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Monday, September 20th, 2010
I decided to pull down volume 54 of Luther's Works, the Table Talk volume. I decided I would open it up and read a passage at random and try to imagine it well. I opened the book and the first passage to catch my eye was a very short one, which before I read had me wondering whether this was a bad choice. What is there to struggle with in a small sentence. Then I read: "The bishops didn't dare touch a single monk because when a sow cries out the whole herd comes running." This was said in December 1532, after many of the events of the Reformation. What did it mean?
My first guess was it referred to the Reformation itself. When a monk left the monastery, he was allowed to get out. The bishops feared that there might be much more sympathy for the man than was safe to challenge. (Picture something like the bank run in Mary Poppins where Michael Banks yells, "I want my money!" against the resistance of his father and others at the bank.) Maybe something like this was in view.
On the other hand, perhaps this was in reference to a common situation before the Reformation. The lives of the monks were often questionable. From what I've read, up to one third of the people in parts of Europe were clergy at the time, and probably not cut out for it. Perhaps the tolerance mentioned by Luther was over this. Bishops would turn a blind eye to clergy who could not live within their vows.
I could even see these interpretations working together. The saying as applied to monks and bishops may have predated Luther, and just been applied by him to the new Reformation situation.
5:46 am Pacific Standard Time
Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
There were a couple of theses in C.F.W. Walther's book The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel that have always bothered friends of mine. I once took this up with a Lutheran pastor, and he suggested that one problem was that I was hearing this with evangelical ears. That is, what I heard Walther saying actually was wrong. But what he meant was right. I wasn't sure whether or not I agreed with his interpretation, even if in the end we agreed to the right position.
The thesis in question was Thesis XVIII, "The Word of God is not rightly divided when a description of human corruption suggests that believers are sinning purposely." I had a difficult time with this. I wondered whether accepting this thesis might not actually lead to moral blindness. For when the line gets drawn where nobody can reach it, people have to save the picture somehow and usually do so by fudging the picture another way. I remember one guy in college who claimed that he didn't sin deliberately. He would just be watching the news and words would fly out of his mouth before he could catch them. I found this hard to believe. Not so much that something might inadvertently be said now and then. But that he could file such a large class of talking—I was often around when he watched the news, and this was a lot of yelling at leftist newscasters!—under uncontrolled, perhaps uncontrollable expression. If he was right, then perhaps only the rash and impetuous are going to heaven. But then why was the Book of Proverbs given to us?
I've been reading the Antinomian Disputations lately, and ran into a line from Luther that seems to follow my line of thinking better. In the First Disputation, under the Eleventh Argument, Luther responds to one charge as follows: "Concupiscence is inborn in us and is not involuntary, but lust and very great desire to sin are also in original sin. One cannot sin unwillingly."
It is that last line that I think is important. "One cannot sin unwillingly."
But Walther seems to be trying to express something we also run into in a warning passage from Hebrews. "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (Hebrews 10:26 NASB). Now one part of this is clarified by grammar. The old KJV rendered "if we go on sinning willfully" as "if we sin willfully." We now know that the Greek conveys a sense of continuous action. That is, what is seen is not a single sin disqualifying someone from heaven. Nor even a number of sins. But a continuous sinning. Perhaps what is in view is a life where the Gospel is heard and the person remains at war with God, ignoring the injunction to be reconciled to God. The sacrifice was not intended to cover those who would never be reconciled. Though it can cover someone who is not now reconciled, but will later be reconciled. (Thinks St. Paul. He heard of Jesus. He still persecuted the church. But then he turned.) As scary as this verse is, the line being drawn is not meant to shut someone who gives into temptation out of heaven forever. In the broader context of Hebrews, the idea was that people couldn't save themselves from persecution by ignoring Jesus, hoping that somehow the Temple sacrifices would cover them. God didn't set it up to work that way.
In a very different context, St. Paul answers the question of those who wondered if they should go on sinning so that grace may increase (Romans 6:1). His answer is not the sharp warning of Hebrews. And note. His hearers had to have understood what he was saying to some real degree to ask the question. He HAD argued earlier that "where sin increased, grace increased all the more" (Romans 5:20). The idea that increase of sin could lead to increase of grace was not something his hearers got from nowhere. But he does have an answer to this. "May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:2). That is the proper response to the question, under most circumstances.
Somehow I think some of the trouble here is linguistic. This is a hard matter to speak of. Our language doesn't cut through nicely at the joints. There are distinctions between committing a sin, committing sins, and living lives of pure sin. And being willful or unwillful can occur in any of these to varying degrees. I sometimes even get the sense that some of our Bible authors had different outlooks on the issue. While I believe there is a unified truth behind what they write, it is possible for different men to have different vocabularies here. Perhaps they are in there partly so they can appeal to different readers. One reader may naturally think more like St. Paul, so St. Paul can persuade him. Another will think like St. John, and another like St. Peter. Trouble arises when we try to press one vocabulary on the other writing and ask questions the writer was not addressing.
I still don't know what to do with Walther. One thing I do know is that he wasn't delivering his addresses in English. Rendering him into English may unwittingly (unwillfully?) make him say what he did not wish to say. The Luther quote restores my faith that someone sees what I always argued. "We cannot sin unwillingly." A point few conceded in any discussion of this matter.
7:38 am Pacific Standard Time