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The Monstrous Evil of Balance: Or Why Nuance Is Always Always Wrong

luther"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.


13 thoughts on “The Monstrous Evil of Balance: Or Why Nuance Is Always Always Wrong

  1. Julie Noonan

    Interesting, though I'm a bit lost, maybe you can help.

    I take it you're referring particularly to the need to not balance in the sense of e.g. undermining the gospel for the sake of contextualisation?

    A quick question (which probably means I haven't picked up on your point properly, so, sorry): no room for nuance anywhere? Pastorally? In e.g. faith/works or sovereignty/human responsibility?

  2. Glen

    Hey Julie,

    Actually it's the other way around. I'm not really thinking about contextualisation. I am talking about the hellish dangers of "balancing" faith and works. We fought a reformation over that, and evangelicals are firmly against balancing those, but being grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone people. Out the other side of an extreme devotion to Christ and His blood *alone*... works happen to spring up. Not because we're balancing them against God's grace but because God's omnipotent grace when grasped in full, overflows into works.

    Sorta thing

  3. Cal

    "Balance is not an aim, it’s the fruit of an extreme devotion to Christ, and Christ alone."

    This is an excellent battle-cry.

    As an amateur historian, in the light of Christ Jesus, I'm finally able to begin to look at things with a balance. That now instead of trying to slot and categorize, based on who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I can see everyone as grey, in light of incarnation/cross/resurrection.


  4. Rich Owen

    Love it.

    Balance is THE most evil thing. After Marmite. And Sunderland.

    What is less amusing is how Hagel seems to hold more sway over evangelical theology than the extremes of Christ.

  5. Brian Midmore

    What is most dangerous is not balance but a false balance (prov 11.1) a balance created by the flesh and not the spirit. In the scripture we see a number of balances and they often seem like contradictions. E.g God has established teachers in the church Eph 4.11 but at the same we don't need anybody to teach us but the Holy spirit 1 Jn 2.27. One is the antidote to the other. This is a dynamic balance and not a static philosophical one.

  6. Brian Midmore

    I was thinking about entering into a discussion about the role or non-role of works in salvation but quite frankly it exhausts me just contemplating it. Perhaps Eph 2.8,9,10 sums it up best.(lets not quote vv 8,9 without v10). Works are a gift of grace as much as salvation. Works are necessary for salvation nonetheless Rom 2.7. Thus we have a dynamic between faith and works and not a balance between them. You see I couldn't stop myself!!

  7. Glen

    Hi Brian, nice to hear from you. I think the word 'dynamic' is much healthier than balance. Eph 2:10 shows where saving faith always powerfully moves - into the works of the new creation. But Eph 2:8-9 show that it's emphatically not a balance. Think, by way of parallel, of trees and fruit. We don't 'balance' being in-grafted into a new tree with generating fruit. But there is a 'dynamic' which, indeed, leaves us with both a gracious new identity *and* neighbour-loving fruit. Yet these both are found not because we're concerned for balance but because the dynamic of the gospel has swept us out of the old life (including dead works) and established us in Christ's new realm.

  8. Brian Midmore

    After I said that faith and works were a dynamic I realised that this was rubbish. I should have said package. If I get you right you seem to be saying that in order for works to flow we must preach that works are unnecessary for salvation. Doesnt this make our works in some way dependent on psychology i.e out of gratitude for the fact that salvation is free we do good. My problem with this is that it doesn't do justice to a verse like Rom 2.7. If however we see good works as coming as part of the package of salvation at conversion this allows us to see them as necessary for salvation. Of course there is a big difference between the works of the LAW and good works. God does not give us the works of the law we are freed from these totally but he does give us the works of his grace.

  9. Glen

    In a sense neither *our* faith nor *our* works are essential for salvation. Christ alone saves. We make no contribution to this at all. But He is freely given to us (by grace alone) - wicked sinners that we are. Receiving Christ is faith, and that is the point at which we receive salvation. Because Jesus *is* salvation. And works inevitably flow because we are ingrafted into the true Vine, and fruit will follow.

    I'm not interested in the psychology of it. For me, this order of salvation is not about getting our motivations right. It's simply the way the Bible presents salvation - i.e. as something that Jesus effects and then gives to us freely.

    Romans 2:7 is comprehended within an argument that concludes by saying there is no-one righteous and every mouth is stopped before the judgement of God... But now a righteousness from God is revealed through faith, etc, etc. You'll know there are lots of arguments about Romans 2, but the bottom line is that the chapter is part of a bigger argument that expressly seeks to stamp out any human boasting in works.

    I'm not wanting to dispel 'works' (faith alone saves but the faith that saves is never alone). But I wonder how you handle a verse like Romans 4:5:

    "However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness."

  10. Brian Midmore

    I don't handle Romans 4.5. I think it is true. Of course I didn't say that I thought works were necessary for salvation but that we were allowed to see them that way if we wished. Did not Luther say in a more nuanced moment that we are not justified by faith alone if faith is alone. Therefore in one way of looking at it we are justified by works. Arent you also being rather nuanced about Rom 2.7. I read it as it says he gives eternal life to those you patiently do good. Now this may be different to justification which is given to those who believe. Of course it is easy to avoid any balance between faith and works by building a theological system that is based only on faith and then ignoring or explaining away any verses that say that it is by works. If Paul really was trying to say 'we get to heaven not by any works at all not even good works but by faith' why does he say something like Rom 2.7. It doesn't make sense to me. Now if he was saying instead 'We are the covenantal people of God not by the works of the Torah but by faith just like Abraham' then Rom 2.7 makes perfect sense.

  11. Cal


    I don't see how the essence of what you're saying is in opposition to Glen.

    If faith is nothing but receiving Christ, a trust and relational bond, and works nothing but living out that trust (or obeying his commands), then there is no balance. The trust comes by the revelation of the Trustworthy One and works flow from that. We get no boasting in any of that, and yet this is the growth of being added to Jesus, the Righteous One in whom we are righteous.

    If we love him, we will obey him. That can/has been understood as a terror (wrongfully), but it's all grace. For He's the true vine and without Him we can do nothing.

    There needs be no real 'ordo salutis' lest it be Jesus alone.


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