Lenten Readings: Day 23

Martin Luther and the Introspective Conscience of the West


Martin Luther loved Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He thought Christians should study it every day and memorize every word. He wrote in the Preface to his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1522):

We find in this letter, then, the richest possible teaching about what a Christian should know: the meaning of law, Gospel, sin,punishment, grace, faith, justice, Christ, God, good works, love,hope and the cross. We learn how we are to act toward everyone,toward the virtuous and sinful, toward the strong and the weak,friend and foe, and toward ourselves. Paul bases everything firmly on Scripture and proves his points with examples from his own experience and from the Prophets, so that nothing more could be desired. Therefore it seems that St. Paul, in writing this letter, wanted to compose a summary of the whole of Christian and evangelical teaching which would also be an introduction to the whole Old Testament. Without doubt, whoever takes this letter to heart possesses the light and power of the Old Testament.Therefore each and every Christian should make this letter the habitual and constant object of his study. God grant us his grace to do so. Amen.[1]
[Emphasis Added]

Whereas yesterday I noted that modern biblical scholars believe that Paul often used the norms of Greco-Roman rhetoric to present “in character” speeches, Luther reads the “I” statements as examples Paul is making concerning himself, in the present day. Thus, on Chapter Seven he writes:

Then St. Paul shows how spirit and flesh struggle with each other in one person. He gives himself as an example, so that we may learn how to kill sin in ourselves. He gives both spirit and flesh the name “law,”so that, just as it is in the nature of divine law to drive a person on and make demands of him, so too the flesh drives and demands and rages against the spirit and wants to have its own way. Likewise the spirit drives and demands against the flesh and wants to have its own way. This feud lasts in us for as long as we live, in one person more, in another less, depending on whether spirit or flesh is stronger. Yet the whole human being is both: spirit and flesh. The human being fights with himself until he becomes completely spiritual. [Emphasis added]

Martin Luther was himself profoundly transformed when he gave a lecture series at Wittenburg on the text, and it bore fruit when he posted the 95 Theses two years later. His approach to Romans set the template for classic Lutheran teaching for the next five centuries (generations of Lutheran pastors were taught that sermons should have a two-fold structure, in which Law is used to condemn sin in the believer, and Gospel to elicit faith). He influenced Anglican theology and Calvinism (i.e. Reformed and Presbyterian theology). Roman Catholicism had its Counter-Reformation precipitated by Luther’s theological protests, and while not a negative image of Protestantism (the Counter-Reformation included many historical influences that were already in ferment before 1517), much of its agenda was determined by the need to challenge Luther and those who followed after him. Karl Barth, the so called “neo-orthodox” theologian of the first half of the Twentieth Century, reinterpreted Lutheran theology for a modern era with his Epistle to the Romans in 1919.

Who would dare challenge this deep and profoundly influential interpretation? And who would listen? Well, ultimately it fell to a Swedish Lutheran scholar working at Harvard Divinity school by the name of Krister Stendahl, who later became the Archbishop of Stockholm in the very Lutheran Church of Sweden. He gathered up the rhetorical evidence and determined that Paul was not talking about himself in Chapter 7. As mentioned earlier in this series of Lenten readings, in 1963 he published an article entitled “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”. Unfortunately it is still very much under copyright, so it is not accessible via the Internet unless you have access through an academic library. But let’s first see what Paul says in the passage before getting on to what the archbishop said.

Rom 7.13–25
Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Stendahl writes:

Judging from Paul’s own writings, there is no indication that he had “experienced it [“a plagued conscience”] in his own conscience” during his time as a Pharisee. . . If that is the case regarding Paul the Pharisee, it is, as we shall see, even more important to note that we look in vain for any evidence that Paul the Christian has suffered under the burden of conscience concerning personal shortcomings which he would label “sins.” The famous formula “simul justus et peccator” – at the same time righteous and sinner – as a description of the status of the Christian may have some foundation in the Pauline writings, but this formula cannot be substantiated as the center of Paul’s conscious attitude toward his personal sins. Apparently, Paul did not have the type of introspective conscience which such a formula seems to presuppose.

So what is going on in the passage above? My take on it (not original, for sure) is that Paul has adopted the voice a a Gentile prior to becoming a Christian. Whether by the the law written of hearts or having become aware of God;’s commandments from Jews, the Gentile is aware of being at the mercy of sin. A Torah observant Jew as Paul had been would not be in such agony, because she or he would know that they are in a loving covenant relationship. The struggle takes place for a Gentile prior to being called and received as a follower of Christ, after which one lives by the Spirit, and not just by commandments. Paul as a Christian would think that  Torah observant Jew (such as Paul was in the past) should know from Moses and the Prophets that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, but that is an error of judgement, not a sign of sin and depravity.

Martin Luther, like most of German biblical scholarship until the 1960s, was not a respecter of the Jewish people; in fact, he made a major contribution to anti-Judaism that later transformed into antisemitism. As a result when he read the passage above he assumed that it reflected the anguish he imagined all Jews with a conscience experienced, much as he himself as a devout young man had had. However, as Paul demonstrates in other writings (notably Philippians 3.6), he never really had that anguish. Luther conveniently ignored Philippians. Any guilt Paul experienced was perhaps after he became a Christian, but only for having persecuted the church as a zealous Pharisee. Paul was not anti-Jewish, but rather saw his mission to the Gentiles as an extension of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. Perhaps at most a few thousand people were Christians during Paul’s life – and these were mostly Jewish, they were all first-generation followers of Jesus, and most of them had come to faith as adults. Luther lived in a very different situation, where virtually all the people were Christian, sixty generations had passed since Jesus, and everyone was baptised as a child. Piety had turned inward instead of outwards, and the emphasis was on the acceptance of intellectual propositions rather than God’s prevenient grace in covenant and the Holy Spirit. No wonder Luther got this wrong. Notwithstanding his achievement in beginning the Reformation, after 500 years it is time to let go of his interpretation.

[1]The Preface can be found here . “This translation was made by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, for the Saint Anselm College Humanities Program. (c) 1983 by Saint Anselm Abbey. This translation may be used freely with proper attribution.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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