I love biographies and bibliographies. I am not greatly impressed by a person’s wisdom and witticisms until I know something of who they are. And so it goes for my theological heros as well. A good biography and a working knowledge of their collected works goes a long way in determining their blind-spots, and I dare propose: their prejudices.
As I often point out while officiating a funeral: it is impossible to summarize a person’s entire life. It is an unenviable task. There are events we do not know about. There are opinions we never had the pleasure of hearing. There are people the deceased had various stratum of interaction and attachment to, whom, we know not at all.
I do not presume upon your time to write yet another angst riddled “spitting-the-bones-out-and-dancing-a-gospel-soft-shoe-after-realizing-that-the-object-of-my-theological-man-crush-is-just-a-redeemed-sinner-like-me-article”. These have been penned ad nauseam.
There was the time that the YRR listened to a rap song and figured out much to their dismay that the Puritans had slaves!
There was the time that Calvinists pointed out that the great Arminian John Wesley was a wanting husband!
Let us not forget the uncomfortable truth that many denominations (not just Baptists) were split along regional lines in the 1800’s over “America’s Original Sin.”
And, the dreadful fact that so many Lutherans in Germany sided with the Nazis.
On and on the blogosphere goes, like a maniacal merry-go-round, a round-about if you will, about spitting out our theological hero’s boney prejudices and rebellion.
Suffer me a bit longer as I propose a most frightful thought: does a theologian’s bad theology make his good theology suspect?
Douglas Wilson’s “Black And Tan”
Recently there was internet bedlam over Douglas Wilson’s book “Southern Slavery, as it was”, a book which later mutated into “Black and Tan“.
Some felt Wilson’s book was racist, another example of white privilege and tribalism, others felt it was racially insensitive.
At the end of the dust up Pastors Anyabwile and Wilson agreed to disagree. Everyone had a gospel hug and said to themselves, “this is how mature believers disagree.”
Reformed folk still retweet his tweets because he’s just so funny.
But I don’t.
Every time I’m about to RT his latest witticism I remember that book. It is floating around out there, chilling out on people’s bookshelves: an ignorant rag making its home in someone’s study of all places.
That book disturbs me because it seems like a waste of God given talent to write it in the first place, and a double horror to spend time defending it rather than just unequivocally repudiating the work.
I enjoy Wilson’s work and agree with some of his emphases, yet the nagging question pecking at the back of my brain like the ever persistent dryocopus pileatus goes like this: does flawed theology in one area spill over into other areas?
If nothing else we are reminded that history is by no means a mere academic exercise, but rather true events involving real people made in the image of God; the consequences of which reverberate into the future.
Evangelicals are quick to say that sin cannot be compartmentalized. Sin in one area will inevitably affect other areas of faith and practice. How about theology?
Do I really want to hear Wilson opine on the life and work of C.S. Lewis at the Desiring God National Conference, knowing that book is out there?
Martin Luther’s “The Jews And Their Lies”
Martin Luther’s least celebrated work is the anti-semetic magnum opus, “The Jews And Their Lies”. This work may not be one of his best sellers, but you would be disturbed to know what fashion of people are publishing and buying it.
The Calvinist looking for red meat in support of the doctrines of grace may well be satiated by reading “The Bondage of the Will”, but he should know full well that the same mind also wrote, “The Jews And Their Lies”.
Biographies and bibliographies ought to play a bigger role in formulating our theologies than a leader’s posthumous P.R. machine. Nancy Isenberg, author of the Aaron Burr biography, “Fallen Founder” surmises that the Vice President was every bit as glorious as other early leaders of our Republic, but has been unfairly assigned the role of historic villian not so much out of merit, but for lack of P.R. In other words, no one cared about Burr’s legacy after his demise, but the friends and family of his political enemies certainly did.
After reading “The Jews And Their Lies” for myself I am going to need a lot more convincing this hateful diatribe was the result of Luther’s bitter twilight…caused by the bigamy scandal of Philip of Hesse, rocky relationships, and some minor health concerns.
“The Jews And Their Lies” is the product of the sin of racism and racism’s resulting flawed theology.
The very passion and snark with which Luther argues his points also undermine him. For example, those who agree with his sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism fire Luther quotes on Twitter with great relish. Luther said, after all!
Indeed, Luther found many ways for people to be guilty of the blood of Christ. One such way was to have a meal with a Jew,
“I might devour many Devils, as for a certainty I would become partaker of all the Devils who live in that Jew, and would spit upon the precious blood of Christ, God keep me from doing that!” ~ The Jews And Their Lies
Wait… If I partake of communion without believing Luther’s thoughts on the Lord’s Supper I have “despised the sacraments” and am guilty of the blood of Christ, and by the same token, if I eat a meal with a person of Jewish descent I am also guilty of the blood of Christ?
Certainly using strong language in regards to an absurd bowl of wrong does not necessarily mean that he is wrong to use similarly strong language on another topic, but it does make one wonder if one should take his words with a grain of salt. Given the over the top language Luther uses for so many seemingly mundane topics he must either have been equally convicted about all the topics he wrote about, or was perhaps a bit of a literary showman.
Luther is a hero of mine. The Reformation was desperately needed, but we do ourselves harm when we fail to take all his writings into consideration when we use his work to formulate our own theology. His bad theology must effect to some degree the theology many would classify as “good”.
The many important and true things Luther wrote are nonetheless tinged, by that book. It too is ever out there, floating around.
Another example: when Lutherans and other Amillennialists use Luther as fodder against Dispensational belief that God will grant the land promises as well as beautiful repentance to ethnic Israel, one can only nod and agree. Luther most certainly did not believe God would grant any good thing to the Jews (although he did seem to wish that they would go back to Jerusalem as a way to rid Germany of their presence). Luther was a full blown advocate of Replacement Theology,
“Do you hear, Jew, do you know that your principality together with the temple and the priesthood are destroyed now for 1460 years? For this year, as we Christians write after the birth of Christ 1543, it is exactly 1469 years, and is thus going on 1500 years since Vespasianus and Titus destroyed Jerusalem and expelled the Jews from it.” On this little nut let the Jews bite and dispute among themselves as long as they want to.
For such terrible wrath of God is sufficient proof that they certainly must be in error and doing wrong; even a child can grasp that. For no one should think of God so terrible that He would punish his own nation so unmercifully and keep silent by neither comforting words nor indicating the duration or end of such misery! Who would want to believe in such a God, hope in Him, or trust in Him? Therefore, this wrath leads to the conclusion that the Jews are certainly rejected by God and are not His people any more, and He also is not their God anymore…” ~ The Jews And Their Lies
Luther’s racism prevented him from taking God’s promises to ethnic Israel seriously. After reading “The Jews And Their Lies” it becomes clear that Martin Luther was so limited by his anti-semitic worldview that he would have had no category whatsoever for Dispensationalism… just as generations of monastic Roman Catholic priests before him would have had no category for the Reformation.
Appealing to Luther against certain tenets of Dispensational theology is unconvincing because Luther was blinded by hatred for ethnic Israel.
Luther’s scorn of an entire race of people obviously does not in and of itself make Dispensational views true, Luther’s scorn, however, does mean he is not the theologian to appeal to in an attempt to disprove Dispensational theology.
What then is to be done? It is a slippery slope named judgment to read every word a man wrote and to say to one’s self, “Amen, but…he was a terrible husband!”, or “never mind, he was a filthy racist!”. Every regenerated theologian is marred by Adam, and restored by Christ. Indeed, it must be humbly argued that the only way any of us writes something beautiful, true and helpful is by the grace of the Divine.
I suggest we end where we began. Let us couple our love for theology with love for unbiased biography and bibliography. What a shame it would be if we determined the legacy of our theological heros by the P.R. machines they left behind? Some books are heralded and published without end, others… nary a whisper. This gives us an inaccurate view of a person’s theology. We must ask ourselves whether a person’s theology came from careful study of the Bible, or from prejudice.
As for me, I will place Martin Luther’s “The Jews And Their Lies” right next to Martin Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will”, they must sit together on the bookshelf.