Sunday, January 04, 2009

Luther Goes "Word of Faith" Revisted....

I came across a Luther quote being used by a "word of faith" (WOF) advocate over on the CARM boards. He explained how the Reformation was supposed to distance itself from Roman Catholic asceticism but "the children of these reformers want to head back to Rome (where a lot of their Augustinian doctrine is derived anyhow)." Not to hard to read between the lines here- the children of the Reformation returned back to the Roman ideals of spirituality- things like chastity, poverty, and obedience, and the like. The main ideal in question seems to poverty.

Then the following Luther quote was cited as not advocating asceticism, but rather "explain[ing] what it means to be 'poor in spirit'. It is NOT being without material possessions, but simply relying on Christ":

Finally, you see in this Gospel that Christ, though he held Gospel poverty in the highest esteem and was not anxious about the morrow, as he teaches in Matthew 6, 34, had still some provisions, as the two hundred shillings, the five loaves and the two fishes; in order that we may learn how such poverty and freedom from care consist not in having nothing at all, as the barefooted fanatics and monks profess, and yet they themselves do not hold to it; but it consists in a free heart and a poor spirit. For even Abraham and Isaac had great possessions, and yet they lived without worry and in poverty, like the best Christians do.

The link given for the quote source didn't work, but the sermon was easy enough to locate. It's from Luther's sermon "Fourth Sunday in Lent, John 6:5-14, The Feeding of the 5000" found in volume II:166-172 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, originally published in 1906. If you've got the Baker reprint, it's in volume 1. As far as I can tell, no date for the sermon is given. The sermon is divided into two parts. The first part is more of a literal interpretation of John 6:5-14, while the second part is referred to as "The Allegorical Interpretation." I'm going to speculate the sermon was preached early in Luther's Reformation career, because later in his career Luther shied away from following the customary medieval method of giving an allegorical interpretation. Luther would state of allegorical interpretation: "...Allegory is often unsafe as a prop for the faith, it often depends upon human conjecture and opinion. If anyone leans on that, he is leaning on the reed of Egypt" (What Luther Says Vol. 1 p. 80).

The WOF Luther quote above comes from the allegorical interpretation section. Luther explains "That Christ by the miraculous feeding of the five thousand has encouraged us: to partake of a spiritual food, and taught that we should seek and expect from him nourishment for the soul." Luther then explains that the Jewish people throughout history "flourished and blossomed like the grass through their outward holiness, wisdom, honor, riches etc," but this outward appearance will wither away. The Jewish people should have sought for the true food of God's word. Luther explains, "Only common and hungry people receive the Word of God and are nourished by it." Those that are truly spiritually hungry are those that can only be filled by God's word. As Luther pointed out elsewhere on John 6, "But when the people hear that Christ wants to direct them away from bread and from money to the Gospel, from the field and the earth to heaven, they are displeased, and they desert Him. For flesh and blood is interested only in bodily nourishment. The common rabble’s breath reeks only of avarice. In fact, the entire world seeks nothing but money and goods, food and drink. But Christ utters these words here solely for the sake of a few pious people who take them to heart and whose yearnings transcend bread and beer, money and goods. Let the others go where they please—who cares?" [LW 23:8]

The quote in question is actually the last point of the sermon:

Finally, you see in this Gospel that Christ, though he held Gospel poverty in the highest esteem and was not anxious about the morrow, as he teaches in Matthew 6, 34, had still some provisions, as the two hundred shillings, the five loaves and the two fishes; in order that we may learn how such poverty and freedom from care consist not in having nothing at all, as the barefooted fanatics and monks profess, and yet they themselves do not hold to it; but it consists in a free heart and a poor spirit. For even Abraham and Isaac had great possessions, and yet they lived without worry and in poverty, like the best Christians do.

"Gospel poverty" seems to me to imply not seeking after wealth and prosperity, but rather relying on God to provide what one needs (Matthew 6:19-34). Even though Christ taught against storing up treasures on earth, he himself had exactly what he needed: "some provisions, as the two hundred shillings, the five loaves and the two fishes." The monks who pursued vows of poverty in order to be free of the world really were not free. Rather, they were trusting in their own righteousness. These are "the teachers who wish to make the people pious and to quiet them with God's laws." These are those who will never "know that the Gospel is devised and bestowed, not through our own merit, but out of pure grace." Then Luther provides an allegorical understanding of what poverty and freedom from care is: it consists in a free heart and a poor spirit. That is, these are they who believe Matthew 6:19-34. They are those who are not spiritually proud, but thirst for the word of God.

The WOF apologist using this Luther sermon advocates health and wealth, and summons Luther to his aid. For Luther though, the extremes of great poverty and great wealth were dangerous. Luther believed that Christians should not forsake or throw away what they own, but rather they should not fasten their hearts to their possessions (What Luther Says Vol. I, p.438). Luther's writings caution against seeking wealth, and the great trouble wealth brings. For Luther, economic status is not a sign of God's favor or disfavor. He's correct, to be poor in spirit for Luther is not to be without possessions- but it doesn't follow that Luther advocated a prosperity gospel.

1 comment:

Matt Oskvarek said...

"Keep yourselves free from the love of money, and be content with what you have....Watch out! Be on guard against all forms of greed, and man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions...
With food for our stomach and shelter for our bodies, with these we will be content...Lord, give me neither poverty nor riches..."

The written Word of God is replete with warnings, admonishments and more, concerning the riches of this life. It is better to give than to receive. And yes, let us be on guard against these desires that can take us all over.

Perhaps send your Word of Faith friends to Psalm 73. Asaph struggled with the same quandary as many of of them and us do (heck, I know I have - ending up at a blackjack table living like a fool!). Anyway, Psalm 73 shows the soul and heart of a soul that desires more than it has been given.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73

Peace to you,
Matt