"It's like that great Luther quote", says the conference speaker. And I lean forward, expecting some fiery nugget - boldly declaiming the works of the flesh as dung, narrating some epic battle with spiritual darkness (probably won by farting in the devil's face), an impassioned insistence on Christ crucified upending all our dearest ideals - essentially I'm expecting some red-meat theology still dripping with blood. And what do I hear? More often than not, it's...
As Luther said, "Humanity is like a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left."
And what is the moral to the story? Be balanced. Avoid extremes. Just like Luther, right?
Well, except that, such a sentiment doesn't sound very Lutheran now does it? If you are looking for a proponent of balance would you really choose Luther as champion of the via media?? Surely not! Surely Luther is the champion of theological extremes: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone - nothing balanced there! The whole reformation is the rejection of a balance between faith and works or between faith and reason. There is a place for works and reason but it comes on the far side of a radical insistence on God's glory to the exclusion of ours.
Balance is not an aim, it's the fruit of an extreme devotion to Christ, and Christ alone.
So then, what's the deal with Luther's quote? Well actually it has been mediated to us through CS Lewis (in "The World's Last Night"). And at that point, it all starts to make sense. Mr Mere-Christianity-Anglican used Luther's line and pressed it into his own service. He made it a word about the dangers of extremes and the wonders of balance. But in the context of Luther's Table Talk, this is what he actually said:
The world is like a drunken peasant. If you lift him into the saddle on one side, he will fall off again on the other side. One can't help him, no matter how one tries. He wants to be the devil's. (LW 54:111)
Now, to me, this isn't a quote about extremism. There are only two positions really - on the horse and off the horse. The point is not about finding a median point between opposing wings. In fact, Luther's thought here is itself an extreme view of human nature - that we are in bondage to Satan and want to belong to him! The problem isn't so much extremism, the problem is a mad (drunken) humanity that cannot save itself and can therefore only be saved by a radical intervention from beyond (not by a resolution of the drunk to 'find their balance'). If you ask me, Luther just isn't saying what Lewis wants him to say.
So next time you hear someone cite Luther's praise of balance, you'll know it's actually a Lewis sentiment. And you can decry it with extreme audacity, safe in the knowledge that balance is a monstrous evil. And nuance is always, always wrong.