The Sin of Faust—What Was It?

By Neil Earle

It’s hard to take a course in Western Literature and not encounter the Faust Legend.  Many readers of Nachfolge would have met it in school as it was a major theme of the great author Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832).

Goethe knew of the Faust Legend through the omnipresent puppet shows that had been an institution in Europe since the “morality plays” of the Middle Ages. In the 20th Century a Nobel-prize-winning author, Thomas Mann, revived the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil. The Faust Legend haunted the 20th Century imagination, as the phrase a “Faustian bargain” with Science and Technology has become proverbial.

The Faust story is well known. This article draws mostly upon the English version made famous by the poet-dramatist Christopher Marlowe in 1588. In this version, Dr. John Faustus of Wittenberg, grown weary with tedious study, makes a pact with Lucifer to give up his soul on death if the Devil will grant his every wish for twenty four years. In Goethe’s more Romantic version the mortal Faust’s defeat by time’s brevity and the elusiveness of truth and lasting beauty are major themes, the soaring poetry earning Goethe’s retelling a secure niche in the pantheon of German literature. As Will Durant tells it:

“Faust, of course, is Goethe, even to being a man of sixty years; Like Goethe, he was at sixty, thrilled by [sic] loveliness and grace. His double aspiration for wisdom and beauty was the soul of Goethe; it challenged the avenging gods by its presumption, but it was noble. Faust and Goethe said Yes to life, spiritual and sensual, philosophical and gay” (Rousseau and Revolution, page 609).

Fatal Shallowness!

Most commentators note the arrogance of Faust, his presumption to aspire to Godlike powers. Marlowe’s Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus opens with the character scorning the knowledge gained from the four faculties of philosophy, medicine, law and theology. Wittenberg was, of course, the home base for Martin Luther, and by setting his Faustus there, Marlowe gives Faustus a double-rejection of the wisdom of theology. Theology at this time was considered “Queen of the Sciences.” But what folly in any man to think he had absorbed all that any one faculty has to teach? This is why viewers of Marlowe’s play very early  have profound doubts about Faustus’ ultimate depth of soul and spirit.

A line from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther had seen as his Declaration of Religious Liberty, comes forcefully to mind: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).

Later Paul breaks out in song at the depths and riches to be gained from searching out the wonder and grandeur of the Godhead: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out! Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor (Romans 11:33-34).”

Tragic Hero

There’s depth for you and a fatal blindness will be Faustus’ undoing. What he wants is power, as Marlowe puts into his mouth, the power to command spirits, the Godlike urge:

“I’ll have them fly to India for gold,
Ransack the ocean of orient pearl,
And search all corners of the new-found world
For pleasant fruits and princely delicates;
I’ll have them read me strange philosophy
And tell the secrets of all foreign kings”

Marlowe’s Faustus was written for the stage and thus exhibits the quality of the tragic hero in that he does want to explore, to seek out, to grow, to find the secrets of the known universe and even the unknown. When he enquires into the nature of Hell and of God, his spiritual aide-de-camp and Lucifer’s agent, the resourceful Mephistoceles, breaks off with a shudder.

Marlowe’s plays are famous for charting the rise and fall of great Overreachers. Goethe’s more poetic and flowery 1808 version is set in the midst of the Romantic movement in Europe and thus presents a nobler Faust who seeks God’s existence inside his own feelings and praises him as “the All-embracing, the All-sustaining.” For Goethe’s Faust, “feeling is all” – “Gefuhl ist alles.”

According to many critics, Goethe’s Faust of 1808 was “the finest drama and the finest poetry Germany had yet produced” and though in the end Faust is dragged off to hell by Mephistoseles, there is much beauty in the telling. Marlowe has the penalty drawn out much longer and throughout the course of the play he has Faustus feel the need to repent, to turn to God. In Act Two, Faustus asks if it is too late and the Bad Angel retorts, “Too late.” The Good Angle replies with “Never too late if Faustus will repent” to which the answer comes back, “If thou repent, devils will tear thee in pieces.” The Good Angel is just as firm: “Repent and they shall never scratch thy skin.” At which point in the play Faustus cries: “O Christ, my Savior! My Savior! Help to save distressed Faustus’ soul.”

Then Lucifer appears with both a warning and a cunning sideshow to distract the learned Doctor. Lucifer distracts him by parading past him the seven deadly sins. These were well known to medieval audiences and both Marlowe and Goethe would have seen them portrayed in the morality plays of the churches.

What are they? A grim assortment beginning with Pride and working down through Covetousness, Envy, Anger, Gluttony and Sloth to end in Lust – a grisly compendium.

Faustus is distracted by these fleshly indulgences to turn from the path of repentance Here’s where a more profound lesson comes in for shrewd contemplators of the Faust legend. It becomes clear to the discerning audiences that Faustus’ sin is not just presumption but spiritual shallowness. In the words of Dr. Kristin Leuschner of U.C.L.A., Faustus’ shallowness is his undoing and for a very important reason. “Faustus cannot conceive of a God who is big enough to forgive him for what he has done,” insists Dr. Leuschner.

At different times in Marlowe’s play the friends of Faustus urge him to turn to God. It is not too late but Faustus is blinded by his lack of faith – he cannot imagine a God big enough to forgive him.

Here is a key lesson in the Faust legend. The Faustus who has shunned theology has forgotten one of the Bible’s most fundamental principles: “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men” (Matthew 12:31). Yes, that includes selling one’s soul to the devil. Remember, Jesus had to cast seven demons (Luke 8:2) out of a woman who became one of his most devoted followers.

Faustus’ lack of faith in God’s mercy traced to something we all do, we tend to create God in our own image. That is a fatal selling short. Faustus would not pardon Faustus so how could the Almighty One pardon Faustus.

Amnesty for Sinners

Perhaps some people reading these lines may feel the same way. If so, we need to take heart. The Bible’s message is clear. Not only is it true that all manner of sins can be forgiven but that important truth is anchored in ground as solid as where Christ’s cross stood. The basic Gospel fact is that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was worth more than the sum total of all other lives and all other sins that have ever been committed. Some people reject God’s offer of forgiveness and in so doing make an idol out of their own sins: “Oh my sins are too many, too big. God could never forgive me.”

Don’t ever feel that way. The Good News of the Gospel is that divine amnesty has been proclaimed to even the worst of sinners. That was the apostle Paul’s description of himself. Note this forceful confession: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Paul also wrote this strong assurance: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).  The message is clear: The path to God’s mercy is still open for even the worst of sinners.

So who will we believe? Paul or Faustus?