Many know the experience of despair, the sense that there is “nothing ahead but emptiness and ruin.” The third study of how theology can console in The Consolations of Theology takes on the theme of despair.
How common is Luther’s sense of despair, his Anfechtungen, in the Christian life? Will the brokenness of the world and the crackedness of the Eikon lead to a Christian life that at one time or another, or quite often, lead to this experience?
The chp begins on a wide-ranging sketch of forms of despair in our world and then dives into the experience of Luther with despair, his Anfechtungen. If the first few pages show some pastoral sensitivities, the rest of the chp becomes (too much in my view) a more academic study of Luther’s own experience of Anfechtung. There is little here for anyone other than the one who is going through a conscience-stricken struggle before God. I do think the chp helps us understand Luther; I’m not sure it leads us into the consolation that theology brings for the one sunk in despair.
In other words, the chp is shaped for the one who experiences despair in a spiritual key, who thinks he or she has been abandoned by God, who thinks he or she stands condemned before God, whose theology is narrowly shaped by the justice of God, or the one who sense God is not on your side (from p. 54).
Despair, Thompson states, is the “loss of all hope” (55). Luther experienced this, though Thompson’s sketch of Luther seems to reveal that Luther found his way through each of one of them. So the loss of all hope is more the “seeming” loss of all hope.
Thompson sketches Luther’s famous existential struggle, which he describes as “nothing short of torture” (56). But Luther was offered the sacrament of penance: this was “the legalistic framework in which this opportunity for consolation was presented.” Luther discovers as a lone light in the Reformation that God’s righteousness is a gift. He experienced persecution because he would “oppose the system that long obscured and even contradicted his wonderfully liberating truth” (60).
What comes through strong in this chp is that the existential struggle of Luther (Anfechtung) was that such struggle was normal for the Christian, and Luther questioned the one who had not had this sort of experience. Without it, he said, one does not know the spiritual life. This experience is both the work of God and the work of Satan in Luther’s mind.
Furthermore, this experience led Luther to argue that genuine theology can only emerge out of such experience.
Finally, Thompson suggests that Luther’s response to the Anfechtung was to have a Scriptural word for the accuser and to recognize that a day is coming when the forces behind despair will be eliminated and joy will be our eternal possession.
The problem I had with this chp is that the expansive and pastorally-important themes of despair so prevalent in our culture were sketched and then abandoned for a much more narrow sense of despair, the despair of Luther. I would have liked to see the Luther portion sketched in fewer pages and then a study of how Luther can help Christians who experience various forms of despair.