Monday, March 25, 2013

Tim Staples, Luther, and "Error Begets Error," a Review

I was sent a link over to a recent Catholic Answers article by Tim Staples: Error Begets Error. The "errors" Mr. Staples has in mind are Luther's understanding of justification without the contribution of human works, Luther's error of claiming Roman Catholics deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice,  the error of denying free will,  the error of "simul justus et peccator," and finally the ultimate error of double predestination.

1. Justification
In regard to the first "error," Staples cites the Packer / Johnston translation of Luther's The Bondage of the Will, (he doesn't cite the page number, 294):
The assertion that justification is free to all that are justified leaves none to work, merit or prepare themselves… For if we are justified without works, all works are condemned, whether small or great; Paul exempts none, but thunders impartially against all.
Staples says Luther misinterpreted Paul because,
St. Paul was answering "Judaizers"—believers in Christ who were attempting to re-establish the law of the Old Covenant as necessary for salvation in the New. This was tantamount to forfeiting Christ, or rejecting the free gift, because it represented an attempt to be justified apart from Christ.
What Staples appears to mean by "the law of the Old Covenant" is the Mosaic law. The actual debate then Staples should have with Luther is over this very issue: what constitutes the Law, according to Paul? Had Staples backed up a few pages in The Bondage of the Will, he would have found Luther specifically addressing this issue. Luther states the moral law (the Decalogue) was indeed important to Paul as being commanded by God, as were the other aspects of the Mosaic law:
Ceremonial works were as much commanded and made obligatory in the old law as was the Decalogue; therefore, the latter had neither more nor less force than the former. Paul speaks to the Jews first, as he says in Rom. x (v. 16); so none need doubt that by 'the works of the law' all the works of the entire law are meant. Indeed, they could not be called 'the works of the law' if the law was abrogated and death-dealing, for an abrogated law is law no more, as Paul well knew. When he speaks of 'the works of the law', therefore, he is speaking, not of a law that is abrogated, but of a law that is in force and authoritative. Otherwise, how easily he might have said: 'The law itself is now abrogated!'—which would have been a plain, clear statement of the case. But let us appeal to Paul himself, his own best interpreter. In Gal. 3, he says: 'As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them' (v. 10). Paul is here urging the same point as in Romans, and in the same words; and you see that when he makes mention of the works of the law he speaks of all the laws that are written in the book of the law. Moreover—what is still more remarkable —Paul cites Moses as cursing those who continue not in the law, whereas he himself pronounces accursed those who are of the works of the law; thus adducing a passage with a different scope from his own expressed view, the former being negative and the latter affirmative. This he does, however, because the real position in the sight of God is that those who are most zealous in the works of the law are furthest from fulfilling the law; for they are without the Spirit, Who alone fulfills the law. Men may try to keep it in their own strength, but they can accomplish nothing. Thus, both statements are true—that of Moses, that they are accursed who 'continue not', and that of Paul, that they are accursed who 'are of the works of the law'. Both speakers require that men should have the Spirit, without Whom works of law, however many are done, do not justify, as Paul says; so that men do not continue in all things that are written, as Moses says. In a word: Paul fully confirms what I say by his division. He divides workers at the law into two classes, those who work after the Spirit and those who work after the flesh, leaving no middle state. He says: 'By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.' What is this, but to say that when men work at the law without the Spirit, being themselves flesh, that is, ungodly and ignorant of God, their works profit them nothing? In Gal. 3, he makes use of the same division when he says: 'Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?' (v. 2). Again, in Rom. 3 he says: 'But now the righteousness of God has been revealed without the law'; and again: 'We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law' (VV. 21, 28). From all these passages it is clear and plain that in Paul the Spirit is set in opposition to the works of the law, as He is to all other things that are not spiritual, and to all the powers and qualities of the flesh. So it is certain that Paul's view here accords with Christ's teaching in John 3 (v. 6), that everything which is not of the Spirit is flesh, however specious, holy and excellent it may be, even the most - glorious works of God's law, by whatever powers wrought. For the Spirit of Christ is needed, and without Him all is nothing but a matter for condemnation. Let it be settled, then, that Paul by 'the works of the law' means, not ceremonial works, but all the works of all the law. Then it will also be settled that all works of law that are wrought without the Spirit are condemned. But the power of 'free-will' (which is the matter in dispute), though no doubt the most excellent thing in man, is without the Spirit. That he is 'of the works of the law' is the finest thing that can be said of a man. But Paul does not say, 'who are of sins, and of ungodliness, contrary to the law'; he says, 'who are of the works of the law'—. that is, the best devotees of the law, who, over and above the power of 'free-will', are also aided—that is, instructed and encouraged—by the law itself. If, now, 'free-will,' when aided by the law, and occupied in the law with all its powers, profits nothing and fails to justify, but is left in ungodliness in the flesh, what must we think it could do on its own, without the law? 'By the law is the knowledge of sin,' says Paul (Rom. 3.20). Here he shows how much and how far the law profits, teaching that 'free-will' is of itself so blind that it does not even know what sin is, but needs the law to teach it! And what can a man essay to do in order to take away sin, when he does not know what sin is? Surely this: mistake what is sin for what is not sin, and what is not sin for what is sin! Experience informs us clearly enough how the world, in the persons of those whom it accounts its best and most zealous devotees of righteousness and godliness, hates and hounds down the righteousness of God preached in the gospel, and brands it heresy, error, and other opprobrious names, while flaunting and hawking its own works and devices (which are really sin and error) as righteousness and wisdom. By these words, therefore, Paul stops the mouth of 'free-will', teaching tat by the law it is shown sin, as being ignorant of its sin; so far is he from allowing it any power to make endeavors towards good. (pp. 285-287)

2. The Sufficiency of Christ's Work 
In  regard to the second "error" Staples cites an undocumented sermon from Luther:
[Catholics] know very well how to say of him: I believe in God the Father, and in his only begotten Son. But it is only upon the tongue, like the foam on the water; it does not enter the heart. Figuratively a big tumor still remains there in the heart; that is, they cling somewhat to their own deeds and think they must do works in order to be saved—that Christ's person and merit are not sufficient. . . . They say, Christ has truly died for us, but in a way that we, also, must accomplish something by our deeds. Notice how deeply wickedness and unbelief are rooted in the heart.
The sermon being cited is Luther's Sunday After Christ's Ascension (1522). The error this is supposed to represent is that Luther "claimed any belief that man must actively cooperate in salvation at all to be equivalent to a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice."

In context, Luther is speaking about those who claim to "know" God broadly, not simply "Catholics" (a word that was added to Luther's quote by Mr. Staples). In fact, if one were to look at that which immediately precedes what Mr. Staples quotes, Luther refers to the Turks and a little earlier mentions the pope, not "Catholics" generally, but I grant that Luther certainly has the "papists" of his day in mind as well.

Staples argues,
Saying man must 'accomplish something' in Christ does not deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice; it merely states, in agreement with St. John no less, that man must, among other things, 'walk in the light' of Christ in order for Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice to become efficacious in his life."
Notice what Luther immediately goes on to say from the same context:
But to know Christ in the other and true sense is to know that he died for me and transferred the load of my sin upon himself; to so know this that I realize that all my doings amount to nothing. To let go all that is mine, and value only this, that Christ is given to me as a present; his sufferings, his righteousness and all his virtues are at once mine. When I become conscious of this, I must in return love him; my affections must go out to such a being. After this I climb upon the Son higher, to the Father, and see that Christ is God, and that he placed himself in my death, in my sin, in my misery, and bestows upon me his grace. Then I know also his gracious will and the highest love of the Father, which no heart of itself can discover or experience. Thus I lay hold of God at the point where he is the tenderest, and think: Aye, that is God; that is God's will and pleasure, that Christ did this for me. And with this experience I perceive the high, inexpressible mercy and the love in him because of which he offered his beloved child for me in ignominy, shame and death. That friendly look and lovely sight then sustain me. Thus must God become known, only in Christ. Therefore, Christ himself says to his disciples: "No one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him." Mt 11, 27.
The issue in the actual debate between Luther and Romanism is that for Luther, one who is saved by faith alone goes on to live a life in gratitude to what Christ has done, but this life of gratitude is not a salvific contribution. As was stated of Luther's sermons long ago, "[Luther’s] leading thoughts were always faith and charity, justification and sanctification, giving to each its proper place and its due importance. He did not preach sanctification at the expense of justification, a sin which many sectarian preachers are guilty; but he did not fail to emphasize the necessity of the Christian life. His sermons were immensely practical, as all preaching, in order to serve its purpose should be” [Rev. John H.C. Fritz, “Luther as a Preacher,” found in W.H.T. Dau (editor), Four Hundred Years: Commemorative Essays on the Reformation of Dr. Martin Luther and its Blessed Results [St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917), 204].

3. Free Will
Mr. Staples then refers to another "error of Luther:
The errors continue in The Bondage of the Will when Luther takes the next logical step by declaring man’s will to be absolutely passive when it comes to salvation; and consequent to that, he expressly denies the truth of man’s free will. This again follows logically from the principle of "no works," meaning there is nothing we can do, leading to two-for-one errors.
He cites The Bondage of the Will (he doesn't cite the page number, 103-104):
So man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills. . . . If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it.
Certainly Mr. Staples is correct that Luther denies "free will." As to whether it's a denial of "the truth of man’s free will" is more an example of Mr. Staples preaching to his own choir rather than a detailed argument against Luther's book (and, I realize the article by Staples was not meant to be a detailed refutation of Luther).

4. Simul justus et peccator
Mr. Staples then cites another error:
Luther’s famous notion of simul justus et peccator (“at the same time just and sinner”) is another error rooted in leaving man completely out of the equation when it comes to his own justification. It means, in effect, man's justification is accomplished extrinsic to him. God declares a man just via a divine, forensic declaration—a legal fiction—rather than the biblical notion of a real inward transformation that makes him truly and inwardly just (cf. II Cor. 5:17).
Once again this is another snippet of preaching to the choir rather than an interaction with any of Luther's argumentation, nor does Mr. Staples offer any particular Luther quote. What Mr. Staples should have done, to be fair to Luther, is to explain what Luther actually believed the role of works were in the life of a Christian.

5. Predestination
Mr Staples then goes on to state what he believes was Luther's worst error:
There are many other errors we could add to this litany of Lutheran misstandings, but what I would argue to be Luther’s most egregious errors came as a direct consequence of his denial of free will. Think about it. If you deny free will, but you also teach that at least some people will end up in hell—and Luther did just that—then it necessarily follows that God does not will all to be saved. This is logical if you accept Luther's first principles. The problem is it runs contrary to plain biblical texts like I Tim. 2:4: “God wills all to be saved” (see also II Peter 3:9: I John 2:1-2), and Matthew 23:37, which records the words of our Lord himself.
Well, I'm Reformed, so I don't particularly have a problem with Luther if his view was "God does not will all to be saved." However, as far as I've been able to understand Luther, he did not limit the extent of the atonement. He rather argued Christ died for "all", as in, every single person.  Mr Staples then provides actual argumentation from Luther on this issue from The Bondage of the Will (he doesn't cite the page number, p. 176),
Here, God Incarnate (sic) says: “I would and thou wouldst not.” God Incarnate (sic), I repeat, was sent for this purpose, to will, say, do, suffer, and offer to all men, all that is necessary for salvation; albeit he offends many who, being abandoned or hardened by God’s secret will of Majesty, do not receive Him thus willing, speaking, doing, and offering. . . . It belongs to the same God incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish.
Mr. Staples interprets Luther as follows:
So what is Luther’s response to Jesus’ obvious willing all to be saved? Certainly, he would acquiesce to the Master and acknowledge God's universal salvific will, would he not? After all, Jesus Christ is, in one sense, the will of God manifest in the flesh. Unfortunately not. Luther claimed Christ's human knowledge to be lacking when it came to understanding "God's secret will of Majesty," which led our Lord's human will to find itself in opposition to the divine will. Poor Jesus. If he only knew what Luther knew.
Exactly where is Luther saying this about Christ's human knowledge? Luther certainly isn't saying this in the quote cited by Mr. Staples. What's interesting is this very section is quoted in Packer's introduction along with an explanation of Luther's Deus absconditus (pp. 55-57), and that appears to be the actual text Mr. Staples is citing (based on the fact that both Mr. Staples and Packer leave out the same sentences). Luther describes God in his bare majesty as the hidden God (deus absconditus). This God has absolute control over everything. Of the agenda of the hidden God, a finite creature can know nothing. He is the God who enforces his “hidden and awful will” which includes the predestinating punishment for sinners. Of this hidden will, no creature is to speculate on or inquire. Rather, as Packer explains, "...we must listen to, and deal with, God as He speaks to us in Christ." Packer, as far I could see from the immediate context, does not say anything about Luther's solution being to limit the knowledge of Christ. In fact, I would refer Mr. Staples to one of the standard works on Luther's theology for his review.


Joe said...

It is interesting that Tim does not shy away from saying that we can "merit eternal life".

But after entering into Christ, Phillipians 4:13 says, “I can do all things in [Christ] who strengthens me.” And according to Romans 2:6-7, “all things” includes meriting eternal life.

Most of my conversations with my RC friends involve a downplaying of this concept or accuse me of misrepresenting the fact that one merits eternal life under their paradigm.

Still extraordinarily strange to even see a concept in writing!

In Him,

Joe H.

James Swan said...

Well, here's the thing about Mr. Staples... My opinion is Mr. Staples is a speaker, not a writer. That is, he's probably more careful when he gives a talk.

If you go over to buy CA products, you'll notice most of the stuff from Staples are audio products. I'm not saying staples can't write on his beliefs. I'm saying he expresses and explains himself better when he talks. In other words, I'm giving Tim the benefit of the doubt that he probably would've explained himself better on the point you raise if you heard him speaking on it.

That my 2 cents.