Faith Active in Love Reformation

The understanding of love in the Reformation period shifted fundamentally from the Augustinian-medieval theological developments. For the Reformers, love is no longer conceived in terms of Plato's highest good or Aristotle's crown of virtue ''baptized'' as God's grant of ''the crown of life,'' caritas, to those successfully ascending the ladder from vice to virtue. Already in one of the earliest Reformation writings, Luther's ''Disputation Against Scholastic Theology'' (1517), Aristotelian foundations for theology are decisively rejected: ''An act of friendship is not . . . the most perfect means for obtaining the grace of God...'' ''Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.'' ''It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle.'' ''Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.'' ''Briefly, the whole of Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light.'' ''The grace of God... is not given so that good deeds might be induced more frequently and readily.'' The Augustinian synthesis of eros and agape, of an ordered love to God and neighbor, is rejected on the basis that no matter how much God's agape enables human eros to ascend the ladder of virtues the burden of proof for the ascent finally rests upon the person. The Reformation shifted the paradigm from God-assisted cooperation in salvation to the sole activity of God. A homely analogy contrasting monkeys and cats has been used to highlight this shift. When the mother monkey senses danger she calls her babies to climb up and cling to her back to be carried to safety. When the mother cat senses danger she grabs her kittens by the scruff of their necks and carries them to safety.

The love of God, then, from the perspective of the Reformation, is received through faith in God's promise of salvation, rather than achieved by the medieval triad of prayer, fasting, and alms. In contrast to the Aristotelian logic that since like can only know like fellowship with God must be on God's level, the Reformers proclaimed that fellowship with God occurs on the human level; God descends in love to humankind. The consequence of this ''religionless'' Christianity - that is, the freedom from striving toward heaven for salvation -was the release of resources and energy from an ''otherworldly'' ascent to gain the love of God to a this-worldly faith-rooted love to the neighbor. The ''direction'' of love did an about face from ascent to descent, from love to God to God's love flowing down to love of the neighbor. Social effects of this shift from ''faith formed by love'' to ''faith active in love'' included a revalorization of marriage and sexuality, and the institutionalization of love to the neighbor in the form of civic social welfare and universal education.

The shift in understanding love is evident in the conversion experience of Martin Luther (1483-1546). As a young monk, priest, and then professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, Luther reacted with despair to the biblical injunction to love God above all else and the neighbor as oneself. His sensitivity to the mixed motives of all lovers as well as his own, burdened his conscience and efforts to ascend in love to God. Luther experienced the striving to love God above all and the neighbor as himself tinged by either fear of punishment or hope of reward as basically love of self. Indeed, Luther came to define sin just that way, as being curved in upon the self, in contrast to Augustine's defining sin as being curved toward lesser goods. Such egoism, ''a higher hedonism'' if you will, is a vicious circle. What kind of God would put such a burden of proof for love upon sinners? Toward the end of his life, Luther recalled: ''Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. . . . I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.'' His conversion occurred when through study of the text of Romans 1:17 he came to realize that the love and righteousness of God is a gift not a demand. Luther expressed his sharp divergence from the medieval ''order of love'' in his discussion of God's promise to love humankind as a last will and testament sealed by the death of Christ. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther wrote: ''A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, in which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs. A testament, therefore, involves, first the death of the testator, and second, the promise of an inheritance and the naming of the heir.'' He then refers to the discussions of testament in Romans 4, Galatians 3-4, and Hebrews 9, concluding with the promise given at the Last Supper of Christ's body given ''for you,'' ''that is, for those who accept and believe the promise of the testator. For here it is faith that makes men heirs,...'' Luther continued this theme of inheritance in his Treatise on the New Testament, That Is, the Holy Mass. Preparation for the sacrament ''is all pure foolishness and self-deception, if you do not set before you the words of the testament____You would have to spend a long time polishing your shoes, preening and primping to attain an inheritance if you had no letter and seal with which you could prove your right to it. But if you have a letter and seal, and believe, desire, and seek it, it must be given to you, even though you were scaly, scabby, stinking, and most filthy.'' In short, the sinner accepts that he or she is named as an heir in God's last will and testament, and since God has died, the will is in effect. In more prosaic language, again in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church: ''First of all there is God's Word. After it follows faith; after faith, love; then love does every good work,... That is to say, that the author of salvation is not man, by any works of his own, but God through his promise; ...'' Such faith, Luther stated, ''is followed by works as the body is followed by its shadow.''

In contrast to all pieties of achievement, then and now, Luther affirmed God's descent in Jesus to humankind rather than humankind's ascent to God. In opposition to the medieval renunciation of the world, epitomized by the image and metaphor of the ladder to heaven, Luther criticized any religion that prescribed ''heavenward journeys'' for such ''travelers will break their necks.'' Thus in a sermon on the Gospel of John, Luther has Jesus say: ''I have revealed to you in My Word what form I would assume and to whom you should give. You do not ascend into heaven, where I am seated at the right hand of My heavenly Father, to give Me something; no I come down to you in humility. I place flesh and blood before your door with the plea: ''Give me a drink!... I do not need food in heaven____ I have had it announced to all the world that whatever is done to the least of My brethren is done to me.''

Luther did not write a specific tract on love, but he did set forth a thesis in his ''Heidelberg Disputation'' (1518) that succinctly presents the distinction discussed earlier between eros and agape. Thesis 28 reads: ''The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.'' In explaining this thesis, Luther wrote:

The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. For this reason the love of man avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: ''For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners'' [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. ''It is more blessed to give than to receive'' [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle.

Since for Luther salvation, we may say here the love of God, is not the process or goal of life, but rather the presupposition of life, his theology became a transvaluation of all values. Thus his orientation to social issues was not in the mode of the Aristotelian (and modern!) progress from vice to virtue. Love to the neighbor is based upon neither self-realization nor upon its results, but upon God's promise. Social ethics therefore does not depend upon success, but upon God's promise: faith is active in love.

Good works are not salvatory, but they do serve the neighbor. Since works are not ultimate but penultimate activities of the sinner saved by the justifying God, they are this-worldly rather than other-worldly, directed to the neighbor in response to God's love. Thus Luther's social ethics are aptly described as ''the liturgy after the liturgy.'' In his ''Preface'' to the Leisnig town Ordinance of a Common Chest, Luther wrote: ''Now there is no greater service of God [dienst Gottes is equivalent to the German word for worship, Gottesdienst] than Christian love which helps and serves the needy, as Christ himself will judge and testify at the Last Day, Matthew 25[:31-46].'' ''The world would be full of worship if everyone served his neighbor, the farmhand in the stable, the boy in the school, maid and mistress in the home.'' By emphasizing that love to God occurred in the world, through the goods of the world - including one's beer vat, as he once said - Luther overcame the inherent religious separation of sacred and profane activity.

From the initial uproar over the ''95 Theses'' of 1517 to his death after mediating a dispute between the counts of Mansfeld in 1546, Luther remained center stage through the religious, economic, political, and social upheavals of the period. Throughout these upheavals and rapid social changes, people appealed to him for advice concerning every area of personal and social life. The multiplicity of social issues created as well as unleashed by Luther's initiation of reform may be approached under the rubric he used of the ''three orders'' or ''estates'' - the church, household (economy), and government (politics). According to Luther, these are the fundamental forms by which God's promise of creation constitutes human existence. In his Confession Concerning Christ's Supper, Luther related these forms to Christian love. ''Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc.''

It is also important to recognize that the borders between the three estates are permeable, and the concerns of one estate frequently relate to the concerns of the other. Further, the estate of the household was broadly conceived to include not only marriage and the family, but also social welfare and local and national economic concerns.

Since, according to Luther, salvation is the source rather than the goal of life, Christians are called to celebrate the ordinary. Luther thus rejected every form of flight from the world with its suspicion of creation including the human body. Humankind is not called to flee the world but rather to engage the world for the common good. One early concrete demonstration of the new faith was clerical marriage. This was not just a matter of breaking church law; rather, the public rejection of mandatory clerical celibacy encompassed the new evangelical understanding of the relationship to God and the world.

Luther's confrontation with church authorities on this subject began with his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate. Every priest should be free to marry because ''before God and the Holy Scriptures marriage of the clergy is no offense.'' Clerical celibacy is not God's law but the pope's, and ''Christ has set us free from all man-made laws, especially when they are opposed to God and the salvation of souls____'' Thus the pope has no more power to command celibacy than ''he has to forbid eating, drinking, the natural movement of the bowels, or growing fat.'' Luther was well aware that the abolition of clerical celibacy would entail radical rethinking of church law, government, and property. Luther's application of evangelical theology to marriage and family de-sacramentalized marriage, making it a civil affair; de-sacralized the clergy making them tax-paying citizens, and re-sacralized the life of the laity for work in the world as signs of God's love; and joyfully affirmed God's good creation, including sexual relations.

As already noted, the medieval church viewed the celibate life as a meritorious work for salvation, and perpetuated patristic suspicions of sexuality as the font of original sin. Jerome's (c.342-420) view that virginity is the ideal state of Christian life (''Marriages fill the earth, virginity fills heaven'')

was repugnant and blasphemous to Luther. To Luther, sex is an aspect of God's good creation. Ozment, in Protestants, states that in contrast to the patristic and medieval tradition of asceticism, Luther and his colleagues ''literally transferred the accolades Christian tradition heaped on the religious in monasteries and nunneries to marriage and the home. . . . 'Faith not virginity, fills paradise,' the Wittenberg pastor Johannes Bugenhagen retorted in the 1520s. 'Saint Jerome's unfortunate comment . . . must be corrected,' agreed the Lutheran poet Erasmus Alberus; 'let us rather say, ''Connubium replete coelum, Marriage fills heaven.''' Luther, in the words of Oberman, ''excoriated repression of the sexual drive in the service of a higher perfection, . . . Luther wanted to liberate the Christian faith from this distortion: he could not accept the oppression of people down to their most intimate moments and warned of its devastating effects on society.'' In Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So Called, Luther asserted that men and women cannot do without one another because ''to conceive children is as deeply implanted in nature as eating and drinking are. That is why God gave us and implanted into our body genitals, blood vessels, fluids, and everything else to accomplish it.''

With marriage and the household estate came multiple responsibilities to the larger community and vice-versa. As Luther stated: ''Marriage does not only consist of sleeping with a woman - anybody can do that - but of keeping house and bringing up children.'' Those who followed Luther saw in marriage not only a new joyous appreciation for sexual relations, but also a new respect for women as companions. Luther could not imagine life without women: ''The home, cities, economic life and government would virtually disappear. Men cannot do without women. Even if it were possible for men to beget and bear children, they still couldn't do without women.''

In 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora who two years earlier had arrived in Wittenberg with other nuns who had escaped from a Cistercian convent. Their six children provided Luther with new insights into human and divine love. Stolt relates how Luther was surprised by the intensity of his love for his children, and thereby gained emotional insight into God the Father's love for humankind. He compared God's love and forgiveness of sin to his changing his children's diapers and the consequent removal of shit and stink. He often compared the stink of babies' diapers with the sins of adults - using the still prevalent phrase - ''That stinks to high heaven!'' Again, he drew the analogy between parents' love and care for their children to the merciful forgiving love of God.

Luther sought to redefine what his society thought appropriate for male and female behavior. As noted in the previous chapter, medieval society and theology sanctioned prostitution and civic brothels. The church tolerated prostitution because its gender values denigrated sex and also assumed that male desire was an anarchic, uncontrollable force that, if not provided an outlet, would pollute the town's respectable women. Luther's criticism of this rationale attacked his culture's gender presupposition concerning males. In asserting equal responsibility for males and females, Luther criticized the double standard of his day as well as the existence of brothels. Luther attempted to redefine his culture's understanding of male gender from uncontrollable impulse to social responsibility. Where the Reformation took root, brothels were outlawed.

For Luther, marriage and family life are Christian callings. His sermons and catechisms made it clear, in contrast to the theology and laws of the medieval church, that home and discipleship are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, it is precisely in marriage that faithful sexual relations are possible, and religious vocation of loving the neighbor finds realization. To the medieval person, vocation was limited to priests, nuns, and monks. The thought that persons could serve God in marriage was revolutionary. Justification by grace alone, apart from works, liberated Christians from achieving salvation by renunciation of the world, and enabled service to the neighbor in the world. The neighbor here is the person encountered in the concrete situation, that is, parents, spouse, and children.

Luther rejected flight into self-chosen religious callings of clericalism, and called people to serve others in the web of relationships where they live. We are to do, Luther asserted, what God commands not what we fancy God would like. Here, again, Luther focused on the ''the ordinary.'' The perennial temptation of the religious person is the desire to do ''important'' things rather than sweep the floor, change diapers, and do the dishes. Luther's point, however, is that we are not called to self-chosen extraordinary tasks, but rather to service in the world. Luther's ironic critique of medieval theology is evident in The Estate of Marriage:

We err in that we judge the work of God according to our own feelings, and regard not his will but our own desire Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason... takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, ''Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade,... and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? ...It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.''

For Luther, the Christian is called to love and serve others wherever God has placed him or her. Thus ''when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool... my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling - not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.''

A major social issue on the eve of the Reformation was widespread poverty exacerbated by the rapid, unrestrained growth of the profit economy and legitimated by the church's sanctification and idealization of poverty as the preferred condition of Christian life. Poverty was perceived as a kind of spiritual capital for poor and rich alike. The poor had a decided edge in the pilgrimage to salvation (the rich can no more squeeze through the eye of a needle into heaven than can a camel; Mark 10:25). On the other hand, the church had long emphasized that almsgiving atones for sin. Thus almsgiving provided the poor with some charity, enabled the rich to atone for their sins, and blessed the rich with the intercessions of the poor. The symbiotic relationship of rich and poor is succinctly expressed by the ancient line: ''God could have made all men rich, but he wanted poor men in this world so that the rich might have an opportunity to redeem their sins.''

Luther's doctrine of justification cut the nerve of the medieval ideology of poverty. Since salvation is God's free gift, both poverty and almsgiving lose saving significance. The de-spiritualization of poverty allowed recognition of poverty as a personal and social evil to be combated. Justification by grace alone caused a paradigm shift in the understanding of poverty. Poverty was no longer understood as the favored status of the Christian, but rather a social ill to be combated. The poor are no longer the objects of meritorious charity, but neighbors to be served through justice and equity. Under the rubrics of justice and love to the neighbor, Luther and his colleagues moved in alliance with local governments to establish government welfare policies.

The first major effort was the Wittenberg Church Order of 1522 that established a ''common chest'' for welfare work. Initially funded by medieval ecclesiastical endowments and later by taxes, the Wittenberg Order prohibited begging; provided interest-free loans to artisans, who were to repay them whenever possible; provided for poor orphans, the children of poor people, and poor maidens who needed an appropriate dowry for marriage; provided refinancing of high interest loans at 4 percent annual interest for burdened citizens; and supported the education or vocational training of poor children. The Wittenberg common chest was a new creation of the Reformation that transformed theology into social praxis. Its financial basis soon included sales of grain, public collections, and a primitive banking operation. These resources enabled it to exercise a broad spectrum of social welfare including care of the sick and elderly and support of communal schools. Other communities quickly picked up these ideas. By 1523 the cities of Leisnig, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Altenburg, Kitzingen, Strasbourg, Breslau, and Regensburg had legislated common chest provisions for social welfare.

These ordinances for poor relief were efforts to implement Luther's conviction that social welfare policies designed to prevent as well as alleviate poverty are a Christian social responsibility. While Luther's efforts to develop welfare legislation were well received in the cities and territories that accepted the Reformation, his efforts to encourage civic control of capitalism gained little support. His conviction that Christian love is inseparable from equity and justice for the least in society ran into the stone wall of early modern capitalism. He discovered it was easier to motivate assistance to the poor than to curb the economic structures and practices that created and fostered the conditions of poverty. The squalor of poverty calls out for redress, whereas the attractive trappings of business muffle criticism. ''How skillfully,'' Luther wrote,

''Sir Greed can dress up to look like a pious man if that seems to be what the occasion requires, while he is actually a double scoundrel and a liar.''

Luther found the calculating entrepreneur extremely distasteful. He was convinced that the capitalist spirit divorced money from use for human needs and necessitated an economy of acquisition. Personal identity shifts from ''you are who you love'' to ''you are what you have.'' From his Sermon on Usury (1519) to his Admonition to the Clergy that they Preach Against Usury (1540), Luther consistently preached and wrote against the expanding money and credit economy as a great sin. In the latter tract, he wrote: ''After the devil there is no greater human enemy on earth than a miser and usurer, for he desires to be above everyone. Turks, soldiers, and tyrants are also evil men, yet they allow the people to live____But a usurer and miser-belly desires that the whole world be ruined in order that there be hunger, thirst, misery, and need so that he can have everything and so that everyone must depend upon him and be his slave as if he were God.''

Such usury, Luther argued, affects everyone. ''The usury which occurs in Leipzig, Augsburg, Frankfurt, and other comparable cities is felt in our market and our kitchen. The usurers are eating our food and drinking our drink.'' By manipulating prices ''usury lives off the bodies of the poor.'' ''The world is one big whorehouse, completely submerged in greed,'' where the ''big thieves hang the little thieves'' and the big fish eat the little fish. Thus Luther exhorted pastors to condemn usury as stealing and murder, and to refuse absolution and the sacrament to usurers unless they repent.

Luther's concern was not only about an individual's use of money, but also the structural social damage inherent in the idolatry of the ''laws'' of the market. Ideas of an ''impersonal market'' and ''autonomous laws of economics'' were abhorrent to Luther because he saw them as both idolatrous and socially destructive. He saw the community endangered by the rising financial power of a few great economic centers; their unregulated economic coercion would destroy the ethos of the community. To Luther early capitalism was doubly dangerous because it not only exploited people but also strove to conceal its voracious nature and to deceive people.

Throughout his career Luther fought against what he saw as the two-sided coin of mammonism: ascetic flight from money and the acquisitive drive for it. His foundation for this battle was the great reversal of the gospel that a person's worth is not determined by what he or she does or does not possess, but rather by God's promise in Christ. Thus money is not the lord of life, but the gift of God for serving the neighbor and building up the community. Luther believed that the church was called publicly and unequivocally to reject exploitative economic developments, and to develop a constructive social ethic in response to them. This social ethic contributed directly to the enactment of social welfare legislation in areas that accepted the Reformation, and called for public accountability of large business through government regulation. In his Commentary on Psalm 82, Luther argued that the government ''is to help the poor, the orphans, and the widows to justice, and to further their cause [through regulation of business]____For where there are no laws, the poor, the widows, and the orphans are oppressed. . . . And this is equally true of buying, selling, inheriting, lending, paying, borrowing, and the like. It is only a matter of one getting the better of another, robbing him, stealing from him, and cheating him. This happens most of all to the poor, the widows, and the orphans.''

Luther understood his task as theologian and preacher is to provide a clear critique of existing social structures, and to call the community to work in the different ''estates'' for the well being of the neighbor and the common good. For Luther and his colleagues this meant that faith active in love to the neighbor is incarnated not only through the web of social relationships rooted in marriage and family, but also through government legislation for the common good.

Other Reformers shared these perspectives on love. For example, the Dominican monk Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was resident in the Heidelberg monastery when Luther gave his ''Heidelberg Disputation.'' Bucer went on to become a Reformer in his own right, first in Strasbourg and then in Cambridge. It was in Strasbourg that Bucer wrote his own tract on love, translated as Instruction in Christian Love (1523), in response to requests that he state and account for his faith. The long German title of this tract literally reads: ''That no one should live for himself but for others, and how man can attain that ideal.'' It has been suggested that Bucer took his title from the concluding section of Luther's The Freedom of a Christian: ''We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor____He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.''

Indeed, The Freedom of a Christian became a classic in its own time with its opening theses: ''A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.'' Luther continued: ''These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul's own statements, who says in I Cor. 9[:19], 'For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all,' and in Rom. 13[:8], 'Owe no one anything, except to love one another.' Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.''

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  • ELISA
    Where does "faith active in love" come from?
    19 days ago

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