Trust the Science

“Then came the explosion of this myth.  It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and in the fierce fury of fifty-megaton bombers.  Now we have come to see that science can give us only physical power, which if not controlled by spiritual power, will lead inevitably to cosmic doom….We need something more spiritually sustaining and morally controlling than science.  It is an instrument which, under the power of God’s spirit, may lead man to greater heights of physical security, but apart from God’s spirit, science is a deadly weapon that will lead only to deeper chaos.”*

Martin Luther King identified this myth as the idea that scientific innovation and technology could bring about a kind of utopian society.  He emphasized the fact that humanity’s deepest needs are spiritual as evidenced by the emotional and spiritual discontent in society.  Science, or knowledge of the material world, can lead to better temporal lives for humanity.  However, science also can lead to the greatest destructive powers in human existence: nuclear weapons. 

King concluded: “Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself?  We must lift up our minds and eyes unto the hills from whence cometh our true help.  Then, and only then, will the advances of modern science be a blessing rather than a curse.”**   

*Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia 1963), p. 74.

**Ibid. 74-75. 

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God Descends into Dust

“Majesty compressed himself to join to our dust the best thing he had, which is himself.  God and dust, majesty and weakness, utter lowliness and utter sublimity  were united in a single person.  Nothing is more sublime than God, nothing is lower than dust–and yet God descended into dust with great condescension and dust ascended into God with great honor, so that whatever God did in it, the dust is believed to have done, and whatever is the dust bore, God is said to have borne in it by a mystery as ineffable as it is incomprehensible.” Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the Eve of the Lord’s Birth, Sermon Three” in Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season  (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2007), p. 66.

Bernard of Clairvaux, the famous twelfth-century Cistercian preacher, describes the Incarnation of Christ as the union of God and dust.  God descends into the dust of humanity to redeem the dust itself. Notice, the dust ascended into God and received credit for whatever God-in-dust did.  Previous to this section Bernard described how God created human beings from the dust of the ground then endowed them with sensation and reason.  


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God Crowns His Own Gifts

One day someone asked Martin Luther whether godly persons should expect merit for their good works that result from their justification.  Luther answered that even the justified were still sinners, who pray for forgiveness and live under grace.  While God promises rewards to those who do good works, no works earn any merit.  Luther explained:

In short, the article of justification by Christ solves everything. If Christ merits it, we merit nothing.  In Christ there are gifts, not merits. Likewise, since capital and substantial righteousness is nothing, how much less will accidental righteousness count in God’s sight? Substantial righteousness is the righteousness of faith, but accidental righteousness is gifts, not merits.  God crowns nothing but his own gifts, as Augustine said. (Luther’s Works 54: 329) [Emphasis Added]

In Luther’s estimation, the gift of faith in Christ formed the substance of faith, but even the outward actions derived from faith were gifts.  He described how Augustine of Hippo demonstrated that merit rests completely on God’s grace and not on human will or activity.

Augustine (d.430) influenced Western Christian theology more than any writer except for Holy Scripture.   He lived during the tumultuous era of Germanic invasions.  In fact, he died as the Vandals approached Hippo in North Africa.  While Dr. Luther did criticize Augustine’s teaching at times,  Luther always emphasized Augustine’s influence on his own (re)discovery of the Gospel and grace.  Augustine taught clearly that salvation and eternal life were gifts which God bestowed by grace through faith in Christ.  When others inquired as to the role of merit in salvation, Augustine explained that grace by its very nature cannot be obtained by meriting anything.  Rather, it is God’s grace that grants faith and any merit associated with the good works resulting from faith.  Augustine stated concisely: “If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.” (Augustine, On Grace and Free Will 6. 15., NPNF 5: 450.)

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Arise O Lord: The Political Origins of Luther’s Reformation

In his sermon given at the funeral of Duke John of Electoral Saxony (John the Steadfast) in 1532, Martin Luther stated, “a prince is also a human being and always has ten devils around him where another man has only one, so that God must give him special guidance and set his angels about him.”* While the Lutheran Reformation revolved around the theological rediscovery of essential biblical teachings (i.e. justification by faith), political events played a major role in the Lutheran Reformers’ temporal success.  Most likely, Dr. Luther would have gladly embraced martyrdom in 1521.  However, his survival, based upon the support of certain German princes and city councils, changed the history of the Christian Church and the world.  As the above quote demonstrates, Luther had a very realistic understanding of the princes, even those who supported him.

Pope Leo X issued the papal bull, Exsurge Domine (Arise O Lord) that identified and condemned forty one errors in Luther’s published writings in June 1520.  However, Luther’s support in Germany continued to grow.  After Luther received the papal bull against him, Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and students at Wittenberg burned it and another texts in December as a response to the authorities’ burning of Luther’s works.

On January 3, 1521 the papal curia published the final bull of excommunication against Martin Luther.  The politics surrounding the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation had slowed down papal action against Luther for two years.  As one of the seven electors of the new emperor, Duke Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony had a strong political position in 1519.  Pope Leo X did not want Charles, who had recently become king of Spain, to replace his maternal grandfather (Maximilian I) as Holy Roman Emperor.  The pope had even suggested Frederick as a candidate for the imperial position.  Rejecting his own candidacy, Frederick convinced the majority of electors to vote for Charles in June 1519.

Charles V had agreed to significant concessions in order to become emperor.  Most significantly for Martin Luther in 1521, Charles had agreed to grant any imperial subject a hearing before impartial judges within the Holy Roman Empire before that subject’s condemnation.  Based on this concession and Frederick’s persuasive arguments, Charles agreed to give Martin Luther a hearing at the imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521.

This led to Dr. Luther’s famous testimony and refusal to recant before the imperial assembly, including Charles V and papal representatives.  The reaction to Luther’s speech exposed a developing rift within the Empire.  Although Luther already had significant support among the political leaders, Charles and the imperial assembly did issue an edict against Luther in May 1521.  This imperial edict declared Luther to be a heretical outlaw and forbade anyone to support him or even communicate with him.  The penalty for assisting Luther could be imprisonment and confiscation of one’s property.  Charles V and the papal party thought this edict would settle the matter. This edict and its ramifications played a major role in the politics of the Holy Roman Empire for the rest of Luther’s life.

*LW 51:236

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The Laws of Tyrants

Most foolish of all is the belief that everything decreed by the institutions or laws of a particular country is just.  What if the laws are the laws of tyrants?  If the notorious Thirty* had wished to impose their laws on Athens, even if the entire population of Athens welcomed the tyrants’ laws, should those laws on that account be considered just? No more, in my opinion, should that law be considered just which our interrex** passed, allowing the Dictator to execute with impunity any citizen he wished, even without trial.”  Marcus T. Cicero, The Laws 1. 42. in  The Republic and The Laws, trans. Niall Rudd (Oxford 1998), p. 111-112.

Cicero wrote these words in his dialogue on the nature of laws and community.  It includes discussions of personal morality, ethics, the State, and punishment.  If one reads the text, it reveals Cicero’s familiarity with the Greek philosophical tradition including Plato, Aristotle, the Skeptics, Epicurus, and Stoics.  After his examination of just punishments for criminals and the tormented consciences of the wicked, he stated the words above.  In these words, Cicero powerfully asserts that the State’s decrees can be immoral and unjust.  Justice transcends mere human convention because god or the gods have implanted it in human souls.  He concludes:

“There is one, single, justice.  It binds together human society and has been established by one, single, law.  The law is right reason in commanding and forbidding.  A man who does not acknowledge this law is unjust, whether it has been written down anywhere or not.  If justice is a matter of obeying the written laws and customs of a particular communities, and if, as our opponents*** allege, everything is to be measured by self-interest, then a person will ignore and break the laws when he can, if he thinks it will be to his own advantage.  This is why justice is completely non-existent if it is not derived from nature, and if that kind of justice which is established to serve self-interest is wrecked by that same self-interest.  And that is why every virtue is abolished if nature is not going to support justice.” Ibid. 43., p. 112.

*The Thirty were pro-Spartan tyrants who seized power in Athens in 404 BC.  They established a dictatorship then imprisoned and executed many people without due process or trial.

**Interrex was the position of interim ruler in the Roman Republic.  Cicero is referring to the dictate that made Sulla a dictator in 82 BC.  Sulla executed thousands of people without trial.


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The Lust For Domination

“I know how great is the effort needed to convince the proud of the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability, overtopping them all with an eminence not arrogated by human pride, but granted by divine grace. For the King and Founder of this City which is our subject has revealed in the Scripture of his people this statement of the divine Law, ‘God resists the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.’* This is God’s prerogative; but man’s arrogant spirit in its swelling pride has claimed it as its own, and delights to hear this quoted in is own praise: ‘To spare the conquered, and beat down the proud.’**  Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.  I must consider this city as far as the scheme of this work demands and as occasion serves.” Augustine of Hippo, The City of God:  Preface, trans. Henry Bettenson (London 1972), 508. [Emphasis added]

In this preface to his most famous work, The City of God, Augustine of Hippo sets forth one of the most significant themes of his work: power, pride, humility, and grace.  He examines numerous events in Roman history that explain how fallen human beings sought power and glory through the dominion over others.  Based on the ancient Roman authors, Augustine rightly explained how Rome originated as a State based on violence and became a State based on conquest in the first five books of The City of God.  He later emphasizes the theology of humility and grace as the heavenly antidote to human sin and pride.

*James 4:6

**Virgil, Aeneid 6

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More Than a Feeling

“For virtue is nothing else than an affection of the mind ordered according to reason, and such affections are said to be very numerous according to the various inclinations of the same mind, yet having one root and origin, the will.  For one will, according as it inclines itself to various things either by seeking or avoiding, forms various affections, and receives divers names according to the same affections, although, however, all these things are in one will, and are one will.”* 

In this famous early twelfth-century theological text, Hugh explained the nature of virtue.  The interconnection of emotion and reason form the basis of virtue.  Notice, virtue exists when reason controls the affections.  The will must seek or avoid certain things and thus form affections.  According to twelfth-century theologians, how does the will do this?  Simply put: Love.  Twelfth century theologians understood love as the source from which all affections and actions flow.  Bernard of Clairvaux stated that love exists in the emotion and the action and love must shape the will toward feeling or action. When the divine love motivates the will then truly right emotions and good deeds follow.**   

In a devotional work, On the Praise of Charity, Hugh of St Victor extolled the power of love by identifying it as God’s primary motivation for becoming a human being:

“O charity, for you alone were able to draw God down from heaven to earth. O how powerful is your bond, whereby both God could be bound and the human, having been bound, broke the bounds of iniquity! I do not know if I am able to say anything greater in your praise than that you draw God down from heaven and elevate the human from earth to heave.  Your great virtue is that by means of you God is brought all the way down to earth and the human is exalted all the way up to heaven.”*** 

Hugh followed this section with a meditation on the Incarnation and Passion of Christ.  He described Christ as a man conquered by love as she motivates him to obey his Father’s will.  Love has wounded Christ and therefore wounds his followers deeply in their hearts.  For God is love (caritas). This is the only virtue which is also God Himself and from it flows all of life.  Hugh concludes: 

Charity cures every weakness of the soul.  Charity pulls up all vices by the roots.  Charity is the source of all the virtues.  Charity illumines the mind, purifies the conscience, delights the soul, [and] reveals God.****       


*Hugh of St Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith I.VI.17 (English trans. at p.105) {Emphasis added}

**Bernard, Sermon on Song of Songs 50. II.3 (English trans. vol. 3, p. 31); Bernard On Loving God

***Hugh of St Victor, On the Praise of Charity, trans. Hugh Feiss, OSB, On Love: Victorine Texts in Translation (Hide Park, NY 2012), p. 164.

****Ibid., 166.  


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The Spirit of Resistance

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.”*

Thomas Jefferson wrote these sentences in a letter to Abigail Adams in February 1787 during his  in Paris as Minister to France.  Jefferson is referring to the events known as Shays’ Rebellion here.  Jefferson states that he hopes the rebels were pardoned, then moved on to other matters.  Later in the same year, Jefferson wrote to William Stephens Smith (John and Abigail Adams’ son in law) and expressed similar thoughts about the spirit of resistance.  He pointed out that the 13 States had existed for 11 years and only this one rebellion took place.  Jefferson then concluded famously:

And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.**

Jefferson concluded this letter with a lament that Shays’ Rebellion had influenced the actions of members of the Convention taking place in Philadelphia.  He feared an overreaction would give the government too much power under a new constitution.

*Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 22 February 1787

**Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 13 November 1787 [Emphasis added]

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Flattery Gets You Nowhere

I prefer to be frank and not have anyone misled by flattery. I can testify that although my shell may be hard, still my kernel is soft and sweet.  I wish no one harm, but desire everyone to carefully consider these things with me.  Just as my harshness has hurt no one, so it has deceived no one.  Whoever avoids me suffers nothing from me; whoever bears with me is profited.  In Prov. 28 [:23], Solomon says, ‘He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.’ “*

BAG13642 Portrait of Martin Luther, 1525 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); 40×26.6 cm; © Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, UK; ( Luther (1483-1546) German religious reformer;); German, out of copyright

Martin Luther wrote these words in June 1521 when he was hiding out at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach.  Luther and his political supporters within Electoral Saxony, part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, had made the decision to keep him there after the Diet of Worms in late April.  Condemned as a heretic and an outlaw, his temporal circumstances were precarious.  However, Luther remained quite active in his scholarly work.  During the year 1521, he translated the New Testament into German, wrote numerous letters, wrote a collection of sermons, completed commentaries on various Psalms, and responded to his theological opponents.

In the quote above Luther is responding to a theologian at the University of Louvain named Jacobus Latomus (originally named Masson).  Luther had to write this refutation without a library and quoted many things from memory.   This fact makes Luther’s long point-by-point refutation of Latomus more impressive. In so doing, Luther addressed the main theological issues of his nascent Reformation: original sin, good works, faith, law, grace, and the gospel.  When it came to theological truth, Luther asserted that frank, open debate served his opponents more than flattery and may save their souls.  As he wrote earlier in the same text:

“Now I have never insisted that anyone consider me modest or holy, but only that everyone recognize what the gospel is.  If they do this, I give anyone freedom to attack my life to his heart’s content.  My boast is that I have injured no one’s life or reputation, but only sharply reproached, as godless and sacrilegious, those assertions, inventions, and doctrines that are against the Word of God.”**

*Martin Luther, Against Latomus, Luther’s Works 32: 142. [Emphasis added]

**Ibid., 141.

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Mercy in Moderation

In 1534 Martin Luther published a commentary on Psalm 101.  He used this commentary as an opportunity to write a manual for the Christian prince.  In August 1532, John Frederick the Magnanimous became the Electoral Duke of Saxony with the death of his father, John the Steadfast. Luther wrote often about the proper actions of Christian secular leaders and specifically addressed his own rulers often.  Here he explained how a prince must apply mercy and justice: 

“Thus David is also speaking here in courtly or princely terms about mercy and justice, that is, benefit for the pious and punishment for the wicked.  A prince and lord must use both of these.  If there is only mercy and the prince lets everyone milk him and kick him in the teeth and does not punish or become angry, then not only the court but the land, too, will be filled with wicked rascals; all discipline and honor will come to an end.  On the other hand, if there is only anger and punishment or too much of it, then tyranny will result, and the pious will be breathless in their daily fear and anxiety.”*

Here Luther examines how a leader must balance mercy and justice with his subjects.  He states that a prince must punish and display anger in order to properly discipline the people and preserve his land from criminals.  This follows the medieval tradition that a king or ruler must express righteous rage at the criminal actions of his subjects in order to properly rule the kingdom in a godly manner.**  However, according to Luther, if a prince only shows anger this will lead to tyranny and even the good subjects will be afraid.    

“This is also what the heathen say on the basis of daily experience: ‘Strict justice is the greatest injustice.’ The same may also be said of mercy: All mercy is much worse than no mercy at all.  A father cannot do a more unfatherly thing for his child than to spare the rod and let the little child have its own way.  With such stupid affection he is finally ‘raising’ a son for the executioner, who afterwards will have to ‘raise’ him in another way, namely, with a rope on the gallows.  Moderation is good in all things.  To achieve it is an art; indeed, it is a matter of God’s grace.  But because such an ideal can hardly be attained, it is good to try to come the closest to it by giving mercy priority over justice…Where a happy medium cannot be attained, it is better and safer to fall short on this side than on that; that is, too much mercy is better than too much punishment.  One can withdraw and reduce too much mercy; but punishment cannot be taken back, especially when it touches body, life, and limb.”***          

While the Bible formed Luther’s basic ideas, he often appealed to ancient Greco-Roman sources in his commentaries and sermons.  In this section he referred to ancient sayings regarding justice and moderation.  Although he did not identify them here the sources are Cicero and Aristotle.  He quoted Cicero’s De officiis (on duties) about strict justice often.  Apparently it was a Roman proverb as Cicero indicates:

“Injustices can also arise from a kind of trickery, by an extremely cunning but ill intentional interpretation of the law.  In consequence the saying ‘the more Justice, the more injustice’ has be now become a proverb well worn in conversation.  Many wrongs of this type are committed even in public affairs.”****       

Secondly, Luther refers to the concept of moderation and applies it to balancing mercy and justice.  This idea goes back at least to the Oracle at Delphi’s “nothing in excess” and became a central concept in Aristotle’s theory of ethics.  Most refer to it as the golden mean.  Aristotle famously described virtue as “a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.”*****     

*Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101, Luther’s Works 13:152-53. [Emphasis added]

**On this topic see Kate McGrath, Royal Rage and the Construction of Anglo-Normal Authority, c.1000-1250 (2019), 109-146.

***Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101, LW 13:153.

****Marcus T. Cicero, On Duties I. 33.  trans. Margaret Atkins (Cambridge 1991), p. 14.

*****Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II. 6. trans. Richard McKeon (New York 1992), p. 361. 

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