Reading the Formula of Concord one quickly discovers that at the time two basic questions for Lutherans kept arising: what happens to my “me” in salvation, and don’t I have to do something? We answer quickly and in order: “death and resurrection; and nothing at all…”
But staying with these questions one will learn that the great insight of Martin Luther and the chief article of the Reformation, justification by faith alone, has proved enormously difficult for the tradition that bears Luther’s namesake — there has always been one group whose shipwrecked on the question of “substance” – correctly a crisis for Lutheran theology, that refused applying death and resurrection to our persons — and a second group which has historically shipwrecked on the last cry of the dying Adam: “If you cut me do I not bleed, if you save me, do I not at least cooperate?—I’m not a block of wood, am I?”
This brings us up against the Flacian—original Sin controversy. It was formally a crisis of substance categories for sin and righteousness. Or, as I call it, “Defending the Spark” as the last resort of scoundrels. It was a first article debate, but not first historically — this is part of a bigger matter called “Synergism,” that at the time reflected growing theological concerns by Philip Melanchthon and his students about the veracity of objective justification.
Thus one reads in the Formula the students of Melanchthon fighting amongst themselves over this matter, and occasionally against Luther’s own students—all to fine tune justification by faith alone apart from works of the law.
One of Melanchthon’s students, Viktorin Strigel, started experimenting during his classroom lectures and decided to call sin an “accident,” of the human—even though it is “horrible” rather than a “substance,” in order, he thought, to protect the goodness of God’s creation, while still taking sin seriously. This is an attempt to use an old way of describing “being,” by Aristotle to identify what was dignified about human beings—even while they are sinning.
This completely misses the point of the Confessional understanding of sin—not trusting God’s word. A relational and biblical way of describing sin. So instead of flesh and Spirit, and as St. Paul distinguishes in 2 Corinthians, old and new, in this article we end up battling on foreign soil: Aristotle’s distinction of accident and essence. That is, that which makes a thing what it is, without which it is not; and that which adheres to an essence, but could be changed or lost without affecting the essence. When this is done, one will be swinging rather wildly between two heresies: Pelagianism and Manichaenism: one side trying to say as much bad about our condition as possible, and on the other trying to preserve some powers that we can call “good.”
This does two important and bad things: one is to consider justification as a process that has a beginning, middle and end—a story, in which the sinner is being changed, but something in him doesn’t change—original goodness. So, predictably, Strigel went back to the notion of “original righteousness,” and, following Anselm, sin as a loss, a “lack of a corruption of nature.” So, when the Bible says, “You have died with Christ,” Strigel tames that to mean that the sinner “died to the good.”
The second important thing is that inevitably the body gets identified with the basic problem, or tinder, that remains of sin even after baptism—the soul comes out squeaky clean—or at least has a “spark.” This is the real Manichaenism, that the body is evil and the soul chooses sides between evil and good.
Flacius, our Gnesio-Lutheran hero was Strigel’s colleague, and saw the problem coming from miles away—Strigel was starting to defend “the spark,” in humans to let the free-will return from its exile, into Lutheran theology and preaching. A Disputation was set up at Weimar (1560) between Strigel and Flacius.
Strigel started braying about “substance” and “accident,” so that he could say sin had no effect on our internal choosing mechanism, the supposed “image of God,” and so sin did no more than impede the free will. Then Strigel set his trap: He asked if sin, according to Flacius, was a substance or accident.
If Flacius says sin is not simply an “accident” but an “essence,” then he would seem to be calling God’s good stuff of creation evil, and if he agreed with Strigel, that sin is merely an accident– not only is Lutheranism done for, but so is a real sinner. What should he have said? Neither—sin is being under God’s eternal wrath, not trusting God to be God for you, which ends in death to the sinner. But as Christ was raised, so are we in faith itself, trusting that Christ’s righteousness not our own makes us right with God.
But Flacius charged right in like a preacher instead of a a sophist, and correctly identified sin as an essence according to Strigel’s way of setting it up—and announced that Strigel had better repent of this whole mess or lose his faith–but then the trap was set, he was hung by his petards on the charge of Manichaenism.
Flacius said: “no difference at all between human nature or the human essence and original sin.” Here we hear him declaring that human essence equals original sin. That looks like a denial of God’s good creation.
Of course what Flacius is trying to do is maintain our theology of the cross, in which Luther observed that it was not the lower pull of bodily desires alone or even mostly, that caused sin, it was all that was highest and best about us, especially reason and will that actively oppose God. The best things are used badly because they can’t trust God, and so actively work at trusting not-God. Luther, called this sort of thing “nature” or “person-sin.”
When the whole person is under the wrong Lord, even your best is used in the cause of evil. There better be another relationship with God than through the law, because according to it, when I look at my members its nothing but sin as far as the eye can see. Further, if sin were an accident, then salvation would not be a new creation, but an accident too—it could change just as sin changed, and then where is faith? Back we go with no certainty!
Both men are thus right to be condemned for their assertions during the debate, but for Flacius’ sake we add the warning that only the experts could handle tricky Aristotelian language. When it comes to preaching stick with the Bible—fine advice.