The Insoluble Debt

“Wherefore, just as we have been accustomed to rejoice in the rising and ascending of the Lord, so now, not without merit, we rejoice in the lifting up of the cross.  For this scale held our ransom, by which indeed both we were rescued from the yoke of Egyptian slavery and we were freed from the usurious interest of the greedy extortionist. Clearly, this sum satisfied the handwritten decree of our insatiable damnation, and paid off for us the insoluble debt of the ancient bond of security. Whence the distinguished preacher to the Colossians:  ‘And you,’ he said, ‘when you were dead in your sins, and the uncircumcision of your flesh; he hath quickened together with him, forgiving you all offences: Blotting out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us. And he hath taken the same out of the way, fastening it to the cross: And despoiling the principalities and powers, he hath exposed them confidently in open shew, triumphing over them in himself.’ “*

Peter Damian wrote this sermon for the Exaltation of the Cross in the mid-eleventh century.  One of the most significant theologians of his time, he joined a strict monastic community in central Italy and became an important supporter the Papal Reform movement as a Cardinal-bishop before he died in 1073. He is well known for his verbal attacks on the practice of usury (charging interest to loan money) and the sexual sins of the clergy. In this sermon he describes Christ’s death on the Cross as a the only means to pay humanity’s debt for sin. The greedy extortionist is the devil who charged usurious interest on this debt.  Peter points out that only Christ could pay this debt that demanded eternal condemnation as St Paul explained in his letter to the Colossians.

The image to the right is currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I took this photo there. Originally made in the twelfth century, some parts were added and reassembled in the later Middle Ages.  It also contained a relic of the True Cross as you can see at the top.

*Peter Damian, Sermo 48: De exaltatione sanctae crucis, CCCM 57 (Turnhout, 1983), 292. [This is my translation.]

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Offices of Princes

“The offices of princes and officials are divine and right, but those who are in them and use them are usually of the devil. And if a prince is a rare dish in heaven, this is even more true of the officials and the court personnel. This is caused by the devil, depraved nature, which cannot stand success; that is, it cannot use honor, power, and authority in a divine way. No matter how insignificant the little office may be, they take a foot though they do not have an inch, and always want to be God themselves when they ought to be God’s maid.”*

*Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101:5b, Luther’s Works vol. 13, p. 212

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It Squints Toward Monarchy

“This Constitution is said to have beautiful features: but when I come to examine these features, Sir, they appear to me horridly frightful: Among other deformities, it has an awful squinting: it squints towards monarchy: And does not this raise indignation in the breast of every American?  Your President may easily become King: Your Senate is so imperfectly constructed that your dearest rights may be sacrificed by what may be a small minority; and a very small minority may continue forever unchangeably [sic] this Government, although horridly defective: Where are your checks in this Government?”*

The famous patriot, Patrick Henry, opposed Virginia’s adoption of the new constitution (current U.S. Constitution) in 1788. He feared the federal government would become like the British government that the American States had just defeated to ensure their own independence.  He wanted to keep the Articles of Confederation that did not give the national government the same level of centralized power as the new constitution. His phrase, “It squints towards monarchy” is brilliant rhetoric. Henry recognizes the new constitution’s supporters promised a republican form of government, but he fears they have delivered another possible tyrant.

*Patrick Henry, “Speech of Patrick Henry on June 7, 1788” in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debates, ed. Ralph Ketcham (New York, 2003), p. 216. [Emphasis added]

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This Shameful Vice: Luther On Greed

“We daily see what a shameful, cursed vice greed is and what harm it does, especially in high offices and estates both spiritual and secular. If the greed-devil possesses a pastor’s or a preacher’s heart, so that (like the rest of the world) he strives only to produce great wealth for himself, then he has already been thrown into the jaws of the devil, like Judas the traitor, so that he dares to betray Christ along with the Word and His Church for a gold coin.”*

Martin Luther preached and wrote about the vice of greed often. He rebuked his hearers and readers for their greedy actions. He wrote whole treatises on the sin of usury and commerce. In this particular sermon, Luther focused on the greed of clergy and political leaders. He considered greed to be the reason for the papacy’s idolatry. And this corruption among greedy clergy affected every Christian.   In another sermon he wrote:

“If a pastor or preacher is greedy, he is quite useless; he uses the pulpit as does the pope with his priests, solely to feed his own belly and appetite, collects dues and piles up money, caring not a rap for the many thousands of souls who are being neglected. His concern is not for the care of souls but for money, tithes, and self-indulgence.”**

For this reason, pastors must learn to avoid avarice through listening to God’s Word. When greedy pastors preach only for monetary gain, their congregants listen half-heartedly.  Eventually they remain at home to work instead of listening to preaching. Greed subverts the preaching of the gospel. Greed also caused secular leaders to act improperly and not fulfill their vocations. As Luther explained: 

“How harmful it is in secular government when lords and princes have this shameful vice and strive to seize everything for themselves. Because of this, they forget their princely office of helping land and people–they are lords so that with honor and praise from all people they would be extolled and loved as fathers of their land and people. They pay no attention to how God’s Word requires them to provide and care for the churches and schools, so that the people are properly taught, or how discipline and justice are to be observed with their subjects. They let poor pastors, along with their children, widows, and orphans, suffer injustice, violence, and distress.”***  

Notice what Luther expected righteous rulers to do: fund churches and schools to ensure people learn eternal truths and seek a just order of temporal society.  This means secular rulers should pay pastors (who often served as teachers too), stop violent criminals, and protect the vulnerable. However, avaricious rulers use their authority to gain more riches through excessive taxation.      


*Martin Luther, “Sermon on Gospel for the Fifth Sunday After Trinity,” Church Postil IV, Luther’s Works 78, p. 208.

**Luther, “Sermon for Ninth Sunday After Trinity,” House Postils 2, p. 363.  

***LW 78: 209.

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Adoration of the Sacrament

“Everything depends on these words.  Every Christian should and must know them and hold them fast. He must never let anyone take away from him by any other kind of teaching, even though it were an angel from heaven [Gal. 1:8].  They are the words of life and salvation, so that whoever believes in them has all his sins forgiven through that faith; he is a child of life and has overcome death and hell.  Language cannot express how great and mighty these words are, for they are the sum and substance of the whole gospel.“*

Martin Luther published these words in late April 1523 in his treatise to the Bohemian Brethren entitled, The Adoration of the Sacrament. Luther wrote to respond to this group’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper and how Christians should adore the sacrament in the divine service. In the first part, Luther wrote about the nature of the Lord’s Supper. He put forth one of his first published arguments against those who wanted to interpret the Sacrament as only symbolic.  In so doing he rested his theological position on Christ’s Words of Institution, or the words upon which everything depends.  He explained:

” In the first place, we have often said that the chief and foremost thing in the sacrament is the word of Christ, when he says, ‘Take and eat, this is my body which is given for you.’ Likewise also, when he took the cup, he said, ‘Take and drink of it, all of you, this is a cup of a new testament in my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  As often as you do this, do it in remembrance of me.’ “**

Later in the same work he explicitly rejected a symbolic interpretation of these words.  However, he emphasized that FAITH in Christ’s promise in these Words was inner means to properly adore Christ in the Sacrament.  Luther exhorted his readers to trust God’s Words by stating, “But we should and will simply stick to the words of Christ—he will not deceive us—and repel this error with no other sword than the fact that Christ does not say: ‘This signifies my body,’ but ‘This is my body.’ ”***

*Martin Luther, The Adoration of the Sacrament, Luther’s Works, vol. 36, p. 277. [Emphasis added]

**Ibid. [Italics in the original.]

***Ibid., pp. 279-80.

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The Humanity of Christ

“Therefore, nevertheless, those weak with devotion look at the humanity of Christ, in which they recognize the cause of their own salvation: They stand near the cross of Christ, and with Thomas put their own hand into the place of the nails and most devoutly they received the blood, which was shed for the washing away of sins.  Therefore, let everyone come to the cross of the Lord, who, alarmed in conscience, stands guilty before God.”*

In this sermon for Palm Sunday, Absalom of Springiersbach focused on the nature of the cross in the Christian life. Absalom belonged to the Victorines, a organization of regular canons with profound influence in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. This text demonstrates two significant teachings in twelfth-century spirituality. First, the Incarnation and Passion of Christ appeal to humanity’s physicality to lead sinners away from mere carnal desires to spiritual affections. Second, biblical characters’ response to the crucifixion of Christ exemplify various forms of response to the Passion.

In this quote Absalom describes the spiritually weak and the means by which Christ comes to them.  The spiritually mature have ascended beyond the crutch of Christ’s physicality to the virtues of faith and love in God.   Bernard of Clairvaux famously described this idea in the following manner:

“The soul at prayer should have before it a sacred image of the God-man, in his birth or infancy or as he was teaching, or dying, or rising, or ascending.  Whatever form it takes this image must bind the soul with the love of virtue and expel carnal vices, eliminate temptations and quiet desires.  I think this is the principal reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to recapture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to spiritual love.”**

*Absalom of Springiersbach, Sermo 24. Palm Sunday, PL 211: 145 [my translation]

**Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 20, On the Song of Songs I, trans. Kilian Walsh (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1971), p. 152.

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The Tempter Appeared

“One day when he was alone, the tempter appeared.  A little black bird…set about fluttering around him, approaching his face in an annoying manner, so close that the holy man could have caught it in his hand if he had wanted to.  He made the sign of the Cross, and the bird went away.  But then, when the bird had gone, a carnal temptation came upon him so strongly that this holy man had never before felt anything like it.  Some time before this, he had seen a woman that the evil spirit brought before the eyes of his soul.  Such a fire was enkindled in the spirit of God’s servant at the memory of this beauty that he could no longer contain the flame of love in his heart.  He was on the point of deciding to quit the desert, overcome by sensuality.”*

The famous pope, Gregory the Great, wrote this biography of Benedict of Nursia in the late sixth century. These two men played significant roles in the development of the two most important medieval institutions: the papacy and monasticism.  Gregory set the ideal pattern for the medieval pope through his writings and actions.  He lived most of his adult life as a monk himself.  He wrote this Life of St Benedict as part of a larger work of dialogues on the Italian hermits and monastic saints. In this chapter Gregory described how St. Benedict dealt with sinful lusts of the flesh.  Gregory continued:

“Suddenly, touched by grace from on high, he came back to himself and, noticing close at hand some thick bushes of nettles and brambles, he took off his clothes and threw himself naked among the thorns and fierce nettles.  These flesh wounds served as a bodily outlet for the wound in his soul, pleasure being changed into pain. By this exterior burning, which was a beneficial chastisement, he extinguished the interior fire which was harmful.  He vanquished sin by changing one fire into another.”**

In the next section, Gregory explained that Benedict told his disciples that he never felt sexual temptation again. This event inspired many others to join Benedict in the Italian countryside. He had proven himself and overcome temptation. “Freed from the temptation to vice,” Gregory wrote,  “he could rightly become a master of evil.”***

Benedict was a real man who died in 547 around the time Gregory was born. He wrote the most influential guidebook for the monastic life titled merely, The Rule. Gregory intended these narratives to inspire imitation in faith and action by his Christian readers. This tale of Benedict’s triumph over sexual lust inspired a basic principle of medieval monasticism: when it takes place for the right reasons, bodily pain leads to the sanctification of the soul. Exterior discipline can change one inwardly and assist in overcoming sin.

*Gregory the Great, The Life of Saint Benedict II, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe (Petersham, MA: Saint Bede’s, 1993), p. 21

**Ibid. [Emphasis added]


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The Ancient Curse Is Removed

“On today’s feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, my brothers, we must reflect on the simple story of our restoration as a very pleasant plateau. The angel Gabriel is entrusted with a novel task, and the Virgin manifests a novel virtue; she is honored by a novel salutation.  The ancient curse of women is removed, the new mother receives a new blessing. She who does not know worldly desire is filled by grace, so that, by the Spirit’s coming upon her, she who declines to admit a husband may give birth to the Son of the Most High. The antidote comes in to us by the same gate of salvation through which the serpent’s poison entered and infected the whole of the human race.”*

Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation of the Lord

*Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the Annunciation of the Lord, Sermon Two,” in Sermons for Lent and Easter Season (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), p. 84 [Emphasis added]

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“O man, if you consider carefully the mercy of God, you can possess in yourself the image of mercy.  What made Christ become incarnate, except mercy? What subjected him to our wretchedness, except his clemency? This is man’s only way to God, and God’s to man.  O blessed way, which alone knows the exchange of our salvation, which alone points man up to God, and brings God down to man.” Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, p. 79.

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No Word Sounds Sweeter

“Your word pierced me like the sharp arrow of the Mighty. As a result, I began to compare your statements with the passages of Scripture which speak of poenitentia [repentance]. And behold — what a most pleasant scene! Biblical words came leaping toward me from all sides, clearly smiling and nodding assent to your statement. They so supported your opinion that while formerly almost no word in the whole Scripture was more bitter to me than poenitentia (although I zealously made a pretense before God and tried to express a feigned and constrained love for him), now no word sounds sweeter or more pleasant to me than poenitentia. The commandments of God become sweet when they are read not only in books but also in the wounds of the sweetest Savior.”* 

In this letter we read Martin Luther’s early theological insight related to repentance.  Remember the issue that instigated the Reformation as a social movement revolved around the late medieval understanding of repentance and indulgences.  In fact, the first thesis from Martin Luther’s famous academic challenge to the late medieval church’s teaching on penance read: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”**

From 1516 to 1520 Martin Luther studied and contemplated the nature of penance in relation to God’s Word and faith in His promises. His insights reflected his new understanding of poenitentia. Medieval theologians had different views on the nature of contrition, priestly absolution, and acts of satisfaction in relation to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Academic theologians had debated these things since the twelfth century. In 1520, Luther explained the relationship of these things in The Babylonian of the Captivity of the Church when he wrote:

 “Beware then, of putting your trust in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own remorse.  God does not look on you with favor because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed his threats and promises, and which has effected such sorrow within you.  Thus we owe whatever good there may be in our penance, not to our scrupulous enumeration of sins, but to the truth of God and to our faith.  All other things are the works and fruits which follow of their own accord.”***     

*Martin Luther, “Letter to John von Staupitz,” Wittenberg, May 30, 1518, Luther’s Works 48: 66. [Emphasis added] 

**Luther, Ninety-Five Theses, LW 31:25. 

***Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, LW 36:85. 

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