlightenment, sense of the self, acquired from Hegel and not a Catholic Aristotelian understanding of the human as derived substance.
In the first place it is important to attend to the Lutheran structure present in Kierkegaard's thought. Much of his authorship revolves around the dialectic between the ethical and the religious. Just as one would expect in the case of a Lutheran theologian, it is never that the self as a self is able positively to relate to God. It is not that the religious stage builds upon the ethical.
Clearly, without some consideration of ecumenical relations during recent years this book would be incomplete. Nevertheless it is difficult to say that those relationships help us to progress with the consideration as to how one could bring together the divergent structures of Catholic and Lutheran faith. Rather do they serve to show up the fundamental difference between the two structures. One is not comparing like with like. In a sense, that is what makes ecumenical relations possible, as we shall see. It might be that each side could put forward what is important to them, while not contradicting what the other side would say. But ultimately this procedure must prove unsatisfactory, as Lutherans need to rule out what Catholics would say, while Catholics insist on that which is at odds with Lutheranism. That this is the case does not of course mean that some kind of common statement is not possible, and indeed may be more possible now than it was in the sixteenth century when this was first successfully attempted at Regensburg. Whether such statements however have any value, or are more deceptive than helpful, is not easily answered. For reasons which we shall discuss, it is not surprising if some Lutherans in particular come out against them. In this way ecumenism, while it heals some wounds, creates others. Meanwhile an impression is given that all is now well and the differences have been overcome, which is evidently far from the case.
Anyone who works on a subject over a period of more than twenty years owes many debts of gratitude. It was in 1971 in his ‘Theological Controversies’ course at Harvard Divinity School that Arthur McGill proposed that we should study the subject of justification on the one hand in Luther, on the other at Trent. I believe that I was immediately captivated. (The second-hand copy of John Dillen-berger's Selections from Luther's writings – which I bought thinking I should only need it for a week – is still with me and in dilapidated condition.) When some years later I came to write a doctoral thesis I had no doubt as to what the topic should be (though I had some difficulty in convincing my teachers). Then there was a day when Arthur McGill asked how Kierkegaard related to all this. I replied, as though it was self-evident, that his was the best solution I had encountered in the history of Western thought to the split between Catholic and Lutheran. ‘There’, he said, ‘is your thesis’.
In the years that I have thought about this topic, first writing a thesis and then more recently this book, many people have talked with me about my work. In 1976 I went to see Philip Watson, whose writing on Luther (at a time when few were interested) remains a landmark. Trained as he was in motif research, he profoundly influenced my own reading of Luther.
In this chapter I hope to accomplish for Catholicism something similar to my description of the Lutheran structure of thought given in chapter 1 but I shall go about it rather differently. I shall concentrate on the Council of Trent and in particular its decree on ‘Justification’. What I believe it is important to show is that Catholicism did not so much react to the Reformation through taking on board the new learning and adapting it to its own structure, but rather that it closed down possibilities which were present within Catholicism itself in the early sixteenth century. Catholicism was narrower as a result of the sixteenth-century developments. Certain options were ruled out as no longer Catholic. Part of the ground had been lost to Protestantism. Those who advocated acceptance of the new insights of biblical scholarship had been silenced. The decree on justification in effect took Catholicism as far as possible from a Lutheran position, while at the same time retaining certain Augustinian insights. The understanding of the human person in relationship to God was in many respects diametrically opposed to that present within Lutheranism. In the course of this chapter it will therefore be important to consider what was ruled out as well as what won the day. Towards the end of the chapter we shall enter into a more general discussion of the Catholic context.
Catholicism was ill-prepared to meet the onslaught of the Reformation.
This chapter takes the form of a case study. It considers the reception given to the Swedish Lutheran Anders Nygren's well-known book Agape and Eros by a group of Englishmen, mostly Anglo-Catholics and one Roman Catholic, and secondly, as a more minor theme, the response of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth both to Nygren's work and incidentally also to the Catholic response to Nygren. I shall also consider the defence of Nygren offered to the English critics by the English Methodist and Lutheran scholar Philip Watson, who had studied with Nygren and who was to translate much of his work.
I hope in this chapter to accomplish a number of varied aims. In the first place, given that my own work is somewhat akin to motif research, it is good that I should consider the work of a leading advocate of the Scandinavian school of motif research, Anders Nygren. Motif research claimed to be purely historical, whereas I in this book wish to ask theoretical questions about how, within Christianity, the self should be conceptualised in relationship to God. Again, motif research claims to be neutral, though in fact Luther is always its hero. By contrast, in the course of this chapter not least, I wish to critique the Lutheran structure of thought. Motif research is, however, I believe very useful in distinguishing structures of thought. The misreadings of Nygren we shall consider show only too well how much it is needed.
So what I am to say? How should I, as one who is not a Christian, orientate myself to the present work? It may have struck readers as surprising that a person who has moved beyond and outside Christianity should have undertaken the present endeavour. But as I have explained, the issues which I describe were at one time of great moment to me. I have continued to think structurally about what we mean by God and the relationship of the self to God, concluding that the position which I now espouse is more satisfactory. I still find the dilemma which I describe in this book of considerable interest, both historically as part of our common European past and theologically. In writing this epilogue therefore I call to mind Jacques Derrida's move in Of Grammatology where (perhaps with making reference to Hegel's trouble with prefaces in mind) he writes an ‘Exergue’. An exergue, literally the engraver's mark on the back of a coin, is both inside and outside the work. This epilogue may well be said to bear such a relation to my book!
What I have wanted to argue (witness my title) is that structures are of fundamental significance in theology. Doctrines are only to be comprehended in relationship to the structure in which they are placed. Moreover a certain structure carries with it a particular spirituality – or the spirituality demands a certain structure.