Reviewing Forde – “Where God Meets Man” Chapter 2

Gerhard Forde 1972 Where God Meets Man: Notes on Chapter 2

Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel, Published by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.’s second chapter is titled “The ‘Down to Earth’ God.”
Forde continues with his theme of the Ladder. Mankind wrongly tries to climb the ladder to God. Here, Forde insists that we should learn from Luther:

“[T]he way he attempted to solve those problems gives us some guidance in our discussions today.”(18)

In his summary of Luther Forde leaves out the basic formal principle of Luther’s presentation: the discussion of Scriptural authority and clarity, along with the careful contextual reading of the passages of Scripture. Forde also obscures and contradicts key points of Luther’s material principle: the doctrine of Justification, Scripture’s teaching on sin and evil, and the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ.
Forde produced a fourteen page summary of Luther’s De servo arbitrio (“The Bondage of the Will”), a document that in the American Edition of Luther’s Works runs to 295 pages. Of course, the reader should expect that Forde was capturing only what he thought was significant of Luther’s argumentation. Indeed, Forde does capture the sentiment of some of Luther’s arguments. But by omitting any real discussion or presentation of Luther’s treatment of Scripture the reader is not directed to the clear words of Scripture as the foundation and only source for knowledge of God’s will.
At the beginning of the next chapter Forde said of this chapter (2):

“We dealt with the question of where to look to find the will of God revealed.” (p. 32)

When Forde wrote of where this will of God is found he avoids going to the written Word of God. At times Forde resorts to using the term actual where this term can imply looking at the Scriptures, but that is not Forde’s meaning with the term.

“Our opinions about what God is like ‘up in heaven’ do not matter. It is rather a question of the way things actually are; it is a question of what God himself has actually said and done down here on earth.” (21, emphasis original)

Those who are unaware of Forde’s use of this language are often left with the impression that he is referring to the Bible. And when Forde’s meaning is explained his admirers often become defensive. But an honest evaluation of Forde will let Forde say what Forde means by his words. He has dealt with his meaning of this terminology most thoroughly in his formal presentation of the Doctrine of Christ in 1984, where he wrote:

The earliest layers of the New Testament Gospel sources, the sayings sources such as Q, indicate no particular reflection on or view of Jesus’ work or his fate. Jesus’ death was no doubt a mighty schock, but it seems mostly to have been understood in terms of the usual fate of God’s prophets: they were rejected and came to a bad end. Such rejection, of course, unmasks the unrepentant, unbelieving, and guilty stance of God’s people. This early view of the life and death of Jesus is reflected also in some of the speeches in Acts, such as Peter’s speech in Acts 2, and even in some of Paul’s earlier writings (see, e.g., 1 Thess. 2:14ff.). Jesus himself, though he might have and quite possibly did reckon with a violent death at the hands of his adversaries, seems not to have understood or interpreted his own death as a sacrifice for others or ransom for sin. Such interpretation apparently came as the result of later reflection. (Forde’s 1984 “The Work of Christ” pp. 12-13, in Braaten and Jenson Christian Dogmaticsvolume 2, emphasis added)

What Forde means is that his historical-critical reconstruction of the words and work of Christ have to be extracted from the layers of interpretation by His first hearers, the hypothetical writer of the Q source, the Gospel writers, the hypothetical editors of the Gospels, the hypothetical apocalyptic theologians. Forde thought all these different sources had modified the actual words and works of Christ. He also maintained that there were layers of reinterpretations of Paul and the hypothetical editors of the Pauline epistles shaping the Pauline epistles as we have received them. Forde continued:

Even in their final redaction the synoptic Gospels contain little direct or explicit interpretation of Jesus’ work. Mark 10:45 has Jesus say that the Son of Man came to give his life ‘as a ransom for many,’ and the accounts of the Last Supper speak of Jesus’ blood as his ‘blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:24) and ‘my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt. 26:28). Such passages, in their present form at least, are usually regarded as having come not from Jesus himself but from later interpretive traditions. The same is true of the instances where Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, such as Mark 8:31ff. And 9:31, and parallels in the other Synoptics. They are interpretations attributed to Jesus after the fact. But aside from such scanty references, the Synoptics even in their final form afford little explicit interpretation of Jesus’ work. (Forde’s 1984 “The Work of Christ” p. 13, Braaten and Jenson Christian Dogmatics volume 2, emphasis added)

Forde’s higher-critical stance on the Scriptures is especially important to keep in mind when Forde does use the term Scripture in his argument.
In the chapter of Where God Meets Man that we are examining, under his sub-heading “The attempt to escape from God” Forde contrasts the liberation expressed in the “question of what God himself has actually said and done down here on earth” with the bondage the reader receives from reading Scripture. The term Scripture is used only with reference to the threat of bondage.

It [the threat] hounds us through the inescapable logic of the arguments; it hounds us through the clear and unmistakable passages of scripture.
One cannot escape it even by arguing that there are certain other passages of scripture which seem to support the idea of freedom. For it is not a question of argument, not even a question of marshalling one set of scripture passages against another. All one would accomplish by that would be to try to establish that scripture is unclear— precisely what Luther attacked Erasmus for and what he would not in any circumstance allow. Scripture is not a book that can be dealt with by tallying up numbers of passages. Even if there were only onepassage of scripture which refuted man’s freedom, Luther says, in effect, that would be enough. Why? Because that would be all it takes to destroy our confidence in the opposite arguments; that would be all it takes for the ‘voice’ of doubt to insinuate itself into ‘the heart.’ For it is not a question of such arguments. It is a question of the way things actually are, the way what God says in his Word actually strikes us. (22-23 emphasis original)

It should be pointed out that the aim of Luther’s writing the Bondage of the Will is to demonstrate that Erasmus was in error by asserting that Scripture and reason allow for some kind of freedom with regard to man’s status before God. Most of Luther’s book is addressing the proper use of Scripture shows that man’s will is in its natural sinful state captive entirely to Satan, sin, and death— that the only thing sinful man wills is to sin, rebel against God, and serve his own sinful flesh.
But it is interesting that in contrast, when Forde speaks of what changes us from this bondage to the liberty of the Gospel Forde does not refer to Scripture with the word Scripture. Forde again uses his special terminology:

For the problem is not the abstract one of what God might or might not be like up there ‘in heaven,’ not what he might or might not have willed in the secret of his own counsel, but what he has actually willed and done for you here on earth. He has sent his Son to die and conquer the grave; he has baptized you and given you the sacrament of his body and blood and that is the revelation of his almighty will! (25, emphasis original)

Beside avoiding referring directly to Scripture as the source for this teaching Forde does a couple other things in this paragraph. First, he states what God has done in a way that avoids reference to the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Second, he presents a historical-critical position wanting to embrace something it calls Christianity and adopting historically Christian terminology and forms. As we noted previously, Forde used historical Lutheran terminology, but he used this terminology with meanings already re-framed in writings from the Neo-Orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr as well as the Lundensian theology of Anders Nygren, Gustaf Aulén, and Ragnar Bring. In the above quotation from chapter 2, Forde, the historical-critic, took a position that is structurally and functionally equivalent to the old Grundtvigian error.
In mid-19th century Denmark a theologian and political activist named Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig promoted a teaching that the

“Word heard in the church through the ages, especially the Apostles’ Creed, rather than written Scripture, was the ‘Living Word’ given to the church by Christ Himself. By this Word and in the sacraments God meets the individual in the church.”
[summary in the Lutheran Cyclopedia, ]

Grundtvig sought in the spoken Word and in the sacraments the clear and unchanging expression of true and pure Christianity as it had come down from Christ Himself through the centuries. In reaction against small Bible reading groups he held that the Bible was a “dead word” over against the “living word” of the Apostles’ Creed. He influenced the Danish Church especially by his view of life, hymns, emphasis on congregational life and singing, and the effect of his message especially in rural areas. His great love for Denmark and his vision of its historical destiny gave his movement a national spirit. Christian, national, political, and cultural subjects were discussed in great folk mass meetings. As a result, Grundtvigianism became the most liberal of the 3 main groups in the Danish Church.
[the Lutheran Cyclopedia number 8]

Grundtvig sought “the clear and unchanging expression of true and pure Christianity as it had come down from Christ Himself through the centuries.” Forde sought “what God himself has actually said and done down here on earth.”(21) Grundtvig’s lens was oral tradition, the Apostles’ Creed, and the liturgical heritage of the Church. Forde’s lens was the historical-critical scholarship which would extract what Jesus actually said and did from the “interpretations attributed to Jesus after the fact.” (1984, p. 13) Both sought to be unbound from the Bible as it is written. Both sought a higher authority than Scripture in a carefully selected subset of what they each held as authentic Christian teaching. Both directed their readers to the historic outward participation in the liturgical rituals of the Church. And in both cases, the congregations were led to trust authorities with special insight or training over and above what was plainly written in their Bibles.
Luther spent the majority of the pages in his Bondage of the Will showing how Scripture is clear and sufficient in teaching the will of God, the captivity of the human will to sin. Most of the pages are dedicated to clear exposition of the passages which Erasmus incorrectly used to assert that there is some aspect of the human will, perhaps pre-conditioned by grace, that is able to choose God. Those passages, Luther demonstrated, most certainly and clearly show that mankind is captive either to sin, death, and the will of Satan; or he is captive to the will of God. If man is captive to the will of God it is only through faith in the penal substitutionary life, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. An essential aspect of Luther’s presentation is that any claim to free will in spiritual matters denigrates the value of Christ’s suffering and death for our sins in His penal substitutionary atonement. Just a few examples from Luther:

“For in the New Testament the gospel is preached, which is nothing else but a message in which the Spirit and grace are offered with a view to the remission of sins, which has been obtained for us by Christ crucified; and all this freely, and by the sole mercy of God the Father, whereby faver is shown to us, unworthy as we are and deserving of damnation rather than anything else.” (BOW AE 33:150, emphasis added)

“For if what is most excellent in man is not ungodly and lost or damned, but only the flesh, or the lower and grosser desires, what sort of redeemer do you think we shall make Christ out to be? Are we to rate the price of his blood so low as to say that it has redeemed only what is lowest in man, and that what is most excellent in man can take care of itself and has no need of Christ?” (BOW 227, emphasis added)

“If Christ is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world [John 1:29], then it follows that the whole world is subject to sin, damnation, and the devil, and the distinction between principal and nonprincipal parts is of no use at all. For ‘world’ means men, who savor of worldly things in all their parts.” (BOW228, emphasis added)

“For show me any one of the whole race of mortals, even if he is the holiest and most righteous of them all, to whom it has ever occurred that the way to righteousness and salvation is the way of faith in one who is both God and man, who for the sins of men both died and rose again and is seated at the right hand of the Father; or show me any who has even dreamed of this wrath of God which Paul here says is revealed from heaven.” (concerning Romans 1: 18BOW 250, emphasis added)

“Where is now the endeavor of free choice by which grace is obtained? John says here [1:16], not only that grace is not received by any effort of ours, but that it is received through another’s grace or another’s merit, namely, that of the one man Jesus Christ. It is therefore either false that we receive our grace in return for another’s grace, or else it is evident that free choice counts for nothing. For we cannot have it both ways; the grace of God cannot be both so cheap as to be obtainable anywhere and everywhere by man’s puny endeavor, and at the same time so dear as to be given us only in and through the grace of one Man and so great a Man.” (BOW 279, emphasis added)

They do not believe that Christ is their advocate with God, and obtains grace for them by his own blood as it says here, “grace for grace” [John 1:16]. And as they believe, so it is with the. Christ is truly and deservedly an inexorable Judge to them, inasmuch as they abandon him as a Mediator and most merciful Savior, and count his blood and his grace of less value than the efforts and endeavors of free choice. (BOW 280, emphasis added)

If we believe that Christ has redeemed men by his blood, we are bound to confess that the whole man was lost; otherwise, we should make Christ either superfluous or the redeemer of only the lowest part of man, which would be blasphemy and sacrilege. (BOW 293, emphasis added)

In contrast with what Luther actually wrote, Forde discusses how people try to shape God into their own image to make it easier to approach, to climb the ladder. He wrote:

Today the God-remodelers are a dime a dozen. Everyone, it seems, wants to do God the favor of making him less objectionable. … Some even say he has obliged us all by dying!”(31)

This is consistent with his denial of the penal substitutionary atonement evident in the first chapter, the introduction and many other of Forde’s writings. Recall his mischaracterization of Luther in chapter 1:

“Luther understood the gospel as something more than a theory about how God might or might not have been ‘bought off’ up there in heaven.” (17 see the previous discussion on chapter 1)

Very clearly Forde’s presentation of Luther’s position differs foundationally from what Luther himself wrote, both with respect to the formal principle of Scripture as the source and norm of true doctrine and with regard to Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement.
What really is the nature of our captivity or bondage?
Throughout this chapter when Forde discusses the bondage of the will he never mentions sin in any way. Forde mentions “the problem of evil” as something left unexplained with reference to:

“where it came from or how it started or how exactly it is related to God’s omnipotence. Luther has no better answers to those question than anyone else: the problem of evil remains for him a deep mystery.”(30)

Such a statement from Forde, claiming to teach what Luther taught in Bondage of the Will, is dumbfounding. Especially when Forde fails to mention sin at all in this chapter.
Compare Luther:

“If we are unaware of the sin in which we were born, in which we live, move, and have our being, or rather, which lives, moves, and reigns in us, how should we be aware of the righteousness that reigns outside of us in heaven?” (BOW 263)

In fact, the nature of sin and evil, its source, cause, effects, and humankind’s captivity to Satan, sin, and death are found throughout Luther’s Bondage of the Will. What is very clear is that Luther is very different from Forde’s version of Luther in all essential respects. Luther wrote in his summary:

“[I]f we believe that Satan is the ruler of this world, who is forever plotting and fighting against the Kingdom of Christ with all his powers, and that he will not let men go who are his captives unless he is forst to do so by the divine power of the Spirit, then again it is evident that there can be no such thing as free choice.
“Similarly, if we believe that original sin has so ruined us that even in those who are led by the Spirit it causes a great deal of trouble by struggling against the good, it is clear that in a man devoid of the Spirit there is nothing left that can turn toward the good, but only toward evil.” (BOW 293)

There is a particular statement Luther made in Bondage of the Will that aptly describes Forde’s re-interpretation of Luther:

“[It is] as if you think that Christian godliness can exist without Christ so long as God is worshiped with all one’s powers as being by nature most merciful.” (Luther to Erasmus in Bondage of the Will LW 33:29)

Forde has presented Luther’s Bondage of the Will excluding any reference to sin, captivity to Satan, sin, and death. He neglected to touch upon Luther’s focus on Scripture as the sole source and norm for doctrine. With this Forde failed to cover the need for clear understanding of Scripture and the passages of Scripture that speak to the issue of whether humans have a bound or free will with respect to the things of God, the origin of evil, ignoring that Luther teaches human will is bound either to Satan by normal human birth or else to Christ through faith in His vicarious atonement. What is left in Forde is a term “Bondage of the Will” that signifies an intellectual philosophical moral state without reference to sin or salvation from sin through Christ. This is a position far from “the way that he [Luther] attempted to solve those problems.”(p 18)

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