Let me come back once more to the late Heiko Oberman’s outstanding biography, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. In this work Oberman saw Luther’s reformation ambition for what it really was: an effort to correct the misportrayal of God that dominated the church in his era.
Oberman summarized a representative question on Luther’s behalf: “What kind of a God can it be who has to do battle against the Devil, who suffers and is crucified?” [p. 170]
Oberman then answers for Luther.
“The reproach is plainly directed at far more than just ‘Aristotle’ or ‘scholasticism.’ Since the Fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality—which he has succeeded in describing scientifically—as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The ‘God’ created by man is a false god of his own making.”
Let’s consider Luther’s main point: God is known only “through the Scriptures.” He set a tension that still applies. Are professing believers all in agreement with Luther? Or are many actually informal philosophers, busy creating separate gods to suit personal needs and desires?
The most telling measure of any believer—and where Luther starts—is how one sees the cross. Is it a starting point of faith? Or is it a salvation sidebar—the basis for justification but not a defining portrayal of God? The apostle Paul portrayed the cross as Christ’s dismissal of human pride and independence in Philippians 2:8—“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
For Luther a cross-focused life violates common sense and intellect as it gives birth to faith. Faith responds to the compassionate God in the Bible: he was humiliated in death for our sake. By despising the shame of the cross God undermines pride and confronts the Devil who is a proud Spirit. With this in mind at the Heidelberg Debate of 1518 Luther pitted a “theology of the cross” over against “a theology of glory.” The cross, he insisted, is incomprehensible to the glory-driven intellect. Not because it has to be intellect-boggling, but because the intellect rejects the underlying values of the cross.
Luther’s insight—recognizing Aristotle and scholastic theologians as mere mirrors of Adam’s fallen perspective rather than guides—accentuates the role of Scriptures. The problem of sin is inclusive for all of humanity so that without the corrective lens of God’s revelation and the humility of Christ’s Spirit in a soul, people will always see life as an upside-down image: right is wrong and good is evil.
Even a quick scan of Scriptures—one of the gospels, for instance—will offer any number of these reverse-image spiritual contrasts: the call to seek Christ first; to serve rather than to be served; to count others as more important than ourselves; and many more.
So Oberman’s quip about every man needing to serve as a philosopher from Adam onward actually makes sense in this light: philosophy—the love of wisdom—is the exercise of making life work on the basis of a given set of values. If self-concerns are central, the structure of wisdom is built on that ambition. But if a person’s deep delight is to please God through love, another type of wisdom takes shape.
Scriptures, of course, don’t endorse a human-centered world and, not surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t attract a following from the self-concerned philosophers. Yet for those who have the true God in view no other resource carries much weight: only the Scriptures are full and coherent in presenting us the God who died on the cross, was raised from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of his Father.
So feel free to chase creative philosophies if you like; but the only way to approach life with a proper lens is to abide in the Scriptures. God will be waiting at the cross, just as he was for Martin Luther. And only then will the Bible make sense and become captivating; and life will begin to be all God means it to be.