Martin Luther, 1: On The Ubiquity of The Human Body of Jesus as God (Luther against Schwenkfeld)

This is the fifteenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”; here we begin our look at the OG Protestant — Martin Luther. These posts on Luther will, somewhat shamefully, move synchronically, so that I will not be examining changes in Luther’s position over time, but treat his chronologically scattered texts (separated by over a decade) as representative of a generally stable set of positions. While this approach may be a problem for other aspects of Luther, I do not think this misrepresents Luther’s basic position on these topics — or I certainly hope that this does not misrepresent.

The previous posts were not organized well before, so I ordered them; further, they were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

~1~

Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform, 1250-1550 is undoubtedly the best introductory text that I have read regarding the intellectual and religious developments of the late medieval period. Ozment shows the continuities between the flowering of medieval thought and the developments of the early Reformations (yes, plural). My second favorite text for the intellectual developments of this time period is Jaroslav Pelikan’s Reformation of Church and Dogma, which has the advantage of pushing further forward in time, and is also worth a read — though Ozment should come first. If time permitted in this set of entries for Luther, I would work chronologically through texts by preceding authors regarding the ascension of Jesus, and regarding the related debates about the Eucharist (e.g., “if Jesus’ body is above the hard firmament, how is the Eucharist also his body and blood?”). Thus, we would see the background of Martin Luther clearly to start. Sadly for our posts, we cannot do this, but must jump back to the medieval period later.

We can, however, say some brief things about Luther’s Christology before looking at his understanding of where the body of Jesus is.

~2~

In his introduction to Martin Luther’s February 28th, 1540 circular disputation (“Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ”), Christopher Brown notes that Luther

argued against Zwingli that Christ’s human nature, united with the Word, was not  subject to creaturely limitations of place [Collected Works 73, 244]

This will become important for us later, when we look at the debates in which Luther engaged regarding the Eucharist, and what it revealed about his understanding of the ascension of Jesus.

The nobleman (and seemingly later, itinerant of sorts) Caspar Schwenkfeld von Ossig, who had initially been a supporter of Luthor, became frustrated with Luther’s theology on this point. Schwenkfeld argued that the divine and human natures of Christ must remain distinct. It makes no sense to say, he argued, that Jesus can still be considered as a creature; in fact, Schwenkfeld circulated an piece titled “Summary of arguments that Christ according to His humanity is not a creature, but wholly our Lord and God” (“Summarium ettlicher Argument / Das Christus nach der Menscheyt heut kein Creatur / Sunder gantz unser Herr unnd Gott sei“). Luther’s basic response, Brown notes, is summarized in Luther’s statement that, because of the incarnation,

those things which pertain to man are rightly said of God, and, on the other hand, those things which pertain to God are said of man. [Collected Works 73, 245]

even though, as Luther says,

the humanity is not divinity, nor the divinity humanity [Collected Works 73, 247]

Brown notes that “Schwenkfeld […] takes “creature” to mean something necessarily separated from God” [Collected Works 73, 246] and Luther notes that, when Schwenkfeld considers the Nicene Creed, wherein the Son is described as begotten, not made, “Schwenkfeld confounds the two natures” by inferring that the Son is not a creature, and that, therefore, neither is Jesus. [Collected Works 73, 273] (The anti-Arian arguments of the Nicene party are thus put to pro-Docetistic ends!) Schwenkfeld, thus, cannot call Christ a creature, cannot say that, in the divine person of the Son, God is a creature because the two natures are joined in the one person (the Chalcedonian position), such that the Son is the divine-human person who, as a creature, does something as God. Traditionally, Christian theology would say that, in the Son, we can predicate “creature” of the divine person. For Schwenkfeld, these categories –creature & Creator– are incompatible. Luther objects that Christ, “being created, is not separated from God”, but is creature and Creator in one person [Collected Works 73, 249]. As Luther notes, “[w]e join the Creator and the creature in the unity of the person.” [Collected Works 73, 279]

As Brown notes, however, Luther’s Christology is not merely Chalcedonian in the above sense, but neo-Cyrillian:

Whereas the Scholastics had understood the communication of attributes to involve predication of the attributes of each nature to the common person, Luther insists on the communion of attributes between the natures within the unity of the person—“so closely joined that in the whole nature of things no similar example can be given.” Thus “this unity of the two natures in one person is the greatest possible so that they are equally predicated and communicate their properties to each other.” [Collected Works 73, 250]

Joined in the one person of the Son & Word, the two natures (divine and human) are now indistinguishable, so that we can say that, on Good Friday, God was crucified in the flesh. Luther puts this even more strongly:

To be crucified is a property of the human nature, but because there are two natures united in one person, it is attributed to both natures. [Collected Works 73, 250]

–or even more strongly (as we saw in Brown’s quote from Luther, above):

this unity of the two natures in one person is the greatest possible so that they are equally predicated and communicate their properties to each other, as if He were solely God or solely man. [Collected Works 73, 271]

Not only was the divine person of the Son crucified, the divine nature was in Christ. This is in contrast to Schwenkfeld, whom, as Brown writes, “described a union in which the characteristics of humanity (such as creaturity) were purged away by union with the divine” [Collected Works 73, 250]. If Christ was to be worshiped, he could not be a creature, thought Schwenkfeld. Luther, by contrast, thought that the human nature in Christ is to be worshiped — impossible without a Cyrillian Christology, where each nature shares in the other  [Collected Works 73, 251], where the two natures are “intertwined” [Collected Works 73, 252]. Luther expounds this at length:

The divine [nature] is to be worshiped, and according to the [communicated] property,⟩ the humanity joined with the divinity is worshiped; the humanity of Christ is worshiped, and not falsely, for it is inseparable from the divinity […] [Collected Works 73, 266]

so that, following Jesus’ reply in John that “he who sees me, sees the Father” is expounded by Luther to mean that “he who touches the Son of God touches the
divine nature itself.” [Collected Works 73, 267] To reiterate, Luther states that “the human nature is not to be spoken of apart from the divinity.” [Collected Works 73, 268]

This is why Luther begins his treatise with the following theses:

1. This is the catholic faith: that we confess one Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man.

2. From this truth of the double substance and the unity of the person follows the communication of attributes, as it is called,

3. So that those things which pertain to man are rightly said of God, and, on the other hand, those things which pertain to God are said of man.

4. It is true to say: This man created the world, and this God suffered, died, was buried, etc. [Collected Works 73, 254]

Thesis number four may raise eyebrows, but it is because of Luther’s understanding of the communication of properties –that the divine and human natures are united in the person of Jesus as the Son, so that that divinity appears where the humanity appears– that he is able to say this.

Schwenkfeld argues, however, that

Christ was not a man before the creation of the world. Therefore, it is not rightly said that the man Christ created the world. Or thus: When the world was created, Christ did not create it as a man. Therefore, it is not rightly said that a man created the world. [Collected Works 73, 263]

Luther, however, will insist that the human Jesus is the same divine person as the Logos who made the world, so that, because of the communication of properties, the very things that Schwenkfeld denies can be said can, in fact, be said. “God and man are made one person, and the same things are truly predicated of God and man”. [Collected Works 73, 263] Indeed, Luther states that “the divine Word is the divinity”, and “Christ is the divine Word” [Collected Works 73, 264], so that language must operate differently for the divine person of Jesus than it would in ordinary cases. Thus, Luther can say “it does not matter if you use the expression “a man created the world,” if only the meaning is sound”. [Collected Works 73, 270]

~3~

If, from the four theses of Luther, above, it sounds like there is something entirely new that has appeared in the God-man Jesus, Luther agrees that this is true even of the language. While the words used of him are familiar words, they do not entirely have the same meaning as the old ones:

20. […] with regard to Christ all words receive a new signification, though the thing signified is the same. [Collected Works 73, 255]

Saying that Christ is a creature is not said in the old way, but in a new way. [Collected Works 73, 256]

A creature, in the old use of language, is that which the Creator has created and distinguished from Himself, but this meaning has no place in Christ the creature. There the Creator and the creature are one and the same. [Collected Works 73, 265]

This is why we can say that a man created the world: in Christ, the name “man” is an assumed name of God:

“Man” is taken in an abstract sense. “Man,” when it is said of Christ, is a personal name: the [divine] person has now assumed the person [of humanity]. [Collected Works 73, 275]

and

“man” when it is [used] of Christ is a personal word. [Collected Works 73, 276]

Nonetheless, even though the images we use when speaking of God may be somewhat beautiful, they are all “inept”, since “every image limps”. [#49, #50, Collected Works 73, 258] It is the sense of the speaker’s meaning (assuming that the speaker speaks from the Holy Spirit), not the technical sense of the words spoken, that matters. [#57-62, Collected Works 73, 259] The Devil can speak lies with grammatical precision, and a saint can speak truths with infelicitous sloppiness.

In the simplest sense, Luther wants his listeners to trust that “the humanity is not divinity, nor the divinity humanity, because that distinction in no way hinders but rather confirms the union!” [Collected Works 73, 260] Luther’s lengthier semi-ventriloquized rebuttal of Schwenkfeld says this more at length:

We do not say that Christ is merely a creature, but that He is God and man in one person. The natures are joined personally in the unity of the person. There are not two sons, not two judges, not two persons, not two Jesuses, but because of the undivided union and the unity of the two natures there is a communication of attributes so that what is attributed to one nature is attributed to the other as well because they are one person. [Collected Works 73, 260]

Luther is here neo-Cyrillean against the potential misreadings of the Chalcedonian formula of “one person in two natures”.

~4~

This question of language about the union of God and humanity in Jesus connects to the language of whether Luther thought there is an ascended human body of Jesus above the hard firmament in the sky:

so that we may grasp this in some small measure, God has given us patterns of speech: that Christ is God and man in one person, and there are not two persons, but two natures are united in one person so that what is done by the human nature is said also to be done by the divine nature, and vice versa. Thus the Son of God died and was buried in the dust like everyone else, and the Son of Mary ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, etc. We are content with these patterns. [Collected Works 73, 261]

Regarding the ascension, Luther complains that Schwenkfeld

says that Christ in glory is not a man […]. [Collected Works 73, 279]

Which raises the question: Does Luther think that Christ in glory is both God and man in the sense that Jesus’ body is not spatially located, because of the communication of properties? This would be fascinating. Fortunately, he wrote about this in his disputes against Zwingli and others regarding the Eucharist. Can the bread and the wine be the body and blood of Jesus, whose body is above the firmament? Can a body be one and be in many places, especially when those places are many across space, and are many pieces of bread and many cups of wine?

_________________________

Header image found here, but also see here.

 

2 thoughts on “Martin Luther, 1: On The Ubiquity of The Human Body of Jesus as God (Luther against Schwenkfeld)

  1. I know that this is not an apologetics website, but how do you remain Christian when, as you point out, the Bible says that God is literally up in the sky and that Jesus literally went up into the sky, when in fact we now know that the sky is simply outer space, not paradise or the abode of God?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great question, Jonah! IDK whether you’re a fly-on-the-wallnregular or are just stopping in now. What is your take on this, and what kind of position would you like to see me take?

      Correct: this is not an apologetics website. I am not yet sure how to coordinate these two things; I have had to put this project on hold while I work at a new job.

      I maintain the Hours as a daily practice of devotion and reflection, and find the value in religious practices (and find that value largely independently of cosmographic considerations). The value of these practices needs to be coordinated with what we know to be true, of course, without reducing truth to one domain of being. It is possible that they cannot be coordinated, and that the cosmological change represents smth of a tear in the sacred canopy. Maybe not, though. I’ll judge this when I’ve pulled in all the evidence. This project was to focus on the fissures, though, and not on coherences. One of its aims is and was to force a recognition of the interpretive moves we make that leave behind old cosmologies, and to flush out naive retrievals, and to highlight historical difference and distance.

      I have never really been part of literalist communities, so the attitudes of the Biblical authors on every point has never been obligatory in my mind – in fact, I do not think that the Bible is a self-coherent set of ideas and propositions, so this would be an impossible commitment, anyway, taken historically. Jesus is not up in the sky. The sky is not outer space – we can describe it empirically, but it has more meaning for us _as sky_ than can appear in empirical descriptions. One question is whether the existential value can bear the weight of the Biblical and traditional on this point. The other big question is about ruptures in the sacred canopy.

      I largely take an aesthetic approach to religious truth, a spiritual and ethical approach to the value of religious practice (active or contemplative), and an eschatological approach, similar to Pannenberg, I suppose, to revelation. These can largely accept the cosmological developments of the modern period, but they do not leave any responsible theological position capable of aping older language uncritically.

      The paradise question is super interesting, and deserves its own set of posts for the sheer historical variety of replies.

      What is your take on this issue, if I may ask? How did you find these posts, and what value do they have for you?

      Like

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