Some people assume that the words doubt and skepticism are interchangeable, and I suppose that in some respects they are. But there is a deeper, more profound rubric for doubt — one that is not skeptical; one that is not a lack of faith but is (ironically enough) rooted in profound depths of faith-full-ness. What are we to do in those times of trial, when faith is hard to come by and reality overwhelms? Martin Luther experienced these seasons and when he did, he called them “anfechtung.”
The German anfechtung is difficult to translate: “‘assault’ is probably more illuminating than ‘temptation’, although the latter is more accurate… [Anfechtung is] a state of hopelessness and helplessness having strong affinities with the concept of angst. The terms Luther himself used when discussing Anfechtung illuminate the various aspects of the concept: it is a form of temptation (tentatio), which takes place through an assault upon man (impugnatio), which is intended to put him to the test (probatio).” (See Alister E. McGrath’s book “Luther’s Theology of the Cross”, 170).
For Luther, the context of anfechtung fell nearer the “terrible dread” or “agonizing struggle” whose essence is doubt. This doubt is something fundamentally separate from the skepticism that pervades today. Indeed, anfechtung owes its very existence not to unbelief, but to faith itself. In other words, the more one believes in the great goodness of God, the more he is dismayed when he sees evidence of that goodness fall away. Had his faith been of a lesser degree, he might have avoided the effects of the questions that assail him. But since he has “left everything to follow” (Mark 10:28) he has nothing on which to fall. Thus the primary characteristic of anfechtung is a deep and pervasive sense of helplessness.
Anfechtung represents the dismal space between Law and grace, and the believer caught between them. Here it is that the Christian, freed through faith from the law of sin and death, now looks upon a world in which these elements resurrect with hellish clarity. He feels convicted by God, unapproved, and utterly cast out from His Presence. The prospect of a hopeless future hails before him, and hell itself rises to accuse. The flesh confronts, fellow Christians cajole, and nowhere can he find relief for his soul. The believer finds himself stranded in a place in which all where he has learned of Christ contradicts what he sees before him. He is lost and undone, and he looks upon a world that is lost and undone. He stands at the crossroads of two opposing poles: doubt and doxology. One soul, one God, and the terrible chasm between them.
Luther portrayed this chasm beautifully when he pointed to the Cross as the paradigm for the tension between faith and human perception. As Christ hung suspended on the Cross so that His feet did not touch the earth, so the Christian is denied the foothold of experience. The heavens are as brass and the earth is unmoved. Believers too, stand afar, failing to understand the depth of his misery, and this compounds his grief. Like Christ, the believer is beset by the objective evil of his situation and the subjective questions that stifle his heart. Ultimately, he is called to continue like Christ who, still affixed to the Cross, breathed His final words in faith unseen, “It is finished!”
It was this just this sort of existential suspension that taught Luther to love the truths so crucial to the Reformation. His doubts taunted and harried him, but they ultimately drove him to the heart of the Scriptures that honed his theology. It was what enabled him to face his adversaries with such conviction. Luther was a man who fought through doubts and made himself captive to the Word. He was a man who contended with the noise of his own self-doubts, who found the voice to cry out, “Here I stand, I can do no less. May God help me! Amen.”
I want to spend some time this week, looking at this concept of anfechtung; what is it and is it biblical? What is its cause and role and hope in the life of the believer? I want to look at its consequences and to discover how it can be overcome by the centrality of the Cross.