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The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology

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In this phenomenological reading of Luther, Marius Timmann Mjaaland shows that theological discourse is never philosophically neutral and always politically loaded. Raising questions concerning the conditions of modern philosophy, religion, and political ideas, Marius Timmann Mjaaland follows a dark thread of thought back to its origin in Martin Luther. Thorough analyses of the genealogy of secularization, the political role of the apocalypse, the topology of the self, and the destruction of metaphysics demonstrate the continuous relevance of this highly subtle thinker.

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1. History, Hermeneutics, and Political Theology

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Authors from the early sixteenth century have often been interpreted along confessional lines of division. In this book such differences play only a minor role, when any at all, and I have no ambitions of continuing or enhancing the old confessional discussions on Luther and Erasmus. Since Oberman, it has become more common to see both the Reformation (Lutheran, Calvinist, Radical) and Counter-Reformation as parts of a major historical and intellectual shift in the history of Europe, and thus to transcend the more narrow-minded apologetics in favor of one side or the other.1 I even find it necessary to transcend the more or less strictly theological approach outlined by Oberman, in order to study the close relationship between theological ideas, philosophy, and political changes that occurred in this period, like James Tracy and Carter Lindberg do with their more general approach to the history of ideas.2

Five centuries after the texts were published, Martin Luther’s writings still cause polarization and controversies. One reason is the confessional polemics that have been going on for centuries and the quasi-normative status of these texts among the Protestants. Another is their extremely sharp and polemical tone. They bear traces of an author who was witty, pointed, and sarcastic, although not exactly fair to his adversaries. His Bible translations contributed to the formation of a common German language, and he was the first author who was able to apply the printing medium to mobilize a wider public readership. His series of pamphlets was extremely popular and has been characterized as the first successful mass media propaganda in world history.3 Even today his texts are astonishingly readable, mainly due to a large number of lucid examples, humor, polemics, and sarcasms, and a vivid and precise prose.

 

2. Philosophy: The Grammar of Destruction

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The destruction of metaphysics is a favored topic in twentieth-century philosophy, in terms of a positivist critique, an overcoming, an Abbau, a rejection, or a deconstruction of traditional metaphysical notions and concepts. But where and when does this discussion of a general destruction of metaphysics start? I argue that the Heidelberg Disputation plays a key role here.1 In this short disputation, Luther presents forty theses giving a principal justification of his position, twenty-eight of them theological and the other twelve philosophical. In the explanation to thesis 21, he argues that the cross is a good thing, since it destructs (destruuntur; destructus) the good works and thus crucifies old Adam.2 A double work of destruction is thereby indicated: first, a self-centered and inflated (infletur) ego is demolished until it realizes that it is nothing (nihil esse), and second, the speculative metaphysics of scholastic theology is unveiled as a seductive illusion when confronted with the notion of God as crucified in Jesus Christ.

 

3. Topology

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The questions of place and topology require separate consideration. The use of topics as an analytical approach goes back to Aristotle’s Topics, where he defines the conditions for the art of dialectics. The topological approach is reserved for arguments based on commonly held opinions, Greek endoxa. Thus, they differ from the questions that are treated by way of syllogisms. Aristotle gives no definition of a topos, but the topoi are referred to as places from where his arguments can be invented, elaborated, or discovered.1

In the early 1520s, topics as a philosophical and theological approach was rediscovered by humanist and Reformer Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s closest ally at the University of Wittenberg. His Loci Communes (1521) represents a new type of theology, based on common topoi in the scriptures, in particular from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Hence, it is written according to the principle sola scriptura, but with due respect to traditional rules of dialectic and rhetoric. Günter Frank points out that Melanchthon applied the same principle of topics to the interpretation of a variety of texts in his Tübinger Rhetorik (1519), but developed a specifically theological method in the Loci.2 Frank argues that the concept of topoi is ambiguous from the beginning, for example, through the different usage of the term in Aristotle’s Topics and the Rhetoric, and it oscillates between various meanings in Cicero and later in medieval philosophy up to the Renaissance. According to Melanchthon, the notion describes places of arguments (like in Cicero), but also a semantic field, a “signature” of things, which makes it possible to organize general thoughts under a common heading. Finally, he applies the term loci for generic propositions concerning a specific question, achieved through systematic analysis of texts.3 Hence, Melanchthon is basically faithful to Aristotle’s prescriptions, but he applies the method in a way which emphasizes the authority of scripture and thus remains faithful to the principles of the Reformation, including sola scriptura.

 

4. The Quest for Immorality

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Right from the beginning, there was a remarkable moral tenor in Luther’s criticism of the church authorities.1 From 1517 onward he criticized the church for operating with double standards and undermining the prayers of penitence.2 He accused the responsible authorities of organizing the confession of sins economically through the production and sale of indulgences. Hence, the moral emphasis of his criticism is striking when he attacks the praxis of exploiting poor people and their fear of Hell to the benefit of the church, the pope, and the clergy. His attacks on immorality within the church have contributed considerably to the popularity of the movement he initiated. Luther not only addresses the dubious motive of earning money from people’s misfortune and religious fears, though. The more substantial argument is concerned with the economic logic that invades theology, thus consuming and taking over the most basic theological concepts, including the concept of God.3 Within such a system of calculable exchange, Luther saw virtually no space left for the unconditional gift.

 

5. The Quest for Destruction

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Luther and philosophy is a topic that requires careful consideration, since there is a certain discrepancy between Luther’s rhetoric and his actual involvement in philosophical issues. His many more or less uncouth comments on philosophers as sophists, mad, or impious, of reason as a whore, and so forth, should be treated with a grain of salt and ascribed to his image as a barbarian and simple spokesman of the truth from the northern provinces of the Roman Empire. This is an image ascribed to him by his opponents and enemies and exploited in lampoons and caricatures, but it is also an image he cultivates in his raw and subversive style, sometimes with burlesque self-irony.1 The arguments against philosophy and the mockery of the philosophers should therefore be considered rhetorically before we proceed to a discussion of their impact and consequences. If not, there are sometimes conclusions drawn concerning Luther’s alleged rejection of philosophy in general and Aristotelian metaphysics in particular, which have limited foothold in the texts. The barbarian image is deceptive insofar as Luther is an extremely subtle critic of philosophy and thus he cannot avoid getting involved in philosophical arguments. Some of the key arguments will here be discussed, with emphasis on Luther’s destruction of metaphysics in the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) and De servo arbitrio (1525).

 

6. The Quest for Clarity

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One of Luther’s most portentous debates was his controversy with Pope Leo X. After the Ninety-five Theses and subsequent articles had been condemned by the pope in Exurge Domine, Luther wrote an apology in the form of forty-one theses with extended explanations in the pamphlet called Assertio (1520). It was published only a few weeks before Luther was finally excluded from the Roman Catholic Church on January 3, 1521. It is written by a man who is already more outside than inside the community of the holy and the orthodox. Thus almost excommunicated he communicates back in, to those who represent the authority of the tradition and the cornerstone of the church.

This polemical situation forced Luther to elaborate on his theory of scripture, with emphasis on its theological authority. I venture a double reading of Luther, as a non-dogmatic repetition of his text: On the one hand, I discuss Luther’s approach to scripture, and thus introduce some theological theories of hermeneutics (such as by Ebeling, Jüngel, Beisser), which argue that we should continue reading and interpreting the biblical texts by following Luther’s procedure for the interpretation of scripture: sola scriptura. On the other hand, I question three of the basic premises of their hermeneutical theory: the univocal authority of the text (the single reading), their emphasis on the true sense of the text (and consequently the rejection of non-sense), and the dialectical exclusion of hiddenness, including the most problematic topos of the text. All three methodological presuppositions correspond to the philosophical hermeneutics of Gadamer, and may thus be considered ontological presuppositions within the hermeneutical paradigm of dialectical understanding. Rather than presenting an alternative theory here, I will discuss alternative readings of Luther, since I think that there are certain traits of his theology that resist the kind of hermeneutic synthesis that has dominated the (traditional as well as liberal) polemics on Luther, and on Protestant theology, in the twentieth century. Hence, I focus on a few simple strategies of his textual theory and analyze them as examples of scripture with lower-case letters, that is, according to a more generic theory of scripture as writing. This is explicitly an invitation to further controversy on the issue.

 

7. The Quest for Sovereignty

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Toward the end of his life, Luther warned against the danger of a collapse, of speculations, of mystifications, and of political violence inherent to this concept which is hardly a concept at all, the deus absconditus.1 Luther had introduced the term for at least three different reasons: first, in accordance with the mystical theology of Dionysius Areopagita in his Lectures on the Psalms (1513/15); second, as a destruction of speculative theology in the Heidelberg Disputation (1518); and third, with reference to God’s majesty in De servo arbitrio (1525). There are, more precisely, two different notions of divine hiddenness in De servo arbitrio: on the one hand, God’s hiddenness on the cross, which Eberhard Jüngel has called the “precise” hiddenness; on the other hand, less specific, the absolute hiddenness of God’s majesty, the Almighty, whose will is absolutely sovereign and free, but whose ways and reasons are unsearchable.2

 

8. The Quest for Subjectivity

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Luther’s ambivalent distance to the entire framework of metaphysical discourse was polemically presented in Heidelberg Disputation. What Luther formulated there as a program of the destruction of metaphysics (regarding the “wisdom of the wise”) is now unfolded as a questioning of the metaphysical tradition to which Luther belongs, not only in order to leave it behind, but also to reformulate and thus recover the basic philosophical problems raised within that tradition. In this sense the problem of free will, which Luther rejects as illusory, is significant because it conceals a number of other questions, such as the question of necessity and possibility, and thus the metaphysical problem of causality. The problem of free will, which is confusing as long as it is taken for granted, can become significant when it is formulated as a question of the whole medieval system of modalities and modal logic. But Luther is, as indicated previously, not just discussing metaphysical problems from within the tradition. He takes a step outside and raises questions concerning the violence of metaphysics respectively concerning the relative value and limitations of metaphysical discourse.1

 

9. Deus Absconditus

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On one point Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther perfectly agree: There are too many myths circulating in society, church, and academia, and too much superstition, ignorance, and mysticism surrounding the notion of God. Malicious tongues would probably comment that things haven’t changed a lot over the five centuries that have passed. For the discussion on the hidden and mysterious god, deus absconditus, this general estimation of beliefs and superstitions turns out to be significant. Erasmus claims that the very notion of ‘deus absconditus’ contributes to the confusion and the speculations concerning the nature of God and distracts from the central question, namely, how to lead a good and virtuous life and enjoy the pleasures of serious intellectual debates. Hence, he accuses his opponents (not only Luther but also Müntzer and Karlstadt) of obscurantism and obfuscation, and warns with reference to an old Greek myth against trying to penetrate into the secrets of God, while fumbling in the dark.2 Indeed, not many concepts are more liable to abuse and confusion than the concept of God, and in particular the hidden God. Hence, Luther agrees with his opponent on this point, with solemn assertion, before he concludes with an old adage from the Greeks: Quae supra nos, nihil ad nos.3

 

10. Topology of the Self in Luther

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The hidden God is to a certain extent a neglected topos of modernity, either in the form of a passive forgetfulness or an active exclusion of this topic due to its inconvenient, problematic—indeed, rather unmodern—connotations. In particular Protestant theology seems to be dominated by a rationalistic tendency up to the Enlightenment, which is strictly opposed to this crucial distinction in Luther’s thought and therefore tends to exclude it from the scope of theological inquiry.1 The major philosophers are more apt to raise the basic questions concerning the conditions for thought, including the limits of reason and the distinction between hiddenness and revelation, and thus they also inquire into the questions raised by the Reformation. A careful analysis of each philosopher would by far transgress the limits of the present volume, but in a planned second volume I will outline some trajectories of thought running from Luther up to the present, based on a topological approach.

 

11. Kant versus Luther on Self-Consciousness

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Whereas Heidegger draws a more or less direct line of modernity from the foundation of modern subjectivity in Descartes up to its fulfillment in Nietzsche’s will to power, Schürmann argues for a more complex analysis of the period, for instance, by including Luther as a key thinker of modernity. Within this period, there are significant changes connected to subjectivity as the site of thought, but he argues that the new site allows for different perspectives and approaches—and that the basic shift comes up already with Luther. Hence, the historical narrative of modernity as continuous progress is rejected in favor of the tragic thought circling around two principles, natality and mortality. Where Heidegger argues in favor of a destruction or Abbau of metaphysics that may continue for decades or even centuries, Schürmann chooses a strategy of passive opposition, analysis, and translation by letting metaphysical thought be opposed and analyzed in terms of tragic thought.1 The most urgent task of thinking, he argues, is “[. . .] to better know the tragic condition. To learn to love it.”2 The analytic of ultimates allows him to display the operations at work in the history of Western philosophy from a tragic point of view, and thereby demonstrate the conditions of evil.

 

12. Spacing the Hidden God: The Temporal/Spatial Divide

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If this topos of a difference between the hidden and revealed god, as discussed by Luther in De servo arbitrio, is situated prior to temporal distinctions, it remains anachronistic in its relation to the chronology of history. It is, insofar as it “is,” older than beings and prior to their coming into existence. This anachronism or, rather, anachrony of the place would then be the premise for understanding its history and its genealogy. It remains non-contemporary with us and with itself.1 It will continuously escape our efforts at a temporal identification of it as belonging to a particular era or period. It cannot remain identical with itself in periods of shifting worldviews and changing conceptualities. When the concepts are changing, however, these concepts of change are measured by the difference rather than measuring this difference. Since this basic difference tends to be overlooked, and in particular by an era which identifies itself as “modern” or even “post-modern” as opposed to the ancient and medieval worlds, the effort to think this difference will take the form of a recollection, a rediscovery, in order to reverse the forgetfulness of modern human beings with their limited memory of ancient structures of thought.2

 

13. The Power of Interpretation: Controversies on the Book of Daniel

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A new debate on political theology has emerged since the turn of the millennium, due to a general shift in the understanding of the relationship between religion and secularity in modern societies. After José Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World (1994) and Habermas’s speech on faith and knowledge (2001), where he coined the term “post-secular society,” there have been a number of controversies on the issue, including debates on this specific term.1 Hans Joas has pointed out that the term is misguiding, since there has never been such a thing as a secular society, not even in the modern West. Religion has been there all the time, he argues, in various forms, but its constitutive significance even for modern societies has often been neglected by sociologists, political scientists, philosophers, and scholars of religious studies.2

A more differentiated understanding of the secularization process has slowly emerged through major contributions from philosophers Charles Taylor and Giorgio Agamben, sociologist Hans Joas, anthropologist Talal Asad, and a number of others.3 None of these scholars would question that secularization has taken place and still continues as a process of differentiation, but the critical role of religion in understanding global politics and modern societies has been rediscovered and has raised a number of significant controversies across the disciplines. With new genealogies of the secular—indeed, of various secularities—the genealogies of religion are also reconsidered, and we have observed a surprising revival of political theology as a field of interdisciplinary discourse on politics, sociology, philosophy, history, and theology.4 Hence, even traditional controversies like the one between Luther, his Catholic opponents in Rome, and charismatic preachers such as the revolutionary leader Thomas Müntzer receive new interest, although they were writing in a period when the relationship between religion and politics was very different from today. Mark Lilla claims that we now have reached “the other shore” and thus are incapable of understanding, or even imagining, the tremendous problems that used to occupy political theology. He argues that political philosophy has established a totally different theoretical and practical basis for both politics and religion, and that the problems still occupying less modernized and secularized societies (on the “other bank”) puzzle us because we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do.5

 

14. Political Theology of the German Revolutions

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The rise of the Peasants’ War in Germany 1524–1526 is intimately connected with the events of the Reformation.1 It was not the only uproar of peasants in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe but definitely the most important one, and the only upheaval deserving the name of a revolution—in the modern, political sense of the term. It also produced one of the earliest charters in favor of more general freedom rights in Europe, the so-called Twelve Articles of Memmingen (1525). There were other manifestos before and after this one, but none of them had a similar influence on political events. Its principal tenor may be traced directly back to the palpable influence from Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), the letter accompanying his written defense against the papal bull. The Twelve Articles open with an assertion of the right of each parish to install and depose a pastor according to their conviction. According to the first article, the pastor is obliged to preach the Gospel clearly and without any human additions, since the Word teaches “that we solely through the true faith can come to God.”2

 

15. The Hidden God of Revolution and Apocalypse

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The decisive role Thomas Müntzer played during the German Peasants’ War of 1525 and his prophetic statement about the people being free later did encourage Friedrich Engels to see him as a precursor of all later revolutionaries. Engels’s interpretation is deeply influenced by the Left Hegelian historian Wilhelm Zimmermann, himself a politically radical scholar who first identified Thomas Müntzer as a revolutionary figure.1 Engels sees the incidents during the revolution of 1525 and the following counterrevolution as paradigmatic for the historical dynamic of revolutions in general. Indeed, this also allows him to relocate the historical origin of the communist revolution to the heart of Germany and discuss the relationship between revolution and religion, history and ideology in a context that he finds similar to the events of 1848–1850. Müntzer becomes a revolutionary hero and the first martyr of Marxism. According to Engels, he resisted the temptation to let the Reformation end up with a bourgeois reactionary settlement under the old rulers and instead risked his life for the ideas he believed in: justice for the oppressed, improvement of their material conditions, a total revolution of the established power structures, and eventually the liberation of the entire people. Engels sees in Müntzer, for the first time in modern Europe, a political expression of the secular realization of the utopian vision of a “kingdom of God,” including freedom, equality, and peace on earth.2 Hence, before we conclude this analysis of early modern political theology by comparing the thought of Luther, Catharinus, and Müntzer, let us take a short view behind the curtains to the stage prepared for a second volume on the hidden God in modern philosophy, where political theology is analyzed from various perspectives, including the question of Marxism and the utopias of the Apocalypse.

 

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