A Dutchman's Lectures

by Phil Johnson

Report on the Hieko Oberman Lectures, Luther Northwestern Theological School, January 5 and 6, 1987.

Hieko Oberman is one of the leading Luther scholars in the world. He teaches at the University of Arizona and also at the University of Tubingen. He is a Al well built man who wore a striking blue suit and vest. We had to listen hard to understand him partly because of an accent but mostly because of the way the voices reverberated in the new seminary chapel. His lectures were well worth straining to hear.

He was introduced by James Nestingen of Luther Seminary who, I am glad to say, has been one of my teachers there. Jim informed us that Luther once said of a Dutchman (Jim must have meant. Erasmus who was from Rotterdan) that he served manure in silver dishes. Professor Nestingen said he was introducing another Dutchman today who "knows what to do with the silverware".

As I look through my notes I realize how dense with thought and material these lectures were and I wonder what I should tell you. First of all, I was surprised that his first lecture was devoted almost entirely to Augustine since it was entitled "Frontiers of Modern Luther Research". In the context of both lectures, this discussion of Augustine turned out to be interesting and appropriate. He made me realize how great Augustine was. This was good for me since I have had a prejudice against, and a dislike of, Augustine for some time. Augustine had seemed to me to be a pompous blowhard. For example, as Oberman pointed out, he outlawed the poor Donatists who were rural people, nice honest folks. Augustine did not understand the language of the people of North Africa. He looked to Rome and Milan for discussion and audience rather than to the people of Hippo. Oberman also observed that Augustine opened the door for force and persecution as methods of correcting and saving souls. He said of heretics and unbelievers, "Compel them to come in" based upon Luke 14:23 and based upon pragmatic examples of people who became Christians by being forced. I recall that he is famous for the statement, "He who does not have the Church for a Mother cannot have God as a Father." That statement has never sat well with me. Though I have come to discover that this proposition can provide an interesting take on things, I have never thought it was true, especially if it means that membership in a Church is necessary for salvation. It has been one of my reasons for not appreciating Augustine.

There are a couple more things to consider before we get to the positive side. I have never liked the way Augustine dealt with Pelagius, his contemporary, who contended for free will and human participation in receiving salvation. I confess a soft spot for Pelagius, even though I know that Luther was at least as strong against Pelagius as Augustine was. Oberman also spoke about Augustine's attitudes toward Jews and women. The Jews, according to Augustine, were the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son. They were a "murderous race". He said of women that you could love them for being human after you had learned to hate them for being women. He thought that libido was the product of sin, that sexual desire was located only in the female and evoked in the male. (Having from his own pen the account of his own experiences with women and sex, it is difficult not to make a few cracks at this point. The Dutchman resisted.) These matters — women, heretics and Jews — Oberman called Augustine's darker dimensions.

In light of this, what could be redeeming about the man? One of the most important things is his thought that only what love searches will the intellect find, that appreciation precedes evaluation, that nothing worthwhile is fully known that is not truly loved. I take these words to be a description of reality, not a moral conclusion about what ought to be. It is the case that you can't be truly human, which is the aim of knowledge and learning, without first being moved by want and love. Without love, the essential element is missing. Haven't we all discovered this? A similar recognition is revealed by the words of the Tao, "If the teacher is not loved and the student is not respected, confusion will arise no matter how clever one is."

Another redeeming contribution was, as Oberman said, that Augustine was driven by love, "Love and do what you want" was attributed to him and compared, by our speaker, with Luther's statement "Believe and do what you want to." Oberman referred to these insights as the "immoral message of the Gospel". Am I in trouble if I say that this is exciting?

In this connection I can mention Luther's statement, referred to by the big Dutchman, that there was at least as much sin on the protestant side as on the Roman side. Luther did not attack Rome for sin, but for lack of Gospel.

A few more things from Oberman before we leave Augustine. It was Gospel, according to Augustine, that God elects sinners, not the just. God's work is prevenient so that our justice or righteousness has nothing to do with it. There is a secret command center in our preconscious will that attracts and delights the will. It tickles a person. Feeling, according to Augustine, is the radar of the intellect. Feeling and desire come before our conscious wills. They are prevenient. When Augustine looked back on his life, he saw that it was God who moved him. Thus he finds himself looking back in gratitude and prayer. Predestination is the looking back in thanksgiving from the end of the quest. It is of no help in unraveling things when you stand in the present, looking forward with an open mind to a quest that is before you. The mistake that is made, if I understand what Oberman was saying, is to take predestination metaphysically. This sounds promising as a help in getting some better understanding than I have about predestination. Luther as well as Augustine is a bear on this. I can refer you to The Bondage of the Will from which I have only read parts but which I can tell you is a strongly worded document.

Professor Oberman's second lecture entitled "Luther: Challenge to Contemporary Theology," was equally loaded. He began by inviting us to travel back over the historical landscape to the late middle ages, discarding our hidden consensus factors and presuppositions. As I like to say, we need to make ourselves ignorant of what has happened subsequent to the moment in time of the lives of the persons whose thoughts we are trying to relive through the agency of the historical imagination. (This idea is spelled out in an excellent way by R.G. Collingwood in his book The Idea of History. I noticed that Oberman referred to Collingwood once in his lecture.) When you clear your mind in this way, says Oberman, one thing you discover is that Luther never referred to himself as a reformer. Only Jesus could be the great reformator. From ancient days through the middle ages and into Luther's time sermons for the third Sunday of Advent were devoted to the theme Christ the Reformer. There are thousands of these sermons from Luther's time alone. Reading them convinces one that the role of reformer in the minds of the people of the 16th century was reserved for Christ and explains why Luther would not claim that title for himself. Oberman has actually read many of these sermons. (I gather that he has read all of Luther. He stated that there are only 2 people who have read all of Augustine [93 books, 8,000 pages of beautiful Latin] and 4 people who have read all of Luther, [over 100 volumes] from the man who valued the preached word far more highly than the written word.) I think that I have got this straight when I report that Luther said he would like all his books and writings thrown away except The Smaller Catechism, The Bondage of the Will, and The Smalcald Articles. Luther thought of himself, then, not as a reformer, but as a prophet and a forerunner of reformation. (Oberman has written a book, The Forerunners of the Reformation.) Luther was encouraged by the attacks of the devil because it showed that Gospel was present. The devil, according to Luther, had a very fine nose. He could smell a Christian from more than a thousand kilometers.

Professor Oberman said that in 1983, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth, he was frequently asked to give a lecture on "some such topic as 'Luther discovers the Gospel.'" He said this troubled him. Did this mean that no one had discovered the Gospel until Luther came along? This clearly was not true. There had been scores of witnesses to the Gospel before Luther. As he reflected on this and as he sharpened his historical skills to see the discoveries of Luther, he began to see that Luther's important discovery was that he discovered Satan.

Luther recognized Satan in 4 ways. 1) Satan was Dr. Consolator. If he attacks, you know you must preach the Gospel and that you are numbered among the Christians. Oberman said that Luther's interpretation was just the opposite of the interpretation portrayed on the tympanum over the doors of medieval churches. They portray calm, untroubled, sober Christians on the right and on the left non-Christian people being harried in every way by the devil. According to Luther, the Christians were on the left, where the devil had work to do. 2) The devil was the master of the conscience, constantly appealing to the commandments to accuse people. This could be turned to good use by appealing to the righteousness of Christ. 3) The devil is Princeps Mundi — the ruler of this world. This was an article of faith with Luther. Luther, said Oberman, went as far as you could go in the direction of dualism. God is hanging in there until the end of the world, Calvin, by contrast, viewed God as biding his time. 4)The devil is a sour spirit. The devil is a spirit of depression that wants to keep you in bed. Without "the salt" nothing can tempt you out. But get out, for God has provided some wonderful antidotes. Make music, dance, play cards, drink wine and beer and enjoy your libido, which was, according to Luther, God given to both men and women. I don't know if all of these remedies are stated by Luther or if some of them come from the Dutch lecturer. We were informed that Luther would almost always comment on the beer in each place that he stayed when writing to Katie. "Wonderful beer," he would write, or "God-awful beer." If all the remedies are from Luther, I wonder how Rosenius and Waldenström liked them. I know what my mother thought about them.

I have not given you a systematic outline of Dr. Oberman's lecture though he provided one. I have left out much. I hope, though, that this material has given you some of the flavor. For last I have saved one thing that I think is particularly important. Gabriel Biel, a theologian contemporary to Luther, wrote a commentary on the mass in which, as I understand it, he said that belief in the devil was a heresy. Oberman stated that if you cut out all the pages of Luther's writings in which he mentions the devil at least three times, the Weimar Edition of his works shrinks from 108 volumes to five. So it should not surprise us that Luther's response to Biel was that belief in the devil was not a heresy. What was a heresy, Luther said, was the belief' that the devil can become a human. The devil is jealous of God's ability in this regard and tries to create the pretense that he can become human. But only God can become human.