Saturday, July 12, 2014

Oberman on Luther / Angels on pins and Augustine as exegete

"The question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was soon being cited by the humanists to demonstrate the stupidity of the scholastic. Luther, too, took an interest in this seemingly abstruse problem, not in order to solve it but in order to point out that faith dwelt in a realm of its own.  The question is not as ridiculous as the answer--as with the soul, all we know about angels is what is revealed in Scriptures:  "Everything that is added to faith is certainly only imaginative speculation"--unfounded and thus uncertain, pure invention.

This is an adumbration of the principle of the new Wittenberg theology that Luther would formulate seven year later "against the whole of scholasticism": "The whole of Aristotle is to theology as shadow is to light."  Contemporaries immediately recognized the import of the attack, as Aristotle, who had become academic theology's great authority in the course of the thirteenth century, had provided the terminology and categories used to establish the central concepts of the Holy Scriptures and Church doctrine:  God is the "prime mover"; the soul, as "form," determines the human being;  justification takes place through the "infusion" of "the power of grace"; the sacrament of the mass transforms the "substance" of bread and wine; man is "free" to decide between good and evil.  Gaining a critical grasp of all these basic notions and finding new biblical terms for them was to cost Luther years.

The knowledge that there was an infinite, qualitative distance between Heaven and earth became an established principle for Luther as early as 1509:  all human thought, as noble, effective, and indispensable as it might be to solve problems in the world, does not suffice to fathom salvation because it cannot reach Heaven.  Questions of faith must be resolved through the Word of God or not at all.  The temptation--or compulsion--to sanctify the words of man and believe in them is satanic.  When God is silent, man should not speak;  and what God has put asunder, namely Heaven and earth, man should not join together.

Thus not even Augustine, especially Augustine the neo-Platonist, could become the new, infallible authority, because that would merely have been replacing one philosophy with another, substituting Plato for Aristotle.  Augustine was the exemplary scriptural exegete who since 1509, had given Luther the means to demonstrate the extent to which theology had degenerated into a mouthpiece for Aristotle.

The alternative is clear:  whatever transcends the perception of empirical reality is either based on God's Word or is pure fantasy.  As a nominalist Luther began making a conscious distinction between knowledge of the world and faith in God, but through Augustine he realized that his school lagged far behind its own basic principle:  Scripture was being violated by philosophy."  (Man between God and the Devil. p. 160)

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