Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Looking Above and Below - - Clarifications on Reform

Martin Luther always said that if the church is to be reformed, human beings cannot do it, for only God can reform his church. In order to think about this clearly, one must understand what 'church' means and what 'reform' means. One must also get clear on the impossibility that Luther finds that human beings have with respect to 'reforming the church'. I wish to explore these matters a bit below, seeking at all times to think through these themes from a perspective that is ruthlessly Lutheran.

'Church' means primarily, for Lutherans, the 'association of those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart' (Apology, Article IV). As such this church is that to which the four Nicene predicates apply. 'One' is predicable of it because it is a set of those having the same attributes. 'Holy' is predicable of the church because those in which faith and the Holy Spirit reside may be called holy. 'Catholic' can be predicated of the church because it is everywhere, that is, there is no place where those with faith and the Holy Spirit are not. Finally, 'apostolic' can be predicated of the church because those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart are those who have a successio fidei reaching back to apostolic times. This is the way that these predicates were standardly applied during Lutheran Orthodoxy.

The first thing to realize about construing 'church' in this way is that it seems not in need of being re-formed at all. The hidden church, what Melanchthon calls "the true church" is not the kind of thing that can be reformed, because if faith is not present in a person putatively in the church, the person is not actually in the church. The church has definite boundaries; it is a binary or digital phenomenon. There are no grades of this church; it simply is - - or is not.

So when Luther said that God is in the process of reforming his church, it may seem that he is not primarily interested in the hidden church, but rather the hidden church as it is revealed around Word and Sacrament. This church, of which the hidden church is a subset, is visible, and because of the presence of the hidden church within can be called by synechdoche 'church' as well. This visible church, which is not the true church, can be either purely formed or better formed. A felicitous forming would be one in which the gospel would regularly be preached in its purity and the sacrament rightly administered. An infelicitous ordering would be one in which it was difficult for the gospel to be proclaimed in its purity and the sacrament rightly administered. So the question is this: can this church only be reformed through divine causal power? Luther seems to say "yes".

But before we decide this easily in the affirmative, it is important to distinguish what powers human beings really have. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther decries any who, like Erasmus, would claim that human beings have a free will. But what is this claim to mean? What is meant by 'free will' and how does the presence or lack of free will relate to the issue of the reform of the church?

Luther does understand freedom of the will not primarily along the lines of being able to do other than what one did do, but more along the line of being able to do what one wants or rationally decides to do. Luther claims in the Bondage of the Will that one has no free will with respect to actualizing the desire or decision to be closer to God, to move toward God. While human beings are free with respect to "those things below them," they are not free with respect to those above them. A person can plant corn if they desire or rationally decide to do so. A person can build a house using asphalt or steel shingles. These things a person can do. What a person cannot do is move closer toward, or gain the favor or gifts of God; one cannot change the situation with respect to God by one's own efforts. The will is bound never so to properly relate to God. A human being cannot be his/her own reason or strenght believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him.

So how do these ruminations relate to the issue of the visible church? Luther says only God can reform it, not human beings. So what is the visible church, a thing above or a thing below human reason. Do human beings have power to affect the contour of the visible church?

The short answer to this must be that the visible church, in so far as it is an earthly institution, is truly a thing below human reason. As a thing below human reason, human beings can affect its structure such that felicitous attributes that get the gospel properly preached are either augmented or diminished. To reform the church in this way is something that human beings have the causal power to accomplish. One can either augment or diminish the tendency of the earthly insitution to proclaim purely the gospel and administer rightly the sacrament. Accordingly, human causal powers can affect the state of the visible church. Why is this? The answer is simple: The visible church, considered as an association of people gathered around Word and sacrament, is simply a temporal organization that either is properly ordered or imporoperly ordered to get the josb done: preach the gospel in its purity and administer the sacrament with propriety. So considered, human beings can affect the visible church.

However, human beings can make no headway in changing the breath of the hidden church. With respect to the divine, human beings are powerless. Human beings, no matter how properly they order the visible church for gospel purity, cannot increase nor decrease membership in set of all of those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart. Only God can do this; only God can form again the hidden church he once brought into being. Just as human beings can do nothing to increase their own salvation, so can they do nothing to augment the boundaries of God's Church. Only God can do that.

So what have we learned? When Luther said that only God can reform his Church, he meant that only God can form again the boundaries of that hidden Church. The class of all those with faith and the Holy Spirit in the heart is homogenous. There exist no density points, no "closer thans" or "further froms" within the true church. Only God sets the boundaries of that church. But of the empirical church within which both the hidden church and "tares" reside, that church is a human, temporal organization and as such can be affected by the causal powers of human agents. Man and woman have freedom of the will with respect to the empirical church considered as a historical reality. They do not have freedom of the will with respect to the extension of the hidden church. The hidden church is a thing above human beings; the visibile church in which it resides is clearly a thing below human beings. Confusion abounds when these things are not clearly thought.

So against our first judgments we must hold that the church Luther is thinking only God can reform is the hidden church., and the church we see around us is fully susceptible for reform by exertion of human causal power and agency.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Science, Natural Theology and the Internal Clarity of Scripture I


On the surface, it seems that science and the internal clarity of Scripture have not much to do with each other. How does science, that activity whereby humans build theories to explain and predict natural and social phenomena, connect to the theological notion that Scripture is clear in and of itself? How does science link to Scriptural perspicuity, to the notion that while we may not deeply understand Scripture, it nonetheless retains an objectively understandable meaning? To connect the previously unconnectable is always dangerous, for there are reasons why they have not previously been linked.

Yet in the spirit of exploration, I wish today briefly to think their linking; I wish to suggest that they can be connected, and that linking them entails a rather robust Trinitarian perspective. Before setting about exploring the being of their linking, however, we must understand what it is that we are trying to connect. This demands we say something both about the nature of science and Scriptural perspicuity. We shall deal with the latter first, consider the former second, and conclude by connecting the former to the latter.


The locus classicus for thinking Scriptural perspicuity is Martin Luther’s 1526 Bondage of the Will. Here Luther counters Erasmus by arguing both that Scripture has a discernible clarity that human beings don’t immediately grasp, and that it has both internal and external clarity. Luther acknowledges that many things in Scripture seem obscure:(1)

"I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture."

Accordingly, while we may be ignorant of the vocabulary and grammar of Scripture, knowledge of Scripture’s subject matter is possible, e.g, knowledge of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the work of Christ. “The subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms.”(2) Luther goes further, claiming of those who do not grasp Scripture’s clarity that a “veil lies over their minds.” The problem is the stubbornness of the interpreter:

"With similar temerity a man might veil his own eyes or go out of the light into the darkness and hide himself, and then blame the sun and the day for being obscure. Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God."(3)

The clarity of Scripture does not entail we know the nature of divine things and how it is that they are the way they are; it only entails that we know divine things are in a particular way: “Scripture simply confesses the trinity of God and the humanity of Christ and the unforgivable sin, and there is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things can be, Scripture does not say (as you imagine), nor is it necessary to know.”(4)

Luther has made a couple of important distinctions in these passages. Firstly, he apparently wants to distinguish the sentences of theological language from the propositions expressed by those sentences. While the words and grammar of the language can be obscure, what is stated by it is clear - - if one approaches the text with sincerity.

For Luther, inheriting the semantic theory of the late middle ages, words and sentences signify, that is, they cause the mind to think about certain things. Luther is merely claiming that there is no ambiguity in what the sentences of Scripture cause the mind to think about.

Secondly, Luther appears to distinguish the clarity of the propositions from the putative states of affairs to which these propositions refer. While one might know what is asserted by the proposition, one cannot know exactly how it is that what is asserted obtains or can obtain. In the semantic theory of the day, Luther is claiming that while the supposition of Scriptural language makes true that language, it is not easy to grasp how what is supposited can obtain. For instance, while the statement ‘God is Triune’ has a clearly signified sense and a definite reference making it true - - ‘God is Triune’ is true if and only that which is signified by ‘God’ is a member of the class of all things signified by ‘Triune’ - - it is not routinely possible to picture or grasp the natures of these objects signified by ‘God’ and ‘Triune’.

Finally, Luther distinguishes external obscurity and clarity from internal obscurity and clarity. The first pertains to the external ministry of the Word; the second concerns the understanding of the heart. Concerning the latter Luther writes:

"If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it. They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God, nor anything else . . ."(5)

The “internal clarity” of Scripture is concerned with the salvific significance of those things signified and it is given only via the Holy Spirit. Luther distinguishes this internal understanding from the external clarity:

"For the Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture, both as a whole and in any part of it. If, on the other hand, you speak of the external clarity, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous, but everything there is in the Scriptures has been brought out by the Word into the most definite light, and published to all the world."(6)

A century later and in words deeply reminiscent of Luther, the great Lutheran dogmatician Johann Gerhard writes:

"If you speak of the internal clearness, no man understands a single iota of the scriptures by the natural powers of his own mind, unless he have the Spirit of God; all have obscure hearts. The Holy Spirit is required for the understanding of the whole of Scripture and all of its parts."(7)

Externally Scripture is clear, though human beings often (maybe mostly) find it obscure; inwardly it is obscure unless the Holy Spirit “lifts the veil” and facilitates its apprehension. The external Word is thus a necessary condition for the text’s external clarity, while the presence of the Holy Spirit is the necessary condition for its internal clarity.

At play in this tradition of reflection Scriptural clarity is the notion of the “hermeneutical circle” where the parts interpret the whole and the whole interprets the parts. The 17th century dogmatician Quenstedt writes:

"The more obscure passages, which need explanation, can and should be explained by other passages that are more clear, and thus the scripture itself furnishes an interpretation of the more obscure expression when a comparison of these is made with those that are more clear; so the Scripture is explained by Scripture."(8)

But, this hermeneutical circle again presupposes the agency of the Holy Spirit:

"From no other source than the sacred scriptures themselves can a certain and infallible interpretation of scripture be known. For scripture itself, or rather the Holy Spirit speaking in scriptures or through it, is the legitimate and independent interpreter of itself."(9)

The internal clarity of Scripture is thus supposed to steer between the Scylla of the external authority of a teaching magisterium and the Charybdis of internal private “enthusiasm.” By asserting it, Luther and the Reformers put an end to the fanciful interpretations of both the tradition’s fourfold method of scriptural interpretation and the privately “enthused” interpreter. The problem is that both alternatives could always claim to discern a deeper “spiritual truth” behind the shallow vulgar letter of the biblical text, a “truth” that Luther and his colleagues recognized is likely merely the result of the wishful projection of sinful man and woman.

In conclusion, we must point out that the internal clarity of Scripture is profoundly tied to the notion of objectivity: Indeed, the necessary condition of Scriptural clarity is semantic objectivity. While we can perhaps model the sentences of Scripture, we cannot grasp how these models correspond to the actual divine world. For this the Holy Spirit is needed, for it is His presence that makes possible understanding what is clearly asserted in the text. The Word of the text, externally clear and objective, becomes internally clear as well when the Holy Spirit grants internal appropriation of that external Word. In other words, the model of the sentences of Scripture is now grasped as characteristic of how the divine is, especially how the divine is with respect to us.


(1) Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1972 (Luther's Works 33), S. 33:25. Compare the following from Quenstedt: “But the articles of faith and the moral precepts are taught in scripture in their proper places, not in obscure and ambiguous words, but in such as are fitted to them, and free from all ambiguity, so that every diligent reader of scripture who reads it devoutly and piously, can understand them” [Quenstedt (1617-88), Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 81].

(2) LW 33:26

(3) LW 33:27

(4) LW 33:28

(5) LW 33:28

LW 33:28

(7) Quoted in Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 83-4.

(8) Ibid., 86.

(9) Ibid.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Some Questions about Divine Agency

As a college student thirty years ago I read John Wisdom's "Gods" and was struck by the the Parable of the Invisible Gardener. Twenty-five years ago as a Ph.D. student, I read Flew, Hare, and Mitchell on the conditions for the meaningfulness of theological language. Flew had used the example of Wisdom's Invisible Gardener to show how theological claims "die the death of a thousand qualifications." Any claim that is consistent with any way that the world might have gone is a claim without semantic content. What claim is made, after all, when one says that "an invisible gardener comes and tends this mountain meadow" and that "this gardener is invisible and wholly incapable of detection"? What claim is made when one says 'God loves the young girl" and yet the young girl is suffering from throat cancer and is in severe pain? What strange ways religious people use words! How can one apply 'love' meaningfully after one admits that divine love is wholly unlike human love?

Twenty-five years ago, I was convinced by Flew. In fact, I was still convinced by Flew five years ago. However, I am no longer convinced by Flew. He supposed that any claim consistent with any way the world might have gone is no claim at all. I no longer agree. In fact, if one thinks deeply enough about this, one would expect a claim about God to be consistent with any way the world might be. Why? Well, if God is not a contingent being like other contingent beings, then the relational and non-relational properties of God would not be assigned by the way properties are distributed in the actual world. The properties of a necessary being would be based upon the way properties distribute in all possible worlds.

We can, of course, distinguish many senses of necessity. Of interest here is not logical or conceptual necessity, but metaphysical necessity. Whereas logical and conceptual necessity governs how states of affairs must be in all possible worlds and is thus a priori, metaphysical necessity speaks about what states of affairs must obtain on the basis of finding some other state of affairs obtains. For instance, "I think, therefore I am" is not true in all possible worlds, because one can imagine thinking without there being one that things. (Sartre presumably accomplished this.) However, given the fact that one is thinking, one is clearly being. That is, given the a posteriori fact of one thinking, one cannot not be present to think. Similarly, given the contingent fact that gold has an atomic number of 79, gold cannot not have such an atomic number. When one finds that about a thing that cannot otherwise be if the thing is to be the thing, one has found what is metaphysically necessary about the thing.

The point is that if God should exist, God could not not have the divine nature that makes God, God. Just as gold could have not existed, but did with an atomic number of 79, so could God have not existed, but does with a divine nature of love. Just as it is metaphysically necessary for gold to have an atomic number of 79, it is metaphysically necessary for God to love His creation. Finally, just as gold having the atomic number of 79 is consistent with any way worlds with gold present might have been, so too God loving his creation is consistent with any way those worlds with God present might have been. If God necessarily loves, this loving should be expected to be consistent with any way that the world might have been. Far from dying the death of a thousand qualifications, claiming that God love's His creation is to say something like humans loving after all. The modal status of love should not confuse us into thinking that God does not love, rather it should instruct us as to look not at the "moves in the game" but rather " at the rules of the game." Divine love is to human love as the rules of the game are to moves in the game. Just as the rules of the game are consistent with any moves within the game, so too is divine love consistent with any spatio-temporal acts of loving. Finally, just as the rules of the game show the spectrum of possible moves in the game, so does divine loving show the range of possible occasions of concrete, earthly loving.

Perhaps we have been thinking about divine agency wrongly. Perhaps we should not expect to find such agency as moves within the game, but as rules promulgated for the game. If so, such agency might show the spectrum of possible occasions of concrete human agents doing certain things. Perhaps we have been bewitched into thinking divine agency a contingent matter, rather than a matter of metaphysical necessity. In all worlds in which God is, God cannot not be at work. His being at work creates the very possiblity for human agency.

It is the mark of a necessity that the necessary thing be in all possible worlds. If divine agency is metaphysically necessary, it is in all those worlds in which there is God, worlds distinguished by the distribution of their worldly, contingent events. Perhaps if we could detect divine love like we discern human love, we would not have divine love at all. Making a macro-move in a game does not change the way that the game is played. Maybe Flew has been wrong all of these years; perhaps a claim that is consistent with any way the world might have been is not a pseudo-claim, but a more profound kind of claim. Perhaps we are not expecting such a claim, because we can undersand no longer what it would be for God to be.