Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Luther's cure for Anfechtung

Luther did not see Anfechtung (his anxiety and depression) simply in a negative light. He stated: ‘If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no [person] can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never being subject to temptations.’ In Table Talk, Luther speaks of the value of Anfechtung declaring, ‘[m]y tribulations are more necessary for me than meat and drink.’ He taught that these ‘tribulations’ keep us from pride and so increase our acknowledgement of Christ, and of God’s gifts and benefits. According to Luther the solution to Anfechtung lies in allowing the tribulation to drive you to prayer and Scripture, and above all to the promises of God. Headley makes the helpful observation that Luther evidently did not think that depression was a shameful problem to be hidden, as he often revealed his own struggles in his works.

When it comes to the help that Luther offered those dealing with Anfechtung he took a ‘deductive’ approach to pastoral care. Ballard and Pritchard explain that the deductive method of relating theory to practice ‘starts with a given truth from which all is deduced.’ In his Treatise of Christian Liberty Luther wrote, ‘where the word of God is missing there is no help for the soul,’ and spoke of the ‘tender spiritual touch’ of absorbing the promises contained in the word of God. Given Luther’s uncritical approach to the Bible, and the help that he received from his theological discoveries it is obvious that the application of Biblical truth would play the leading role in his pastoral care. Central to his understanding of the message of the Bible is the cross of Christ. Luther famously declared, ‘The cross alone is our theology’, and that ‘There is not a word in the Bible which is extra cruem, which can be understood without reference to the cross.’ Thus our main focus regarding Luther’s care for those who are suffering from Anfechtung will be to see the pastoral task as mediating the word of God, and the central message being mediated as focusing on the cross of Christ.

1.The Pastoral task as mediating the word of God
Wengert points out that teaching and preaching defined the pastoral centre of Luther’s theology and life. The reformer would surely have been in agreement with Prime and Begg who state that the ‘Holy Spirit does the most effective counselling as the Word that He inspired is taught and preached.’ While not all those who are entrusted with the ‘cure of souls’ will be preachers, surely all those who preach should be aware of the pastoral significance of this duty.

As well as giving pastoral care through his formal preaching and teaching Luther was tirelessly involved in providing spiritual counsel to individuals. Luther himself was much involved in pastoral work, as his numerous writings and letters show. Eugene Peterson suggests that the role of the pastor has been secularised (except for Sundays) in much of the contemporary American church. He lists Luther among those who have contributed to forming his pastoral identity, and who help him realise that being a physician of souls takes priority over running a church. One notable feature of Luther’s individual care was the many letters that he wrote. Again Luther would have been in agreement with Prime and Begg, who highlight the place of letter writing among the practicalities of pastoral care.

2. The centrality of the cross.
Nichols states that as ‘one reads through Luther’s sermons, you see the overwhelming emphasis on Christ, his work, and our response.’ Luther recognised that central to this work of Christ is the cross. He declared that the ‘cross of Christ is the only instruction in the Word of God there is, the purest theology.’ As Kolb points out, ‘Luther’s theology of the cross focuses our attention on trust in the God who loves us and promises his presence in the midst of affiliations.’

In the preface to his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which deals with this righteousness through faith, Luther declares that ‘I produced these writings (with much labour) only for such as St. Paul wrote this letter to—the troubled, afflicted, vexed, tempted (for only they understand these things)—wretched Galatians in the faith.’ He goes on to say that, ‘the afflicted and troubled conscience has no remedy against desperation and eternal death unless it takes hold of the forgiveness of sins by grace, freely offered in Christ Jesus …’

However, it is not just the objective nature of Christ dealing with sin that relates the cross to those with Anfechtung, as Luther looked at the cross he identified with the fact that Christ experienced Anfechtung himself. In 1518 Luther put forward his ‘Theology of the Cross’ at the triennial public disputation of his order, the Augustinians. There Luther taught that we should think of human existence being similar to the experience of Good Friday. The experience of troubles may lead us to the conclusion that God is inactive or absent. On the cross Christ experienced similar feelings. It is only as we experience Good Friday in light of the resurrection that ‘the strange and mysterious manner in which God was at work can be discerned.’ McGrath writes that ‘Christian existence is life under the cross, life spent in its shadow while we await the dawn of the resurrection’ , and that for Luther, ‘the resurrection demonstrates the superiority of faith in the promises of God over reliance upon experience or reason.’

Thus one helpful aspect of Luther’s theology of the cross is that he does not seek to offer easy answers to the ‘why’ questions that are raised by our suffering. In a Table Talk selection from 1532 he discussed the ‘hidden’ and ‘revealed’ God, stating that ‘[a]part from his Word and his work no one should look for him.’ He went on to instruct his younger disciples gathered around that table, ‘I recommend that speculations be laid aside, and I should like to have this rule adhered to my after by death’. As Kolb points out this ‘theology of the cross redirects our gaze from probing the darkness further and directs those who hurt and ache to cling to Christ, whose love is certain and whose faith is beyond all doubt.’

Before making concluding remarks in the next blog it is worth noting the role personal opinion played in Luther’s pastoral care. Headley is clearly impressed with Luther’s “commonsense approach”. Luther advocated music and singing, God’s work through other believers, the benefit of talking about trivialities, and playing games. While at times he engaged in disputation with the Devil, he warned against doing so when fasting. Bainton points out that once Luther gave three rules for dispelling despondency: ‘the first is faith in Christ, the second is to get downright angry, the third is the love of a woman.’

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have enjoyed your Luther stuff (from a while ago now I guess). I am writing a doctoral dissertation on Luther and depression, specifically 21 letters of comfort he wrote to depressed persons - historical and rhetorical analysis and contemporary reflections on the value of Luther's approach for today.
Do you know a book titled Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Ed. Theodore G. Tappert)- a priceless volume for the kind of theology you are thinking about. I'd be happy to talk more by email, if you were interested