You Cannot Serve the Lord! A Lutheran Response to Socrates

This is the last in a 3 part series on the relationship of Lutheran theology to Socratic ethics. Part 1 and 2 can be found here and here.


If you can remember back to the last post on Socrates, you’ll know that for Socrates, ethics fundamentally involved a problem of knowledge. People who know the right thing to do will do it. In this post, I’m going to delve into a different way of looking at the problem, a way that involves the peculiarly Lutheran idea of the bound will.

For Lutherans, the fundamental problem of ethics is not that people lack the knowledge necessary for right action. The fundamental problem is that people are not free actors. In their natural state, people can do nothing but the wrong thing. Even with full knowledge of the right and wrong, people will do the wrong thing, because people are captive to sin, death, and the devil. The farewell discourse of Joshua in Joshua 24 illustrates the problem. After Joshua explains the difference between right and wrong to the Israelites for several long chapters, he presents them with a choice: to serve God or to serve false idols. The Israelites respond, “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:18). Now, it appears that the Israelites have made the right choice, and the logical thing for Joshua to do is to affirm them and go get buried. Instead, Joshua replies, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God!” (Joshua 24:19). Joshua, you see, understands the bound will. He knows that even when people pay lip service to the right choice, their hearts are in another place. Joshua knows that despite his lecture and despite their answer, the hearts of the Israelites are inclined away from the true God and that they will not serve him.

Lutheran theology acknowledges that the deck is perpetually stacked against humanity. The state of humanity after the fall turns all of humanity’s efforts to do good into pious idolatry. To put it in another way, Lutheran theology recognizes that ethics is not an ethical problem, but a religious one. The turn towards a religious understanding of ethics happens in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Standing beneath the shadow of the crucified Lord, Lutheran theology sees that human distinctions between right and wrong pale in comparison. In the light of the crucifixion, there is no longer right and wrong. One is either in Christ or outside of Christ. Those who are in Christ see that all of the works are laughable attempts at self-justification, regardless of their standing in human eyes.

And so, finally, the Lutheran response to Socrates is to point to Christ and to proclaim that no amount of knowledge can help you to do the right thing, because the definition of right and wrong resides in the person of Christ, not in a set of propositions.

Socrates Walks into a Wall

This is the first in a 3 part series on the relationship between Socrates and Lutheran theology.


Tell me, Socrates, are you in earnest, or only in jest? For if you are in earnest, and what you say is true, is not the whole of human life turned upside down; and are we not doing, as would appear, in everything the opposite of what we ought to be doing? – Callicles, Plato’s Gorgias, 481

Even though I spend a lot of time reading things that others may find boring (trout taxonomy, comparative Latin and Greek grammar, etc.), there’s one subject for which I have a hard time mustering any enthusiasm: philosophy. Admittedly, philosophy is a very broad category, and so more specifically, it’s the philosophical classics that bore me to tears: Aristotle, Kant, Hume, etc. That said, I am 27 episodes into a series of podcasts called The History of Philosophy Without any Gapsa medium that I find more palatable. 27 episodes puts me squarely in the realm of Plato, and it’s gotten me thinking about a question that intrigued no less a Lutheran than Søren Kierkegaard. The question is: What’s the difference between Socrates and Jesus? Now, I’ll come back to that question in the next couple of posts, but for today, I’d like to highlight the one dialogue of Plato that I think every pastor needs to read.

The dialogue is Plato’s Gorgias. And most of it is as boring as his others. But, at line 481, Socrates encounters an opponent that stonewalls him: Callicles. Socrates is trying to convince Callicles that people ought to pursue virtue. Callicles, on the other hand, counters that virtue is simply a convention; might ought to make right. The substance of their argument is food for thought, but even more so, it’s the way that Callicles argues against Socrates ethics that elevates it into the required reading category. Callicles denies all common ground between Socrates’ “virtue” and his “might makes right.” Every time that Socrates tries to get a chain of logic going that will force Callicles into admitting the need for virtue, Callicles bursts it by denying Socrates terms. In the end, Callicles finally grows frustrated and refuses to continue, and so Socrates is left talking to himself (for a long period of time).

The take away for pastors (and Christians in general) is getting rid of the illusion that ethics are A) self-evident and B) founded on logic upon which all people will agree. Callicles shows that Socrates is only persuasive if he can get people to agree with him on foundational principles. But an opponent who denies those principles can’t be corralled. In the same way, pastors need to realize that many of the things that they hold to be moral and ethical “no-brainers” are not founded on self-evident or irrefutably logical principles. Christianity is not simply the best ethical system that all people will agree with once it’s adequately explained. There’s something more going on here. What that something is, I will explore in the next couple of posts.

Two Morning Prayers from Brother Søren

DSC_0434I’ve heard a lot of people voice the desire to add a time for prayer to their morning. Their desire is usually followed up by the lament that they can’t seem to find the time. As I’ve sought to establish a workable routine, my solution to the time dilemma has been to keep it short and to take myself out of it. I have found these two prayers from Søren Kierkegaard fitting both for everyday devotions and especially on Sunday mornings before worship:


If you permit me to know the many magnificent secrets of science, do not let me forget the one necessary thing. If you desire to extinguish my vigor of mind or if you let me grow old on earth so that my soul gets weary, always remind me of the one thing that can never be forgotten, even if I forget everything else, that I am saved by your Son.

Adapted from Kierkegaard’s Papirer, II, A, 309.


Father in Heaven! Do not hold my sins against me, but hold me up against my sins, so that the thought of you will not remind me of what I have committed, but of what you have forgiven, not of how I went astray, but of how you saved me!

Adapted from Kierkegaard’s Journal, 692.