The Problem of Enthusiasm

Here is the second (of three papers) I will be presenting at the NID Fall Pastors Conference on the topic of: “Conscience, The Bound Will, Preaching, and The Care-taking of Souls.”

click here for the first paper

Smalcald Articles Part III, Articles 4-15: The Problem of Enthusiasm


images31     In the Smalcald Articles we began by noting the new sense of repentance as passive contrition. Something done to us by God. We also noted Luther’s recovery of the biblical understanding of conscience as one’s sense of standing in relation to God, the neighbor, and all creation. That opens up a new understanding and practice of pastoral care. The care-taking of souls is now tuned, not according to the dictates of one’s moral compass, but by justification’s distinguishing of law and Gospel. Preached absolution is now the way to care for Christian souls. The only way. That means the souls under a pastor’s care and their future depends upon an external word that we usually call “proclamation.”

2    Two key places in the Smalcald Articles stand out to help us understand what we mean by an external word and what this word is all about. Part III, Article 4: Concerning the Gospel: “…for God is superabundantly rich [and liberal] in His grace [and goodness]. First through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness if sins is preached [He commands to be preached] in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar, Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18, 20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc.” (Trig. 491, Of the Gospel). The other is Part III, Article 8: Concerning Confession: “And in those matters which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may [thus] be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word…” (Trig. 495.3)

3    Everyone but Martin Luther and the Lutherans worked from the [interior] self outward toward God, the neighbor, and all creation. Francis Bacon tried to get rid of false idols by working from the interior self outward. Immanuel Kant tried to work from the inside out to eliminate the need for more dogmas, arguing that all we need to guide our faith and life are the truths of human reason. Looking back further, Socrates worked from the inside out to remove the opinions of others, to seek that which a man can know by self examination. Plato used the analogy that one ought to work toward, ‘letting a midwife deliver the truth inside you.’ Or, to put it another way, we ought to be like an athlete in training, who disciplines his (inner) potentiality (seed) until it blossoms into actuality (a full tree). Imagine what Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed must read like to a pastor who holds a Platonic view of the self!

4    All of this is to say that skepticism drives us forward. What I can know for myself, within myself, that then functions as the main engine of my knowledge about God, neighbor, and creation. Skepticism guarantees I do not build on a false foundation. For the old man in Adam our greatest tool in life is skepticism. Your only way of being certain rests on what is immediately known within yourselves. “I think, therefore I am,” wrote Rene Descartes. Everyone to whom the pastor will be sent believes this myth; because the alternative is bondage and death.

5    In a strange way men’s religions and the churches have given birth to this Frankenstein’s monster. Then, as soon as they birth it, they try to cage it. That is, true repentance that alone can make you right with God after Baptism is an inner-movement. But only the church and its judgment can help you believe that it is there inside you. This activity from inner-movement to judgment is called, in Roman Catholic tradition, Penance. So theology traditionally has you go deep inside yourself for self-examination, to find the one true thing in you. Maybe it’s a vestige of the Trinity. Perhaps it’s a created image of God that remains inside you that we normally call the free will. Maybe it only comes down to feeling guilty for doing wrong. But there it is, like a worm in a tequila bottle, waiting to be set free.

6    For Luther, your free will is not a good place to start. The free will, which the old man in Adam desperately want to be there, is the drop-dead opponent of God. The same justifying God who must kill Christ when He gets in the way. So Luther blows up all this free will talk. First, he asserts that certainty comes from outside the self, not from inside, not from some inner movement of the soul. Second, the beginning of truth, life, goodness, and certainty awaits a preacher. That is, as Luther writes in his explanation for the Third Article of the Creed, it is the Holy Spirit alone who calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies… (Trig. 545.6), and fortunately He, “delights in assertions,” (Packer, “The Bondage of the Will,” p.67), and is pleased to call preachers, not by sending a midwife or guru or spiritual trainer who delivers the truth, nurtures its growth or disciplines it to reach its potential. There’s no place for navel-gazing theology when the Holy Spirit comes. Instead He sends a preacher.

VDMA7    Thus in Smalcald Articles Part III, Article 8, Luther explodes the whole presumption that there is an inner movement in us, a little bit of free will waiting to be uncaged, set free to seek God. He does it with one of the most profound matters in our Lutheran Confessions. He exposes the root cause of troubled consciences. He does it by reasoning backwards from the cross as the solution to the question of the self and its willing. The only proper way to care for souls is not to reason according to the demands of the law, but by Christ crucified. Simply put, the original sin, not trusting God to be God for you, is a result of “enthusiasm,” and the only way to expose it and end its activity is what we call “the spoken, external Word.” (Trig. 495.3) The very Word of God who comes crashing in from the outside, like some great white whale erupting from the deep to wreck our dreams of finding the God-within-us, who was never there.

8    “In from the outside,” means the external word is preached in sermon and sacraments and the Holy Spirit uses these means to make a new creature completely righteous and holy by faith. For, as St. Paul asks, “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim?” (Romans 10) But immediately we start to get a sense of the problems. First, if my life depends upon getting a preacher what if none comes? What if one comes and I kill him? Then what? Further, how can a word, an external thing, affect me inside? Perhaps it isn’t so bad though. Maybe I have to accept it. Maybe I have to expand it by thinking along with it. Perhaps I need to do something so that even if I have to sit around waiting for a preacher to come, when he gets here, I’ll have something to do. Second, every Tom, Dick and Harry coming down the street says the Spirit talked to him, and here is what He had to say … If we are sitting around waiting for preaching, what if some joker comes along who is trying to convince me that his inner-movements are better than mine?

9    But there’s more. The external word kills. “The letter kills,” before the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3). “External” and “kills” are both major roadblocks to my spiritual development. Maybe I should think more seriously about this Lutheran argument about the “external word.” Do I really want to involve myself in this kind of thing? It seems so negative. So pessimistic. It’s not very sensitive to my needs. It’s certainly not very inviting.

10   When Lutherans talk about the external word we are handling dynamite. First, the issue has to do with what sinners do when they get an external word they don’t like. What happens when God comes and reveals the true inner movement of their hearts as hopeless romanticism? Self-serving idealism? What will happen when they’re exposed as wanting nothing to do with a crucified God? Another has to do with what this external, preached word accomplishes or does to us. And another has to do with the Holy Spirit who refuses to be replaced and always uses means. The God who always works through His Word and Sacraments, the external preached word actually having priority. What it finally means is that we are stuck with a Christ who refuses to be absent.

11   The external word is the chief thing, even in the Sacraments. The external word is the first and final word of all true worship. This alone is what gives us a preached God rather than an unpreached one. You can’t worship an unpreached God, except by running away from the preached God. This is what makes it so easy to pick out the Schwaermer, the buzzing bees, the false prophets and holy rollers who have swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all. It is easy to spot them because they reject that the Holy Spirit has already told us exactly what the true preacher will say when he arrives. Its called written Scripture, that is law and Gospel given to sinners, whose center is Christ and whose sum is justification by faith alone apart from works of the law on account of Christ.

12   This opens a further truth. As different as Roman theology and Protestant theology seems at first glance, there is a deep, common root from which they both come, and end up, against their own desires. That is, they both oppose the proclamation in Word and Sacraments as God’s exclusive way to make faith in us. Both groups seek God where He does not want to be found, and refuse to find Him where God wants to found. This seeking God outside His Word, and refusing God in His Word is identified by Luther in a beautifully descriptive word: “enthusiasm” i.e., “God within-ism.”

13   Enthusiasts always end up preaching Christ with additions. This is because enthusiasts want all the good things of Christ’s spiritual kingdom (which we have in the form of God’s promises), but they want them right now. They want Gospel without law. Freedom without slavery. New without old. Person without work. Kingdom of God without world. Love without faith. Spirit without Word. Grace without means. Life and resurrection without death. In short, an enthusiast wants everything to be in himself without any need for external writings or external people speaking it to him. And he wants it now! He wants to have himself all to himself without any relation to another. He prefers to be sui generis. Narcissistic. At the very least homo-erotic trying to have himself symbolically. Luther once earlier described this type of man as a theologian of glory without the cross.

14    Luther begins Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article 8 by noting that private confession should not fall into disuse. It is helpful to, “bad [weak] consciences and…untrained [and wild] young people,” (Trig. 493.1) It helps in caring for their dissatisfaction and depression, for their lack of direction and displacement. In private confession and absolution the pastor is care-taking souls that otherwise are running about seeking better words than the ones already given in preaching and the sacraments. The power in confession then comes from the word of Christ in the office and power of the keys, to absolve others and be absolved of sin. Confession then shifts from performed penance to preached absolution. The external word of God preached through vessels like pastors is the very thing that delivers Christ so that God can be trusted above all else. This is a word that actually does what it says. When it announces forgiveness of sins it is not just hoping people will feel forgiven, it actually forgives. When the pastor proclaims the justice of sinners before God because of Christ the sinner is in fact right with God.

Bookofconcord15    Then, Luther makes a very interesting observation, which at first seems to be a side trip. There are two ways that this office of the keys can be despised. First, by those who think they need no external word. They, “boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it to their pleasure…” (Trig. 495.3). He names Thomas Muntzer as an example, and says, “many still do at the present day…” These people preach based on their own charismatic authority and inner sense that they have the Spirit. They make a cult of personality.

16    Second, the office of external preaching is despised by the Papacy, which does the same sort of thing as the fanatics, like Thomas Muntzer. The Pope takes the interpretation of Scripture to himself so that, “whatever he decides and commands with [in] his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word.” (Trig. 495.4)

17    Both parties, “condemn the outward Word … as though, indeed, the Spirit could not come through the Scriptures and the spoken word of the apostles, but [first] through their writings and words he must come.” (Trig. 495.6) That is enthusiasm. The refusal to stay in trust with the external word in Scripture and looking to an inspired individual for what the Scriptures means or says, and so as the basis for trust.

18    The next move is shocking in its breadth and scope. Our confession reads, “In a word, enthusiasm inheres in Adam and his children from the beginning [from the first fall] to the end of the world, [its poison] having been implanted and infused into them by the old dragon, and is the origin, power [life], and strength of all heresy, especially of that of the Papacy and Mohammed.” (Trig. 495.9) Enthusiasm is, in sum, original sin. The serpent tempted in this way, “Did God say,…”  Then of course, the serpent distinguishes God and God’s Word. He says that if you leave this word, “God knows … you will be like God.” God will be in you rather than always outside you. What do Adam and Eve end up believing in when they have refused God’s specific word of threat and promise? They end up believing in their own belief [in whatever god, person, or ideology they believe in].

19   When you step away from God’s actual word, you begin doing what really bad relationships do: analyzing the state of the relationship. Now the minute you have to sit down and have “the talk,” about, “where this relationship is going,” you know it is in trouble. In the same way, when you turn your ears from listening to God’s word from outside and instead tune your religious enterprise to what trust in God, what faith feels like, whether you have it or have enough of it, it is already lost, misplaced, and the conscience is either stirred up to great heights of self-righteousness or cast down into the lowest depths of despair.

20    That is the great problem with all the talk of faith in our United States of America.  Most often, those who claim to possess Christian faith refuse the external word. They turn inward instead, to identify the Spirit through inner movements that end up being unbelief in whatever God promises. They refuse to stand still long enough for God’s external word to kill the old man in Adam by Baptism, and raise up the new man in faith in God’s watery promise. The same holds for the Lord’s Supper: “Take and eat this is my body.” Instead of relying on these external words faith becomes self-referential faith. A pursuit of biographical righteousness. They are all just as Robert Bellah in, “Habits of the Heart,” found when he interviewed Americans about their faith. He labeled this enthusiasm, “Sheilaism,” after Sheila Larson who described her faith as listening to “her own little voice.” 

21    That is why Luther confesses: “Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” (Trig. 495.10, 11) If we want to follow Luther than we must admit that what our country needs more than anything is good Lutheran pastoral care. Pastors who get people off talking about the state of their relation with God, and to hear and receive the external word of God in proclamation to the ungodly about the work of Christ and His gift for you which comes as an outside promise.

22    For most of you, and those with whom you come into contact, enthusiasm express itself most clearly in a disdain for preaching of law and Gospel. Instead it tries to put something else in their place. In doing this it can then do away with all God’s external words, in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Absolution, and elevate some other experience or act in their place as, “more spiritual.” Such happened with the Roman Mass in Luther’s day in its connection with the Papal Office. Luther knew this was the decisive issue before the Roman Catholics concerning this Lutheran Confession. Everything else was window dressing. This Mass had become a florid collection of prayers around the words that come from Scripture, about the night in which Jesus was betrayed. A so-called, “eucharistic prayer.” But its elaboration over time was considered the central matter of Christian worship and life, that which more than anything else was what it meant to be a Christian: observing a Mass.

23    Our remaining articles address, among other matters, Excommunication (Part III, Article 9). Since the Pope who tried to excommunicate Luther was himself an enthusiast, “it does not concern us ministers of the Church.”

24    Part III, Article 10, On Ordination, gives the rationale for ordaining without the old catholic bishops and their historic episcopate; because when everything depends on the external word, on getting a preacher, you don’t fool around with little effete bishops and their fancy pomp and ceremony. When bishops don’t want to be bishops anymore then we just ordain our own and send them out. As Luther writes, “we should and will ordain suitable men to this office ourselves,” as church tradition, law and necessity demands.

25    Marriage will be free regarding priests (Part III, Article 11) since, “God has instituted [and ordained] it.” That is, God by His own Word commands and desires it, and no human tradition will get in the way of His Word.

26    Next, regarding the Church (Smalcald Articles Part III, Article 12), all the monkey business about “tradition,” and the powers of “the Church,” and magisterium and discipline … even, “a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is” ? people who have heard God’s Word, “the voice of their Shepherd,” preached, whenever and wherever they are. Luther said in the Large Catechism, about the Third Commandment, that we have only one relic, and that is the Word of God. External. Clingable. Objective. We get our holiness from the Word of God and from nothing else. Every other definition of Church, whether holy rollers full of Holy Spirit gifts beyond their justification, or lofty Rome and her papacy, the Pope and all his Cardinals in their miters in a group hug, is pure enthusiasm. In short, original sin.

van eyck adoration of the lambs-resized-600.jpg27    Smalcald Articles Part III, Article 13 (How One is Justified before God, and of Good Works) states that through God’s Word alone comes faith, and by faith a new and clean heart is acquired for Christ’s sake. The flesh the clings is not completely gone or dead, but God does not count it. Instead we are new creatures, and because of the external Word alone we rightly call ourselves, “…righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ.” The Lutheran shorthand for this is, “simul iustus et peccator.” Never are we good, “inside ourselves.” We are good only in relation to Christ as creatures who receive their faith, their rightness day by day from Him. That is, “God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.” (Trig. XIII, 499.2)

28    Good works, of course follow in a true vocation for the neighbor. That means you can quit making up your own good works, like the monks with their Monastic Vows (Part III, Article 14). And for goodness sake quit your “hocus pocus.” These innumerable magic tricks in the Church have got to go. They are human traditions that are altogether self-serving. Quit bugging us with your enthusiasm. “What about personal holiness?” “What about the priesthood, monastics, saints, sanctification?” “What about trying harder?” “What about the ordo salutis?” We’re free and standing up for the first time like human creatures should. We’re going about doing the work of the Lord like a good tree bearing good fruit. Just quit bugging us and go find some nice pile of manure to swarm!

29    This is our confession. That, to have trust that is not simply in our own ability to believe, i.e., to be free from the law, the external Word of God is delivered to sinners through pastors. Men called for public ministry. God is thus making faith by coming to sinners in the Holy Spirit through means, in the very external matter of the preached Word and the Sacraments. In all these things God is extravagantly rich in grace, by which Christ alone is made our righteousness and whose voice sounds in our conscience: “You are mine, I have claimed you.” 

For the first paper, click here.



The Problem of Enthusiasm — 3 Comments

  1. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!”
    1 Cor 13:5

  2. @Carl H #1

    This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them—since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.
    Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.
    Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
    The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

    (2 Corinthians 13 ESV)

  3. “Enthusiasts always end up preaching Christ with additions.”

    Might as well read “Evangelicals (i.e., American) always end up preaching Christ with additions.”

    Christ plus…Devotion(s), “Spiritual Disciplines,” “My Best Life Now!,” “Victorious Christian Living,” etc. All external measures that can either be declared, listed, or can be seen by others (who are making sure you do).

    “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:4-5 ESV).

    In the Lamb

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.