Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom

Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom

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ISBN-13: 9780802864925
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 05/17/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Paul R. Hinlicky is Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia. His previous books include Divine Complexity: The Rise of Creedal Christianity.

Mickey L. Mattox is associate professor of theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Luther and the Beloved Community

A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom
By Paul R. Hinlicky

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Paul R. Hinlicky
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6492-5

Chapter One

The Problem of Christian Belief in Euro-America Today

A Question Posed by Josiah Royce

This book is written in order to put dogmatic insights of Martin Luther to work as resources for contemporary Christian theology in Euro-American civilization. Yet obviously this is a question that was not and could not have been posed by Luther himself. It was posed almost one hundred years ago by the nearly forgotten Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce: "In what sense, if in any, can the modern man consistently be, in creed, a Christian?" In a final book, The Problem of Christianity, published on the cusp of the First World War, Royce lifted up three tenets of creedal Christianity as "central" problems begging contemporary interpretation: the "idea of the spiritual community in union with which man is to win salvation, the idea of the hopeless and guilty burden of the individual when unaided by divine grace, [and] the idea of the atonement...." Calling attention to these creedal notions, Royce knew that he was on the soil of Pauline Christianity: "Historically speaking, Christianity has never appeared simply as the religion taught by the Master. It has always been an interpretation of the Master and of his religion in the light of some doctrine concerning his mission, and also concerning God, man and man's salvation ... [for] only after he had suffered and died, and — as was early reported — had risen again, did there become manifest, according to tradition, what, during his earthly life, could not become plain even to those who were nearest to him." With Luther, Royce sees that the (Pauline) kerygma of the cross and resurrection of the Christ constituted the hermeneutic of the traditions about Jesus of Nazareth in the rise of "normative Christianity." Sharing that fundamental theological decision about the normative nature of Christian doctrine makes it possible to retrieve insights of Luther by means of a contemporary question which Luther himself may not have especially posed in his own historical particularity.

Another factor that makes Royce's question pertinent is that he did not take his Pauline point of departure from Galatians as did Luther but found in the Corinthian correspondence the "ideal of a universal community." Needless to say, that hardly meant that Royce discounted the moral burden of the individual or the need of atonement, or that Luther has nothing to say about the coming kingdom of God, only that Royce gave the formation of the Beloved Community premier place in his exposition of the contemporary possibility of creedal Christianity's other two fundamental ideas. This shift toward the "social intention of all the basic Christian concepts" (Bonhoeffer), like the so-called "new perspective" on Paul (see Chapter Six below), represents important advances during the last century in understanding the "nature of doctrine" (Lindbeck) as in the first instance the church's self-regulation by its own constituting discourse. In the study that follows, I take this contemporary social orientation as the frame of reference in which I enlist Luther's insights into the church's constituting discourse as resource for critical dogmatics today.

In contrast to the project of this book, if one desired a presentation of Luther's theology on its own terms from the sixteenth century as a contemporary possibility, one could do no better than carefully to study Oswald Bayer's masterful Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. My appreciation of this insightful work will be evident in the ample use of Bayer's interpretations in the pages to follow. Yet it will also be clear that I do not think that the method of Vergegungwärtigung which Bayer deploys to approach Luther is finally either possible or for that matter desirable. I do not think it is possible because Bayer himself inevitably modernizes, that is to say, corrects Luther by interposing contemporary questions; this tacit procedure cannot but cast doubt on the viability of what purports to be a re-presentation of Luther's theology on its own terms. Nor do I think such re-presentation is desirable, if it tacitly lifts Luther out of the stream of Pauline-Augustinian tradition to which he belonged to offer a reconstructed Luther-theology as a Sonderweg, when we today should rather find ourselves within that same, broader stream of theological tradition. Thus I do not think such a Luther helps church and theology in North America, more broadly EuroAmerican civilization, today. Bayer, on the other hand, would deny that Luther can contribute or be made to contribute to "systematic theology": "presenting one's thinking as a system was foreign to him.... Those who think within a systematic framework are obsessed with unity and consistency. ... Luther's theology raises fundamental questions about that enterprise." Tertium non datur? There are to be sure problems with "systematic" or as I should say more precisely today "constructive" theology — not only from Luther's perspective; but critical dogmatics of the kind I am advocating does not find these problems to lie centrally in a concern for unity and consistency.

Returning to Royce's question, then, he justified "philosophical" exploration of these creedal themes on the grounds that, "familiar as these three ideas are, they are still almost wholly misunderstood, both by the apologists who view them in the light of traditional dogmas, and by the critics who assail the letter of the dogmas, but who fail to grasp the spirit." What is needed, Royce argued, is an approach to Christianity as a "problem," that is, "at least provisionally, not as the one true faith to be taught, and not as an outworn tradition to be treated with an enlightened indifference, but as a central, as an intensely interesting, life problem of humanity, to be appreciated, to be interpreted, to be thoughtfully reviewed, with the seriousness and the striving for reasonableness and for thoroughness which we owe to every life-problem whereupon human destiny is inseparably interwoven." Royce thus sought a "philosophical" method, i.e., in distinction from partisan apologetics and equally partisan polemics, which would investigate hermeneutically just what it was that creedal Christianity was trying to communicate.

Critical Dogmatics as the Task of Interpretation

In the process Royce generated a new, post-epistemological conception of philosophy as interpretation. Not acknowledging (or rather, actively disowning) the fundamental philosophical task of interpretation, he argued, modern culture had witnessed the erection of a dualism between rival methods of description and appreciation, partitioning reality into the discrete domains of fact and value cordoned off from each other — no trespassing allowed. This dualism in turn sponsored the cultural bifurcation of science and religion, giving a platform in this way to the equally uncomprehending claims of both critics and apologists of Christianity. Against the Cartesian-Kantian dualism of perception and conception in the construction of knowledge, "the striking aspect" of The Problem of Christianity was Royce's "defense of a novel kind of knowledge — interpretation — and it is not paradoxical to say that his explication of interpretation solves the two worlds problem [of fact and value] by denying it." More precisely though perhaps less provocatively, Royce embedded the two cognitive functions of perception and conception in the wider world of human language, which he took after the fashion of German idealism's notion of Geist as dynamic, temporally extended waves of interpretation upon interpretation. "But interpretation, while always stimulated to fresh efforts by the inexhaustible wealth of the novel facts of the social world, demands, by virtue of its own nature, and even in the simplest conceivable case, an endless wealth of new interpretations. For every interpretation, as an expression of mental activity, addresses itself to a possible interpreter, and demands that it shall be, in its turn, interpreted." Given this take on the encompassing reality of language in the human-social world, philosophical interpretation tells a story of stories, that is, of human persons understood as essentially storied figures — to themselves as to others, individually and communally. Within such a framework of understanding, it is far from paradoxical to think of a Word from God forming a community of faith and the discipline of theology as its "grammar" and "rhetoric." Indeed, I appropriate Royce's interpretive method in this book and retool it on behalf of critical dogmatics.

In exploring the all-embracing domain of language as interpretation, Royce was in fact developing into a philosophical method a procedure that had antecedents in classical Protestant theology: biblical hermeneutics, the task of understanding that arises from scriptural texts characterized by the genre of narrative. The problem of hermeneutics arises, that is to say, because biblical narrative, especially as understood by the Protestant Reformers, is thought in sovereign fashion to call out and form its own audience. Hans Frei described the way in which biblical narrative absorbs hearers/readers into its world: "through the coincidence or even identity between a world being depicted and its reality being rendered to the reader (always under the form of the depiction) the reader or hearer in turn becomes part of that depicted reality and thus has to take a personal or life stance toward it." The coincidence is possible, that is, on the assumption that language is all-encompassing, i.e., that there is no "mystical" alternative to language. There is here no revolt against language as such as an alien web of deception, no suspicion of language as such as a heteronomous power. "In the beginning was the Word...." Rather language itself first creates the negative possibility of deception, of verbal violence into which abusive practice language users have surely fallen. Into this now ambiguous reality of language, Scripture's narrative way of communicating the "Word made flesh" comes and offers auditors a specific subjecthood — will you be Peter? or Judas? or Saul-turned-to-Paul? — and just so (a new) understanding of the self in relation to the God who speaks in the offer. With this, genuine consent or refusal takes place as well — provided that subjecthood is understood to exist antecedently, but not autonomously, timelessly, immutably, or alinguistically. (An antecedent subject exists, of course, but temporally and mutably, that is, as one answering to some other subjecthood-proffering narrative that has now been challenged and superseded by the coming of the biblical narrative.) In Frei's telling, however, it was just this latter notion of an antecedent self which was also timeless and immutable in its transcendental identity and autonomous by its critical power to secure knowledge of its objects that was soon to eclipse biblical narrative, and with it, the corresponding cognitive task of theology as interpretation of minds to other minds.

The problematic of hermeneutics had been mediated to Royce by German idealism, but the distinctive solution for which Royce argued in The Problem of Christianity derived from an insight of Charles Sanders Peirce (also dependent on the same sources) about the social (not private) and triadic (not dyadic) nature of understanding through language. For if, as the prevailing theories held (corresponding to the rival epistemologies of empiricists and rationalists), objects of knowledge must be either things or ideas, Royce asked, "in which of these classes will you place your neighbor's mind, or any of the conscious acts of that mind? Is your neighbor's mind a datum that you could, were your perception 'unlimited,' simply find present to you, as red or as a 'change' can be present? Is your neighbor's mind, on the contrary, an abstraction, a mere sort of being which you merely conceive?" Neither answer satisfies, because in the reality of language "interpretation is a triadic relationship." In the realm of human language, that is to say, there is never only the isolated knower and the known object, but also always the audience to which the knower makes an object known (even when the audience is oneself): "Interpretation is a conversation, and not a lonely enterprise." Such conversation takes time; it is an essentially temporal function by which any community of inquiry remembers the path traversed in order to chart its way forward. In reality, then, the human self, existing in and only in such communities of interpretation, is neither "a mere datum [n]or an abstract conception. A self is a life whose unity and connectedness depend upon some sort of interpretation of plans, of memories, of hopes, and of deeds.... Were there, then, no interpretations in the world, there would be neither selves nor communities." Since in fact there are selves and communities, Royce presupposed, epistemology, whether empiricist or rationalist, is guilty of wanting to transcend language, to ground putative knowledge on timeless, wordless foundations, whether of pure experience by outstanding acts of perception or intellectual insight into innate conceptual processes, and in this way to exempt itself from the fundamental temporal and linguistic process of human history: interpreting and being interpreted as minds relating to other minds about the passage to ideal community. For any account of the passage through time requires, as we have heard, narrative that posits (if only implicitly and unconsciously) an ideal, a goal of perfect communication, the Beloved Community of charitable interpretation. "Life may be a colloquy, or a prayer; but the life of a reasonable being is never a mere perception; nor a conception; nor a mere sequence of thoughtless deeds; nor yet an active process, however synthetic, wherein interpretation plays no part. Life is essentially, in its ideal, social. Hence interpretation is a necessary element of everything that, in life, has ideal value."

It is a hotly debated question today whether there are selves, not to mention communities or final ends, as Royce assumed; Spinozist and Nietzschean ideas that agency is elusive, if not illusory, that human selves might better be conceived as passing modes of being on the plane of immanence are in the ascendency. This is a topic that we will engage below in Chapter Five, where I argue that a decentered, theonomous self belonging to Christ as the one true Agent is nonetheless also an idiosyncratic self, with a definite albeit subordinate agency in the world. In the realm of human language, in any event, provided we find it trustworthy as Royce did (and so not the oppressive matrix of contemporary Gnosticism), the letter may be read in the light of the Spirit and the Spirit may be known on the basis of the letter. This is possible, provided that we are satisfied to know what is given for us to know in our own limited sequence. Such contentment with the finitude and fallibility of our formations of knowledge in the infinite process of interpretation depends on faith in the Giver of our sequence and His final reconciliation of all our provisional beliefs in the school of Heaven. The dialectic of Word and Spirit can proceed in the interim, that is to say, insofar as the triadic relationships of interpreter, interpreted, and audience are fully taken into account — meaning then that the interpretive knowledge that we each so painfully and preciously acquire in our own time inevitably becomes in turn a new artifact, subject to new interpretations and so on to infinity. We will be superseded, but not forgotten. "Metaphysically considered, the world of interpretation is the world in which, if indeed we are able to interpret at all, we learn to acknowledge the being and the inner life of our fellow-men; and to understand the constitution of temporal experience, with its endlessly accumulating sequence of significant deeds...." To us, this process is infinite. Even in all eternity, we shall never comprehend the God who comprehends us all (Gregory of Nyssa).

If we find this process nevertheless trustworthy, it is because, with Royce, we believe the dialectic of Word and Spirit to intend the Father's goal of the Beloved Community, that is to say in classical creedal language, it is because we believe that in the Spirit with the Son we will be presented — fragments of meaning that we are — purified and reconciled to all others, and so remembered eternally by the Father of the Son and Breather of the Spirit. This objective remembrance is a subjective participation in their eternal life. Over against this creedal faith in finality of the Beloved Community, premature desire for closure signifies the lethal Gnostic flight from history (even when dressed in Christian costume). For this world of infinite interpretation is still this world on which the cross of Jesus stood, indeed the one and only world where "selves and communities may exist, past and future can be defined, and the realms of the spirit may find a place which neither barren conception nor the chaotic flow of interpenetrating perceptions could ever render significant." As interpretation, the infinite process deals with definite facts capable of interpretation, and as such these facts of past history may bear more significance than we bargain for. Royce knew this and indeed insisted on it. The cost of real though finite knowledge of minds in history is what Royce provocatively titled the "hell of the irrevocable."


Excerpted from Luther and the Beloved Community by Paul R. Hinlicky Copyright © 2010 by Paul R. Hinlicky. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword, by Mickey L. Mattox....................xi
1. The Problem of Christian Belief in Euro-America Today....................3
2. "One of the Trinity Suffered": Luther's Neo-Chalcedonian Christology....................31
3. God Surpassing God by "Christ Made to Be Sin"....................66
4. Trinitarian Advent: Resituating the Dialectic of Law and Gospel....................105
5. Somatic Self, Ecstatic Self: Luther on Theonomy....................139
6. The Redemption of the Body: Luther on Marriage....................179
7. "New, Old, and Different Perspectives" on Paul (Augustine and Luther)....................221
8. Communio: Luther's Forgotten Ecclesiology....................258
9. Passion and Action in Christ: Political Theology between the Times....................301
10. By Way of Conclusion: What Luther Meant by theologia crucis....................358
Appendix: The Problem of Demonization in Luther's Apocalyptic Theology....................379
Works Cited....................386
Index of Names and Selected Topics....................401

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