Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: The Real Luther by Franz Posset (Part Two)

Executive Director of Concordia Publishing House Paul McCain kindly sent me over their new book, The Real Luther by Franz Posset. This is the second instalment of my review (the first can be found here).

Posset is a Roman Catholic scholar. Yes, that's right, the Lutherans published a book by a Roman Catholic. I'm not sure if there is anything reciprocal going on (I assume it's within the realm of possibility for a Roman Catholic publisher to release a book written by a Lutheran scholar).

As I mentioned previously, there's a lot to be thankful for with this book. As I've worked through over half of it now, it's very easy to forget the book was written by a Catholic scholar. That is, it isn't pro-Roman polemical.  It really is a work of scholarship rather than a work of polemic. I would have no problem recommending this book for anyone seeking to go deeper into Luther studies.  I can understand why Concordia published it.

Part Two: Philip Melanchthon's Memoirs as Guide
In order to get to the "real Luther" Posset uses Melanchthon's short biography of Luther. Who better to know Luther than his closest friend? Posset considers this "the best available source for biographical data" (p. 44). Keep in mind, what's focused on here is Luther pre (and including) 1517. What this means is that Posset considers Melanchthon an honest biographer.

One interesting fact in this section is in regard to Luther's entering the monastery. True to his use of sources, Posset considers Luther's thunderstorm vow to St. Anne an unreliable Table Talk entry "thirty-four years removed from Luther's decision to join the friars at Erfurt" (p.53).

Sola Scriptura?
The most interesting section of this book so far has been Posset's treatment of Luther and the Scriptures. He mentions in passing, "As an aside, on the eve of the 'Reformation' there was a canonistic tradition supporting the assertion of the supreme authority of Scripture over councils or ecclesiastical authorities"(p. 63). He then argues that  the reformed friary Luther joined had Constitutions, and this document is still extant. In Chapter 17 of the Augutinian's Constitutions "the following directive is given which suggests the meaning of the maxim Scripture Alone"

[A friar] is to read the Sacred Scripture avidly, listen to it devoutly, and learn it fervently. Sacram scripturam avide legat, devote audiat et ardenter addiscat.

Posset states,

The notions "Scripture principle" and "Scripture alone" are often used as watchwords to distinguish Protestants from Catholics. However, the notion "Scripture principle" is an invention of the nineteenth century and "Scripture alone" as a fundamental concept is much older than Luther, although known primarily as a post-Reformation slogan. As to Luther's biblical theology that follows from the focus given by his order's Constitutions, one should not get trapped in the later theological debate about Scripture and Tradition at the Council of Trent. For the historical Luther the issue was not so much Scripture versus Tradition, but biblical theology versus philosophical theology.

The expression "Scripture Alone" is not found verbatim anywhere in the historical Luther's vocabulary. The young friar simply faithfully obeyed the directive that was given him through the Constitutions. The priority of the Scriptures has a long pre-Lutheran tradition inside and outside of his order. What was new with the developing Reformer is his determination and also his radicalism in the handling and employing of the Scripture principle which he had inherited from the tradition in his religious order, with its practice of Scripture meditation to which any young novice was introduced.

The real Luther wanted to read the Bible without philosophical (Scholastic) filters, and thus without a specific hermeneutics: "Luther demanded for the interpretation of the Scriptures quite a special theory of understanding—namely none." Luther wanted to read the Bible "with closed eyes" (clausis oculis), i.e., closed to any philosophical speculation or other influences such as private revelations, etc., in strictly following the monastic tradition of reading the Sacred Page in the prayerful way of lectio divina, reading it "avidly, listening to it devoutly, and learning it fervently."

He was convinced that Scripture can interpret itself. The eminent Lutheran theologian Gerhard Ebeling (1912-2001) clarified what Luther meant by "Scripture alone" (even as it is not verbatim Luther's own slogan). He meant to express with this concept the self-sufficiency and clarity of the biblical message that brings us life as it is the living, spoken Word of God.

He did not want a "rational" but an "orational approach," praying over the Scriptures instead of reasoning about them (ratio). Luther himself used the paradoxical expression of "reading" the Scriptures clausis oculis and to chew (ruminare, ruminate) on the Word of God alone. Luther was thinking of Saint John, his favorite evangelist, and declared that with closed eyes Saint John sees farther than we do as he remains with the Word of God alone. (p. 67-68).

Perhaps in this early period Luther was indeed more concerned with freeing Biblical interpretation from philosophy, yet not long after that, "Tradition" was indeed an issue.

One final point of interest is the debate over Luther's subjectivism. Catholic historian Joseph Lortz criticized Luther for his subjectivism, individualism, and one-sidedness. Posset though argues "Luther's drive to reforming Bible studies and pastoral care was not caused by 'subjectivism,' a typical Catholic charge..." (p.73). He notes "The issue deserves to be discussed in terms of hermeneutic, but not of psychology" (.73).

These are only a few issues that jumped out at me, particularly since the author is Roman Catholic. Posset cover a lot more territory in this second section than these particular issues. Again, one may think such statements coming from a Roman Catholic theologian are outrageous, but that simply means you've read too much of the Catholic Answers type stuff. A lot of Roman Catholic scholarship is far removed from the simplistic hostile polemic.



Brigitte said...

Fascinating, indeed.

James Swan said...

Thx Brigitte!

Matt said...

Thanks for this review and thanks for your conclusion. As you suggest, this kind of historical approach from a real Roman Catholic scholar is not all that surprising. These are mainstream attitudes among Roman Catholic historians(Wicks, Janz, O'Malley, Wawrykow, Eire, Jedin, etc.) As you also state, it is Catholic Answers' vision of Luther which is idiosyncratic, even if it dominates internet debates.

But I wonder if these conclusions could go further in shaping the opening paragraphs of this post, e.g., some astonishment that Concordia published an RC historian and that an RC historian saying such things might seem outrageous, etc. Isn't that still assuming that the Catholic Answers approach is kind of the norm?

Thanks again!

Matt said...

Just curious, do you have a famous textbook account of the Reformation?

James Swan said...

Isn't that still assuming that the Catholic Answers approach is kind of the norm?

I guess so. One would have to argue for what represents the "norm" for Roman Catholicism." i assume that's a lot more complicated than many would think.

Just curious, do you have a famous textbook account of the Reformation?

Well, I've got quite a collection. You probably know that interpretations of the Reformation are vast and divergent!