Lutheran Theology: Kill Your Passions

This is part four in a series of posts by Dr. David Maxwell. The first was “What Should You Do With Anger and Desire?” The second was “Gregory of Nyssa: Direct the Passions.” The third was “Cyril of Alexandria: Lull Your Passions to Sleep.”

My sense is that Lutheran spirituality leans more in the Stoic direction than the Platonist one. We are more comfortable with Cyril than with Gregory, at least when it comes to what we think we should do with our passions. The strange thing is, we don’t seem to make this explicit. We just throw out Lutheran phrases and formulations and leave the hearers to infer a spirituality from that. It is that lack of reflection—just leaving the hearer to infer—that I am trying to correct in this series of blog posts.

What are the phrases and formulations I am thinking of? To start, consider something like, “The Law kills, and the Gospel makes alive.” This is a true statement and is rightly connected with Luther’s explanation of baptism in the Small Catechism, that baptism is a daily dying and rising with Christ. This, in turn, is taken from Romans 6. The sinner, we want to say, cannot be reformed, but must be killed. That is because there is nothing good in us that might contribute to our salvation.

All of the above is true. But what is not said is what should be inferred from that about the ideal Christian disposition (or dispositions). Let’s say, for example, that a pastor preaches a sermon which emphatically condemns the hearers for their sins. Presumably, the preacher is not hoping that the people will go home and be so paralyzed by self-loathing that they cannot leave the house. That would be the wrong inference to draw from the law.

More likely, the preacher intends the people to abandon any hope of salvation other than Christ so that when the Gospel is preached, they trust only in Jesus for salvation. This makes a lot of sense if the question you are addressing is salvation.

However, if the question is one of spirituality—what disposition the Christian should be aiming for—then it leans heavily in the Stoic direction. As I have described the Law/Gospel dynamic above, one is left with the clear impression that passions are inherently sinful and need to be killed. Unlike Gregory, we don’t think the passions are capable of being directed toward good as well as evil, like forging both a plowshare and a sword out of the same steel. We don’t need to be concerned about rooting out the wheat along with the tares. We have nothing but tares, and Christ has killed them all. So, we should aspire to a life undisturbed by passions such as anger or desire.

Now there may be some Lutherans who would say “Amen!” to that. However, I don’t think those are the right inferences to draw from the Law/Gospel distinction. In the next post, I will discuss why.

Dr. David R. Maxwell is the Louis A. Fincke and Anna B. Shine Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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1 Comment

  1. Kyle James Fittje 20 days ago
    Reply

    Thank you for your posts. I have found them so very helpful. I am a fan of John Cassian, so I have affinity for the “apathetic” approach of stoicism. At the same time I teach that our emotions (passions) are good gifts from God. We can’t control them, so we should figure out why we’re feeling what we are so that our emotions don’t control us. That would be the Platonic view. So, I suppose I am straddling the fence! Thank you for helping me think through this.

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