Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Jared Wicks: Luther and His Spiritual Legacy

I recently picked up a copy of Jared Wicks, Luther and His Spiritual Legacy (Delaware: Michael Glazier Inc., 1983). Wicks is a Roman Catholic scholar, and I've referred to him before. The book came with this little insert:

Well, of course Michael Glazier could probably care less what I think, and I'm about twenty seven years late with a review. However, when I read a helpful Roman Catholic book written with fairness and insight, I think it's worth mentioning. If you think that Roman Catholics are Reformation-clueless, and only rely on 100 - 200 year old secondary sources, you should know that Roman Catholic scholarship tends to be light years away from the books like these written by Catholic laymen.

Wicks has read Luther extensively, quoting primary sources accurately. In most cases, he refers to the English edition of Luther's Works, otherwise it's Weimar. Helpful also are the bibliographies throughout the book, and also extensively at the end. For each topic Wicks covers, he makes sure to send you off in the right direction for more information. The book is short, under 200 pages, and the seven chapters are spaced nicely. Used copies can be found here (the copies listed will probably change week to week). The magic of the Internet never ceases- I found the entire book in PDF format:

Title, Contents, Foreword
Ch. 1 - Images of Luther
Ch. 2 - The Eve of the Reformation
Ch. 3 - Luther’s Life and Career to 1512
Ch. 4 - Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 1513-1518
Ch. 5 - Luther’s Reformation Decisions, 1518-25
Ch. 6 - Luther’s Later Life and Works, 1526-46
Ch. 7 - Luther’s Mature Spiritual Teaching
General Bibliography and Index

The chapters don't need to be read in order. Each is sufficient in itself. Chapter one is a helpful overview of interpreters of Luther. He focuses primarily on Roman Catholic interpretations, tracing the trend from destructive criticism to the kinder evaluations that began in the twentieth century. Cochlaeus, Bellarmine, Janssen, Denifle, Grisar: these are Roman Catholic authors from the destructive period, and oddly enough, their works are easy enough to find on the Internet. Merkle, Lortz, Iserloh, Pesch, these are but a few of recent Roman Catholic scholars. Their works are not as easy to find on the Internet. Whatever progress they made in scholarship hasn't quite filtered down to the Internet layman level.

Wicks presents his image of Luther, and these are motivated by his ecumenical leanings:

Luther can be a forceful teacher of lived religion. He can be a resource for the enrichment of personal spirituality for members of all Christian confessions. In many of Luther's works, one does not have to read far before touching on the subject of conversion from proud self-reliance to trusting acceptance of God's grace. Luther's accounts of conversion bear numerous marks of their own time, as accounts written between 1509 and 1546…. One thinks here of Luther's The Freedom of a Christian, of his exposition of the Miserere (Psalm 51), and of his preface to the Epistle to the Romans.” (p. 26).

"Luther can lead the spiritually dedicated person to the retrieval of easily forgotten central truths. Like Ignatius, Luther is skeptical about enthusiastic claims of having the Spirit. Luther leads the believer back to the word of Scripture, to baptism, and to the words of absolution and eucharistic institution. There faith can take hold of reliable communications from God. Above all, Luther sought to help people be struck personally by the word and work of Christ. Both Ignatius and Luther teach that Christmas is a time to marvel that God became man for me and for my salvation." (p. 26)

"As one reads the Gospels and prays over them along lines suggested by Luther, a leitmotif will inevitably be the line, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). Luther is a dedicated foe of any proud satisfaction over having arrived spiritually at a point of rest. Penance for him is a lifelong concern, which is as well the message of the annual observance of Lent in the church year." (p.26)

“…[C]ertain concerns of contemporary theology especially in Catholic circles, suggest that Luther can provide enrichment. For instance, he insisted on occasion on integrating experience into his interpretation of Scripture and his teaching of Christian truth. This gave many of his expositions, especially on sin and grace, a tone of profound, even anguished, feeling. For him, sin and guilt were terrifying, grace and union with Christ liberating and filled with delight. Faith, for Luther, brings an experience of strength and courage become imperturbable and of trust and joy deep in the heart. In Luther's day, academic theology in the universities had long been divorced from the Christian insights of the monastic and mystical traditions. Luther was one who brought the academic, that is, systematic and exegetical, concerns into renewed connection with Christian experience.” (p.26)

“Christology is clearly the place of the central theological ferment of our day. Catholic theologians are producing a host of new presentations of the person, message, and meaning of Christ the Lord. Luther can serve here as a forceful reminder that soteriology, the doctrine of Christ's saving work, is the center of all Christian words and teaching. Faith, for Luther, focuses sharply on the redemptive mystery, on Jesus' life and death for us and for our salvation…. For Luther, the cross of Christ is the most illuminating revelation of God. The heart of the Father is shown us in his Son, and faith in the Father is always through the Son. Focused as he is on salvation, Luther stresses how Christ brings grace and forgiveness to the fearful and saddened hearts of sinners. Luther does offer a relational Christology closely based on Scripture.” (pp. 27-28)

“Another concern of contemporary theology is biblical hermeneutics. One senses an increasing dissatisfaction with contributions to theological work by the practice of the critical-historical method on Scripture. Biblical scholarship at times uses methods that atomize the texts into tiny particles. Other analyses so stress the special individuality of a particular biblical author as to leave us no single message from the New Testament. Another kind of interpretation seems needed, that goes beyond the initial phase of work with the text. Above all, a method is needed which does not lose sight of the perspective arising from the faith which prompts us to pick up the Bible in the first place. Now Luther did practice theological and religious interpretation of Scripture. Taking his stand on Paul's form of the Gospel of grace, Luther moved out confidently to point out what was going on in the prayers, narratives, and sermons recorded throughout the Bible. His Old Testament interpretations focus on faith and the trials besetting the lives of God's servants. Luther explains the Psalms as Christian prayer. He comes to the gospel narratives quite aware of the mission of Christ to bring salvation to sinners. Thus Luther provides a model of interpretation of the biblical text that is focused on the religious core of revelation.”(pp. 28-29).

But for Wicks, there's also negative aspects of Luther. He lists three central points of doctrine that he finds erroneous:

“Luther's doctrine of conversion did resolutely exclude the free assent of compliance by which the human person ratifies and appropriates the grace of God. This assent, the Catholic tradition rightly holds, could be dissent or refusal in a given case. A mystery of freedom, human freedom, penetrates conversion under grace. But Luther projected a mystical passivity into this area.” (p. 29)

"Second, there are Luther's polemics against the sacrifice of the mass. History shows the many reasons why a reform movement had to take up the mass in the sixteenth century. Protestant reformers did do away with abuses connected with stipends, the vast number of masses without the people, lay passivity or attention to other devotions during mass, withholding the chalice, celebration in a tongue alien to many, and neglect of preaching at mass. But Luther went on to teach a purely receptive posture of faith in the central moment of worship. Receptivity is right, but Luther's exclusion is not right. Eucharist is a prayer of praise and dedication addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit. It is intrinsic to the action to give all honor and glory to the Father through, with, and in Christ. A sacrificial movement of self-offering by the church is essential here. Luther's passion to display the grace of God in the Supper led to an exclusion of this movement toward God by the community united with Christ.”(pp. 28-29)

"Lastly, and most fundamentally, Luther believed that Scripture had a power of self-interpretation based on the content of its central message. Luther felt that the norms for understanding all biblical texts arose from the Pauline gospel. Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius interpres is the basic Reformation tenet asserting this self-interpreting power. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth here, but alone the tenet does not suffice. Scripture does provide important motifs and assertions that should inform interpretive work. But still the Bible only comes to us because it was made canonical by the church, and this Bible is first of all an element in the life of this church. Ultimately, an adequate interpretation, the stimulus of developing Christian doctrine, arises out of the interplay of the biblical message and this church." (p 30).

Despite these criticisms, it's refreshing to read them rather than personal attack or pseudo- psychological evaluations. Wicks is Roman Catholic, and he's not giving away the store. Wicks is ecumenical, but not to the point of denying central aspects of Romanism.

The chapter entitled "On the Eve of the Reformation" (chapter 2) is probably the most dry, Yet given that this topic is prone to different interpretation (i.e., Janssen vs. Lortz), Wicks does a fair job explaining the tensions and problems that gave birth to the Reformation.

The mid chapters in the book are brief historical sketches of Luther's career. The earlier chapters show how fluent Wicks is with Luther's earlier writings. He traces Luther's unfolding understanding of grace and justification, particularly from his early lectures on the Psalms and Romans . The later chapters skip through the bulk of Luther's career, minus the typical Roman Catholic invective. For instance, his review of the Peasant's Revolt is fair and balanced. When describing Luther's translation of the New Testament, Wicks calls it a "linguistic masterpiece filled with the uncanny power of God's living word" (p.97). He doesn't waste time with silly arguments about adding words to Romans 3, or destroying the canon.

The most significant chapter is Ch. 7 - Luther’s Mature Spiritual Teaching. Here, Wicks describes the insight Luther made as a theologian. It's really a chapter explaining what Luther meant by sola fide. Any Roman Catholic wishing to go beyond the simple basics or slogan shouting will find a helpful overview here. Sola fide isn't the license to sin it's regularly made out to be.

Other writings from Jared Wicks can be found here.


Matthew D. Schultz said...

James, this work looks very interesting. Thanks for the helpful review.

You write:

Their works are not as easy to find on the Internet. Whatever progress they made in scholarship hasn't quite filtered down to the Internet layman level.

In my experience, lay-Catholic apologists don't usually quote or even recognize the authority of modern Catholic scholarship. (One fine example is how they will criticize Luther for "removing" books of the Bible, sometimes basing this criticism on the assertion that Hippo and Carthage "settled" the canon. Yet modern Catholic scholarship clearly states that the canon was not settled until Trent.)

Has this been your general experience as well? If so, I was wondering what you made of it. Why do you think this is the case?

Tania said...

Thanks for providing the PDF format with your post.
I'll have to put this one on my reading list!

James Swan said...

Has this been your general experience as well? If so, I was wondering what you made of it. Why do you think this is the case?

Since you've been on CARM so long, we probably both have had similar experiences. I've found that the folks typically on the discussion boards are feed from the troth of the pop-apologetics books, and by and large, none of the people writing those books have any clue about Roman Catholic Luther studies.

Matt said...

Jared Wicks--deserved appreciation!