Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Luther's Early Christology: Manichaean and Gnostic Elements (Theobald Beer, Balthasar, and Pope Benedict XVI)

By Dave Armstrong (5-26-09)

[much information for the following was derived from the cover story, "Luther: Manichean Delirium," by Antonio Socci and Tommaso Ricci, Thirty Days, No. 2, 1992, pp. 54-59]

Theobald Beer
(b. 1902) was a German Luther scholar, who studied at Freising, Paris and Innsbruck. Until 1974 he was a parish priest at Leipzig. Hans Urs von Balthasar has described him as "the greatest expert of our times on Luther." And von Balthasar's publisher, Johannes Verlag, put out Beer's magnum opus, the 584-page Der fröhliche Wechsel und Streit: Grundzüge der Theologie Martin Luthers (1980; previously published by Leipzig: Benno, 1974).

It can be found in over 70 major libraries, including those at Calvin College, Ohio State, Lutheran Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), Columbia, Fordham, Vanderbilt, Duke, Yale, Luther Seminary (St. Paul), Harvard, Baylor, Dallas Theological Seminary, Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote the following to Beer (sometime before 1992):
I found your work really stimulating. The influence of neoplatonism, of pseudo-hermetical literature and of gnosis which you show was wielded on Luther, casts a totally new light on his polemics against Greek philosophy and Scholastics. In a new, significant way you also explore, to the depths of the central point, the differences to be found in Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Hans Urs von Balthsar, in his book, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory: IV: The Action (Ignatius Press, 1994; translated from 1980 edition from Jonhannes Verlag), cites Beer extensively (i.e., Beer's citations from the Weimar Werke), in a section, "The Radicalism of Luther," with regard to the "reformer's" statements on Christology (pp. 284-292). I've touched upon similar elements in both Luther and Calvin before. For example. Balthasar cites Luther:
Christ is more damned and forsaken than all the saints; he did not merely suffer somewhat, as certain people imagine. In all reality and truth, he submitted to God the Father's eternal damnation for us.

(p. 285, from WA, 56, 392, 7 ff.)

Christ felt all the evil that is in us following the act of sin, namely, death and the fear of hell.

(p. 285, from WA, 8, 87, 34 ff.)

He felt the anger of God, more than any other man. Indeed, he felt hell's punishment.

(p. 285, from WA, 40, III, 716, 6)

[Christ is both] dead and living, damned and blessed, in pain and in joy; thus he absorbs into himself all that is evil . . .

(p. 287; WA reference unobtainable from the online copy)

God cannot be God without first becoming a devil; we cannot get into heaven without first going to hell.

(p. 289; "Cf. the entire passage from the interpretation of Psalm 117:31, I, 249, 16-250, 37")
Balthasar comments on these strikingly bizarre utterances:
. . . the entire traditional view of Christ as the Head of mankind falls to the ground. . . . Consequently, there is no place for the primary love of the redeemed for the Person of the Redeemer. Artificially, but very deliberately, the unity of grace -- which justifies and sanctifies -- is torn asunder. Finally, in reducing theology to the pro nobis between Christ and sinners, Luther obscures the entire horizon of God's self-disclosure in Christ, everything the Fathers understood by oikonomia and the "divinization" of man through the grace of participation.

Luther's radicalism found no direct disciples among the other reformers.

(p. 290)

Then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in an interview published in the Catholic magazine Communio (11, no, 3 [1984], 210-226; see also the PDF file), entitled "Luther and the Unity of the Churches," stated:
Theobald Beer, a pastor in Leipzig, has been tenaciously devoting his life to the reading of Luther as well as the late medieval theology prior to Luther. He has studied not only the changes in theological thought in the difference between Luther and Scholasticism, but also between Luther and St. Augustine. In doing so, he has verified important shifts in the design of a Christology which, postulating the idea of "sacred bargaining," is completely bound up with anthropology and the teachings on grace. This new construct, that is, the changed basic configuration of a sacred bargaining (which Beer insists is found continuously from the early to the late Luther) expresses, in Beer's opinion, the reformer's completely different and new attitude toward faith which permits no harmonization. . . .

I believe that today one can discern two basic tenets with respect to which Harnack already saw the basic alternatives: with his catechism, his songs and his liturgical
directives Luther created a tradition of ecclesiastical life in the light of which we can both refer to him as the "father" of such an ecclesiastical life and interpret his work with evangelical churchliness in mind. On the other hand, Luther also created a theological and polemical opus of revolutionary radicality which he by no means retracted in his political dealings with the princes and in his stand against the leftists within the Reformation. Thus one can also comprehend Luther on the basis of his revolutionary break with tradition - and one will, on such a reading, then arrive at quite a different overall view. It would be desirable to keep in mind Luther's piety when reading his polemical works and the revolutionary background when dealing with issues concerning the Church. . . .

To be sure, one must keep in mind that there exist not only Catholic anathemas against Luther's teachings but also Luther's own definitive rejections of Catholic articles of faith which culminate in Luther's verdict that we will remain eternally separate. It is not necessary to borrow Luther's angry response to the Council of Trent in order to prove the definiteness of his rejection of anything Catholic . . . After his final break with the Church, Luther not only categorically rejected the papacy but he also deemed the Catholic teachings about the eucharist (mass) as idolatry because he interpreted the mass as a relapse into the Law and, thus, a denial of the Gospel. To explain all these contradictions as misunderstandings seems to me like a form of rationalistic arrogance which cannot do any justice to the impassioned struggle of those men as well as the importance of the realities in question. The real issue can only lie in how far we are today able to go beyond the positions of those days and how we can arrive at insights which will overcome the past. To put it differently: unity demands new steps. It cannot be achieved by means of interpretative tricks. If separation occurred as a result of contrary religious insights which could locate no space within the traditional teachings of the Church, it will not be possible to create a unity by means of doctrine and discussion alone, but only with the help of religious strength. Indifference appears only on the surface to be a unifying link.
With this background, we shall examine some of Fr. Beer's conclusions about Luther's Christology, as recorded in the interview in 30 Days (referenced at the top of this post). Beer was the first to study thousands of notes that Luther added to the margins of writings by St. Augustine, Peter Lombard, and others; written in the period of 1509-1516. These will soon be published by Concordia Publishing House, as part of its 20 new projected volumes.

These particular notes will be part of the two-volume set, Early Works of Luther (1509 - ca. 1521). The Concordia notice describing the new planned volumes makes reference in this series to "Marginal Notes" to St. Augustine (including On the Trinity and City of God), from the year 1509, which are presently available only in the German Weimar Werke, vol. 9:5-27. Marginal Notes to Lombard's Sentences (1510-1511) are also included (WA 9:29-92), as are notes to Tauler (c. 1516), Biel (1516-1517), and St. Anselm (1513/1516). Theobald Beer also studied lesser-known Luther disputations from 1535-1545.

The Luther revealed in these notes appears strongly anti-Augustinian and even frequently characterized by troubling Gnostic, hermetic, and Manichaean tendencies. Beer proves that Luther's source for his gnostic-influenced thinking, was the work of the pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus, the Book of the 24 Philosophers. The following words are all from Fr. Theobald Beer, in the interview from 30 Days (quotes from Luther will be in red) the interviewers' words will be in blue):
In Luther, there are many passages where the Manichaean notion turns up: God is against himself, 'the devil must be granted an hour of divinity and I must attribute fiendishness to God.' This dualism, this opposition which he attributes to God is really within himself. . . .

Luther does not ask himself: 'Who is Christ?' but 'What is Christ?'. And he observes: 'The philosopher (of Scholastic philosophy) answers: "He is a person, etc." But the theologian answers: "He is a rock, the cornerstone".' And he adds: but petra means peccatum, 'ita Christus vere est oeccatum' (so Christ is really sin). . . .

Luther returns to the pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus on all fundamental points, every time he finds himself grappling with a question and he has to flee, he takes refuge in that order of ideas. . . .

'The relationship between God and man is like a line touched by a sphere; the sphere only ever meets the line at one point and it is at precisely this point that Christ is sited.'

Is this imagery taken from the Pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus?

Yes. The second theory reads: 'Deus est sphaera infinita, cuius centrum est ubique . . .' (God is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere . . .).

Any others?

In his comments on Hebrews 1, 3 and Colossian 1, 15, Luther writes: 'In qua (gloria Dei) se ipsum Pater cognoscit, non nobis, set deo sibique ipsi relucet' (in it - the glory of God -- the Father knows himself and shines forth not for us but for God and for himself). The first theory of the Pseudo-Trismegitus says: 'Deus et monas, monadem gignens, in se suum reflectens ardorem' (God is monad who generates monad reflecting his splendor in himself). And again he writes: 'Non quod nobis sit figura substantiae Dei, sed ipsimet Deo, ita quod solus Deus suam formam in ipso cognoscit' (The image of the substance of God is not in us but only in God himself, since only God knows his own form). Then there is the XVII theory of the Pseudo-Hermes: 'Deus est intellectus sui, solus praedicationem non recipiens . . . Sed se ipsum ipse intelligit, quia ipsum ad ipsum generat' (God is his own intelligence, the only one who is given no definition . . . but he knows himself because he generates himself for himself). The fourth theory: 'Deus est mens . . . numerat se genitor gignendo; genitura vero verbificat se . . . per modum continuationis se habet spirando' (God is intelligence . . . that which generates multiplies itself by generating; that which is generated becomes a word . . . it becomes manifest as a breath blowing through the system of continuation). In 1514, Luther reproduced this literally: 'God multiplies himself through his reproductions'. . . .

Luther writes: 'Christ works for our salvation but sine humanitate cooperante (without the cooperation of his human nature).' . . .

So Christ cannot be 'person' because his own self is radically divided if he is at one and the same time the devil and God?

Precisely. And here lies Manichaeism. And this is the root of Hegel, of Schelling, of Fichte. . . . Luther wrote, as Bultmann would do later: 'the Gospel does not consist in the historical facts it reports. Certainly, Christ was made man but this is of no concern to me. What is important is what Christ is for me. For me he is the bringer of sin and it is on his head that the struggle and dismemberment falls. This is what Christ is for me.'

So did Luther, then, inaugerate the separation of the historical Jesus from the Jesus of the faith?

In your terms, Jesus is the second person of the Trinity who was made man. He is only one person. He is one and the same person. But Luther says: there are two contrasting functions in Christ which cannot be mentioned in the same breath, 'otherwise they assume something of the diabolical'. On one hand, Christ is he who strangles sin (devorator) and on the other, he is the example. . . . For him, there were two Christs, two Abrahams.

Does Luther say this?

Yes. Let's take his 1531 comment on Galatians: 'Ergo aliud Abraham credens, aliud Abraham operans. Aliud Christus redimens, aliud Christus operans . . . et haec distingue ut coelum et terra' (So one is the Abraham who believes, one is the Abraham who works, one is the Christ who redeems, one is the Christ who works . . . distinguish between these two things as beteween heaven and earth). Christ the redeemer is he who devours the devil within himself. And the Christ at work is he who gives me the strength to accomplish. They stand opposed like heaven and earth. . . .

But here we are in contrast with St. Augustine . . .

Luther despises St. Augustine. In Confessions, Augustine attacks the dualism of the Manichaeans. He criticizes their concept of two divinities struggling with each other. And it was in the margin of this passage that Luther wrote: 'This is false. This is the origin of all Augustine's errors.' So he is attacking the bishop-saint at the point where he, in his turn, opposed the Manichaeans. That is why after the death of Luther Melanchthon accused him of Manichaeism ('Manichaeist delirium') because the two gods, the two Christs, emerge in Luther. Of course, not everything in Luther is Manichaean. He does not teach, as the Manichaeans did, the autonomous, cosmic and permanent existence of evil. . . .

For Luther . . . God in himself is bad because we should also attribute the diabolical to God. When St. Paul writes of Jesus Christ that the fullness of the divinity lives in him, Luther comments: 'It is good that we have such a man because God in himself is cruel and bad.' But this is not systematic thinking. Instead, it is reflective of his personal experience. Thus, from the depths of the struggle and radical enmity, comes a sigh raised to the Father.
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Franco said...

I have always thought that the gnostics had influenced Luther and the great trick was : sola scriptura. But that affirmation protestants use with much hate against the Pope and the Catholic Churche.The principle seems to be good but is expressed with hate and arrogance. Now after reeding Theobald Beer I can defend the catholic faith against the protestans in a very effective way confronting them with the writings of Luther himself.

Awlms said...

How can so few readers not be interested enough to comment on this most fascinating topic? I'd love to find an English language copy of Theobald Beers work on Luther.

Thanks, Dave, for these excellent quotes provided in your post.