Dostoevsky and Dialectical Theology

Theological Examination of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Hi! I decided to talk about one of my favorite books because I was inspired by a group of students and my academic research. I had fun working on this video. I hope you enjoy it.(It’s a bit longer than I had hoped it would be, but I definitely said the things I wanted to…and could have said a lot more!).

 

Forde and the Bound Will

Gerhard Forde, Theologian of the Cross, Luther’s Bound Will

The following is a post I’ve thrown together from notes and underlines made for preparation to teach on Luther’s conception of the bound will using Gerhard Forde’s On Being a theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. I figured: why not share it with you, Beloveds 🤓

Gerhard Forde,[1] considering theses 13-17 in “The Problem of the Will,” asks the question, “If we are overwhelmed and captivated by grace alone, can we claim to play a part in the matter?”[2] In discussing the role of the will of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith, he contends with the notion that we do a “little bit,” which, for Forde, is the claim of the theologian of glory. The idea: if we do our best, God will give us the desired grace.[3] “Can we or will we by our own natural powers, doing our best, prepare for the reception of grace? Are we free to will that?”[4]

Forde’s answer to the question posed is a resounding: no. There are reasons for this:

“If there is to be salvation, it cannot come by the will’s own movement. That means that there must be a death and a resurrection. The cross stands behind the question of the will. The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16).”[5]

For Luther, and thus for Forde, the idea of the electing God is—at its roots—abhorrent to us. We abhor the good; unlike Aquinas’s argument that we are always in search of the good and are ontologically connected through our intellect to the being of God (thus seeking God)—Luther strikes a different chord. We aren’t looking for the good or God and we are content to do as we please. In other words: we are very content to keep ourselves as Lords of our small kingdoms. “We can’t accept an electing God. We will not will it.”[6]

Thesis 13 “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do it commits a mortal sin.”

“Free will” at best is a concept and not an empirical truth and certainly not a “God gave us free will it’s in the bible” type of claim. To argue for the actuality of “free will” is to argue, according to Forde, against the electing God. Even just a “miniscule” amount will work against the electing God and this proves Luther’s point that we abhor the idea of the electing God (and are in bondage of the will). That the will does not will to hand itself over to death, it is, since the fall “an empty name.”[7] It is free to will what it wills (itself) but not what it will not will (the electing God), thus it is not free.[8]

And this gets us to:

“Thesis 14: Free will after the fall has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.”

As is the case with anything that or anyone who is bound, they need liberation that comes from the outside. When we are stuck, we are in a passive capacity and need help from a non-stuck source (i.e. not ourselves).[9] This coincides with the dialectic of death and life prominent in the kerygma of Christ. Christ does not resurrect himself from death but is resurrected; same to for the Christian in the encounter with God in the event of faith: she is brought through death into newness of life not of her doing but of the Lord’s.[10]

“Thesis 16: The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty”

“Thesis 17: Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”

Forde highlights that we grow uncomfortable as the theses drive home that we are not free not to sin but very much free to only sin and do “evil.”[11]

“The theologian of glory in us is beginning to cry out in frustration and despair! There is nothing to hold on to, no support left, nothing to do. Then the last-ditch defense is tried. ‘If all I do is sin, why not just quit? Why not just forget it all and sink into complete indifferent?’”[12]

For Luther and for Forde, there is a deep need to let God be God. There’s no claim we can put on God by our works as if we can hold God to a deal: If I do my part then you will *have to* do your part.  This is an objectification of God. If God is to be wholly other and we are to throw ourselves completely and totally depend on this wholly other God, then we cannot bring anything to the table. (And are we even at the table? Or, do we need to also *be* encountered by God?)

 

So, we obtain Grace through humility and not by “doing what is in one.” Humility is when we do not plead our case or try to self-justify but when we just confess and wait for justice (faith) which never comes in the form we expect. It arrives in absolution in grace in life—we are brought *out of* death in *into* new life. This type of humility must be differentiated from the “humility piety” (i.e. the “humbling the self” in an effort to save the self); this would render humility to be a work.[13]

One could argue that self-inflicted humility piety is not even humility. Humility is a death of the self and needs an active action of God for resurrection. We can be humbled; we don’t actually humble ourselves.[14]  “Humility in this context means precisely to be reduced to the position where we claim absolutely nothing.”[15] And, “The law humbles, grace exalts. Something is done to us.”[16] Humility is coming to the end of the self and the self’s ability to justify the self but it is here where we are encountered with mercy and grace. When the self (and with it the will) is brought to the end of itself it is free to confess and in this freedom to confess it is—for the first time—doing what it should: being honest. Or, in good Luther terms (what it means to be a good theologian of the Cross): calling a thing what it is.[17]

“Thesis 18: It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.”

The distinction here is how to properly define “despair.” Forde explains, that this despairing is despairing of the ability of the self to receive God.[18] Forde,

“It is itself possible only because the grace of Christ has brought new hope…At the same time it is true that such preaching brings about the final surrender of faith in self, the ‘utter despair of our own ability’ that is inspired by and prepares to receive the grace of Christ. Ultimate despair is due to the temptation to believe that there is no hope beyond our own abilities. Despair itself then becomes ultimate and so leads to death. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so lead to life. This subtle nuance points to a fundamental theological divide.”[19]

In this “utter” despairing we are brought to the foot of the cross in confession and are received and receive Christ as absolution/forgiveness. “Utter” despairing is not “ultimate” despairing, which leads to death unto death (the domination of toil and “actual”). “Utter” despair brings life out of death (the dominion of work and “possible”). If we are using our works as a means to self-justify, we are entering further into the realm of toiling (works in domination over us) and this is a battle we will not win. But to come to, to be brought to the end of ourselves and confess is to gain the entire world including ourselves in fullness and freedom and our works back as just works in their right place under our dominion.

 

[1] This is a book I’ve been reading since I’ve been teaching it to a group of students, introducing them to the concept of the bound will as it comes from Luther. Most of my students are more exposed to the concept of the free will and are briefly exposed to determinism. So, I thought it would be helpful to dive in a bit deeper to nuance some of these claims more. What follows here are from my underlines and notes made in the book in preparation to teach the class.

[2] Gerhard Forde On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation 1518 Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 49.

[3] Forde 50.  “Luther’s teachers were from a particular branch of late medieval scholasticism (Nominalism) that held that if we ‘do what is in us,’ that is, if we do our best, we can be assured that God will not fail to give us the desired grace.”

[4] Forde 50.

[5] Forde 51.

[6] Forde 52; Determinism rejected because of willing the things below in free choice. We do what we want no matter what we hold philosophically speaking.

[7] Forde 52-3. “There must be some free will, no matter how minuscule. But the very claim is itself evidence of bondage over against the electing God…The theological of the cross…sees that that is exactly the problem, and therefore recognizes and confesses that, since the fall, free will does not exist in reality. It is an empty name.”

[8] Forde 54. “The will is bound to will what it wills. After the fall, it is bound by sin, hence not free.” And, “…when the will, bound to its own self, tries to do its best, it only commits deadly sin. It commits deadly sin because it refuses to recognize the power of God to save and cuts off from grace…We refuse to live by the cross.”

[9] Forde 55. “In its passive capacity the will can do good when it is acted upon from without but. Not on its own, not in an active capacity.”

[10] Forde 55. “Since will after the fall is dead and bound to do deadly sin, it can be rescued only from without, as is indicated by the fact that it could not bring life out of death but could only be commanded from without by our Lord.” Same concept applies, for Forde, to Thesis 15 and remaining in innocence in the Garden.

[11] I’d like to add that this “evil” in relation to our actions of our bound will is about our desire to add to the vertical realm our activity and actions as a means to participate in a type of self-justification either in the place of or alongside of the grace of God which justifies us with God. This is not that our horizontal works are “evil” and thus should always be avoided, but when we try to use those as a means for our justification with God is when they become “evil”.

[12] Forde 60.

[13] Forde 61

[14] Forde 62

[15] Forde 62

[16] Forde 62

[17] Forde 64. “Despair would rather come if one is falsely optimistic and tells them that they don’t need a physician while they steadily decline toward death. …The theologian of the cross knows that we do the world no good by playing the role of pious or sentimental optimists. One must ‘say what a thing is.’ One is given the courage to be honest.”

 

[18] Forde 65

[19] Forde 66-7.

“Here, I live”: a birthday reflection

Birthdays can cause us to take that self-reflective pause in which we examine our lives. In that pause, we take stock of what’s happened over the course of the past twelve months. We are like late night Netflix addicts, rewatching all those life episodes to which we already know all the lines and all the outcomes. We watch and (maybe) relive the great moments, the heart-stopping moments, the difficult moments, and even the moments where we thought our worlds were going to explode and implode at the same time….but didn’t.

We hear Birthday’s haunting and incessant questions: are you where you want to be? Are you where you thought you would be? Are you who you want to be? Who you’d thought you’d be? Are you happy with who and where you are? Birthdays aren’t very good at having their questions ignored; most of us will at least whisper some response, and we all know silence is itself an answer and rarely a positive one.

This past year, I’ve had some tremendous ups and some tremendous downs. But those specific events (the ones replaying in my head as I review this past year) will not be the substance of this post. The details of the events–at this point–mean very little to me because they’re dead and gone. The totality of those details, the mega-form they took, what as a whole they left me *is* what matters. In my opinion, what has remained with me in the aftermath of those events is more important than merely the petty details of this thing or that, of the he said-she said, of what went up or down. Because it’s in this aftermath where I looked at what I had and built from there. (We never really start over from scratch, we always build from what we’ve learned.)

From the very wonderful, amazing, heart-stopping, I-Can’t-believe-this-is-happening-right-now events to the dreadful, horrible, gut-wrenching, I-Don’t-see-how-I’ll-ever-make-it-through-this events, what has remained with me, over and over and over again is: life. In every way that word can be used type of life. Because no matter how much my knees knocked because of nerves or my stomach churned because of emotional turmoil, I kept stepping forward. And each and everyone of those steps drilled home the reality that I am very much alive.

I don’t credit myself with this aliveness, though I’m aware that I did play both an unconscious and conscious role in the process of stepping. (Some synapses have to be firing intentionally for a mind and body to engage in the act of stepping in a specific direction.) I do give some credit to really neat friends who refused to let me keep rehearsing the same lines of my favorite trauma script…even when it’s all I wanted to do. They used their words to turn my head in the right direction and urged me forward and not backward. Mostly, if not entirely, I give credit for this aliveness to my daily encounter with God in the event of faith. Because it’s here, in this encounter where I’m brought face to face with God, where I am wrenched from and out of a world that demands my allegiance and obedience and has me scrambling for some modicum amount of control, stripped of all that I *think* I am and of all that I let control and define me, and made painfully aware that there is no other way to embrace the future but through my pained confession that I do not know what comes.

All I know in this event encounter is God (all other knowledge, presuppositions, ideas, and conceptions have been exposed and burnt up by the friction of this encounter). And this knowledge, this face to face encounter undoes me completely, renders me to dust, brings me into crisis with everything around me. It’s in the crisis where the crucible is formed and my faith made to be as pure as gold; for in the tension I’ve nothing but what faith will locate itself in and that is God. Thus, all I can know is God, I cannot stand on my own here, and it brings me to death. Here, I die.

But yet even though I die, it is not merely unto death or to indulge the wicked intentions of a sadistic god. The God I believe in is the God of love and life, mercy and peace, humility and justice and in abundance. What has been proclaimed to me, shown to me, made known to me in the word and wisdom of God–the proclamation of Christ crucified–is that the activity of God moves from death to life, life in the here and now in vibrant, remarkable, awe-inspiring ways. Life out of death is resurrection.  My feet are (daily) planted firmly in this wholly other God on whom and in whom I am wholly dependent and that is life and life abundant; I’m alive. Here, I live.

What has proven itself time and time again over the past 365 days is: it’s in this event-encounter with God that I am made and caused and given the strength to stand and withstand the events (good or bad) that have come my way and will come my way because I am not dependent on the outcome (good or bad) or on myself. My dependence is on and in God alone by faith alone by grace alone. These events that happened to me only pushed me into a deeper dependence on God, which resulted in resilience, confidence, and strength that define me today. It is in and has been in the good and bad events of my small and short yet large and long life where I have experienced God in God’s self-disclosure as, “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Is. 9:6).

Thus, I’ll close by answering Birthday’s questions early in the day:

Am I where I want to be? Yes. The view from where I am is wonderful

Am I where I thought I would be? No. I could only have have hoped to be here.

Am I who I want to be? Yes, and there’s still room for more improvement.

Am I Who I’d thought I’d be? No. I don’t think I had the wits to see her coming.

Am I happy with who and where I am? Yes. 100%, yes.