Theology the Lutheran Way. By Oswald Bayer. Edited and translated by Jeffrey G. Silcock and Mark C Mattes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. 302 pp. Paper, $34.00.
Oswald Bayer is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. A well-known Luther scholar, Bayer has attempted to combat what he views as the modern deformation of theology. This occurs whenever theology is influenced by methods that neither serve, nor are shaped by, the gospel. Bayer gives the examples of transforming the gospel into an existential encounter (Schleirmacher), moralism (Kant), or a theoretical system (Hegel). In Theology the Lutheran Way, he emphasizes the linguistic nature of theology, and explains why its ultimate subject is the promise of God.
Drawing on the work of J. L. Austin (the Oxford philosopher and proponent of Ordinary Language Philosophy), Bayer calls attention to the distinction between two kinds of speech acts: those that are constative and those that are performative.
A constative speech act describes a state of affairs but does not actually bring it about. For example, uttering the sentence: “Peter and Chloe exchanged vows,” describes the moment in which Peter and Chloe were married, but does not make them married.
By contrast, a performative utterance actually brings a new situation about. Bayer’s primary example of a performative utterance is a promise. Thus, when Peter and Chloe promise each other, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” they are not describing anything, but creating a new “marital” state of affairs that did not exist before. Their promises actually create a new situation.
Bayer explains that this understanding of the nature of promises (promissio) revolutionized Luther’s approach to theology, beginning with the sacrament of absolution. This is the sacrament where a priest pronounces a repentant sinner to be forgiven.
At first, Luther thought the priest was merely describing a forgiveness that had already taken place. That is, the priest would look for signs of true repentance, and then reassure the penitent that God had already forgiven him. But later, Luther began to think of absolution as a performative speech act, one that brings about what it promises. On this view, the priest actually accomplished the forgiveness through the declaration of absolution.
[T]he absolution is seen as a speech act that first constitutes, brings about, a state of affairs, by creating a relationship between the one in whose name it is spoke and the one to whom it is spoken and who believes the promise (p. 130).
When the priest pronounced forgiveness on God’s authority, and that promise is believed, a new situation is created whereby the penitent was actually forgiven by God.
This understanding of the promise of absolution affected Luther’s view of the gospel. For Bayer, as for many readers of this journal, the proper object of saving faith is not descriptions of Christ’s life, but the promise of everlasting life. Bayer’s analysis of promise-making sheds light on a number of areas of disagreement in Free Grace circles over the precise object of saving faith.
First, Bayer’s analysis clarifies why it is in the very nature of the gospel to be received by faith apart from works. As Bayer explains, following Luther: “The gospel, strictly speaking, is a promise without any demand, a pure promise (promissio), a gift” (p. 125). Promises do not demand. They give. They do not call us to act. They ask us to believe the promise being made, apart from our works.
Second, understanding the nature of promise-making also shows why assurance is essential to saving faith. Bayer quotes Luther on the grounds of our assurance:
And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves (nos extra nos), so that we depend not on our own strength, conscience, mind, person, or works, but on what is outside ourselves (extra nos), that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive (p. 130).
Believing the promise means believing that it is addressed to you, true for you, not because of your nature, but because of God’s faithfulness. Believing the promise also means being assured that it is true. It would be logically impossible to both believe the promise and not be assured that it was true. Hence, assurance is of the essence of faith in the promise.
Third, Bayer’s analysis helps to explain why the facts of Jesus’ life are not the core message of the gospel. The gospel contains a number of descriptions of Jesus’ life, of Who He was, and what He did. These descriptions are constative utterances. They describe historical truths, but do not create a new situation, i.e., put one in relationship to God.
But the message of everlasting life is not a descriptive statement, it is a promise (p. 132). As such, it is a performative utterance—it gives what it promises. Once you believe in Jesus for everlasting life, you actually receive that life. You become regenerate and are placed in a new relationship with Him.
Fourth, understanding the nature of promises also explains the nature of saving faith. Critics of Free Grace theology often say that we erroneously exclude things like sorrow from sin, turning away, and obedience from our definition of faith (see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, ch 35). Their definition of faith is different from our own because they have a different understanding of what the gospel is. Bayer argues that our definition of saving faith will depend on how we understand the nature of the gospel: “If the word becomes an appeal, faith becomes its performance in action. If the word becomes a demonstration, faith becomes insight; if it becomes a statement, faith becomes knowledge. Finally, if the word becomes an expression, faith becomes a ground of existence or a ground of experience given with human being as such. Only if the word is promise (promissio) is faith really faith [italics added]” (p. 139).
If people think the gospel message is an appeal to action, they will naturally think that faith itself is an action in response to it. If they think the gospel is a historical description of something that happened long ago, then faith will be defined as knowledge of that historical fact. If they think the gospel is an existential encounter, they will take faith as reception of that encounter.
By contrast, if the gospel message is understood as a promise, then faith will be understood as faith. Promises can only be believed. They create a new situation between the one making the promise, and the one who believes the promise, but that is not because of an action undertaken by the believer. It is by faith alone. Hence, Bayer claims the only way for faith to retain its true character as faith, is for the gospel to be a promise.
Bayer makes a number of remarkable suggestions about how best to understand theology and the gospel. But readers be warned, this is an extremely difficult book. Bayer is a German academic, and writes like one. He is well versed in contemporary philosophy and theology and engages those subjects at the highest levels. Most people (including this reviewer) will find it hard to follow Bayer’s arguments. Nevertheless, Bayer’s treatment of the gospel as a performative utterance helps to clarify why the message of everlasting life is the proper object of saving faith, and why only faith apart from works can receive it. Recommended for advanced readers.
S. C. Lazar
Director of Publications
Grace Evangelical Society