Recently I read a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called “A Theologian in Death,” and it hit me like a load of prophetic bricks. It’s about Philip Melancthon, a contemporary and ally of Martin Luther, and it starts like this:
“I have been told by angels that when Melancthon died … he seated himself at the table and continued his writing, as if he were not a dead body, and this on the subject of justification by faith alone, and so on for several days, and writing nothing whatever concerning charity. As the angels perceived this, he was asked through messengers why he did not write about charity also. He replied that there was nothing of the church in charity, for if that were to be received as in any way an essential attribute of the church, man would also ascribe to himself the merit of justification and consequently of salvation, and so also he would rob faith of its spiritual essence.” (This and subsequent quotations are from Andrew Hurley’s translation in the Penguin Collected Fictions volume.)
Well, good for him! Right? Our man Melancthon is just being a good Reformed boy! After all, Ephesians 2:8-9 says the whole point of salvation by faith is so that we can’t boast about the awesomely humble and humbly awesome things we’ve done. Way to show those probably-reprobate, semi-Pelagian Catholics, Mel! Sola freaking fide.
We read on.
“Still, he went on writing, and since he persisted in his denial of charity … he suddenly seemed to himself to be under ground in a sort of work-house, where there were other theologians like him. And when he wished to go out he was detained.”
Hmm, that’s unusual. But still, other theologians like him—that must good, right? Perhaps this is some sort of Bible study? Or…spiritual retreat? You know, the kind where they lock your phone in a box and the bus doesn’t come back for a week? That’s what this is: some kind of boot camp for super-elite Reformers to prepare them to battle the evils of works-based salvation. Has to be.
“There was a room at the rear of the house in which there were three tables, at which sat men like himself, who also cast charity into exile, and he said that he conversed with them, and was confirmed by them day by day, and told that no other theologian was as wise as he.”
Perfect. See? No reason to be worried. “In the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14), and here’s a multitude telling our boy Mel that he’s on exactly the right path. Someone’s gotta do the hard work of telling the world that charity is really a false god, a distraction from our purely unearned salvation. It’s a heavy yoke, but he’s a strong guy.
“The last word we have of Melancthon is that the wizard and one of the men without a face carried him out to the sand dunes, where he is now a servant to demons.”
Wait, what? Servant to demons? How could ignoring the importance of charity in favor of faith alone qualify him for work as Screwtape’s secretary? Surely he’s not in…
We might laugh at (or criticize) Borges’s satire of Melancthon as an unrealistic caricature. But I think a lot of Christians today—especially those of us who call ourselves “Reformed”—stand to learn something from Borges here. Eager to reject “works-based” religion—from the prosperity gospel to Wesleyanism to Catholicism—we dig our heels into our confessions and creeds and solas, first trusting in them to get us to heaven and only later worrying about what they mean for our daily lives. We claim what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and what Paul called a “license to sin.” We fail to listen when Jesus says “You have received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8).
St. Augustine offers us a guideline for how to read scripture that might challenge this doctrine-first mindset. He writes, “Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is not a liar” (On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green, I.86).
In other words, whether a biblical interpretation leads us to love is more important than whether it is exegetically correct. I can count on one hand the number of Protestants I’ve heard say this, and I’ve heard a lot of Protestants. But this is consistent with the way love is discussed in scripture. Paul famously says in I Corinthians 13 that it’s greater than faith and hope and that all spiritual accomplishments are useless without it.
I do believe (with Paul) that our personal salvation—whatever that means exactly—comes entirely by the grace of God and entirely through faith. But I also believe (with James) that it is simply impossible for this faith to exist without action. Faith and action are two sides of the same coin—a coin God has lent us to invest, not to hoard.
This line of thinking has helped me out a bit with two theological conundra:
First, the perennial question of Christian support for Donald Trump. Specifically, I’m talking about the Christian tendency, when others criticize Trump for claiming to be a Christian and not acting like it, to jump in with defenses like “we can’t know his heart” and “it’s up to God to judge.” These things are true. But it’s also true that we will know fellow servants of Jesus by their love (John 13:35). As sinners, we all display the fruits of the spirit haltingly and half-heartedly, but defending the faith of those who lead entirely without love is not Christian witness.
Second, it’s given me a way to think about atheists and people of other religious backgrounds who still act like Jesus. If faith and love are truly inseparable, then loving action doesn’t exist without some sort of faith in redemption, in self-sacrifice, in justice—in what I would call the divine. So, perhaps, people who serve others with all their hearts, minds, and strength but don’t assent to the belief statements of Christianity aren’t so separated from faith after all.
God is love; therefore, where there is genuine love, there is God. Jesus is the object of all true faith; therefore, where there are people who act like Jesus, there is faith.
I’m reminded of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, who says, “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” Here, action isn’t merely the evidence of Puddleglum’s faith—it’s the only thing left. Does that make him less of a Narnian?