Tuesday, January 17, 2006

James Swan: Lutheran, Calvinist, or Wolf? - A Brief Biography On My Interest in Martin Luther (Part One)


Above: A picture posted by a Lutheran describing how he viewed me.

I was having dinner a few months back with a new friend from church, and after I quoted Martin Luther about five times during the course of discussion, he said, “I think you’re a closet Lutheran.” The senior pastor of my church approached me once when I was sporting a new look at church, and he said, “You know, you look like a Lutheran minister.”

“You mean you’re not a Lutheran?” I can’t put a number to how many times I’ve been asked this. But then I have to come clean and let folks know I am an active member of a Reformed church. Sometimes, this meets with positive feedback:

Mr. Swan, Fantastic stuff, as usual. I understand (perhaps incorrectly) that you belong to a Reformed Church. May I ask what keeps you from being Lutheran?”

It is great to have you, Mr. Reformed Luther Scholar (didn’t know that such a thing existed!)! So far, your posts have been outstanding...especially the one...dealing with the hidden-ness of God -found where carnal man scoffs and laughs- in the lowliness of a stable manger and the humility of the Cross!”

Other times, it does not meet with positive feedback:

Your theology is reformed, not Lutheran. I believe you cannot view Luther through the same lens as Lutherans because of this. Your theology and Luther's are different. So, there is a automatic mistrust of what you have to say on the basis of where you are coming from...If you truly loved Luther's theology, you would embrace the Sacraments as Luther did...you could not help yourself.”

The Tertium Qid said" he wanted to discuss Luther, but when confronted with Luther quotes that exposed his slander of Luther, he asked for references to the American Edition of Luther's Works.... I shudder to think of what his teeth would have done to our little flock had not… my wife held (her) ground against his attacks on Lutheranism during my absence....Ironically, during my absence, I killed a coyote that was preying upon our deer herd's younger fawns. Gee, if I had stayed home-- I would have had a shot at a wolf who was trying to kill some of you!… All of us, without exception, were all wolves at one time, we were born that way. But by the grace of God, we are what we are now: reborn children of God and sheep of our Good Shepherd. So, TQ, if you are still listening, among Lutherans there is such a thing as forgiveness and even wolves can become sheep."

Now, these are only comments from Lutherans. These are kind compared to those from Roman Catholics and the radicals. So, whether you like me because I study Luther, or you hate me because I study Luther, I guess I finally need to explain my fascination with Martin Luther.

I was not raised Reformed or Lutheran. I grew up in a very conservative non-denominational dispensational church. I was never told anything about the great Reformers. I knew who Billy Graham was, but if you were to ask me about Martin Luther I would have said he was a great man who stood against discrimination and fought for civil rights.

I began listening to the radio broadcasts of R.C. Sproul. I had no idea what Reformed theology was- but I liked Sproul. Eventually I heard a very popular talk he gives about Luther. It is called, "Love God? Sometimes I Hate Him!" It basically describes Luther’s evangelical breakthrough- Sproul tells the tale with power and emotion. I was riveted by the broadcast. At the time I was struggling with my own love and hatred of God. The broadcast was just what I needed to hear.

I began reading about Luther- particularly Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. I also began finding more recordings and books in which Sproul and others discussed Luther. I wasn’t too long before I began simply reading Luther. For instance, I devoured Luther's Preface To Romans before I embarked on my study of that great letter from Paul. His insights into Romans were simple yet profound. I picked up Luther's Bondage Of The Will and thoroughly enjoyed Luther’s humor, sarcasm, and devastating argumentation against Erasmus.

Eventually I took upper level classes through Westminster Seminary on the Reformation- which included an entire class on Luther. It was an in-depth study of Luther’s basic theological paradigms, rather than his history. It was through this that I was introduced to Luther’s theology of the cross and his paradoxes. This changed my entire approach to faith in Christ. Gerhard O. Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 simply revolutionized the way I "do" theology, as well as give me an even greater respect for Luther. I recommend this book to all Christians. Everyone should read it.

I have digested much of Luther’s writings. Currently, I use three different sets of Luther’s Works. I have a fairly large number of books either about Luther historically or doctrinally. Last count, I was nearing 200, not counting Journals, magazines, and on-line stuff i've tracked down. I am lucky enough to have 2 excellent state libraries near me that have excellent selections of Luther-related books. And of course, I use the Westminster Library, which can only be described as a goldmine. If its been written about Luther or by Luther, and is written in English, I can probably track it down.

I enjoy reading Luther’s sermons the most. In his sermons, Luther shines forth as the great pastor he was. His writings are comforting, and if anyone is tired of those silly “devotional” magazines your church gives away for free, track down Luther’s sermons. You will be energized by them.

On the other hand, I enjoy the "roughness" of Luther- I like the fact that he he said exactly what he wanted to, however wonderful or ridiculous it was. I've heard it said that the people we usually like are those that remind us of ourselves. I don't mean to suggest I'm anywhere near as brilliant as Luther, but I sure know how to say things without thinking them through.

I like the fact that Luther knew how to laugh and write with wit. His writing is not dry theology- it's alive. The great Catholic historian Joseph Lortz once said,

"...Luther is an intellectual giant, or, to use a word from Paul Althaus, an "ocean. " The danger of drowning in him, of not being able to come to grips with him satisfactorily, arises from his tremendous output, but no less from his own original style... It sounds banal, but cannot be left unsaid: Luther belongs in the first rank of men with extraordinary intellectual creativity. He is in the full sense a genius, a man of massive power in things religious and a giant as well in theological interpretation. Because of this, he has in many respects shaped the history of the world--even of our world today."

"Luther was a genius with language. Spontaneously his thoughts found concrete expression in the most sensitive of linguistic phrasing. It would perhaps be more exact to say that his thoughts take form in words."

I heard Church historian Timothy George mention one time that while he agreed theologically and doctrinally more with Calvin, if he had the choice to have dinner with either Luther or Calvin, he’d pick Luther. I’d choose the same.

15 comments:

centuri0n said...

Yeah, OK: so why are you not a Lutheran?

BTW, Luther wouldn't have dinner with you. He'd need at least one decent beer and you'd get all worked up about that.

centuri0n said...

I also need to tell you that you embarass me by ranking me with James White, Bill Webster and Dr. S. I get my licks in, but those guys are godly men and I'm just a comic book character.

FM483 said...

James - in a recent post you wrote:

"In terms of faith in Christ- It becomes more and more clear to me how foolish the gospel is. I don't expect anyone to believe it. But to those of us who do- it is the sweetest song known."

I understand what you are saying. St Paul said the same thing - that the Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, but salvation to all who believe(Romans 1:16; 1Cor 1:23ff, etc...). The Lutheran faith, based upon the Word of God, sees that God has chosen certain Means by which to deliver the Gospel to fallen man: the Word, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper. To human reason it is all nonsense. But with God all things are possible. The question is whether or not one believes the Word or his human reason when it comes to the Means of Grace. Unless am mistaken, if you are not a Lutheran, the explanation lies in the Means of Grace?

Anonymous said...

Lutherans wonder "James Swan, why isn't he a Lutheran"

Catholics wonder "C.S. Lewis, why isn't he a Catholic?"

I was about to say "Keep up the good work James" but of course, Luther would never say such a thing. Ha , Ha !

Commonman

Ken Abbott said...

I don't see why you can't take as much delight in studying Martin Luther as you like. You correctly point out that Dr. Sproul has latched onto Luther as a personal hero of the faith; likely there are many other Reformed Christians who can say the same. Where is it written that Lutherans can be proprietary about Luther?

FM483 said...

Reading the other posters in this section leads me to understand the attitude that anyone can enjoy reading about Martin Luther and his life and times. Of course one would not have to adhere to the Lutheran Confessions as a correct exposition of Holy Writ in order to appreciate the courage and insights of Martin Luther. However, it is very interesting how Americans are eclectic - they pick and choose ideas and beliefs as they fit their preconceived doctrinal beliefs. To one extent or the other all people do this, often unknowingly. Many people engage in Gospel Reductionism - picking and choosing only those passages of Scripture and what famous people like Luther said, that fit their eisegetically determined belief system. Hence, many "cultural elites", for example, will only latch onto the sections of Scripture expounding that we should love one another. They discard the purpose of the Law almost completely. This is the tremendous insight of Luther: God speaks through His Word in both Law and Gospel. Failure to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel will always lead to heresy and total disregard for the Gospel in the end.

James Swan said...

Centurion Asks:
why are you not a Lutheran?

Because I would believe the Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort accurately summarize the teachings of the Bible. Although I do not hold these documents to be equal with the Bible, I do believe that these doctrinal statements and teachings are faithful to the Scriptures.

Most Lutheran's adhere to the Confessions contained in the Book of Concord. While I have a healthy respect for them, I do not agree with them in the same way I do those mentioned above. I mean nothing hostile by this- our differences are to be discussed, but not made enemies over.

BTW, Luther wouldn't have dinner with you. He'd need at least one decent beer and you'd get all worked up about that.

You know, you may actually be the closest thing to Luther I can think of. Reincarnation? Nah, not possible. Luther would never send me candy rosary beads.

Love ya.

James Swan said...

Centurion stated:

I also need to tell you that you embarass me by ranking me with James White, Bill Webster and Dr. S. I get my licks in, but those guys are godly men and I'm just a comic book character.

Oh stop being such wuss. We both know you're on your way to giant-hood.

James Swan said...

fm483 stated:

The Lutheran faith, based upon the Word of God, sees that God has chosen certain Means by which to deliver the Gospel to fallen man: the Word, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper. To human reason it is all nonsense. But with God all things are possible. The question is whether or not one believes the Word or his human reason when it comes to the Means of Grace. Unless am mistaken, if you are not a Lutheran, the explanation lies in the Means of Grace?

I'm going to get to this- you're about ten steps ahead of me- now cut it out!

Thanks for your continued comments-

James Swan said...

Ken Abbott stated:

I don't see why you can't take as much delight in studying Martin Luther as you like. You correctly point out that Dr. Sproul has latched onto Luther as a personal hero of the faith; likely there are many other Reformed Christians who can say the same. Where is it written that Lutherans can be proprietary about Luther?

Hi Ken- you're right- the Reformed, by and large, have a healthy respect for Luther. What was that line of Calvin's? "I have often been accustomed to declare that even though [Luther] were to call me a devil, I should none the less still hold him in such honour that I must acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God."

I've had some rather awful experiences with Lutherans talking about Luther, as I mentioned in this post. You know, one of the leading scholars on Jonathan Edwards wasn't even a Christian- yet those who study Edwards from the perspective of faith find the man's work on Edwards helpful.

I think that I can similarly study Luther- I simply let him be Luther. I don't need to try and and make him Reformed- I don't need to try and make him square with Later Lutheran theology. I just let him be who he was-

James Swan said...

fm483 said:

However, it is very interesting how Americans are eclectic - they pick and choose ideas and beliefs as they fit their preconceived doctrinal beliefs.

this wasn't your point- but I think by and large the Reformed (and other non-Lutherans) don't know enough about Luther's actually theology- or for that matter- Lutheran theology. You guys really are a strange breed of cat- which is cool-

Dixie said...

“Your theology is reformed, not Lutheran. I believe you cannot view Luther through the same lens as Lutherans because of this. Your theology and Luther's are different. So, there is a automatic mistrust of what you have to say on the basis of where you are coming from...If you truly loved Luther's theology, you would embrace the Sacraments as Luther did...you could not help yourself.”


Tert, I believe I am the one who wrote these words to you. Please accept my apologies for having questioned your ability to understand Luther and for having offended you.

When I was Lutheran I was concerned about every assault I saw against classic Lutheranism--everything seemed so fragile. One of my greatest concerns was influence by the Reformed on the Lutheran faith. Unfortunately I lashed out with these words in reaction to that concern.

Today I realize the error...not only in failing to love my neighbor as myself but also in thinking Lutheranism was something that needed protection and defense by the likes of me.

Forgive me and may your continued studies in the faith produce good fruit.

Dixie

James Swan said...

Hi Rose-

not sure if you're checking back here, but thanks for the apology- there really wasn't any need though. Thanks also for stopping by.

James

Norma said...

". . .if you were to ask me about Martin Luther I would have said he was a great man who stood against discrimination and fought for civil rights."

I remember seeing a photo of a statue of Martin Luther identified as Martin Luther King. So you aren't the only one.

James Swan said...

I would LOVE a picture of the statue!