One of my favorite podcasts is The Christian Humanist Podcast. The podcast is “humanist” in the best sense of the term: the Renaissance sense. In other words, it’s committed to exploring “literature, philosophy and other things that human beings do well”—studying anything and everything in the world from within a Christian framework.
Because it’s not a theology program per se, the three hosts (all literature scholars at Christian colleges) are able to take on a wide-ranging number of subjects. For instance, since January they’ve had episodes focusing on intellectualism, Edgar Allen Poe, the prophet Elijah, modernism, online education, forests, pragmatism, and in-depth looks at the poems “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Kubla Khan,” and “Intimations of Immortality.” The semester prior they discussed the Crusades, dystopian fiction, homiletics, chess, politics, and death among other things. The discussions are always entertaining and enlightening. (See the blog here and download the podcasts here).
It’s yesterday’s episode (Episode 105) that I’m interested in talking about here though. The hosts recently encouraged their listeners to read Martin Luther’s Freedom of a Christian in preparation for this week’s episode on the same work. None of the three hosts are Lutheran, so I was curious to hear their thoughts. What would these three non-Lutherans make of this important early work by Luther?
The question is relevant, I think, as Luther is often more talked about by Christians than actually read. And when he is read, dabblers tend to stick to works like The Bondage of the Will, Luther’s reactionary tirade against Erasmus. While responses like The Bondage form an important part of Luther’s corpus, they’re hardly the only part. Readers who restrict themselves to such works are in danger of mistaking Luther’s negative hyperbole as if it were a fair representation of all his theology; one must also read the works in which he puts forth his ideas in a positive, rather than reactionary, way.
The Freedom of a Christian is just such a work, and is important in that it brings together in one place many of the theological topics which informed Luther’s theological writing throughout his life. Here Luther touches on the simultaneous sinner/saint state of Christians; explains Law and Gospel; argues justification by faith alone; defends the necessity of works as a fruit of faith; discusses what makes works “good”; expounds on the priesthood of all believers (both what it does and doesn’t mean); and delves into his theology of vocation, as well as hinting at the doctrine of the “two kingdoms.”
So how does The Christian Humanist Podcast do in discussing these things? There’s a lot I could say, but let’s just focus on one topic—what makes good works good—and provide a little constructive criticism. Luther writes in this book things like, “Good works do not make a man good.” One of the hosts—Nathan Gilmour—takes umbrage at the statement, and asks whether “Luther is ignoring the fact that there are virtues that develop because of action… that something genuinely good arises when human beings practice good lives.” Co-host Michial Farmer suggests Luther is, more or less, doing exactly that.
But this is to misunderstand Luther, as host David Grubbs explains. “[Luther’s] not interested in talking about virtue in terms of Aristotle’s Habits, what he’s interested in is whether or not this is good enough before the judgment seat.” When Luther says good works do not make a person good, he means that they do not justify. He doesn’t mean they can’t be considered good on the horizontal, person-to-person level: a person can be a good human being without being a Christian, after all. But without faith, those works are not capable of making one righteous in the eyes of God. Righteous acts can be considered righteous on earth and still be filthy rags before God.
In saying this, Luther is channeling Hebrews and Romans: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6) and “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). This interpretation of these verses—that works, unless proceeding from the faithful, are sins in God’s sight, however good they may appear—is not even particularly Lutheran. St. Augustine says the same and is approved for doing so by St. Thomas Aquinas. The latter writes: “St. Augustine explains the words of St. Paul [Romans 14:23]… in this way: ‘Where there is no knowledge of the eternal and unchanging Truth, virtue even in the midst of the best moral life is false.’ Without faith, virtue is only skin-deep. Likewise, it’s not just Lutheran Protestants who say the same: “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God,” the Anglican Articles of Religion say, “We doubt not but that they have the nature of sin” (Article 13).
But while works may not in and of themselves justify, they nevertheless do play an important role in the Christian’s life, especially as a curb for the sinful nature. Christians are “saints” in that they have been declared innocent by God because of Christ; but this side of heaven, Christians still struggle with sin. They have both the spiritual new man (the “saint”) alive in them and the sinful old man (the “sinner”) at work in their flesh (cf. Romans 7:25). That’s what works are for: not to find favour with God (the grace of Christ’s sacrifice, received through faith, has already accomplished that), but rather to subdue the Old Adam, the “old man” of sin at work within us. Indeed, such works prove a safeguard for faith, helping it grow: “Your one care should be,” Luther writes, “that faith may grow, whether it is trained by works or suffering.” Without such works, the “old man” would rise again. [As an aside, Luther also writes in this book of another purpose for works—namely, that they are for our neighbors' benefit. See author Gene Edward Veith for more on Luther's theology of vocation.]
This, then, is some of what Luther is getting at when he says “good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.” The goodness of the man is dependent not on his works but on God’s mercy in declaring him good. Once he is declared good, the works he works (however imperfect) will also be accepted as good by God. We freely strive to live holier lives because we know that our goodness—our innocence before God—is already assured through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. We aim to become outwardly what we already are inwardly.
It’s well worth listening to these non-Lutheran scholars grapple with Luther’s words in The Freedom of a Christian. Kudos to all the hosts of The Christian Humanist Podcast for taking the subject on, but I must say that David Grubbs takes the prize for best understanding Luther. If any of our Lutheran readers go to check it out, try to play nice: too many confessional Lutherans give in to Luther-esque confrontation when Melancthonian irenicism will do. I, for one, am glad to see other Christians wrestling with Luther’s ideas. Be also sure to download some of the old episodes, as The Christian Humanist Podcast is excellent listening.
[Full disclosure: I’m the “Captain Thin” David Grubbs mentions early on in the episode. I’m certainly no expert on Luther, but if they ever do an episode again where they want some Lutheran insight, I’d be happy to take them up on the offer to sit in.]