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Where do we begin?

The twentieth-century German church historian Heinrich Bornkamm (brother of Günther Bornkamm for you New Testament folks) once made a helpful and lucid comparison of the theological vision of Martin Luther and the great thirteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328). This was meant to shake us free from the common yet ham-fisted connection made between the great German reformer and the rather brilliant flowering of mysticism that had occurred in late medieval Germany. Certainly Luther was something of a nativist and enjoyed reading works inspired by Eckhart. The reformer described sermons by Johann Tauler (1300-1361) as “pure and solid theology,” while declaring that the mystical Theologia Deutsch ranked just under the Bible and Augustine. However, if we dig just beneath the surface of this praise, we find a deep disconnect between what we might loosely call Luther’s classical Protestant vision of the human condition and soteriology on the one hand and the commitments and sensibilities of Christian mystics stretching from the late patristic era through voices like Eckhart and Tauler in the later Middle Ages on the other.

Here is a rough approximation of Bornkamm’s comparison, one repeated by Steven Ozment in his The Age of Reform, 1250-1550 (1980).

  1. Luther believed that religious intellect came from faith while Eckhart believed it was a latent ability within, located somewhere in the “ground” of a man’s soul.
  1. Eckhart believed that there was some “still point” in the depth of a man’s soul which could mediate and cultivate divine purity. Luther denied that any such thing existed.
  1. Luther understood the human person holistically, while Eckhart understood the human person as a composite of contradictory natural and supernatural essences.
  1. Luther saw a person’s union with God as providing the individual with a clear view of how far away from God he or she really is. The individual then puts even more trust in the God who acts graciously. Eckhart, on the other hand, believed that such a union removed all distance.
  1. More needs to be said about that last point. For the medieval mystics, the soul wraps itself in love first. This purifies the soul, making the soul more like God and thus ready for God. Luther insisted that faith, not a steady progression, accomplishes this union. Luther shook his head the belief that likeness to God is the indispensable condition of both a saving knowledge of God and a saving relationship with God.
  1. Eckhart taught that union with God came by ascetical exercises and the final state of contemplation, a steady movement toward God. Luther rejected this entirely, insisting on God’s gracious movement toward wounded creation.
  1. Like Luther, Eckhart did reject external works as roads to union with God – so it looks like he and Luther agree. But Eckhart believed that one substitutes inner works of humility in the contemplative quest. And (here’s the money line) this results in meritorious grace. For Luther, it’s all a matter of faith, and grace does not come because of anything you do, interior or exterior.
  1. No matter how “democratic” the late medieval German mystics may be (something highlighted by the master historian of the Christian mystical tradition, Bernard McGinn), they do ultimately privilege the contemplative life. Luther, though, wrote very firmly that men and women are called by God into a number of vocations and these are divinely ordered. The fishmonger may be just as close to God (or far from God) as the contemplative.
  1. For Luther, word and sacrament are the media for the Holy Spirit. For Eckhart, word and sacrament are externals that are basically aids to help the individual retreat into the soul and there, deep down in that aforementioned still point, the Holy Spirit finds an entry-point.
  1. Luther rejected the mystics’ disdain for the world as something that needed to be abandoned in order to make spiritual progress. Luther, ever earthy and sometimes foul-mouthed, loved the world in all its messiness, seeing it as the wretch saved by grace alone. (Thus all that good beer … )

Luther and Eckhart are miles apart and a connection between Luther and the great German mystics is tenuous. Much more could be said on this subject. A counter-argument might turn to the diversity of Lutherans prior to the Formula of Concord (1577) and the attraction some of them felt for themes in Eckhart. Certainly Valentin Weigel (1533-1588) was drawn to Eckhart’s concept of gelassenheit, the release of the will to that of God. The conversation can go on and on.

My purpose, though, in walking through this comparison of Luther and Eckhart is to reflect on something far simpler. Wherever you (dear reader) find yourself in this dichotomy, there is something assumed by both Luther and his fellow Christian, Meister Eckhart: the need for transformation. Both assume that humanity needs new life. And so whether you are a traditional Catholic committed to a well-worn ascetical discipline or a classical Protestant who has no greater passion than to speak of God’s free grace, transformation is still a basic starting place. Perennial debates about imputation or impartation, as important as they really are, still assume that human beings are a “damn mess” (to borrow from the film A River Runs through It). Though miles apart, Luther and Eckhart have no doubt that change is part of the Gospel message, that you and I are in need of change, in need of resurrection from the cold, airless tomb where we eke out a shadow-life.

To put things simply: that which objectively exists cannot be equated with what God desires. So says Eckhart. So says Luther. So says Augustine. And to risk being provocative, so says Pelagius. But let the reader understand: I am far from attempting to paper over important differences between these voices. Pelagius was a heretic. But there seems to be agreement on this basic point: change is required; creation needs transformation.

Regarding this very basic element of Christianity, one might say, “Well yes … so what.” My point is that we often uncritically glide past this assumed starting place. Unfortunately, Christians can no longer afford that luxury. The need for transformation is no longer an agreed-upon starting place either in our broader Western culture or, strange to say, the Church. It’s not simply that we aren’t on the same first page of a book, it’s more that we aren’t even together in a library. We have come to a place where even this basic assumption (transformation, resurrection) cannot be taken for granted, even within the Church of the risen Jesus. This is important not only for basic discipleship but also for apologetics and mission in an increasingly post-Christian world.

At the risk of essentializing, if you and I cannot recognize in the first instance that we are a “damn mess,” then I’m not sure what Christianity can offer.

The featured image is from the painting of the Fall in the Sistine Chapel. It is in the public domain. 


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