Sunday, November 09, 2008

Luther's Decalogue

The next set of papers were presented on Martin Luther and John Calvin. Dr Timothy Wengert presented the first paper on Martin Luther. Luther’s figure is imposing in any element of historical theology, and the same is no less true in the interpretation of the Decalogue. Luther moved us from Patristic and medieval theology, past medieval piety into Reformation theology.

Luther famously, I gathered, drew a distinction between Law and Gospel in his theology. For later theologians, this seems to be an important point of agreement or disagreement by which to discuss the Decalogue. Luther said that the Law was to the Gospel as the righteousness of this creation was to the righteousness of Christ.

For Luther, the Decalogue had two uses: the reveal sin in the individual’s experience, not just cognitively; and to establish a basis for civil order. For Luther, in the Decalogue an “ought” did not imply a “can.” That is, simply because one was commanded that he should do something doesn’t mean that he could carry it out apart from God’s enabling.

The first commandment for Luther struck at the heart of sin: unbelief. It demanded faith to replace unbelief in the hearer. Luther’s “faith” inevitably gave rise to so many good works that “self-chosen spirituality” was unnecessary. Luther made this argument, it seemed, in part to undermine the validity of monastic orders, which apparently seemed to function as artificial mechanisms for generating good deeds (Col 2:23).

The Liber Graduum and Aquinas made distinctions the moral lives of common Christians and those of “saints.” As far as I could tell, Luther rejected this division. He embraced the entirety of life as holy unto God. The Christian life is the common life. This is another reason why Luther rejected monastic spirituality. He supported this argument by focusing on the idea of the law written on the heart. This seemed to extract the Law from its contexts in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

While the Law revealed sin, it did not create faith. It pointed to Christ, but it did not do the positive work of moving them toward him per se. Instead, belief arises out of God’s mercy.

The Decalogue is famously imagined as being on two tablets. For Luther, the Decalogue was tripartite: 1-3, 4, 5-10. That is, he saw each tablet having distinct and different applications based on their purposes. He also placed these in a 4-tier hierarchy, from top to bottom: 1, 2-3, 4, 5-10.

Luther also weighed in with his interpretation on the fourth commandment. He argued that all days were sacred, or that different days were made sacred by different people. He believed that individuals should set aside a day as sacred unto God or consider all days sacred. This seems fitting in light of his desire to embrace the entirety of life, the common life, as holy.

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