Monday, August 18, 2008

It's for the simple, stupid!

Continued from Part 2

Before we begin our analysis of his Trinitarian theology, it will be helpful for us to consider Luther’s own explanation of the “simplicity” of his exposition of the Apostles' Creed. This should serve to channel our own study, insuring that we do not misuse Luther’s words.

First, Luther writes for children and those who would teach children. Introducing the three articles of the Creed Luther says, “But in order that it might be easily and simply grasped, as it is to be taught to children, we shall briefly sum up the entire Creed in three articles, according to the three persons of the Godhead. . .” (Large Catechsim II, 6). The goal is to teach “young pupils . . . the most necessary points. ” (LC II, 12). When Luther mentions his very cursory treatment of the substance of the Second Article, he explains, “But the proper place to explain all these different points is not in the short children’s sermon, but in the longer sermons over the whole year. . .” (LC II, 32). The substance of the teaching in this article is “so rich and expansive” that we can never learn it fully (LC II, 33).

This is no doubt a note to pastors, reminding them to adjust the content of their sermons appropriately according to the situation and audience. Nevertheless, it also serves as a challenge to Luther scholars not to push Luther’s own catechetical formulations too far. His exposition of the catechism was not designed to answer the kind of questions that Trinitarian theologians ask today—or even the kinds of questions asked in his own day!—it was designed for the instruction of children and young students.

Second, Luther’s exposition of the Creed is not only aimed at children and young students, but it also attempts to provide instruction for ordinary people. Luther often uses the adjective einfältig (“simple,” “plain,” “naïve,” even “artless”) as well as the noun Einfältig to describe his intended audience. Care should be taken to ascertain the level of the student so that one can teach them appropriately.

At the beginning of his comments on the First Article, Luther admits that “for the learned and the somewhat more advanced, however, all three articles can be treated more fully and divided into as many parts as there are words” (LC II, 12). Concluding his very brief discussion of the meaning of the first article, Luther comments, “It is as much as the simple [den Einfältigen] need to learn at first. . .” (LC II, 24). Luther concludes his exposition of the Creed with the following caveat: “For the present this is enough concerning the Creed to lay a foundation for simple people [einen Grund zu legen für die Einfältigen], so that one does not overburden them. When they understand the essentials of it, they may pursue it themselves, relating what they learn in the Scriptures to these teachings, growing and increasing forever more into a richer understanding. For concerning these things we have to learn and preach daily, as long as we live” (LC II, 70).

These two target audiences (children and common people) constrain Luther’s theological exposition. This knowledge ought to serve to restrain our own theological speculation. The student of Luther must remember that the simplicity of his catechetical exposition is pedagogically constrained. He is writing a primer for children (SC) and a manual for pastors (and fathers) who teach this primer to children and common folk (LC). I think we can pretty well safely assume that Luther never dreamed of the day when academic theologians would pour over his “simple” exposition of the Creed looking for deep theological and philosophical structures. After all, Luther describes his own elucidation of the Creed as “briefly running over the words” (LC II, 8). That does not mean, of course, that a scholarly examination of Luther’s writings is inappropriate; it means that scholars who do the examining would do well not to push to find evidence of something more cryptic and sophisticated than Luther himself would probably have intended.

Furthermore, the simplicity of Luther’s treatment of the Trinitarian nature of God follows from the obvious fact that Luther is not setting forth a theology of the Trinity per se; rather, he is expounding the Trinitarian content of the Christian faith as it is articulated in the Apostles’ Creed. Surely Luther himself did not intend to incorporate into his catechetical writings anything like a comprehensive theology of the Trinity, or even everything important he might have said about the Trinity were he to address the topic specifically. He is not only writing with a specific audience in mind, he is also working with a particular text and his Trinitarian theology will be bound, in some sense, by the limitations of the text of the Apostles’ Creed.

Moreover, Luther does appear to allow for a more sophisticated theology of the Trinity. When he sums up the importance and usefulness of the Creed for our knowledge of the “whole divine essence, will, and work,” he notes that such an exalted topic is nevertheless described in “altogether brief and yet regal words” (LC II, 63). There are later sermons where Luther’s purpose is to set forth the doctrine of the Trinity itself, but that is not the purpose of his catechetical explanation of the Creed. All of which serves to remind the modern student of Luther that Luther’s entire doctrine of the Trinity must not be thought to be contained here in his catechetical exposition of the Creed. We need not necessarily fault Luther for leaving out of his exposition points that we might think important. And we must not attempt to discover points that Luther never intended to make. Care must be exercised so as not to artificially build up a Trinitarian theology from the catechisms alone without consulting his later writings. It is our purpose now to examine these kurtzen und doch reichen Worten (“short and yet regal words”) in order to outline Luther’s rich and majestically simple doctrine of the Trinity.

Go to Part III.

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