15 Chapters
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8. The Quest for Subjectivity

Marius Timmann Mjaaland Indiana University Press ePub

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

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4. The Quest for Immorality

Marius Timmann Mjaaland Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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9. Deus Absconditus

Marius Timmann Mjaaland Indiana University Press ePub

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

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6. The Quest for Clarity

Marius Timmann Mjaaland Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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3. Topology

Marius Timmann Mjaaland Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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