Who Can Teach Us More: Mary, the Mother of God, or the Sinful Woman of Luke 7?

Mary, one of the great saints of the church, can teach us much more.  And I’ll tell you why (which will explain why that quote above needs to be supplemented)

It is because when Mary hears about the sinful woman, namely:

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among[h] themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7)

…she says “Amen”.  Mary realizes that she, like this woman, is a great sinner.  As she was one of us – a fallen human being – Mary would have been deeply aware of her own unworthiness – and her own sinful desires and thoughts.  When we think of the phrase “religious leader”, it is persons like Mary – and not the Pharisees – who should immediately come to mind.  Again, this religious leader, unlike the religious leaders in the text, realizes that she has not been forgiven little, but much, and hence her trust in, and love for her son – the Son – is strong.

The Roman Catholic St. Robert Bellarmine said that, here, the Church may have been reduced to Mary alone.

The Roman Catholic St. Robert Bellarmine said that, here, the Church may have been reduced to Mary alone.

And not just strong, but very strong.  Humiliatingly strong. This is also what Mary teaches us.  She can teach us much more than the sinful woman – for unlike that woman, she more readily receives, throughout her life, all God had to give, including the good works which God prepared beforehand, that she should walk in them. She eagerly embraces His word of grace by saying “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  And, fully redeemed in Christ, she eagerly embraces His word of law by saying “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Eager to “run the way of His commandments”, she, in the power of Christ’s Spirit, looks to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and secondly “love your neighbor as yourself.” 

But is this not taking the focus off of her son, where she would want us focusing?  Not at all.  Embracing the pardon and power given in the forgiveness of her son, God’s Son, she eagerly receives all God has to give (what does she have that she has [first] not received?), and this means more, not less Christ. That is because Mary knows, in her bones, that the most important good work than anyone of us can do is to proclaim – shout! – this glorious mercy of God in Jesus Christ!

Luther shares a good word with us as well:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  More on the supper here.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” More on the supper here.

[S]he became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child…. Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God…. None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.” (Luther’s Works, 21:326, cf. 21:346)

Do not feel condemned by this, but rejoice!  His seventy-times-seven-mercies are new every morning!  Every morning.  I repeat these words (here originally):

However many of God’s commandments we may have broken, however much we may have chosen paths that were not those He would have preferred, however many regrets we might have… those are to be left behind, as we go forward in both His pardon and power, which always avails for us in the blood. And let’s especially lift up the true body and blood of Jesus for us here, since that is what many, strangely, since the beginning of the Reformation have been keen to deny (see I Cor. 11:26-32). But I submit a greater realization of such gifts is in fact our highest need.




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Posted by on April 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


All Things Dying: Why Even Grace-Promoting Pagan Elites are Ridden by the Devil


Note: I am republishing this [slightly revised] book review I did in 2013 of Dreyfus and Kelly’s All Things Shining (2011). I was interested to see the book mentioned often (not favorably) in James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (2014),which particularly deals with Taylor’s magnum opus A Secular Age.

Re: the title, the answer is this: because only the risen Christ is Lord of all and the giver of all good gifts. That’s it.

But the wise men of our age do not want this Christ – this beautiful Christ.  They do not rejoice and lift their voices to heaven, joyful that the God who is there has the face of the crucified and risen one – and Him alone.  They want something inferior, false, and, quite frankly, despicable.

It is from the elite of the elites, in All Things Shining (2011 ; see here and here for two very good Amazon reviews, the first one being the kind of reaction I suspect the authors wanted, and the second one appreciated by me), that we find one of the latest optimistic appraisals of the West’s future – discovering that a polytheism* akin to Homer’s is our hope.

Philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, of UC-Berkeley and Harvard respectively, write:

[the gods are] malicious and vindictive and joyous and divine – and the universe is all of these by turns.  Which is to say that ultimately it is no one of them.  A whole pantheon of gods is really there” (p. 185)

The Gods Descending to Do Battle, Pope's Homer's Iliad. B. 20. L. 51 ; Image credit:

The Gods Descending to Do Battle, Pope’s Homer’s Iliad. B. 20. L. 51 ; Image credit:

Feel encouraged?  In Nietzsche-esque fashion they write:

“At the center of Homer’s world, then, is the sense that what matters is already given to us, and that the best life is the one that manages to get in sync with it.  This vision speaks eloquently to our own modern needs.  Homer’s Olympian gods give his Greeks a sense of the sacred that underwrites the joys and sorrows of a truly meaningful existence.  To lure back these Homeric gods is a saving possibility after the death of God: it would allow us to survive the breakdown of monotheism while resisting the descent into a nihilisitic existence” (p. 61).

Really.  Polytheism? (again see * below)  They say this is needed, in part, because of the current disenchantment of the world:

“After Descartes, we have come to see ourselves as almost infinitely free assigners of meaning who can give whatever meaning we choose to the meaningless objects around us.” (p. 139)

They also don’t really get Luther, another link in their argumentative chain:

“in Luther’s account of Christianity the world in its political, religious, and environmental forms is entirely disenchanted” (p. 136).

lutherbetweengodanddevilActually, Luther was a man between God and the devil first and foremost because he believed the world’s institutions – family, church and state – were between God and the devil.  In any case, they are out to re-enchant the world with polytheism, and they talk about how in Homer’s Greece people were caught up in the good work of the gods (they don’t focus on the very bad works, really – or the groaning realities of the fallen creation for that matter) and recognize these gifts with thankful hearts.  Dreyfus and Kelly talk about how modern man needs to make the effort to make himself open to receive these gifts in thankfulness.  This is the right posture, they say.

And here, in contrast to the freedom – and paralyzing burden – of the choices that those in the modern West must constantly make – they put forth a “grace” from the outside as that which can be the most formative thing in our lives (of course the fact that many a modern man needs to be reminded that something above and outside of himself provides joy, wonder, gratitude and meaning simply shows how far gone the West as a whole is).  That said, what is missing here is that the authors basically presuppose that we can – by an act of our will – make ourselves ready and open to receive that Ultimate which is good, true, beautiful, and finally saving.

We cannot.

So, some might ask: are we not responsible at all then?  Can we just say “the devil made me do it”?

Well, if you are using this as an excuse, you will pay for it.  You are like Helen and you are responsible for what happened with Paris** – even if you think “it just happened” as a gift from the gods.  No, you will indeed pay for being ridden by the devil you love.


Repent.  Be found in Christ who bled and died to release you from your sin, from death, and from the dark spiritual forces that haunt this fallen world.  Be swept away and “attuned” by His purposes and desires instead.  For before Him both the “customer is always right” and the “spirit of the age” find their deserved end.  And there is no need to “lure [him] back” – for He is still with us, wherever His word is proclaimed – even in the moment you read this – and His sacraments administered according to His command.

Again, “All things Shining” advocates a return to polytheism.  Not necessarily Homer’s pantheon, but something like it.  Practically speaking, this means gods that are more like fallen human beings.  You know, the petty and vindictive who strike you down when you offend them and their honor.  Those who love war and encourage adultery and use their charisma to make it happen.  Those who don’t really care about some people and look very bad compared to Jesus.

There is a good reason why very early Christian apologists like Justin Martyr and Athenagoras mercilessly skewered and mocked the gods of the ancient world (see here and here, for example).  While in the Old Testament it is human beings and particularly God’s very own people who don’t come off so well, in Greek mythology it is the divine beings themselves who don’t.  We need to be saved from this, not by this.

Bummer that?

Bummer that?

Don’t get me wrong here – David Brooks is right to say that this is a “smart” book.  It is very smart: these men are indeed learned, insightful, and creative and I did learn some valuable things from them.  Their diagnosis and analysis of the modern malaise that infects our elites – and increasingly our populace – has much to say to us.  That said, it is amazing that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Goodbye West?  Hello India?

But hear o worldly wise, the truth does not change:

“He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31, NASB)

And I mean to start a conversation with unbelievers by saying this, not cut off discussion by being “unreasonable” or “irrational”.  For those who end up disagreeing with me, you only have my continued prayers and desire for friendship, whether in this life or the next life or both.

Heed, friend:

The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.—I John 2:17




*While “polytheism” may indeed simply be a figure of speech the authors use to make a deeper point about “polytheistic moods”, it seems to me that there is nothing in their book a real polytheist need object to.  I fail to see the reason the book cannot serve as a ‘soft’ introduction to real polytheism, as unlikely as that might seem right now.  From an Amazon reviewer:  “The call to a renewed polytheism is not so much a plea to reconsider the tedious and metaphysical arguments about the existence of gods or God. These arguments prove everything and nothing at once. It is rather an invitation to heed impulses alive, but rarely acknowledged, within us all. It is a call to rediscover, without shame this time, a sense of the sacred. The gods appear in this work as mere tropes, figures of speech that give us a shared vocabulary, a means of joining hands across the unbridgeable silence separating us from one another. It is a call to being open to what is present: ‘[O]ur focus on ourselves as isolated, autonomous agents has had the effect of banishing the gods – that is to say, covering up or blocking our sensitivity to what is sacred in the world. The gods are calling us but we have ceased to listen.’ Amen, I want incongruously to say.”

**From another Amazon reviewer: “Helen of Troy, despite causing the Trojan War and leaving her husband to run of with Paris, was acting with ‘arete’, with excellence, by being responsive to Aphrodite’s call. Later, the wave passed and the mood subsided and she returned to her husband, and was responsive to Hera’s call, to the domestic dimension in life, without feeling the need to rank, reconcile, or compare the two dimensions or moralize her actions. THIS is what POLYTHEISM truly means. It means that there is no overarching mono-logic consideration that can rank and adjudicate the gods and goddess and the realities, the domains, over which they preside. To decline from this to monotheism is to narrow the range and wonder of human life from its multi-dimensional richness in Homer, to the nothingness of a line, a single dimension, in the modern world.”

Sounds like a view tailor-made for the increasingly decadent West.  A view that will allow for both greater non-Christian spirituality and greater immorality.

My pastor adds:

“what Dreyfus and Kelly assert makes complete sense: The idea of gods and goddesses comes into being to explain the unexplainable to man. I thought the same of the movie Slumdog Millionaire: It relieved the angst of the actors and actresses in Hollywood by convincing them that they need not feel guilty about their popularity and wealth, it was just a matter of chance; if it was not them, it would have been someone else.”

Ah, yes, the kind of “chance” that even a non-Darwinist pagan can get behind….

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Posted by on April 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


The Plea of a Stubborn “Confessional” Lutheran: Yes, My “Missional” Friend, Please DO Condemn My Lack of Love for the Lost

The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Jesus' words to Zacchaeus)

The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus)

Note: what follows deals with the “worship wars” in my denomination, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see the second paragraph here for more resources about that). I think that it might have much wider applicability as well though!

In John 6:66 we are told that many of his own disciples went away from Jesus after he explained to a crowd that without eating His body and drinking His blood persons cannot have eternal life: “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”

I have always appreciated how Jesus does not say something like: “Wait!  Please come back!  Let me explain it better to you!”

After all, does this mean that He did not love these persons? Of course not. It just meant that His message and mission was clear and that He was not going to compromise.

Lutherans – particularly those who are keen to add the adjective “confessional” – typically have a tendency of being stubborn when it comes to our message and mission. I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing – particularly in a culture that is, morally speaking, screaming “change already!” at us. And yet, eager to be like our Lord, there are undoubtedly times we are not so eager to recognize that we ourselves – as opposed to our message – are becoming a stumbling block.

I want to concede that this is a problem. Snark and sarcasm, for example, may have their place, but one must be wise (see Titus 3:1-2, for example). Lutherans who believe the Scriptures are the word of God – and who might choose to emphasize the adjective “missional” – would not be wrong in pointing this out.

And here is where I want to say the following:

“Yes, please do condemn my lack of love for the lost. Fire away. For my heart is indeed to be as my Lord’s and I need to hear this word of Law. To be holy means, in part, to seek the lost as did our Shepherd. Nail me to the wall (not without absolution though!).”

Indeed. The words of an Eastern Orthodox prayer: “Lord, do not let them perish through me, a sinner” – these words should indeed give me pause (also think of Paul’s terrifying words in Romans: “the word of God is blasphemed because of you….”). For I need to hear about how I have squandered my time, how I have elevated frivolous concerns to the fore, how I have failed to really listen and show concern for those around me. I need to hear hard words about my tendency to see persons as interruptions instead of blessings. I need to hear how I, unlike the Good Samaritan, have not met the physical and spiritual needs of those God has thrown in my path. Even starting with those who I love the most (and should love the most!), not the least!

Perhaps you can identify with me.

And I also hope that any Lutherans – whatever their preferred adjective – can also say “Amen” to what Dr. Luther says here:

The Word of God is not yet as powerfully at work as it should be and as we wish it to be. We have no one else to blame for this than ourselves: We are too lazy to ask God for sharp arrows and burning coals. He commanded us to ask for his kingdom to come and his name to be hallowed, that is, we should ask for his Word and Christendom to increase and grow strong. However, because we leave things the way they are and do not ask earnestly, people are so lazy and the arrows are dull and tired; the coals cold and raw; and the devil does not fear us yet. Therefore, let us wake up and be eager. The time is now. The devil plays his dirty tricks on us everywhere. Let’s prove something to him for a change and rain on his parade. Let’s get our revenge, that is, let us ask God without ceasing until he sends us enough ready soldiers with sharp arrows and burning coals. (Vol. VI, Wittenberg ed., p. 372) Luther’s Bible Treasures, Lutheran Press, Minneapolis, 2015

But when I say all of this am I also saying that the church should change its traditional practices – in particular as regards its worship practices? Is this necessary to our Christian mission?

I am not. Even as I urge you to lovingly point out my lack of love for the lost, please do not condemn me for not falling over myself to produce Gospel-enveloping “culturally savvy tortillas” – that I think often actually work to mitigate the simple and humble forms of the Gospel (see 2.2 and 2.3 here) – in the hope that this or that “target [market]” will pick it up….

Our Lord certainly does deeply enter into our worlds that He might speak truth to us. That does not mean, however, that what we do in His house – that house which we treasure and long for – should necessarily be modified to accommodate what others do in theirs. Especially when it can, rightly or wrongly, give the impression of desperation! (insofar as we are saints, we have a real and godly love for the lost and a desire for proper “cultural accommodation” and insofar as we are sinners, we are desperate “pleasers of men” and their passions).

For to be holy especially means to love one’s brothers and sisters in Christ, and to value that which has been passed on from generation to generation.

I recently read an article from Pastor Jordan McKinely in which he said the following:

Dr. Naomichi Masaki of the [LCMS’s] Fort Wayne seminary asked the question in one of my classes, “Whose liturgy is it?” If it’s about preference, it’s yours and mine to do as we see fit. If it’s the church’s liturgy as it has developed from the time of the Apostles (Acts 2:42)–and even from the time of the Old Testament prophets (Psalmody, anyone?), we really should show greater restraint in changing what is done. After all, don’t we say in the creed, “I believe in one, holy, Christian [catholic] and apostolic church?” The liturgy is the possession of the whole church. Who am I to exercise my preference in the matter? Yes, it has room to shrink, grow, or change, but it shouldn’t be based on preference. I suppose I don’t get much of a voice because I’m white and married to a German (being of Scottish heritage doesn’t gain me any points, does it?), it’s going to sound like I’m advocating an emotionless, Germanic traditionalism. You don’t have to listen to me, but you should listen to Dr. Masaki, who isn’t German, nor is he emotionless. (see here)

Can this not certainly communicate to the lost love as well?: in that they can clearly see that we value these salutary convictions of all our brothers and sisters have gone before us? (not to mention the sometimes-hard-to-love among us now!)  Namely the convictions about an “order of service” that, in form, humbly and simply proclaims the humble and simple Gospel of our Lord?

I think that is most certainly true! And, hence, we ask them to join our happy throng – the household of God! Come and share the treasures that we have in the Lord’s house!


P.S. – I am eager to talk about this in a patient and civil way, per this great new article in the LC-MS’s official magazine, the Lutheran Witness. Maybe you think what I have posted here is limited in its view or needs to address this or that “bigger picture”. I would like to hear what you have to say – please talk with me.



Posted by on April 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Reading the Bible With Martin Luther”? Or With His Modern Existentialist Interpreters?

Dr. Wengert, does Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” Mean That We Should Not Call Sin What the Bible Calls Sin?

Dear Dr. Wengert:  Does Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” really mean that we should not call “sin” what the Bible calls sin?

“But because we have for so long been persuaded of the opposite by that pestilential saying of the Sophists that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, we are obliged to begin by proving even that first principle of ours by which everything else has to be proved—a procedure that among the philosophers would be regarded as absurd and impossible.” — Martin Luther, AE 33:91

Recently, at the recommendation of a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS) pastor I had come to respect, I checked out Timothy Wengert’s relatively new book (fall of 2013) “Reading the Bible With Martin Luther”. The book is published by Baker Academic – which to my knowledge has an excellent reputation for conservative Biblical scholarship – and also featured a wholly positive endorsement from one highly respected LC-MS theologian (even as we note such a “blurb” can mean “this is a book to read, not one to agree with completely”).

On the one hand, I can see why a person might want to endorse the book: it does seek to introduce Martin Luther’s Law-Gospel distinction to a wider audience, presenting some excellent quotations from the Reformer and some thought-provoking analysis and insights from its author. On the other hand, it is also plagued by “Law-Gospel reductionism”, a teaching that was actually formally defended by LC-MS professor Ed Schroeder back in 1972 (for a short piece by Pastor Cooper talking about both the importance of the Law-Gospel distinction and the dangers of Law-Gospel reductionism, see here). In this short reflection on the book, I will briefly discuss three of the core problems that attend this kind of reductionism.

First, while Wengert rightly upholds the importance of faith for the interpretation of Scripture, he goes too far. Telling us that the Bible must “drive us away from itself and toward faith in Christ under the cross” (p. 21), Wengert sets up a conflict where Luther saw none. First of all, while it true that the good news is indeed not so much that God has given us His written word, but that He has given us the incarnate Word, Wengert forgets to mention not only that the Scripture does in fact point to itself (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11), but that it also points to the incarnate Word who points us back to the written word – particularly as it regards His fulfillment of its Divine prophecies (see Luke 7:18-23 and Luke 24). Contra Wengert’s attempt to drive a wedge between Christ and the written word here, it is the Scriptures that testify about the incarnate Word (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; Acts 26:22-23; Rom. 1:1-6: 3:21-22). And second, while we should not think that a sincere agnostic, truly seeking to understand the Bible as a complete work, would come up with the Nicene Creed, what Mark Twain said about the Scriptures is certainly relevant here: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Certainly, as we all know, there are some interpretations that certain words, whatever their context may be, will simply eliminate from the get go.

Second, in a related point, Wengert tells us that God’s word will not “succumb to our categories, principles, or proof texting” (p. 21), and that “if people only read Scripture to find out what it meant or what it means, it will always and only be the dead, killing letter” (p. 32). He further explains: “Luther distinguished theologically between a noun (Heisselwort; literally, a word that labels) and a verb (Thettlewort; literally, an action word). All that human words can do is label something. But God never simply labels things with God’s Word; God does something to us by killing and making alive….” (p. 32). In speaking thusly, Wengert essentially assumes that the person reading or listening to Scripture to learn what it means – what God means – has got the wrong idea. On the contrary, there is no justification for pitting God’s teaching through the word against His transforming through the word (I Thes. 2:13). Further, in discussing Luther’s view on the “too [law-]strong” book of James, Wengert, in contradistinction to what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit’s mission in John 16:8, sees its law-words not as related to God’s power or goals, but to Satan’s, who, in general, “gets believers to turn [the Bible] into power and wisdom – the more infallible and inerrant the better”. Wengert says God overturns such pretentions: “the [weak, despised, and neglected book… written by losers for losers….] itself opposes them with a God who… raises the Crucified from the dead” (p. 53). So again, this is a false dichotomy that Wengert introduces, which has the potential to open up the door to all manner of serious error.

Third, Wengert connects the judgmental behavior of the Pharisees with those who believe Christians need to uphold the moral norms reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  Citing the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, Wengert brazenly writes “When one insists on using the phrase ‘Go, and sin no more” against those in same-gendered, committed relationships as another stone to throw, permission is granted to throw – if we have no sin.” (p. 25)  Evidently if one is not perfect, one should never attempt to guide others in accordance with God’s law.  In truth, this comment from Wengert is as incoherent as it is offensive (see also his remarks on the paragraph found on pp. 42-43 for more about “throwing stones”). First, with this view of the text, Wengert himself could never “invite” (see p. 24) those with whom he disagrees to leave behind their life of hypocrisy and intolerance. Second, using this passage gives the distinct impression that conservative Christians inevitably are – like the Pharisees were – not only eager to not forgive the fallen but eager to self-righteously and hypocritcally enact final judgment over fellow sinners’ souls. The fact that all of us have Pharisaical impulses notwithstanding, this kind of overblown rhetoric and argument lending comfort and aid to the “Spirit of this Age” (i.e.the gay rights movement) is, as they say, “over the top”. Wengert’s efforts to seemingly soften his stance – through his doubt-inducing and convoluted talk of the “bound conscience” (pp. 78-82 ; this concept from Wengert was the ELCA’s justification for accepting same-sex marriage) – should hardly comfort us. In sum, he presents himself here as no friend to the historical biblical forms of Christianity.*

An endorsement on the back of Wengert’s book says that he “challenges students of the Bible to find its authority and message by letting the text master them rather than through their own attempt to master God’s Word”. That, in itself, is a noble goal, but unfortunately, this book gives evidence of an author who has himself been mastered by a 20th century existentialist interpretation of the great reformer that leaves no room for any clear, or perspicuous, language (particularly surprising because this is the basis of Philip Melanchton’s “loci method”, and the author is known for his expertise on Melanchton). This, in turn leaves no room for a biblically accurate Jesus Christ.

If Lutheran churches in America – and pastors from any other church bodies reading this book – truly desire to be increasingly mastered by the Author of the biblical text – instead of a “different Jesus” (see 2 Cor. 11) – they best avoid being mastered by the faulty view of biblical hermeneutics promoted in this book. If they don’t, their namesake’s words to Erasmus will make less and less sense to them, as the years roll on: “a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.”


UPDATE/P.S.: For some great thoughts about a healthy approach towards existentialism, reason, philosophy, etc, see this great new post from Trent Demarest.



*Note that liberal biblical scholars consistently misportray what it means that Jesus “ate with sinners”, something that I address in part in this recent post.

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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Uncategorized


Why Businesses Run by Christians Should, in General, Eagerly Serve All Comers

All marriages are a sign of The One True Marriage.

All marriages are a sign of The One True Marriage.

UPDATE: Re: Memories Pizza, see this new post from Rod Dreher. What David Brooks said a couple days ago is appropriate, but thoughtfulness and reasonableness seems in short supply these days. My argument below should not be taken to mean that this kind of outlook should be coerced on all religious persons. 

Earlier this week, I re-published an old post on the patheos site, retitled “How Should We Show Christian Love in Indiana and Beyond?

Things are definitely heating up there.  This is a follow-up to that one.

In the book of Matthew, we are reminded about how God sends the rain on both the just and the unjust. And there is a wonderful passage in the book of Acts that talks about how God even fills the hearts of unbelievers with joy. This is the way our God is, wanting persons to receive His love in all its forms – in spite of the evil in the world that cries out for His judgment.

In addition, there is this very interesting passage in I Corinthians 5 where Paul writes the following about a church that is proud of one of its members sleeping with his father’s wife – something even pagans do not tolerate.

He says this to them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

This passage runs roughshod over all our normal sensibilities – why is the Apostle Paul asking believers in a Christian congregation to judge one another in this way? (that’s another post) But notice what I have bolded: we are called to associate with the world, and I think it is reasonable to suggest that Christian business owners, for example, need not be concerned whether the pizza (this is the newest twist) they make is going to be used for a gay wedding. No – in general, Christians are simply not called to police the world and its doings, and we will never extricate ourselves from sin (we have plenty of that in ourselves to).

So, do I then agree with Rebecca Florence Miller, who said on her patheos blog the following?:

“I challenge you, Christian bakers, photographers, and whoever else out there: are you so concerned with keeping yourself “spiritually pure” (as were the Pharisees in Jesus’s time) that you fail to reach in love to those who have been wounded?’

I don’t (and she appreciated my point). Here is how I parse the issue:

“I would say that you misunderstand the reasons many of us think that these persons have a case – not just from a legal point of view but from a Christian point of view. Clearly, we need Christ’s justifying grace as much as the next person. The issue is giving a clear confession. Even for a regular believer, by participating in something like a wedding ceremony (for example by standing up or perhaps even by attending) I might say that I do not think it is right to really celebrate such an event, even if I desperately want to show support to my gay friend. The issue is that I am certainly going to give the impression – at least to most ordinary observers – that I think such an event should be celebrated by my participating in the wedding. For someone who is providing a paid service by contributing an artistic component the same thing is occurring (for is not, arguably, a key purpose of art celebration?)

In other words, one can really make the case that a confession of Christ is actually at stake here. According to the Christian, all marriages in the world are in fact to be an icon of the greatest spiritual reality there is: the Marriage of The Husband, Christ, and His Bride, the Church. This is ultimately why we live and why we celebrate! This is why all are called to live and celebrate!

One commentator though, saw my post and said:

“If that is how you feel, then you should be required to indicate that on your store windows. Gay people should not be subjected to the embarrassment and humiliation of trying to purchase a service from you if you know in your heart that it is something that you do not want to do. We should be able to easily avoid people whose beliefs are like yours and a ‘gays-are-sinners’ sticker would help us both avoid awkward situations.”

I replied as follows:


I agree that it would be a good thing to spare those couples embarrassment and humiliation as much as possible. I don’t think any Christian I know would want to do that. Perhaps some other solution than the one you mention could be found. You make me think more about the issue and I thank you for that – I am thinking now that perhaps, if I were such a business owner I might want to do more than offer a polite and perhaps apologetic rejection and referral to someone else.

Thinking about this more: I am sure there are no small number of wedding photographers, for example, that would be eager to make it known very publicly that they are happy to lend their art to celebrate all weddings without discrimination. You think?

This all goes deep for me: in the example I gave above I simply mentioned the Christian who wants to support and show love to their gay friend but also cannot in good conscience participate in their wedding. I’m afraid situations like that will not go away, and that that kind of hurt is unavoidable. That is, so long as gay persons and Christians can manage to continue to have relationships that contain kindness, affection, and care.

Again, this is not about purity: “you’re a sinner and I am not”. I am very much a sinner and I am deeply aware of how much I deserve God’s righteous condemnation. It is about God’s gift of marriage for all persons which is meant to be for us an icon of the True Marriage: Christ and the Church.

Thanks again for your comment…. God’s blessings to you.


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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Cultured Despisers Gonna Despise”: the Nature of Liberal “Evangelical” Theology Versus a Truly Biblical Theology

A recent careful evaluation of the roots of liberal theology - by a liberal theologian.

A recent and careful re-evaluation of the roots of liberal theology – by a highly regarded liberal theologian.

“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic…. a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.” — Martin Luther to Erasmus

Recently, in an interesting First Thoughts piece on the current debates about Karl Barth, the name of Immanuel Kant was invoked.

The author of the article, Philip Carey, stated that for Kant: “The intelligibility of the world lies not in the substance of things [i.e. “their formal being or essence”] but in the a priori categories imposed on it by our active, ­conceptualizing minds.”  As Carey states, Kant came up with this idea because “we have no intellectual faculty for knowing the essence of things in themselves.” (to have Kant’s view explained in some detail in layman’s terms, give this fine podcast a listen)*

On one level, I submit that Immanuel Kant’s fight was real: for him, he was fighting to preserve the reality of free will for humans vs what he saw as the reductionism and determinism of the natural sciences (a focus of mine to), whose clout was increasing due to piling up success after unending experimental (and practical!) success. And yet, whether he intended to do so or not, Kant created a system of thought where there was no need for Divine revelation – where Divine revelation was something that could just be “tacked on”, but didn’t really fit into the overall picture. In this sense, he was not all that different than any other philosopher who has come to capture the hearts and minds of elite men and women (I also find it fascinating that he was evidently sufficiently vague [British: “shifty”] that scholars today actually argue over whether he was atheistic, theistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic, but I’ll leave that important observation alone for now). And to say this, of course, is not to insist that he may not have had some good ideas, (“denying knowledge to make room for faith”, and saying that the “world of appearances”, or “phenomena”, counted as knowledge were not these…) gotten some things right, etc. – only that his focus was not where it should have been (see Acts 17 to get some focus).

Carey’s piece put me in mind of something I had read recently in liberal theologian Gary Dorrein’s recent and ambitious revisionist work Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: the Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology.

Dorrein begins by speaking about classical political liberalism (all bold are mine):

Historically and theoretically, the cornerstone of liberalism is the assertion of the supreme value and universal rights of the individual. The liberal tradition of Benedict de Spinoza, John Locke, Charles Louis de Sceondat Motesquieu, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson taught that the universal goal of human beings is to realize their freedom and that state power is justified only to the extent that it enables and protects individual liberty….

No longer saying: "when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me" and "this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent..."

Kant et al losing this plot..: “when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” and “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…”

…and then goes on to say about liberal theology:

The founding of modern theology is an aspect of this story.  Liberal theology, in my definition, was and is a three-layered phenomenon: Firstly it is the idea that all claims to truth, in theology and other disciplines, must be made on the basis of reason and experience, not by appeal to external authority.  From a liberal standpoint, Christian scripture or ecclesiastical doctrine may still be authoritative for theology and faith, but its authority operates within Christian experience, not as an outside word that establishes or compels truth claims about particular matters of fact.

Secondly, liberal theology argues for the viability and necessity of an alternative to orthodox over-belief and secular disbelief.  In Germany, the liberal movement called itself “mediating theology” because it took so seriously the challenge of a rising culture of aggressive deism and atheism.  Liberal religious thinkers, unavoidably, had to battle with conservatives for the right to liberalize Christian doctrine.  But usually they worried more about the critical challenges to belief from outsiders.  The agenda of modern theology was to develop a credible form of Christianity before the “cultured despisers of religion” routed Christian faith from intellectual and cultural respectability.  This agenda was expressed in the title of the founding work of modern theology, Schleiermacher’s Uber die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verachtern (On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers).  Here, Britain was ahead of the curve, as there was an ample tradition of aggressive British deism and skepticism by the time that Schleiermacher wrote.  British critics ransacked the Bible for unbelievable things: in Germany, a deceased anonymous deist (Hermann Samuel Reimarus) caused a stir in the mid-1770s by portraying Jesus as a misguided political messiah lacking any idea of being divine; Schleiermacher, surrounded by cultured scoffers in Berlin, contended that true religion and the divinity of Jesus were fully credible on modern terms.

The third layer consists of specific things that go with overthrowing the principle of external authority and adopting a mediating perspective between authority religion and disbelief. The liberal tradition reconceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and values.  It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary.  It is open to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences. It conceives Christianity as an ethical way of life, it advocates moral concepts of atonement and reconciliation, and it is committed to making progressive religion credible and socially relevant.

This definition is calibrated to describe the entire tradition of liberal theology from Kant and Schleiermacher to the present day….. The key to the ascendency of liberal theology in the nineteenth century is that it outgrew its origins as an ideology of freethinking criticism to become a theology in, and at home with, the Christian church. (pp. 4-5, 6).

Bayer ("Christian theology is therefore regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner") vs. Vilmar ("“The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.  And speaking from God goes forth into the world, into human life.”)

Bayer (“Christian theology is… regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner”) vs. Vilmar (“The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.”)

Of course, this is where traditional orthodox theologians must disagree with Dorrien, however right his diagnosis to this point. This goes back to the main argument of J. Gresham Machen, who asserted – rightly, I think – that liberal Christianity and biblical Christianity were two different religions. Theologically freethinking criticism and the Household of God don’t really go together (I think the late confessional Lutheran theologian Kurt Marquart had a deep grasp of the issues, and made this argument quite effectively – see here).

The difference, of course, is that the biblical theologian stands with the earliest theologians of the Christian church: he states that the very Word of God, as put forth in the written Scriptures, is true, and that it speaks of purposeful, discernible realities that exist outside of us.  This makes it relevant and incapable of becoming irrelevant – whatever the “Spirit of the Age” may think – and all else follows from this simple point.

And not only this, but Christians are those who make assertions not only about what is true about God and man, but the rest of His creation and the personal intentions discerned within. This means, among other things, that ancient metaphysical ideas of “substance”, for example, align more closely with the teachings of the Bible*** than does the Kantian alternative, still in vogue today in a myriad of different forms (underlying a whole spectrum of “mediating theologies”). To say this does not mean that man can, with or without the Scriptures, accurately discern and assert the intrinsic purposes of all the things in the cosmos.  It does mean however, that even without taking the Scriptures to be God’s word, man is able to accurately discern and assert some of the intrinsic purposes of some of the things within it (which should not be surprising, since the latest and greatest theories of smarter skeptics are moving in this direction anyways, as I pointed out in my last post here).

After all, as the Psalms say repeatedly: “the fool says in his heart: ‘there is no God'”.  And as Paul writes “[the] divine nature… [has] been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Even if one thinks that Paul is only talking about conclusions made from the deductions of our sensory experience or that he only says this by virtue of our having innate knowledge due to our “intellectual apparatus” (in Kantian terms, “synthetic apriori” stuff, the “metaphysic of experience”), Kant (we can have “strong convictions” about but not knowledge of free will, morals, rational agency, good and evil, the soul, God, etc.) gets decidedly left behind by these revealed assertions of God through His apostle – and some classical philosophers, on the other hand,**** perhaps get our grudging respect…




* More from that quote:

“It is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions. On the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.

And by assertion– in order that we may not be misled by words– I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering. Nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.

I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings… Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.”

–Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Eds. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 105-106.

** Carey goes on: “*But we can make scientific sense of the world because its conceptual structure and intelligibility come from us, from the activity of our minds as we conceptualize the data of our sense ex­perience”

*** While most all of modern academia shuns notions of essence/substance, a notable exception is this quote from Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot (bold mine, quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

As I noted in the past: “In other words, almost no one today in the academic world is a “substantialist”, or we might say “essentialist” –  to suggest that there are things in the cosmos that have firm categories of being, or essence, or substance, is anathema, for the universe is in flux.  To suggest that some of these things have an objective meaning or purpose we can discern takes even greater hutzpa.  Now, it is likely that some in the fields of the humanities see what has become their arch-nemesis, science, as being “essentialist”, however one notes the primacy (and difficulty) of interpretation in the modern sciences as well: to speak of essences is to speak of atomic particles, and not things we regularly see and experience in the cosmos, like males and females, and marriages and children, for example.  More importantly, the particles and assemblies of particles might “mean something” in a purely material sense – showing themselves to have a certain order and predictability – but a greater purpose in those things that contain them can only be a total mystery (I talked about the despair this creates here).”

**** Very interesting and helpful listening on Aristotle’s notion of the four causes:

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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Uncategorized


The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers


Goldstein gets praised, Nagel gets burned.

In my last post, I talked about how Rebecca Goldstein has given the atheists (and agnostics to be sure) an intelligent design that even they can love. Of course this begs the question: Why specifically, has Goldstein, unlike Thomas Nagel a couple years earlier, seemed to have gotten nothing but love from the “freethinking” community?

As I said in the previous post, I don’t think that there really is a good rational answer – looking at the big picture both thinkers are essentially dealing with a Logos, or Reason, that has teleological designs (however much Goldstein may want to deny this – please read on). That said, a difference seems to be that Nagel’s teleological “bias towards the marvelous” means that the laws of nature are somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings where Goldstein’s teleological bias towards “the-best-which-just-had-to-happen” just means that while the particular laws of nature are not somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings, nature as a whole somehow is. No, the real reason Nagel is despised and not Goldstein likely has to do with whom he gives props to. From John G. West, author of Darwin Day in America:

Nagel attracted special displeasure for praising Darwin skeptics like mathematician David Berlinski and intelligent-design proponents like biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Times explained, many of Nagel’s fellow academics view him unfavorably “not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design.” Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to the pooh-poohing of pedophilia, have concluded that it is “dangerous” to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009 he selected Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. Written by my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer (whose ideas are discussed in the original conclusion to this book), Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in DNA. After being denounced by one scientist for praising Meyer’s book, Nagel dryly recommended that the scientist should “hold his nose and have a look at the book” before dismissing it.

Apparently unconcerned about being accused of consorting with the enemy, Nagel insisted in Mind and Cosmos that “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” Nagel added that he thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”—an intriguing comment considering that he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.

Nagel ultimately offered a simple but profound objection to Darwinism: “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself….” (quote from article here)

So, the reason people don’t like Nagel has a lot to do with social and political considerations. Again, as I said above, when it comes to the big philosophical picture, I think we are talking about distinctions with little difference. I don’t understand how one can’t conclude that Goldstein is just as teleological as Nagel is, albeit with universal mathematically-infused nature (or maybe nature-infused mathematics) instead of particular physical laws. The only practical difference is, it seems to me, is that Goldstein’s view is not able (yet at least) be empirically tested in any way, particularly in the fact that it seems to require a multiverse, but perhaps in other aspects as well.

with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable

With “Atheist with Soul” Goldstein, life – particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable…

To explain what I mean a bit more: presumably, for Goldstein, the neo-Darwinian synthesis can somehow survive in her holistic view, as the efficient cause of beneficial mutations still occur accidentally, improbably, through non-teleological natural laws. Dovetailing along with this view of neo-Darwinism’s supposed viability, Elliott Sober, in response to Thomas Nagel’s book, said “I don’t think that life, intelligence, and consciousness had to be in the cards from the universe’s beginning”. But it seems clear that with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable. I can only assume this is because she thinks mathematics somehow strongly implies that there must be a multiverse as well (a popular ideas among cosmologists which she discusses favorably in her book), and so, despite the astronomical odds against life, etc. occurring, the “best” is nevertheless bound to happen (here, the idea of seemingly infinite places where evolution could occur serves the function that “eternal time” served in past, purely materialistic, accounts).

This raises a number of questions, not least of which is this: when the importance of empirical verification is abandoned (where math, not evidence, is sufficient to prove the multiverse idea), is science still being practiced? In any case, with Goldstein’s view one is still hard pressed to wonder why the universe had to be what it is, namely infinitely large, in order that the odds might somehow work out… so that the non-teleological laws could give us conscious and rational life that gives the impression of having been carefully designed…. Again, it is clear that with Goldstein’s view, consciousness, for example, comes to be something that we can expect – and not because of contemporary neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which says nothing it to be expected. What is the answer?

The answer is not scientific at all, but is basically philosophical/religious: Mathematics. Beautiful mathematics. This is in charge of not only of the multiverse-shape of the cosmos, but the fact that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for life, and also the fact that our epistemic equipment is capable of discerning this wondrous order!  But here, it is mathematics itself that seems to be operating teleologically (consciously, “reasonably” intentionally?), setting things up just as they need to be in order for the “beautiful best” to happen. Teleology needs to be attributed to something. The notion simply cannot be escaped from – even if by taking this route it might initially seem that scientific explanations still do not need to invoke goals along with mechanistic causes (that is clearly an illusion though – it’s just that the goals are invoked elsewhere, in the whole of nature and its mathematical structure…. of course, it makes no sense to think that what is true for the whole will not have implications for the parts). And this, of course, is just what the philosophy/religion of philosophical naturalism needs, seeing as how, in practice (as is evidenced by its rhetoric) it is always trying to slip teleology in the back door anyway….

Nagel "thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”" No kidding, but...

Nagel “thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”” No kidding, but…

And this means that God – and some kind of personal God mind you (only this really should make sense to us, given that we know no other kind of reasoning besides personal reasoning) – needs to be acknowledged. That, of course, does not mean that such a personal God will be seen or understood to be the Christian God. One might believe in Allah, for example, or some other God entirely: one that is somehow the same as the universe, for example, and has perhaps “evolved” with it….

Should any of this make a difference to Christian – those concerned with historic biblical orthodoxy? I think we should steer far clear from these ideas, and start to think more like simple children when it comes to believing what the Scriptures tell us is true about the universe. After all, as I alluded to in my previous post, it seems clear to me that in both Nagel’s and Goldstein’s systems a strictly theistic view of God is unnecessary (i.e. no transcendence, historical “interventionism”, divine revelation, etc), and both systems could also theoretically allow for all manner of [relatively slow and relatively “ordered”] moral evolution as well – even if Goldstein’s would be more “Platonic” and Nagel’s would be more “Aristotelian”.

And of course this eliminates the need for the eternal law of God and the eternal Gospel (Rev. 14). In other words, this eliminates the Christ, the true Logos. 


Goldstein and Nagel pics from Wikipedia

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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


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