Does “Love Win” for Luther?
America loves sound bites. “President Obama was not born in the USA” is one sound bite that in various forms was Tweeted, posted to Facebook walls, blogged about, and supported by various news stations. Such sound bites, rather than being based on evidence, sound reasoning, and fraternal discussion, gain a hearing and following because of our love for sound bites. Gobs of Americans believed Donald Trump’s confident belief that there was no birth certificate. Had they done any research on their own? No, but they trusted some news program which supposedly lets the viewer decide.
Into this sound bite culture comes a book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins. If you haven’t read the book, let me be the first to say, “Go read it, or don’t say a word about it. Thou shalt not quote Tweets, Facebook posts, or blogs until you’ve read it yourself.” After purchasing and reading the book in its entirety, I then went to several blogs and found sad and uninformed statements made by fellow Lutherans who come right out and say, “I haven’t read the book, but…” For a group of people who once rallied around the cry, “Back to the original! (Ad fontes),” American Lutherans sure have succumbed to the sound bite culture.
Instead of treating Love Wins as fodder for just another sound bite, I’d like to engage in conversation with it. Another blogger, Prof. Carl Trueman, attempted to carry on such a conversation but commented,
Popular books written for popular consumption are vital in the church; and Bell is to be commended for seeing that need. Further, when such books simply put forth an unexceptionable position, there is no real necessity for any scholarly apparatus; but when they self-consciously present themselves as arguing for significant or controversial paradigm shifts, the author really does need to cite sources. This is crucial because such citation allows the reader to engage in a conversation with the matter at hand.
The thing is that theologians who love footnotes are not Bell’s intended audience. The people he’s writing for are those who have suffered far more than having to track down a source for a quote. He writes for the woman who was molested by her father while he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer (p. 7). He is addressing the woman who hands him a note with a single number on it – the number of days she has gone without cutting herself (p. 164). Among his intended audience are those whose entire life is smoking weed and drawing at the kitchen table (p. 139). He is primarily conversing with people who get the “It’s like this; it’s like that” reference in the middle of a chapter about Eminem. (p. 129). So, we’ll forgive the author if he doesn’t footnote. We who love footnotes and actually have a set of Luther’s Works to track down his quotes are not the people with whom Bell is striking up a conversation.
The above-mentioned blogger did indeed track down the Luther quote that Bell uses in the middle of his book, and I am thankful for Prof. Trueman’s help in that regard. Bell writes this, “Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: ‘Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?’” (p. 106)
Prof. Trueman, who is quoted by several other Lutheran blogs on Love Wins, charges that Bell takes the Luther quote out of context. After giving some of the context of the Luther quote from the Philadelphia Edition of Luther’s Works (LW 43, 47-55), Trueman provides his analysis.
In this letter, Luther is answering the question, raised by von Rechenberg, as to whether any can be saved without faith. Luther’s answer is a clear ‘no.’ In fact, the letter is specifically aimed at refuting any notion that anyone can be saved by anything other than faith as Luther defines it. In this particular passage, Luther is raising, in a rhetorical flourish, a kind of question which was typical of the late medieval theological tradition in which he was schooled. It concerns the range of God’s possible action (technically, his absolute power/potentia absoluta). He asks if God could give somebody faith after death and justify them on that basis. Yes, he replies, he could do so; but there is absolutely no evidence that he does do so. It is akin to asking ‘Could God have made the earth without a moon?’ The answer is ‘Yes, there is no logical contradiction in that claim; but he did not do so.’
Any medieval theologian worth his salt knows that the key to understanding how things actually are, how God actually works in relation to the created world, is his potentia ordinata, his ordained power, those things which he has actually determined to do. What Luther is focusing on here is not the possibility of postmortem evangelism but the absolute necessity of faith in the ordained order.
When one actually reads through Luther’s letter in its entirety (rather than just taking another blogger’s word for it), it turns out not to be primarily about “the necessity of faith in the ordained order.” Nor is the subject of people turning to God after death only a “rhetorical flourish” which Luther uses to make his point. That subject is actually the title given to the letter – “A Letter to Hans von Rechenberg on the Question Whether a Person who Dies Without Faith Can Be Saved”! Evidently this man who had fought against Muslims in some battles was truly tormented by this question – much like the people Bell is addressing in his book. Luther, the pastoral theologian, addresses this man’s honest, simple inquiry not with sound bites but with pastoral theology. He doesn’t condemn von Rechenberg for asking such a heretical question but instead gives several insights.
Luther does admit that such thoughts are not new and have been held by Fathers of the early church. “For the opinion that God could not have created man to be rejected and cast away into eternal torment is held among us also, as it was at all times by some of the most renowned people, such as Origen (De Principiis, I, 6, 1-4) and his kind. They regarded it as too harsh and cruel and inconsistent with God’s goodness.” (LW 43, 51)
Rather than base pastoral theology on opinions, though, even if held by influential teachers of the past, Luther asserts that we must “separate our opinion from God’s truth.” (LW 43, 52) Luther goes on to give a pastoral response for those whom hell and eternal justice are almost enough to drive them from the Christian faith. He says, “First they must grow up in faith…exercise themselves in the sufferings and humanity of Christ, and ponder his excellent life and conduct.” Pastor Luther shows his pastoral heart for Bell’s intended audience when he writes, “We must dismiss this subject of God’s judgments from our mind as something extremely sublime and extraordinary until we grow stalwart and strong. Otherwise, whatever we may think, write, or say on this subject is vain and harmful.” (LW 43, 53) After giving this disclaimer, Luther gives his answer.
First, he maintains that God cannot and will not save anyone without faith. Considering some of the abuses going on at the time, Luther is most likely guarding against the idea that a person could pay the church a certain sum of money so that a mass be said in the honor of a dead relative with the hopes that it might merit salvation for them. Luther maintains in this letter and in a sermon (WA 10 III, 306-310) preached on September 7, 1522 that salvation comes only through one’s own faith in the Gospel, not through anyone else’s faith or works. That much is crystal clear and cannot be doubted when one examines Scripture.
Once this is made clear, Luther poses a question and then gives the answer which Bell quotes in his book. “It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour of death or after death so that these people could be saved through faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” (LW 43, 54) Far from being a “rhetorical flourish,” Luther seems to condone such a question as being entirely keeping with his theology of salvation by faith alone. He seems to be saying that the question of a mass being said for the dead is entirely out of the question, but it’s an altogether different question if it involves someone in hell finally coming to faith in the Gospel. In my judgment, Bell is entirely justified in quoting Luther as opening up this possibility which other church fathers had already asserted.
After opening up the possibility, Luther quickly counters, “No one, however, can prove that he does this.” (LW 43, 54) Indeed, even the Scripture passages which others had used as proof verses on the subject, Luther puts back into their context. By doing so, Luther shows that Scripture does not make certain the matter.
Rather than leaving von Rechenberg with an uncertain answer, Luther points him and any who would struggle with such questions (like Bell’s intended audience) to certain comfort. He says, “Confine them to Christ’s humanity, and let them first gain strength and be taught until they have matured sufficiently… Whatever is necessary for us to know is taught us best in Christ’s humanity, since he is our Mediator and no one can come to the Father other than Christ.” (LW 43, 54-55) In other words, rather than sending troubled souls to possibilities for which we have no certain Scripture, Luther again points them to Christ. May all the broken, raped, addicted, condemned to hell, offended by ridiculous blogs, and Eminem listeners find mercy, grace, forgiveness, hope and love at the foot of the cross.
I encourage the reader to continue to examine Bell’s book, Luther’s letter, and the Church Fathers, especially if they are ones who must give a public answer to such difficult and weighty questions.
Ben Haupt is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Gainesville, GA. He has earned the M.Div and, recently, the S.T.M degrees from Concordia Seminary. He is also a translator of Luther’s sermons in the new series of Luther’s Works from Concordia Publishing House.