Don’t call it “Grace” pt. II
I’ve been thinking about my conversation with i-Monk, the subject of my last post. He said in a later comment that he probably should have said I was headed towards Wesleyan thinking (or just “wrong” thinking! 🙂 ), in his opinion, rather than Catholic thinking (just to avoid dragging his Catholic friends into the discussion). He also mentioned that his blog is “a zone where Lutheran understandings were going to prevail.”
The last statement, I think, is the key to my understanding why, from Michael’s (Luther’s) perspective, no command from God or Christ can be an act of grace on God’s part, even if it’s a parent seeing the oncoming car, telling his child to get out of the road. No matter how much such an act (or others like it) fits within the biblical or parental concept of graciousness or love, Luther just can’t call commands “grace” or acts of love. Commands, even from Jesus, are, to use his words, “the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.” If it’s in the form of command, it’s not love! It’s Law!! LAW!!
Given his own story, I don’t I blame him. When authority, particularly authority wearing a cross, uses its power to be condemning, to serve one’s self, to manipulate others, etc., etc., it leaves quite a mark. How many of the issues that we all have come from how we were treated by our parents? And abuse from religious authorities isn’t any better. I’m not an expert on Luther by any stretch, but I think it is fair to say that Luther got more than his fair share of religious abuse within the system of “doing penance” (rather than “repenting”) that he labored in, trying to earn forgiveness. And I think it left a mark.
Have you ever been with a child or even an animal that had been treated harshly over a long period? They can react violently to even the most innocent of “commands.” You can look at them with no expression and they take it as hatred. You can make a move to grab a cup and they think you are about to slap them. It’s a learned defense mechanism. If perfect love casts out fear, abuse multiplies it, makes it quick to respond.
Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not claiming to be a student of Luther’s history. I know some of it. What’s more, I’m really, really proud of how he stuck to his theses and his convictions at such high costs. The selling of indulgences, among other things, needed to stop. Someone needed to take a stand. “Do penance” isn’t the same as “repent” (lit., think again) and we all need to know that Jesus said “repent” in light of his kingdom coming near. The whole world, including the Catholic church, has benefitted from Luther’s stand and work.
That said, his way of bifurcating God, even Jesus, into “grace” or “gospel” on the one hand and “law” on the other (which may be news, but not the good kind) sounds more like the kind of split-view that abused children develop towards authority figures than the NT picture we have of the Father who issues a call through his son from love to love. He forgives from love and he tells us to be generous from love. He provides from love and he directs from love. Can Sin within us or others take a good command from God and not only make us want to disobey just to disobey, but also lie to us about God’s intentions, twist his command so that we only see it as some kind of threat or power-play? Does the Pope wear a funny hat?
But it doesn’t shock me that Luther couldn’t see that–I’ve known too many abused people and even my own junk to think that even ten thousand meditations on God’s grace (which I’m sure Luther did) would necessarily make all the wounds go away, all the ingrained reactions to authority. In light of his history, it doesn’t surprise me that Luther could say “sola scriptura” on the one hand, but that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul on the other. That he could only see the commands as (he thinks) Paul did, but not as (he thinks) James did, since James called the law, in Luther’s words “a ‘law of liberty’, though Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death, and of sin.”
Again, I am very grateful for Martin Luther. Thank God for him. But I’m not inclined to trust him (or even i-Monk!) when he says that no command of Jesus is given as part of his love and grace to us, even if I understand why Luther and many others have a very, very hard time perceiving any command as an act of grace. For Luther and for many, many others who lived–then and now–under abusive authority figures, I understand that cringe. But I believe that God sent Jesus to do everything he did out of love, that his whole life was an act of undeserved kindness from God, including teaching us his ways, including telling us to love each other, even though we can’t do that or anything else worthwhile apart from his help in other ways.
If that means I think more like Wesley than Luther on this point, I’m okay with that. They’re both amazing brothers. My goal, of course, is to try to learn to think like Jesus, who I still believe even told us what to do because he really loves us. I’ll likely continue to believe that until/”Unless I am convinced [otherwise] by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason.” But how about you? I’m honestly curious. Feel free to comment or just vote in the poll.