Paradoxology Part 3: Lutherans Mishandling Paradox

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Click here for Part 1
Click here for Part 2

Falling into one error by overzealously avoiding another is a perennial human failing. Particularly when it comes to paradox, it’s easy to fall off onto one extreme by trying to avoid the other. Lutherans attempt to avoid this by performing a balancing act and are proud of doing so. But pride goes before a fall, and nobody is immune to this failing even as we try to avoid it. We will therefore look at a distinctly Lutheran error in handling paradox: protecting it by means of rejecting reason.

As we saw in Part 2, paradoxes are not contradictions and therefore accepting them does not necessitate rejecting reason. Nevertheless, paradox is difficult to accept primarily because our reason wants—nay, needs—to understand; understanding is, after all, the very thing our reason is for. It makes a kind of sense that Lutherans would be inclined to keep reason at arm’s length. And so when paradoxes are brought up, many (not all) Lutherans react by telling us that our wicked and fallen reason must be distrusted, ignored and rejected. Many go so far as to imply in their protests that our reason is only right in the way a stopped clock is (occasionally, but merely by coincidence). But do such actions really preserve paradox?

Ultimately, reason is what makes paradox possible in the first place. You can never have a puzzle without any rules. You cannot play Sudoku by writing any number or letter you want into the squares. You can’t play a crossword puzzle by disregarding the clues and the rules of spelling. Once you do so, the puzzle ceases to exist. In the same way, rather than protecting the paradox, keeping reason at too great a distance will ultimately destroy it. We can see this happening in the way many Lutherans treat one of the most important paradoxes in the Christian faith—the theology of the cross.

When man imagines God on his own, he does so according to a theology of glory. God’s favor is seen in victory, prosperity and every kind of worldly success. His wrath is seen in defeat, failure, sickness, and want. When this thinking is placed in the hands of sinful man, we go further and insert ourselves at the top of this theology. If we experience prosperity, we think it must be because God is rewarding us. If we’re experiencing sorrow, we think it must be because He is punishing us.

And yet, how does our glorious God visit His creation? Rather than in power & riches, He is born in a stable of a poor unwed mother, grows up a carpenter before becoming an itinerant preacher, drives most of his followers away, and is then tortured to death. Jesus is simply not anything we would have come up with ourselves, nor does he offer his followers what we would expect. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that Christians are to expect suffering—not in spite of God’s favor but because of it (e.g. 1 Pet. 4:12-19). Not only are we to expect it, we are to actually rejoice in it. As Luther put it, “A theologian of the cross… teaches that punishments, crosses, and death are the most precious treasury of all… Indeed fortunate and blessed is he who is considered by God to be so worthy that these treasures of the relics of Christ should be given to him… For not all have this grace and glory to receive these treasures, but only the most elect children of God” (AE 31:225-26).

So far so good, but how do some Lutherans make a defense to those who embrace a theology of glory but reject a theology of the cross? Rather than object to making ourselves the driving force behind God’s behavior, they often say instead that the theology of glory is “merely” our fallen and corrupt reason talking. They go on to suggest that reason simply cannot tell us whether prosperity is good or suffering bad. Consider these examples: I recently read a blog post in which a Lutheran pastor condemned Christians for publicly thanking God when a hurricane missed their town because that same hurricane struck a neighboring community instead. He thought that we cannot tell whether God showed any favor to the town that was spared because admitting that would imply He disfavored the town that was struck—far better to remove God from the equation entirely. I’ve heard other Lutherans echo such thoughts. Other times, I have been told by Lutheran pastors that while reason tells us that suffering is an evil, our fallen and corrupt reason is wrong and should be disregarded in such cases. One’s child dying of cancer, for example, is not really an evil no matter what his lying eyes tell him—that horrifying death is actually a treasure, as Luther says (ignoring the context of those comments). Reason, we are told, is blind to God’s glory. We can only see goodness as it is revealed in Christ through Scripture, not through anything else at all.

Scripture, one the other hand, denies what these folks tell us. David says that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). Paul says “What can be known about God is plain to [sinful men], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made… Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom1:19-20, 22). Scripture itself attests that even our fallen reason is quite capable of discerning God’s glory and distinguishing good from evil to some extent—in our faithlessness and corruption, we simply reject what it shows us inasmuch as we find it convenient to do so.

Even those Lutherans who are typified by the examples recognize this if you press them. The one condemning the thankful Christians would no doubt admit that Scripture is reliable when it informs us that God is the source of all good things, and we should not be hesitant to thank Him when we prosper. When we continue to live and move and have our being, we do so in Him and He is deserving of thanks. The theology of the cross is meant to provide comfort in our distress, not ambivalence in our prosperity. The ones who say we cannot really know that the death and disease we suffer are bad still teach that God has promised to wipe every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). This is why no pastor would tell a parishioner who is dying of cancer that after he dies and wakes up in heaven suffering from that same cancer, he’ll get to rejoice in that suffering for all eternity. In their hearts, most of these Lutherans do not deny what Scripture affirms about our reason’s ability to discern goodness. They only seem to with their mouths in reaction to threats to the theology of the cross.

But this is precisely why the theology of the cross is a paradox, and it is here that we begin to see what happens if one tries to protect the paradox by rejecting reason. It has two points: 1) prosperity & justice are good while suffering & wickedness are evil, and 2) a good God often gives his favored righteous children suffering instead of prosperity. As is often the case with paradox, reason is much more sympathetic to some points than others (in this case, #1 is clearly more intuitive). The more one tries to keep his distance from reason, the more he absentmindedly rejects one of the points of the paradox. Rather than protecting it, he destroys it an a way that most Lutherans are not on guard against. After all, because reason typically assumes #1, we are used to insisting on #2 and taking #1 completely for granted. But things taken for granted are often neglected and then forgotten—particularly with respect to reason in postmodern times (we will consider the consequences in part 4 of this series). If we try to protect paradox by rejecting reason, we still end up rejecting what Scripture tells us and opening ourselves up to further error.

Both parts of this paradox are beautifully framed in Revelation 6:9-11:

I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Here the Christian martyrs cry out for justice and vindication against the evil that had been done to them—the kind of obvious good we imagine according to a the theology of glory. They are not denied this (just read the rest of Revelation); these dead saints who have left behind their sinful nature are not asking for anything wrong. While some Lutherans might be inclined to say that such desires are “only” reason talking, the martyrs are actually affirmed that what they suffered was deserving of judgment and are merely told to wait a little bit longer. And yet, for what do they wait? For more martyrs! For more evil to befall God’s elect. How do these reconcile? We do not really know except that they do so in Christ and in our baptism into His death. The theology of the cross does not answer the problem of evil—it only asks us to suffer it.

There is therefore a tension between God’s promises and reason’s judgment that suffering is bad. But there is tension precisely because reason is correct when it makes such judgments! If we reject reason, we reject the paradox rather than protecting it. We can hold both sides only because we recognize that reason does not stand alone. For faith receives what reason can never grasp: God’s promise that all things work together to good for those who love Him (Rom 8:28). And so we are given and must retain two points in tension by acknowledging both reason and the fact that reason does not stand alone. We keep reason in its place—powerless against God’s promises no matter how we’re tempted to use it to undermine them—but we do not reject or ignore it. The theology of the cross is not a simple statement that we cannot tell the difference between good and evil; it is a paradox in which God redeems sufferings that really are evil into new things that really are good.

But why is this a problem? If the Lutherans who make this mistake only seem to reject the paradox rather than doing so intentionally, is it really a big deal (particularly when it’s an obvious point)? In the next post in this series on paradox, we will examine what it means to handle both reason and paradox together rightly—and the dire consequences of failing to do so.

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