Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Lord of all, Servant of all"

Martin Luther’s Paradox of the Inward and Outward Man

[Analytical Essay written for a college Western Civilization class]

Martin Luther, one of the foremost leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, penned his treatise “Concerning Christian Liberty” in 1520 in order to explain his belief that faith alone, to the exclusion of any good works of man, is necessary for salvation. Yet, Luther is adamant that this belief does not diminish the importance of good works for the Christian, writing, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” Through this seeming paradox, Luther argues that the Christian is two men: the inward man who is free from the condemnation of the law and, thus, does not have to do good works in order to earn salvation, and the outward man who, after being saved, does good works as a reflection of Christ. Ultimately, Luther’s division of the Christian into the inward man of faith and the outward man of good works emphasized the individual’s role in salvation and reaffirmed the sovereignty of Christ.

At the beginning of “Concerning Christian Liberty” is a letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X which laments the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. In Luther’s day the Roman Catholic Church taught that faith alone was not sufficient for salvation. Citing biblical passages like James 2, verses 20 and 22, they posited that faith without works was dead. Yet, many Christians took this teaching to its logical extent, losing assurance in their salvation. They could not know with absolute certainty whether they had done enough good works to earn salvation. This led to many errors, not the least of which was the creation of doctrines like Purgatory – a spiritual place where souls of those who died as Christians could perform further penance and be thoroughly purified before entering heaven. The Catholic Church also used their doctrine of salvation through works to their own advantage, selling indulgences as a way to raise money to fund the building of their elaborate cathedrals and their transformation of Vatican City.

Yet, although Luther disagreed with the Catholic view of salvation, he does not negate good works entirely. In his treatise, he asserts the duality of the Christian nature, its spirituality and physicality, and argues that good works have a place outside of salvation. The treatise draws on passages like 2 Corinthians 4:16 to support Luther’s position, “Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” In explanation of the verse, Luther writes, “As regards the spiritual nature, which they name the soul, he is called the spiritual, inward, new man; as regards the bodily nature, which they name the flesh, he is called the fleshly, outward, old man.” Essentially, good works have no place with the spiritual nature, but are necessary to the bodily nature.

The inward man is the embodiment of the first line of Luther’s paradox. He is the most free lord of all and subject to none. Luther argues that the only thing necessary for the soul is the word of God, as was established in Matthew 4:4: that man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. Luther writes, “As the soul needs the word alone for life and justification, so it is justified by faith alone, and not by any works. For if it could be justified by any other means, it would have no need of the word, nor consequently of faith.” The Christian understands, in light of passages like Romans 3:23, that every seeming good work of his is actually “utterly guilty, sinful, and damnable.” Every action of man, even those that appear good to sinful eyes, is defiled. It is impossible for him to attain the perfection that God’s holiness demands. Ultimately, then, it is the merits of Christ alone that save, not a man’s good works.

Luther points out that the Bible is divided into precepts and promises. The law of the Old Testament was a precept to “show us what we ought to do, but [did] not give us the power to do it.” Rather, it convicted the man of sin and showed him that thousands of good works were ineffectual at earning salvation. The promises, however, in the gospel message of the New Testament offered man salvation through faith alone, declaring, “If you wish to fulfill the law…believe in Christ, in whom are promised to you grace, justification, peace, and liberty.” In the words of Luther, the Christian takes on the “wedding-ring of faith”: his soul is united with Christ’s, as the husband and wife are united in one flesh, each taking on the possessions of the other – Christ, the sin, death, and condemnation of man, and man, the grace, life, and salvation of Christ. The inward man, clothed in the salvation of Christ, is freed from the judgment of the law, the bondage of sin, the fear of death, and the torments of hell.

This is, however, not the end of the Christian story. While the inward man through the sacrificial work of Christ is now lord of all, the outward man becomes the servant of all. And it is here in the outward man that good works find their proper place. Luther writes, “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.” Thus, the good works are a reflection of the moral state of the man. Luther uses the analogy of a house. A badly made house does not make a bad builder, but a bad builder will make a house badly. So, too, if a man is good, he will do good works. But if he is bad, he will produce bad works. A man should not do good works as a way to gain justification, but he should embrace good works as a way to glorify and honor God. Thus, the outward man becomes the servant of all in imitation of Christ who forsook the glory of heaven to redeem fallen man. Luther adjures that it is the duty of the outward man to live for others, “he must needs speak, act, and converse among men, just as Christ was made in the likeness of men and found in fashion as a man, and had His conversation among men.” Importantly, all of these works must be done freely and voluntarily and not as if man was looking forward to any reward. He is a servant, not a slave, doing all things to the best of his ability in an effort to thank God for the wonderful gift of faith and salvation. He is both reigning and serving with Christ.

Ultimately, Luther’s teaching of faith alone in “Concerning Christian Liberty” was revolutionary for its time. It overturned many of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, limiting the power of the papacy, and strengthening the faith of millions of Christians. No longer would they fear that their salvation was not sure: the belief in faith alone meant that salvation was no longer dependent on man, but on the work of Christ. Yet, when Luther described Christian liberty, he did not mean Christian anarchy in which a man was saved, but could continue to indulge in the sins of his former lifestyle. Rather, Luther merely rediscovered the true goal of good works: they could not save a man, but they would identify him as a man who had been saved. For though man is instantly justified, he is in the process of being sanctified. Thus, the inward man relies solely on the efficacious power of Christ while the outward man is being transformed into a perfect reflection of God’s divine holiness.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 11:17 PM |

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Madness of the King

A Worldview of Despair in Virgil’s Aeneid and William Shakespeare’s King Lear

[Literary Criticism Paper written for a college Western Literature class]

Virgil’s Aeneid and William Shakespeare’s King Lear are stories of kings who, in an act of madness, forsake their kingly duties and overturn the moral order. The former relates the travels of Aeneas as he flees from his conquered homeland and seeks to establish a new kingdom in a distant country. The latter details the downfall of Lear when, in a fit of rashness, he divides up his kingdom and is ultimately exiled from his own country. Both stories deal with the importance of fulfilling one’s kingly roles and the consequences of trying to abandon one’s duties. And both stories have gods that are fickle and not accountable to any ultimate moral standard. Yet, Aeneas knows that by following his fate ultimate good will result, even though this may mean abandoning those he loves. The concluding act of King Lear, however, offers little hope for a restoration of the moral order: the characters must suffer the consequences of their actions, with no intervention by the gods, and often the innocent die with the guilty. Yet, while King Lear may have a more pessimistic ending than The Aeneid, it is merely taking the worldview of The Aeneid to its logical extent: if life is a roulette wheel, justice is destroyed and man is doomed to an existence of despair.

The Aeneid is a more optimistic tale than King Lear because fate is on Aeneas’ side. However, this does not mean his task of founding a kingdom is an easy one. Many of the gods continually plot trouble for Aeneas and his followers, but their scheming meets with little success. Jupiter, although he is on the side of Aeneas, at one point refuses to get involved, declaring, “The effort each man makes will bring him luck or trouble. To them all King Jupiter is the same king. And the Fates will find their way.” Clearly, the gods cannot kill whoever they wish. Thus, fate could be seen as a sort of power that the gods are subjected to. Yet, importantly, it is not because of any personal merit that Aeneas is destined to survive. Fate is just as fickle as the gods. The Aeneid easily could be a pessimistic tale if it were told from the viewpoint of a minor character that is not destined to survive: Dido, the queen of Carthage.

When Aeneas lands in Carthage to rebuild his wrecked fleet, his mother, Venus, worried that the other gods will use Dido for evil, inflames the Carthaginian queen’s heart with passionate love for Aeneas. Aeneas without thought for his people or his son or even the gods, returns this love. His madness impels him to abandon his destiny and stay with Dido, even helping her lay the foundations of her city—until Jupiter becomes angered. A god comes to Aeneas and reproaches him for forgetting his own kingdom. Aeneas’ love of the gods and love of his son override his devotion to Dido. Placing his destiny above his passion, he leaves Dido behind and continues towards his new homeland. This does not mean there are no consequences to his actions. Devastated, the scorned queen burns herself alive. In her last speech, she observes, “I lived my life out to the very end and passed the stages Fortune had appointed.” Fate was not kind to Dido. Though an innocent character that bore no ill will towards Aeneas and was merely a victim of a goddess’ divine spell, Dido suffers a terrifying and tragic death. Aeneas, however, emerges from the whole ordeal unscathed. Once he realizes that his destiny is more important than his passion, he repents of his actions, overcoming his moment’s madness and resuming his role as the leader of his people to find a new homeland.

Contrast this to the title character of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Like many tragic heroes of literature, Lear is burdened with a “hamartia” – a flaw in his character. Lear is rash, stubborn, and often acts without thinking. When his daughter Cordelia cannot find words to express her love for her father and refuses to flatter him, he flies into a rage, disowning her and exiling her from England. His plans to divide up his kingdom and give his authority into the hands of his daughters also appear ill thought out. Indeed, it is clear that he did not ask the opinion of his councilors for Kent calls his actions “mad.” Ultimately, his two eldest daughters banish him from their houses and condemn to death anyone who attempts to give the former king refuge. Lear now begins to truly go insane, but before completely losing his senses, he repents of his previous actions. Driven by his daughters to fend for himself during a storm, he decides to pray. Importantly, he prays not for himself but for “poor naked wretches” and declares, “O, I have ta’en too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, and show the heavens more just.” Lear realizes that his plight is small compared to others’ in the world. The audience might find irony in this – Lear’s plight is great, not small. He was once king of all of England and now is an exile and a beggar. Yet, Lear understands that his character is flawed, even though he thinks he is a man “more sinned against than sinning.” He regrets that he was not more kindhearted as a king and gazing on the ragged figure of Edgar, tries to rend his own garments as well, realizing that man is no different in rags or in robes. “Is man no more than this?” he asks, “Consider him well…Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” Lear is experiencing true humility and, like Aeneas, will ultimately realize that it was wrong to abandon his kingly duties. Later on he will declare, “Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish.”

But Lear’s repentance does not mean that the moral order will be restored. As he observed when seeing Edgar, all men are equal: rags, robes, vice, or virtue are all the same to Fate. Indeed, although Lear reconciles with his daughter, Cordelia, and gains humility, he is not able to resume his kingly duties. And while Lear begins to overcome his insanity in the last act of the play, the murder of his daughter, Cordelia, drives all reason from him. His grief ultimately kills him. One character Gloucester declares, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, — They kill us for their sport.” Indeed, Cordelia’s death seems unnecessary for the plot of the play. Hers is not a sacrificial death in order to defeat evil. Rather, she is a casualty of the evil characters’ ambition and malice. In the same scene, a moral order seems to be reestablished when the character Edmund repents of his wickedness and is lead away to be executed. His brother Edgar, who had supported the king, observes, “The gods are just.” But when he hears of the plot to kill Cordelia, Edgar exclaims, “The gods defend her!” However, the gods do no such thing. Cordelia’s death is pointless and leads to no ultimate good. Rather, King Lear is broken by his suffering, dying as well, and leaving his kingdom without a ruler, having destroyed the authority structure.

Thus, both works exemplify a worldview that denies an ultimate moral standard in the universe. The end result of this is chaos and despair. It is true that, while both kings underwent periods of madness, Aeneas was rescued by a “deus ex machina” and was able to continue his kingly duties. Yet, Aeneas was only able to accomplish this because he was favored by the gods and his fate dictated that he would succeed. Fate could just as easily have favored another character and Aeneas could have met an untimely death. Indeed, this is the fate of King Lear, of Cordelia, and of Dido. Ultimately, the momentary madness of King Lear and Aeneas is reflective of the larger madness of their world – a bleak world of despair where characters live or die based on the whims of Fate.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 7:03 PM |

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