I was sent an e-mail last week asking me about Luther's view of baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Lutheran distinctive of the paradox of faith. I thought i'd share part of my response:
I realize there is chasm between Lutherans and the Reformed on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. I have had Lutherans in the past really tear me to shreds for not agreeing with their view, even telling me it wasn't too late for me to repent and be saved. My church does baptize infants, but we do not understand the meaning of that sacrament in the same way as Lutherans (I realize that the Lutheran view is not the Roman Catholic view-I wish Roman Catholics would grip this fact as well).
The Lord's Supper
In regard to the Lord's Supper, my view would be that of Calvin's. Some are probably familiar with Calvin's view, and know that it isn't a "memorial" like Zwingli's position. I did try to cover this on the blog a few months ago, albeit, with some over-simplicity:
Understanding Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (Part One)
Understand Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin on the Lord's Supper (Part Two)
Understanding Luther, Zwingli and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper (Part 3)
John Calvin's View of the Lord's Supper
Paradox vs. Reason
One thing I both admire and scratch my head over is the notion of paradox vs. reason in Lutheran theology. I admire Luther and his disdain for Aristotelian logic being applied to the Scriptures- and I have reached a similar disdain as well when I see writers or ministers attempting to make God "make sense" rather than simply "letting God be God." In my own Bible, I have little notes pointing out "Glory vs. Cross" or paradox when I find them in Scripture. Often I find something that seems "rational" in the Bible, is only so because i've read it so often that it has lost its depth of profoundness. One needs to step back at times and attempt to read the Biblical text with freshness. A good understanding of Luther's disdain for "reason" and his theological paradoxes can be a big aid for reading the Bible with freshness.
I also realize that the Bible teaches things like the Trinity, which no matter how human reason tries to figure it out, it never will. Same thing with the Deity and humanity of Christ. A great Lutheran book on this that I have is by Seigbert Becker, The foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther. If you don't have this book, it is one of the best treatments of the subject I've ever read.
On the other hand, I use the notion of paradox, or "beyond reason" only when Scripture demands it. Saying something is "beyond reason" or saying a biblical concept "does not fit into a logical system of theology" sometimes overlooks the fact that one must use reason to arrive at this point, and one also has to actually have an underlying logical system of theology by which to classify a particular biblical concept in such a way. I don't mean to caricature Luther or Lutheran theology- I realize that neither Luther or Lutheranism denies the correct use of reason or systematic theology. I often have to point this out to Roman Catholics when they attack Luther's comments on the "whore of reason".
Probably whatever differences I would have with the Lutherans would be on “what” characterizes a particular doctrine being “beyond reason”. Further, the differences would probably be on the interpretation of particular doctrines we would both find to be "beyond reason". for instance, I find certain aspects of the atonement "beyond reason", and most Lutherans do as well. But, given my discussions with Lutherans in the past, we would not agree as to what nuances of the atonement are "beyond reason". In many instances, simply by comparing Scripture with Scripture, and using the paradigm that the clearer texts interpret the "less-clear", one can come to an understanding of a Biblical concept, without stripping a doctrine of its mystery and paradox.
BaptismIn regard to Luther's view of baptism, I haven't done a lot of work in this area, but I have a cursory familiarity with his view, and the following comes from my seminary notes. Lutherans are welcome to correct me if I have not stated Luther's view correctly.
Luther held the sacraments are a form of the Word. Luther believed that the Word of God was oral, written, and sacramental. The Word comes to change our hearts, minds, reason, and will.
“We shall now return to the Gospel, which offers council and help against sin in more than one way, for God is surpassingly rich in his grace: First, through the spoken word, by which the forgiveness of sin (the peculiar function of the Gospel) is preached to the whole world; second, through Baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys; and finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren expression of God’s love.”
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” he was calling forth the faith of those who were to be baptized, so that by this word of promise a man might be certain of his salvation if he was baptized in faith.”
What this means is that if one is baptized in faith, they have received one of the promises that God will be their savior. It is His promise to us that he will save those with faith. Luther is showing that Word of promise is the power of God unto salvation, not works of penance. Baptism establishes that we are children of God.
Luther argued that the validity of the promise does not rest on faith. Faith is simply the response. It grasps and makes use of the benefits, but the promise of God is there. Christ saves, not faith. Faith only receives the salvation Christ gives. Luther believed that God, through the power of His Word, establishes the relationship with His people.
Luther also believed in infant faith. It is a mystery. The Word of God changes the hearts of adults who are ungodly, resisting His grace. If that Word can change the heart of conscious rejecting adults, then surely in can change the heart of an infant.
Luther believed there were historical arguments in favor of infant baptism. First, He cited examples from the early church. God therefore had used infant baptism in every age to sanctify his people. If God had done this in every age, he was certain He would continue.
Secondly, Luther admitted to no specific biblical command to baptize children, but he noted there was no specific prohibition to baptize infants (the biblical command to baptize “all nations, and “all households” factored into his thinking).
Thirdly, he also took the passage that said “we must be like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God” very seriously. This is the model of entrance into the kingdom of God that Christ chose. To enter the kingdom of God like a little child is to receive the kingdom of God simply as a gift.
As an aside, I recently read Luther's comments on baptism and his use of Mark 16 as a strong prooftext. I would argue that the last verses of Mark 16 are probably not Scripture, hence I would not base any theological opinion on them.