Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Luther and the Holy Spirit in the Catechisms

         The Holy Spirit lies at the crux of Martin Luther’s theological framework and is essential in understanding his teachings.  This is seen not only through the teachings of both the large and small catechisms but also in his hymns and sermons as well.  More than this, it is clear that Luther’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is greatly informed by his understanding of the Trinity and Augustine’s use of Pauline materials, which Luther adopts into his theological tool-kit. Ultimately, Luther’s theology and more specifically his view of the Holy Spirit serves as an invaluable resource for preachers and church leaders alike for the message Luther fosters is the very proclamation of the Gospel, comfort.
            In Luther’s Large Catechism, he discusses the third article of the creed, which examines the work of the Holy Spirit. Above all, Luther talks about the work of the Holy Spirit sanctifying humanity. He writes, “I cannot give a better title than “Being Made Holy.”[1] This is especially pertinent in 21st century America because there is an Evangelical Christian phenomenon that emphasizes the work of the individual to make oneself holy. This attempted journey to sanctification is birthed out of biblical interpretation and the idea that one can become like Jesus. When Jesus becomes an example for holy living one runs a continual and relentless risk of despair. In Dr. Timothy Wengert’s book, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, he is forward in his commentary on the acronym WWJD? where he asserts, “WWJD? He would hit you over the head and say, ‘Get over it! Stop turning me into a lawgiver! It is not about you and your precious rules and how you clobber others with them; it is about the mercy of God.’”[2]  There is a notion that one might work one’s entire life to climb the ladder of holiness with hopes that God will reward this effort. This is not the reality of sanctification; instead Luther asserts that they Holy Spirit is the active agent who sanctifies the believers.
The message of the Holy Spirit and its reality in the life of a Christian is one of the most important realities that a leader can teach their flock. The message of the Holy Spirit is one that every individual finds virtually impossible to believe, in part due to this “ladder to holiness” concept floating about in America (and elsewhere), but also because the old creature[3] within an individual finds it hard to believe that the work is done.  In the Large Catechism, Luther understands that the Holy Spirit allows an individual to undergo a daily baptism. The first baptism is of water and the Word but there is a daily dying to sin and raising in Christ. Luther writes,
Baptism is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth. What is the old creature? It is what is born in us from Adam, irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud—yes—and unbelieving; it is beset with all vices and by nature has nothing good in it. Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride.[4]

            Throughout Luther’s Large Catechism he emphasizes that the Holy Spirit makes humanity holy and the Holy Spirit continues to make humanity holy. This is not a single action done by the Holy Spirit at a stagnant point on a timeline; instead this is a continuous action that the Holy Spirit works throughout the life of the believer. Luther writes, “The Holy Spirit works through the following: the community of saints or Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”[5] This sanctification is essential in the life of a believer because without this process one could not know God. No one could know Christ or accept Christ as the Messiah, God incarnate, without the aid of the Holy Spirit. This is enabled by the Holy Spirit through the pure preaching of the gospel, which occurs from the pulpit and through the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.[6] Without the Holy Spirit’s presence there is no Christian community because the Holy Spirit is essential in calling, gathering, and creating community. Luther asserts, “…apart from [the Holy Spirit] no one can come to the Lord Christ.”[7] He goes on to write, “I believe that there is on earth a holy little flock and community of pure saints under one head, Christ. It is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, mind, and understanding.”[8] Luther reiterates the importance of the Holy Spirit and humanity’s utter dependence on the Holy Spirit throughout his Large Catechism.
            In the Small Catechism, Luther reduces this explanation to three rich and powerful sentences. In the first sentence Luther sums up his entire exploration of the work of the Holy Spirit saying,
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.[9]

Luther emphasizes the human’s utter dependence on faith, which does not exist apart from the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Word. The human cannot come to Christ without the aid of the Holy Spirit and one cannot partake in God’s saving power without the Holy Spirit. This is difficult for humans to understand or come to terms with because humans want to secure their salvation through their own means even though it leads to despair.
God’s Spirit within humanity is expressed in the love of one’s heart and remains there throughout one’s life.[10] Prenter writes, “The Holy Spirit must be understood as the direct presence of God”[11] in the life of a human being. One does not want to run the risk of diminishing the importance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through negating the importance of the Holy Spirit. One who says that the one does not need the Holy Spirit in order to come to Jesus diminishes this fact. As Timothy Wengert writes in A Formula for Parish Practice, “If we diminish sin and the human predicament, we are at the same time reducing the importance of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit in declaring us righteous and making us holy in God’s sight.”[12]
Martin Luther’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, which runs through all of his work, is important in considering all of Luther’s theology. Luther understands the Holy Spirit to be indispensable in the faith of humankind and without this grace given as a free gift from the Holy Spirit one can do nothing. Each part of the godhead is vital in the whole and each part sustains, redeems, and creates including the Holy Spirit. It is essential that all public theologians might consider this and teach it to their people because the Holy Spirit runs through the veins of congregations—building up, strengthening, sustaining, and redeeming the human sinners. 


[1] LC 435:35
[2], Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 23.[3] 2 Corinthians 5:17 makes mention of the new creature that comes as a result of baptism. The Old Creature dies daily until it is finally destroyed. The Old Creature represents our prebaptismal self that lives inside, fueled by the Devil and self to fight against Christ and Christ’s power.[4] LC 465:65-67
[5] LC 435:37
[6] LC 436:38
[7] LC 436:45-46
[8] LC 437:51
[9] SC 355

[10] Prenter, Spiritus Creator, 7.
[11] Prenter, Spiritus Creator, 8
[12] Wengert, Formula For Parish Practice, 21.

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