faith versus love

I’m currently listening to a lecture series on Luther produced by The Teaching Company (under the marketing name “Great Courses”). The lecturer is Philip Cary, who a friend assures me is still a professor of Philosophy at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. 

Cary’s title for the lecture series is “Luther: Gospel, Law and Reformation.” It’s a brilliant introduction to Luther’s life, historical context, and thought, and comes with Cary’s unique take on some of the more technical aspects of Luther’s theology (for example, on the damaging consequences of his polemical style; on his putative affinity with the “theotic” soteriology of Eastern Orthodox mysticism; and so on). 

Luther at Wittenberg.Anyway, listening to these lectures has provoked me to a lot of disparate trains of thought. One train involves an implication of Luther’s opposition (according to Cary, Luther’s always trading in oppositions) between the requirements faith imposes on Christians and those love imposes.

First we need to get clear on how Luther is thinking of these two spheres of duty. It’s not as if faith and love are two diametrical characteristics of Christian life. (I can already hear some folks questioning the validity of an “opposition” between the two.) By “faith,” Luther means something like what we mean by “doctrine”—it’s like saying “the faith” (as a set of beliefs) rather than “faith” (as an abstract concept). Further, Luther imagines these two spheres as corresponding to two different “masters.” Faith answers to God; in fact, it serves God by ascribing appropriate and truthful propositions to him and worshipping him accordingly. Love, on the other hand, serves others—it is directed outward, horizontally toward the world. 

This is not to say that we don’t experience “love” in relation to God. Luther is just following the set of seemingly contradictory propositions he outlined in his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

As you can probably guess, the first of these propositions is meant in relation to God, while the second is meant in relation to the world or to other humans.

This separation of spheres is typical of Luther (and typical of many Christian theologians attempting to follow Augustine). It appears in his political theology (the “two kingdoms”), his theological anthropology (“body and soul,” “inner and outer”), his doctrine of sin (“freedom in Christ” versus “the bondage of the will” in sinfulness), and so forth. 

But the reason this separation caught my ear is because it seems to offer a new model (or perhaps a theological justification of an intuitive model) for engaging secular culture—and, in particular, secular beliefs and those who hold secular beliefs.

Let’s return to Cary for a moment.

In the course of explaining Luther’s polemical style and its ramifications for theological debate (and consensus) among Luther’s followers and other Protestants following Luther’s death, Cary brings up the opposition between faith and love. He claims that this opposition allows Luther to see his attacks on theological opponents as separate from his call to love and serve them as fellow Christians. In other words, the duty of faith means that when it comes to argument over theological propositions, Luther will never back down. What is more, this standing firm is construed as fidelity to God and God’s Word—and, therefore, love for God. 

But when conflict occurs in one’s individual or personal life—apart from theological debate—the duty of love trumps the duty of faith. And love (again, according to Cary) is bound by no principles. A Christian ought to love and serve those whose principles or commitments or theological convictions (!) he or she despises. That is the cash value of the distinction between the duties implied by the realm of faith and those implied by the realm of love.

It ought to be obvious by now where I am taking this. 

Many Christians of my generation struggle with the hypocrisy presumably entailed in the cliché “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This hypocrisy is most palpably sensed when the issue of homosexuality is on the table. But if Luther’s distinction holds water, then it might not be impossible to believe one thing about homosexuality and to love and serve homosexuals and those who disagree with us about homosexuality. For one duty belongs to the realm of faith and the other to the realm of love. 

Now, I admit there are a lot of questions that arise from this arrangement. (Such as: Isn’t there an overlap between these two realms? Doesn’t what we believe about people affect how we treat them?) This reflection isn’t intended to be a comprehensive resolution of the problems it engages. But it is an attempt to begin thinking more critically about our instincts with respect to the dominant (secular) culture and our friends who adopt that culture. 

Hope graffiti.

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One response to “faith versus love

  1. Chris Colizza

    Can the duty of love truly trump the duty of faith?

    We strive for love, to prevent ourselves from sounding a resounding gong, but as you said, these are not diametric principles, and they don’t separate like oil in water. Love may be the foremost fruit of the spirit, but it is only once we have a firm handle on our set of beliefs (see “faith”) that we know authentic love, and are thus able to love and be loved.

    Also, let’s steer clear of the double negatives (“might not be impossible”). I guess it’s more artistic, but it ends up causing me to reread sentences. I’m not a great writer, but you could be if you were more succinct.

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