The More you Know the More You Trust Bayer

That’s a slogan for Bayer aspirin, but I think it might apply to the German theologian by the same surname.  Granted he has a lingering case of higher criticism, but two doses from him can spare us in Missouri some self-inflicted hangovers. There are two really good points to take away from Bayer’s book Martin Luther’s Theology. Taken like aspirin of the same name they might ward off a theological hangover.

The first pill should be taken before reading Professor James Voelz What Does This Mean? (And of all the trials facing the Show Me synod this is the most serious.  Left unaddressed we won’t be able to talk to each other about the Bible passages we disagree on.  Then I fear all that will be left is to agree to disagree.)  Enough fearing, on to quoting:

No interpretation of Holy Scripture will try to get around the way that God presented himself. The humiliation involved in the way God gave of himself will correspond to the humility with which one engages in interpretation” (Emphasis original, p. 34).

But this pill is one of those two layered ones.  It has two kinds of medicine in one pill.  After the first stage above goes to work, a much stronger medicine that flatly contradicts Voelzian principles of Biblical interpretation begins to work:

“That the signum itself is already the res, that the linguistic sign is already the matter itself – that was Luther’s great hermeneutical discovery, his reformational discovery in the strictest sense. Luther sharpens this way to understand language in the following statement from a table talk: [‘The philosophical sign is the mark of something that is absent; the theological sign is the mark of something present’]” (Again the emphasis is original and the bracketed text is the editor’s translation of the Bayer’s Latin quote, p. 52).

If you don’t read the Voelz book, I don’t think you’ll need this Bayer aspirin.  But the other theological hangover can’t be avoided.  It comes to us from Reformed theology, and you know if you’re talking Reformed you’re talking about Dame Reason.  Even though her voice is shrill sometimes, she sounds like a lover to the reasonable mind.  “God allows suffering,” she coos; “Suffering belongs to God’s permissive will, she trills.”  That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Once more the Bayer aspirin is a layered one.  In the first layer he shows Luther denies the seductive assertions above, and the second layer functions like the bony finger of the Ghost of Christmas Future.  It shoves the real alternative to Luther’s position.

“Luther holds tightly to God’s goodness, to his almighty power, and at the same time to his unity – and this precisely because of the certainty of salvation. He would sooner have allowed for logical inconsistencies than weaken the might and goodness of God or even go further yet and deny his unity…. He argues as follows: if one denies to the generic name (nomen appellative) ‘God’ the dark power of that terrifying hiddenness, then God would no longer be God; then a power would be next to him or opposite him that would have no master”  (205-6).  Or as Edward Bulwer-Lytton said in his early 19th century novel, “Necessity, say the Greeks, compels the gods.  Then why the gods” (Last Days of Pompeii, 69)?

Now for the second layer: “Since God’s love cannot be demonstrated, cannot be positioned safely beyond all doubt, whoever believes lives in the agonizing struggle. Faced with God’s hiddenness, he takes flight to the promise, in which God does reveal himself; he flees into the ‘light of grace,’ the lumen gratiae, into the ‘light of the gospel, which alone is powerful in Word and in faith.’ The other way to flee, to deny God and to speak of blind destiny and luck, is not a possibility for faith” (212).

In case of a theological hangover, take these two Bayer “aspirin” and call me in the morning.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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