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Stanley Hauerwas And Luther’s Legacy

November 26, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


The Washington Post devoted most of its Sunday, October 29 “Outlook” section to the legacy of Martin Luther. Stanley Hauerwas, among the six who contributed, provided an essay entitled, “What Is the Point of Protestantism?”
He pays tribute to an early teacher who introduced him to Jesuit Fr. Frederick Copleston’s multivolume History of Philosophy. Copleston provided an eye-opening experience, and Hauerwas wanted more. From Southwestern University in Texas, he began graduate work at Yale’s Divinity School, to study theology but not with ordination in mind.
“We students read Catholic theologians — Rahner, Haring, de Lubac, and Congar. We also read Martin Luther and John Calvin, but we considered them to be late Medieval thinkers who had more in common with Thomas Aquinas than our divinity school mentors.” Hauerwas went on to teach theology at the University of Notre Dame and at Duke University.
Many have discovered the roots of Christianity by reading historians of philosophy such as Copleston and Etienne Gilson. John Henry Newman is remembered for his dictum: “To be steeped in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Hauerwas may be a test case.
“Wretched Aristotle.” The words are those of Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220), better known for his rhetorical question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In Tertullian’s words, “God has spoken to us, it is no longer necessary to philosophize. Revelation is all that is required. He who believes in the word of God knows more than the greatest philosophers have ever known concerning the only matter of vital importance.”
Tertullian was not the first or the last to reject the use of classical learning in an attempt to understand the Gospels. Tatian, who preceded him by at a least generation, similarly rejected all efforts to employ Hellenistic learning in biblical exegesis or Christian apologetics.
Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria used all the intellectual tools available to understand and defend the faith. Justin, a Greek who flourished in the mid-decades of the second century, brought to his apologetics a knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and the Stoics. He had read Plato’s Apology, Crito, Phaedrus, and Phaedo. As a result of his study, Justin concluded that philosophy leads to Christianity as its fulfillment. Pagan philosophy is not to be feared, for it is consistent with biblical teaching.
Clement, similarly educated, became so immersed in Greek philosophy that some regard him as a philosopher rather than as the theologian he surely was. Clement was convinced that Jewish law and Greek philosophy are the two rivers at whose confluence Christianity has sprung forth. Sacred Scripture allows us to make use of profane learning without mistaking philosophical wisdom for the superior wisdom of Christianity. Assuredly, the doctrine of Christ is sufficient unto salvation, but philosophy can be used to lead men to Christ and further used to elucidate his teaching among those who have accepted his doctrine.
Centuries later, Martin Luther, like his ancient predecessors, was to rile against classical learning, particularly Aristotle, and the use made of Greek and Roman learning by the scholastics. As he put it, “Virtually the entire Ethics [of Aristotle] is the worst enemy of grace.”
Reason is contrary to faith, Luther maintained, and it is impossible to harmonize the two.
Modern versions of this doctrine are to be found in the anti-metaphysical and fideistic views of Kierkegaard and his twentieth-century disciples. Dismissal of Greek learning and philosophy as exemplified by Tatian and Tertullian remains in a major segment of Protestantism. Luther, in keeping with his doctrine of Adam’s fall and its debilitating effect on human intelligence, wrote, “Aristotle is to theology what darkness is to light,” and further, “Aquinas [as a result of his indebtedness to Aristotle] never understood a chapter of the Gospels.”
It is impossible, Luther declared, to reform the Church if scholastic philosophy and theology are not torn out by the roots with canon law. In contrast to Clement, Luther claimed that “one should learn philosophy as one learns witchcraft, that is, to destroy it, as one finds out errors in order to refute them.”
In the long line of theologians stretching from Luther himself to Brunner, Barth, and Bultmann, Soren Kierkegaard holds a unique place. He was the first to state in more or less modern form the case against the use of philosophy as a preamble to theology. Luther had stated it before him, but the rationalism that Luther opposed was the comparatively modest rationalism of the Schoolmen and Erasmus. What Kierkegaard had to contend with was the rationalism of Hegel and his disciples. Drawing upon Kant in his attack on Hegel, Kierkegaard goes one step further, robbing religion, specifically Christianity, of any objective content.
“Faith,” he declared, “is not a matter of belief that can be set forth in propositional form, nor is religion a rational affair.”
Making a distinction between the world of universals (scientific generalizations) and the subjective world (inwardness), Kierkegaard asserts that whereas philosophy teaches us to become objective, Christianity teaches us to become subjective. Evidence for God’s existence is an objective question, but we find no conclusive evidence for His existence. That we cannot demonstrate the existence of God makes no difference from the standpoint of faith. Far more important is what happens to the individual who is called upon to believe that which cannot be objectively known. With respect to objective matters, there will always be doubt, he posits. The believer is not turned away by objective uncertainty, but instead passionately affirms.
Kierkegaard calls this “subjective truth.”
Subjective truth is not truth in the ordinary sense of the term. Such is normally called faith. But in Kierkegaard’s words, “If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I am not believing, but precisely because I cannot so grasp God, I must believe if I wish to preserve myself in faith, I must constantly be intent on holding fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”
Kierkegaard plays into the hand of the agnostic and atheist, insofar as he provides a self-confessed acknowledgment of the gratuity of faith. From the materialist’s point of view, religion is a kind of psychological crutch employed by the weak or the ignorant.
Belief, of course, is a personal act, an act of assent to propositions acknowledged to be true. The fathers of the Church who made the most of classical learning believed, because they found what they had learned from Greek and Roman sources not only cohered with Revelation, but in utilizing the categories of philosophical learning they were better able to grasp the truths of Revelation.
Now stands the matter thus. In Hauerwas’ judgment, 500 years after the Reformation, most of the demands made by Protestants have been met. There is little to protest, Hauerwas admits.
Yet he remains a Protestant, although his intellectual journey may have yet to reach its logical term. He tells us that over the years, many of his Protestant graduate students have become Roman Catholics. “So many have crossed the Tiber that my colleagues have joked that I was an agent for Opus Dei.

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