A Pastor's Notes

notes, comments, and sermons — sometimes even mine

Metaphysical and Ontological Preconceptions, Part 6

Sola Scriptura, no matter what other effects it may generate, forces those who hold to it to allow Scripture to “win” when it comes into contact with presuppositions about the structure of the world. This is what the Reformers did (consciously or unconsciously; the latter is the most likely by far) in the construction of the Augsburg Confession.

This is the general thesis of this series of posts: The Augsburg Confession contains a curious set of arguments, the style and basis of which we may — and ought — reclaim for ourselves today.[10]

Piepkorn argues[11] that we (as Lutherans) are not bound to hold the metaphysical assumptions of the writers of the Lutheran Symbolic books. Quite so. But what should be determined is whether a particular metaphysical assertion is a presupposition imported by the author of the portion of the Symbolic book in question, or if it is taken from Scripture, so as to not chuck out the baby with the bath-water. It is also important to recognize that these arguments, which do not rest on prior ontological/metaphysical assumptions, were made as they were because of Luther and Melanchthon’s (and then their followers’) approach to the text of Scripture, and not because they were consciously avoiding ontological moorings.

Thus what is suggested here is not at all part of the (still ongoing) project to disengage Christian theology from Greek thought (as discussed in the previous post); it is instead a suggestion that the way of thinking and arguing as found in the Confessions is proof that one particular culture’s ontological assumptions are not necessary for orthodox understanding and formulation of the faith. This method of argumentation is, rather, due to its ontological agnosticism[12], much more easily translatable from culture to culture, from worldview to worldview, than Ontological Assumption-based modes of Christian thought.

It must be stressed, however, that the presence of ontological agnosticism (except where Scripture speaks, and speaks clearly) does not mean that there are not ontological conclusions to Lutheran arguments, nor ontological realities described or exposed to us in Scripture. The Confessions clearly hold to particular ontological realities: these would, for instance, include the happy embrace of the Nicene Creed’s pronouncement that Christ is one substance with the Father (though note that this is a prior, settled argument within the Church which is accepted and not argued for within the confines of the Augsburg Confession); and also the reality that in baptism a spiritually dead man becomes a living man in Christ. Such conclusions are perfectly legitimate; the arguments standing behind them, however, are not governed by extra-Scriptural ontological assumptions.

This identification of Lutheran aontological argumentation is not new. Marion, among others, points us to Heidegger’s 1951 remark in his God Without Being: Hors-Texte that

Being and God are not identical and I would never attempt to think the essence of God by means of Being. Some among you perhaps know that I come from theology, that I still guard an old love for it and that I am not without a certain understanding of it. If I were yet to write a theology — to which I sometimes feel inclined — then the word Being [Sein] would not occur in it. Faith does not need the thought of Being. When faith has recourse to this thought, it is no longer faith. This is what Luther understood. Even within his own church this seems to be forgotten. (Marion, p. 61)

While Heidegger’s understanding of Christian faith is thoroughly lacking, he had an eagle’s eye for where and when the concept of Being was or was not applied.

There is thus no need or place for speculative theology, as it is an attempt to slip past, to sneak around the Word. This is the legacy of the Augsburg Confession: real problems, real objections, real, practical theology for the sake of poor sinners.

[10] The same is true throughout the whole Book of Concord. Notice the firm rejection of ontological explanations in the Formula of Concord; twice those who look behind the words of Scripture, or the knowable surface of reality (if there is a substratum at all) are slapped down (Ep., SD I, III). Luther’s catechisms have no time for ontological or metaphysical speculation, and the gem at the center of it all, the Smalcald Articles, are up to the top of the head in the Word.

[11] Arthur Carl Piepkorn. “Suggested Principles for a Hermeneutics of the Lutheran Symbols”. Concordia Theological Monthly 29 (January 1958): 1–24.

[12] i.e., not believing that one’s beliefs about the hidden structure of the world are a true picture of what is, but are instead useful placeholders that allow us to function. Where Scripture speaks, and tells us how things are — there is no such agnosticism in those cases.

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Written by pastor

15 January 2018 at 1:45 pm

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