Reflections on Oswald Bayer, “A Public Mystery”
Editor’s Note: On March 21, Prof. Oswald Bayer gave the lecture “A Public Mystery” at Concordia Seminary. More information on the lecture is available here, and video of the lecture will be available soon. Dr. Leo Sanchez offers this summary of and reaction to not only this lecture, but the main emphases of Beyer’s work.
The work of Dr. Oswald Bayer, a systematic theologian, is actually well known among members of our Systematics faculty at Concordia Seminary. His work Living By Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), has been used either in our classrooms or in preparation for lessons. Personally, I have always appreciated Bayer’s courage to speak theologically for the whole and not only for some of the parts. In postmodern times, theologians are typically afraid to speak for the whole, to give a public account of what is true for every human being. Scholars dread to fall prey into devising some totalizing metanarrative that, in trying to explain everything, leaves many important things out.
True. In asking some questions, we leave out other important ones. But more fundamentally, we forget that reading the world theologically in light of the Word is finally a daily gift and task. One always has to go back to the Word and draw from the well, one so rich and deep one can never be done with it. Indeed, the Word of God is never done with us. And so academic and even Christian humility has to take account of what is called today the perspectival in all arguments, the need to see from an angle—or even to see the whole from an angle. We see dimly and only in part—to use Pauline language—both on account of our limited vision due to our creatureliness and sin but also because of the inexhaustible fountain of wisdom that is Scripture and the Great Tradition of so many who have brought to light such wisdom in a particular time and place. As Bayer would put it in his lecture, God’s Word, which is eternal, pierces through or breaks into time and space, but it is always received in the context of the coming fulfillment of God’s promise (promissio) in the eschaton. The Word of God even in its nearness remains mystery. Bayer sees mystery, however, not in esoteric terms, but as inexhaustible richness and love.
That eternal Word does not only speak for or to Christians, so there must be some place to make universal, public claims about this Word for all people. Pope Benedict XVI once spoke about the fear of our present times, which paralyzes people into speaking only in part but never for the whole. Bayer does not seem to suffer from that fear. The church, which for Luther is born of the Word and is the mother that begets God’s children through the same Word, also pierces into history and so calls us, historical beings, to deal with it and be dealt by it. The church must have the courage to make bold, public claims to and for the world. Karl Rahner actually engaged in this kind of theological search for the whole and he found it in the Catholic doctrine of grace, which is the property not only of Christians (or Roman Catholics) but—as Rahner argues—of all humans who seek out for God, or whatever people call this Ultimate Mystery, because God has already endowed all creatures with His grace to seek Him.
For Rahner, the mystery of divine self-communication to the creature, and the human response aided by grace to such communication, ultimately meet in the person of Christ. The hypostatic union is the intersecting point between God’s revelation (as self-communicating) to human nature and human self-transcendence towards God. And so anthropology is deficient Christology, and Christology is the fulfillment of anthropology. The mystery of evil and the hardening of the hearts is finally solved because God’s grace is for everyone, whether this or that person explicitly knows or confesses Christ or not. Inclusivism follows from universalism. Everyone is, by grace, an anonymous Christian. While Lutherans may not agree with Rahner’s starting point, argument, or conclusion, I have been struck by how he dares to make bold, universal claims about grace that encompass all of humanity. He is not afraid to speak of the whole, as it were. But at what expense? The cross and the Word are missing from the discourse altogether, from the language of grace.
Bayer too has made a bold universal, public claim concerning God on the matter of justification. Justification is not simply a concept useful to Lutherans, a parochial theme or doctrine for the Lutherans, but fundamentally a broader anthropological reality that concerns the whole world. Every single human being needs to justify someone or be justified by someone. The whole world is a huge courtroom, where someone judges and another is judged. And so every person is concerned with justification, whether they acknowledge it or not, because every one wants his or her life to matter in this world. Like Rahner, Bayer can speak of the mystery of God’s love, which shall never end and is for the sake of the world. While the mystery of evil, of sin and hardened hearts, of an electing God (why are some saved, and not others) will be revealed or laid open in the eschaton, the mystery of God’s love will remain forever. But that mystery is not accessible to us apart from God’s promise (promissio) in His Word. Unlike Rahner, Bayer does not attempt to justify a loving God in the face of sin and evil—and thus the mystery of God’s love—by endowing all creatures with supernatural grace to seek after God. God may save the whole world, but does God save “me”? We need some kind of sign (signum) or proof. The world seeks signs of justification in praxis or reason, that is to say, in works (especially, good ones aided by grace) or in attempts to make sense of evil and sin in a tragic world. But God only justifies us in the crucified Christ, and so Bayer speaks with Luther of the hiddenness of God in Christ, His cross, and His Word. The Word of the cross is the only sign we have.
Rahner can speak of the mystery of divine grace which makes one a Christian, and because such grace is universal Christ is already hidden in every divinely assisted search for God. Christ is hidden in all the religions. For Bayer, Christ is hidden too, but under the Word of promise, which pierces through time and space to save even in the face of unexplainable evil. The fundamental difference between Rahnerian and Bayerian conceptions is not that God is hidden in Christ (or perhaps, for Rahner, that Christ is hidden in God), but that Christ is hidden in the Word. Christ is our justification, but apart from the Word there is no justification in Christ. There is no access to God’s inexhaustible love apart from His Word. More praxis and reason do not solve the riddle of justification before an electing God that—to quote the late Gerhard Forde—is always “on our backs” or experienced as judge and law. History is not transparent to God’s revelation (contra Hegel). History is too messy. Only the crucified Christ makes God turn from a heartless despot to a gracious and loving Father. But this cross is only done to us when the Word of God, which remains forever, comes into our lives and reveals the love of God “for me.” This is what the Forde would have referred to as God’s doing the election through His Word in the here and now, as God’s taking God “off our backs.”
In contrast to the mystery of sin, evil, and the hardness of hearts, Bayer speaks of the mystery of God’s Word, of the divine name, which makes us look apocalyptically to the fulfillment of His promises at the eschaton. This mystery of God’s Word is one that remains forever one with the mystery of God’s love. Bayer notes that we are dealing here finally with the mystery of the Trinity—an observation he does not fully develop in the lecture. Some room can be made here to speak of the work of Regin Prenter, his Spiritus Creator, on Luther’s concept of the Holy Spirit. There the Holy Spirit is presented not as the distant helper of scholasticism that the human spirit or mind—in opposition to the sinful body and the senses—can receive to reach out supernaturally to God and understand spiritual things. The Holy Spirit is much more in your face than that, more radical, more personal.
Everyone already has Christ as some good guy whose good works we can imitate. But this Christ of imitatio remains only an idea, law, a step in the ladder to reach out to God up there somewhere. What the Holy Spirit does is to conform us to Christ (conformitas), to His death and resurrection, by bringing us to the knowledge of God’s judgment against sin and by raising us from the dead through the justification of our sins. Here the Spirit uses the Word to turn Christ from an idea to imitate to God’s free gift (donum) received by faith. Bayer and Prenter speak with Luther of the experience of Anfechtung, of hell, which God uses to make room for faith and trust in the Word of promise. Prenter speaks of such Anfechtung or inner-conflict as the work of the Holy Spirit, who in the midst of the unexplainable mystery of evil, where God is absent (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), intercedes for us with words that cannot be uttered as we await for the redemption of our bodies at the eschaton.
Bayer’s discourse on the Word is placed in the context of the critique of modern European thought, which has no room for the Holy Spirit and is partial towards the secularization of spiritual realities. That is both the strength and weakness of Bayer’s systematic application of Luther’s thought. Yet there is room for Bayer’s bold claims for humanity on justification and the Word to be expanded and placed within a pneumatological trajectory. Such a move would help us see the mystery of the Word precisely as the mystery of God, who is none other than the Triune God. Bayer’s claim that the mystery of the Word and of God’s love is Trinitarian can then be not merely stated but explicitly argued for and shown. I see some shyness in the area of the pneumatological among Lutheran theologians in the North Atlantic. This pneumatological trajectory is becoming especially important in a world where the center of Christianity is shifting to the South and the East, where Kant and Hegel are not authorities that shape people’s worldviews, where modern thought is not the sphere where Luther needs to shine. The Global South is at times pre-modern in worldview, open to the world of spirits, often seeing God’s mysterious involvement in suffering and evil, and hungry for the Word to bring about change in their lives.
What does the mystery of the Word, of God’s love, that pierces through time and space in order to bring us hope in Christ in the face of evil look like in the Global South? Bayer’s masterful handle on Luther vis-à-vis modern European thought offers us all an invitation to think Luther for an even broader world, with various public spheres and worldviews, where theologians of the Word can faithfully, creatively, and persuasively speak for the whole. Luther has to be systematically applied to other contexts in an increasingly globalized world. Bayer reminds us that Lutheran theology need not apologize for having Luther as its inspiration, but he also warns us through his approach to Luther against being parochially “Lutheran” or confessional in a centripetal, private, and insular way. By making Luther fresh in every era, to a broader public, Bayer dares us to be confessional Lutherans in a more centrifugal manner, that is, to be catholic, universal, ecumenical, and missionary in the best sense of those words. His theology is an invitation to ask what Luther and the Lutheran tradition mean not only for Lutherans, but for the whole church and for every single human being.