VI. The Churh Well Lost (Continued)

B. Luther Criticism

When Luther introduced the idea of the Reformation, what happened? Even he, the great reformer, became impatient, he did not reduplicate strongly enough--he accepted the help of the princes, i.e., he really became a politician, to whom victory is more important than "how" one is victorious.1

That S.K. was not content to attack simply the Danish Lutheran Church of the nineteenth century but carried the battle back to Luther himself, that he thus took on churchly Protestantism at its pristine best, that he would criticize the Reformation itself--all this suggests rather strongly that S.K. was interested in something deeper than just reformation. And though the wording of his accusation does not make it immediately apparent, we shall discover that S.K.'s quarrel with Luther had to do precisely with the fact that Luther stopped with reformation of the church rather than proceeding to a Christian reformulation of it. S.K. spoke to Luther as a typical (though unusually competent) sectary to the founder of churchly Protestantism.

It will not be necessary to make anything like a comprehensive study of S.K. and Luther. Suffice it to say that S.K. had no basic differences with the reformer regarding Protestant doctrine per se. Indeed, he did at points express appreciation for the fact that Luther understood the faith in a way quite superior to that of contemporary theology.2 True, S.K. was critical about Luther's lack of dialectical balance on such matters as faith and works, but these matters were not of ultimate significance. However, the fundamental criticism to which he returned again and again is the one stated in the epigraph, namely that Luther became a "politician." Elsewhere S.K. accused him of having ruined his own Reformation, first by becoming "a political hero" and then "a jolly man of the world."3 [Cf. S.K.'s statement quoted above.] And finally S.K. charged that by coming out as a success rather than a martyr Luther confused the basic concept of what a reformer should be.4

The terms "politician" and "martyr" lead us back to the Kierkegaardian distinction between religious and political movements, and we need now to apply that typology not simply to the problem of war but to the very nature of the church. [In the letter where S.K. established this concept (see above), he also specified the Reformation as a movement that appeared religious but proved to be political.] Rather than being the religious martyr who was oriented solely to the fixed point behind, interested only in becoming obedient, Luther acted as a politician striving to accomplish a new order within society, driving toward a point out front, namely the establishment of a Protestant church. Thus, as S.K. put it, Luther became more interested in the victory of his cause, i.e. the accomplishment of his end, than in the "how" of that victory, i.e. the "how" of strict obedience that leaves the result entirely in the hands of God.

In what follows, S.K.'s statements do not concern Luther per se, but the line of thought is relevant--and highly sectarian as well. Why did Luther become a politician? The answer is simple. As a "church"man, Luther saw the church as an institution, a commissary. Thus, whatever might be done in the way of reformation, it was, of course, absolutely essential that the institution itself be preserved. That is no feasible reformation that loses the church in the process of reforming it. Therefore, Luther's program actually came to be to reform or change the church into conformance with the gospel ideal insofar as that could be done without endangering the very existence of the institution. It is the presence of this conditional (although essential) clause that gave the Reformation the pragmatic, political character to which S.K. objected. It was this consideration that led Luther to "accept the help of the princes," to shrewdly exploit the political situation, to compromise some of his religious insights.6 None of this is to be read as dishonesty or hypocrisy on Luther's part. If the church is essentially an institution, that institution must be preserved; and rather clearly, these things had to be done in order to preserve it.

S.K. put the matter this way:

Politics consists of never venturing more than is possible at any moment, never going beyond what is humanly probable. In Christianity, if there is no venturing out, beyond what is probable, God is absolutely not with us; without of course its following that he is with us whenever we venture farther out than what is probable.7

Now the sectary too is vitally concerned to preserve the church, but consider that by the very nature of its constitution a caravan can be preserved only by venturing; to stop, dig in, and establish fortifications might save something, but whatever was saved would be so only by ceasing to exist as a caravan. Thus the only way for a sectary to preserve his church is to become as radically obedient as possible and leave the preserving to God. He, in all conscience, must do the one thing that the "church"man, in all conscience, cannot do: risk the martyrdom of the church itself in the interests of unconditional obedience. S.K. saw what was at stake here:

Somewhere in a modern author (I think Böhringer) I have read something like the following observation. He is speaking of one of the critical points in the history of the church, and says that for the church only one of two things was to be done: either it had to admit plainly that the Christian church did not exist (but that would be suicide) or it had to put a bold face on it and claim that it was the true Christian church.
So it would be suicide? Yes, truly suicide, and yet an action well-pleasing to God. For that would mean that there is enough truth to kill oneself to make room for the truth, instead of stifling it with its beastly expansion which impudently claims to be Christianity. But the church had neither the courage nor the truth to do this, to accomplish his heroic suicide--it preferred to kill Christianity with its lies. But precisely what that author describes as preposterous, as something that the church could not think of doing, is what must be done.8

S.K. is here making explicit an aspect of the sectarian ideal which perhaps the classic sectaries themselves were not able to enunciate quite this clearly, namely that nonresistance, or defenselessness, is not simply a position regarding the Christian and war but marks the basic stance and orientation of the church's entire existence. The following statement S.K. applied simply to den Enkelte but it would hold for the church as well:

That the Christian is sacrificed is also expressed in the image which Christ constantly uses, and which is repeated here: to be salt. For to be salt means not to be for oneself, but to be for others, that is, to be sacrificed. 'Salt' has no being for itself, but is purely teleological, and to be determined purely teleologically means to be sacrificed.9

Call it "salt" or call it a "caravan," either figure points toward the sect as a church striving to be determined purely teleologically--and that teleology is to give itself unreservedly in radical obedience to God.

Both S.K.'s and Luther's views on preserving the church are entirely consistent and sincere. If the church is what the "church"man sees at to be, then sectarian radicalism is a real and present threat to the very existence of the Christian church. But if the church is what the sectary sees it to be, then Luther-type "politics" are a real and present threat to the very existence of the Christian church. Which view is correct, it is not for us to say. However, his critique of Luther makes it quite plain that, regarding the nature of the church, S.K. was a sectary and not a Lutheran.

Copyright (c) 1968