From Luther to Beauregard: My, how public theology has fallen

Image result for marburg colloquy

In October of 1529, the leading Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and Phillip Melanchthon met with several other theologians at Marburg Castle in Hesse, Germany, to see if they could put on paper a Protestant theology that would unite the disparate factions in Europe against the Roman Catholic Church. This colloquy is perhaps best remembered for the falling out of Luther and Zwingli over the issue of the real presence of Christ within the Eucharist, which ultimately led to two Protestant confessions: Lutheran and Calvinist. However, the resulting fifteen point document, known as the Marburg Articles, contains two points that have oddly become most relevant, nearly 500 years on, to all Protestant Christians, regardless of confession, in the United States.

Twelfth, that all secular authorities, laws, courts, and ordinances, wherever they may be, are of a correct and proper standing and not forbidden, as many papists and Anabaptists teach and hold. Rather, that a Christian, if he is called or born into the ruling class, can be saved through faith in Christ, just as in the class of father and mother, husband and wife, etc.

Thirteenth, that that which we call traditions in our human order in spiritual and ecclesiastical business, so long as they are not clearly contrary to God’s Word, may be followed or abandoned so that those with whom we deal can be shielded from all nature of unnecessary annoyance and the weak and common peace can be aided through love.

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Five years later, in 1534, the Act of Supremacy made England’s King Henry VIII the head of the Anglican Church. After his death in 1553, Queen Mary I, a Catholic better-known as “Bloody Mary,” engaged in the violent oppression of the very church for which she was the head. Mary’s brief reign was followed by the Elizabethan age, which saw the undeniable assent of the Anglican Church. During these years, though, the religious wars became such an issue, not only for the United Kingdom but for Christian Europe as a whole, that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V signed the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. In it was set forth the provisio cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, their religion.”

Unfortunately, that peace left out everyone except the Catholics and the Lutherans. It is a sad truth that the history of Christianity is largely one of exclusion, at least when it is the religion of the empire. Denominationalism rarely has focused on radical inclusion, in the grand sweep of Christian history.

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St. Augustine’s classic text, City of God, evidences that Christians have long been thinking about the relationship between earthly kingdoms, such as that which opposed Jesus of Nazareth, and the kingdom of heaven promised upon the return of Christ. City of God, in many ways, is a Christian rewriting of Plato’s Republic. At issue in both is how one lives a life that is both sacred and profane. How does one define duty clearly if there are competing goods? For Plato, the choice is between allegiance to the city-state or to the Good? For Augustine, allegiance to the ruling power or to Jesus the Christ?

This past week, as the horrid immigration crisis has revealed the demonic and reprobate nature of the Trump Administration, we’ve been witness to the Attorney General of the United States, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offering their weighty, considered theological opinions. The former offered a tortured reading of Romans 13, the latter, an exegetically-dubious, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.” 

I bet Augustine and Luther are just shitting themselves.

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The Marburg Articles excerpted above show the continuation of the grand conversation, from pagan Rome to Catholic Rome to Protestant Europe. How do we negotiate ourselves as public and private persons? How do we properly fulfill our obligations and maintain right allegiances? How do we serve God whilst being subject to human rule? 

Reformation Europe was a powderkeg frequently ignited. Theological concerns were not just matters for colloquies. Heresy trials resulted in the deaths of remarkable, sincere people. Massive armies were at the command of religious zealots of varying theologies; all the while, the mass of humanity led lives of quiet desperation (with apologies to Thoreau).

The Articles aimed, in some real way, to set forth a few practical answers. I write as a pastoral theologian; for me, the only theology that matters is that which helps us get through the vicissitudes of life. I try to hold myself to the ethical principles that are a direct outgrowth of my code of morality. And my moral code, more than anything else, is rooted in the God of justice, compassion, mercy, grace, and love. So while I may not agree with some of the principles of the Articles, I deeply appreciate that they were focused on guiding people in how to follow God in the world.

So what do the articles excerpted above mean?

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Article Twelve: that all secular authorities, laws, courts, and ordinances, wherever they may be, are of a correct and proper standing and not forbidden, as many papists and Anabaptists teach and hold. Is it a sin to utilize the courts or governmental structures in a system you find to be fundamentally corrupted or contrary to your understanding of God? This article says, “no.” We live in a society and in order to function, we have to engage with those who are different (again, keeping in mind that there were only two actors at first, Catholics and Lutherans).

Rather, that a Christian, if he is called or born into the ruling class, can be saved through faith in Christ, just as in the class of father and mother, husband and wife, etc. 

This is really interesting. There are several things at play here.

  1. Salvation is not a matter of class. Christ is the great equalizer. All who have faith will be met with the same grace, unearned but freely given.
  2. The other stations mentioned, that of mother and father, are telling. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a command Christians have taken just as seriously as our Jewish siblings. So, parenthood was seen as a Christian duty that, in its fulfilling, would keep a person close to God. Therefore, a person in the ruling class can remain close to God while participating in government.
  3. We must consider the ramifications of the first two points. If we are all equal before God, how are we to understand when we are born or brought into the ruling class? If this path is a valid one in order to remain in right relationship with Christ, is this because we can actualize what we believe God calls us to do within government? Or is the idea here that we can participate in a flawed or even corrupted government and not fear for our salvation as long as we retain faith in Christ?

To be sure, there are detailed, historical answers about which my colleagues in church history are much more qualified to write. For our purposes, it will suffice to point at the shiny object and say “look, Christians have been wrestling with these questions for millennia and, gasp, there are millions of pages written about them!” I’m looking at you, Beauregard. 

Article the Thirteenth, that that which we call traditions in our human order in spiritual and ecclesiastical business, so long as they are not clearly contrary to God’s Word, may be followed or abandoned so that those with whom we deal can be shielded from all nature of unnecessary annoyance and the weak and common peace can be aided through love.

This would have been an interesting argument to offer in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. The writers of Marburg were saying: “We’ve really got to let some stuff go. Yes, traditions are important and we should keep those that are essential to our faith practice. But we live in a society and we’ve got to pick our battles. Is this really so important that the common peace should be interrupted, or aid to the weak should be compromised?

For Protestants, Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms—in a 1528 sermon he also refers to it as two kinds of righteousness—is perhaps the most well-known example we can use to situate the theological dumbfuckery that is Evangelical Christianity in the United States.

Luther wrote of two different kingdoms: the temporal one of this world, and the spiritual one of God’s. Our temporal world exists because of sin, because of the fall of Adam. This realm is constantly bombarded by evil, thronged as it is by the devil and ensnared in sin, sticky like a spider web spun on a sap-laden tree. The only safeguards against this are the “offices” and “stations” (rulers, teachers, pastors, parents) that accompany temporal existence.

It is here where nuance too often is lost. Luther maintains that God is in control of both realms, but humans access them differently. For the temporal world, there is the Law. For the spiritual, there is the Gospel. Dr. Anders Nygren writes in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics 

Luther insists that it is of primary importance not to confuse the two kingdoms. Each must be true to its Divine mission. Through the Gospel God rules His spiritual kingdom, forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies. But He does not thereby supersede or abolish the earthly kingdom: in its domain it is to rule with power and the sword. Any attempt to rule the world with the Gospel is a double error, carrying a double penalty. Firstly, the Gospel is destroyed, and becomes a new Law to take the place of the old – man makes Christ another Moses, as Luther puts it. And in addition the world suffers: to quote Luther, “What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked, under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” And again. “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles ,and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live a godly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would not live long.” https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/931 

Luther sees the Law (understood here first as the Ketuvim, and then Lutheran teaching) as a structure through which God can work and the people can best be prepared to receive the Gospel. It is a mistake to regard the two realms as separate, for both are under the domain of God. However, adherence to God’s law is, next to grace, the best way to navigate our way through the present morass.

When Luther writes about the abandoning of traditions, whether they be ecclesial or civil, for the sake of the common peace, he is always thinking about the nature of sin and the impact it has on people. For Luther, the stakes humans face are incredibly high; he described terrifying visions of hell that would make Jonathan Edwards sleep with a nightlight. But he also had a practical side. What are these arguments about traditions doing to advance God’s love, to bring about peace, and to help the afflicted? Are you objecting to something that does not go against God’s law? If so, let that shit go. 

Or something like that.

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The present administration, in a word, is lawless. It comes as no surprise to me that the public theology from within and around the president’s dirty nest is malformed and mutant. The notion that any earthly law that is in place is de facto the desire of God is ridiculous on its face. If Evangelicals and Republicans (six of one, right?) really believed that, they never would have said a cross word about President Obama. Beauregard and his ilk have a peculiar theology: the Law only applies to those whom they hate and want to oppress, grace is available only to those who look like them, and the purpose of life post-baptism is to judge others in such harsh terms one wonders how God, on judgment day, could stoop any lower and still be called God.

I agree that Church and State should be separated. But as a follower of Jesus, I have moral codes that I think should be ethical ones as well. You don’t need Jesus in order to arrive at these ethical principles. People of myriad faith and philosophical traditions and non-traditions have arrived upon them independently of Christianity. As a Christian, though, God does not allow me to simply absolve myself of responsibility to speak out and act against that which violates the Gospel.

The only being I submit to completely is God. And it is not the God talked about by the likes of a Huckabee.

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