Friday, March 25, 2011

The Catechism: The First Commandment

Writing on the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the First Commandment, it is easy for me to see how Mary's response and Luther's description of the proper Christian response to the Commandment may illuminate one another.  This is probably not incidental.

1:26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” 1:29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. 1:30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 1:31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”

1:35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
1:36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age – although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

1:38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.  [NET]

I post this in a segmented fashion in order to highlight the bold divine disclosure, "You are favored, and you will bear a special son" [paraphrased], the puzzled response to it, "How can this be?" and the paradigmatic response of faith, "Let it be according to your Word".

I will return to this as I move into the body of my meditation, for now it is important to note that there is a formal quality to the event:

1. Initial event of revelation.

2. Reality check.

3. Repetition and intensification of the disclosure.

4. Reality check.

5. Repetition and intensification of the disclosure.

6. Faithful ascent to the Author of reality.

Returning to my original purpose:


"You shall have no other gods."

That is, you shall regard me alone as your God... What is it to have a god?  What is God?

Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.  To have a god is nothing else that to trust and believe him with our whole heart.  As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then you God is the true God.

I am surely not the first to point out that the immediate impression of this brief "answer" to the question "what is [a] God?" seems hopelessly subjective and arbitrarily dependent on a host of prior assumptions that Luther must be assuming he shares with his readers.  A word or two on this observation is necessary.  First, Luther is most certainly assuming a set of tacit beliefs concerning the general subject, and it would have been a safe assumption for him to make in his historical moment.  The people he addressed still lived in "Christendom" where the church was the primary cultural engine.  They may have had errant beliefs on certain points of doctrine, or fuzzy beliefs that were the result of any number of popular pieties, but they had tacit understandings that were undoubtedly determined by the church.  The liturgies, festivals, and domestic piety they displayed had a common primary origin in the church of the medieval West, not the sole origin, surely, but the primary one.  We late moderns can no longer assume this about any public audience.  [An interesting aside: as a sort of culturally inductive evidence for my argument, the word "pieties", which I made use of earlier in this paragraph, is not recognized by my browser's spellchecker - it is underlined in red as a mistake.]

That God was a possibility, foremost, and that God possessed certain metaphysical "attributes", would have been tacitly recognized by his audience.  He is in no way here concerned to give a list of these attributes, or a phenomenological description of [a] god, but assumes a cultural stockpile of classical and Christian traditional religious thinking on divinity.  So, Luther moves to the heart of the matter - what does it matter to you if there is a god, and what does this god look like when we investigate the object of your longing?  He isolates desire as the best evidence of the nature of one's god, the assumption being that what desire tends to regularly as the highest object is god to that desiring entity.  But this is not entirely correct.  Luther is not saying that what one desires is god, but what one turns to as the ultimate source of desire's fulfillment - this is the best indication of one's god.

Do you believe that you [the desiring subject] are the only, and therefore the best, source for satisfying your needs and desires?  If so, then you are your own god, according to Luther.

This method for determining one's god could be reduced to this:

1. Locate the source from which all good relative to one's own desire originates, there at that origin is one's god.

I have indicated that the desired good and the bestower of desired good are necessary themes for Luther in his explication of the First Commandment.  We can see this clearly from this passage:

It is God alone, I have often repeated, from whom we receive all that is good... This is, I think, why we Germans from ancient times have called God by a name more elegant and worthy than any found in other languages, a name derived from the word "good" because he is an eternal fountain which overflows with sheer goodness and pours forth all that is good in name and in fact.

Yes, Luther is incorrect as to his etymology for the word "Gott", but his theological insight is necessary and sound.  He shares in and affirms the vast Christian/Platonic insistence that a proper name for God is "[The] Good", and the imagery of God as the inexhaustible fount that spills forth blessing is as necessary to his Evangelical theology as it is to the perennial philosophy.  As I have said, it is clear that Luther is not, in the Catechism, concerned to dwell on theo-metaphysical issues, yet to interpret his theology as a refusal of metaphysics, or as a decisive break with that tradition seems unwarranted.  One can, I think, without too much trouble, find any number of traditional metaphysical assertions concerning God implicit and explicit in the Catechism.

Such as:

1. God as the source of all being.

2. God as utterly simple substance.

3. God as the author of secondary causes.

These, among others, surely.

Indeed, the fuss over the nominalism of Luther and other Reformers is to me overly dramatized.  How nominalist can an author be if he can write things like "[God] is an eternal fountain which... pours forth all that is good in name and in fact"? [Emphasis is my own.]

Further, following the passage I cited above is this: "Although much that is good comes to us from men, we receive it all from God through his command and ordinance."  Luther may describe this reality of creation in a manner that makes it much more transparent to God's impetus than do others, but he does not insist on a slavish account that makes God the only true and effective cause in creation.

Returning to Luther's "method" for ascertaining one's "god", a possible moral objection can be made; is this method not ultimately concerned only with the self?  Isn't it selfish to allow a god to be determined, or highlighted, by the relative good it brings to an individual subject?

In reply, I would only say that Luther's method does not formally rule out the common good as also a personal good for any subject.  But, given the nature of Luther's concern in the Catechism, that is, who or what is your god, and not just what god may be in the abstract, the method is the only one suited to its task.  In this sense, there is a certain manner in which the method is a phenomenology.

It should also be clear that Luther is not determining God in Himself by reference to a desiring or thinking human subject, as is done in some forms of modern theology (with Schleiermacher at the head), but, again, is concerned to show what this god is for you the created human.

If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.

Moreover, it should be clear that Luther cannot mean that human desire actually creates gods in any real sense, for this would clash with the Creed [to which we will eventually turn].  Nor can he really be concerned with erecting some category for determining a general sort of "divinity" or "godhood" - Luther cannot, by the force of the faith that is in him, believe there is any set for godhood that could be filled by other pretenders, it is exhaustively filled by Father, Son, and Spirit.

So, perhaps the dictum quoted above can only be a condition only for the true God of specifically Christian faith; the quality of bestowing all good upon creation and acknowledging this source as "God", that is, as Father, Son and Spirit [but we haven't learned much about Father, Son, and Spirit!], is a necessary condition for Christian faith and a necessary condition for being true God... if that sounds circular, it probably is.

So, the dictum in the First Commandment cannot be a guide given over to the "generally religious" in order to show them that they do not know the true God, for they may justly reply, "But I look to Artemis, or the GDP, or the spark of 'godhood' within me, for all good, therefore, I possess the true God..."

For the dictum to be true it necessarily requires instruction in the Creed, and the Commandments must be interpreted in their light.  The First Commandment requires the Creed for its proper observance.

All of this taken together, we find that true faith obtains when one allows God to be the God who is the source of all Good for the created human being - A God whose definite identity conditions are set forth in the Creed.  When we acknowledge that God is who He says He is, the One who would bless us and defend us, and the source of all Good, then we are having faith in the true God.

It is important here to point out that this ascent to God in faith can be, and many times can be expected to be, in direct opposition to the normative manner of viewing daily reality conditions.  How it is that God is the source of all blessings in a particular instance and how He is the author of the truly real is not always immediately transparent to reason and experience.  This is one of the challenges of faith and of obedience to the First Commandment.

Illustrative of this sort of challenge met in faith is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin which I placed at the beginning of this meditation.  Mary allows God to be the true source and author of reality for her... despite the apparent contradictory reality conditions.  She expects good from God and ascents to His disclosure of Himself to her. She trusts God, and ascents to Who He, in fact, is.

There is much, much, more to comment on in this connection, but I will allow it to stand as is for the moment.

What has not been dealt with as of yet is the question of how one is able to have such faith.  How can a human being, plagued by sin and distorted and deranged in the best of its faculties, ever manage to have this sort of faith?

How can a perverse human heart, desiring a panoply of created things inordinately, ever turn to God as the Source and provider of all blessings?

The Catechism: The Ten Commandments, intro.

The Law has been ended for Christians, right?  It came to an end as both finis and telos in Christ, and so can play no positive role in the lives of Christians...

That is a story told by many Christians and many Lutheran Christians among them, and it is so tempting because it is, in some specific ways, true, but it is also dangerous because it is a partial truth.  A partial truth that can be dangerously misappropriated.

There are many problems with this notion, not the least of which is that its aggressive Paulinism can't seem to reckon with the data of the other Gospels and Epistles in a manner that is satisfactory for me at least...

Matthew 5:17, among other important texts, should make one leery of discounting the Law in a thorough manner that would totally abrogate its ongoing role and value, or so I am convinced.

Luther's Catechism is innocent of at least a strong form of this argument.  The Commandments are, after all, the first segment of the Catechism and such a constituent element of it that ignorance of the Law would preclude one from "being reckoned among Christians" and admitted to the Sacrament of the Altar.  That much is undeniable.

If I were pressed, I would say that Luther's entire Catechism is primarily concerned with the satisfaction of the First Commandment, and that he believes that this is exactly what Evangelical faith does (that is, satisfy the First Commandment).  Following this assertion I would have to point out that the other commandments are viewed as ways and means for satisfying the First Commandment; the First split into a spectrum according to the manner in which it touches human life with God and human life with neighbor.  It is hard to see how one could begin to understand Luther's own teaching about Evangelical faith without a thorough knowledge of the Commandments, their function and purpose.

I have recently seen the term "pedagogical use of the Law" used to describe the manner in which Luther understands the role of the Law in the Christian life.  The Law teaches concrete ways in which a Christian may show forth his status as one who is redeemed by Christ and living out the saving faith that is in him.  It teaches the shape of the Life in Christ by prescribing works (yes! Works!), which are truly God pleasing and God given works, that accord with it.  There are some necessary assumptions at work here:

That the Commandments of the Law, though almost entirely stated as negative command, with important exceptions, each suggest a positive correlate.  You shall not bear false witness necessary implies that you shall speak well of your neighbor and protect his reputation, etc.

That the Law can and should be utilized as a means for living a Christlike life because it is necessarily related to Christ.  The Law not only has a single divine origin, but has also been perfected and fulfilled in Christ.

That human beings, under the influence of grace, can perform works of the Law that are truly God-pleasing, because they formally are so to God (their capacity to be pleasing is not determined by the one who undertakes them, but by their form as God given - except when one considers Christ as the primary actor who undertakes the Law, in this case, He overdetermines their capacity).

Luther is concerned to concentrate on this use of the Law for three reasons, one historical/theological, one more directly theological, and one of civil concern:

He is concerned to illustrate an alternative to the "works" generated by the medieval penitential system.  These works have no direct support (if any support whatsoever) in the written Word of God, and therefore no sure foundation and therefore are ineffective means for pleasing God, and for comforting conscience.  They are of a formally dubious value.  The works prescribed by the Law, on the contrary, have both a secure foundation in the Truthful Word, thereby being formally sufficient, and therefore able to truly please God and comfort conscience.

He knows that the Law has a divine origin and is therefore integrally related to its origin.  Because God is the author of all Good, The Law is Good and describes the conditions for a Good life.

That civil peace is necessary for the Good of mankind, and the spread of the Gospel, and the Law is related in some fashion to the natural Law that provides conditions for securing that peace.  Further, that this Law must be known and inculcated in people.

Within Lutheranism, the teaching focus of the Law has been disputed among its various internal traditions.  Some of those traditions make upholding some understanding of the positive ongoing value of the Law a matter of Confession (those that hold to the so-called "Third Use"), while others have denied any manner in which the Law can be viewed and utilized in such a fashion.  This fact, I believe,  has enormous consequences for the sort of theology that has been and is being done in these traditions.  It is hard for me to see how those Lutheran schools that reject a "third use" do not inevitably end in one sort of antinomianism or another.

Why do I begin by discussing the "pedagogical use" or the "third use" of the Law?  Because I think that this usage of the Law is the one that most naturally and organically appears in the Catechism, and, as the preceding has partially shown, the other uses are related to it.  Foremost, it is the one that makes the most sense within the Catechism's own aims and goals.  It is a practical work, concerned to show Christians the "what" and "how to" of the faith, and not primarily the "why".  What do I need to know and do as a married man who is a Christian? Know the Commandments and practice chastity within the married estate, as the Sixth Commandment clearly teaches you!

Surely Luther emphasizes the so-called "second use" of the Law in many of his other works, and its importance cannot be overestimated, but I do not think that this use can so relativize and trivialize the "third use" as it appears in the Catechism.

So, now, finally, I think I am ready to turn to the First Commandment.

The Catechism: Introduction

A few disclaimers and provisos before I begin: This effort is primarily meant to be a personal Lenten discipline, I do not claim any ecclesiatical warrant, blessing, or other official endorsement for the exercise.  I can only claim the authority of a Baptized member of the Body of Christ - and therefore all of the pitfalls and distortions that may follow are solely of my own making.  If I inadvertently teach in a manner that is problematic or erroneous, I ask the pardon of those stronger members of the Body and seek their forbearance.

As this is a personal meditation, I will not be engaged in much criticism of the source material, historical investigations, or in issues regarding translation.  This is primarily due to my innocence of German and Latin, as well as to the additional burden that these concerns would place upon both the reader and author.  Any offerings along these lines will be appreciated, though I hope that there will be merit enough in the effort for the "general" Christian reader.  I will be utilizing the Tappert version as well as Concordia's (Second) Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord; Paul McCain, general editor.  Any direct quotations from these works will be italicized.  The bulk of the work will be my own meditation.   I will begin with the so-called Longer Preface and work through to end at Brief Exhortation to Confession.  This should supply ample material for the forty days of Lent.

I publish this for the sake of personal edification, discussion, witness, and hopefully for the "mutual consolation of the saints" (Third Article of the Creed), and, the likelihood that this latter goal may be reached can only be increased when the saints enter into this process by way of discussion.

I have chosen to base my meditations on the Large Catechism for a number of reasons, some of which are not entirely clear to me and definitely reflect my own initial formative experiences of the text.  I suppose I have always enjoyed Luther's use of rhetoric in this work and his palpable concern for the content he is dealing with as well as for the good of the intended audience; it just shines in through in the Large Catechism, which, to me, has more of a devotional and homiletic cast than does the Small Catechism with its concise and didactic formulas (meant, of course, for memorization and tacit and explicit recall).  The decidedly polemical posture, especially in regard to the papal church, may strike some as unnecessary and even harmful to the cause of Christian unity - but this is a reaction that may come too unreflectively as a prevailing prejudice of our post-denominational and doctrinally indifferent age.  We do well to listen to the harsher sentiments, at least as evidence of the consuming conviction of the author that the issues being contended over mattered!   That these issues had eternal ramifications, and not just abstractly, but for living people.  This was not armchair theology.  It was not a pastime for a comfortable priestly caste; it was Confession!  A declaration of what was the case, of what was the nature of reality itself and what our response to reality as given by the Gospel ought to be.  Luther may lack the theological precision of a scholastic disputant (although he can utilize this mode of articulation if he deems it necessary), but he is nearly unparalleled in his insistence upon the immediacy and involving reality of the matter that he seeks to present to his readers in an equally involving way.

Perhaps this is the main reason I have found for pursuing this discipline, to allow Luther's words to remind me that I had better care that the Christian faith describes things as they are, and that the Church (especially that church that, rightly or wrongly, bears his name) better care too.  Everything depends on the veracity of the claims being made - and equally too - the faith that acknowledges them to be true; a faith that receives the communicated truth of God in Christ and stakes its life and its all upon it.


The Longer Preface

It is not for trivial reasons that we constantly treat the Catechism and strongly urge others to do the same...

a shameful and insidious plague of security and boredom has overtaken us.

I love reading the longer preface because it immediately challenges me and attempts to inculcate a wholesome mood of receptivity and humility.  Don't be too smart for your own good, and don't neglect the rudiments of the faith.  If you don't know these, and you can't ever know them well enough, then you don't really know much about the faith.

The early lines of the Preface reveal that there were pressing problems among the Evangelical churches of Luther's day: laziness and presumption.  I confess that I have found the people who think there is little to be gleaned from reading the old teachers and sages and saints to be rather silly as a matter of course, but here the notion that Luther's concerns are somehow foreign to our age, that they are (to use the strongest modern disparagement possible) irrelevant, seems especially ludicrous.  We modern church people certainly know nothing of laziness and false security, heavens no.  Anyhow,  Luther never tires of chiding the lazy fat good for nothing preachers for this cast of character which he finds to be inimical to genuine Evangelical faith.  They become a sort of stock image, a negative character, a supreme counterexample for pious readers to understand and deliberately avoid imitating.  There are numerous colorful expressions of pique and varied unflattering epithets that make it into the Preface, nearly all of which are reserved for the lazy and overconfident priests and teachers of the church.

This seems to me to follow naturally from Luther's understanding of genuine Evangelical faith.  One could even take the virtues that oppose the aforementioned vices as primary descriptors of that faith; where presumption or false confidence would be opposed by true security and gratitude, and active works of love and thanksgiving oppose laziness and indifference.  If one is proud, unconcerned with and uninvolved in the things of Christian living and being, then there is a good chance that one is on the road to damnation.

Luther makes it clear in the Preface that the lazy, presumptuous Christian who takes his newly found Evangelical freedom as an excuse for whatever license and fancy he pleases, ignoring the Commandments, the Creed, etc., is not worthy of that freedom, nor truly inhabiting it!  So too, the pastor or preacher who either finds these rudiments to be "an easy thing" and fancies himself too learned for such childish matters, or is simply more concerned to pursue his own (natural) inclinations now that he no longer has to "babble the seven hours".  These two varieties of Christian bear the name in an illegitimate fashion, and both need to become like grateful children again and study the Catechism daily.  When they do this they will then truly return to proper comportment in the Gospel and truly inhabit genuine Evangelical freedom, whereby they will receive positive blessings and be able to withstand the daily assaults of the devil.  Without a strong and secure base founded upon the Word of God as it is expounded in the Catechism, one topples over at the slightest pressure.  To daily enter into the Catechism is to consciously recall and dwell in the Christian faith and to be held by the Living God.

If one will not enter into the discipline of learning the Catechism, and, indeed, know its contents, one should not "be reckoned among Christians nor admitted to the Sacrament", according to Luther.

When I think on all of the preceding, I come to two immediate conclusions:  I lapse into a form of false security and presumption that is not in keeping with the aims of the Catechism quite regularly, and, the church as I have known it does not typically hold to the requirements for reckoning one a Christian and admitting people to the Sacrament of the Altar.  What does this reality imply for my own spiritual health?  How can I gain ground in the struggle against spiritual presumption?   What does this imply for the health of the church, or, at the very least, for the identity status of those churches who hold the Catechism to be binding teaching for its communicants?

Further, what is the connection between having knowledge of the faith in terms of its content and assent to its assertions concerning reality and one's status as Communing member of the Body of Christ?  It is hard to read Luther's statements in the Preface and deny that there must be a necessary and close relationship between knowledge of and assent to the content of faith of the Catechism and Communicant status in the church...

These are things to consider as we begin to consider that necessary content, the first division of which is the Ten Commandments (which may come as a shock to some Lutherans).