Christian Contradictions

The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought

Cambridge University Press, 2001, 336 pages

ISBN 9780521604352 £24.99, $43. Also available as Adobe eBook Reader, Hardback


•  Straightforward, comprehensible, description of the structure of Lutheran theology.

•  Material on sixteenth century Catholic evangelism and Trent not easily available.

•  Novel depiction of the depth of Catholic failure to comprehend Lutheran thought.

•  Only known discussion of the reception of Nygren's work among English Catholics.

•  First chapter-length analysis of debate over the 'Joint Declaration on Justification' (1999).

•  Shows Bultmann an outstanding Lutheran thinker, a context commentators have lacked.

•  Detailed description of Kierkegaard on the self, including a crucial neglected text.

•  Establishes the importance of placing doctrines within a total thought-structure.

Catholic and Lutheran thought are differently structured, leading to major incompatibilities. One is not comparing like with like. The different structures are rooted in differing philosophical outlooks, yet the disparity in structure runs deeper than the philosophical contexts which each system finds congenial. Were Catholicism, for example, to shed its Aristotelian and neo-Platonist presuppositions, it would still manifest a different structure than does Lutheran faith. The divergence which opened up in the sixteenth century was profound: it is no chance that, despite much effort, it has not to this day been healed. Catholics continue to misunderstand the structure of Lutheran thought, for reasons which are comprehensible, though the extent and depth of the misreading is striking. The subject of this book has become current through the signing by Rome and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999 of the 'Joint Declaration on Justification'. Despite superficial reconciliation, even the framers of the Declaration consider it no more than a 'differentiated consensus' - and many, on both sides, remain unhappy.

The divergence of structure entails a different understanding of the human relationship to God. The two systems think together in other manner the human and God. This is the most fascinating aspect of this subject. Both structures manifest strengths and commensurate problems. The question arises as to whether the strengths of each system in their respective conceptualisations of the human in relation to God could be reconciled. It is the thought of Kierkegaard which, better than any other of which I am aware, brings together the insights of either system while letting their weaknesses fall away. Kierkegaard was a deviant Lutheran, rooted in Luther's thought to an extent not always recognised, but also speaking of an inter-relationship with God, conceptualised as love; something which has not been prevalent within Lutheran thought. The work therefore concludes with a consideration of the structure of Kierkegaard's thought.

The aim of this book is therefore twofold. In the first place it seems important to draw attention to the extent of the misunderstanding. The book will have achieved much if it enables Catholics to grasp how it is that they have fully misunderstood the structure of Lutheran thought. That would at least allow realistic ecumenical dialogue. As long as Catholics (including leading Catholic theologians and those who have been involved in ecumenical discussions) apparently have no clue as to what it is with which they are confronted in Lutheran faith there can be no progress. The same cannot be said of Lutheran theologians, who have understood Catholic thought and rejected it. This asymmetry relates not least to the difference in structure between the two systems; for Lutheranism proclaims to be the case that which one would not have expected. Lutheran thought revolves around a dialectic; whereas Catholicism is linear in structure, in conformity with the thought-patterns of the ancient world within which it grew. But secondly, the book asks the theoretical question as to whether, quite apart from the fact that there has been a historical embodiment of the divergent systems of thought, they are structurally irreconcilable or whether the strengths of each could be brought together.

The author's own position is a matter of some interest, in that I am not a Christian (though steeped in a Christian background and by profession a systematic theologian). My move outside Christianity was occasioned not least by the failure to be able to construe the human relation to God as seemed needful within it. For the most part the personal position of the author is bracketed, as I discuss the historical material and its implications.  However, in the penultimate chapter I juxtapose my own position with both the Catholic and the Lutheran, allowing a three-way discussion. Deeply attracted to the insights of Lutheranism, I think Bultmann to utilise that structure in such a manner that he comes closer than any other to finding a way to make Christianity viable post the Enlightenment. But this involves a breaking of the self which I find unacceptable. Only by moving outside Christianity could there be a growth from within the self in relation to God, such as Catholicism has advocated. But this involves foregoing the concept of revelation. 


Chapter 1:  Luther's Revolution

This chapter seeks to expound the structure of Lutheran faith. For if this is not comprehended, neither will the book be understood. Given the misunderstanding there has been, accomplishing this in the course of a chapter might be thought a tall order. But it is not impossible. What it is crucial to grasp is that Luther's thought revolves around a dialectic. There are two ways in which the human can relate to God; the one is 'faith', the other 'sin'. In faith, the human consents to a 'transfer of centre of gravity' to God. That is to say, the Christian lives by and through God. In sin, by contrast, he attempts to maintain a sense of self in the face of God, something which can never bring peace. The heart of the Christian message is, then, that God holds us to be righteous as we trust in him and not on account of anything about the way we are in ourselves. We live by an 'extrinsic' righteousness: as Luther says in his great essay 'The Freedom of a Christian' (in which his Reformation position came together), the Christian lives extra se in Christ in God. The Christian is not one who wants something for himself (grace) from God, but rather one who lives by God's graciousness. Once and again the Christian has to learn that it is not for him to attempt to justify himself but that he must look to another. Being at one with God is not dependent upon having a likeness to God, for God accepts sinners. The Lutheran epithet is thus that we are simul justus et peccator; just in that God allows us to live through his righteousness, while yet in ourselves sinners. The chapter considers both Luther and more recent Luther scholarship, discussing different emphases present within this fundamental framework.

Chapter 2:  The Catholic Alternative

Catholicism, by contrast, takes as axiomatic what I have called a 'linear' structure. The creation has come forth from God and will return to God, a basic neo-Platonism. Moreover the relationship to God is founded on a likeness to God; something which is taken as self-evident. Life is for our change and it is as we are transformed that we shall be more fully in relationship to God. Particularly since the Reformation, Catholicism has been at pains not to be Pelagian but rather to emphasise that it is alone through God's grace that, with our co-operation, this change takes place. A basic Catholic value is thus the freedom of the human being to co-operate, in a non-deterministic way, with her transformation. What Catholicism has no way of saying, not least because of its Aristotelianism, is that God accepts us as sinners. Of course in so far as we are created we are (within an Aristotelian system) good, but in so far as we are sinners we are, as Thomas Aquinas says, unlike God and not in relation to God. This makes it very difficult to reconcile the two systems. Given the Reformation position, the Catholic understanding of the sacraments became superfluous. The chapter commences with a discussion of Italian evangelism, particularly as represented by Contarini, and considers the Regensburg Agreement of 1541. The bulk of the chapter however is devoted to an analysis of the Tridentine decree on justification and the rejection of the position which Seripando advocated. Finally, some general themes fundamental to the Catholic structure and pertinent to our present consideration are highlighted.

Chapter 3:  Catholic Incomprehension

The extent of Catholic misunderstanding of Luther and of the Lutheran structure of faith is scarcely credible. The chapter documents this, considering Catholics from different traditions, of varied nationalities and in different ages (though the concentration is on twentieth century German-language Catholicism and on major figures). The basic mistake has been to think that Luther was operating within an Augustinian structure (as does Catholicism). By this is meant the presupposition that life is a via for our change through God's grace. As we have seen, Luther is not essentially interested in human 'change', but rather in living by God's acceptance, which must result in a changed life as security sets one free. Thus Catholics will sometimes insist that they have nothing against 'justification by faith' (though this may already be read as connoting that grace comes from God, not at all the Lutheran meaning), but that they must object to 'extrinsic' righteousness; failing to grasp that to hold to justification by faith is one and the same as saying that we live by a righteousness not our own. Faith is to trust in another. By contrast, for Catholicism we are justified by a faith formed by love, faith here being understood as fides (our belief) rather than as fiducia (trust in another). The chapter considers the work (among others) of Urs von Balthasar, Schmaus and Rahner, culminating in a discussion of Hans Küng's misguided book Justification, which has done so much to blind Catholics to the divergence in structure. Finally it considers the more recent work of Otto Hermann Pesch.

Chapter 4:  Nygren's Detractors

In this chapter we turn from the Continental to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Moreover, rather than drawing on a range of thinkers, the chapter takes the form of a vignette, considering the English Catholic (Anglican and Roman) response to the Swede Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros (which appeared in translation during the course of the 1930s). The material exemplifies the same misconceptions we have already encountered, but with a peculiarly English twist. Concerned for the future of 'civilisation', the English conceive Lutheranism to lack an ethic. They confuse Nygren's eros with Catholic 'creation' and his agape with Catholic 'grace', consequently arguing that we need both, as grace transforms nature! But this is to fully misconstrue Lutheranism, in which salvation is a re-instantiation of creation, involving a break with what is 'natural' to man as the human consents to dependence on the Creator, responding in faith to God's agapeistic love. Through lack of knowledge of the Lutheran structure, there results an unholy confusion. The chapter then turns to Barth's response to Nygren. From his Reformed position, Barth is critical of Nygren (while understanding him), if yet more critical of Catholic eros.  Thus the question is raised as to whether Lutheranism fails to be able to speak of a 'self' in relationship to God, a failure which would appear intrinsic to its structure. Barth's attempt (if it could so be read) to reconcile the strengths of either system is however shown to be unsatisfactory.

Chapter 5:  Ecumenical Encounter

Interrupting the argument of the book, this chapter delves into recent ecumenical relations between Lutherans and Catholics. Many will be inclined to say 'but have not Lutherans and Catholics overcome their differences in recent months?' Nothing could be further from the case. For a start, it is difficult not to conclude that even those Catholics involved in ecumenical relations have fully failed to grasp the Lutheran structure. In so far as they have comprehended it, they resist it. Lutherans who are aware of the structural divergence have been much more wary. Thus in Germany in particular there have been substantial arguments and recriminations, a large number of Lutheran theologians signing petitions against the proposed Declaration. On the Catholic side, it having been understood that the much worked-over agreement was now acceptable to Rome, in a startling volte-face it was refused. Yet, a year later - owing to what moves in the Vatican one does not know, though the Pope would appear to have been in favour  - the Vatican accepted to sign. These machinations and the Declaration itself are analysed, showing that at crucial points the most that can be achieved is to lay two different conceptions of justification side by side. Whether these conceptions could at some more ultimate level be held to be compatible, or whether they are not flatly contradictory, is a large question. An analysis of the position of Lutherans in Germany and the States who opposed the Declaration is illuminating.

Chapter 6:  Dialogue with Bultmann

This chapter brings to a climax the thesis which lies behind the considerations present in this book. We return to the question of whether the strengths of the Lutheran and Catholic systems could be reconciled; or whether it may not rather be that the two are incompatible. In the first instance, the chapter takes the form of a dialogue with the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who carries the implications of the Lutheran structure into the realm of epistemology. For Bultmann, we live by faith 'from' the future; just as Scandinavians speak of 'inverted' existence and Luther of basing ourselves on God, freeing us for the world. For Lutherans it is always that faith issues in ethics and not that works lead to the relationship with God. Recognising that, post the Enlightenment, we know nature and history to be a causal nexus to which there could be no 'interruptions' (such as a literal resurrection would represent), Bultmann (following Kierkegaard) builds positively on this. We live by faith from that other reality which the resurrection opens up. The result of this move, however, is that (as within the Lutheran structure as a whole) there is a dichotomy present in the conception of the self, since it must constantly be broken open that it may base itself on another. For myself - as a feminist and simply as a person - I find this unacceptable, desiring rather to 'grow where I am planted'. Now Catholicism believes in the transformation of the self (by contrast with the violence to self involved in the Lutheran structure). But in consequence Catholicism fails to allow that revelation is either fundamental or unexpected. Indeed it may be thought not to have begun to tackle the fact that the resurrection and the idea of a particular revelation could not be positivistic facts within normal history. The only way to solve the dilemma is to move outside Christianity, such that basing oneself on 'God' (perhaps differently conceived) is not incommensurate with a continuity of self; for revelation is denied. My own position thus represents a third alternative.

Chapter 7:  Kierkegaard's Odyssey

In a final chapter I focus on the question of the extent to which, within Christianity and not losing hold of the Christian presupposition of revelation, the two systems could be reconciled, bringing their strengths together while overcoming what is problematic about each. The thinker who most closely succeeds in this is to my mind the nineteenth century Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard has an intricate model of the self in its relationship to God - surely the crux of any theological system. In his early writing, down to and including the Postscript (which on one level may be read as a parody of Lutheran thought), Kierkegaard is deeply informed by Lutheran presuppositions. The self is only itself as it is first broken and consequently comes to base itself on God. It is never that the 'ethical' is completed through the religious, which is necessarily only reached through despairing of attaining to the ethical. In his later authorship, in which he analyses the structure of the self in relationship to God, Kierkegaard continues to think in terms of a faith which is a transfer of gravity to another, so that the self is 'grounded' in God. But, from 1846 onwards, he also introduces other themes which bear resemblance to what has commonly been Catholic thought. He speaks of love of God; moreover and not surprisingly therefore, of a reciprocal relation with God and of the self coming to itself in relationship to God. In his writing of 1849 Kierkegaard, in Sickness Unto Death, espouses a complex model, taking this a step further in a fascinating passage (which has gone noticed) in Training in Christianity. While grounded in God and unable to be itself except as it is so grounded, the self comes increasingly to be itself as it relates to God in a relationship of love through which it is drawn to God. It is the most fascinating example of which I am aware of what may be construed as an attempted synthesis of the two systems between which, since the sixteenth century, Western Christendom has been divided.