To the editor [of the Wall Street Journal]
Brent Stephens’ “Pope Provacateur” (9/19/2006) is certainly a welcome and refreshing rebuttal to the fanatics whose very manner of response sort of proves this pope’s point. In particular I found myself nodding agreement with his highlight of the Pope’s recognition that for Islam, God is utterly transcendent, “not bound even by his own word.” This is also the case, Mr. Stephens notes, for Protestantism. Here, however, a distinction is needed, and the Lutherans’ perennial defense against being lumped with the Protestants might be a particularly helpful ingredient in the faith-and-reason debate. It was John Calvin, roughly the contemporary of Martin Luther, who insisted on the utter sovereignty of God, characterized by a boundless and transcendent will. Pristine Calvinism bears some striking resemblance to Islam in this respect. Luther’s complaints against reason are not to be understood in the same way. His complaint was always against the exaltation of reason above what is revealed. The Pope’s argument sounds similar to that of St. Anselm of Canterbury, with whose famous declaration, “I believe that I may understand” Luther had no quarrel. Indeed when the Pope affirms that God must be bound by His word, he and Luther begin to sound very much alike. When God is divorced from His word, whether by Christians or Muslims, the danger of fanaticism always looms nearby. Since Calvin never saw that utter divine sovereignty and divine mercy were incompatible with each other, his thought never reached the radical stage of which it might otherwise have been capable. With Islam—although it certainly has its moderates—there is no mitigating notion of divine mercy at all to offset a transcendent and untethered divine will. The result can easily be, understandably, a very unruly mob of people. They’re acting the way they believe their God is capable of acting.