A “Fate” Worse than Dead Orthodoxy: Today’s Institutionalization of the Reformation Churches

Paul, on matters of life and death: “…if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?


I don’t know which preacher — George Whitefield, John Wesley, or Charles Spurgeon — really said it, but I’ll admit I’m a sucker for the quotation: “set yourself on fire and people will come to watch you burn.” (go ahead, call me a pietist!).

The image of a preacher set on fire by the Holy Ghost, faithfully and vigorously proclaiming the word of God, is the opposite of an image of “institutionalization.”

Even so, as much as Christians know that vital faith is a desirable quality, we always have need for the “slow burn” a fireplace makes possible. Great harvests of souls due to the Spirit’s outpouring are highly desirable, but we also need structure and stability for the people of God.

And even though the churches the Reformation tend not to think this way (invisible church all the way!), the truth is that Christ says His church is a material body — we are a very “grounded” reality. Going right along with this, on this side of heaven the church will always be known as an earthly institution – even as its origins and true life derive from heaven above.

I know this kind of thinking might sound foreign for many Christians, but think about how people talk about something very organic – marriage – as an institution. As a ground of stability given for our good. I think the way that some of the Eastern Orthodox talk about the nature of the church can also be helpful: “not an organization with mystery but a mystery with organization.”

Therefore – we are not to shun the visible nature of the church (more) — nor any of the individuals associated with it! (even as yes, we realize that there are both wheat and tares among us) We should desire the health of the institution – for each individual member of the body of Christ!

The church militant (below) and the church triumphant (above)

All this said, as we all know, the wrong kind of “concern” for the institution and its members can creep in. In other words, the dreaded “institutionalization” often occurs – with good institutions losing touch with their true identity; their true reason for being.

This has happened with the congregations coming out of the 16th century Reformation in spades. In these latter days, the world has, at large, overwhelmed the church.

  • Right concerns for matters of social justice have pushed out the more pressing matters of perpetual Gospel proclamation and repentance — as well as loyalty to the family of believers first and foremost.
  • For many, churches which once admired or at least took seriously stirring Law and Gospel sermons — “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” anyone? — have been reduced to places to find community where “good people” who believe in a general God can “do good.”
  • Concerns to nurture and pass on a spirit of passion and vitality have led many to trust the “the Feeling” that can be reliably produced, week by week, in a Big Box Megachurch – while serious proclamation and study of God’s word takes a back seat.
  • The assertions of “but Science says…” and “but consider the assured results of higher criticism….” perpetually reintroduce us to the Serpent in the Garden: “Did God really say?”
  • A concern to communicate the love and mercy of God have resulted in churches without any real discipline, where grace is cheap and lessons of the past are all but forgotten.
  • Serious and passionate books of theology that helped to drive the Reformation – like Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will – are not deeply studied and/or are totally ignored.

And even very serious believers, seeking to push back against the world, have ended up trying to fight with the world’s weapons.

With church bodies around them dropping on the left and the right – many who do seem to be having some success do their utmost to simply “keep things going.” Hence, their institutions have become a hollow shell of what they once were – and of what they should be. Focused on externals, their mini- and mega-bureaucracies, and ever more worldly concerns (often in the guise of outreach and relevance) their heart, their core, and their true spiritual vitality are being carved out.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock…”

Have the letters of Paul – or those written by the Apostle John, to the churches in the book of Revelation — stopped being as relevant as they originally were?  But we rarely meditate on this, if we see it… sense it… at all. And do I hear my Facebook and Twitter feed calling me?…

As the hymn says, due to life’s “riches, cares, and pleasures,” we have not taken up (tolle lege!), but rather put down the Scriptures. For the idea that these are the actual Word of God – words more important than anything we could utter today – has been lost. Take, for example, this recent quotation from a pastor reflecting on Reformation:

This year we commemorate half a millennium since this Augustinian friar and Bible professor nailed (or so the story goes) his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The event certainly changed the landscape of Christendom. Its unintended aftershocks, some argue, are still felt in Western culture. Still, the passage of time alone makes it perfectly reasonable to ask: Does Luther have anything to say to us?

Contrary to the assumptions of this pastor, it is by no means perfectly reasonable for us to ask this question. It is only reasonable if you think the “social imaginary” of the postmodern world, a la Charles Taylor — where people fixated on this or that idea of “progress” tell themselves they are on “the right side of history” — is justified at all in its view. But, per Romans 1, that is not a view which can ever be justified: many of the things our wider world says are right it, deep down, knows are wrong. The “social imaginary” (call it a “worldview” if it, being as irrational as it is, can even earn that designation) is just this or that “social illusionary”.

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’” — St. Anthony the Great

So, again, is it ever reasonable for a pastor to ask the question this pastor asks? Perhaps. It could be if he is simply voicing the common prejudices of the age – ultimately intending to reveal the truth and bring the message of salvation to his hearers… In other words, one is willing to address one’s audience using the kinds of questions that they might be asking, but ideally, they would not be asking.

But even then, here, it seems, there is room to fudge.

For example, the same pastor quoted above gave a talk at an Episcopal Church titled “Justified for Good:What Luther Can Teach Us Today”. Much of the talk I deeply appreciate — the content has true value, highlighting God’s graciousness, and is thought-provoking in its manner of conviction. And yet, around 31:00-33:30 (listening to the whole talk is a good idea) he says:

“I, you, all of us, each and every person, is and remains God’s work… And that means that each and every one of us comes before our own works. Before I have done anything, before I have made anything of myself, before I have done anything with myself, I am already God’s workmanship… Before any accomplishment, or any sins are even taken into account – any accomplishments or any sins – anything that I want to live up to or anything that I want to live down, the sinner, the sinner who stands before God, is already a beloved creature of God. The sinner is, you might say… is already irrevocably recognized by God Himself, and it is God who declares the sinner good, and in good standing… He gives us an identity. He declares that what I am is above all a person that He loves. A child that He loves before I undertake anything, before I make a mess of myself, I already am who I am by God’s justification.”

One might well think: what happens to the very real effect of original sin? Even if there are times that I can or should say that these things are true of those baptized into Christ — and I submit there are — should I say this of the whole world — or, risk giving the impression that this is what I am doing? After all, God’s wrath abides on the world because of sin and unbelief, save the faith connection we have in Christ. The world’s sins have been paid for and all is redeemed in Him. But salvation? That’s why II Corinthians 5:20 follows 5:19 and he urges his hearers to “be reconciled to God!” And note that Paul is even talking to those in the church here!

“…that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand. But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way…” — The Prophet Ezekiel

When I asked this pastor about this, he simply said to me: “No quibble here. It’s an argument from silence.”

But of course my point was not to make an argument – trying to show, I guess, that this pastor did not believe in original sin or something like this. Rather, I am simply pointing out that without clarity about sin, its effects, and its consequences, this kind of message is liable to be completely misunderstood, or even hijacked by those who are ever more eager to see a more “progressive” stance from Christians. Hence my reply:

“My point is that we dare not remain silent — nor give the world a misleading comfort — when there is such a great wrath! There’s a reason we talk about law prior to Gospel and repentance prior to forgiveness, even if this is often abused by many an evangelist (i.e. “There is no need to treat that person kindly prior to them coming to faith”). Maybe I miss your point.”

Another person weighed in, saying simply “UOJ,” suggesting that the doctrine of universal objective justification, explained here, justifies the kind of message this pastor proclaimed.

Oh. So all is well then. Everybody just carry on.



Pastor Marquart, on fire: “Man is not an objective super-observer in the universe, but a condemned sinner with a vested interest in escape.”

As I put it not long ago, we should offer the world no quarter when it comes to our public confidence about what it is we are doing. Our default attitude should be more akin to the following:

“The Bible is the Word of God. Whoever you are, Jesus Christ is your Creator, your God, your King. This is what Christians have always believed and taught. It is only for the sake of conversation and common ground with the world – all of whom we are to love with Christ’s love – that we might start by talking about how the Bible “contains God’s Word”, “contains the Gospel”, how Jesus is “our God,” or how we consider the Bible to be authoritative.”

Do I always act that way? Do I always believe that way? No, of course not. Shame on me. That is a sign for me to repent.

Or, in an effort to appeal to the business mentality of my early 21 century American brethren, an opportunity to repent.

Act now! This may indeed be a limited one time offer!

Come to the feast, brothers! Let’s dig in together, reflect together, pray together…

I’ll see you there.


P.S.: More in the next post about why we have these problems, and featuring a hard look at the author’s own church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The post will be called The Bondage of Confessional Lutheran Scholarship.

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Posted by on January 19, 2018 in Uncategorized


How much Law is enough?


Guest post by Pastor Delwyn Campbell

It hit me like a wall – the seemingly simple question, asked by the radio talk show host. “Do we need the law to protect the environment?” Even after the two-minute break ended, I still felt perplexed. I knew what undergirded his question, a worldview that accepted the pervasive reach of an all-encompassing government, empowered by layers of laws, enacted by people who truly believed that the road to utopia was paved in regulations, overseen by professionals whose entire career consisted of selling themselves as saviors while actual solutions always remained just out of reach.

It’s one thing to say with Ronald Reagan, “Government doesn’t solve problems, it subsidizes them.” While that sounds good in a speech, it rings hollow when you realize that it was spoken by a politician while he ran for the highest government position in the United States. More importantly, as people who believe in the revelation of Scripture, I understand that government, along with the Law that both undergirds it and empowers it, is a divine institution. It exists because God wills it to be so, because order and structure are woven into the very fabric of creation.

The proper question isn’t, “do we need the law to protect ‘X’.” The proper question is, how pervasive should government be? When has it exceeded the scope of its mandate? Who determines that? I cannot trust humans who have a vested interest in broadening the scope and power of government, anymore than I can trust humans who desire to be unhindered in their efforts to sin against their neighbor without consequence. Where do I look to find that something which gives a floor, a ground, a boundary that properly defines what government is and does?

I look to the Creator. I know, by faith, that “16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV)). Searching the Scriptures, I come to Romans 13:1-7, which tells me that government has a role of maintaining order and providing security, so that people can engage their neighbors in love, fulfilling their vocations and serving one another. Within that broad framework, there is more than enough room for government to operate, whether efficiently or inefficiently, wisely or foolishly, in ways that either serve the common good, or enslave the common community.

Romans 13:1–7 (ESV)

Submission to the Authorities

13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Viewed through the lenses of this passage, the proper scope of government should allow room for people to serve one another in love, without the coercive, punitive hand that wields the sword of God’s wrath. Love, freely engaged, should enable good things to take place between people and within communities. Selfishness, freely indulged, works in the opposite direction of love. The Law sets the boundary beyond which self-interest operates in ways that can be harmful to both self and to others. Put another way, the Law is the Sword of God, and, under the sun, Government is the arm that wields it as His appointed agent.

I could now answer the question, avoiding the clumsily clever attempt to entrap me on one side of the divide or the other. Laws are necessary, but only enough to accomplish the limited goals of maintaining security and providing people with the safe spaces to operate in fulfillment of their created capabilities. Beyond that, laws are stumbling blocks that hinder us and hand cuff us, useful at times, but uncomfortable and awkward even when they are necessary. We do need the Law, but it cannot bring us the peace that passes all understanding.


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Posted by on January 19, 2018 in Uncategorized


Would Jesus Support DACA? Unlimited Immigration to America?

Would Jesus support something like DACA?

I get the impression that many Christians would not hesitate to say “Yes!” — and insist that someone like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is not acting much like a Christian here:


Here is my perspective on the issue: we need to think about how an outsider can “beat” Jesus in a debate, and how this might apply to beating “citizens of Rome” in debate as well…

You might need to be patient as you work through this..


Jesus wants you to “beat” Him in a debate.

Really — its true!

That said, you don’t beat Jesus in debate by trying to remove the sting of uncomfortable Bible passages – one of which is clearly Matthew 15: 21-28 (where a Canaanite woman “beats” him in debate!)

And you don’t beat a citizen of Rome by denying – or failing to deeply appreciate – the wisdom of the dictum “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Modern Christians might want to think that Jesus calls the Canaanite woman “a little dog” with a wink and a nod, but the text gives no indication that this is what he was doing. In fact, the text does not even give a clear indication that Jesus intended to test the woman’s faith.

Rather, read straightforwardly, the whole thing just seems positively brutal to most of us. We might even be tempted to consider a “progressive Christian” interpretation, where the woman enlightens Jesus, waking him up to his prejudices!

One commentator, fixating on the very real struggle of ethnic hostility (“Canaanite” = enemy of Israel!), even says this passage forces us to deal with the issue of “theodicy,” which is commonly defined as “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” In this case, presumably Jesus’ or his disciples’ intolerance of diversity – of the Canaanite kind in particular – is in view.

Clearly, anyway you slice it, the “outsider” motif is deeply present in this Bible passage. What might this short account have to teach us as Christians today? What might it be able to teach real outsiders, when it comes to Christianity or otherwise?

There are two primary things that come to mind here: first, Jesus shows us that it is proper to have a hierarchy of concerns when it comes to our neighbors’ needs. Second, knowing a bit about the historical circumstances of this parable can assist us to better understanding what the passage is saying.

First, it is critical to notice that it is love and loyalty and not hate, that drives Jesus. He is loyal to His people, naturally and spiritually, and has a mission that He has been sent to accomplish.

But doesn’t Jesus love all people?

Yes. That said, while all human beings are God’s “offspring,” as we read in Acts 17, God had nevertheless bound Himself to Israel, Jacob’s line, in a very special way. Here, they in fact have His priority attention, much in the same way that natural children have their parents’ attention. In like fashion, the Apostle Paul is not shy about his own natural affections for his “race,” (see Romans 9:1-5) and doesn’t for nothing say “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (I Tim. 5:8). After all, even pagan authors like Cicero and Epictetus recognized that “Nature produces a special love of offspring,” and “Natural affection is a thing right according to Nature,” respectively (C.S. Lewis).

And while the parable of the Good Samaritan should rightly challenge us all, there is nevertheless to be a hierarchy among our concerns.[i] Again, Paul has a word which 21st century Christians, often very eager to reach out to “outsiders”, miss: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10, italics mine). This, of course, includes not only physical provision, where there is concern for one’s basic needs, but spiritual provision as well.

And, of course, ideally one’s natural family is included among the family of believers – and is hence eager to receive spiritual provision. At the same time, they may not be, in which case a believer’s circumstances may certainly dictate some measure of emotional withdrawal and investment (as regards them, not necessarily as regards them in your prayers before God!), even if the duty to provide for physical needs never really goes away. Your relatives’ – particularly your childrens’ – provision and protection come first.

Therefore, an important part of the Gospel message is that God unites Himself, knits Himself, together with us in nature, first as regards the Jews, and then as regards the Gentiles… He becomes one of us, re-uniting Adam’s fallen race to Himself by assuming our human nature in the Jew Jesus Christ! The message here is that there is a sense that our family, our heritage, our own father and brother protects and saves us.[ii]

The earthly reality of family is, like marriage, an echo and icon of the heavenly reality!

Jesus is ”a member of the Israelite nation from the family of David…. All nations and races, also the noblest ones, are also guilty of his death and daily become guilty of it anew, when they insult the Spirit of grace (Hebr. 10:29).” — The 1930s Bethel Confession

With this in mind then, let’s take a look at the historical background surrounding this story.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were certainly many who had become a part of “God’s household.” This meant that persons would adopt Israel’s way of life including one very peculiar part of its culture: its ceremonial practices, including but not limited to things like Sabbath observance, Festival Days, animal sacrifices, food laws, and of course, circumcision. This was a high price to pay, but many were willing to pay it, becoming Jewish proselytes and becoming integrated members of God’s chosen people.[iii]

Jesus Himself surely knew that there were god-fearing Gentiles who had been incorporated into His own family line. One recalls women like Rahab and Ruth in His own earthly family’s genealogy. It seems logical that even if a person had not become a formal “proselyte,” any person friendly to the Jewish culture – and even religion! (the Jews called these persons “god-fearers”) – would not be someone to formally shun or worse!

As one scholar puts it, writing about Jewish proselytism even in Jesus’ own day:

Jewish ‘chosenness’” is defined “not as exclusive but as exemplary; not as separatist but as representative; not as closed but as open; not as rejecting but as all-embracing and compassionate” (Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism, 8)[iv]

Even with Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisee’s own missionary impulses (see Matthew 23:15), there is no reason to assume all the Jews who desired converts were so misled.[v] So what, really, can we get from Jesus’ actions towards the Canaanite woman? First of all, while there are times that we are told in the Bible that Jesus chose to be aware of what the motives of others were, we are given no indication that that is happening here. Second, as one need not imagine that Jesus is playing chess with the woman, looking to test her faith in this way, one also need not imagine that Jesus feels any hostility towards her – or even callous indifference. Rather, He is simply focused on His mission and (very!) matter-of-factly states the case.

“Playing hard to get”? “Frankly my dear….”? What?

As Alexander MacLaren put it some time ago:

The meaning of the whole is simply the necessary restriction of His personal activity to the chosen nation. It is not meant to wound nor to insult, though, no doubt, it is cast in a form which might have been offensive, and would have repelled a less determined or less sorrowful heart.

In any case, the woman truly does seem to surprise Jesus! She agrees with everything He says about it not being good to throw the children’s bread to the dogs – even as she still manages to insert herself into the Narrative. No doubt, His delight in her faith – I don’t think for a minute He was eager to be rid of her — foreshadows the more intensive evangelistic push to actively bring Gentiles into the formal congregation of God’s people, or “church.”

And of course, a big part of this was the rescission of the ceremonial practices discussed above. This is no small deal, as can be seen in Colossians 2:17 and Acts 10-15. Paul also wrote the following important words in Ephesians:

11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

This is good stuff! At the same time, perhaps we are now tempted to say: “Thank God our situation is no longer anything like that of Jesus’! At least we don’t have to worry about incorporating ‘the other’ into formal structures of culture that they will, at times, find constricting and oppressive.”

But this is not the case, even if an individualistic virus which has infected us — perhaps particularly virulent among Americans – would say that it is. The church is still a family, and not a business, and hence still has a “culture,” or, if you prefer “house rules.” It still has its practices which some, from the outside, find alienating. That said, the goal is that familiarity with the day-to-day lives of Christians will not breed contempt, but rather curiosity regarding the treasures of the church – its God-given word and sacraments. Here, beautiful passages like I Peter 3:15-16 illustrate the goal well.

And of course, the ultimate hope is that the church’s crucified Lord will draw all persons to Himself, and into the household of God. That eventually, those on the “outside” will be integrated into the life of the church, its Scripture and sacraments, its simple way of life, its culture of worship and prayer.

Christians are now a “Third Race,” set apart from both [unbelieving] Jews and Greeks… – Aristides

This takes time. Years. Decades. Centuries. Millennia. We have forgotten. We have no long game.

And now let me get really controversial. Applying this to the recent globalist-nationalist debate, the same is true not only for churches, but for nations as well. Different nations – made up largely of different ethnic groups – have their own distinct cultures that animate their nations. There is a reason, after all, that Japan is Japan, Norway is Norway, Iran is Iran, and England is England (see Acts 17:26) — and that we like the idea of these nations preserving and keeping their heritage.

And yet, on one level, this sounds wrong to us as Christians. Does not Paul say that God’s “purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two.” Is this not why the early Christian apologist Aristides said that Christians were now a “Third Race,” set apart from both Jews and Greeks?[vi] (apologia 2).

Yes – this is the kind of thing we long for – even as we know the book of Revelation still seems to celebrate our distinct tribal and ethnic identities.

Therefore, at the same time, it is not wrong for Christians in these nations to be concerned to protect their own cultural heritage. There is nothing wrong with them being focused on helping their own families and closest neighbors first. There is nothing wrong with wanting to help refugees in need within the borders of those refugees’ own nations instead of inviting them into their own homes. And when it comes to normal immigration policy, there is nothing wrong with them “playing the long game,” even towards persons who are purportedly eager to adopt the best of classical American (or pick any other nation that feels strongly about its culture!) values.

Because all of this takes time. As with the Canaanite woman, there can certainly be exceptions to the rule. Many people have successfully lived away from their compatriots in foreign lands. There are some people who really are willing to join a new nation and are even willing to fight — when necessary — against their native land (as some American-Germans did in the first two world wars). But exceptions do not make the rules.

And not only is there nothing wrong regarding all of these thoughts above. In fact, there is something right about all of them! Where does Jesus stand in the Globalist-Nationalist Debate? The answer is simple. Jesus has both “globalist” and “nationalist” things to say, but many seem unable or unwilling to see this today. Jesus Himself, of course, is not “worse than a pagan,” unwilling to give primary attention and aid to His own family, relatives, tribe, nation (for more nuance, see the arguments in my post about Christians and nationalism).  

In a day when persons concerned about issues of culture and borders are increasingly derided as the worst of racists or at the very least getting dangerously close to this (by the way, if one had feared Germany in the 1930s would that have been xenophobia? What if you were a native American in the 1800s?), more and more might come to the conclusion that it is time to say – without any hate in one’s heart – “I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to go back to your home country, but this isn’t working.” And while we are at it, it might not be a bad idea to urge the “best and brightest” from abroad to consider that to. Because they also have an obligation to their own families and people, and how are we not being a bit selfish for tempting them to think otherwise? Do we honestly think those countries would appreciate us taking all of their best and not sending some of ours in return?

“Struggle is not the basic principle of the original creation, and a fighting attitude is therefore not a commandment by God established by the original creation.” – 1930s Bethel Confession.

I know. I know! It all sounds wrong to us.

But I truly wonder whether to speak otherwise is to say “Peace, peace” where there is none (take a look at this and ponder). At the very least, when it comes to what a nation can sustain while retaining its character, how many is too many?

The fact is that we will be infected with sin until Christ returns. And yes, we will be many nations until the One Kingdom of heaven. The church has helped us to get a glimpse of the One Kingdom to come now, but instead of being thankful for these humble first fruits, have elite intellectuals in the West attempted to hijack Christianity in the service of their own, Christ-less, utopian dreams?

That is going to fail – and make a lot more of us outsiders and refugees.

Lord, in these last days when you said faith would be rare, give us all faith like that Canaanite woman.

You, after all, are our only hope.




[i] In Acts 10:34, Peter says: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Truly, among those who believe, it makes sense to insist that God loves His children equally, and yet that this love is not always manifested nor experienced equally. For instance, as I previously wrote “I remember hearing a father say to his son: ‘I love all of you – but I have to admit my feelings for your brother are stronger’. Why, according to him, was this the case?  Because of all of his offspring, he felt that his son’s brother needed his love even more.” I also think about things like this when I read Romans 9:4a, 9:7b, 11:18b, 11: 24, and 11:28-29.

[ii] What about the marriage imagery? The point here is that God does, in fact, mean for all persons to be His body, fully united with Him (think here of the disturbing illustration in Ezekiel, where He adopts and then, when she is ready for love, marries the one He adopts…).

[iii] In a post recently done here on my blog, I wrote the following:

In a footnote, [John Nolland, in his 2005 commentary The Gospel of Matthew,] shares related thoughts:

“G. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy,’ maintains that Matthew’s account is informed by traditions of Gentile women becoming converts to Judaism as proselytes. Though there are some similarities, the case is not strong, and even if such traditions are being echoed, the image of dogs eating the crumbs suggests, contra Jackson, that, despite her very Jewish faith, the Canaanite woman becomes a beneficiary of Jesus’ ministry not as a freshly made Jewess, but as a Gentile (pp. 635-636).

Keep in mind, that at this point, to say this is to say that she was still, to some degree, on the outside. People who would have been ideal believers at this time in Israel’s history were persons like Jesus’ parents, who valued and followed the ceremonial practices of the Jews (circumcision, food laws, sacrifices, Sabbath), even as they also, like the “true Israelite” Nathaniel, recognized Jesus as the Messiah. While Jesus gave very clear hints that the Pharisees had wildly misunderstood the point of the Jewish ceremonial practices (particularly the Sabbath and the food laws), it is not until Acts 15 and Paul’s epistles where we see a more definitive understanding of these practices, that is, as their being shadows that were to fade and disappear (at least insofar as they were in some sense required of believers to perform) once the Messianic Age had been inaugurated.

[iv] Therefore, it is not surprising when we see John Nolland write the following:

“The woman accepts that she has no claim to be put on a par with the Jewish people in benefiting from God’s present intervention for the sake of his people, but even the dog get scraps, and that is all she asks for. This is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities, but not to Matthew and not to the Jewish tradition more broadly. In the biblical materials they saw Gentiles, when beneficiaries of God’s activity, as fringe beneficiaries (footnote: “E.g., Is. 2:2-4; 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:10-14; Je. 16:19; Mi 4:1-4; Zc 2:11; 8:0-23; 14:16-19. There is a wider vision in Is. 19:18-25; 49:6; 56:3-8, etc) Mt. 28:19 breaks through, not the sense of Jewish privilege, but the marginality of Gentile involvement. The existence of such Gentiles as this woman prepares the way, but despite the popularity of the view that this is a story about how Jesus changes his mind, the present episode can in no way be represented as a breakthrough. Jesus does not change his mind at all (vv. 24, 26 are in no way retracted, even by implication); what becomes clear to him is what is appropriate in the case of this particular woman.”

Hager, in his Word biblical commentary on Matthew 14-28 and writing about Matthew 15:26 and 27, also offers important insights:

“The Jews universally assumed that eschatological fulfillment belonged to Israel in an exclusive sense. Many also expected that the overflow of the abundant eschatological blessing of God would be made available to ‘righteous’ Gentiles (i.e., by keeping the Noachic laws [Gen 9:1-17].” (442, Word).

Hagner notes the basic principle that physical Jewishness is not the key here but “ultimately receptive faith,” a view which Paul makes very clear in his writings, particularly Romans 4 and Galatians 3: “the privilege of the Jews is no longer unique…” (443, Word).

Again, before Jesus begin to effect changes, changes which were finalized at the first council in Jerusalem, people were expected to become Jews by rather fully adopting their culture and their ceremonies, and this is not Pharisaical (Jesus, of course, did accuse the Pharisees of abandoning God’s word for the “traditions of men”) but biblical (see, e.g. Exodus 12:19 and Exodus 12:48).

[v] Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler intriguingly writes the following:

“The notion that Judaism is not a propagating faith is far from the truth. It has been the practiced truth for the last four centuries, but it was not true for the four millennia before. Abraham was a convert and our tradition lauds his missionary zeal. Isaiah enjoined us to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and insisted that God’s house be a ‘house of prayer for all peoples’. Ruth of Moab, a heathen by birth, became the ancestress of King David. Zechariah foresaw the tie when men and women of every tongue would grasp a Jew by the corner of his garment and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.

During the Maccabean period, Jewish proselytizing activity reached its zenith; schools for missionaries were established, and by the beginning of the Christian era they had succeeded in converting 10 percent of the population of the Roman empire – roughly four million people.

It is true that there were countervailing pressures even in Biblical times. Thus, Ezra…. (Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, Not by Birth Alone: Conversion to Judaism, 1).

See also Michael Bird’s very nuanced and careful conclusion of the evidence in his book Crossing over land and sea: Jewish missionary activity in the second temple period (pp. 149-156). Relevant to this post: “I do not doubt that virtually every Jewish group thought that being initiated into the commonwealth of Israel and living under the Torah was good and desirable for Gentiles, whether it was politically expedient was another matter” (151).

[vi] Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the concept of “ethnos,” from which we get “ethnicity”. In like fashion “genos”, from where we get “genes,” can be translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our notions of culture.

Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth. In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen ethnos” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9). Ultimately, the Church is a new Nation that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or more accurately, Kingdom.


Posted by on January 13, 2018 in Uncategorized


Does the Devil’s Whore, Reason, Ruin Christmas? Luther’s Disputation on John 1:14, “The Word Was Made Flesh”

Theotokos (“Birth-Giver of God”) or “Christokos” only? *Really* the “mother of God”? Does it matter?


First, happy tenth day of Christmas! Second, the answer to the title of this post is “No!” — with explanation following…

In 1539 a formal theological disputation was held in Wittenberg, Germany called “The Disputation Concerning the Passage: ‘The Word was Made Flesh’” (found in AE 38.239-76).

This disputation is very interesting (it is difficult to)!

In it, Martin Luther contends that the Scholastic theologians from Paris of his time (the “Parisians”) had in effect made theology bow to philosophy (thesis #6).[i] In a fascinating move, Luther responds by stating that “what is true in one field of learning is not always true in other fields of learning” – even while insisting that the statement “every truth is in agreement with every other truth” is to be upheld (theses #1).

Relating to the title of the disputation, Luther connects these thoughts with John 1:14: In theology it is true that the Word was made flesh; in philosophy the statement is simply impossible and absurd.” In a colorful way of putting it, Luther insists that “the declaration ‘God is man’ is not less but even more contradictory than if you would say ‘Man is an ass’” (thesis #3). Going along with this, it is very interesting to note that as Luther discusses issues of philosophy and language he actually anticipates many of the Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observations about language in the 20th century.

“Theology and philosophy… each [have] a different starting point and goal which it pursues… Philosophy has nothing to do with our grammar.” – Martin Luther (A:intro and A:4)

Some brainier Lutherans suggest that what Luther is saying in this brainy disputation ought to have rather large implications for how theology interacts with other scholarly disciplines. For example, I recently heard one theologian say that:

“Luther’s disputational theses on John 1:14 [are key]….Before we play the epistemological card [when it comes to matters of the creation and science], we ought to have a thorough reading of how Luther approaches revelation and reason. I think we greatly overplay the ‘whore reason’ remark and make it extend to all matters, from governance and finance, to biochemistry and geology.”

This individual was concerned that Lutherans not fall into a mentality (perhaps based on a kind of fundamentalism) all too eager to question the claims of various secular academics and modern scientific disciplines… The introduction to this disputation in Luther’s works seems to lend support to this view: “Luther conceded that philosophy had its independent meaning and was qualified to set forth the truth in the realm of nature. In the realm of grace, however, theology was to hold sway.”

“Paul, on the contrary, teaches that all thought (no doubt this includes philosophy) is to be taken captive to the obedience of Christ [II Cor. 10:5]… we must adhere strictly to the word and truth of the Bible.” – Martin Luther (thesis 8, C:XXXII)

Should that, however, be the message that we take away from this disputation? I think putting things like that is basically unhelpful[ii] and misses the real importance of this writing. My pastor, with the help of the German theologian Hannes Illge, has also been studying the disputation a little bit. Here is how he summarized things for me:

1) The Sorbonne was the flagship of the via antiqua, classic Aristotelianism, in which as far as language was concerned, promoted the idea that what was said expressed accurately what existed in the world of forms, i.e. that which was ultimately real and true. Consequently, what was said and true in one field of study must be true and be able to be said in another field of study, including theology;

2) Conversely the via moderna (nominalism) promoted the idea that what is expressed must not refer to the world of forms, but to a unique instance of a form in creation, in time and space, that is, to some unique thing, in a one-to-one correspondence, that is, a specific instance of a thing. This was for clarity’s sake in the construction of syllogisms;

3) The problem, however, was that theologically, the “middle term” in a syllogism often could not be a reference to a specific thing in time and space, but a general concept, thus throwing the validity of syllogistic logic to express what was true theologically out the window.

My pastor goes on, commenting on how Illge’s heady academic book speaks to these disputations:

So if I understand what Illge is asserting about this disputation correctly, Luther is exposing logically the inadequacies of  both the via antiqua (Aquinas) and the via moderna (Biel) for expressing via language what is true theologically. Thus the assertion that a “new language” is needed when it comes to speaking of Christ and theology…

John, If the finite cannot contain the infinite in the Lord’s Supper, what is the Incarnation really?

In order to explain this more, let’s take a look at a part of the disputation (C:IX):

Another [Argument] of the Dean

Falsehood and truth are opposites. But what is true in philosophy is false in theology. Therefore, they are opposites.

Response [from Luther, put together from the notes of three scribes]:

Contraries ought to concern the same matter or be in the same genus….

We say: God is man, which is a simple proposition, not twofold as the Sorbonne has made it. We condemn the latter. Every man is a creature, this is a simple proposition; this is true in philosophy, but in theology it is false, which is proved in the minor premise, that is, Christ is man.

The Sorbonne compels us to make all words ambiguous. This is to be resisted. It is not to be allowed that in this proposition, that is, God is man, one may unite theology and philosophy, because a distinction is made between man and man. The man who uses words univocally speaks consistently, but not the equivocator, and by the fact that they equivocate they destroy their own argument. (italics mine)

“The Parisian theologians…want to measure all things theological with philosophical reason.” – Luther (C, intro)

In expressing his concerns about equivocation, Luther is concerned first and foremost about the abuse of Scripture leading to the loss of the doctrine of justification (see, e.g., in the “Scholastic doctrine of congruent merit,” which made salvation subject to the law — the meritorious character of works). And justification, of course, is not unrelated to a proper understanding of Christology[iii], and hence the loss of the scriptural language’s meaning through the constricting use of philosophy[iv] (not unrelated, by the way, to the way postmodern philosophy, for example, tries to change Christianity today) – not necessarily intended by those who advocate thusly! – must be countered.

The more things change, the more they stay the same… (more on this book here) “Everyone can sense what is wrong; it take skill to remove the trouble.” – Luther, quoting Ovid (A: introduction)

Elsewhere, in the disputation, Luther makes his concerns even more clear: “When the word ‘man’ is used in philosophy it signifies substance; in theology it also signifies the substance existing in Christ, but thus, that it is the substance which is at the same time God” (C:X). Dr. Eric Phillips comments: “When he says, e.g., ‘In philosophy it is false to say that he is God and man’ (250), he is not suggesting that Jesus has two natures in one sense, but is only human in another sense. He is saying only that Philosophy is a valid way of knowing, but cannot know mysteries of the faith.”

Perhaps we could put Luther’s concerns in the following way as well: even though every man is a creature, we should insist this is false in theology because the primary identity of the God-Man Jesus Christ, who comes to possess a true human nature (transforming all who have a human nature!), is not that of a creature.[v]

Another syllogism “not to be allowed in the church of God”!: “All flesh is a creature. The Word is not a creature. Therefore, the Word is not flesh.”

Attentive readers of my own blog will note that a very similar situation – where philosophy cannot contain theology! – occurs in a recent blog post. Even though believers, in true union with Christ, really are God’s children, the following syllogism, applied to the biblical data, would be null and void:

  • Every son of God is divine.
  • Human beings are sons of God
  • Human beings are divine.

This, of course, is false, as even Scripture – in making us aware of man’s import to the creation – goes so far as to call all human beings not only god’s offspring, but, very hyperbolically, gods as well!

Hence, in sum, “faith is not bound by, or subject to, the rules or words of philosophy….” (C, intro)!” Philosophy is so very limited. Sad!

In his own summary of the disputation, Dr. Eric Phillips says, in part,

“3. There is a lot of overlap, as some things knowable by reason are also communicated by revelation, but the highest and most important things cannot be known by reason at all, and thus belong solely to Theology (AE 38: 248).

4.  As Philosophical definitions cannot take these things into account, they will sometimes seem to contradict Theology, but this is not a real contradiction as long as we apply Philosophy only to its own proper sphere. Philosophy and Theology do not agree on everything, as the Paris doctors held, but they can nevertheless both be true (250).

“All men are mortal,” says Reason, that Whore, ignoring our Lord… Don’t be so harsh! In general — because of sin! — it is true.

5. The area of overlap corresponds broadly to the Law, and the area where Theology alone prevails to the Gospel (258). Thus when Philosophy oversteps its bounds, it always ends up attacking the Gospel, as e.g. in the Scholastic doctrine of congruent merit (248).

I think this is well summarized because it is clear that the limits that Luther insists on for philosophy are, well… limited (and I admit I see what I take to be his definitions of it as overly stringent as well[vi]).

“The Word is a new and different expression in theology and designates the divine person.” – Martin Luther

On the one hand, philosophy is like the law: “the art of logic is a seeker after truth in every field of learning, but in theology it may be a maidservant and bondwoman” (C:XX)[vii] – here, for example, justification is said to be above and beyond the legal wisdom of the law.[viii] On the other hand, perhaps in correlation with the law’s fulfillment as seen and known in Jesus Christ, (interestingly, did not Socrates insist that philosophy, in spite of its interest in the reasons for things, was more about living rightly than anything else?), “philosophy and theology are different but not contrary to each other” (B:XXV).[ix] Analogously, justification is greater than the law simply because its fulfillment – first by Christ and only then by us (imperfectly here, and perfectly in heaven) – is contained in the Gospel.[x]

My own thoughts (see footnote vi also) are that if philosophy – which, considered most broadly, deals not only with causes but purposes[xi] – insists that God has not shown us His eternal nature in the creation, it is not really true philosophy.[xii] Of course, I am equivocating there myself, because in that sentence I don’t think I need to insist that the God – even though He is best understood in the God-Man Jesus Christ – cannot begin to be understood… does not begin to “make sense” to most every human being.

But I just let you know that, so maybe someone like Luther would let me go on that one.  : )

The foolishness of the Gospel: “Christ as true God and man suffered for us, and the whole person is said to have died for us… these are not philosophical matters. We say ‘I believe in God,’ not ‘I understand God.’” – Martin Luther (B:15)




[i] According to the introduction in Luther’s Works (AE 38), the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517), “ordered theological teachers at universities to uphold the one truth of the Christian religion in philosophical statements also.” On the face of it, it seems like philosophy was being made to submit to theology here, but Luther says that Christian statements were being forced into philosophical statements, with distortion being the necessary effect.

[ii] My view is that at its best today, given the inward nature of our reflection (with Kant having formalized this), the “realm of nature” is understood by modern secular philosophers on the basis of the things they experience, understand, and can cope with in common. I also think philosophers must primarily understand their discipline as being concerned with human ethics, i.e. how should we live. Even those who despise persons they consider overly moralistic still want their neighbors to live in certain ways and not others. How much does this drive all philosophical reflection?

[iii] From A:9: “In philosophy it is false to say that he is God and man. For this reason we separate these spheres in creation to the furthest extent, as the philosopher says. If someone has been continent and aspires to live honestly before men, he is not against Christ. Nevertheless, a tree must be good before it can bring forth good fruits. So a person is pleasing to God on account of Christ’s merit and obedience before he does godly, good, and honest works. Therefore, the barbarians [me: the Parisians] are to be resisted who make everything equivocal if a matter of faith seems to be in question. But we ought to adhere to and speak of the word. I understand “man” here in a twofold way, in one way as a corporeal substance subsisting by itself, in another way as a divine person upholding the humanity. Is this, I ask, harmonizing theology and philosophy when you distinguish like this, when in fact you even distinguish univocal terms?” (italics mine)

[iv] Again, Dr. Eric Phillips: “Luther says the Paris doctors ‘devised the distinction between equivocal and univocal so that philosophy might be in harmony with theology’ (246). However, he seems to use the distinction himself in several of his responses. E.g. “The mathematician says that… three cannot be one, as in the article of the Trinity…. Nonetheless, it is true that the Trinity and unity in God are something entirely different” (255). Thus he is not attacking the Thomist idea that language when applied to God must be understood equivocally (as some of the Medieval Nominalists had, most notably Duns Scotus). His real complaint seems to be with the corollary that agreement (e.g. between Philosophy and Theology) can be established by the use of equivocation…. The need for equivocation when speaking of God actually functions as proof of his “double truth” thesis.” (italics mine, underlining his)

[v] In sum, ultimately the words “man” and “person” are not about us, but about our God:

“When I speak of God as man, I cannot deny that he is a thinking animal; here the Scholastic theologians have admitted that Christ was a rational animal and man. However, they distinguish senses of the word ‘man’ and say that it is equivocal, so that, when it refers to anyone of the human race apart from the incarnation, it designates a person subsisting by himself. This is a philosophical meaning. It has another meaning when it is said about Christ. Here one does not interpolate that fictitious philosophical concept of a person. For here a new word is coined, designating the divine person sustaining our human one, as a white person signifies a man who maintains whiteness (3:IIIa, italics mine).” I find it interesting to note that evidently the philosophers of Luther’s day were willing to emphasize how man subsisted by himself by his own power, while God’s power outside himself was conceded (B:VI) by virtue of the things which he created (i.e. the creation, which in many philosophical systems was seen as synonymous with God).

[vi] I wonder here about whether Luther’s view of logic, syllogisms, reason and philosophy – which I get the impression from this work are basically the same thing to him (philosophy, for example “understands by the use of reason” [C: introduction]) – is too limited. E.g. “the art of logic is a seeker after truth in every field of learning, but in theology it may be a maidservant and bondwoman” (C:XX, italics mine ; see also A:20).

Luther, of course, contrasts this with theological truth, which, he notes (in part, I take it), we are to believe and not to [expect to] understand (and which we do not see, for it is invisible) (see C:VII, A:7 and A:15, and last footnote as well). Luther does say that “the subject of philosophy and theology is identical, that is, the human soul,” even as “they are different in character” (C:XXV). I think that Dr. Phillips is right to say, as he did to me, that “Philosophy isn’t the foundation for theology. Philosophy and theology are the same thing, except that theology (properly Christian theology) uses givens from Scripture, while Philosophy uses givens only from observation and logic.” Luther would probably agree, even as today’s “modern science” — with its appropriation of philosophy (see here for more) — has amputated some of the “givens” (like the soul!) Luther would have taken for granted.

If I had a chance to speak with Luther here, I would explore the idea of faith being about knowledge (particularly historical knowledge), assent and trust, and how it relates to his thinking. In any case, my main point is that it is not only faith that overshadows logic and syllogisms in importance, but other things that do this as well.

This can be bad, for example in the case where impressive rhetoric stirs our passions, verifies us in our confirmation biases, and causes us to act in in an unthinking manner. On the other hand, there are good things about this as well.

For instance, strictly speaking, even if it is true that smoke does not “mean,” linguistically, “fire,” is there not a kind of natural connection here – even if any particular person does not make this interpretation?  And it seems to me that many a “common man”, for example, might point out that the connection between “male”, “female” and “offspring” seems to be a bit more than linguistic as well! After all, one does not require formal syllogisms – but only personal experience perhaps bolstered by historical knowledge – to determine that all children have a mother and a father.

And speaking of history – and to really throw any exclusively secular readers here into a tailspin — in spite of, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas’s views of what constitutes knowledge, are historical facts like the existence of George Washington less certain than scientific truths such as the “fact of evolution” (sarcasm intended)? And here, of course, the secular critic will be eager to point out that some historical persons and events are more well-attested to empirically than others. I’ll happily agree – especially about evolution : ) – and ask them whether or not the unrecorded family history they know can really true knowledge or not and why….

[vii] Also: “It is not as mistress but as maidservant and bondwoman and most beautiful helper that it teaches a person to define and to classify. But even for theology [logic has this function]. There [i.e., in theology], if logic falls short, this maidservant also lies dead” (A:20).

[viii] “I admit that the legal wisdom of God is not contrary to that wisdom of the gospel, but is not included in it. Theology, the incarnation, and justification are above and beyond reason and philosophy. Philosophers concede to God omnipotence outside himself in the things which he created.” (B: VI) One notes in this disputation Luther’s conflating of the external observations of philosophers with the external judgements God’s law makes. For example: “There are upright persons in theology and there are upright persons in philosophy. This [philosophical] uprightness is meant for a mother and a father. Thus, in the law of Moses there are upright persons. But we have a more excellent theology which speaks differently about uprightness” (A:26). Here, lest one get the wrong idea, we should immediately add the following: “philosophy and theology are different but not contrary to each other” (B:XXV) – see footnote immediately following as well!

[ix] Also, “philosophy is not against us but for Christ” (A:8). “[W]e admit that philosophy may be for us; but it does not follow from this that both are identical; heaven and the stars are devoted to the church, but they are not at once identical with it” (C:VIII).

[x] As Pastor Jordan Cooper puts it: “The gospel is a superior revelation of God to the law. This does not imply that the two words are to be polarized against one another. Instead, the gospel is greater than the law, because within the gospel is included the fulfillment of the law.” (see here for some more context)

[xi] When, in B:XXVII, a person argues that: “Whoever inquires about the purpose and the causes of things inquires about the word of God. Philosophy inquires about purposes and causes. Therefore, it inquires about the word of God,” Luther only says “It is a subtle argument.” Given that he only says of philosophy that it “inquires into the reasons for things” (A:27) – and everywhere in this disputation seems to equates it with syllogisms and logic – I found this disputant’s introduction of the idea of purpose – which of course connects with issues of teleology and ethics – to be refreshing. Here, one wonders about the gradual reduction of philosophy to efficient causes.

[xii] To argument A:7, “Philosophy attributes to God incomprehensible matters. Therefore, it also attributes to him the power to become man. I prove this from Romans 1 [:20]: ‘His power is eternal,’” Luther begins his response in a way I find perplexing: “If it attributes infinite qualities to God, then it is not philosophy. For Paul in Romans 1 [:19] says that ‘God has shown it to them.’” (see also the argument and response in A:24 where Luther says, e.g., that “[t]he meaning of the law is, under various circumstances, known to the philosophers. But the promises of God belong to theology, and the gospel is not known to every creature because it is a mystery hidden from the world.”) Here, we evidently must speak of [tacit] knowledge of the truth which is suppressed – even unconsciously – and what a person considers himself to know.


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Posted by on January 3, 2018 in Uncategorized


What Can C.S. Lewis’s Sublime Waterfall From His “Abolition of Man” Teach Us Today?


Post by Nathan Rinne

If I say the “waterfall is sublime” is that an “authoritative statement”? What makes it so?

Maybe we should back up…

What is authority? Maybe we can agree that it is inextricably tied up with concerns about responsibility, knowledge (know-that and know-how), trust, and truth.

That said, is it ultimately something outside of us or inside of us? That is eventually where the question leads.

I’m an academic librarian by vocation, and I get the impression that most every librarian I know thinks that authority ultimately rests “in the receiver of information,” as Bill Badke puts it. In spite of a couple scholarly papers I’ve written against the popular idea among my colleagues that “Authority is constructed and contextual” (see here and here), it seems that even those appreciative of my work calling this into question ultimately think that the statement is problematic but that its “true enough” that they can live with it.

They can’t. None of us can. Because ultimately, truth and Truth gets the final vote. Truth is, in part, that which is the case, is not individualistic, and can create new understandings between us.

To this end, I offer you the following exploration/defense of C.S. Lewis’s sublime waterfall illustration, which I posted today on my academic librarian blog. Even if you think you can dismiss Plato, you nevertheless can’t dismiss Lewis’s important example.

Making the case from reason alone.


In arguing that there is truth that we all know (see the last few posts on my academic librarian blog, here [“When truth is disregarded, authority weakens”], here [“Aristotle at the library: why philosophy won’t go away”] and here). I recently said, following C.S. Lewis’s classic example from his masterpiece The Abolition of Man, that “we know that waterfalls are sublime — not only that they produce ‘sublime feelings’ in us”*

In response to that statement a librarian colleague said this is Platonic because I am implying that “abstractions have objective reality. Such as the idea that waterfalls are objectively sublime.” (they go on to say “To many of us, our sublime feelings are subjective; they are not a sign of innate sublimeness in whatever evokes those feelings.”)

I will admit that this response, coming from another librarian who also thinks that the phrase “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” is lacking, caught me off guard. Is this necessarily a Platonic statement? If so, why? Could it just as easily be an “Aristotelian” statement?

My NeoPlatonist** friend, Dr. Eric Phillips, said the following in response:

Aristotle was a Platonist to a point, but he went renegade on the question (related to your question) of the separability of the Forms from Matter. His emphasis on the Forms in Matter, and even his insistence that they had to be contemplated in this way, both helped NeoPlatonism to improve on Platonism, but if NP hadn’t also insisted on the transcendence of the Forms, it wouldn’t have been Platonism.

…what’s really at stake in your question about Sublimity-or-sublimity is objectivity vs. subjectivity, and Aristotle was just as much an Objectivist as Plato was. Intellectual content (Form) is in the things already, and is discovered there by the Intellect of the observer. But Plato’s Objectivity is transcendent, thus hardier and more naturally anchored in the Mind of God, as we see in NP.



… my instinct when it comes to the academy… is to stay away from NeoPlatonic assertions… because Aristotle does not deny the forms, but puts them in matter. Here, it just seems to me that one is able to start from our experiences, as existential and historical and evidence-oriented beings, and work from there…

My major concern is that all the classical philosophies seem to get neutered when historicism is understood or experienced as somehow compelling… See, e.g.

 Dr. Phillips:

That’s not a reason to favor Aristotelianism to NeoPlatonism, because NP also holds that we discover the Forms within the objects of our perception. But NP doesn’t end there.


Yes, that makes sense. It also might make sense then that people consider me to be talking about Platonism, when, in my own mind, I am simply trying to point out that persons cannot stop consistently assuming stability in many of the things in the world of which we speak — even trans-culturally and trans-historically. I don’t even mention transcendent realities (like Forms that exist somewhere outside of us in another realm).


Do you have a view then about reasons why a person might immediately assume Platonism? Is it because all of us — or perhaps, intellectuals more generally — believe that we all must, from the get-go — be operating from a systematic understanding and/or narrative that we try to convert others to and others try to convert us from?***

Dr. Phillips:

I think people are making the jump to Platonism because they assume Aristotle is one of their own, although he isn’t. …secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them. Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Plotinus… father of NeoPlatonism


Why do they assume Aristotle is one of their own? Are they assuming too much devotion to empiricism in Aristotle (at the expense of a belief in real Essences/Forms)? In other words, they have a post-Ockham view of Aristotle?****

secular intellectuals have out-Aristotled Aristotle, see themselves as part of his branch, and don’t consider how thoroughly he too would scorn them.

By this, do you mean they have put all of the focus on his storied empiricism, and gladly lost the other part?

Also, “Platonist” is a much worse name in their book, because whatever might have been wrong with Aristotle, Plato had it much worse. It’s like calling someone a Nazi instead of an anti-Semite, just to up the ante.

Because he is barely empirical by their standards, and is the Evil Essentialist par excellence. Right?

As for assuming that everyone is speaking from a philosophical system that is trying to colonize the world, that’s just the universal PoMo assumption, isn’t it?

Well, PoMos say there is no truth, and hence this kind of activity is all about power. I do tend to think that we as human beings can’t stop stating what is true about the world and want others to agree with us. We certainly think that there are some things that simply can’t be right and we should be able to convince/persuade others not to believe them. Not everyone necessarily would force everyone to believe what they believe if they could though!

Dr. Phillips:

Yes, you understand me on all three of your questions. Modernists and Postmodernists are used to being on “Team Aristotle” when the annual Plato-v-Aristotle football game comes around, so often all they remember about him is that he was an empiricist and he did science. But to the extent that he was an empiricist, he offers testimony of how empirical observation can discover Form. And they don’t usually think of it in these terms, but they discover Form through empirical observation too. It’s just important to the atheists among them that there not be any Mind higher than theirs with which they might have to compete in understanding that Form and processing its implications. And to say that Form is transcendent is to say that there is such a Mind. (The Prime Mover is not nearly so threatening, because all It does is draw things to develop their own innate potential, whatever that is.)


What I find really interesting here though is how Rebecca Goldstein seems far less frightening to atheistic types than Thomas Nagel (and his Mind and Cosmos). Maybe this goes to show, however, how Platonism — updated and revised by Goldstein — is not so threatening (just like you say Aristotle is not threatening). But maybe NeoPlatonism is? [See, for example, this article that I wrote, “The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers,” exploring this topic].

Dr. Phillips:

I don’t know Goldstein except what I just read in your article, but yeah, Old Platonism is definitely less threatening to atheists, because there’s no explicit Hypostasized Intellect, World-Spirit, or One-Beyond-Being. I do think that’s where the system leads, though, if you follow its internal logic. Forms are ideas, and ideas are thinking, and thinking is what a mind does.

Attempting to appropriate Plato while avoiding his God-talk.



*In a library technology conference presentation I made in 2014, I said the following about C.S. Lewis’s approach:

In his brilliant and more or less non-religious book, The Abolition of Man, Lewis basically contended that the [modern scientific and technological mindset] (not his language) had the power to “abolish” man. He made his argument that Western civilization was destroying itself by using a few simple sentences from an English textbook for middle school students.

In this textbook, Lewis points out that its authors, when talking about a waterfall, are careful to point out that we cannot say that the waterfall is “sublime” in itself – that is, intrinsically – but we can say that the waterfall provokes sublime feelings in the one who observes it. Lewis first of all points out that as regards feelings, the word “humble” is a more apt description and from that point on he is off to the races. He spends some thirty pages arguing convincingly that this simple move on the author’s part – where an objective goodness and beauty outside of the human being has been denied – has disastrous consequences for our lives together. In one of Lewis’ more memorable lines he states: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

**Of NeoPlatonism vis a vis Platonism, another learned friend says: “In broad strokes….Aristotle was a Platonist. Plotinus and Proclus mediated classical Platonism and Aristotelianism to a significant extent, such that while Neoplatonism is similar enough to classical Platonism to warrant its moniker, it is dissimilar enough that most of the perennial criticisms of Plato don’t stick to it.”

*** Listen from around 14:30 for a couple minutes: I almost want to say: “Monsieur Lacan, I see what you are saying. Well, my ‘master discourse’ (patriarchy!?) assumes various good hierarchies in nature and society and the belief that we are all human beings who share much horrific and beautiful common ground.”

**** The endgame of Ockham’s approach where universals  are not connected to things, but concepts (prior to Ockham, universals are distinct from, but inextricably linked to stable forms):

“Ontological individualism undermines not only realism but also syllogistic logic and science, for in the absence of real universals, names become no more than signs or signs of signs. Language thus does not reveal being but conceals the truth by fostering a belief in universals. In fact, all universals are merely second or higher-order signs that we, as finite beings, use to aggregate individual entities into categories. These categories, however, do not denote real things. They are only useful fictions that help us make sense out of the radically individualized world. They also, however, distort reality. Thus, the guiding principle of nominalist logic is Ockham’s famous razor: do not multiply universals needlessly. Every generalization takes us one more step away from the real, so the fewer we employ, the closer we remain to the truth.” (Michael, Allen Gillespie. “The Theological Origins of Modernity.” Critical Review 13.1 (1999): 1-30. ProQuest. 20 Apr. 2015, italics mine)

With Ockham, any sense of “natural teleology” is dulled by his denial of forms and the purely mechanistic science made thinkable by it. “Being is not intrinsically good but is value-free; fact and value are separated.” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, 100)


Posted by on December 20, 2017 in Uncategorized


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No Theistic God, No Notion of Equality


Thus saieth Liberal Christian Nationalism.

A couple days ago, I said that there are some kinds of inequality among human beings that we should embrace.

There is also a kind of equality that we should embrace, but without the God revealed in the Bible, this is impossible.

No God, No equality. Sorry atheists and Jordan Peterson-esque “Christian atheists”.* You can’t even have equality with every notion of God, or gods, as the case may be. Again, I give you Vishal Mangalwadi, administering some painful truth for our secularist friends:

“A postmodernist would be absolutely right in insisting that the Declaration of Independence was wrong. These ‘truths’ are not ‘self-evident’. Human equality is not self-evident anywhere in the world – not even in America. Equality was never self-evident to the Hindu sages. For them, inequality was self-evident. Their question was, why are human beings born unequal? Hinduism taught that the Creator made people different. The higher castes were made from his head, shoulders, and belly, and the lower castes were made from his feet. The law of karma accentuated these basic differences. The Buddha did not believe in the Creator, but he accepted the doctrine of karma as the metaphysical cause for the inequality of human beings….

Equality and human rights are not self-evident truths. In his original draft, Thomas Jefferson penned, ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and unalienable.” That was the truth. That is why the Declaration grounded the ‘unalienable’ rights in the Creator rather than in the state. The most honest declaration would have been, ‘We hold these truths to be divinely revealed.’ Revelation is the reason why America believed what some Deists ascribed to ‘common sense.’ To be precise, these truths appeared common sense to the American founders because their sense was shaped by the common impact of the Bible – even if a few of them doubted that the Bible was divinely revealed.” (391, 392)”

This is why, in this debate featuring Howard Dean and Melissa Harris-Perry against David Brooks and Robert George – which took place just a few days ago and is well worth experiencing — Robert George, pointing to that Declaration of Independence, is on the side of the angels:


Even if we don’t need to insist that God feels and acts the same towards each and every person (again, see yesterday’s post), we can indeed insist that we are all his offspring.

In one sense, it cannot be denied that we are equally His children (please note though: this does not mean that we His children cannot spurn Him).

And that of course, means something. It has implications for you and me. For us.

It gets even more extreme. As I noted in an old post from years ago:

I was listening to lectures from a Roman Catholic apologist and he talked about how we can’t say that human beings are children or sons of God by nature because that is pantheism. I think I have also heard Lutherans say that we can’t call human beings children of God, but from our tradition, it would be because this is reserved for believers, not fallen man in general.*

Interestingly, the Scriptures go so far as to say we are all not just sons of God, but gods ourselves. But it does not shy away from calling all men sons of God either, as Paul points out to the Athenians:

“…he is not far from any one of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill…”

(Acts 17:27-29)

That is why God sheds His blood for all persons – especially, the Bible says, those who believe. This is why, the Bible insists, that He desires all persons to repent – to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth. This is why it says He has bound all of us over to disobedience – that He might have mercy on each and every one of us.

And all of the above is why I choose to be a Liberal Christian Nationalist as well.

You’ve joked about it, but now deeply ponder it…

Come to Jesus.



* And where, in the history of philosophy, has philosophical faith in “the force of the best reason”, for example, shown that “all humans are created equal and are entitled to equal rights”? Really, which non-Christians philosopher ever said this and what were his/her reasons? Yes, the silence is deafening….). Here, arguments like atheist Michael Shermer’s are shown to be lacking in an immense way (Incidently, Shermer also admits that most of his fellow atheists, like Dawkins, think it is impossible to ground morality in anything objective, or outside of human beings).

** Can we all be offspring of God but not children of God? 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]).


Posted by on December 14, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Are Hierarchy, Inequality, and Patriarchy Opposed to the Love of God?

Icon of the evil patriarchy par excellence?


Regarding the man in the picture (which I know is massively triggering to some persons), we’ll get back to him in a moment.

From a past post:

“I remember hearing a father say to his son: “I love all of you – but I have to, admit my feelings for your brother are stronger”. Why, according to him, was this the case? Because of all of his offspring, he felt that his son’s brother needed his love even more.”

Let me add to that now – this didn’t bother the son. Why? Simply because due to the father’s actions he never doubted that he was dearly loved and valued. He didn’t need to know that his father’s love for him was perfectly equal to that of his brother’s to know this. Just like Hagar so gladly rejoiced in the love of her God — and didn’t need to be Abraham’s or Sarah’s equal — he didn’t need to be his brother’s equal.

We can take this further. While there is no precedent for thinking that God does not favor any group of persons more than any other (well, OK, He did chose the Jews!), we know, for example, that each individual person will not be equally blessed in heaven. Here, perhaps, both God’s attitude and His actions towards this or that person is decidedly different!

How should we respond to this?

I, for one, suggest we not be resentful of those who are ruling cities or many cities! Good thing to start trying to squelch this resentment here on earth, right?

“Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’

But wait – we can take this even further. What if God’s actions towards others are decidedly different solely because of the way He has constructed the world? What if, for example, men were to serve as the heads and spiritual leaders for their families and only certain men could serve as pastors? And what if, in general, the rule more often than not would be that He would have men, and not women, serve as the leaders of human beings (yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but it does seem to be a rule)?

These “binaries” (cueing the earlier post today by Matthew Garnett) above are not going to go away. On the other hand, the Christian world today seems obsessed with matters of gender and equality. Citing the image of the body of Christ (surely no one can be unimportant given this truth!), some say, for example, that we must strive for a world in which everyone is “equally important”.

That, for example, is what I heard when I listened to the latest podcast of the notorious (among Evangelicals) Peter Enns. In it, he talks with Carolyn Custis James about “Moving Beyond the Patriarchy”.

It might be tempting for some of us to not even listen to James. Why, we might think, is she throwing in her lot with feminism, clearly anti-man at its core? Why did she not more earnestly look to seek out and meet a good, strong man who found her appealing, courted her, took her as his bride, and was able/willing to take responsibility as a spiritual head of the home? Perhaps then she would have a different view of matters? Has she not simply been influenced by liberal professors and the stories of bitter women, and this has just created a victim mentality in her?

I think this would be too hasty – much like the disciples too quickly judging the man born blind. The Lord does uphold singleness after all — not marriage — as the higher calling and blessing the Christian should strive to obtain (again folks, this “binary” is not going away either). Should we think that every person who ends up serving the Lord as a single – and is content to do so – always strove for that goal?

Ultimately, I think the show is worth listening to for a few reasons: a) some of her content is really good and enlightening ; b) to hear and identify with Carolyn’s personal concerns (and to genuinely understand her, sympathize with her, and think about how you might try to help and encourage someone with her experiences) ; and c) to realize that these kinds of concerns aren’t going to go away – and also that we should not think that they ever really will this side of heaven.

Why? Because God loves hierarchy though hierarchy does not, and never will, function perfectly in a fallen world. The best that we can hope for in the world is hierarchs who care about their subjects as good parents care for their children. As good pastors care for their flocks. As Christians (yes, in the final judgment we are tasked with judging the world, even the angels) care about each and every one of their neighbors.

At the very least, we all need to recognize that there are “power pyramids” where “somebody’s at the top and there are a lot of people at the bottom” – things James evidently believes that the “patriarchy” — and not God — creates. She also says that this patriarchy is not really put forth as the message itself but is the ever-so-significant “backdrop to the message” — and so that, in part, is why it’s hard for us to talk about.

Let’s talk about it.

I’ll start with my two cents: I suggest that this kind of natural and social phenomenon is built into God’s world by design (see Luther’s comments on the fourth commandment – and hear this recent Issues ETC program with Bryan Wolfmueller) – every culture, and not just ours, “does [this] all over the place!” — and even those who try to destroy it end up creating it anew (even if, with the new hierarchy’s decreased competence, it will be far less effective and liable to be overthrown again). Furthermore, there is something decidedly different about the “soft patriarchy” of Christianity vis a vis that found in non-Christian societies (e.g., respect for the education of women [as James mentions] and consensual marriage enshrined in law arose where in space and time…?)*

And – wait for it — I see all of this as related to what is happening with the election today in Alabama. My more thought-out and succinct thoughts about Moore and the frenzy around him can be found today here. Yesterday though, I promoted a post on the Facebook group Confessional Lutheran Fellowship (CLF) from my [online] friend Boo Radley. That post got a lot of comments** before it was removed – evidently for being too political.

My main point, however, was to focus on masculinity in a culture that has gradually – perhaps very gradually — (so much so that we have not realized what has happened) lost the sense of the real value that men bring.

Clip from Boo’s piece (which yes, had an ill-chosen title – he himself admitted that to me):

Judge Moore likes to say, “If we’re going to Make America Great Again, we must first Make America Good Again.” Part of making America good, part of restoring our republic, must be a revival of American masculinity. Roy Moore alone can’t make this happen. But if he wins, perhaps that could help to galvanize the movement. A moment that helps inspire millions to rise up and Bring Back The Patriarchy.

There has been much chatter lately about open secrets. For example, prominent journalist Cokie Roberts recently told us all that “every female in the press corps knew” Congressman Conyers wasn’t safe to ride the elevator with: Really? Well, here’s another open secret: Most of the “men” at National Review are scared of their wives. Jonah Goldberg admitted to it in this recent installment of his new podcast. This is not hyperbole or slander. Listen for yourself: Relevant portion begins at about 21:30.

…it’s not just Goldberg, French, and the gang. For far too long much of the D.C.-centric conservative establishment, the so-called “conservative media”, and the leadership of the Republican Party have (with few exceptions) seemed to be suffering from a testosterone deficiency. They have frequently served as handmaids to the cause of progressivism. They’re afraid of feminists. Afraid of cultural bullies. Afraid of their own shadows. Roy Moore may be many things but, he is not afraid.

Judge Moore is despised not only by Leftists, scared conservatives, and the corrupt establishment. Some Christians on the Right (what currently passes for the Right) see him as the wrong kind of Christian. They have confused the cultural appetites and prevailing moral ethic of their upscale suburban bedroom communities and their hipster-y urban neighborhoods with the patriarchal Christianity of the Bible. I don’t know what Judge Moore did 40 years ago and neither do they. But they will break the 8th Commandment and bear false witness against their brother in order to signal their own virtue to the mob.

…We could be seeing that, as David Limbaugh argues, “the Trump movement transcends Trump”. I hope so. If the future of Trumpism is patriarchal Christianity combined with constitutional conservatism, there just might be a chance to save America.

… I would have preferred to see Mo Brooks in the Senate. But for the sake of Western Civilization and American masculinity, I hope Judge Moore crushes it on Tuesday. Will it happen? Well, like Dr. King, a man can dream.

Regardless of what our politics are, strong men who aren’t afraid and who fight – especially in a good cause – are appealing to us and always will be.

Can you have real religious freedom (and other freedoms) without a predominant Christian influence?

Why? They are always an echo of the One who will return with a sword to take His children home – and administer the perfect justice that we only sometimes want but always need.



* As previously noted: “For example, we might be surprised to hear that world history, until re-oriented by Christian conviction, actually revealed a general lack of concern regarding children, women, and the practice of slavery.”

** The responses to the post on CLF really had nothing to do with the part of the article I quote in this piece. In general, persons had other things to complain about (some reasonable complaints to be sure) or simplistically boiled it down to the idea “that women have always been using their feminine power to destroy innocent men” which was, to say the least, a gross oversimplification.

I think a key point here is that nowadays society in general (including men) tends to want to see women as innocent victims and tends to underestimate their own willing participation in many a situation – and their corresponding willingness to stretch the truth when it suits them. But both men and women are sinners and liable to all manner of temptation.

Individuals from both sexes can, of course, impress us with their character and ability to resist the pleasures of the flesh, the desire for revenge, and the cultural currents (and mob justices!) of their times. And certainly, these are the kinds of people we want in our corner to testify for us and to help us when he need arises.

Image from:


Posted by on December 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

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