13 August, 2010

Melanchthon and the “Tradition” of Natural Law

At the risk of greatly oversimplifying things, Christianity has treated pagan antiquity in one of two major ways. On the one hand, the pagan antiquities have a long and noble history of coming in for heavy weather in the realm of Christian thought (think: Tertullian). On the other hand, Augustine, for example, thought of the heritage of pagan antiquity as “Egyptian gold,” something to be appropriated by the Church for its purposes. More recently, C.S. LewisAbolition of Man elaborates his understanding of the natural law (whose clearest distillation is found in the divine Decalogue, Ex. 20) and its representation within not only the cultural tradition of the West, but also of the manifold cultures of the world. Abolition of Man, in other words, represents something of an apologetic for the Christian use of pagan source material.

Within the cacophony raised by Luther’s screeds against Aristotle and pagan philosophy (which he regarded—rightly—as having been misappropriated by scholastic theology) it is difficult to hear anything but a Tertullian-esque stance. But if you listen more closely, you can discover that the situation on the ground in Wittenberg was much more nuanced. Even as Luther was dropping some of his juicier anti-Aristotle comments, his colleague Philipp Melanchthon was working out a theory for the inclusion of the pagan humanities in the Wittenberg arts/philosophy faculty. His ability to do so was opened up by nothing less than Luther’s coming to clarity, in the early 1520s, on the Scriptural distinction between Law and Gospel. Now, with some qualification, the Law could be seen reflected and taught in antique pagan ethics, literature, and philosophy (so Melanchthon).

But how did this come to be? Melanchthon offers a tradition-theory for the presence of the natural law in the pagan works of the West:

[Homer] says, “Ill deeds do not attain to virtue, and even a slow man catches up with a fast one” [Od. 7.329]—that evil deeds do not lead to success or have a good outcome, and that the wicked man, however fast he may be and however versed in deceit, is nevertheless caught, and even by one who is lame. There is no doubt that this kind of saying was first uttered by the holy fathers [i.e., the patriarchs] and transmitted to posterity. Then they were passed on from one to the other, one could say from hand to hand, and finally extended to the men by whom they were included in these written monuments [the classical heritage], so that, put in an illustrious and perspicuous place, they could be kept in the memory of all posterity and beheld with admiration. [“Preface to Homer,” Kusukawa & Salazar, 43; brackets 1, 3, and 4 added]

Herein Melanchthon supplies at least a partial answer to the question on the minds of many a Wittenberg student who had developed Luther’s venemous attacks on Aristotelianizing scholasticism into a self-chosen educational program that rejected all learning but the theological.

Why does pagan learning matter? Because it evidences God’s providential guardianship of His Law, so that, here on earth and among men, the pagan authors can and in fact do offer no little guidance for a proper life. Indeed, because God has made all His established orders holy by, well, establishing them (that of the Church, of the household, of the state), savvy living within those orders is also a holy thing. And the pagan authors can excellently serve this end. Egyptian gold, indeed.

[Graphic: The Blinding of Paul, epitaph for Veit Winsheim, who delivered “Preface to Homer;” City Church, Wittenberg]


Jon Bruss said...

This note comes in two chunks. This, and the one that follows.

A writer on email responds wondering whether the last paragraph of this post goes over the top and suggests, by implication, that [I am suggesting that Melanchthon is suggesting] that by following pagan precepts and apart from the Gospel a person may be saved.

No. But perhaps this needs to be clarified a bit. Whatever God has created, established, ordained, commanded, demanded, is good and holy. It is good and holy to live rooted within those structures and according to those command[ment]s. That is, even pagans can do noble things, and God, because He has ordained those noble things, works through such things to accomplish His will. See, e.g., Romans 2:14–15: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

But this obedience of the Law does not invalidate the "obedience of the Gospel," which is faith alone in Jesus alone for salvation. AC 28 goes a long way in clarifying the matter:

"Of Free Will they teach that man's will has some liberty to choose civil righteousness, and to work 2] things subject to reason. But it has no power, without the Holy Ghost, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness; since the natural man 3] receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 2:14; but this righteousness is wrought in the heart when the Holy Ghost is received 4] through the Word. These things are said in as many words by Augustine in his Hypognosticon, Book III: We grant that all men have a free will, free, inasmuch as it has the judgment of reason; not that it is thereby capable, without God, either to begin, or, at least, to complete aught in things pertaining to God, but only in works of this life, whether good 5] or evil. "Good" I call those works which spring from the good in nature, such as, willing to labor in the field, to eat and drink, to have a friend, to clothe oneself, to build a house, to marry a wife, to raise cattle, to learn divers useful arts, or whatsoever good 6]pertains to this life. For all of these things are not without dependence on the providence of God; yea, of Him and through Him they are and have their being. "Evil" 7] I call such works as willing to worship an idol, to commit murder, etc. 8] They condemn the Pelagians and others, who teach that without the Holy Ghost, by the power of nature alone, we are able to love God above all things; also to do the commandments of God as touching "the substance of the act." For, although nature is able in a manner to do the outward work, 9] (for it is able to keep the hands from theft and murder,) yet it cannot produce the inward motions, such as the fear of God, trust in God, chastity, patience, etc."

Jon Bruss said...

Chunk II: Regarding God's providence in, with, and under the orders He has established (church, household, civil realm), AC 16 is helpful:

"Of Civil Affairs they teach that lawful civil ordinances are good works of God, and that 2] it is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to make oath when required by the magistrates, to marry a wife, to be given in marriage.

3] They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid these civil offices to Christians.

4] They condemn also those who do not place evangelical perfection in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, for 5] the Gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. Meanwhile, it does not destroy the State or the family, but very much requires that they be preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in such 6] ordinances. Therefore, Christians are necessarily bound to obey their own magistrates 7] and laws save only when commanded to sin; for then they ought to obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29. "

Perhaps another axiom will help: before men, the Law; before God, the Gospel. Those are the proper realms of God's two words, that is, the realms in which "following them" matters. Before God, you cannot follow the Law. It does nothing BEFORE HIM. Before men, you cannot follow the Gospel. It does nothing BEFORE THEM. Here, we are servants of all; there, we are free children under no compulsion whatsoever.

So when we use the Law for the purpose God gave it--following it thereby to serve our fellows--that is a good work in God's eyes, no matter by whom it is performed. But those works, good as they are, bad as they are, do not effect anything in respect of our eternal welfare, which is accomplished alone through the Gospel.

Matthias Flacius said...

"I would gladly agree to keeping Aristotle's books, Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetics...But the commentaries and notes must be abolished...In addition to all this there are, of course, the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, as well as the mathematical disciplines and history."
Luther, To the Christian Nobility, AE 44:201-02.

He sounds like a standard Christian humanist to me. I don't think his views changed much after 1520 on this topic.

Jon Bruss said...

MF, I think you're right on this. The Wittenberg settlement was achieved in that early period, although it was frequently misunderstood. Even today, the more famous quotation from To the Christian Nobility is that which occurs some ¶¶ earlier than the one you give where Luther rakes Aristotle over the coals. And yet, those who cite it nearly 100% of the time fail to place it within the immediate context of the work: ML's barrage of fury is leveled against the misappropriation of Aristotle in scholastic theology. Luther would, under PM's influence or rather hand-in-hand with PM, continue to insist on a healthy training in dialectic, rhetoric, and the classical pagan authors AS A NECESSARY STEP TO ENTERING STUDY UNDER THE THEOLOGICAL FACULTY (!).

Mike Holmen said...

Flacius' quotation of Luther reminds me of an American Churchman who was renowned for original thought, but one that I shied away from for many years due to personal reasons: J. P. Koehler. Here is a link to an article that he wrote about American Lutheranism at the turn of the last century: http://www.wlsessays.net/files/KoehlerHistorical.pdf . Koehler, like Luther, sees great promise in the study of languages coupled with a strong historical awareness. Koehler, like my good friend Dr. Bruss, was interested in many different areas of learning including the liberal arts and the fine arts. He was well known as an artist, musicologist, and architect.

I have written a couple times to my beloved professor regarding reason, and I am not sure if there is a difference between our views concerning it. The article whose link is given above, has a different diagnosis of the symptoms (that we both lament) exhibited in American conservative Lutheranism. The article is full of wonderful insights, like, "the conservatives became more interested in rest than in conserving."

What is contained in this article is perhaps a different idea as to what contributes to mental inflexibility and a disdain for learning. Perhaps it is not a problem with reason, and therefore the solution is not to be sought in a rehabilitation of reason. In fact, there is an ethical dimension to this problem that cannot be solved by any doctrinal formulation.

You will see that this article is filled with strong words. And the words hit their mark. There is an addendum at the end of the article where Koehler needs to address his Missouri brothers who thought that he was slandering them.

Hopefully I have piqued your interest in this man and his words.

Jon Bruss said...

Mike, thanks for this. I hope readers will follow up on Koehler, who still remains an important figure in the course of North American confessional Lutheranism.

The championing of real thinking is, of course, dangerous, and there's never any guarantee of outcomes. (At the extremes, we all know of very learned, but unfaithful, pastors; and of very unlearned, but faithful, pastors.). But more stands to be gained by the Church than lost through a vigorous, deliberate, thoughtful, challenging, encounter with the Western tradition--for lay and future clergy alike, it should be noted.

One of the losses, and this is something I think we can see today, is an inability even to connect with the thinking of the Reformers and Confessors, whose categories and thought-moves seem foreign or are even unrecognizable or indiscernible to those with no intellectual experience of their intellectual experience. As Carl Springer has had opportunity to point out in this blog, the Wittenberg way is to "back into the future." At some profound level, that's what has been lost in modern North American Lutheranism. Luther has been made everything including an iconoclast, rebel, revolutionary, heretic, etc.--i.e., the model "forward thinker"--without understanding the radically conservative nature of the Lutheran intellect (which is not to say: politically conservative; don't mistake me). If there was any future to be accessed in 16th century Wittenberg, it was one whose door lay some 1.5+ millennia back.

Carl P.E. Springer said...

Mike and Jon,

I'm glad to see J.P. Koehler mentioned in this connection. Of all the American Lutheran theologians, Koehler comes closest to apprehending fully Luther's emphatic appreciation of the arts, especially music, as gifts of God. Fortunately, Koehler's importance is beginning to be more broadly recognized. Mike Albrecht has just written a dissertation on him and has an article forthcoming in Lutheran Quarterly as well.