Ladder theologies and the postmodern “bound conscience” (Part 3)
First, again, a quote from Martin Luther, from the “First Disputation Against the Antinomians”:
Against thesis 4. [“The first part of repentance, sorrow, is caused solely by the law. The second part, the good intention, cannot be caused by the law.”]
By God’s grace alone repentance is worked in us. Therefore no part of repentance can be ascribed to the law. I prove the antecedent from Jeremiah 31(:18): “Turn to me and I will be turned” etc. Likewise, Ps. 51(:10): “Create a clean heart in me, O God.”
We do not deny that it is God who works repentance in us. Our theses certainly confess this openly. Nonetheless it is improper to say, God’s grace works repentance in us. For grace is properly the fulfillment of the law, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and life in Christ. Yet actually the following proves that God works repentance in us: Many hear the law, and still they are not moved by its threats and terrors because they do not feel the force of the law. This is why I do not convert anyone by virtue of my preaching, unless God is there and cooperates with his Spirit.
Does this mean that the law is not to be preached because God moves and converts the heart only out of mercy? This consequence is ridiculous. For the same reason I could say, the gospel is not to be preached because few hear it, and even fewer believe it. Yet God wants us to teach the law. Wherever we do this, he will see to it that he certainly converts those by it unto repentance who are converted by it, whomever and whenever he wills. Thus we also ought to preach the Gospel which is a teaching common to all; yet “not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2).
Thus the law pertains to all, yet not all have repentance. Yet those who have it, have it by means of the law. Yet the prophet speaks about true repentance that lasts the entire life. He says (more or less): “Humble me and lead me to true repentance that I might loathe perverted and impious doctrine, but especially that most holy one of the hypocrites who do not understand the law, and much less are able to teach it to others, but bristle with its righteousness and their own wisdom” (cf. Is. 5:21). Yet a disciple is not better than his teacher (Matt. 10:24). Therefore, they too certainly convert their disciples, but to idolatry and perdition.
All have the gospel, but not all have faith. All have the law, but not all have the force and experience of the law. Thus, I repent when God strikes me with the law and the gospel. We cannot tell the time and hour. He who wills to convert me knows it. He speaks about the entire life. (SDEA 53)
Luther wrote that Christ dwells in the Christian conscience as the groom in the wedding chamber, and, in the context of the doctrine of justification, goes so far as to say that it is also lord and judge over all works! Steve Paulson writes that “conscience is never a solitary or individual matter but is God’s relation to you as his creature through words” (24, A Brief Introduction to Martin Luther, 2017).
This sounds pretty good. That said, here the critical question arises: does the presence of Christ in the conscience negate the need for the eternal law of God? Luther’s own view would clearly be at odds with this (see here and here). One often gets the impression that in the Radical Lutheran view, “the criterion of the law… is the self,” as another contemporary Lutheran theologian has put it.[i]
It is important to note that when Luther says in the Antinomian Disputations “whatever shows sin, wrath and death exercises the office of the law,” and that “reveal[ing] sin is nothing else – nor can it be anything else – than to be the law or the effect and power of the law in the most proper sense” (quoted by Hopman in his paper “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna,” 154), what he does not say is just as important, namely: “whatever produces sorrow exercises the office of the law.”
Indeed, the matter of a good consciences and bad consciences, seared ones[ii] and hardened ones – intextricably related to the written law which correlates with the law written on man’s heart – should certainly be foremost in our mind here.[iii]
In an age where many of those claiming the mantle of Luther exalt the importance of respect for the “bound conscience,” the following extensive quotation from the Reformer’s lectures on I Timothy about a “seared conscience” is particularly relevant.
Here, Luther talks about persons creating laws not given by God and binding men’s consciences by them:
“This “seared conscience” has caused much debate. Almost all interpreters pass it by. We shall explain, to the extent that the matter itself and the nature of other statements allow. It is not the natural conscience. “They fear where there is nothing to fear” (Ps. 53:5). We have the same idea in Matt. 15. It is the nature of all hypocrites and false prophets to create a conscience where there is none, and to cause conscience to disappear where it does exist. There is no fear of God before them, etc. That is, they do not have a god who is God. “In vain do they worship Me (Matt. 15:9).” In the Hebrew, this is fear. Consequently, the fear of God is located much more in the conscience than on the outside. From the conscience comes every doctrine, according to the way in which the conscience is influenced. It lives according to what it teaches. Thus it has a god who is not God. Thus it errs both in doctrine and in worship. The erring conscience is seared. That is, it is seared by cauterization. Just as men or sheep are branded, so those consciences are branded by a false idea of doctrine. With fear they create a conscience where there is no conscience. Paul, then, is speaking about conscience according to the words he has proclaimed. These are the “doctrines of demons.” Every doctrine creates a conscience; so this should be a false conscience and false idea about God. A monk imagines God sitting in heaven to look at his works and righteousness. In this situation he must live according to this rule and perform these works. If he does not, he commits a mortal sin. There he causes an erring conscience. That is, a conscience is brought in by force. This is not natural. The metaphor pleases me very much. It pleases me that he should call it a “seared” conscience, as if it had been branded by a hot iron. He does not say that the conscience has been cut off but that it has been branded to testify of the efficacy and power of that doctrine, as if he were saying: “Fire is burning the flesh.” Thus these men should have a righteousness of faith with greater enthusiasm, concern, diligence, and ardor, as if it were branded on them. He wants to say, then, that the martyrs of the devil suffer more than those of God. That conscience endures because of great exertion. At the same time he indicates that the erring conscience is born of great exertion; much trouble and toil is involved, so that people must burn themselves over it, as it were. They are drawn away from faith to works, which pull them in different directions day and night. This agrees with the sense of Scripture: “They fear where there is nothing to fear.” “They fear me (Matt. 15:8).” Also, “You will serve other gods.” This is real searing. Everywhere it is called trouble and toil. Here are two special evils: first, the false conscience and, second, the restless conscience. The false conscience comes from sin where there is no sin, and with great toil. This is to work in vain” (italics and bold, mine)[iv]
In this passage, we see what happens to the natural conscience when it is corrupted by the false teachings of men who restructure it. This results in a conscience which is “seared,” that is, one that functions in an improper and confused matter. Ultimately, Luther writes elsewhere[v] how the effects of a seared conscience leads to the individual accepting a portrait of Christ created by the devil.
Whether the misleading picture of Christ is seemingly closer or further from the one clearly revealed in the Scriptures, the result is now the same: one must climb and climb to please a God of law and not grace.
Who, according to Luther, are susceptible to creating “ladder theologies”?
Not those who, with the Gospel ringing in their ears, uphold the law of God in its truth and purity.
Not those who believe that the law is rooted in God’s very own eternal goodness and righteousness.
Not those who believe that preachers should aim to guide the consciences of their flock – even after absolving them with the word of the Gospel![vi]
On the contrary, it is those who outright reject God’s law (as in the case of those in the ELCA who promote the doctrine of the bound conscience), or, more commonly, those who use it selectively and/or downplay/dilute its eternal nature: “[The “Sophist” scholastic theologians] imagined that sin is that which is against human traditions, only rarely that which is against the moral law.” For Luther, both the eternal law and gospel “belong to all” and must be continually taught (SDEA 115 ; for more, read all the blue here).
And here, as regards our own context, what Luther said to his Antinomian opponent Agricola, can be extrapolated to address much of today’s contemporary church, captive as they are to the devil’s lies: “These true disciples of Satan seem to think that the law is something temporal that has ceased under Christ, like circumcision” (SDEA 141).
Is it possible that those who are deceived into replacing the law of God are the most eager to live by, to be justified by, the traditions – the laws – of strong and confident men–or even women–whose consciences are not held captive to the word of God?
That they would first seek their approval (and rewards) and not God’s?
Of course it is! This would be the most normal thing in the world. Hell if I am going to be God’s slave. They flee from what they perceive as the unreasonable expectations and control (oppression, coercion… punishment!) of the True God.
Even as the gods they create and cling to will in fact be exemplified by those things more and more (as the creators of them become what they fear!). That is, before their weak idols inevitably fail and they fall back on other less fashionable and more traditional, and “proven” gods…
One does not need to think that Radical Lutheran men like Paulson and Hopman have necessarily fallen into Wengert’s and the ELCA’s error in their own lives to nevertheless be gravely concerned that their theological approach is much more “hi-jackable” than the one which Luther espouses.
Simply put, for the Radical Lutheran, the law of God cannot be said to be the eternal will of God.
Our next installment will explore this further, zeroing in and exploring, for example, Nicholas Hopman’s claim that the Holy Spirit is “the opposite of the law” (166, “Luther’s Antinomian Disputations and lex aeterna”).
[i] Malysz, Piotr J. “Sin: between law and gospel.” Lutheran Quarterly 28:2 (Summer 2014): 158. If it really is unavoidably the case that “the criterion of the law… is the self,” what, ultimately, is used to stop sinful man from re-intepreting God’s law to his liking, and hence, Christ and His church?
[ii] We can start talking like this and see no problems with it: “We may say about an unmarried couple living together that they are ‘living in sin’. A reflective Lutheran should not talk that way because, from a Lutheran point of view, we are all living in sin, whether we are married, single, sexually active, or celibate. Our sexual situation or orientation or practices do not make us more or less sinful. Any relationship may be self-serving, harmful, abusive, careless, and hateful. We are certainly not rid of all that simply because we have enjoyed a church wedding” (44). Tom Christenson, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education (2004) Perhaps we might even feel guilty if we still are tempted to entertain more traditional understandings of morality and sin.
[iii] And perhaps, in the Antinomian Disputations themselves, we can see Luther countering these kinds of problems the sinner has with both law and gospel strategies. See his intriguing argument about using rhetoric to move hardened hearts on pp. 105-107 in the 24th argument.
A strategy using the gospel would be shocking hardened sinners – i.e. those with hardened consciences – with words like “Who did Jesus die for?… How many sins did He pay for?… Which of your sins did Jesus forget to pay for?”, etc. (and not only with words, but by going out of one’s way to treat all persons with gentleness, kindness, respect, and the compassion that Christ felt in His guts).
And another strategy, this time using the law – and one that is perhaps surprising to many contemporary confessional Lutheran ears! – would be: “[t]he law does not want you to despair of God… it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” (SDEA 367, 369). That this message will cause despair without Gospel truth is not the point: the point is that no one, not even on the basis of God’s law instead of the Gospel, can ever say that God means to abandon them.
[iv] Lectures on 1 Timothy (1528), AE 28:310.
[v] Lectures on Galatians (1535), AE 26:38.
I highly recommend reading my pastor’s paper on this topic as you will learn about…:
- Timothy Wengert’s “simply tragic” (I’d use a different word) failure to acknowledge existing scholarship that had been done on Martin Luther and the conscience by highly noted scholars (I add, this is a good way to kill your conscience about conscience).
- How for Luther, “the burdening of the conscience with man-made laws or traditions, and the burdening of the conscience by the Law of God in view of sin, are two vastly different things.”
- How this conscience burdened by God’s Law is an “evil conscience,” “plagued by guilt and despair in the face of the knowledge of God’s judgment upon a specific sin.”
- How an evil conscience can become hardened: “man can and does fight against his conscience and eventually, may even be able to subdue it so that it goes into a type of dormancy.”
- How Luther found these things not only in the Bible, but in the character of Orestes in Virgil’s Aeneid: the Erinyes, or Furies, of Alecto (“unceasing”), Megaera (“grudging”), and Tisiphone (“avenging murder,” hounding the guilty for their sin). If hell is not feared, future pain and suffering certainly is.
- How Luther broke with the scholastic concept of the human conscience which said that it, in part, was a “native capacity to choose to do good,” and instead spoke about the matter in accordance with the Apostle Paul.
- Luther: “[the conscience’s] purpose is not to do, but to pass judgment on what has been done and what should be done, and this judgment makes us stand accused or saved in God’s sight.”
- How a natural conscience, which has a knowledge of God and His Law, can become a seared conscience, i.e. one that functions improperly, where it cannot “accurately judge the actions of the individual.”
- In other words, it becomes “artificial, false, unreasonable, not natural, not true, causing a fear of God, that is worship, where God is not to be feared or worshiped.”
- For a good conscience, “an unfortunate event (which would terrify the evil conscience, bringing to mind former sins, and bringing to light future judgment) is considered not to have happened by chance, ‘but in accord with the good will of God.’”
- In sum “[h]ow Timothy Wengert applied the concept of ‘bound conscience’ to those who claim to be Christian but who would live in homosexual relationships is not to be found in the writings of Martin Luther” (to say the least!).
[vi] Hence, we read, in the introduction to the Epitome on the Third Use of the Law in the Formula of Concord: “Since the Law was given to men for three reasons: first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars]; secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins; thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life, a dissension has occurred between some few theologians concerning the third use of the Law, namely, whether it is to be urged or not upon regenerate Christians. The one side has said, Yea; the other, Nay.”
Clearly, they are not talking about whether or not such a use of the law – with regenerate Christians – should be used by the Holy Spirit.