Kaufman on how Luther gave us the likes of Feuerbach and Nietzsche

To set the stage, Kaufman is talking about the conceptual difficulties involved in conceiving of God as objective to us in a way broadly similar to how any other object with which we interact is objective to us. He is definitely pursuing an agenda with this analysis – as far as I can tell, he doesn’t want anything like a personal God in the traditional sense – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t illuminating. For instance, he has this nice bit about how Luther gave us the likes of Feuerbach and Nietzsche. To set the stage, he understands Luther’s notion of simul iustus et peccator as driving such a wedge between us and God – God is righteous, we are not, and we never actually possess righteousness as saved and so remain utterly distinct from God – as to undermine knowledge of God. Below are some extracts that draw some of these strands together.
“Luther’s position…is a reductio ad absurdum, I suggest, becomes it makes the distinction so sharp that even my consciousness of God—my ideas about him or the quality of my faith in him has nothing whatever to do with the question of my salvation. God has indeed become “wholly other” here…[T]he sharp distinction which Luther makes implies that nothing in us—even our thoughts about God—can claim actually to relate us to him, i.e., can lay claim to being valid or true or dependable in any respects. In short, God becomes—if one works through consistently what is entailed here—an absolutely unknowable, incomprehensible, unattainable, mysterious “X.” While this frees us to live out our lives in this world with confidence and spontaneity, it also means that nothing we are or can be, nothing we do or can do, nothing we think or can think, can in any way affect our relation to God either positively or negatively. God has become so abstracted from our consciousness and experience that these can go on, indeed, must go on, without reference to him or thought about him: he has become a zero, a nothing, a complete irrelevancy to our life here and now…

"…If God is really completely objective to and distinct from all our ideas, he is irrelevant to us in every respect; and we may as well lead our lives with no reference to or concern about him. This is the secularist conclusion which can be drawn from Luther’s position.

"However, Luther’s reductio ad absurdum of the objectivist language also opened up…the understanding that “God” is not a reality over against us, totally other from us at all, but is in fact a construction of the human imagination which performs certain important functions in our thinking and experience. The only God we can know or respond to or take account of is the God we can know and take account of and respond to. It is the God that we, with the help of a long tradition developing before us, construct in our imagination as the ultimate point of reference for all life and thought and reality…With Kant the issue at last became clarified: “God” must be understood as a human construct, doubtless a very important, perhaps indispensible, construct, but a human construct nonetheless.

"Successors to Kant—Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud, Dewey—have seized upon his discover…"

Gordon Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method, 3rd edition (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995): 31-3.
It bears mention that something like this is precisely the problem that Barth is trying to address in his theology. This is perhaps most clearly seen in Church Dogmatics 1.1 on the one hand, and in CD 2.1 and 2.2 on the other hand and – perhaps – in somewhat different ways.


Unknown said…
Yes, if there wasn't such a thing as Scripture!
Sabio Lantz said…
" ...he doesn’t want anything like a personal God in the traditional sense – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t illuminating."

Your ecumenicism here is appreciated ! (smile)
Your analysis of influences and deeper principles fascinates me -- I will keep following. May I ask, Why are your reading Kaufman?
Thank you for this post.

Sarcasm always gets bonus point here at DET! :-)

I must confess that this "Essay on Theological Method" is all of Kaufman that I have read, so my purview is a bit circumscribed. It landed on my desk as part of the bibliography for the method section of my qualifying exam in systematics.
Anonymous said…
I'm sorry for coming to this conversation almost two years late, but this topic confuses me a bit and I'd appreciate some help.

First, I'm still trying to understand what problem Barth (and Torrance) have with Luther in the area of epistemology. Is it really (as Kaufman suggests) the implied division between God and humanity that imputed righteousness creates, or is it the God hidden vs. God revealed distinction, or is the two kingdoms distinction (where in the earthly kingdom we can properly use our reason, but in the heavenly kingdom our reason only creates falsehoods)?

Second, again speaking from ignorance here, but I would think that Luther's emphasis on Christ as Word and God revealed in Christ crucified would have obviated any such concerns. In other words, while God is indeed wholly other, hidden and incomprehensible, he is yet truly (if not wholly) revealed in Jesus Christ. Is the "not wholly revealed" perhaps Barth's (and Torrance's) problem? If so, the same problem would exist in Calvin (i.e. Torrance's claim that b/c of a hidden decree in election, there is still a God behind the back of Christ).

Any help would be appreciated.


I think what Kaufman is getting at is the way in which Luther's theological trajectory can devolve, as opposed to something that was already problematic in Luther. So Luther's emphasis on revelation in Christ, of having no God behind Christ's back, can lead to an overly immanent conception of the divine if one is not careful. In time, this devolves even further into a secular religious idealism.

Now, what Barth wants to do is keep Luther's insight but prevent it from devolving in this way.

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