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Tradition and its ‘use’: the ethics of theological retrieval

  • Simeon Zahl (a1)


This article argues for the importance of attending to the subjective dynamics involved in retrieval of past theological traditions for contemporary purposes. Building on a close analysis of Martin Luther's distinction between the ‘substance’ of a thing and its ‘use’, the article makes a theological case for the importance of attending not just to what we retrieve from tradition, but also to how and why we retrieve it. Analysis of Luther's distinction suggests (1) that the meaning of theological claims remains unexpectedly fluid until such claims have been located within the ethical drama of ‘use’, and (2) that one of the best ways to get theological traction on the dynamics of ‘use’ is to attend to the affective economies in which theological reasoning is always located. It concludes by drawing attention to specific areas in contemporary ethics where new light can be shed through attention to the dynamics of ‘use’.

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1 For a helpful analysis of theological retrieval as it has been practised in recent theology, see Sarisky, Darren, ‘Tradition II: Thinking with Historical Texts: Reflections on Theologies of Retrieval’, in Sarisky, Darren (ed.), Theologies of Retrieval: An Exploration and Appraisal (London: T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2017).

2 Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2004); Anatolios, Khaled, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

3 For discussions of the ongoing viability of this strategy, whose impact on the discipline as a whole has been enormous, see Williams, A. N., ‘The Future of the Past: The Contemporary Significance of the Nouvelle Theologie’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 7 (2005), 00–00; and Flynn, Gabriel and Murray, Paul D. (eds), Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2011).

4 Tanner, Kathryn, Christ the Key (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).

5 Carter, J. Kameron, Race: A Theological Account (New York: OUP, 2008).

6 Williams, ‘Future of the Past’, 351.

7 Ahmed uses term ‘affective economies’ to signify the ways that affects are not simply properties that have ‘residence’ in individuals, but rather ‘work, in concrete and particular ways, to mediate between the psychic and the social, and between the individual and the collective’, and thus ‘circulate and are distributed across a social as well as psychic field’. See Ahmed, Sara, ‘Affective Economies’, Social Text 79/22 (2004), pp. 119–20.

8 Chaudhry, Ayesha, ‘Islamic Legal Studies: A Critical Historiography’, in Emon, Anver M. and Ahmed, Rumee (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law (Oxford: OUP, 2017), p. 22.

9 For brief discussions see Henschen, Christoph, Erniedrigung Gottes und des Menschen Erhoehung (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang 2009), pp. 196204; Gloege, Gerhard, Mythologie und Luthertum: Recht und Grenze der Entmythologisierung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1963), pp. 143–4; Ebeling, Gerhard, ‘On the Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis in the Theology of the Reformation’, in Word and Faith (London: SCM Press, 1963), esp. p. 71; and Weimer, Christoph, ‘Luther and Cranach on Justification in Word and Image’, in Wengert, Timothy J. (ed.), The Pastoral Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), pp. 295–7.

10 LW 26, p. 92; WA 40/I, p. 170; emphasis added.

11 On Luther's engagement with Aristotelian metaphysics, including his engagement with Aristotle's various scholastic interpreters, see Dieter, Theodor, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: Eine historisch-systematische Untersuchung zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), esp. pp. 234–50.

12 As Luther puts it in a much-discussed comment in the Dictata super Psalterium, ‘“substance” [substantia] properly is a quality or something from the outside rather than from the very being of a thing. For Scripture is not interested in the quiddities of things, but only in their qualities’ (LW 10, p. 356; WA 3, p. 419). According to Gerhard Ebeling, what Luther means by this is that the term ‘substance’ needs to be reinterpreted to signify ‘not the nature of a thing in and for itself, but rather what it signifies to the person engaging with it, that is, what the person takes it to be, and how he understands his relation to it’ (Ebeling, Gerhard, ‘Die Anfänge von Luthers Hermeneutik’, in Lutherstudien I (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1971), p. 24). In Ebeling's interpretation, this early claim about substances entails one of the most fundamental metaphysical breaks between Luther and late medieval theology, and becomes determinative of much of his thought. For further discussion of Ebeling's interpretation of the significance of this break, which has been criticised by Ruokanen, Juntunen and Peura, among others, esp. in relation to the ontology of the person, see Ruokanen, Miikka, ‘Das Problem der Gnadenlehre in der Dogmatik Gerhard Ebelings’, Kerygma und Dogma 35 (1989); Juntunen, Sammeli, ‘Luther and Metaphysics: What is the Structure of Being according to Luther?’, in Braaten, Carl E. and Jenson, Robert W. (eds), Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998); and Peura, Simo, Mehr als ein Mensch? Die Vergöttlichung als Thema der Theologie Martin Luthers von 1513 bis 1519 (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1994), pp. 7985. Regardless of whether Ebeling is entirely right about Luther's theology as a whole (a complex issue with which there is not enough space to engage here) there is little question that the later use/substance distinction develops out of the sort of thinking about substances that we see in the Dictata.

13 Non est disputatio de substantia, sed usu et abusu rerum. Non praedicamus, was das wesen an yhm selber sey. Sed de verkereten misbrauch tui cordis. Non cupimus mutari res, sed tuum cor perversum. WA 28:554.

14 LW 26, pp. 92, 95; WA 40/I, pp. 170, 175. Luther makes the same point in the Large Catechism: ‘Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it, but it is primarily a matter of the heart, which . . . seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils’: Luther, Martin, The Large Catechism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 388.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 387. See also LW 2, pp. 325–8; WA 42, pp. 494–7.

17 ‘There must be masks or social positions, for God has given them, and they are His creatures. The point is that we are not to worship and adore them. The power is located in the use of things, not in the things themselves [In usu rerum, non in rebus ipsis vis sita est]’ (LW 26, p. 95; WA 40/I, p. 174); trans. altered from the LW.

18 ‘Therefore he is not only a philosopher but a good theologian who does not condemn the things that God has given but condemns their use or control . . . It is . . . not evil to look at a woman, for woman is a good creature of God; but the fault is in your heart, because it desires a woman who is not yours’ (LW 2, p. 328; WA 42, p. 496).

19 ‘Paul calls food and clothes and the like [in Col 2:22] outward things, usum rerum. He has not forbidden this use [Brauch]. He has only forbidden the evil desires that go with it. So you must distinguish these two, the use and the desire’ (WA 9:614). This example from a 1521 sermon is a particularly early instance of Luther's deployment of the category of ‘use’.

20 ‘[O]utward things’ like images ‘can do no harm to faith, if only the heart does not cleave to them or put its trust in them’. LW 51, pp. 83, 81–3; WA 10/III, pp. 29, 26–9. See also the discussion in Weimer, ‘Justification in Word and Image’, pp. 295–7.

21 As part of a larger discussion of the relationship between physical and spiritual eating of the Lord's Supper, Luther comments: ‘Thus, “Spirit consists in the use, not in the object” [scilicet in usu, non in obiecto spiritus est] be it seeing, hearing, speaking, touching, begetting, bearing, eating, drinking, or anything else. For if a person serves his neighbor and does it physically, it is of no avail to him, for flesh is of no avail. But if he does it spiritually, i.e. if his heart does it out of faith in God's Word, it is life and salvation’ (LW 37, p. 92; WA 23, p. 189).

22 LW 2, p. 329; WA 42, pp. 496–7. Luther reiterates this claim later in the same section: ‘nature, which is corrupted by original sin, is unable to enjoy without abuse the things created and given by God, not because this is the nature of created things but because the heart of him who uses them is evil . . . [But] he who believes, has everything, and is lord of all; he can make use of all things in a holy manner. [The difference comes] not from the nature of the things we use but from a difference in the heart’ (LW 2, pp. 348–9; WA 42, pp. 510–11). Ebeling gives a helpful summary: ‘uti and usus is for Luther the category of existential relation to an object’ (Ebeling, ‘On the Doctrine’, 71). See also Luther's remarkable discussion in the 1538 Annotations on Matthew of the sayings about removing your eye or hand if it causes you to sin, where ‘use’ is interpreted in pneumatological terms: ‘Therefore [Jesus] is speaking about the use of your members, not their substance. For the Spirit is in the use of the thing. What is the substance without the use, except death and nothing? [quid est substantia sine usu nisi mors et nihil] What is the hand if it does not do anything, and cannot do anything? It follows that life-giving or use is proper to the Holy Spirit [Spiritui sancto vivificatio seu usus]’ (WA 60, p. 68).

23 LW 26, pp. 309, 307–16; WA 410/I, pp. 480, 478–91.

24 Luther continues: ‘The Law, then, is very sacred, very fine; but it does not justify. It frightens, it accuses; but it does not justify and does not free one from death. If I credit a given created thing only with the things for which it was ordained, I do well. So the Law is abused when I assign to the Law more than it can accomplish’ (LW 28, pp. 231–2; WA 26, p. 14).

25 Luther, Martin, Solus Decalogus est Aeternus: Martin Luther's Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, trans. Sonntag, Holger (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008), pp. 189–93.

26 Examples might include God's use of the interrogative in the garden (‘Where are you?’ Gen 3:9), or Nathan's equally devastating use of the indicative to David (‘You are the man!’ 2 Sam 12:7).

27 LW 26, p. 144; WA 40/I, p. 251; trans. altered from LW.

28 Quia Spiritus est usus rerum. Quia quid est substantia sine usu nisi mors et nihil? WA 60:68. See n. 22 above.

29 See e.g. his claim of the eucharist that ‘The Spirit is in the use, not the object’ (LW 37, p. 92; WA 23, p. 189).

30 In Luther's extended discussion of use and substance in the Lectures on Genesis, he refers directly to the relevant sections of Matt 5, 1 Cor 8 and 10, and Rom 14 (LW 2, pp. 328–9, 348; WA 42, pp. 497, 510–11). In the Galatians lectures he draws a similar point from 1 Cor 7:19 as well (LW 26, p. 92; WA 40/I, p. 170).

31 Augustine, De doctrina christiana 1.3–5, 20–1, 34–7.

32 See esp. the scholion on Rom 5:5 in LW 25, pp. 294–5; WA 56, p. 307. For a much later reference, see LW 2, p. 329; WA 42, p. 497.

33 Rowan Williams, ‘Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's De Doctrina’, Journal of Literature and Theology 3/2 (1989), pp. 140–1. Williams continues: ‘[But] in the light of Christ, no res is left alone. It can be used, and so become a sign; it can mean what it is not’ (pp. 141, 143). For a very helpful analysis of uti/frui in Augustine as well as in Williams’ interpretation of Augustine, see Ticciati, Susannah, A New Apophaticism: Augustine and the Redemption of Signs (Leiden: Brill, 2013), esp. chs. 5 and 6.

34 Augustine, too, is concerned about sin and idolatry, but his account of ‘use’ is also tied very closely to the metaphysics of a Christian theology of creation in a way that, while by no means absent in Luther, is less at the forefront.

35 LW 12, p. 311; WA 40/II, pp. 327a–328a.

36 ‘Language, Reality, and Desire’, p. 142.

37 LW 31, p. 262; WA 2, p. 8. For Calvin's engagement with the fathers as well as with scholastic theology, see Zachman, Randall C., John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of his Writings and Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 83–6.

38 For an excellent overview, see L'ubomír Batka, ‘Sin’, in Nelson, Derek R. and Hinlicky, Paul R. (eds), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther, 3 vols. (Oxford: OUP, 2017), vol. 3, pp. 349–51; as well as Phillip Anderas, ‘Augustine and Augustinianisms’, ibid., vol. 1, pp. 71–85.

39 In addition to the many citations of Augustine in the Lectures on Romans (see LW 48, pp. 24–5; WA BR 1, p. 70), Luther continues to speak positively about Augustine's views on sin and concupiscence throughout his life. See e.g. LW 34, pp. 185–7; WA 39/I, p. 116.

40 LW 54, p. 49; WA TR 1, p. 140. The trans. here is taken from Anderas, ‘Augustine and Augustinianisms’, p. 79.

41 LW 34, pp. 185–7; WA 39/I, p. 116.

42 Esteban Muñoz, José, ‘Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position’, Signs 31/3 (2006), p. 680.

43 The same point could be made in relation to many further areas in ethics, e.g. the role of non-explicit and affective factors in sexism at both individual and cultural levels.

45 ‘The proper subject of theology is man guilty of sin and condemned, and God the Justifier and Savior of man the sinner’ (LW 12, p. 311; WA 40/II, pp. 327a–328a).



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