Monday, November 07, 2011

The theologia crucis and Luther’s critique of the analogical nature of theological language

It’s interesting that some of the discussions that are going around in theological circles these days, are echoes of the discussions that went round and round in past centuries. I present the following not only as a description of a key aspect of Luther’s developing awareness of how God works in the world, but also as a historical backdrop to some of the discussions you may be seeing even among contemporary theologians:
In the injustice, the shame, the weakness, the folly and the condemnation of the cross are revealed, and yet hidden, the righteousness, the glory, the wisdom, the strength and the salvation of God. As we have already indicated, Luther recognized an intimate relationship between human understandings of iustitia and sapientia [“wisdom”], so that his sustained critique of the role of reason in matters theological, which becomes evident from 1515 onwards, is ultimately a consequence and an expression of his conviction that human reason cannot comprehend the manner in which God has effected the salvation of mankind. In the cross of Christ, this tension reaches breaking point, and a near-permanent divorce between the spheres of faith and reason results. Reason is scandalized by the cross; faith embraces it with joy.

Underlying the theologia crucis and the discovery of the ‘righteousness of God’ is a radical critique of the analogical nature of theological language. Within the earlier medieval period in general, the concept of iustitia Dei had been constructed on the assumption that it was analogous to [human or classical conceptions of] iustitia. While the difficulties encountered in transferring the term iustus from a human context (as in the statement, ‘Socrates is just’) to a divine context (as in the statement, ‘God is just’) were fully appreciated, it was nevertheless assumed that the term bore a related meaning in each of these contexts. Although the epistemological presuppositions of the concept were greatly weakened through the critique of Henry of Ghent’s theory of the divine attributes, initially by Godfrey of Fontaines, and subsequently (and more radically) by William of Ockham, the essentially analogical relationship between iustitia Dei and iustitia hominum was upheld. Similarly, although the theologians of the via moderna emphasized the contingency of the established order of salvation (and hence of the analogical nature of theological language in general), the analogy between human and divine concepts of iustitia was upheld.

Although there was clearly a disparity between the human and divine understandings of terms such as iustitua, sapientia, virtus, etc., there remained an essential underlying continuity. The theologia crucis represents a programmatic critique of the analogical nature of theological language. The concept of absconditas sub contrario [“the contrary being hidden”], which is an essential feature of both the theologia crucis and the earlier theological breakthrough, represents the most radical critique of the principle of analogy in theological discourse yet known, and at least in this respect, parallels the origins of dialectical theology in the early twentieth century. While we would be guilty of a serious anachronism if we were to dub Luther a ‘theologian of the Word of God’, given the twentieth century connotations of this phrase, the fact remains that Luther insists that the word to which all theology must be related is the word of the cross….
As McGrath notes, this is clearly a place where we need to remind ourselves that Martin Luther was, up to this point, in a dialog with medieval, and not 20th century theologies.
All responsible Christian discourse about God must be based upon the cross and must be subject to criticism on this basis. For Luther, the rejection of the analogical nature of theological language represents an admission that man lives in theological twilight, in a world of half-light and half-truths. His preconceptions of God in general, and his righteousness in particular, are unreliable and confused and, like a broken bone which has set incorrectly, must be broken before they can be healed. The word of the cross reveals the gulf between the preconceived and the revealed God, and forces man to abandon his preconceptions if he is to be a ‘theologian of the cross’. While this insight is initially associated with Luther’s early difficulties concerning the predication of human concepts of righteousness to God, his resolution of these difficulties is essentially methodological, and thus comes to be extended to every divine attribute. Luther’s critique of the analogical predication of human concepts of iustitia in particular to God foreshadows his critique of the predication of human concepts of qualities in general – and thus foreshadows the theologia crucis in this vital respect.

… How is iustitia Dei revealed in the gospel? And how is this ‘righteousness of God’ revealed in the cross of Christ? Luther’s early difficulties with questions such as these, recorded in the autobiographical fragment and elsewhere, were resolved through his realization that, while the ‘righteousness of God’ was indeed revealed in the suffering of Christ on the cross, it was a hidden revelation which contradicted his preconceptions of the form which it should take, and which thus inhibited him from recognizing it when confronted with it. Luther’s critique of the analogical nature of theological language, his concept of the hiddenness of God in his self-revelation, and his growing recognition that the sufferings of Christ on the cross constituted the centre and the foundation of Christian theology, are inextricably linked in his theological breakthrough, as they are in the theological crucis. Although these insights appear to have arisen through his deliberations concerning the ‘righteousness of God’, it is clear, as the autobiographical fragment indicates, that they were directly applicable to other divine attributes: the ‘power of God’, the ‘wisdom of God’, the ‘strength of God’ and the ‘glory of God’ are all revealed, and yet hidden, in the cross of Christ. They need not be, and they must not be, sought elsewhere (McGrath, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross ©1985, 1990, 158-160).
So, is God hidden? Is he knowable? Here is where John Frame draws the boundaries on understanding this topic:
The defining qualities of God are the qualities that make him God, that distinguish him from all over beings. If we are going to use the word essence, it is best to understand it as comprising all the divine attributes revealed in Scripture. That God has many defining features does not compromise his simplicity, if we maintain that those attributes are inseparably one in God. But then we can state what his essence is, and we can do it in many ways: control, authority, presence, holiness, eternity, goodness, and so on.

Is God’s essence, then, knowable? Yes and no. Yes in that the Scripture tells us about some qualities that define God as distinct from other beings … And when Scripture describes God, it describes him as he really and truly is. So its definitions of God enable us to know him, indeed, to know his essence.

No, God’s essence is not knowable, in that our knowledge of God is certainly not exhaustive. We don’t know everything that can be known about God’s holiness, wisdom, goodness, etc., nor how all his attributes are unified within the complete divine being. To have a perfect knowledge of that, we would have to be God. Such knowledge is impossible for the creature. The best formulation, then, is that God’s essence is knowable, but not exhaustively.

We should not adopt a mental picture or model of God in which his real identity or essence is hidden in darkness, while his revealed nature is a kind of periphery around that darkness. In that picture, the darkness conceals what God really and truly is; his revealed nature is something less than his real being. On the contrary: God’s names and revealed attributes tell us what he truly is, at the heart of his being. There is nothing more fundamental about him that could call his revealed nature into question. Such biblical terms as holiness, goodness, and eternity express God’s essence. They tell us what he really is, for Scripture is true. They define him, because through them God has defined himself.

My approach rejects the broad assertions of agnosticism that are often found in theological works. … We should not press the way of remotion, as did pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Erigena (but not Aquinas), to say that we can know only what God is not, not what he is. Negative statements by themselves are useless: for example, one can know a thousand things that a Siberian husky is not, without having any useful knowledge of what he is.

Nor should we accept the claims of more recent thinkers who have described God as “wholly hidden or “wholly other.” This kind of general agnosticism is foreign to Scripture. The Lord of Scripture is not wholly hidden. He is knowable and known to all through nature, and his revelation in Scripture is perfectly adequate to its purpose (Frame, “The Doctrine of God”, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, ©2002, pgs 204-206).

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