Luther is hardly a 'humanist'; he has no interest in classical learning as such, let alone classical ethics. But his personal and professional concern with the interpretation of Scripture drives him to a more sustained engagement with what lies behind the surface of the text than can be managed within the framework of conventional scholastic theology, and he shares with the Erasmian circle a problem over reality and appearances. He is also very clearly the heir of the negative mysticism of Eckhart and Tauler: he translated into German the post-Tauler compendium, the Theologia Germanica. The stress in Tauler and similar writers on faith as a pilgrimage into a territory without 'means' or methods, into a desert where religious observances guarantee no tangible results, is forcefully reflected in Luther's fierce hostility both to a religious busyness designed to secure divine favour and a 'charismatic' focus on experiences of assurance. In the second decade of the sixteenth century, Luther develops his critique of what he calls a 'theology of glory', a theology that celebrates congruence and harmony, the accessibility or visibility of God in the creation. In the theses Luther advanced at Heidelberg in 1518 (Luther 1962), he gave definitive expression to this critique, insisting that God becomes 'visible' only in situations where there is no congruence, no readable symbolic reference—i.e. above all in the cross of Jesus, where, to the human eye, God is absent. God can only be seen to be God where his utter difference from creation is shown: if he can be confused in any way with the order or process of the world, he is no longer distinctive or free. Thus the beginning of real knowledge of God (and so of real theology) is what Luther very bluntly calls being in hell, experiencing utter dereliction and meaninglessness. From here, and here alone, one can rediscover the experiences of ordinary life as all pervaded by grace. If God does not belong with a particular set of positive 'religious' experiences, the kind of experience you may have if you perform religious duties or undergo religious ecstasy, then God is not restricted in his presence in the world. The so-called 'secular' environment becomes a place for God to be found.
Hence Luther's eventual disenchantment with the ideal of monasticism (he ceased to wear the monastic habit in 1524, and married a year later): we encounter God not in a special sort of life, but in performing the ordinary obligations of our human life. There is no way in which we can earn God's favour by doing extraordinary things; so we must do prosaic ones instead. And we do what we do not out of the desire to purchase our eternal wellbeing, but freely: we imitate the gratuity of God's love by doing what we do not need to—serving and loving each other. All this is set out briefly and powerfully in Luther's treatise on The Liberty of a Christian, written in 1520 (Luther 1952); and it expresses with clarity the distinction between reality and appearance, inner and outer, that becomes more and more characteristic of the whole literature of spiritual growth in this period. The goal we aim at is a state in which our outward behaviour perfectly expresses the inner reality— which is union with Jesus Christ through trust in his action on our behalf to redeem us. The process of Christian living, Christian witness, comes after the fundamental transition, which is our inner cleaving to God out of the depths of abandonment and helplessness, where God in his humility comes to meet us, without form or comeliness, in that naked sharing of our Godlessness which is the cross of Jesus. We cannot move from the outside to the inside, from appearance to hidden truth, because this reverses the true order of reality: Christ is not holy because of what he does and suffers externally, he is holy in essence from the beginning. To be identified with Jesus is to share his inner sanctity, a holiness not achieved or purchased, but simply there, purely 'given'. And this is why Luther (notoriously) taught that we could not really theologize about the process of sanctification, why we could not expect outward behaviour to give us any firm indication about inner spiritual states, why we could be called 'righteous and sinners at the same time' (simul Justus et peccator). We could, of course, rightly and properly work to express our inner union with Christ, and it would be a caricature to suggest that Luther was not profoundly concerned about this; but there is, in his thinking, a kind of timeless quality to our holiness, as there is to the Church's holiness or apostolic integrity.
This was a strategy that enabled Luther to give at least a potentially positive evaluation to styles of life that had been consistently treated as second best in earlier periods—above all, marriage and commercial or civic activity. What distinguishes the Christian is not the particular style or state of life he or she is in, but the inner truth of God's grace and our trustful response. Thus it becomes almost impossible to say in advance that there are states of life or kinds of work incompatible with being a Christian. And here lay the ambiguity of Luther's revolution: the turn to interiority, in this austerely theological and christological context, could easily leave Christian ethics rather stranded, divided by a great gulf from theology and spirituality. The visible forms of Christian social life are supposed to be indistinguishable from those of worldly life at large; and this could lead to the conclusion that Christian faithfulness in external matters was always a matter of loyal and unquestioning belonging to whatever social order happened to prevail. If all external things stand equally under the sign of God's absence and difference, they all stand (or are capable of standing) under the sign of God's approval, by the same token, and no room is left for Christian protest as a legitimate spiritual path. The terror and profundity of Luther himself become part of a passive or pietist ideology for a bourgeois society or worse (the Lutheran heritage was to prove an acute problem in the era of the Third Reich in Germany). In many respects, Luther remains a medieval, the last and most radical of the German mystics of the later Middle Ages, taking to one possible logical conclusion the deep distrust of method and action in spirituality so characteristic of these earlier writers. But the paradoxical effect of his synthesis was to provide something of a theological alibi for certain kinds of modern political structures, centralizing and conformist, and with a supreme authority answerable to noone—a deeply un-medieval idea.
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