“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part I of III)

Vico, Hegel, Harnack... in the line of historicism, yet another Christian heresy.

Vico, Hegel, Harnack… in the line of historicism, yet another Christian heresy.


“Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ’s historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history.” — J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going? 1969, p. 185


I plan on getting to my posts dealing with Lutheran apologetics soon.  First though, this series (which will lay some good groundwork for those forthcoming posts).

In recent posts, “Daring to Deny Darwin” and “The ‘Upside’ of Being a Gadget”, I talked about one of the great enemies of the Christian faith: philosophical naturalism.

(and I have characterized one of the most modern forms of philosophical naturalism – existing from the 17th century and up – as the modern scientific and technological mindset, or MSTM, which we could also call “mechanized naturalism” or “mechanicism”).

I also recently posted a very short critique of Erlangen theology.  One aspect of this kind of theology is that it attempts to take into account some of the more creative ideas and methods of the great 19th c. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Hegel is perhaps the foremost proponent of “historicism”, which is a philosophy that originally arose in order to counter some of the negative aspects (and fruit) of more modern naturalistic views.* (more on this specifically in part II of the series).

That said, historicism is another great enemy of the Christian faith.  I would contend that the modern form of philosophical naturalism/mechnicism is like the drunk man who gets on the horse and falls off on one side.  Historicism is the basic counter-response, and the drunk man falling off the other side of the horse. The one who tries to utilize both in tandem also cannot balance on the horse.  Of course the drunk man in our analogy is a symbol of fallen man, particularly fallen man at the utter heights of his fallen intellectual powers (there is no denying he is clever and aware of much that is true!) – natural man’s own view of himself is that he is the “reasonable man”.

In this series we will take a look at historicism while also talking about the importance of real history.

We begin…

Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life?

These are questions about historical matters that none of us can fail to ask or think about. That said, naturalism and historicism, which I have said are two great philosophical enemies of the Christian faith, complicate terribly our potential answers to these questions.

sparrowThese days, you will certainly not get sage advice like the that given to Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria (now northern England and south-east Scotland).  After hearing the Gospel preached, the King proposed to convert to Christianity and one of his chief advisors, according to the Venerable Bede, said this:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”** (story from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731).

Answers such as these were at one time seen as being eminently reasonable, especially in an age where much history had been lost.  To say the least, this is no longer the case.

Starting with the Renaissance but with the Enlightenment in particular, new ideas and new discoveries were in the air…  Many of these ideas, some good and some bad, would find their most fulsome flowering in the thought of the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. (though starting out with a man by the name of Vico – see next post). While it is fair to say that Hegel is more known as an idealist than a historicist, his work is associated with both of these streams of thought, which tend to merge.

In order to give you a bit of the flavor of the kind of influence Hegel enjoyed and the fruits his ideas bore, here is a lengthy – but very interesting – quote from the book “God’s Funeral” by A.N. Wilson.  In this quote, Wilson follows some of the history of a highly influential scholar and professor named Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), who is little known today but in his own day “turns up in a thousand nineteenth-century anecdotes”. Please note that Wilson himself is a septic skeptic – I will refrain from editorializing too much about his own rather skewed take on things:

An interesting account of the increasing atheism and agnosticism in 19th c. England.

An interesting account of the increasing atheism and agnosticism in 19th c. England.

“Unlike most Oxford men of his age, [Jowett] knew that there was an alternative [to self-defeating Humean empiricism and “insulting” revealed religion]. When his friend Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (destined to be Dean of Westminster – he is the little boy Arthur who risks the ridicule of his dormitory in Tom Brown’s Schooldays by daring to kneel down and say his prayers) had finished his magnificent hagiography of his hero Dr. Arnold, Jowett proposed that the pair of them take a holiday in Germany. They set off in the summer of 1814, with Liddell and Scott’s enormous and newly published Greek Lexicon, and with one copy of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft, which they took it in turn to read and analyse. They attended various philosophical conferences, but the most exciting and important thing Jowett did was to meet Erdmann of Halle – the meeting took place in Dresden. Erdmann was Hegel’s representative on earth. The two young Englishmen were thirteen years too late to meet Hegel himself, but meeting Erdmann was the next best thing.

Jowett never became a full-blown Hegelian. There was always a part of him which, as Geoffrey Faber his biographer says, was ‘salty’ and empirical; there was an even larger part of him which was so Platonist that it did not need Hegel. A typical Jowettism, this:

‘Hegel is untrue, I sometimes fancy, not in the sense of being erroneous, but practically, because it is a consciousness of truth, becoming thereby error. It is very difficult to express what I mean, for it is something which does not make me value Hegel the less as a philosopher. The problem of Truth idealized and yet in action, he does not seem to me to have solved; the Gospel of St. John does.”

There is a brilliance about this remark. Of course, all the churchy bigots regarded Jowett as a complete heretic, and he spend his life, after he came to fame and prominence, being denounced by them. But he was something of a mystic, so that although he never for a moment believed in the Thirty-nine Articles or the literal truth of miracle-stories in the New Testament, he believed deeply in God and Christ.

[editorial comment: OK…]

At first glance, certainly, idealism, the German version, seemed like the best approach for an attack on the dead hand of materialism and empiricism. The extent to which Hegel’s God – mentioned so frequently in that philosopher’s works – is the same God of Christianity can always be a subject of debate. Is Hegel’s God Personal? The community of the Spirit in Hegel consists in the Spiritual Community, or the Church. But this is not understood as [Cardinal] Newman and friends would have understood it in using the word. It is not the laying-on of apostolic hands, still less a sacramental ‘magic’ which constitutes the Hegelian community. The perfected community of enlightened ones is itself, in Hegel’s world, God. And he chose, when describing this community, and impersonal word, Gemeinde, ‘whose ordinary meaning excludes any idea of personal unity’.

Jowett was a great teacher rather than himself an original metaphysician. This is what makes his visit to Germany so important – and so different from [Edward] Pusey’s visit to Gottingen and Berlin nearly twenty years before. Whereas Pusey came back to England and decided that there were storms ahead and it was time to batten down the hatches, Jowett returned with a feeling of liberation…

Lutheran theologian Franz Peiper - Pieper was writing his critique of Erlangen before World War I (for all intents and purposes), before Barth and Bultmann came on the scene, before Barth and Gogarten had their "throw-down" about whether or not God can be known through history, or even creation. Pieper therefore was, to a certain extent, like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming. Therefore he can be forgiven somewhat for not being as prescient as we now can be about the topic post Barth

Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper was “like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming.”*** (this is what he warned us of)

Relevance for us? Stories like this have been recapitulated many a time by many a young theological intellectual (perhaps particularly those intellectuals studying in Germany). German thinkers – with their intoxicatingly comprehensive and systematic foci, have loomed large in world history…. (check out this paper and learn about Bad Boll – you will need to download this to read due to formatting issues)

Hegel’s style of thought was to exercise much influence in 19th and 20th century theology. Of course in the twentieth century there was also resistance to his thought, particularly from the Kierkegaard-influenced neo-Orthodoxy, led by Karl Barth. That said, for all the good that can be found in neo-Orthodoxy, it was lacking in many respects, including its unwillingness to speak about the matter of history and the Christian faith in a way that did not cause utter confusion.  

The late theologian George A. Buttrick wrote a very interesting book in the early 1960s called Christ and History. He is clearly influenced by men like Karl Barth and his neo-orthodoxy, and his comments below a) sound pretty good and yet, b) sound a bit strange, with some jargon that may be unfamiliar to us:

“Is thought primarily scientific or philosophical or theological?  Or is it historical, that is, so constituted as to be able by nature to respond to the onsets of God in history?  At any rate, the Bible is history… the Bible is history, and sacred history and faith-history… Bible history is eschatological…Bible history is focused history… [it] sets a Year One in the midst of history…” — George A Buttrick, Christ and History, 1963, p. 18, 22, 24-26

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hegel: "the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real."  Hegel himself:  “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”   Hegel: on the wrong side of history[‘s Author]

Hegel, on the wrong side of history['s Author]: “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”

Despite Buttrick’s overall theology not being ideal, did he indeed hold the line here on this matter of Christ and history?  On the one hand, after I read the book, I thought that he basically did.  On the other hand, upon more reflection, I found myself doubting whether or not he really did! (though I can definitely say that in many respects the book struck me as quite insightful and informed – I will quote from it later on)

Here, it seems to me, is the crux: against Hegel, the Christian must assert that there are some statements made on earth that remain and always will remain true. Permanent.**** Over against those who would employ Hegel to re-imagine the historic Christian faith in this or that way, we must assert that there is no “salvation history” that should be held as distinct from larger (or smaller, according to some theologians) “world history”. In short, “history is history is history”.  That said, I think that some will, understandably, want to be nuanced in their understandings of these things, and in and in part II we will get on that road by taking a closer look at historicism….

(part II in a couple days)




*That said, in many cases historicism – in the minds of many men at least – is also frequently thought to be highly compatible with philosophical naturalism/mechanicism (particularly as regards what is the chronological and mechanical process of evolution and accompanying ideas of progress and goals). Part II will talk about this more.

**”The King did become a Christian and. St. Paulinus[, who had preached to him,] went on to convert many in the kingdom of Northumbria, notably the great Hilda who received the monastic habit from our own St. Aidan who served the next king of Northumbria after Edwin, Oswald.” (from here:

*** Full quote from my pastor: “Pieper was writing his critique of Erlangen before World War I (for all intents and purposes), before Barth and Bultmann came on the scene, before Barth and Gogarten had their “throw-down” about whether or not God can be known through history, or even creation. Pieper therefore was, to a certain extent, “like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming.” Therefore he can be forgiven somewhat for not being as prescient as we now can be about the topic post Barth…”

**** In this view then, the notion of positive law, for example, cannot simply be thought to be the mere product and catalyst of social change, but is rather is intimately connected with things that are permanent and transcendent, outside of us.

Images: Wikipedia ; sparrow: ; Harnack pic:

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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


“Christian theology doesn’t just consist in presenting an internally consistent system” — J.W. Montgomery

A very smart guy with lots of smart things to say... like this: "Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ's historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history."*

A very smart guy with lots of smart things to say… like this: “Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ’s historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history.”*

If I hear him rightly, Montgomery is saying, among other things, something like “correspondence – not just coherence”.  As Wikipedia says about “the Correspondence theory of truth”, “the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world”.  Related to this of course, is the matter of demonstrable evidence, necessary to establish/verify particular claims.

In a previous post on apologetics, I had quoted this bit from C.S. Lewis’ conversion story:

“Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not-as I would still have put it — “safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?” [read quote in full context here on PBS’s website]

Here we see the role of real evidence in C.S. Lewis’ conversion – how the “transcendent” broke through.  This, I said, got my vote for “Christian apologetics soundbite of the 20th century.  I also made the following statement:

For me, it is very significant to think of a quote like this in terms of its epistemological and theological significance. Although the Scriptures say that all are guilty before God (Romans 3), it also assigns a greater degree of guilt to persons who receive more light.  Does God assign greater culpability to those who simply hear the eyewitness testimony of those who witnessed the resurrection? Or do they need to at least feel like the claim is perhaps worthy of their attention – while still not believing it – before they can be accorded additional guilt?  Or, in order for this to happen, do they perhaps first need to read C.S. Lewis on why Hume is wrong on miracles, John Warwick Montgomery on how faith is founded on fact, John Wenham on why the resurrection accounts are compatible, or J. Warner Wallace, N.T. Wright, or Michael R. Licona making an inductive case that it is more probable than not that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead?

I will admit, I meant those questions to be rhetorical.  After paying attention to and thinking about these issues for a long time, I have come to some conclusions in the matter which I plan on laying out soon.  

I found it interesting that a day or two after I asked these questions Todd Wilken asked the following question of John Warwick Montgomery on this show:

Talk about if you would the absolute necessity for Christian confession [of faith] to be based not just in claims, not just in assertions, but in what can be established by ordinary means by which we usually establish – to a degree of high probability – to be facts.

Montgomery responded:

You put it very well. The fact of the matter is that religion deals with the ultimate meaning of life and the possibility of eternity…. the possibility of a final cosmic resolution of problems – it deals with ultimates. And since it does, it’s of absolute consequence that we have solid evidence for the religious position that we maintain. If in medicine, let’s say, it’s important that we have a basis for taking a particular remedy rather than another – because otherwise we might manage to kill ourselves – it is infinitely more important in the area of religion that we not rely upon something which is untrue… which is simply wishful thinking. And therefore orthodox Christians – Christians in the tradition of the church’s creeds and that believe that the Bible is in fact God’s word from cover to cover – these people have been tremendously concerned with the evidence and the factual foundations of faith. This is the reason why one branch of systematic theology is apologetics – this is the defense of the faith, the demonstration that this stuff is true. Christian theology doesn’t just consist in presenting an internally consistent system. You know my Uncle Oswald, who I mention frequently on the program, who is convinced he is followed by Albanians has a completely consistent philosophy – it’s just that it hasn’t got anything to do with reality. In the case of Christians, they insist that that the reason for believing in Jesus Christ is because He is God Almighty, He did come to earth and this is the incarnate God who really died on the cross and therefor can really provide a passport for eternity

I appreciate John Warwick Montgomery’s remarks here.  I think that it is very well put and needs to be paid close attention to.  That said, my questions revolve more around the content of Pastor Wilken’s question.

What am I thinking about?  Well, even if Christian faith is merely asserted in this or that circumstance, we can nevertheless say that by virtue of its being Christian faith there is necessarily a lot behind that assertion – not only good and logical reasons but things that we must call evidence as well.  This is part and parcel of Christian faith, even if it really can not be said to be the case for other faiths (yes, a few do try, but I think very unsatisfactorily).

But what is the nature of that evidence?  When we speak of the evidence that is part and parcel of our faith, what should we be focusing on?  And when it comes to speaking to unbelievers in particular, does God’s word have anything to say about what constitutes this evidence?  And what really, if anything, does this have to do with notions of probability?  These are the kinds of questions I want to explore and will look to talk about more in coming weeks.




* Where is History Going? 1969, p. 185

Image credit: Patrick Henry College website.



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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


From Pastor Jonathan Fisk: Please Help Persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria

Good words from Pastor Fisk:


On his blog, he provides additional links with documents and news reports.


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Posted by on August 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


John 16:8-11 and ministerial vs. magisterial interpretation

The Law and the Gospel are not “confused” in the person of Christ.

The Law and the Gospel are not “confused” in the person of Jesus Christ.

For judgment I came into this world…. I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world (John 9:39, 12:47)

It’s not about you: It’s about Jesus for you – and against you.


All of us who are in Christ know that we do not trust our Lord as we ought.*  When we talk about such matters, we are not talking about our justification – for it is not the strength of our faith that saves – but rather our continual Christification (as Pastor Jordan Cooper has called it), or sanctification.

But what about the person who does not trust Jesus Christ at all?  Can they be convicted of the sin of not believing in Jesus?  Of not being willing to be the trick or treat bag that receives God’s good gifts? (as the late Klemet Preus, quoting his father Robert, so aptly put it)

Yes. In John 16:8-11 we read:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today.  Click on image for more.

Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today. Click here for more.

From the Scriptures, we see that the Holy Spirit is Christ’s Spirit – and He not only brings people to Christ but convicts them that they have not yet been brought, or come, to Christ.

This passage from John’s Gospel used to be a staple, go-to text in orthodox Lutheranism. Coinciding with the advent of modern, critical forms of theology, this is one of the texts that has been relegated to the background. These days, even many of us conservative Lutherans are not eager to bring this issue up. Rather, when we talk about Jesus Christ we are determined that this will always be in the context of the Gospel, narrowly understood – as our forgiveness, life, and salvation, our rescuer from sin, death, and the devil! Jesus is pure grace and speak not another word to me! I demand this….

Going along with this, adherents of schools like those of Erlangen are eager to use existentialist philosophy as a theological grounding, emphasizing instead – to the exclusion of everything else – the conviction of sin that might come from the creation itself. Martin Luther talked about how it is possible for a person to even be terrified by the rustling of a leaf (a friend points out this is a reference to Lev. 26:36 and actually illustrates the faintness that befalls those who break God’s law), and these theologians are all over this.

Of course on the one hand this is reasonably in line with what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans chapters 1-3 and with Martin Luther’s own approach to “natural theology”. Further, we can and should note that when it comes to conviction of sin, it is not only a sense of the Creator’s justice and corresponding wrath that is a cause here, but His kindness as well.

For in Romans 2:4, we read that it is God’s His kindness that has a role in leading us to repentance (this does not mean that one can insist that contrition is only genuine and godly sorrow if it has been produced by the love of God**).  In one sense the creation really is ambiguous about the overall goodness of God (see here for a short video clip dwelling on the heartlessness and cruelty of nature) – and yet in another sense, we all see the beauty that remains in the fallen creation and know a measure of joy – for the Creator puts it in all men’s hearts (see Acts 14:17). By the Holy Spirit, we are convicted by the “whole package” of God whose divine nature is not only justice, but above all, love (and it is precisely because he, not sinful man, is good and love that we cannot come to Him by our own “spiritual powers”, converting ourselves).

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

But of course, we know that Christ reveals to us that whole package in even more detail – chasing out the ambiguities and doubts surrounding God’s goodness and love!  So: how much more so can we talk about spiritual conviction when man sees the Creator God incarnate, Jesus Christ! Truly in Him, we see how the promise of grace is wrapped up in His judgment and His judgment is wrapped up in the promise of grace. The law is wrapped up in the gospel and the gospel is wrapped up in the law (before you choke on that phrase note the caption on the picture that leads off this blog post).

He is both the One who will judge the world in righteousness and also the merciful one eager to show grace. And when grace is shown, there is always corresponding punishment of the wicked.

We want to be on the right side of this.

Am I interpreting all of this right? Some reading this might wonder. If you think that I am not getting things quite right perhaps a look at Romans 3 will help:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.20 For by works of the law no human being[a] will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

As Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther would remind us, understanding the proper function of law and gospel is not, ultimately, about knowing principles about how God works and a) applying them to get guaranteed results or b) not being intentional in trying to get results (see the paper by Holger Sonntag below).  We can, however, say that it is this: it is the art of the Holy Spirit of God leading people into personal confrontation with the living God, perhaps specifically focusing on Jesus Christ – and the corresponding comfort that comes from receiving and believing in the narrow Gospel message.  We either paint with Him in His art – that is, using His methods – or not (for more specifics about the complexities here, read the free paper by Pastor Holger Sonntag on the third use of the law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations referenced here).***

But knowing this is just background for what I suggest we Lutherans really need to be talking about more today, which is this: while it is inevitable that when doing theology a limited amount of talk about ourselves is going to happen, should we not be emphasizing that we first and foremost focus on God and what He is saying – and because God focuses on us sinners, we also talk about us as *He* talks about us?

“Selfie theologian” Von Hofmann, leader of a school of theology that sees Scripture as merely a “form of the word of God” (think Plato) Go here for more on this.

“Selfie theologian” Von Hofmann (see here)

In other words, when it comes to explaining the message of the Scriptures, we dare not lay the emphasis on our interpretation or imagination – or even the church’s interpretation or imagination – and should this not especially hold true in this process of conviction and conversion (initially and continually)?

While it at times may well be reasonable to point out that the interpreter of Scripture cannot “escape his own shadow…”, when we are talking about standing before Almighty God, perfect in His holiness, is this appropriate?  If we do this, do we not become “I theologians” who practice a form of magisterial, not ministerial interpretation?  Even today, most all confessional Lutherans are eager to point out the dangers of a magisterial use of reason (here is a nice essay from Steven Hein introducing Luther’s complex views regarding the role of reason).  They are not so cautious when it comes to the matter of biblical interpretation.

Must we not, standing naked before God, “escape our own shadow”?  Think about what Pastor Todd Wilken, the host of Issues ETC has said as regards his complaints about much contemporary Christian music: when you are courting a woman, and her father asks you what you find compelling about his daughter, you don’t talk about what she does for you – how she makes you feel and such.  You talk about her, her character, her qualities, who she is.”****

I submit that passages like Romans 3:19-20 in particular help us to remember that the validation of God’s word is never subject to our evaluation of its truthfulness to any degree whatsoever.  Nor is the establishment of God’s word in any degree based on our critical evaluation of it.*****  Nor it this the time for us to be emphasizing how we are inevitably interpreters of the words of others (perhaps even testing them against other things we know are confident are true) – in hearing these words it is we who are interpreted, for we are hearing the active words of the living Spirit of Christ (see more about an interesting battle that took place over issues related to this in the 16th century between Matthias Flacius and Caspar Schwenckfeld). It is only men veering towards or playing with death who dare to call these words “dead”.

grace always – that brings certainty of peace with God – in our time of need.... (Johann von Staupitz instructs and comforts Luther in the 2003 Luther movie)

Grace always – that brings certainty of peace with God – in our time of need…. (Johann von Staupitz instructs and comforts Luther in the 2003 Luther movie)


Or, perhaps you think this a strong message…. In the event that you are feeling terrified or helpless, I offer you this:

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us, and has given His Only Son to die for us, and for His sake forgives us all our sins. To them that believe on His Name, He gives power to become the sons of God, and bestows upon them His Holy Spirit. He that believes, and is baptized, shall be saved. Grant this, O Lord, unto us all



*As just one example, the saintly Lutheran pastor Wallace Schulz says this: “Like all churches, we not only could do a little better, we need to do much better in reaching out to the lost and bringing them in. This is the will of God (1 Timothy 2:4)”

**Scripture speaks of God’s word being like a hammer that shatters (Jer. 23:29), but also says that “a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15).  In Luther’s antinomian disputations he discusses Rom. 2 to some extent: God’s goodness, just like his wrath, can be a form of his law that leads us to repentance.  In C.F.W. Walther’s eleventh thesis in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel he only says that those who insist that a person must come to repentance through God’s kindness are in error: “To demand of a poor sinner that he must, from the love of God, be alarmed on account of his sins and feel sorry for them is an abominable perversion of Law and Gospel.” (p. 236, 1897 ed., note the “must”).

***Law and Gospel is a valuable light. But if the popular “theological shorthand” misses out on the complexity involved in the application of it to specific individuals in time it goes awry.  Also, those who think that we can say things like the criterion of the law is the self are losing the plot.  The criterion of the law would be God’s self, and He has made His will known.

It is critically important to note that both the law and the gospel have a wider and narrow sense. This is the context – the faith/ethical framework of sorts, in which we live and move and have our being.  This realization is something many modern Lutherans seem to have lost.

****We find that if there is any human being that we should begin to focus on more and more besides the God-man, it is our neighbor, as we are  continuously reminded and even inspired, in our heart of hearts with Christ, to consider others better than ourselves. In short, as we mature more and more we are always actually looking outside of our individual selves more and more – to God in faith and our neighbor in love.

*****We Lutherans who love apologetics ought to note this well.

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Uncategorized


What is the Christian apologetics soundbite of the 20th century?

No escape.

No escape.


Here is my vote – this C.S. Lewis gem – embedded in a quotation from the well-known Lutheran apologist John Warwick Mongomery:

“[My argumentation that the New Testament books need to be construed as reliable] rests solely and squarely upon historical method, the kind of method all of us, whether Christians, rationalists, agnostics, or Tibetan monks, have to use in analyzing historical data. Perhaps at this point we can understand why C.S. Lewis, the great Renaissance English scholar, in describing his conversion from atheism to Christianity, writes:

Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not-as I would still have put it — “safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?” [read quote in full context here on PBS’s website]

Subsequently, says Lewis, “God closed in on me.” How “God closes in” when we face the implications of historically reliable New Testament documents is the subject of this chapter….” (Montgomery, Where is History Going? pp. 53,54)

I think that there is so much to reflect on regarding this quote.

Even if all atheists do not find themselves compelled by the “case for Christ” – this one had seen that there was a strong case. Further, interestingly, as Lewis points out, he did not go any further with this. On the other hand, the other atheist in the quote, Lewis himself, basically felt the walls closing in on him. The Hound of Heaven, relentless, was on the prowl.

For me, it is very significant to think of a quote like this in terms of its epistemological and theological significance. Although the Scriptures say that all are guilty before God (Romans 3), it also assigns a greater degree of guilt to persons who receive more light.  Does God assign greater culpability to those who simply hear the eyewitness testimony of those who witnessed the resurrection? Or do they need to at least feel like the claim is perhaps worthy of their attention* – while still not believing it – before they can be accorded additional guilt?  Or, in order for this to happen, do they perhaps first need to read C.S. Lewis on why Hume is wrong on miracles, John Warwick Montgomery on how faith is founded on fact, John Wenham on why the resurrection accounts are compatible, or J. Warner Wallace, N.T. Wright, or Michael R. Licona making an inductive case that it is more probable than not that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead?**

What gets your vote for Christian apologetics soundbite of the 20th century?  Your reasons are your own – feel free to share them – and any questions the quote provokes in you – or not.

[NOTE: I have posted this at the Just and Sinner and Reformation 500 blogs as well.  These sites get more traffic than mine, so if you feel led to comment you might choose to do so at one of those instead of this one.]


*We are capable of determining whether or not things that we may not really be interested in are nevertheless worthy of our attention – i.e. that it is good for them to “interrupt our lives”.

**Some might feel that such questions are not worthy of one who would have a “heart for the lost”, but I think that such questions are important for those who would endeavor to hold forth Christ and His gifts to the world. Or I can imagine some reading this and wondering: is it simply unworthy of a Christian, who desires to share God’s mercy with all, to think about God assigning guilt to persons (and should you just not be thinking about your own guilt?!) or just un-Lutheran to think about how particular attitudes or acts like these might be sinful? (after all, don’t you realize our main problem is sin and not sins?). I don’t think so. What do you think?

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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


Apologetics saved my life: what kinds of “reasons” did I need to hear when I was younger?

Paul practicing apophatic (v. 24-25, 29) and cataphatic (v. 23, 30-31) evangelism.

Acts 17: Paul practicing apophatic (v. 24-25, 29) and cataphatic (v. 23, 30-31) evangelism.  More on that here.


In the near future I plan on posting some stuff that takes a hard – and somewhat critical – look at contemporary Lutheran apologetics.

Before I do that however, I want to make something very clear: as I have hinted at before but will state more clearly now, I think that simply knowing that Christian apologetics existed saved my life. No exaggeration. I believe that God used the presence and words of Christian apologists to convict me of my sin and draw me near to him in my first year of college when I was in danger of falling away. Especially after the 1992 LC-MS youth gathering (yes, you read that right), I had started to have grave doubts about whether or not my Christian faith was true – and I felt like no one else had or cared about the kinds of difficult questions that I had.  It was only my freshman year in college that I really learned about Christian apologetics (OK – my youth director had tried to get me to read the Screwtape Letters), and I believe this came at a critical time in my life.

I think one of the things that caused me to seriously doubt my faith was that other than the Reformation, I heard very little talk about the historical nature of Christianity and the Church. Christianity often seemed to be about us today, living in the present, in a way that felt disconnected, untethered from the past. I, probably a bit more than most, was very curious about Christianity as a very concrete and historical matter – about it being something true that was rooted in the past, which in turn, had much to say about the present and future. I think that the fact – or perception – that many persons in the church did not really draw attention to this caused me to doubt whether or not others thought that it was critical that Jesus Christ was an actual historical figure… and this in turn caused larger doubts….

There is a good reason why the Christian has a desire to hear the world and its false ideas confronted. Not necessarily because you want to be better than them – though we have that problem as well – but because we live by the truth, and are people of the truth.


Acts 26: Festus: “Paul you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”  Paul: “I am speaking true and rational words.”


Not only this, but when it comes to loving one’s neighbor, knowing about the world and its beliefs is not an option. That is how you love them. You engage them on their ground, learn about their ideas, and respect them enough to take their ideas seriously and engage them in as much depth as you are capable, realizing how much you might not know….  Not all are called to be scholars, but all are called to engage one’s neighbor and to be ready to give a reasons – a defense, or apologia – for the hope that is within them.

Here is a really good example of the kind of bold message I think I could have used when I was younger – and that I need to hear today. Michael Horton is a good preacher. Some in the Reformed world might suspect Horton of being a “Crypto-Lutheran” from time to time, but I have never heard anything but good Calvinist theology coming from the man (as well as I know that theology). In any case, in this address he gave at a Christian conference – which is really like a sermon – it seems to me that the content he shares is quite uncommon among both conservative Reformed and Lutherans (maybe I am wrong about that – maybe your experience has been different).

If I am right in suggesting that these kinds of words are rare, I do not think that they should be. In my estimation, we need more excellent proclamation that is just like this. As a matter of fact, I think that given that we more or less live in a world of Greeks today, these kinds of words should be heard more and more often among us not only as we talk with one another, but as we talk with the world….

We don’t all need to have just the kind of highly erudite “heart for the lost” that Horton clearly has. But it seems to me that Christian pastors at least ought to be able to speak in a fashion similar to him here.

That takes some work.  Some love.



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Posted by on August 8, 2014 in Uncategorized


Our wisdom and understanding shown to the nations? God’s Law as curb, coherence, and comfort… (part II of II)

Pearls before swine. Allegory of Fortune (detail), Salvator Rosa, about 1658–59,

Pearls before swine.
Allegory of Fortune (detail), Salvator Rosa, about 1658–59,

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” — Matthew 7:6

Part I

In part I, it was noted that in order to reflect more on how the Church should try to teach God’s law to all as it goes into exile, we could look at the debate that happened a few months ago between Ross Douthat and Joseph Bottum about the church and same-sex marriage.  We saw that Bottum argues that since the culture has largely forgotten “the essential God-hauntedness” of the world, if we insist that same-sex marriage should not be allowed in civil law, persons will not understand this.  We should rather focus our energies on trying to “re-enchant” the world.

First of all, I note that intelligent Lutherans like Dr. Gene Veith have for years been emphasizing the primacy of things like art, literature and film as vehicles for basically doing just this – all while not ignoring the political realm as well. Second, I think one must seriously wonder about the wisdom of Bottom’s argument given how the nature of sexuality naturally figures into the current debates so prominently. What Matthew B. Crawford says in his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work” comes to mind here:

“Stepping outside the intellectually serious circle of my teachers and friends at Chicago into the broader academic world, it struck me as an industry hostile to thinking. I once attended a conference entitled “After the Beautiful.” The premise was a variation on “the death of God,” the supposed disenchantment of the world, and so forth. Speaking up for my own sense of enchantment, I pointed out, from the audience, the existence of beautiful human bodies. Youthful ones, in particular. This must have touched a nerve, as it was greeted with incredulous howls of outrage from some of the more senior harpies.” (pp. 104-105).

Surprisingly relevant.  Appreciative yet not fully given over to Aristotle's philosophy.

Surprisingly relevant to our inquiry.

Crawford, who incidently has heterosexual inclinations, makes a good point here – there is a real sense that, despite what some have called the “buffered self”, there is still much enchantment here – at times, leading to thoughts, words and deeds that go hand in hand not only with adoration but real worship. See the Da Vinci Code veering in this direction.* But there is the wider point Bottom’s nemesis in the debate, Ross Douthat, makes:

…in a culture that’s increasingly libertine, atomized, and postfamilial, some of what the church has to say will necessarily have to do with sexuality. And in arguing about sexuality, there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be—even in a world where that definition has changed and doesn’t seem likely to change back.

We can certainly take this even further. In the bible, both adoption and marriage – which always includes a physically intimate, or sexual, component – are the two great metaphors of the Bible: this is how God deals with His people. Further, marriage is arguably the stronger of the two metaphors – so perhaps in this sense at least, Christianity is mainly about “sexual issues” (see this interesting post by Rod Dreher that I initially wanted to rebel against**). Though we might find the imagery put forth in passages like Ezekiel 16 disturbing in many ways – the sexualized symbolism here is jarring to say the least – this uncomfortable parable has much to teach us about the nature of God’s relationship with those who trust in Him (I pondered this more here, offering a counterpoint to assertions made in Justification is for Preaching, ed. Virgil Thompson).

Christ and sex re-interpreted... Distorted.

Christ and sex re-interpreted… Distorted.

Our adoption and marriage with Him – our salvation – is intimately tied up with notions not only of a secure identity and meaning (individually and corporately) but protection from all of the enemies – invisible and visible – who would mean to leave us in the lurch or worse (for ultimately, there is no salvation without corresponding damnation). Here is the One who cares about us weak and helpless ones, those who like sheep have gone astray – and who comforts and protects us.  Note also that here we see how the publicly voiced concerns of same-sex marriage opponents – that this concept really leaves children in the lurch (listen to this short soundbite from Jennifer Roback Morse) – dovetails seamlessly with this biblical understanding of The True Marriage: God helps – saves – those those who cannot help – save – themselves.

While it is true that we would not have needed the kind of protection God now gives us before the fall into sin, here we can see how – as regards marriage - even the partial fulfillment of the law in the fallen creation hearkens us back to innocence, when love, trust, and security reigned.  Ephesians 5 reveals more than God’s grace for sinners alone – it reveals God’s love for His human creatures.  Christ’s specific actions for our redemption are not a completely new picture, but only more fully reveal this picture.

Of course the idea of gay marriage declares war against this, and elevates a sterile and fruitless icon to the fore.  And as we know, the law always teaches, and this is one teaching that cuts away not only at God’s law – but His precious Gospel as well (in his marriage sermon on Eph. 5 Luther speaks of the union with Christ as a cause and an effect of justification***).  How can we not speak up and out?

Again, here one sees that upholding the preaching of the Gospel goes hand in hand with the importance of continually upholding and making known God’s law.  So, when the time is right, the arguments like those put forth by Douthat and Morse should continually be held before  a world out of whack – even as we look to frame this within a greater purpose yet, that is the goal to verbally emphasize and live out in our lives Christ’s dying love for all – even the greatest of sinners.

Yes, Christ was and is married.  “Like an apple tree… is my lover”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1851-1860, images here:

Yes, Christ was and is married to His bride, the Church. “Like an apple tree… is my lover”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1851-1860.  Image.

A more pragmatic argument would be that if the church does not stand now, it will show itself to be weak (yes, there is a way that we should be weak but this is not it) and invite the state to tell it that it must, for example, perform same-sex weddings (as the church in Norway is now finding out).  We could always assure ourselves that we should fight because the existence of Christian faithful believers in the world is critical so that the Gospel in its narrow sense (Christ’s death and resurrection for our forgiveness, life and salvation) – not to mention the full counsel of God of course – must be preached in its truth and purity.  That said, I believe that this will inevitably be seen as a more selfish argument **** – and of course many of those calling the shots will not care about what they consider our incoherent “sense of our identity” one whit. That is why we fight battles like these for and on the basis of care and concern for our neighbor (skeptics please read this and this from Rod Dreher yesterday) – here is where folks like Douthat and Morse are dead right.*****

What might be said that calls into question what I have written here? I discussed these articles at length with some wise friends. One said that

“[Given fallen human nature and man’s corresponding ability to sear his conscience] the state may therefore have to concede things to sinners the church never could. This is done to give some order to something that otherwise would be totally devoid of order and so as to reign in the worst abuses. The law here functions as more or less imperfect curb of sin, in other words, and not as a means to eradicate sin in the world and to establish some perfect society here on earth (albeit even just outwardly). [Prudence demands the Christian politician, do this at particular times in order] to avoid the greater evil of total chaos in the political realm.”

It is true that general cultural appeals and exhortations to consider God’s law – even when done with the exquisite and carefully subtlety of an N.T. Wright (see below) – may accomplish nothing more than harden existing positions.  And yet my concern here is that we might underestimate what it is possible to persuade the “left hand kingdom” (God’s rule in the world by law, reason, and force, as opposed to the “right hand kingdom”, where he rules hearts by the forgiveness, life and salvation his church delivers – see more here) to accept. There are times when we should take a stand, seeking to persuade persons regarding God’s laws not to “get a perfect society”, but to help our neighbors, in the abstract and the concrete, particularly the most vulnerable.******

My friend is right that “social conservatism is not a substitute for, or tantamount to, faithfulness to God’s Word” but at the same time, given the importance of the battles that Morse are Douthat are fighting here, it seems to me that these are some key questions:

  • How can we know when our words will just harden existing positions and when they, through the power of God’s Spirit, might cause persons to question their assumptions? 
  • Is there some way to get a good sense of when and where to speak and when to just “give them over” (Romans 1) and stop speaking?”*******

I would be interested in any reflections persons have on these questions.  I am not going to say that all who take Buttom’s position are necessarily wrong – or even insist that they lack the necessary courage. That said, I am going to say his position is, as a whole, unwise – for a whole host of reasons.********

As Peter Malysz (see part I) would no doubt warn, it is true that even fighting for a righteous cause can help feed our sinful flesh, filling us with a confident and noxious self-righteousness – before both neighbors and God. That said, pastors and theologians can and still must not hesitate to, by the grace of God, take the logs out of their own eyes and make the case of the Law as a curb. Regarding same-sex marriage, N.T. Wright gives us an excellent example of how to do that intelligently and with class (step one: like Paul, value a liberal arts education – see Acts 17). In addition, the video that I linked to in a previous post would be invaluable in revealing the gross untruth of the mono-logic that insists that things like “same-sex marriage” are equal in every way to real marriage (see below as well).


Pastors in particular should take every opportunity that is given to them to grab the microphone and speak to the wider culture.********* Always talking about the Gospel primarily but never at the expense of His Law, for it is good indeed, even if it takes utter collapse for the majority of a culture’s elites to start to think this might indeed be the case. If Christ does not come before that happens, many will realize that we were right.

Speaking as an adjunct university instructor, all the students I get in my classes on Christianity, although they may not have been in church for years (or are a different religion, or are completely non-religious), seem to be surprisingly persuadable on these issues.  I am more or less convinced that is the case with many in the population as a whole (not all – some are very hardened, but in 220? students I have never met one) – they just need someone to talk to them intelligently about it. 

So proclaim the whole counsel of God – to church and world – and try your best to do it with intelligence, class, and humility – before God and men.




* Mark Henderson responding to tODD at Gene Veith’s blog on a “Christians in exile” post points out that: “paganism has always been mainly about [sex], and that is what Christianity is increasingly coming up against today: modern versions of paganism for whom sex in all its depraved variations is tantamount to a religious rite – the gateway to personal fulfillment. That is, of course, idolatry, and that is why sex is the arena in which the church is being attacked today: the Christian sexual ethic is a confessional stance against the idolatry of paganism just as it was in the 1st C[entury]”

**What about the Creeds we basically hold in common, I thought? Well, maybe one can make that case in a bit of a qualified way, but Dreher has a point as well.

***While it is true that we do not want to be just talking about sex all the time, maybe we should be emphasizing *this* marriage – this intimate union – more.

****Here is that argument anyways, with the situation the church in Norway faces in mind:

Why not speak out now as much as we are able?  Should we not do this?  While we do not know the mind of God as regards the particulars, should we not insist that ultimately it is pleasing to God – much better, according to Him – that Christians would be able to freely preach and worship?  (because in effect, I believe the alternative is to say that it pleases God when there are less Christians in society and it please Him when His word is rejected).

We can bravely talk about how we can take it if they take away our tax exempt status, don’t allow Christian hospitals to hire Christian workers, don’t allow Christian groups to be organizations approved by the university, take away our accreditation, etc.  But are we all brave about this really because we think it would stop there?

If that’s the case, it evidently doesn’t.  Christians can certainly expect to continue to lose the perks that they have had up to this point, and probably much more.

*****And it does us well to realize that in opposing all notions of gay marriage, for example, we are not only upholding the notion that men and women are not irreplaceable and that we should do everything possible to make sure that children know their biological parents and can be raised by them, but we are also helping those in the gay community as well and

****** Re: church and state, its always hard for me to negotiate what things are like now with what they were like in Luther’s day and then the pre-Constantinian days… and then what they should be. Ideally (as ideally as a fallen world can imagine) should the state have the authority to enforce the table of the 10 commandments?  If more and more persons were to become Christian and this could be done, should it be done?  As these questions are considered I think this way: it seems to me that the state would be incompetent to judge persons by the Scriptures without the Church.  But then would it not be the Church and its clergy who are basically in charge? (as they would have to correct the Christian ruler were he to do things less than ideally, and ask – insist? – that he obey).

******* We can’t!  Which is why, when it comes to having the microphone to speak to the wider culture, we should be more like Douthat – who more or less always writes in thoughtful fashion tempered by Christ’s love – and not Bottom.  Perhaps even if no one is changed.  Both the nature of our enemy and the love of God for that enemy demand it.  And yes, I think we should have done the same thing when it came to easy divorce.  That was another watershed moment.  The church rightly saw the issue of abortion as one to fight on, but not this one (and now, just recently, they have 1 day divorce through the courts in California).

******** One other reason is that this approach often seems to go hand-in-hand with theological outlooks that are, even if not unorthodox, are readily “hi-jackable”.  There are also theologies that are simply wrong that could readily be appropriated by persons who believe that this aspect of “God’s law” should change, even if those putting forth the theology do not appear to want to change God’s Law.  For example, Mark Mattes, a frequent contributor to LOGIA, writes that Jesus, in becoming sin for us, was ‘”in the end justly accused as a violator of the Torah – God’s own law….” Mark Mattes, “The History, Shape, and Significance of Justification”, in in Virgil Thopson, ed.,Justification is for Preaching, (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 53.”​

As one digs deeper, they realize that a big part of these debates has to do with anthropology.  Is the fallen human being, who certainly has a “relationship with God”, totally human, in the image of God?  It is true that in fallen man this image is lost… but he still has some residue of his origin within him.   Therefore, in Luke 3, Adam is called “the son of God” and in Psalm 82:6 Jesus says “You are gods, all of you, sons of the Most High.”  Man’s “relation” to God was that he was specifically created to be something different than the rest of creation (also note that Luther said people were created in God’s image before the beginning of time [see Luther’s works 1:75].  So while we cannot say of each person born that they are *in* the Image of God [since original sin is present, and causes the absence of this image], we can still say that each person is created by God in His image.  The power of sin is not something that God creates).

********* Let’s say you are given the chance that Kurt Marquart often had or Pastor Charles St. Onge has to write for a local newspaper.  What should your articles contain, in one fashion or another?  a) intelligent and discussion of issue people are thinking about (like Wright) ; b) mention that the church’s position cannot change, even if the true church is marginalized ; c) some direction to, or hint of, the first table as greater issue, even as thankful for non-Christian neighbors as co-belligerents ; and d) the Gospel, which you note, transcends all our earthly politics.  In any short piece, you insist that you want to talk about all those things in one way or another. Further, you insist to local editors that you need to see the result of their editing before they publish your words.



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Posted by on August 5, 2014 in Uncategorized


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