Greinasafn fyrir merki: homiletics

Majesty of God and the Limitation of the World – Vídalínspostilla

In addition to Hymns of the Passion, Vídalínspostilla has been a major force in the development of Christianity in post-Reformation Iceland. The author, Jón Vídalín, was born in 1666 into a family known for its interest in learning and education. His grandfather, Arngrímur the Learned, had gained international standing for his scholarly works. Vídalín’s father was educated in Holland and Denmark, studying medicine, the natural sciences, and theology. Vídalín started learning Latin at the age of seven. He finished his studies in Skálholtsskóli at the age of 16, which was quite unusual at the time. At the age of twenty he set off to study in Copenhagen with the striking reference ingenio ad magna nato. After finishing his studies and working on copying Icelandic manuscripts, he tried military service. Disillusioned, he was released from his duties in order to begin a pastoral career in Iceland. He was ordained bishop of Skálholt in 1698, at the age of 32. His career turned out to be extraordinarily difficult. The church was in a poor state. Judicial affairs were in disorder, tension reigned in the political arena, and this was also a time of natural catastrophes. But Vídalín became a great leader in his church. Jón Vídalín died in 1720.[1] 

Vídalínspostilla was first published in 1718. Over the next 80 years, it was reprinted ten times, which demonstrates its popularity. In the earlier part of the nineteenth century it was reprinted three times, but then not again until 1945. In the later part of the nineteenth century, other works took its place. The Postilla is a very large book and was enormously expensive. Nevertheless, an astonishing number of people did actually buy it.[2] Immediately after its first publication, the Postilla became the major religious book in Icelandic homes. It was read on Sundays and major religious holidays. It was also used to teach children to read. Around 1800 the book was in use in most homes in Iceland. Commentators differ onthe question of how long it was actually read. All agree that it was used everywhere Iceland until about 1800. Most argue that it was read until the middle of the nineteenth century when the works of Bishop Pjetur Pjetursson began to appear.[3] But even though some new books appeared, Vídalínspostilla was still in use in many homes in this century. Many of the older generation testify that they remember reading from „Vídalín.“

The book’s longevity may be explained in many ways. It was the first major collection of Icelandic sermons. In addition, it became a kind of a library to its owners, being read as a Bible because of its wealth of biblical quotations, and as a selection from world literature due to its many references and quotations. An finally, its language, one could even sayits thunderbolts, were so powerful, striking, and elegant that they made an impression on even the most disinterested reader. Ordinary people learned long passages by heart, many of them being of practical use in daily life.

Vídalínspostilla is not the first book of its kind in Iceland. Gísli Árnason’s collection of homilies had been published in 1684-85. But this was a translation of a Danish collection by Borchman.[4] Shortly before Vídalín arrived in Copenhagen to study, Gerner had published his collection of sermons. Vídalín realized the importance of such works, having seen the popularity and usefulness of Gerner’s book in Denmark. When Vídalín began to write his own, he did not translate any foreign works, producing an original work instead. Vídalín was a very scholarly man and highly educated.[5] His scholarship is apparent in the use of sources from Greek and Roman antiquity, and from Germany, England, and Scandinavia. He frequently quoted these sources and used memorable stories and expressions. Möller conducted a thorough study of the literary background of Vídalín’s Postilla and came to the conclusion that the so-called Harmonia by Martin Chemnitz, Polycarp Leyser, and Johan Gerhard had been an important influence on the sermons, especially theirinitial sections. Vídalín also made extensive use of Bernhard’s Rhetorik, Gerhard’s Meditations, and an English book by Richard Allestree, The Practice of Christian Graces: Or the whole Duty of Man. Vídalín was so impressed with this last book that he translated it into Icelandic.[6]

Vídalínspostilla is a collection of sermons following the structure of the church year. It has many themes, and the book, at first glance, seems rather puzzling. But upon closer scrutiny, its structure emerges as a carefully crafted network of thought. Once the dominant metaphor and its supporting metaphors have been identified, the themes and topics seem straightforward and logically developed in this work. Most issues, whether they concern the church, politics, or individual experience, seem to be rooted in the same fundamental theological construct. My contention is that the dominant model of Vídalínspostilla is the image of the majestic king. This model, through the interpretation of several supporting metaphors, governs the way in which the world and human existence are interpreted — in terms of a limit-emphasis. This thesis will be substantiated in the following sections.

Some interpretations

No commentator has been clear enough on the logical, fundamental structure of Vídalín’s thought. Several have written on Vídalín and some of his characteristic teachings. All of the theories have been to the point, but only in a limited sense. In 1920, Magnús Jónsson pointed out Vídalín’s subtle discussion of evil. But he forgot to connect it to the other dimensions of Vídalín’s thought, i.e., his notion of God and the battle against evil.[7] In the preface to the 1945-edition to the Postilla, Páll Þorleifsson gave a good account of several themes.[8] Common to these accounts is their lack of connection with the depth of meaning in the Postilla. Bishop Jón Helgason pointed out the polar structure of Vídalín’s thought, but did not develop the issues.[9] 

The scholar who has most thoroughly discussed Vídalín’s sermons is Arne Möller. He maintains that Vídalín’s notion of faith was primarily that of reason, and that the resulting trend throughout the book was an interpretation of law and the commandments and a kind of “catholic” clericalism and legalism.[10] Along with this reason-laden concept of faith, Möller contends that Vídalín developed a casuistic, nomistic conception of repentance with strict prescriptions for morality, church, and society. A human being should realize the exact magnitude of a sin and the right amount of contrition required. The whole discussion of the Eucharist, Möller maintains, is developed in a strongly clerical and overly moralistic sense. Möller concludes that the Postilla emphasizes nomism on all fronts and ultimately negates the real faith and true vitality of church.[11] Some of Möller’s insights have to be accepted. But his main theories have to be rejected. Möller sought the presuppositions for his theories in the literature Vídalín used, or might have used. By identifying the literary background of the Postilla, he assumed that he was able to delineate the major theological concerns in the work. He points out the relationship to On the Whole Duty of Man. From that work, Vídalín is said to have taken an emphasis on obedience and duty, i.e., moralism, nomism, and an intellectual concept of faith. Möller also denies Vídalín’s Lutheranism. He contends that the Postilla exemplifies Calvinism.[12] 

In the course of my interpretation, as set out below, the Lutheran overtones of the Postilla will be shown. In general,Möller is wrong due to his poor starting premise, and probably also because he misconstrued Lutheranism and had a rather simple hermeneutic aim. He thinks he is talking about Vídalínspostilla but he is in fact talking about something else. Even though he might be right about the influence of the vast amount of literature that he discusses, that influence does not substantiate his thesis. Only a thorough examination of Vídalín’s own text will expose the main tenets of the work. My emphasis on the dominant model and the supporting models will, I think, better disclose the salient features, the inner sense of the Postilla. These naturally explain why Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, etc., did in fact undergothe development they did. The following analysis of Vídalínspostilla will disclose a totally different theology from the one analyzed by Möller. Gunnar Kristjánsson in the 1996 edition of Vídalínspostilla has added credence to my reading.[13]

Form and style

The sermons of Vídalínspostilla are in general thematic. Their composition is standardized. First, the text to be interpreted is given, followed by an Exordium, a delineation of the themes to be discussed and their introductory interpretation. Then the text is elaborated from a thematic point of view. The themes show a wide range. All kinds of issues in the life of the individual, both secular and religious, are discussed, along with the life of the church and society. Sometimes the theme or themes can be classified as dogmatic.

The style of the sermons is fundamentally determined by the main tenets of the Postilla’s theology. The language used accentuates the tension between heaven and earth. Irony is a common rhetorical tool that Vídalín uses with artistic skill. This makes the sermons exceedingly interesting if not actually awesome. With an unfailing insight into the grotesque humor of many Icelanders, Vídalín also manages to entertain. But the smiles and laughs often freeze when the true meaning explodes through the seemingly innocent humor. The rhetorical style aims at provoking a reaction. The distinctive feature of Vídalín’s irony is its departure from the normal life of the listener. With a few words and an unexpected twist, the preacher manages to expose the utter comedy of the issue at hand. In this twist, the gravity or even tragedy is disclosed with full force. The incarnation of Jesus Christ remains a frequent topic in Vídalín’s twists. Christ’s majestic position is contrasted with the listeners’ situation, and then with additional force the kenotic issues of Christ becoming human, viz. a worm, etc. is pressed upon the listeners without mercy. Human pride, or whatever else is discussed, becomes utterly comic and explodes from within. The listener’s foundation is undermined, resulting ininsecurity and a feeling that help is required. Some of the  most striking chapters are still well known to modern Icelanders and remain literary gems.[14] The language is vivid and fast-moving. Thunderbolts are hurled into listeners’ minds and even the most inveterate sinners are smoked out of their foxholes. In general, the language of the Postilla is wrought with metaphors. These are drawn from nature and society and are used with true analogical insight. The imagery of the Christian tradition is used wherever it fits, as is that of classical antiquity and the Bible. Wisdom, the cunningly crafted sentences and proverbs of the common folk of Iceland, has also found its way into the Postilla.

Good and evil at war

The context of the language used to describe God is the cosmic war between God and the devil. Vídalín does not elaborate a metaphysical dualism; he is rather a proponent of ethical dualism in the Lutheran sense. Satan is not defined from a neutral perspective but interpreted in light of attacks against the City of God (189, 231, 388, 624).[15] First and foremost, Satan attempts to deform the creation of God and thereby diminish God’s power. For the task of demolition, the devil uses armies of demons who are faithfully assisted by human allies made of flesh and blood. Satan constantly attempts to lure humans away from a healthy relationship with God. When he is successful, a human being instantly becomes the servant of Satan. The demonic relationship with Satan is primarily that of slave to master (231). The human world is the devil’s primary target. Every human being is constantly tempted. No shelter from these attacks can be found. The human lives at this borderline each day. Vídalín, like Luther, emphasizes the relationship of the inner being to God. In Vídalín’s sermon on the two Lords, this emphasis finds its clearest expression. Even though the human mind is wonderful, it cannot be divided. The devil will not submit to the Creator, and God cannot serve the world. In this conflict, the devil uses Mammon to subject the human mind to his service (624, 629). Those who submit to Mammon have through that act devoted themselves to a love-relationship with the devil and have fallen away from God.

Vídalín was well aware of the social dimensions and importance of ethics. He emphasizes that the individual, at all levels, is a social being and has social duties to fulfill. The aim of the individual’s life is to further the welfare of all, both as regards material and spiritual matters. The spiritual and material have to be related. No spiritual realm exists devoid of care for the material welfare of individuals and the society. Those who have turned their back on the suffering in thisworld have turned their backs on God (632). All things should be brought under this principle of service. Words and deeds should not offend, hurt or degrade. The humiliated or the “insignificant” are sensitive and easily led off the right path. With words and acts, the devil snares them, with the help of other uncaring human beings (653). All good gifts, whether spiritual, bodily, or material, are intended for the service of others. When these gifts are not properly used, the good creation of God is deformed and misused (701).

Vídalín is especially hard on those masters who have perfected their skills in the devil’s university. Masters, parents, and superiors make many evil claims, causing their subordinates to err. When the latter obey them, the result is despotism, perjury, violence, plundering, enticement, greed, retaliation, and disgrace to God’s word and life of the church. Parents are in the most precarious situation because of their responsibility for impressionable children (655). In addition to the fight for souls and society, the Devil attempts to devastate the life of the church. When the devil succeeds, the mind of a human being is divided, and that which is right and positive participation in the communal celebration of the church is despised. The result is general scorn for all who are needy. When word and sacrament do not have their proper place in the world, confusion will reign (646).

God will always fight evil in every way necessary. The striking image of the great general in battle is used in the Postilla. Vídalín even wonders why God has not slipped a hook into the devil’s nose (166) by now. God’s most massiveattack on the power of darkness was Christ. In line with old traditions of divine illusion, Vídalín maintains that God’s aim with the incarnation had been to lure Satan into the open. Jesus Christ would then become more glorious by comparison (344-45). Jesus overcame his opponent in the conflict, and in line with the old military order, the opponent was used to proclaim this victory to all. Christ suffered immensely to free the renegades (349). The Spirit of God acted and expelled the devil from the kingdom (388). But the destroyer continues his vandalism and is always close at hand. Vídalíntherefore preaches constant vigilance; we must never join the armies of evil (389).

Monarchical model and God

Because of the emphasis on cosmic conflict, the image of God and its supportive metaphors are primarily developed in that context. Vídalín stresses the dimensions of God’s fight. The dominant model is the monarchical metaphor of God the great king. Other metaphors are used as supporting models. First of all, God is described as a legislator. That metaphor naturally fits the monarchical model. God has a clear will and hence founds a constitutive order for the divine state. But in the course of events, God also reacts to differing situations in light of the aims and nature of His kingdom. Secondly, God functions as a judge. The judicial metaphor is another supportive model, entirely in line with and a natural continuation of the first two. As originator and legislator, God has the right and power to discriminate between differing processes, electing them both for humans and creation as a whole. The war between good and evil also makes it necessary for there to be an executive power or martial law. Thirdly, God is described as a general in battle. God, in line with ancient military strategy, is at the front of His army. But God still needs soldiers. Otherwise the state would be in jeopardy. In a way, Vídalín touches upon a sensitive issue but a very interesting one as well. The reality of the omnipotence of God is partly in the hands of human beings. This situation accentuates the cosmic importance of each and every person. The issue is not elaborated on metaphysically, but it is introduced within the pastoral and meditative intent of the sermons. The human being is told of his or her dignity over against God. Fourthly, a supportive model of the husband-master is developed in close connection with the other models. God the father is both merciful and kind to His creation. He shapes it as good and beautiful and provides conditions appropriate for its growth. The husband-master model primarily develops the issue of providence. God as a good king and father provides everything that the creation as a whole and individuals in particular will need for a good life. In spite of His majesty, discipline, and chastisement, God is patient and merciful.

The attributes of God’s majesty are quickly and easily identified in the Postilla. No major attempt is made to define God in a metaphysical or conceptual sense. In line with Luther, Vídalín knows of no neutral point of departure for developing speculative doctrines. No revelation of the wholeness of God has occurred that could allow comprehension by the limited human mind.  Only that which God wants to reveal is accessible, and then only from a partisan point of view. First and foremost, God is an icon to human being. That image will only be revealed in life through experience. Hence God-talk, theology, is brought forth from the fountain of divine action in life. Vídalín admittedly does not diverge from traditional doctrine. As one would expect, he adheres to a Trinitarian formulation. His Christology seems to be in line with Athanasius. But doctrinal elaborations are not the most important feature of Vídalín’s thought. He focuses on the dramatic development of the relationship between God and human beings. Vídalín’s imagery of God is rich and primarily serves to provoke praise of the high God among listeners. The images used are generally visual. God dwells in light (4, 273). God is depicted as a consuming, fearful, and glorious fire, burning in and around those whom God hates, even into the depths of hell. God also lives in a glorious brightness, which no one manages to reach by him- or herself (392, 414). God is purity dispelling contamination. Whatever is defiled, fire will engulf (392, 414). The depictions of the “height” of God are abundant. God dwells in a throne hall, which entails overview and presence everywhere (4, 200, 273). Related to height are classical attributes such as omnipotence, eternity, immeasurability, and omniscience. God is often depicted as a being of will, which decides upon the nature of creation. Because of the power and priority of God over everything else, God’s will presides. Human beings have the right to react and decide their own destiny. But their best choice is to will that what God wills.

God’s creation is good by definition. Hence, whatever belongs to creation is good (86, 134, 664). The entire creation, whether it is the sky, the earth, human flesh or the soul, is intended to be at peace with God. The priority of that peace should be maintained over peace among humans (57). The order of the world – parents, societal structure, etc. – is the gift of God, and should be revered accordingly (138). God’s power to give what is needed for a prosperous life will never diminish. Finally, God will lead faithful believers to a heavenly feast (134, 167, 260). Pointing out the absolute freedom of kings to legislate, Vídalín maintains that God may alter laws, and human beings are bound to obey. This freedom of God is founded upon the hidden will of God, which cannot be grasped by human understanding (213). As a sovereign governor, the legislative God knows best what human beings need. In words, God has revealed wisdom, will, justice, and goodness. In the mirror of the law, just behavior is disclosed, as well as the human condition (630). Because of human frailty, the law of God has been established for checking and judging sinners. The paramount problem for humans is theirlost case in God’s court (51). God’s only aim is human repentance and humility, with the welfare it brings.

Due to God’s righteous attributes and the sinfulness of human beings, the case is God’s to make (4, 52). As a judge,God has the double aim of attending to human welfare and securing the victory of good over evil (52). No certainty exists concerning the sentence, because God may even spit humans out of God’s mouth (4). Finally, everything is based on the decision of the Almighty God. God harvests and elects men, though they have the right to choose their own way. But as it turns out, that choice is not a real choice, since everyone sins due to human frailty. The sentence of God is an awful reality, described in the strongest terms by Vídalín, and magnified by stressing the tension of God’s majesty and the lowliness of human beings. When God distributes the conditions of life among men, no one can rightly grumble. All gifts are true presents, given even to criminals who do not deserve anything at all. The role of the judge has two dimensions. One concerns the absolute majesty of God, with a stress on the sentence of guilt. The other concerns mercy. A judge may,through compassion, forgive crimes. Thus the supportive model of the judge is conditioned by the monarchic root metaphor, the model of the father, and also that of the general. God at war wants his supporters to be with him. He disciplines and leads but is also merciful and helpful.

Since the original fall, God’s main concern has been that of keeping evil in check at all levels. The traits of the military general do indeed color the image of God in the Postilla. As a general and strategist, God is intent on controlling the lives of human beings, testing them and disciplining them in the battle in which they are engaged. God may allow Christians to be oppressed at times, although it is clear that Vídalín denies that God allows them to be totally oppressed (189). The Christian must participate in the struggle and must do so first and foremost by seeking the protection of God. The greatest strategic plan God has made concerns Jesus’ incarnation. God outperforms the devil through Christ’s work and wins victory (244-45). In a similar sense, human beings have to serve the kingdom of God by supporting God’s purposes. And their support is truly important in securing the defeat of evil (628).

The father metaphor is partly conditioned by the other models. In light of the notion of judge and king, the image of the father appears in the strict sense of a pedagogical father who does not tolerate disobedience and disorder in human lives. God rears with strictness, engenders fear, punishes and controls with a firm hand. God sends hardship, adversity, and temptation, but also prosperity for the sake of developing of maturity (164, 168, 223-4, 359, 364, 604, 616). This strong guidance encompasses all dimensions of creaturely existence: spirit, flesh, society, history, and nature (9, 23, 35, 53, 164, 616, 357). What God wants is welfare, particularly for the underdogs in human society. For these, God takes special care (634). Vídalín strongly emphasizes the tender aspects of fatherhood: care, tolerance, patience and general goodness (23, 53, 364). To all the gifts of God, whether they be hardship or tenderness, the human should respond with trust (364).

Jesus Christ at war against evil

This Christology is strongly colored by the teleology of the strategic context. The Son of God accepted the burdens of becoming flesh – hunger, thirst, nakedness, exile, scorn, etc. – not only in order to reveal the power of God, but also to conquer the power of Satan. The image of Jesus Christ in Vídalínspostilla supports my contention of the metaphorical cluster around God. The Christ-model seems to support the dominant, monarchical model. Jesus, in the Postilla, is primarily portrayed as engaged in war. In line with kenotic Christology, the incarnated Christ remains chiefly a dramatic being, on the road from glory, through acres of suffering in the world. He descends into hell to wage war, is resurrected, and ascends to heaven again for re-crowning. The whole drama of Christ is proclaimed as fundamental to the status and prospects of the world, and thus for the possibility of human life.

Because of Vídalín’s emphasis on God’s majesty it does not come as a surprise that Jesus is depicted as the immortal king of glory (145). But he wanted to suffer for the sake of the human world. This theme of choice has its counterpart in Hymns of the Passion. There is no split in the Trinitarian theology, but the emphasis is on Christ’s own choice. He was not an adopted son sent for a special mission. God God-self was engaged. This Vídalín interprets in light of Christ’s love, not as a necessary part of the heavenly planning. He denies that Christ’s power would have been any less if he had not become flesh, and human beings had suffered eternally. The fundamental motive for the incarnation is Christ’s own righteousness, mercy, and even his “love-sickness” (284, 350). In general the incarnation is introduced with imagery that is connected with the difference between heaven and the world, i.e., light and darkness. This is understandably clearest in the sermons for Christmas (49ff.) Jesus’ journey from heaven to earth is dramatically described in order to magnify the contrast between the two poles of the eternal and the worldly.

Vídalín sees the incarnation in light of the cosmic battle. Jesus Christ constantly battles, even in the depths of hell (244-45). Through pain, the divine-human Jesus Christ clears the way to the throne. In hell, he recaptured the exiled world of human beings and expelled the enemy, then returned to the throne of God (670). Secondly, Jesus participates in that which human beings have to experience, particularly their suffering. He took upon himself all diseases and mutilation so completely that he was on the cross, according to Vídalín’s metaphor, in the image of a worm. In the Postilla, that image, with its reference to the Genesis-account, concerns an interpretation of lowliness (150, 234). Thirdly, Christ saved the human race from bondage to sin and death. On this issue Vídalín is classical in his interpretation and use of metaphors. He speaks of payment, death as sacrifice, forensic issues, ransom, guilt, and freedom over against a king. The context for most of the soteriological discussion is the face-to-face confrontation with the monarch, legislator, judge, and general of the martial court. Christ truly solves the problem, fulfills justice, takes the sentence upon himself and also breaks down the powers of evil. In all of this, the image of Christ is in direct relationship with and simultaneously supports the dominant and supportive models of God (111, 150, 188, 244ff. 284, 287, 307, 314, 326ff., 338, 346ff., 364, 670, 672, 676).

For Vídalín, the context of the incarnation is the teleological scheme of God’s war against evil. God planned that the sun of righteousness should appear in the world at the break of dawn, in the birth of Christ (306). But then the sun went under, only to reappear at Easter. Subsequently it will never disappear again. All this had to happen. The strategic plan is very clear during the whole process. Vídalín maintains that Christ had to suffer, and that Easter had to happen in the way it did (314). The sermon for Easter is striking in that it does not concentrate so much on joy over the dying of death and the vitality of life. There is a greater emphasis on the fact that justice has triumphed. Ultimately and surprisingly, the message of Easter is transformed into a call to repentance (305ff). From the perspective of a successful strategy the conclusion, in the form of human repentance, is understandable. The king has made the supreme sacrifice and proven his competence in doing what was necessary. His subordinates naturally react by hailing his victory and showing contrition. The theme of victory remains fundamental to Vídalín’s interpretation.[16] 

When he returns to glory, Christ is different than He was before. He returns with the experience of human life in the flesh. Hence, in heaven, Jesus advocates the human cause before the Father (307, 327, 405ff., 627, 670). On the other hand, Jesus Christ also has a role toward human beings in and through the church. Jesus heads this community through the word and the sacraments, which are meant to be channels of grace for everyone (216, 280, 286). In the actual life of the Christian, Jesus Christ becomes not only the power of life, but also the prototype, hence the imitatione Christi. Jesus Christ walked the via dolorosa with humility. This is also the true virtue of the Christian. Jesus was humiliated himself; hence humility toward our fellow humans should be our approach. He was humble. We should also be humble, because in addition to His example, He has ordered us to be so (284). Jesus has not ordered us to recreate the world or perform miracles, but to show obedience and gentleness (286). In all this, the Christian should follow Christ and carry the cross (124, 281, 284, 304ff., 316). Although Jesus Christ has undergone the entire human experience, He is different on one point. He was without sin and never had cause for remorse. Human beings are sinners and have to repent to gain the right to communion with God.

There are several sides to the Christological elaboration in the Vídalínspostilla. The royal side is the primary one. But the king also suffers. That issue is closely related to the suffering king of Hallgrímur’s Hymns of the Passion. Both Vídalín and Hallgrímur relate that aspect of Christ to His humanness. Human beings are characterized by lowliness. By submitting to the yoke, Christ manages to break a trail for all who will follow Him.

“You, king of the whole world, who lives in light, to whom no one may approach. We, sinful worms, on this blessed moment, crawl out of our dust unto the threshold of your feet to seek peace with your divine majesty, whom we have insulted from our early childhood. But, alas, o Lord. We are so exhausted under the yoke of sins, that when we lust for being elevated to thy heights our own filth drags us down again” (4).

This first section of the prayer Vídalín used prior to his sermons is a strikingly clear and poignant example of the theology of the Postilla. After the fall, there is a deep chasm between God and the human world due to sin. All limitation and defilement has its point of comparison in the majesty of God. The power of the king is the limit of the world, the human world included. The limit of human existence is grounded in the majesty of God. The divine monarch demands absolute service. Any breach of that service amounts to treason. In Hymns of the Passion, the suffering king became the point of departure for the notion of being human. But Vídalín interprets being human in light of the majestic model with its supportive cluster of models. Penetrating beyond the surface, one is struck by the Lutheran emphasis on coram Deo in Vídalín’s thought. The whole speech is a theological elaboration, not an empirical description of the structure of the world apart from God. Nothing can be defined in the world apart from the theocentric vantage point. There is an either/or dimension to the faith of each human being. On is either devoted to God or to Satan. If one has a healthy relationship to God, all the fruits of the true Christian life will follow: faith, worship, love, and care for all who suffer and need support. But if the human being departs from that faithful relationship, the creation is worshiped with demonic consequences at all levels, both in individual and social life. The calling of the Christian is to be a pathway for the creative power of God for the welfare of all, especially the needy.

God the Spirit

Pneumatology is a minor issue in Vídalínspostilla. Vídalín certainly adheres to the Trinitarian formula, but his discussion does not leave much space for the Spirit, except for the prayers to God the Spirit in the exordium and the prayer after each sermon. First of all, the Postilla is not a work of systematic theology. Secondly, there are issues to be discussed in the sermons. There were indeed pressing topics that were of immediate importance, so there was no time left for covering the whole range of theology. In spite of the slight attention paid to pneumatology, one can point out some issues. The theology of history to which Vídalín seems to adhere is colored by a kenotic approach. Evil seems to exile the Spirit from the human world and the whole of creation. But this happens in stages. On an individual level, the Spirit is given in baptism and is close at hand and constantly helps, not least in times of tribulation. Secondly, the Spirit’s role as an advocate in heaven for the human cause is given more emphasis. Thirdly, the Spirit fights all the enemies of God (380). On Pentecost, the Spirit accomplished a great work, convincing the world of the righteousness of Jesus Christ (386). Since then the Spirit works to expel demons from the world. Nevertheless, readers are told more about the cunning natureof evil than they are about the way the Spirit works. But the nature of the Spirit’s work in individual lives is clear. It gives knowledge of sin in order to promote repentance; knowledge of Christ’s righteousness, so that we can turn to him seeking forgiveness;  and a certainty that the devil’s sentence has been made public so that we may renounce him and his ways. If one makes sin a habit, the Spirit is expelled to a large extent. In opposition to the Spirit, the individual is truly lost (685,701).

For God and the neighbor

Vídalín’s “anthropology” leans neither toward a subtle aesthetic nor a mystical elaboration. Simply put, the life of a human being has to be lived in the world of men. The main focus is on the communal aspects of the human calling. The individual is destined for life with others. The Christian, filled with the Spirit, is a being who relates to others. Vídalín does not advocate a works-righteousness ethic. Given the image of God in battle and the Lutheran coram Deo-tradition, the primary intention is to relate faith to ethics. God demands that faith lead to works to benefit the creation. The strong underlying force in the whole book is “show me your faith through your works.” Based on that foundation, Vídalín gives all of his advice and his orders concerning issues of participation in the church, work at home, and all civil obligations. Faith ultimately encompasses the entire world. If he enjoys a true relationship with God, a Christian can never,  escape the world in which he or she is placed. This emphasis is totally Lutheran. One may talk of a methodism in the Postilla, but the underlying theological emphases have to be born in mind. Ethics, from Vídalín’s perspective, are a natural aspect  of faith. The habitus of the Christian is holistic in this type of theology.

The majesty of God entails a clear hierarchy of all issues. Everything is subject to the service of God: talents, wealth, gifts, society, one’s very self. Everything should serve the fight against evil. If the human being seeks to use the gifts of God for his or her own individual purposes, idolatry is the direct consequence. At that moment, the creation is worshiped,instead of the Creator. That means an evil downfall for a human being.  The result will be insensitivity and forgetfulness toward that which is good and beautiful in the world. In daily life, individuals are especially prone to forget who has giventhem everything. Some of the most powerful passages in the Vídalínspostilla focus on the bustle of everyday existence, forgetfulness of God, and the complicated web of the resulting evil toward one’s neighbor. Into this world, the preacher shoots his fireballs of the divine message. He sharpens the tension between the poles of heaven and earth as strongly as possible. With the help of irony, he portrays the absolute difference between glory and lowliness, between the creative God and incurvated humans. Indeed the human race in the Postilla appears as an laughable flock, fit to be scorned for its stupidity. But through this image of a banal circus, one is struck by an awareness of tragedy. The parade of fun is suddenly transformed into a march toward the grave. Human efforts are ridiculous and have the most serious consequences. The wrath of God will inevitably destroy this entire theatrical world and all of its actors. One begins to sense humanity’s precarious situation in this world. It is teetering at the edge of a demonic abyss. Its only hope is keeping its umbilical cord intact. Because of the monarchic image of God, Vídalín describes the primary sin of humanity as pride. Sin as pride implies a notion of limitation. As a created being, man is placed within a circle that cannot be broken. Attempts to transcend these limits will result in a fall. This fall is interpreted spatially. The sin involved is trying to place oneself higher in the hierarchy of values than one is entitled to.

Metaphors, limits and human life

In the following section, the anthropological delineations that result from these models of God will be addressed. Liminal features are their main characteristic. First, the metaphors concerning human beings will be discussed. Then the limit of body and spirit will be reviewed, as well as the totus homo features in the Postilla. The last section will deal with the Christian life.

The metaphors used to interpret human beings give a sense of limitation. Their existence is transient, they are born naked and ultimately disappear without taking anything at all with them. Between birth and death is a short span of life, fraught with inconsistency and insecurity. Finitude is its sharpest characteristic. Furthermore, spatial features — that which is low and high — are prominent. A human being does not reach any great height, he lies on the ground, and os more likely to crawl than walk. The language is more theological than empirical. The limitation depicted is eschatological rather than spatio-temporal. Human beings are always discussed from a divine, majestic perspective, as regards their relationship with God.

Metaphors of human diminution are dust, earthen clay, earth, and ash (227, 393, 524). What is striking in the Postillais the strong emphasis on movement. Static images are not used at all. Dynamism prevails. Vídalín normally speaks of earth and ash as blowing here and there. The human being is primarily interpreted from that perspective. The winds of good fortune and prosperity carry one in a that way engenders false security, which results in pride. Man is easilydeceived. Vídalín reacts forcefully to this, launching metaphors like the worm, creatures crawling upon the surface of the earth, creatures in the earth that do not maintain an erect position, all transient beings who primarily cultivate their love of the dust. This motif invokes the Genesis serpent, with the connotations of the relationship man has with the worm, i.e. a part of creation over which human beings should maintain a superior position. Sin, the net in which humanity has been caught, pulls everyone down to the ground. Instead of worshipping God, human beings have devoted themselves to worshipping the creation. The lowly position of the whole race is in itself an image of a prayer of supplication to God. The only appropriate form in which to appear at the divine throne is that of the crawling worm-renegade. The tension created by these images is as strong as metaphorical language allows (4, 159, 357, 388, 616, 624). In addition, Vídalín throws out other striking images. He tells us that humans are like dead dogs, a truly non-literal metaphor (273)! 

Several other metaphors are used, each drawn from nature. The human being is steam (19, 692), a bubble in water (122, 282, 300, 396, 616, 624), a clay vessel (227), smoke (296), a flower, straw or seed (122, 282, 392, 171). The common characteristic of these metaphors is brevity, changeability, and transience. The human being rises like steam but soon disappears. The same applies to smoke. In the wind of life, it whirls upward, like dust or ash, and then falls down again. A human being is fragile like pottery and decays like the flower of the field. When God raises a wind, the blossomis blown away. The metaphor of the bubble is atypical for Icelandic literature, but it naturally registers in the meaning-horizons of Icelanders. The falls and rapids of Iceland’s innumerable rivers and brooks are bright and white. Anyone who has sat and gazed at a waterfall for a while, something all Icelanders have done, will grasp the meaning. The bubbles suddenly appear, shoot toward the surface, and then disappear in an instant, as others take their place. This striking gaiety lasts only seconds. There are some references to baptism in Vídalín’s discussion of water. The human being lives from and out of the baptismal blessing. As soon as the water-context is dismissed, life is lost. Vídalín also speaks provocatively of nations as drops of water in the eye of God (694), directing thought toward bodily meditation.

Other elements in nature are also used as metaphors. The human being is depicted as a flickering fire. The same applies to this metaphor as to the preceding ones. At great speed, fire reaches joyfully toward the sky, enduring for only a brief moment before it suddenly disappears (123). But in Iceland fire also speaks of the destruction caused by volcanoes. Hence we are told that our dwellings are like hay barns. Fire will strike and rapidly destroy everything (123). Then Vídalín tells us that God has lumped human beings together like cheese (430). The irony is clear with this emphasis on transience. One should be aware of the use of the elements: earth, fire, water, and air, to describe human beings. The children of the earth and the whole of creation are afflicted with the same traits and can expect the same destiny. Vídalín’s thought does not allow any anthropocentrism at the expense of other parts of God’s creation.

All gifts of life may be used either for good or evil. When used for evil the consequences are necessarily demonic. Vídalín wants everyone to remember this. Tools, qualities, and everything else God has given should therefore be placed in their proper context, the context of God, remembering what the human being is. Vídalín’s aim is to encourage the realization that what has been considered stable is not at all trustworthy. Eyes often become blind, particularly during prosperous periods (170, 227). Ears hear wrongly (170). The mouth is not rightly used to serve the cause of justice and goodness in the world (174). that which seemingly clothes the human body with beauty will decay (283, 365, 616). Mental powers will prove weak. Human beings do not know the future (41), themselves (86), the end of time (180, 283), or the love of God (287, 616, 624). The human will is limited (167). Conscience is weak (19). Man’s power will not hold up under the yoke of frailty and sin (41, 50). Virtues and human qualities will fail (283). Friends, masters and wealth will, upon closer look, not provide any security (684). The body is naked at birth, and the human being screams at the outset as if it dreaded its life (123, 301). Like a twentieth century existentialist, Vídalín writes that the human being is thrown into the world like a corpse (394). He points out that a human being is limited, both physically and spiritually. Stripped of all dignity and shelter, a human being will depart from this world. Mankind is crushed (4, 5) at the core. Not only is the world a vale of tears, and a clay carousal (123, 273), there are also ever-present threats to life (164). Remembering his nationality, Vídalín occasionally reminds his listeners that Icelanders live at the edge of the world, the outermost ocean(53, 498). Even time imposes limits, both as regards the past and the future (327).

The purpose of pointing out the limitations of everything around us is to disclose what it is that serves human beingswell. Due to their limitations, they needs something that holds: a divine foundation and guidance. That foundation is not meant only for this life but for eternal life as well. God is interpreted as the limit of, and the human being and the world as limited to. Hence the discussion of Vídalínspostilla can be theologically interpreted. Finally one should be aware of the way the book emphasizes that the problem described is not God’s problem but that of mankind.

Vídalín’s anthropology is clearly inspired by Luther’s totus homo anthropology. The human being is either free or enslaved, either just in the face of God or bound by the evil worship of the creation. One’s inner being affects one’s chances of hoping or persevering. Vídalín does not make a detailed list of sins and the order in which they will appear as one falls from the grace of God. He describes them as appearing in a bundle in the life of the sinner. Faithlessness will necessarily manifest itself in an immoral life. Pride will affect a person’s relationship with his neighbor, with his own self, and with material goods. Vídalín points out that when pride has been ingrained in the soul, reason will be disfigured, with evil consequences for everything around the individual(46). With overbearing pride, a human being will overstep his or her given position in life in both a spiritual and social sense. The spiritual consequence will be a wrong approach to one’s position in life. Gratitude will disappear and the awareness of the divine origin of the world will wither away (619). The self will be glorified at the expense of someone else. Robbery and disregard for the dignity of others will follow (125, 143, 619). Mammon will reign (144, 284).

Lips are defiled by cursing one’s neighbor (394, 600) when they are used to gossip, for “multi-talk” instead of honoring and strengthening others (606). Reason is used for one’s own welfare; talents are used for inquiring only about human trespasses (12, 23, 228, 231). Humans are cross-eyed, envious of the wealth of others (12, 166, 360). They do not accept God’s distribution of goods. They become filled with pride and hostility and lack gratitude (125, 137, 170, 283, 284, 297, 524, 616, 718). In short, God will not be revered as the true leader and source of life. Boundaries defined by God will be overstepped. Transgressing these boundaries will affect the whole existence of all members of the human race. At all levels, human beings will become myopic, not accepting the right of God to punish and test.

Evil actions and missing the mark affect the two main institutions of humanity: society and the church. In the church,admonishments are not heeded. Sleep prevails (174, 603). Coupled with this sleep is deafness to the screams of those suffering, resulting in a paralyzed and unjust society (603, 605). Justice is distorted in the courts, when vacant positions of power are filled, and in allowing loopholes for the real criminals (101, 174, 178, 182). Wages are not fairly distributed, etc. (101). Faith in God and service to one’s neighbor cannot be separated in Vídalín’s thought (602). All kinds of transgressions are listed in the Postilla, all simultaneously interpreted as sins against God. Hands, feet, eyes, and ears are not used for honoring God and serving society, but rather for a diabolic restructuring of society (360, 700).

Three aspects of service to God

“I know that one donkey can never becomes a horse even if a golden saddle is placed on its back. Similarly, a fool never becomes wise, no matter how he is painted on the outside”(478). Vídalín proclaimed that faithful service to the king of heaven can never be anything but a wholehearted approach by both the inner being and the outer being. To reach that relationship to God, one has to accept limitation, repent, and submit to God. The process of repentance and service to God has, in Vídalín’s description, three dimensions.

The relationship to God has to be constantly reevaluated. Unfaithfulness is an insult to God. Even minor sins are disgusting, because human beings might seem to be toying with an offense (291). Vídalín reminds us that God is very strict. Not only does he demand the payment of large sums, he also demands compensation to the last penny. A service is demanded that is holistic in terms of the inner being (4, 372). Fearing God is not enough, meditation on fatherly love, wisdom, and the patience of God have to be added. Fear is the father of faith, but love is its mother (186). Repentance has to be a daily task. The will has to be put to work. A totally new existence has to be desired if repentance is to be real. Remorse has to be steaming hot and cannot be postponed (310, 372-4, 622f, 677). Because of the immensity of the sin,the penalty is in direct proportion to it. Remorse therefore entails a ceaseless hatred of sin (315, 372, 451, 703). Contrition means a crushed spirit and a humble heart (4, 383). Remorse means total submission to the service of God and one’s neighbor (677f.).

The second dimension of service consists in renouncing all the lords of the world, i.e., pride and its resulting devastation of others. Humility and love should be shown to God and one’s neighbor (186, 189, 284, 280). The prototype for the process of changing from evil to good ways is Jesus Christ. In this, Vídalín renews the emphasis of Hymns of the Passion on the worldly service of the suffering Christ that discloses true human nature before God and world: “Call me thy slave, Thine underling.” In faith one should obey the orders of God. Because of God’s might and goodness, anything God might mete out should be interpreted as serving a good purpose. God will give strength in times of tribulation. God will never leave anyone totally helpless in his or her difficulties (9, 189, 222-3). Suffering therefore serves a good purpose, i.e., that of strengthening the human being for the battle against evil. Since all are destined to participate in God’s fight, one has to accept preparation for this service. Vídalín maintains that good qualities are strengthened only through difficulties. In suffering one will learn to see what is really good and what is really bad. Because God is king, general, father, and judge, God will have the necessary insight into what is necessary for each individual’s maturity. A human being should constantly keep in mind that God sends suffering for the sake of that which is good (56, 359f. 363f, 487, 714, 727). Human service is service in obedience. Mind and body will learn to know their limits and learn not to transcend them. One will  also learn not to grumble or despair.

Thirdly, Christian service always aims at the welfare of society. Faith without works is dead. Vídalín even talks of faith as always being action (4, 167, 191, 599, 608). Service is devoted primarily to those in distress: widows, the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the innocent, and all those who do not have a worldly protector. Service to these persons is first of all an action of gratitude toward God, but it is also obedience to God’s orders. One should always remember that everything and everyone is redeemed at the high price of Jesus’ blood. But ultimately, one’s service will be tested at the judgment at the end of time. By working for the welfare of others, one works for one’s own ultimate welfare (4, 167, 197, 200, 316, 331, 610, 695).

This article was published in Limits and Life: Meaning and Metaphors in Religious Language of Iceland. New York, Peter Lang, 2012, p. 83-102.

[1] Jón Vídalín, the author, will be referred to as Vídalín. In Iceland he is either referred to as „Meistari Jón,“ to distinguish him from all the Jóns in Iceland, or simply as Vídalín. Although several Vídalíns play important roles in Icelandic history, Vídalín in the Icelandic context means Jón Vídalín. On Vídalínspostilla see Arne Möller, Vídalínspostilla (Köbenhavn: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1928) and Gunnar Kristjánsson, “Inngangur” in Vídalínspostilla: Hússpostilla eður einfaldar predikanir yfir öll hátíða- og sunnudagaguðspjöll árið um kring (Reykjavík: Mál og Menning, 1995).Early 20th century scholars interpreted Vídalínspostilla  from the perspective of his biography. See Arne Möller, Vídalínspostilla (Köbenhavn, Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1922). Its themes address the issues of his time, with heavy emphasis on ethical improvement, the need for repentance, order in society, and obedience to the church.

[2] One has to bear in mind the difficult times and high death rate. Icelanders numbered 30,000-50,000 during that period. See Nordal, Hallgrímur Pétursson, 61, and Páll Þorleifsson, „Meistari Jón og Postillan“ Vídalínspostilla, ed. Páll Þorleifsson and Björn Sigfússon (Reykjavík: Bókaútgáfa Kristjáns Friðrikssonar, 1945), XVI.

[3] See Möller, ibid., 380. See also Páll Þorleifsson, ibid., XXVII, Magnús Gíslason, ibid., 117. Jónas Jónsson, ibid., 358. Matthías Jochumsson, Bréf, 2.

[4] Möller, ibid., 296.

[5] Möller, ibid., 191.

[6] Möller, ibid., 197ff, 201ff and 238-253.

[7] See also Möller, Vídalínspostilla  (Köbenhavn: Gyldendalske Boghandel, 1928), 373.

[8] See Þorleifsson, „Meistari Jón og Postillan“ in Vídalínspostilla, XXff.

[9] See Jón Helgason, Kristnisaga Íslands: Frá Öndverðu til Vorra Tíma, II (Reykjavík: Félagsprentsmiðja, 1927), 222ff.

[10] See Möller, ibid., 360ff.

[11] See Möller, ibid., 350-77. On praxis pietatis, see ibid., 356ff., on the knowledge of the self, see ibid., 377, on the church, see ibid.,. 369.

[12] See Möller, ibid., 377.

[13] Gunnar Kristjánsson, “Inngangur – Vídalínspostilla og höfundur hennar,” Vídalínspostilla (Reykjavík: Mál og Menning, Bókmenntafræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands, 1995), li-lxii.

[14] The so-called „wrath reading“ is probably the best known, Vídalínspostilla, 112ff.

[15] Quotations will be both in the main body of the text and in footnotes. The references will be bracketed, and numbers refer to the pagination of the 1945-edition.

[16] On the relation of teleology to the monarchical model in the history of theology, see Edward Farley, Ecclesial Reflection: The Anatomy of Theological Method  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 29ff., 84ff., and 154ff.