Duane H. Larson
Were Luther to have lived another two decades, he might have been surprised even so early on to be informed that he positively influenced the rise of natural science. One can readily cite many Luther quotes that would cast him as anti-science; decontextualized quoting readily constructs such caricatures. But the truth of the matter is quite otherwise.
Consideration of Luther and Luther’s protégés and their philosophical-historical contexts reveals their positive regard for science. This is explicit in Luther’s immediate heirs like Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander. Though they differed in their opinions about the work of Copernicus, both respected him and the discipline he practiced. Luther’s influence carried beyond his immediate disciples through Johannes Kepler into the 17th century. The Irish-Anglican chemist and theologian Robert Boyle, for example, was significantly influenced by the Reformation principle of God’s sovereignty. In turn, Boyle strongly influenced Isaac Newton. But Lutheran support for the natural sciences had one major qualification. When “freed science” appeared to speculate more on God’s action than describe the visible character of natural phenomena, Luther saw overreaching ambition.
Such are the outlines of a historical approach of Luther’s influence on the beginning of the scientific revolution. Other Lutheran theological themes contributed to natural science’s robustness. In addition to a focus on God’s sovereignty—and so the doctrine of justification by grace through faith—these themes include (1) the nature of biblical authority, (2) the “realistic” epistemology of the theology of the cross, and (3) sacramentology.
Eschatology was until recently a mute locus in the treatment of Luther’s dogmatic, subsumed under the doctrine of justification. There is now a significant agreement as to the eschatological and soteriological significance of the presence of Christ in faith made effective through his cross and resurrection. This pertains to the coram Deo perspective. In the coram mundo perspective, however, eschatology assumes spatial and temporal dimensions and finds expression in mundane boundaries and limits (ta eschata). Luther’s approach to eschatology, then, has two foci, one addressing presence and the other focusing on representations. If in justification all is simultaneous, in works there are distinctions. In one the theological operational category is faith, while in the other it is love.
While the two foci of eschatology are expressed by the two perspectives of the relationship humans have to God and to the world, eschatology in the latter entails two aspects of their implications. One deals with the private individual: death, bodily resurrection, eternal life, final judgment, and the soul’s immortality. The immortality of the soul has been a disputed issue in Luther research but in the end largely irrelevant, considering that the resurrection pertains to the whole human being; the soul and the glorified body will enter eternal bliss with the final judgment. As to this judgment, the restoration of all things (apokatastasis pantōn) is clearly rejected, and yet the eternal damnation of the wicked is not a forgone conclusion. The final revelation, when God will be all in all, will be unveiled only in the light of glory (lumen gloriae) whose mystery Luther claims not to know: nescio.
The other aspect of the earthly dimension has a social and cosmic component in which it is represented by the limits demarcated by the public spheres or orders instituted by God. These are realms in which reason is publicly exercised in work done for the sake of the requirements of the law. The public spheres are instruments in the earthly realm against the work of the devil (ecclesia, oeconomia, and politia), which are the three public realms under the single canopy of Christian love. And this love demands reason and efficacy for the sake of justice and equity. It pertains to sanctification, not to salvation. In the worldly perspective, Luther was susceptible to the end-time speculations of his days, producing even (as a diversion, he claimed) a world historical calendar predicting the arrival of the cosmic Sabbath.
The nodal point connecting these two eschatological foci rests in Luther’s interpretation of the Chalcedonian communicatio. The earthly dimension of eschatology is one with the spiritual, as the person of the incarnate logos cannot be divided. That God creates what God loves is true from creation to consummation; protology and eschatology are one in Christology, while the distinction remains without confusion as long as creation subsists and the love of God abides.
Theological aesthetics is the theory or view of beauty in relation to God, including how the senses bear on or contribute to matters of faith. It has a long and important tradition in all forms of Christian faith, since this faith affirms that God is beautiful and therefore desirable. In both the Eastern and Western churches, views of beauty have appropriated criteria not only from the Bible but also from pre-Christian antiquity, borrowing from Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and others. These views tend to see beauty in metaphysical terms, that is, that the core of reality is to be understood on the basis of not only being, truth, goodness, and unity (the “transcendentals,” defining the reality of all things) but also (with some exceptions) beauty.
Interpreting the scriptures, Christian thinkers in late antiquity, such as Augustine, singled out proportion as a criterion for beauty, and the Pseudo-Dionysius singled out light. Thomas Aquinas adopted these two perspectives, rooted in the wider Greek philosophical tradition, and added integrity or perfection as a third criterion. Late medieval nominalists and mystics did not focus on theological aesthetics but the piety and spirituality of “bridal mysticism,” mediated through Bernard of Clairvaux, present in Luther’s training in the friary, facilitated these views for Luther.
Luther appreciated aspects of this metaphysical tradition, such as the role of mathematics as indicating humanity’s eternal destiny or the cosmic role of proportion in musical intonation and rhythm. However, he was more powerfully influenced by other developments in the late Middle Ages, seen for instance in Jean Gerson, which heightened the affects over the intellect, intellectualizing beauty less and acknowledging how beauty moves and transforms people. He rejected that aspect of the tradition which was apt to view beauty as an end goal of an itinerary of spiritual transformation into more godlike traits, a “theology of glory.”
For Luther, God is the primary actor in the story of human salvation, not the human. God’s work of humbling humans “turned in upon themselves” is anything but beautiful: it is painful, indeed deadly, for “old beings.” But God’s proper work of regenerating and renovating humanity, including awakening human senses to “innocent delight,” is most beautiful indeed. The justification of sinners before God is due to their being “adorned” in Christ’s beauty, his righteousness, empowering them to cooperate with God in God’s ongoing “poetic” creativity.
As bearing human sin, Christ subverts the standard medieval criteria of proportion, brightness, and integrity. But because Christ assumes the consequences of sin and sin itself and takes it away, sinners through the “happy exchange” receive the beauty proper to Christ. Through the renewal effectuated by the word, humans receive creation as gift and are genuinely awakened to its beauty, similar to the beauty that God made it originally. As new creatures, believers’ desire is reoriented to desire what God desires.
While it is not a central concept (he devotes no treatises or disputations to it), it colors how we understand his view of justification and his view of human receptivity and gratitude. It has important ramifications for worship, the arts, and life.
Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth
In the 21st century, philosophy of biology and studies in sexuality are dominated by the contrasting views of idealist deconstructionism and materialist naturalism. Not unlike the nominalists and scholastic realists of Martin Luther’s day, contemporary philosophers, scientists, theologians, and sociologists debate whether human constructs form all that is known or if the material world gives rise to truths about bodies, desire, and sexuality. In the context of the medieval debate, Luther rejected philosophy as an adequate discipline in the most important discussions concerning human nature. He turned away from speculative philosophy to focus on evangelism of the Gospel. The heart of Luther’s reformation was his insistence on the truth of the Incarnation and the justifying grace of God given through Christ’s death and resurrection. Luther’s evangelical proclamation, rooted in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and in the early fathers of the church, especially Augustine, reoriented many issues of the medieval church, including views concerning the body, desire, and sexuality.
Luther’s understanding of the Incarnation had specific ramifications for his views concerning the body, sensuality, desire, and sexuality. From Luther’s reading of scripture and his pastoral and familial work in the world, he came to expound that humans are bodily creatures with physical needs, driven to provide for these needs by desire. Human need for relationship is also driven by desire. As Christ befriended, healed, fed, and washed the bodies of those he met, so too the Christian is called to human relationship with others and the bodily service of the neighbor. This is also true in romantic relationship, which has a bodily element for Luther, who rejected sexual abstinence as a human virtue.
Luther’s understanding of justification is critically important to this discussion. Luther knew that sin wreaks havoc in all human relationship, including loving sexual relationships. Because sin, for Luther, is centrally a problem of unbelief, a problem that manifests in false pride or despair, the solution to sin is not the law but faith in God’s redeeming grace. What justifies desire and sexuality is not obedience to the law but faith, which allows God’s love to flow from the lover to the beloved. While a civic use of the law can aid lovers who seek to know how best to care for each other, it is by faith that the lovers’ desire is justified. Indeed, through faith, the lover’s desire for the beloved becomes utterly for the beloved’s sake, a desire that teaches the lover about the absolute love of Christ. In this way, marriage, including the mutual sexual desire of the spouses, is a schoolhouse of faith, which while ever sinful is also justified.
Luther has no doctrine or treatise specifically on bodily desire and sexuality. An attempt to create such a doctrine would be wrongheaded. However, Luther’s theological claims concerning the Incarnation and God’s justifying grace through Christ reframed the discussion of these issues in his day. Contemporary discussion and debate about sexuality would profit from a careful examination of Luther’s re-formation of the discussion of these issues.
Anne W. Stewart
Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.
For Luther, the understanding of the world is determined by his theology of creation, according to which the world is created as an expression of the creative love of the eternal God. Natural theology, then, is the ability to interpret all created phenomena as gifts of the Creator, and natural law is the ability to align one’s life with this principle of lovingly serving everything created.
However, in a sinful world afflictions and anxiety makes it impossible to maintain an attitude of unconditional trust toward God based on natural reason. In spite of the possibility of reaching a fairly correct understanding of God as the giver of gifts, one will therefore never learn through natural reason alone to trust God as one’s savior.
The re-creation of a trusting attitude toward God is only possible through God’s presence in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The creative power of the gospel message thus entails the rediscovery of the significance of the natural knowledge of God and morality. A full appreciation of the natural is therefore dependent on having one’s trust in God re-established by an action of unconditional divine love. From within this perspective, natural law retains its traditional and positive significance.
In this way, Luther integrates aspects of late medieval theology without being fully aligned with any of its prevailing schools of thought. Like the nominalists, he understands God as activity, not as substance, but not in the sense that God can be seen as arbitrary. For Luther, the trustworthiness of God’s promises is what anchors Christian theology. Luther’s understanding of the hidden God is therefore quite different from the nominalist idea of God’s absolute power.
For Luther, theology’s dialogue with philosophy is important. He maintains, however, that rationality that is not explicitly grounded in a theology of creation will never develop an adequate worldview. Following his emphasis on the theology of creation, in his evaluation of the natural Luther was always looking for thought structures that would let the discontinuity of grace be fully appreciated.
The contemporary academic study of religion has its roots in conceptual and theoretical structures developed in the early to mid-20th century. A particularly important example of such a structure is the concept of the “numinous” developed by the theologian and comparativist Rudolf Otto (1869–1397) in his work, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1923). Building on the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772–1834), and Jakob Fries (1773–1843), Otto developed the concept of the numinous—a “category of value” and a “state of mind”—as a way to express what he viewed as the “non-rational” aspects of the holy or sacred that are foundational to religious experience in particular and the lived religious life in general. For Otto, the numinous can be understood to be the experience of a mysterious terror and awe (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and majesty (Majestas) in the presence of that which is “entirely other” (das ganz Andere) and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language and other media. Otto conceives of the concept of the numinous as a derivative of the Latin numen, meaning “spirit,” etymologically derived from the concept of divine will and represented by a “nodding” of the head. Otto argues that understanding the numinous in a satisfactory way requires a scholar to draw upon their own experience of religious sentiments, given its non-discursive and direct nature; this becomes a point of contention among later secular scholars of religion. In later works, such as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (1932), Otto gives numerous examples of the ways in which the concept of the numinous can be applied cross-culturally to traditions beyond Christianity, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Otto’s theories regarding the numinous have been extremely influential in the development of the academic study of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the impact they had upon scholars such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, whose works were instrumental in the formation of religious studies as a discipline. Jung cites the concept of the numinous extensively with regard to his theories on the breakthrough of unconscious material into conscious awareness. Eliade’s work The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) takes Otto’s concept of the numinous as a starting point in the development of its own theory; Eliade’s use of the category of the “sacred” might be considered derivative of Otto’s larger conception of the “holy” (das Heilige). Eliade’s work, like Otto’s, has been extensively criticized for postulating a sui generis nature of both the numinous and the sacred, which are viewed by Eliade as irreducible to other phenomena (historical, political, psychological, and so forth). Smart’s influential “dimensional analysis” theory and his scholarship on the topic of world religions is highly informed by his utilization of Otto’s theory of the numinous within the contexts of his cross-cultural reflections on religion and the development of his “two-pole” theory of religious experience. The concept of the numinous continues to be theorized about and applied in contemporary academic research in religious studies and utilized as part of a framework for understanding religion in university courses on world religions and other topics in the academic study of religion. In part through the work of Eliade, Smart, and other scholars—Otto included—who have found a popular readership, the term has been disseminated to such a degree as to find common usage in the English language and popular discourse.