Steadfast Flacius — Affliction Brings Knowledge

To many Matthias Flacius was a fiendish swine, but to others he was considered the second greatest theologian of the Reformation. That was the judgment of C.F.W. Walther, in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, and who are we to argue with the patriarch of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod?

Flacius, like Luther before him, was made into a theologian in the school of the Holy Spirit, through suffering and affliction. And as with anyone who has been baked in the furnace of God’s red hot love the intensity of such suffering and affliction can only be soothed by the Word of God itself. And so it was that the Scriptures not only grounded Flacius in the Spirit and the Truth, it produced through him one of the finest tomes to spring from the Reformation, the Clavis Scripturae Sacrae, “Key to Sacred Scripture.”

The primary section of this work was “How to Understand the Sacred Scriptures,” and at its heart was Psalm 119:71: “It is good that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.”

For Flacius, as it had been for his professor, Martin Luther, Scripture was best understood by those who were tested and suffered affliction in the school of the Holy Spirit. Because, as Luther and Flacius could both agree, “what is true of the supreme exegete, the Word of God Himself, should also be true of us, his members (Rom. 8:29, 2 Cor. 3:18).”

In his own formulation of how to properly understand God’s Word then, one finds Flacius agreeing with Luther’s emphasis on human passivity and divine activity. For Flacius it was the Holy Spirit who was the author and interpreter of God’s Word. The Spirit of God who led a man into all truth (John 16:13). He wrote the Word of God on a man’s heart (Jeremiah 31:33) and not one thing he attempted to do by himself in the interpretation of the Scriptures would allow a man to apprehend the true intent and meaning of Scripture nor find its true subject: Christ Jesus whom every word of the Scriptures testified about. And as for those passages which appeared obscure or confusing Flacius provided “remedies” which, like the rest of the tome, were based on Luther’s three-fold principle of Scriptural interpretation: prayer (oratio), meditation [on God’s Word] (meditatio) and affliction (tentatio, Anfechtungen) as exemplified by David in Psalm 119[:71].

Thus, in his “remedies” for obstacles and disadvantages that prevented one from understanding the sacred Scriptures, Flacius’ first remedy was this:

The first remedy to be sought before all else and with the highest zeal is certainly the only font of all good, the heavenly Father Himself, who draws us to the Son; and the Son, revealed to us from the bosom of the Father, who for us is the Door, the Truth, and the Way to the Father; and finally the Holy Spirit whose particular gift it is to lead us into the whole truth, make us theodidaktoi, or taught by God, and supply us with genuine and salutary thoughts in all our study and effort.

Flacius followed this almost immediately in his fourth and fifth remedies by stressing the importance of prayer and meditation on God’s Word for understanding. He wrote:

The fourth remedy is persistent meditation upon and study of the divine law. For “persistent labor conquers all” and nothing is difficult for the willing. And for that reason, our only Teacher, Jesus, urges us to search the Scriptures (John 5:39). And it is the way and nature of the truly pious to ponder with the highest dedication and desire the law of the Lord and to take it in hand day and night, so that they are instructed through the reading of good authors.

Then, in remedy five:

The fifth remedy is ardent prayer. Whatever indeed we ask, we will receive, and the Lord will in the end at the right time graciously open that which is closed to the one knocking. By the enkindled light of the Holy Spirit, He will enlighten and flesh out for us who are led by His hand that which is obscure.

As it had been for Luther so it was with Flacius. There was no middle ground where one could stand, free from the overbearing work of the Holy Spirit. There is nowhere a man can go to casually contemplate the meaning and intent of Scripture for himself. One didn’t interpret Scripture. He didn’t apply law and Gospel. He didn’t teach and preach the Word of God by choice. In divine matters one was always perfectly passive and there was nothing he could do about it except rebel against this intrusion of the Holy Spirit into every corner of his being, undergoing suffering and affliction as a result. Only the heart enlightened and led by God’s Spirit was drawn to continual meditation and prayer for understanding of God’s Word. And, the human heart, overgrown with the thistles and thorns of sin, must be pruned by God if there is to be any hope of understanding. That is:

It is necessary for God Himself to prune and to illumine the hearts of those who otherwise have a heart not perceiving, eyes not seeing, and ears not hearing. For this reason, this teaching wants its hearer to know in every circumstance that, despairing of himself, he must beg God to open his eyes and grant him an aptitude for the achievement for such knowledge.

Finally, in his section on, “Rules for Understanding the Sacred Scriptures Taken from the Scriptures Themselves,” Flacius wrote:

Affliction gives knowledge (Isaiah 28:19). “It is good that I am afflicted, that I might learn Your statutes.” (Psalm 119:71). Affliction and the cross are therefore very beneficial for gaining understanding of God and His Word.


Associate Editor’s Note – With this post we introduce our readers to a new writer at BJS – Pastor Donavon Riley.  Pastor Riley will be contributing to many different categories, especially this one, “Steadfast Flacius” to introduce our readers to a great father we have in the Faith, a layman who was a great theologian.

Pr. Riley was born and raised in Minnesota. After graduating from Ely High School he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Concordia University, St. Paul. Following his conversion in 1996 he served as a missionary in Baja California before returning to the United States to earn a pre-sem degree from Concordia University, Portland. While at Concordia, Portland he met his future wife. They returned to Minnesota to be married followed by his enrollment at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. While at Luther, Pr. Riley received an academic MDiv then went on to earn (but not defend) a graduate thesis on Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. During his graduate work he was invited to apply for colloquy into the ordained ministry in the LC-MS which he did. He was ordained at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Webster, MN., in 2007. Pr. Riley and his wife recently celebrated the birth of their fourth child.


Steadfast Flacius — Affliction Brings Knowledge — 4 Comments

  1. I just got my copy of Faith and Act. In reading it last night I came across this quotation:

    …four boys had to genuflect at the altar in the castle church of Mansfeld during the words “and became man” (Et incarnatus est) in order to defend against Flacian error.

    This is footnoted:

    …Also according to the 1573 Hoya church order, three boys were to genuflect at the altar during the Et incarnatus est… …The Flacian error refers to the teaching of Matthias Flacius that original sin is not a quality (accidens) of human nature, but its essense (substantia), which he expressed in the 1560 Weimar Disputation in opposition to the errors of Victorian Strigel concerning original sin and the freedom of man’s will. The Flacian error was rejected in 1577 in Article 1 of the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration 1, 26ff.), along with other errors concerning original sin, while the errors concerning free will were rejected in Article 2.

  2. Flacius’ was trying to explain the relational concept of our status before God being totally fallen. There’s no part in us that still relates properly to God or has faith in him. Our righteousness is not the same as our goodness as creatures.

    The problem is with the idea of how the concept of substance was used after Augustine is that if “being=good” you have to conceptualize us having something “leftover” (so to speak) that God finds good and attractive. It’s only a matter of time then before you begin to think like Occam that if being is good, and goodness is leftover in us, then we can contribute a little something towards the re-establishment of our relationship with God. When applied to the doctrine of creation, this isn’t actually so bad. In Augustine’s context, he was trying to fight Manicheans who denied the doctrine of creation, and so this made sense. As it came to be applied to the concept of free will and grace, it had terrible effects.

    So, Flacius was just trying to operate within a conceptual terminology that did fit with the new insight of the gospel. In fact, he actually was quite explicit about the fact that he was re-defining the term “substance” in relation to the question. The others said “well, that’s fine, but you’re using it in a different way than anyone else has ever used that term. So you’re right, but you need to start explain yourself more clearly and not using the term that way so that people stop misunderstanding you.” Flacius refused (and I think I know why).

    In the whole Interim situation he had refused to compromise and he won in the end by being stubborn. So he figured things would work the same way again. Unfortunately he was wrong.

  3. I received my copy of How to Understand the Sacred Scriptures directly at a WELS Pastors’ Institute in July 2012 where Pastor Wade Johnston gave several very good presentations. It is a short but very engaging read on Flacius.

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