He Who Would Help Himself With His Own Works… – Hans Iwand’s Use of Luther’s Romans Lectures as a Critique of Karl Barth and Nineteenth Century Liberal Protestant Theology
When Hans Joachim Iwand took the podium during his 1941 lectures the dust had yet to settle from Barth’s explosive critique of nineteenth century liberal theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology in particular. Iwand’s colleagues requested that he address the question Barth and others had raised about Christian faith and its relation to ethics in their attack on liberal Protestant theology. They requested that he address specifically the relation between faith and good works.
Unlike Barth, Iwand scrutinized the church at the outset of the twentieth century using the evangelical nuances which had punctuated Martin Luther’s understanding of the relationship between faith and works, specifically the distinction between Christian faith and the Greek ethos.
From the first Iwand asserted that Luther’s position provided a necessary counter to the materialist ethic of nineteenth century Protestantism. Luther, he argued, understood ethics as personal rather than material. Good and evil are predicated on the person, not the work. The work is indifferent. As Luther writes:
“We confess that good works must follow faith, yes, not only must, but follow voluntarily, just as a good tree not only must produce good fruits, but does so freely. Just as good fruits do not make the tree good, so good works do not justify the person. But good works come from a person who has already been justified beforehand by faith, just as good fruits come from a tree which is already good beforehand by nature.”
The question is not, “How are good works possible?” or, “How does a person become good?” Instead, the vital question is, “How is the sinner justified?” The answer clings entirely to faith. That is, again, “the deed does not make the person, but the person does the deed; the law does not create the deed, but informs it.” So, “even if I cannot understand how they may be separated from each other, I still know for a fact and it is most certain that the deed does not make the person, but the person the deed.”
As Iwand explained, Luther’s distinction was that “if a person were free to shape creaturely life by himself then he would also be the creator of his own spiritual personality. But that is an anti-Christian point of view and one that goes against God for those who are under the law.”
Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and even Karl Barth had failed to appreciate the deception worked on the old man in Adam by the law. Schleiermacher especially did not recognize that “whoever would help himself with his own works is playing creator to himself – he wants to create himself – he wants to be his own god.”
Schleiermacher had distanced God from creaturely life. He dislocated the righteousness of faith from Jesus’ cross. In Schleiermacher’s theology, having neglected the historical import of the crucifixion, the law became the final defining character, essence, and nature of the deity even into eternity. Iwand saw this as the deepest loss of modern man. That for all their reason and effort the way to new life for creatures, the “faith alone” asserted by Paul, had been disguised through a confusion of immutable law and irrevocable promise in the synthesis of Greek humanist ethics and Christian faith. So, to clear away some of the murkiness Iwand plunged Luther’s categorical method (of thesis/antithesis) into the synthetic Enlightenment suppositions about faith and works.
For Iwand, following Luther’s lead, the righteousness of faith is located not in creaturely life or work but only extra nos, that is, in Christo. It is not, Luther writes, “through doing what is right are we righteous, but through the fact that we are justified we are able to do what is right.” That is, “one does not become righteous by doing righteous deeds. No, one does righteous deeds after becoming righteous.”
The Gorgon’s knot of Aristotelian philosophy is cut loose from Christianity at exactly this point. Iwand saw in Luther’s attack upon late medieval scholastic theology that at its heart he was encountering the place where,
“the basic teachings of Greek ethics had been taken over by Christianity, namely, with the concept that virtue takes practice and discipline. For the Greeks, virtue meant ability that was won through steadfast and conscious practice in doing right. Strength and steadfastness of the soul acquired in this way builds character through a person’s habit – his habitus. Only through carefully planned undertakings that are supported by a wise education are we able to begin to develop the kind of habits that are characteristic of virtue.”
Iwand understood that the Greek system of virtue had been and continued to be such a convincing ideal that the church simply merged it with the righteousness of faith. What results is that, “since man exercises himself in the practice of the chief Christian virtues, he attains to an inner being or condition of his nature that may be considered righteous.”
The creature can thus regain what he had lost, his right standing before God, his righteousness. Hereafter, it was possible, even necessary, to base the practical pursuit of virtue in the supportive structures of a grace theology that assisted one in carrying out God’s will.
For Iwand, as Luther, this is nothing other than the works of the law driving the historical event of the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus underground. The relationship of sinner to Christ Jesus is made over into an abstract theme wherein active creatures speak equitably with a passive God. This is the wellspring of the Greek ethos. In the Christian faith the God’s effective promise of the forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ pro nobis terminated different forms of righteousness.
Iwand then concluded his lecture by allowing Luther to assert his own theological conclusion for the necessary distinction between Christian faith and Greek ethos, justifying faith and heavenly virtue, when he states that this is our theology,
“by which we teach to distinguish both forms of righteousness – the active and the passive – so that morality and faith; works and grace; be kept within their appropriate boundaries. Christian righteousness concerns the new person – the righteousness of the Law applies to the old person who is born out of flesh and blood. One has to put the feedbag on him like on an ass so that he is forced to eat and cannot take in the freedom of the Spirit and of Grace… I say this so that no one thinks that we would want to do away with good works or hinder them. We set up, so to speak, two worlds – a heavenly one and an earthly one – and in both of these we situate both forms of righteousness, but keep them strictly apart and distant from each other.”
The legal righteousness – the righteousness of the “you should” – says Iwand, summarizing Luther’s teaching about faith and works in the Romans lectures,
“belongs to the earth and has to do with earthly things, and through it we do accomplish good works. But just as the earth brings forth nothing unless it is fed by sunlight and water from heaven, so we also are not able to do anything – even if we do a lot according to the legal righteousness and fulfill the letter of the law by our actions – if we are not already righteous beforehand – without works and actions – which is the power of Christian righteousness that has nothing to do with the law of an active, earthly righteousness. For it is the heavenly, the passive (righteousness), that we don’t have and that we must receive from heaven. It is not what we do, but what we grasp in faith, whereby we rise above all law and works. For, as Paul says, just as we carried the likeness of the old Adam, so also will we have the likeness of a heavenly creation – a new creation in the new world of God where there is no law, no sin, no conscience, no death, but full joy, justice, grace, freedom, life healing, and glory.”
By separating the two forms of righteousness Iwand intended to re-assert the previous Reformation doctrine that separated the confession of the imposters and anti-Christians from the Church for, “every church must know what kind of righteousness it teaches and proclaims.”
Free from the needs of the conscience – the judgment of “my works” – the Christian is also free to serve the needs of the neighbor. Then “this law, this cycle of ‘I’ and works and conscience would indeed be broken and I could confront the works that wait for me, knowing God’s judgment supports me, with the confidence of a master who commands his slaves.” The freedom “of the children of God who do work simply that it may be done, but who do not need to do any work at all in order to know that they live by God’s grace,” are freed by the power of the resurrection promise, to continue the attack on their own errant conscience, wherein my works and my accomplishments and my sin struggle against the fetters of the new creation in Christ. Only then, concluded Iwand, will life not be measured by the extent to which it is pacified or threatened by my conviction of righteousness.
“Grace, compassion, love, and mercy are words we like to hear. They are ‘evangelical’ words.” But, Iwand explains,
“if righteousness is the essence of the new revelation in Christ Jesus, then are not all other things contained in it; love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion? Haven’t we already understood what the Gospel is or what righteousness is? After all, they are the two pillars upon which the righteousness of men before God rests.
However, not until both the Gospel and God’s righteousness come together – not until we seek them both in the Gospel – and not until God’s righteousness is for us the content of the Good News that calls us to faith will we have understood the whole Gospel.”
Until the life ending, life-renewing word of the righteous One is heard the Church will continue in the murky grays of practice and progress. Confusing heavenly virtue for the righteousness of faith. Living from the necessities of the conscience rather than for the needs of the neighbor. Never distinguishing between faith and works in such a way that ethics can be crucified in Christ Jesus, put to death, terminated, overturned, and get its due. Simultaneously, in the breadth of the resurrection promise the work is affirmed through one’s vocation, set in its proper place within creation keeping sinners awake and alert in the currents of life, so that by faith, Jesus’ public sacrifice, not virtue, becomes our defining center in all matters pertaining to faith in God and work for our neighbors.
All quotes in this article are taken from The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther, by Hans Joachim Iwand.
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