Lutheran susceptibility to memes: “Use” of the Law

This is not a meme. But the scare quotes are.

[Written January 2016 as an extended sidebar to this piece; published February 2017; not polished; sort of ends abruptly]

Same question: what would the point be in insisting on the dichotomy of “God uses the Law; you do not”?

Well, the point might be to advance the metaphysical assumptions of the crappy existentialist neo-Lutheranism that’s gotten baked into the orthodox Lutheran brownies over the past three-quarters of a century. But that makes it sound like a conspiracy, which, for the most part, it is not. While some devotees of the “Radical Lutheranism” fetish are indeed very aware of the pre-theological assumptions of this school of thought and could justly be said to be “conspiring” to redefine Lutheranism according to their lights, other devotees simply are not thus aware. This is to say little more than, “Some people mislead; others are misled.” True enough. But there’s another factor in all of this that gets ignored, and that is the general susceptibility of the average modern American to memes. By memes, I do not just mean GIFs of film-frames, celebrities, or cliche-phrases— I mean the larger semiotic category of which such things are only the McDonald’s varietals. From the immortal Wiki:

A meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.[3]


The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα, “imitated thing”, from μιμεῖσθαι, “to imitate”, from μῖμος, “mime”)[4] coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976)[1][5] as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catchphrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches.[6]

I don’t like Richard Dawkins, I don’t believe in Darwinism, and I don’t subscribe to the Theory of Evolution, for the record.

Anyway, memes. Ideas and assumptions exert influence through memes often more powerfully than they do through formal “schools of thought” and banner-carrying “proponents.” The more universal the meme, the less likely it is to be questioned. The more elemental the meme is to one’s own thought, the more impossible it is to question, since one is then less aware of its existence— it’s like the eye attempting to observe the eye. You don’t even need to know the origin of a meme to be influenced by it, just as you don’t need to know the history of the English language to speak English. Things happened in the development of English between Chaucer’s day and yours, such that you don’t sound anything like him (and you sound even less than the author of Beowulf). You could know all of the history, or you could know none of it— you’d likely sound the same when you talk, either way, or, rather, that wouldn’t account for the difference.

The bad penny of anti-realism has turned up again and again in the history of Western philosophy, taking various guises throughout the centuries. The two most recognizable are nominalism and existentialism. Unsurprisingly, Luther often gets called a nominalist— by fan and foe alike— and ever since the Luther Renaissance it’s been trendy to read in his soulful writings the zeitgeisty ferment of existentialism. Jaroslav Pelikan, Missouri Synod wunderkind-turned ELCA-turned Eastern Orthodox, did much to popularize this view of Luther with his monograph From Luther to Kierkegaard. Kurt Marquart’s summation of the book is apt:

Among the first public symptoms that the neo-Lutheran, historical-critical contagion had reached the Missouri Synod was the publication in 1950, and by the Synod’s own Concordia Publishing House, of From Luther to Kierkegaard, written by the young intellectual Jaroslav Pelikan. With supreme confidence in the prevailing winds of doctrine, the book announced that the Lutheran Church had been set on the wrong philosophical track already by Chemnitz and the Formula of Concord, that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had destroyed the foundations of Lutheran Orthodoxy, and that Lutheranism now needed a new philosophy, namely that of Kierkegaard, to wit: “Only that is true which is true for me.” Such glib “trendiness” came now to dominate a new breed of Missouri Synod scholarship which stressed breadth rather than depth. Lutheranism’s stately and venerable old doctrinal edifice was no longer seen from within, but only from the perspectives of its avowed enemies. Hence it was no longer understood. External, superficial neglect and dilapidation were mistaken for structural weakness and collapse. And so the rambling old mansion was condemned unsentimentally to be bulldozed in order to make way from some streamlined “contemporary” abomination, á la Barth, Aulen, or Tillich. Indeed Pelikan himself came to pay glowing tribute to Schleiermacher, who figures as arch-heretic in Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, and even to the neo-pagan Paul Tillich, whose “Protestant principle” abolishes the whole idea of God-given truth and doctrine. (Kurt E. Marquart, Anatomy of An Explosion, Concordia Academic Press, 1977; 108-109)

So far Marquart.

A particularly interesting species of anti-realism, and one which understandably gets less attention in contemporary Lutheran theological discussions, is that which denies the reality of secondary causation. In the history of philosophy such a position has been known as “occasionalism.” Perhaps its most famous proponent, the seventeenth-century French Oratorian priest Nicolas Malebranche, summarized it thusly:

There is only one true cause because there is only one true God; …the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; … all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes. (cited here)

In brief, occasionalism is the belief that God is the sole efficient cause of everything. At first glance, you might read that and think, “Well, I guess I’m an occasionalist!” If you’re a Christian, though, you really can’t be (though I know a good many Calvinists who are at least functionally occasionalist). There is a strain of Abrahamic monotheism out there which envisions God as a solitarily-willing Divine Monad, but it isn’t Christianity— it is, in fact, a Christian heresy better known as Islam.

Keeping in mind Sasse’s adage that Lutheran theology is centered on the cross, I’d say that the most obvious case against occasionalism is the Atonement itself— that is, the Person and Work of Christ. With the catholic and orthodox Church through the ages, Lutherans believe that the incarnation of the Son of God, His perfect sinless life, His innocent suffering and death, His glorious resurrection, His ascension into Heaven and His reigning at the right hand of God were divinely necessary for our salvation and efficacious— efficacious at a level greater than which none can be conceived, if you’d like. You were not saved by God doing perfect Sudoku in His Mind far far away in “the heavenlies.” Quiet George’s insight on this point is worth quoting:

The important thing to note about the entire Calvinist system is how much it relies on ‘decisions’ by God, that is, on God’s will, and not on His essence. He decides to save man, and then decides which particular men to save (limited atonement) and then decides on a plan to save mankind (the salvation narrative) and then decides to accept Christ’s death as an atonement, though in and of itself it was of no particular value. God decides to forgive the elect, and since it is merely a decision on behalf of God, it need not have any ‘objective’ substance. In a sense, it is very subjective, for it all occurs within the mind of God. This leads to Calvinism’s famous theology of ‘decrees’ whereby all things pertaining to salvation happen primarily by God’s decreeing from His infinite holiness that it come to pass.

You were saved by the blood, sweat, and tears of Jesus Christ. In all of this Christ won our salvation not simply as God, and not simply as Man, but as the God-Man.

Needless to say, a church tradition which is known for its incessant references to “the means of grace” is going to confess that God acts through intermediate causes to bring about His good purposes. To wit:

For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel. (AC V.2-3)


For the preaching and hearing of God’s Word are instruments of the Holy Ghost, by, with, and through which He desires to work efficaciously, and to convert men to God, and to work in them both to will and to do. (FC SD II.52)


Moreover, the declaration that no one can come to Christ except the Father draw him (John 6:44), is right and true. However, the Father will not do this without means, but has ordained for this purpose His Word and Sacraments as ordinary means and instruments; and it is the will neither of the Father nor of the Son that a man should not hear or should despise the preaching of His Word, and wait for the drawing of the Father without the Word and Sacraments. For the Father draws indeed by the power of His Holy Ghost, however, according to His usual order, i.e., the order decreed and instituted by Himself, by the hearing of His holy, divine Word, as with a net, by which the elect are plucked from the jaws of the devil. Every poor sinner should therefore repair to holy preaching, hear it attentively, and not doubt the drawing of the Father. For the Holy Ghost will be with His Word in His power, and work by it; and that is the drawing of the Father. (FC SD XI.76-77)

Is this really a point worth debating? Holy Scripture itself speaks of humans using the Law: “But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.” 1 Tim. 1:8. Or are we going to start objecting to the term “law-enforcement”? I can see the slogans now: “Policemen don’t enforce the law; God enforces the law!” Eat your heart out, Father Malebranche. Or should I say, “eat your heart out, Mohammed”?




One Comment

Comments are closed.