Saturday, July 07, 2018

Gerhard Forde 1972 Where God Meets Man: Notes on Chapter 1

Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel, Published by Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.

In his Preface Forde states that he wrote this particular book for people struggling with “thinking about the faith.” It is written for those who “see that it is difficult to affirm many things that have come to us from the past but … find modern substitutes equally uncomfortable.” (5) Forde states that his work is meant to represent Luther’s theology based on a “two-fold conviction: first that many of our problems have arisen because we have not really understood our own traditions, especially in the case of Luther; and second that there is still a lot of help for us in someone like Luther if we take the trouble to probe beneath the surface.”(5f)

Forde argues that “we have failed to understand the basic thrust or direction of Luther’s theology.” (6) His contention is that “modern scholarship has demonstrated that Luther simply did not share the views on the nature of faith and salvation that subsequent generations foisted upon him and used to interpret his thinking.”(6) The key to really understanding Luther, according to Forde, is modern scholarship:
“This book attempts to bring the results of some of that scholarship to light and make it more accessible for those who are searching for answers today.”(6)

Chapter 1 “Up the Down Staircase”

Forde uses the illustration of the Ladder or Staircase as his point of comparison in explaining two main different types of faith. The illustration is from Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28. At the base, Forde asserts, is that too many think Christianity “has to do primarily with ‘going up’ somewhere — either to heaven or to some kind of ‘religious perfection.’”(7) Forde states that this notion is wrong, “it involves us in the task of ascending to heaven when we should be seeking like our Lord to come down to earth, to learn what it means to be a Christian here on earth.” (8) Forde calls this a “down to earth movement” and maintains that this movement “is an important key to understanding the theology of Martin Luther.”(8)

Here Forde makes a puzzling assertion about Luther’s history. His claim is that there is theological significance in the way that Luther rejected the use of the ladder, as in Forde’s illustration.
“Surely this is the significance of his leaving the monastery. He was turning his back on the piety of the ladder, the belief that the Christian life must be understood as the task of ascending to heaven by special spiritual exercises.”(8)
Forde might be conflating Luther’s writings against monasticism with other events. Luther did not leave the monastery. Luther became an Augustinian Monk in 1505. In 1511 Staupitz transferred him from the monastery in Erfurt to teach at the University of Wittenberg. In 1520 Luther wrote in favor of the marriage of priests and monks in “To the German Nobility” and in “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” In 1521 Luther was excommunicated by Leo X. The same year but after his excommunication Luther published a harsh critique of monasticism titled “On Monastic Vows.” This particular writing is an explicit rejection of system of monasticism as it was practiced in the Church at that time. This particular pamphlet was written to reform monasticism, to do away with the abuses, but not to destroy monasticism. Luther certainly wrote in this document against the idea that monastic life is somehow superior to other vocations. Luther did not take off his monastic habit make a full break with monasticism until 1524 — after he had been sent from the monastery and after he had been excommunicated. I realize this might appear as nit-picking, but I think it is important to demonstrate the difference between Forde’s generalization of Luther and how Luther’s development took place through the events and writings over the years. Forde uses this generalization to fortify his own view of Luther’s theology in this chapter.

Luther understood the ladder differently than the way Forde represents Luther. Forde is accurate that for Luther the Ladder is not meant to be climbed by our righteousness. But in Luther the Ladder is also not for us to climb down for our neighbor. Luther confessed that the Ladder is Christ himself. In commenting on John 1:51 Luther wrote:
“This is also an extraordinary word. But Christ applies the history of the dear patriarch Jacob, (Gen. xxviii.,) to himself, that the angels should ascend and descend upon him as on a ladder. … Before the advent of Christ, heaven was firmly closed, and the devil ruled powerfully; but through Christ ("hereafter") and in Christ heaven has been thrown open again, and now Christians see heaven open, and continually hear God, the heavenly Father, converse with him.”
[Luther’s Explanatory Notes on the Gospels, compiled from his works by Rev E. Mueller, Translated by Rev. P. Anstadt, D.D., 1899, Page 281 ]


This is a term that Forde used frequently throughout his writings with reference to Christ and the Scriptures.
“We must learn to think and speak about the gospel, as far as that is possible, within the limits of what we actually know, within the limits of what actually happens to Jesus here on earth and to us when we are confronted by the story of Jesus.”(13, italics mine)
Within the context of this chapter and book, and within the greater context of Forde’s writings he uses the term actual to refer to vaguely defined subset of gospel verses in contrast with what he maintains are the Evangelists’ later interpretations of the meaning of Christ’s words, death, and resurrection. Forde held to an historical critical view of the interpretation of the New Testament. The casual reader may make the mistake of thinking that Forde was making an appeal to the actual words of the New Testament as it is written. He was not. His meaning is that to truly understand Jesus one needs to get rid of what he considers to be the interpretations of the Apostles, the Evangelists, the apocalyptic passages, and to strip the text down to what his historical criticism claims can be found in the hypothetical Q source. This is how he uses the term actual. He does not explain this meaning to the reader in this chapter. But he practices this with how he selects texts and refuses to discuss texts in his interpretations of Law, Gospel, and the Atonement in this chapter. He does explain his historical critical approach to the text in his 1984 “The Shape of the Tradition” in the Braaten and Jenson Christian Dogmatics.


Forde’s discussion of the Law consists of many statements that direct his readers away from the words of the Law of God in Scripture. For example, he states:
“For Luther the crucial question was not so much what the law says, i.e. the information it contains, but what it actually does to you when you hear it.” (13, italics original)
At this point he summarizes what Luther stated on the uses of the Law in the Smalcald Articles (Part III, Art. II). Here Forde emphasizes that in Luther’s formulation:
“It is not said that the law was intended as a way of salvation. The law is not in that sense a ladder to heaven.”(13-14)
But immediately after this he also inserts his claim against the vicarious atonement:
“That would make the law into mere theory … into a theory about how it is satisfied.”(14)
In the place of the written word and law of God Forde maintains that for Luther:
“In its theological ‘use’ law should be understood as a concrete and actual ‘voice’ which ‘sounds in the heart’ and the ‘conscience,’ a real voice which afflicts a man in his isolation from God and demands that he fulfill his humanity.”(14)
Two points, at least, are important to note here. First, Forde is limiting the law to that which is not written in Scripture but which is felt in man. Forde does not explicitly tie his expression to natural law, but perhaps this is close. But making this connection does not appear to be Forde’s interest. He appears more interested in showing that the idea of law must be distanced from the written word of God.

Second, Forde asserts that the law functions not to show sin, but to “demand that he fulfills his humanity.” But what does it mean for one to “fulfill his humanity”?

One must at least grant that Forde’s language is very different from both Scripture and from Luther. Luther was pretty clear in his meaning in the Smalcald Articles:
But the chief office or force of the Law is that it reveal original sin with all its fruits, and show man how very low his nature has fallen, and has become [fundamentally and] utterly corrupted; as the Law must tell man that he has no God nor regards [cares for] God, and worships other gods, a matter which before and without the Law he would not have believed. In this way he becomes terrified, is humbled, desponds, despairs, and anxiously desires aid, but sees no escape; he begins to be an enemy of [enraged at] God, and to murmur, etc. 5] This is what Paul says, Rom. 4:15: The Law worketh wrath. And Rom. 5:20: Sin is increased by the Law. (SA II:II.4-5)
Forde’s states that for Luther:
“the voice of the law reaches its climactic crescendo in the preaching of the cross.”(15)
This is true.  But the solution Forde poses is puzzling:
“For the point is that ‘the law’ is not merely a set of commandments, not a list of requirements that could be disposed of merely by doing a few things and choking them off. The law is that immediate and actual voice arising from the sum total of human experience ‘in this age,’ up to and including the cross, a voice which will not stop until our humanity is fulfilled.” (15, italics mine)
The archetypal language “actual voice arising from the sum total of human experience…” is an unusual and rather Jungian mode of expression that casts an awkward and foreign paradigm on the notion of original sin.
“The law is that which accuses and terrifies and in a real sense, anything that does this functions as law. … It is a voice, which for the sinner, never ends.”(15-16, italics original)


As we saw above in Luther’s Smalcald Articles, he stated that
“the chief office or force of the Law is that it reveal original sin with all its fruits, and show man how very low his nature has fallen.” 
Yet, so far in this chapter, Forde has referred to sin only with reference to the guilt the person feels when accused by law. And the law, in Forde, is not the Ten Commandments, or the Two Great Commandments, but “anything” that accuses and terrifies.

For Luther, the aim of the law is to drive us to repentance for our sins. For Forde the aim is different and has to do with pointing out, in Forde’s terms,  how we have not “fulfilled our humanity.”


Forde’s definition of Gospel is different from what is found in Scripture and Confessional Lutheranism, and for that matter from most of organized Christianity. For Forde:
“[T]he gospel too must be seen in terms of what it does. For what is the Gospel? It is the end of the law! That is to say that what the gospel does is to put an end to the ‘voice’ of the law.” (16)
Now, this is how Forde is representing his interpretation of Luther:
“The voice stops, really, only when what the law demands is really there. That is, the voice stops only when we become fully what we were intended to be. The command to love, for instance, stops when we actually do love.” (16)
Forde does not understand this as a work of Christ credited to us. He teaches that
“In Christ this new creation has already and actually broken in on us, and the promise that it will be carried to its completion.”(16)
There is nothing in Forde’s interpretation of Luther or the Gospel that actually deals with or preaches the forgiveness of sins. Christ’s death
“Is the story of something that happened here on earth strong enough to break the actual hold of the law on us….”(17)
Forde explains Luther as teaching that the proper distinction between law and gospel is:
“[a] battle … between these contending voices or powers. That is why the basic question for Luther was the proper distinction between law and gospel. It is a question of how you hear the words, what they actually do to you. Some think they are hearing gospel when it is actually only another form of law.” (17)
Here it should be pointed out that Forde has repeatedly highlighted the vicarious atonement of Christ as one of these false gospels. Forde continued:
“Rightly to distinguish law from gospel is to hear that other voice, the voice that tells of him who came down to earth to give us also the gift of being able to live down to earth. It is a voice strong enough to make and keep us human, to enable us to live as we were intended to live — as creatures of God.”(17, italics original)
The Gospel does not have to do with the announcement of sins forgiven for Christ’s sake. Instead, for Forde the gospel consists of having the ability to hear “love” and to do “love,” the ability to be and do without self-doubt and guilt, particularly without fear of judgment from God.


Throughout this chapter Forde describes the doctrine of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement as legalism and antithetical to the Gospel.

Forde asserted that Luther was attacking and disagreeing with the doctrine of the Vicarious Atonement:
“But it was precisely this ‘natural’ way of thinking that Luther attacked. … But we misunderstand if we think that it was only this system or its abuse that he was attacking. He was attacking a way of thinking which is a kind of universal disease of mankind: the very idea that the law is a ladder and that God is one who can be bargained with or obligated to ‘pay off’ according to such schemes.” (9-10)
Forde is not arguing that we are unable to pay our debt because of our sin. He is arguing that the very idea that because of sin there is a debt we owe before God that must be satisfied.
  “Let me explain. We begin by assuming the law is a ladder to heaven. Then we go on to say, ‘Of course, no one can climb the ladder, because we are all weakened by sin. We are all therefore guilty and lost.’ And this is where ‘the gospel’ is to enter the picture. What we need is someone to pay our debt to God and to climb the ladder for us. This, supposedly, is what Jesus has done. As our ‘substitute’ he has paid off God and climbed the ladder for us. All we have to do now is ‘believe it.’ 
  “But what have we done when we understand the gospel in this way? We have, in fact, interpreted the gospel merely as something that makes the ladder scheme work. The gospel comes to make up for the deficiencies of the law. The gospel does not come as anything really new. … It is trapped in the understanding of law which we have ourselves concocted.
   “The net result is that the gospel itself simply becomes another kind of law. …. If you want to be saved you must now ‘believe’ all that. That is the new law. (10-11)
Forde says the notion of Christ paying our debt of sin is part of ‘climbing the ladder’ to make ourselves better before God. And that this notion of the vicarious atonement faces several difficulties.
“In the first place, can we so lightly assume that God is one who can be ‘bought off’ — even by Jesus?” (11)
Forde asserts that the way one knows this is true or not about God is how this question affects our sensibilities:
“If the question shocks us, we ought to take it as an indication that we cannot really think that way about God at all.”(11)
Luther called this way of thinking about God enthusiasm. (SA II:VIII Of Confession, 3-13 )

Forde continued:
“In the second place, to introduce the question of payment in this way inevitably raises the old question of how can we be sure that Christ has paid enough. … The usual answer is to say that because he is divine, his sufferings have infinite worth. But that is only a further theory which complicates rather than solves matters. For instance, can the divine suffer? … After all, if all his sufferings have infinite worth, one would think that the beating and the crown of thorns would have satisfied God!” (12)
With those words we can see that Forde does not accept what Luther plainly and repeatedly preached. For example, Luther taught:
57. But now, if God’s wrath is to be taken away from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, some one must merit this; for God cannot be a friend of sin nor gracious to it, nor can he remit the punishment and wrath, unless payment and satisfaction be made. Now, no one, not even an angel of heaven, could make restitution for the infinite and irreparable injury and appease the eternal wrath of God which we had merited by our sins; except that eternal person, the Son of God himself, and he could do it only by taking our place, assuming our sins, and answering for them as though he himself were guilty of them. This our dear Lord and only Savior and Mediator before God, Jesus Christ, did for us by his blood and death, in which he became a sacrifice for us; and with his purity, innocence, and righteousness, which was divine and eternal, he outweighed all sin and wrath he was compelled to bear on our account; yea, he entirely engulfed and swallowed it up, and his merit is so great that God is now satisfied and says, If he wills thereby to save, then there shall be a salvation. As Christ also says of his Father’s will, John 6:40: “This is the will of my Father, that every one that beholdeth the Son, and believeth on him, should have eternal life.” Also Matthew 28:18: “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth.” And in his prayer in John 17:1-2 he says: “Father, glorify thy Son, that the Son may glorify thee; even as thou gavest him authority over all flesh, that to all whom thou hast given him he should give eternal life.”
[Lenker vol 2 p. 293-4, italics mine ]
Forde’s third issue is
“the troublesome question of forgiveness. If God has been paid, how can one say that he really forgives? If a debt is paid, one can hardly say it is forgiven. Nor could one call God’s action mercy.(12)
Indeed, it would not be mercy if the debtor had to pay his own debt. But in the Scripture it is not the debtor who has to pay his own way. It is the creator who pays the debt on behalf of the debtor. The master in in Jesus’ parable forgives the debt of his servant, the debt does not just disappear, the master is covering his servant’s debt.(Matthew 18:21-35)

For each of these issues Forde declares that Luther opposed such theology:
“We shall not approach an understanding of the theology of Luther unless we begin to see that he was against such thinking, against this ‘natural reason,’ ‘the devil’s whore.’ … For who knows, really, whether God is ‘satisfied’ in the kind of way the theory suggests? Who knows whether we are right in saying that the sufferings of the divine-human Jesus have the ‘infinite worth’ demanded by the scheme.”(12-13, italics original)
A student of Scripture in Confessional Lutheranism should have no problem dealing with these misinterpretations of Luther. Forde’s problems exist, at least in large part, because he has already rejected the Bible as the source and norm for what God teaches. Forde wants to find ‘what we actually know’ but chooses to discount anything in the New Testament and Old Testament which does not fit within his philosophical construct of what God must be like. He is not measuring his theology against Scripture. He is refusing any passage or context which does not fit with what he wishes Christ to be.

Forde’s claim to teach Luther more clearly and more accurately is open to exactly the same criticism. Forde selects only those phrases from Luther that fit the kind of theology Forde imagined Luther to have. But it does not take a great deal of searching in Luther to show how much Forde has to ignore or throw out.

Every child who has learned Luther’s Small Catechism should be familiar with Luther’s confession about the payment Christ made on our behalf for our sins.
“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.” [ Small Catechism Second Article: Meaning, italics mine ]
Luther was also very clear in the Large Catechism that Christ paid the debt of sin, and my sin. Luther stats that the debt is a debt I owe as a sinner. Christ paid my debt with His own blood. That is, His being put to death.
“ how and whereby it was accomplished, that is, how much it cost Him, and what He spent and risked that He might win us and bring us under His dominion, namely, that He became man, conceived and born without [any stain of] sin, of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, that He might overcome sin; moreover, that He suffered, died and was buried, that He might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owe, not with silver nor gold, but with His own precious blood.” [ Large Catechism Second Article §31 ]
In 1519, Ten years prior, on Good Friday just the year after the Heidelberg Disputation Luther preached:
“[Y]ou see the severe wrath and the unchangeable earnestness of God in regard to sin and sinners, in that he was unwilling that His only and dearly beloved Son should set sinners free unless he paid the costly ransom for them as is mentioned in Is 53, 8: ‘For the transgression of my people was he stricken.’" [ Martin Luther, Good Friday Sermon, 1519, §4, italics mine ]
And a few paragraphs later:
“cast your sins from yourself upon Christ, believe with a festive spirit that your sins are his wounds and sufferings, that he carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Is 53,6 says: ‘Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all;’ and St. Peter in his first Epistle 2, 24: ‘Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree’ of the cross; and St. Paul in 2 Cor 5,21: ‘Him who knew no sin was made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.’" [ §13 ]
It should be clear from these quotations that Luther did very much believe, teach, and confess that Christ paid the debt for our sin, and that this payment was made to make restitution to the Father.

Claims about Luther

 “I hope to show, by developing some of the important facets of Luther’s thought, that he was quite opposed to a theology based on the idea of the ladder, that one can look upon his work as a great attempt to reverse directions, to base faith entirely on a God who came ‘down to earth’ and to foster a Christian life which is likewise ‘down to earth.’” (8)
What Luther opposed was the notion that sinful humans paid or could make satisfaction for sin. Forde claimed:
“Luther understood the gospel as something more than a theory about how God might or might not have been ‘bought off’ up there in heaven. If it were only that it would be just another law; it would be merely a set of doctrines to which the command would be added: ‘Thou shalt believe this or perish.” (17)
But here Forde is appropriating parts of what Luther wrote to support the very different image of Christ, Atonement, and Gospel that he (Forde) has constructed. Forde is also reconstructing Luther to fit his (Forde’s) own image of what he wished Luther to have been. Forde is using terms and phrases in a way to imply that Luther rejected, or at least, would never support the notion that Christ paid the debt of sinners.


These notes are only on the Preface and Chapter 1 of this short book. My notes are probably longer than the chapter. I realize this is only the first part of this book and that Forde probably went on to explain some aspects of what he covered in this chapter. This chapter, however, does show that in 1972 Forde already clearly distanced himself from the historical Scriptural terminology and the theology of the Lutheran Confessions. His distancing is deliberate and clear. His discounting or ignoring of Scriptures to fit his theology is paralleled by his discounting or ignoring of Luther’s writings to fit what he wished Luther to have been.

What is amazing to me is that a work like this could be taken seriously as an explanation of Luther's theology! In his introductory Forde brought up Law, Gospel, and the proper distinction, the Atonement, all without ever dealing with Scriptural definitions or those topics or of original sin, actual sin. He claimed to present Luther's views, but Luther's frequent and clearly stated teaching on these were cleanly excised from the picture of Luther presented by Forde. Again, I have yet to do a full analysis on the rest of the book, but this introductory chapter presents Forde, not Luther. Forde presents his caricature of Luther and his doctrine, and his (Forde's) caricature of Scriptural doctrine to the reader as genuine, authentic, as actual. But all he has taught so far appears, to me, to be that Christ came to tell us, "Hey, God's ok with you. Just be you! Look! I did it! That's what you do." He rejects the notion that God is a Just God visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children. He rejects Christ's payment for sin.

As I have written previously, Forde's arguments and teaching grow in sophistication and in popular appeal, but I do not see him changing significantly in substance. He is capable of and adept at using historic Christian and Lutheran terminology with very different meanings.