Countering the pitfalls of reason
Several of Bach’s cantatas also emphasize the negative side of reason [cf. e.g. Cantatas 2, 152, 178, 180]. That should come as no surprise since they grew out of a context in which faith was seriously threatened by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason. In an illuminating discussion of the treatment of reason in Bach’s cantatas, Eric Chafe summarizes the dominant themes.
“Reason is described as leading man into taking offense at God’s design and as the enemy of faith; it is associated with blindness and deafness and with the flesh rather than the spirit … [R]eferences to light in several of the cantatas explain that, theologically, reason belongs to the realm of darkness and the flesh rather than of spiritual enlightenment … Other themes associated with reason appear in Bach’s cantatas, such as its opposition to the way of the cross and the necessity of placing God’s Word above reason … Neglect of the Word gives rise to a characteristic Lutheran notion regarding reason: it is a stumbling block to faith and salvation.” [Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S. Bach, Eric Chafe, pg. 227-228]
The biggest stumbling block for reason, that is, reason that is born of an unredeemed mind, is the cross. [I Corinthians 1:18-25] Reason “is offended at the cross of Christ, the great no to all human endeavor, to all opinions of one’s own.” [Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Walter von Loewenich, pg. 68]
“Our wisdom is offended at God’s Word; it is scandalized by the cross of Christ. But Luther knows that it must be so. If the church’s proclamation is no longer a rock of offense to the people, this is a sign that it has betrayed the gospel. The cross of Christ vehemently opposes natural understanding. For nothing but lowliness, disgrace and shame are to be seen there, unless we recognize the divine will, yes, God himself under this cloak. It is generally true of divine works that reason does not know what to make of them and tends to despair because of this. Thus the gospel becomes a rock of offense, a scandal.” [Loewenich, pg. 76]
One “enlightened” theologian who stumbled on this rock was Bach’s contemporary, Herman Samuel Reimarus, author of “a massive book entitled Apologia for the Rational Worshipers of God, which was a radical attack on most of those ‘principal teachings of the Christian religion’ in the name of a thoroughgoing rationalism and deism.” [Pelikan, pg. 89]
Christ’s words from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsake me?” [Matthew 27:46], according to Reimarus, “can hardly be otherwise interpreted than that God had not helped him to carry out his intention and attain his object as he had hoped he would have done. It was then clearly not the intention or the object of Jesus to suffer and to die, but to build up a worldly kingdom, and to deliver the Israelites from bondage. It was in this that God had forsaken him, it was in this that his hopes had been frustrated.” [trans. Pelikan, pg. 90]
This type of rationalistic approach to Scripture was rejected by Bach. As an orthodox Lutheran — orthodox in the context of the 18th century — Bach opposed such an “enlightened” position and unapologetically stood upon the “folly” of the cross, that “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” [I Corinthians 1:25]