No one was better than Luther at uttering quotable phrases. Many of his pointed verbal crystals have been swept into the public domain and become familiar to people who know little else of Luther’s theology. But, of course, all great phrase-makers have suffered this. Besides. Luther’s little remarks often contain a good bulk of theology in themselves.
Take, for instance, the famous words: simul peccator et justus, sinner and just at the same time. This phrase became the focal point of any number of theological controversies. Roman Catholics saw it as a betrayal that Luther meant to teach that grace remained wholly external to the Christian. There was a word of forgiveness, a word of pardon, but no grace that entered a sinner to make him a new and better man. The phrase revealed, Luther’s opponents said, that Luther was content to let the sinner remain a total sinner while enjoying the free grace of God.
But there are other phrases that Luther made immortal. I am thinking just now of this: Spiritus Sanctus non est scepticus. He said this in a context that included the remark that no more miserable slate of mind existed than that of uncertainty. Luther told us that we must remember that the Spirit writes no doubts and no mere opinions in our hearts. The Spirit breathes certainty.
In a time of uncertainty like our own, these words need capital letters. The truth of what Luther said is reflected in the Gospel. For if one thing is true of the New Testament, it is that the Spirit is set out in it as the faithful witness of Christ in the world. Anyone with a notion of studying this facet of the New Testament further would do well to look into two books: Der Paraklet, by O. Betz, published in 1963, and Zeuge und Märtyrer: Untersuchungen zur frühchristlichen Zeugnisterminologie, by N. Brose, published in 1961.
But in the event that the reader does not get to these books, he can do even better by comparing Luther’s words to the witness of Scripture itself. Perhaps Karl Barth had Luther in mind when he said that the word No is never a final piece of wisdom, and that he himself came increasingly to realize that the positive and the certain were the decisive things men had to live and die by. (See the foreword to his Kirchliche Dogmatik, IV/3.)
We live in a time when even theology is exploding with new and revolutionary problems. There is a danger that the serious student will be so impressed by all the problems in theology that he will circle all certainties by a ring of questions. When this happens, an inverse Pharisaism sets in. The doubting student says: I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as certain as those naïve people. Let Luther say it again: Spiritus Sanctus non est scepticus. Indeed, the Spirit is not a skeptic.
Well, of course, these words must not be allowed to cover up a simplistic certainty that is achieved by solving problems even before they have really been stated. The Spirit is no wavering doubter. But this does not mean that we know everything or can solve every problem. Paul, hardly a skeptic, did admit that he saw through smoky lenses. And even Luther often warned against false security.
That much must be said. But we have to watch out for people, including ourselves, who enjoy playing games with problems and glorifying uncertainty. Let Luther’s words be a living warning against such vicious sport. When problems pop up like bubbles in boiling water, doubt threatens to win the day from certainty. The impression is sometimes given that anyone having certainty has plucked a cheap triumph out of the air. I recall someone’s saying once that all certainty has something demonic in it.
The Reformation gave us a different outlook. Perhaps Reformed Christians more than anyone else have to be on guard against being know-it-alls. We know only in part, said St. Paul in connection with the riddles and the dark mirror we look through. But remember that he wrote this about not knowing it all in the chapter on love. He points a way through the riddles, a way that transcends the partial knowledge, a way we can walk in with blessing (1 Cor. 14).
Discriminating between evangelical certainty and false security may not be easy. We have to recognize the caricatures that even the friends of certainty make of it. But we want to brush aside caricatures only to get at the genuine article. If we really want to follow the right way into certainty, without falling into cheap security, we are going to have to remember that the Gospel is, after all, not yes and no, but only yes. We are going to have to keep in mind that the Gospel calls us into knowledge and not doubt, to certainty and not skepticism. Forgetting this, a man can stand in our day as an impressive poser of problems, but withal not as a witness.
We are not apostles, needless to say. But the message is here, and we are called to be witnesses. If the Spirit is in fact not a skeptic, then there are human witnesses to the truth. The witness must be faithful. We are not allowed to pass out opinions and guesses as if they were divine revelation. But we must stick to the message that points a way to certainty for doubting and problematic people. There is a right way to say “we know.” It must be said without pride if it is to be said in a way that will serve as a blessing to others and ourselves. But it can be and must be said—always humbly, but said nonetheless. To change Luther’s words just a bit: Christianus non est scepticus—The Christian is not a skeptic. Veni, Creator, Spiritus!
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.