Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Christians Are Not Skeptics

In a letter to Wolfgang Capito (July 9, 1537; AE 50:171-174), Luther considered only The Bondage of the Will and his catechism to be worthy of reference. And if Luther commended the use of the catechism daily, perhaps De Servo Arbitrio might well be read annually.

Therein, we find much more than a discussion on the will of man, but many other gems like this section on assertion which is found near the beginning of Luther’s response to Erasmus.

The following is from Philip S. Watson’s translation (in collaboration with Benjamin Drewery) found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, volume 33, pages 19-24.

I want to begin by referring to some passages in your Preface, in which you rather disparage our case and puff up your own. I note, first, that just as in other books you censure me for obstinate assertiveness, so in this book you say that you are so far from delighting in assertions that you would readily take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics wherever this is allowed by the inviolable authority of the Holy Scriptures and the decrees of the Church, to which you always willingly submit your personal feelings, whether you grasp what it prescribes or not. This [you say] is the frame of mind that pleases you.

I take it (as it is only fair to do) that you say these things in a kindly and peace-loving spirit. But if anyone else were to say them, I should probably go for him in my usual manner; and I ought not to allow even you, excellent though your intentions are, to be led astray by this idea. For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.

And by assertion — in order that we may not be misled by words — I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering; nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.

I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings. Elsewhere we have no need either of Erasmus or any other instructor to teach us that in matters which are doubtful or useless and unnecessary, assertions, disputings, and wranglings are not only foolish but impious, and Paul condemns them in more than one place. Nor are you, I think, speaking of such things in this place unless, in the manner of some foolish orator, you have chosen to announce one topic and discuss another, like the man with the turbot, or else, with the craziness of some ungodly writer, you are contending that the article about free choice is doubtful or unnecessary.

Let Skeptics and Academics keep well away from us Christians, but let there be among us “assertors” twice as unyielding as the Stoics themselves. How often, I ask you, does the apostle Paul demand that plerophoria (as he terms it) — that most sure and unyielding assertion of conscience? In Romans 10[:10] he calls it ‘confession,” saying, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” And Christ says: “Everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father” [Matt. 10:32]. Peter bids us give a reason for the hope that is in us [I Peter 3:15]. What need is there to dwell on this?

Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity. Why, the Holy Spirit is given them from heaven, that he may glorify Christ [in them] and confess him even unto death — unless it is not asserting when one dies for one’s confession and assertion.

Moreover, the Spirit goes to such lengths in asserting, that he takes the initiative and accuses the world of sin [John 16:8], as if he would provoke a fight; and Paul commands Timothy to “exhort” and “be urgent out of season” [11 Tim. 4:2]. But what a droll exhorter he would be, who himself neither firmly believed nor consistently asserted the thing he was exhorting about! Why, I would send him to Anticyra!

But it is I who am the biggest fool, for wasting words and time on something that is clearer than daylight. What Christian would agree that assertions are to be despised? That would be nothing but a denial of all religion and piety, or an assertion that neither religion, nor piety, nor any dogma is of the slightest importance. Why, then, do you too assert, “I take no delight in assertions,” and that you prefer this frame of mind to its opposite?

However, you will wish it to be understood that you have said nothing here about confessing Christ and his dogmas. I am rightly reminded of that, and as a favor to you I will waive my right and my custom, and not judge of your heart, but will leave that for another time or to other people. Meanwhile, I advise you to correct your tongue and your pen and to refrain in future from using such expressions, for however upright and honest your heart may be, your speech (which they say is the index of the heart) is not so.

For if you think that free choice is a subject we need know nothing about, and one that has nothing to do with Christ, then your language is correct, but your thought is impious. If, on the other hand, you think it is a necessary subject, then your language is impious, though your thought is correct. And in that case, there was no room for such a mass of complaints about useless assertions and wranglings, for what have these to do with the question at issue?

But what will you say about this statement of yours, in which you do not refer to the subject of free choice alone, but to all religious dogmas in general, when you say that if it were allowed by the inviolable authority of the divine writings and the decrees of the Church, you would take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics, so far are you from delighting in assertions? What a Proteus is in these words “inviolable authority” and “decrees of the Church”! You pose as having a great reverence for the Scriptures and the Church, and yet make it plain that you wish you were at liberty to be a Skeptic. What Christian would talk like that?

If you are speaking about useless and indifferent dogmas, what are you saying that is new? Who would not wish for the liberty to adopt a skeptical attitude here? Indeed, what Christian does not in fact freely make use of this liberty, and condemn those who are committed and bound to any particular opinion?

Unless you take Christians in general (as your words almost suggest) to be the kind of people who hold useless dogmas over which they stupidly wrangle and wage battles of assertions. If on the other hand you are speaking of dogmas that are vital, what more ungodly assertion could anyone make than that he wished for the liberty of asserting nothing in such cases?

This is how a Christian will rather speak: So far am I from delighting in the opinion of the Skeptics that, whenever the infirmity of the flesh will permit, I will not only consistently adhere to and assert the sacred writings, everywhere and in all parts of them, but I will also wish to be as certain as possible in things that are not vital and that lie outside of Scripture. For what is more miserable than uncertainty?

What, furthermore, are we to say of the comment you add: “To which I everywhere willingly submit my personal feelings, whether I grasp what it prescribes or not”? What are you saying, Erasmus? Is it not enough to have submitted your personal feelings to the Scriptures? Do you submit them to the decrees of the Church as well? What can she decree that is not decreed in the Scriptures?

Then what becomes of the liberty and power to judge those who make the decrees, as Paul teaches in I Corinthians 14[:29]: “Let the others judge”? Does it displease you that anyone should sit in judgment on the decrees of the Church, although Paul enjoins it? What new religion, what new humility is this, that you would deprive us by your own example of the power of judging the decrees — of men, and subject us in uncritical submission — to men? Where does the Scripture of God impose this on us?

Then again, what Christian would so throw the injunctions of Scripture and the Church to the winds, as to say, “Whether I grasp them or not”? Do you submit yourself without caring at all whether you grasp them? Anathema be the Christian who is not certain and does not grasp what is prescribed for him!

How can he believe what he does not grasp? For by “grasp” you must mean here to “apprehend with certainty” and not to “doubt like a Skeptic”; for otherwise, what is there in any creature that any man could “grasp” if “grasp” meant perfect knowledge and insight? In that case, there would be no possibility that anyone should at the same time grasp some things and not others; for if he had grasped one thing, he would have grasped all -- in God, I mean -- since whoever does not “grasp” God never “grasps” any part of his creation.”

In short, what you say here seems to mean that it does not matter to you what anyone believes anywhere, so long as the peace of the world is undisturbed, and that in case of danger to life, reputation, property, and goodwill, it is permissible to act like the fellow who said, “Say they yea, yea say I; say they nay, nay say I,” and to regard Christian dogmas as no better than philosophical and human opinions, about which it is quite stupid to wrangle, contend, and assert, since nothing comes of that but strife and the disturbance of outward peace.

Things that are above us, you would say, are no concern of ours. So, with a view to ending our conflicts, you come forward as a mediator, calling a halt to both sides, and trying to persuade us that we are flourishing our swords about things that are stupid and useless.

That, I say, is what your words seem to mean; and I think you understand, my dear Erasmus, what I am driving at. But as I have said, let the words Pass. Meanwhile, I absolve your heart so long as you display it no further. See that you fear the Spirit of God, who tries the minds and hearts [Ps. 7:9; Jer. 11:20], and is not deceived by cleverly devised phrases.

For I have said all this so that you may henceforward cease from charging me with obstinacy and willfulness in this matter. By such tactics you only succeed in showing that you foster in your heart a Lucian, or some other pig from Epicurus”’ sty who, having no belief in God himself, secretly ridicules all who have a belief and confess it. Permit us to be assertors, to be devoted to assertions and delight in them, while you stick to your Skeptics and Academics till Christ calls you too.

The Holy Spirit is no Skeptic — and it is not doubts or mere opinions that he has written on our hearts, but assertions more sure and certain than life itself and all experience.

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