We are Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Why All of Us Need the “Good” Death Penalty

“This passage [Gen. 9:6], therefore, solves the problem that engaged the attention of Plato and all the sages. They come to the conclusion that it is impossible to carry on government without injustice… For if [the emperor] is like other men, it is the height of wrong and injustice for him not to want to be like others but to place himself at the head of others through despotism. —Martin Luther (AE 2:142)

The Boston Marathon bomber Tsarvaev Dzhokhar

The Boston Marathon bomber Tsarvaev Dzhokhar

This past weekend, the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was dealt the death penalty by a Federal court jury.

This jury made up of Bostonians all decided that in this case the death penalty was necessary (see a nice summary by Al Mohler here). By doing this, did these persons violate the law of God?  And if any of the jury were Christians, were they required, according to the commands of Scripture, to show mercy?

Some evidently think so. In a recent post on his Jesus Creed blog here at patheos, Scot McKnight writes:

The reason Christians should oppose the death penalty is because they believe that (1) humans are Eikons of God who, because of the redemptive work of the trinitarian God in the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost, (2) can be restored to union with God and communion with others.

I agree with his points but do not agree this means Christians should oppose the death penalty.

Those like myself who argue for the death penalty insist that it actually does show compassion: for the victims of violent and heinous crimes.* It sends the message that, because of the harm it does to others, certain kinds of behavior are simply intolerable and cannot be allowed to stand.

That said, is it possible that an overuse of the death penalty**, for example, might lead hearts that should otherwise retain compassion into an overly callous state? I certainly would not deny this. And yet, I note with interest that in the West in recent years, the argument has been shifting from when or how the death penalty should be applied to whether it should be applied at all.

And it has in many cases been prominent and respected Christian leaders leading this charge. Arguing that such violence is inherently against the character of God, leaders like Pope Francis have said that “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” (see here)

But what do the Scriptures say? In Genesis 9 we read:

“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

In the N.T. this is re-iterated in the book of Romans, chapter 13:

“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.” (see also John 19:11 and I Peter 2:13-14)

What does this mean? (strangely enough, even we American Chrsitians have a real hard time dealing with Romans 13)

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist: Right office, wrong action.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist: Right office, wrong action.

First, “God himself is at work when man punishes his fellow man for murder by taking his life in retribution. God ‘seeks a reckoning’ from man by the agency of man. God is the one who kills and makes alive (1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Kings 5:7).” The government is ordained by God to do what individual Christians are commanded not to do: wield the sword.***

Second, although God does not desire the death of the wicked, in this temporal realm, the death penalty is a qualified good – while “not the way it is supposed to be” it is “good” in that it counters the effects of the fallen world, also “not the way it is supposed to be”.

Third, it, like natural marriage, points to something greater beyond itself: it is an icon indicating the realities that transcend this earthly life. Natural marriage is a sign of the peace and joy that comes with the church – all believers – being united to Christ. The death penalty serves as an icon not of earthly punishment by death, what the book of Revelation calls the first death, but rather what it calls the “second death” – which is the final judgment and punishment of those who reject Christ and His word. In sum, there is a “final cutoff” and judgement for wickedness.

Of course, talking about hell is becoming less acceptable these days. But we dare not forget that there is indeed a final judgment, executed by God Himself. The thief on the cross experienced a final earthly judgment (“the due reward for our deeds” [Luke 23:41]) – and was in the process saved from the eternal judgment. Undoubtedly, this pleased God! After all, we can never say that God is pleased with the death of the wicked in an unqualified sense – for He does not desire their death – but He especially does not desire the eternal death of the wicked!

The death penalty helps us to take that threat seriously.

And that goes for all of us – the wicked (see Romans 4:5 and surrounding verses). For all of us are implicated in the high treason of our first parents, Adam and Eve. As John Bombaro notes, treason means “cooperating in the usurping… the sovereign’s rule”, or “consciously and purposely acting to aid and abet” his enemies. (p. 129, Making the Case for Christianity, ed. Maas)  Further, “humanity has a specific problem, not just sins – the treacherous things we think, say, and do – but a treacherous disposition, a nature given to rebellion. No one is exempt. In this humanity is unified. It is this nature and the fruit of our nature that leaves us condemned for treason before the great King.” (p. 130, see more here)

And we all know the penalty for high treason.

And here it will do us no good to insist that it really isn’t our fault – but that we were influenced by others and came under their sway. That argument did not work for the Nazi War criminals and it most definitely did not work for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

I have some real sympathies for Christians who feel they must oppose the death penalty. With that said however, are not persons like Pope Francis wrongly binding the consciences of good Christian people in insisting that “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed”? Not only this, but I think the matter here is even more serious. Does support of the death penalty by some Christians not need to be retained? Not in order that man may have His desire for “revenge” quenched – and not even because there is no other way to protect innocent victims in this or that case – but simply in order to point out that the God who is love could not be such without His wrath?

If this message is lost, the entire need for Christ’s death is thrown into question. Why did Christ have to die? The idea that Christ in any sense died because of our sins or for our sins is lost when the utter seriousness of our crimes is lost.****

Further, is not cursing the enemies of the faithful is built into the very fabric of the promise – salvation from sin, death and the devil?  Can there be salvation without corresponding damnation?  Can there be gospel without law?  Can there be deliverance and mercy without justice?  Simply put: can darkness exist with light or must evil and its offspring ultimately be dealt with forever?

Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in Him! [Psalm 2:12]

Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in Him! [Psalm 2:12]

But thanks be to God – for His anger lasts only for a moment, and God’s justice and vengeance – being his “alien work” – always operate for the salvation of His people.

Pastor Holger Sonntag says it well:

“When Christ died, he served others by giving his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). He paid their debt toward God in full; he redeemed them with his holy blood as the spotless Lamb of God (John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:18-19). He absorbed God’s curse over sinful mankind when he hung on the cross, so that man might inherit God’s blessing (Gal. 3:10, 13, see Deut. 27:26; 21:23). He became sin, so that man might become righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). He reconciled the world to God: for Christ’s sake, God does not count man’s sins against him (2 Cor. 5:19). God’s reconciliation in Christ is the unilateral end of God’s war against sinful mankind. It is the end of God’s wrath in Christ stirred up by our sin. Christ is now man’s peace with God (Eph. 2:14); Christ is man’s salvation and righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30).” (The Death Penalty: a Lutheran Position)

And this goes even for the enemies of Him and His people if they will come. As there is still time and the “final cutoff” tarries. As He desires the salvation – and not the death – of every human being…

Again, we have all committed high treason. And we all know what the price for such treachery is. God is perfectly just. And yes, God is perfectly loving. None of us are both. We, being human, can not say “Vengence is mine, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30), and do so perfectly. Only the Lord can, for only His anger – and not the anger of man (nevertheless to be enacted in capital punishment through “official anger” or “just anger”) – is in perfect alignment with what is good, true, and right. Only His anger is perfectly driven by perfect love – that love that aims to restore all to union with Himself and communion with all others.

… if for only a brief moment in this life then for an eternity in the next.

Finally, I close with this from Martin Luther, “describing the restrained and decidedly not self-righteous deliberations of a Christian judge prior to his resolute action”:

When dealing with a wicked person, his thoughts are to be: “Oh, my God, how gladly I would die for this man, if it could be done! *****




* W. B. Reynolds, “The Death Penalty Is not Cruel and Unusual Punishment,” in The Bill of Rights: Original Meaning and Current Understanding, ed. E. W. Hickok, Jr. (Charlottesville, London: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1991), 327-330, esp. 327f.: “[Anger] is a normal, healthy feeling, and one that, among others, makes us human and sets us apart from mere animals. Indeed, if we should ever stop feeling anger (strong, deep, disturbing anger) at senseless, premeditated crimes of violence against individuals or society, we ourselves have then surrendered a measure of our own humanity. For our anger displays a certain, essential level of caring for our fellow human beings. It shows that we are not indifferent to the fate of those who share – or who once did share – life with us.” …Reynolds wishes the anger to be administered, not by individuals, but in an orderly process of justice. (quoted in his Pastor Holger Sonntag’s unpublished paper, The Death Penalty: a Lutheran Position)

** “… at that time, putting to Death was a recipe much in vogue with all trades and professions, and not least of all with Tellson’s [Bank]. Death is Nature’s remedy for all things, and why not Legislation’s? Accordingly, the forger was put to Death; the utterer of a bad note was put to Death; the unlawful opener of a letter was put to Death; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence was put to Death; the holder of a horse at Tellson’s door, who made off with it, was put to Death; the coiner of a bad shilling was put to Death; the sounders of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death. Not that it did the least good in the way of prevention – it might almost have been worth remarking that the fact was exactly reverse – but, it cleared off (as to this world) the trouble of each particular case, and left nothing else connected with it to be looked after.” —–A Tale of Two Cities (Running Press: Philadelphia, PA, 1986), 46. (quoted in Sonntag)

*** Pastor Holger Sonntag,: “God here gives man a share in his own authority over man’s life and thereby over man’s bodily existence as a whole: for if you can take a man’s life then you can take everything that pertains to this life. And this is the establishment of the government of men over men by God, not by minimalist mutual contracts among men emerging out of distrust, war, and enmity, as envisioned by Beccaria and other social contract theorists.”

**** Pastor Holger Sonntag writes: “How would a justice system look like in which retributive (distributive) justice were not the basis of the entire legal system? How could the justice of a given punishment be ascertained? Why does one crime merit a 2-month sentence on probation, why does another merit community service, while another is punished by a life sentence?” and “Reflecting on the purposes of punishment in general, we can say, then, that the chief factor in the death penalty is retribution. This is not to say that, for murder and other offenses, the bible does not know other purposes as well. E.g., it knows of the deterrent power of punishment (general prevention), according to Deut. 13:11 etc. It also knows of the defensive function of punishment, according to Ps. 82:4. It also knows of the “pedagogical” function of punishment by parents, according to Prov. 13:24. It knows of the power of punishment to bring a person (or group of persons) to change their ways (special prevention, “repentance”), according to Lev. 26:14-45. In the case of Israel, the death penalty has the further purpose of rooting evil out of God’s holy people, according to Deut. 21:21 (In the NT age this purpose of punishment is retained as excommunication [by the word, not by the sword], see 1 Cor. 5:13 where Paul quotes from the OT law). All this is true and good; yet the fact remains: as far as God is concerned, the chief factor at least in capital punishment is retribution that lets the capital deed fall back on the doer. What has by and large become a historically outdated and morally questionable byword in the discussion on (capital) punishment turns out to be the primary purpose of punishment according to God’s unchanging word and order.” (Again, quoted in unpublished manuscript, The Death Penalty: a Lutheran Position, Holger Sonntag)

***** Ibid.

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Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Uncategorized


Charles Taylor’s “Social Imaginary” and the Bible’s “Social Illusionary”, circa 2015

Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?

Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?  More on this here.

“Progress.” “The right side of history.” ….and, as obliquely addressed in my previous post, the ubiquity of thinking of reality merely in terms of social construction – with concerns regarding “limits” and “barriers” being put to rest at an ever faster pace.

Oh, the utter certainty and confidence of so many of our contemporaries!  It puts so many of us Christians to shame!

St. Augustine and the churches of the 16th century Reformation talk much about the inborn nature and power of sin – where sin is an evil infection (leprosy was a common image) of our [very] good human nature, created in God’s image. Hence, for example, while marriage and the natural bond of love between parents and children is intrinsically good and desirable (oye), the inborn self-centeredness, selfishness, tainted love, and even incipient racism in even very young children is not (more detail about the nature of sin in this post).  In short, we are not conceived desiring to fear, love and trust in God – and therefore desiring to love our neighbor as ourselves. Rather, there is in fact a passionate hatred of God – that unless checked by the faith-creating and life-giving word of God – will burn within us. We can call this the fire of sin.

But if sin is a fire there is also proud human reason’s stoking of that fire.

Charles Taylor, in his magisterial work A Secular Age, says of what he calls “scientific materialism”:

“…the appeal of scientific materialism is not so much the cogency of its detailed findings as that of the underlying epistemological stance, and that for ethical reasons. It is seen as the stance of maturity, of courage, of manliness, over against childish fears and sentimentality” (p. 365, p. 77 in James K.A. Smith).

(note that epistemology basically means the study of knowledge: how and/or why do we know what we know?)

taylorJames K.A. Smith, an interpreter of Taylor attempting to popularize his work, says the following of Taylor’s epistemological geneology:

“’Descates, Locke, and Hume…carved [experience] into shape by a powerful theory which posited the primacy of the individual, the neutral, the intra-mental as the locus of certainty’…In fact, Taylor points out, undergirding this epistemological theory is actually a moral valuation: ‘There is an ethic here, of independence, self-control, self-responsibility, of disengagement which brings control’. So the theory is value-laden and parades itself as ‘a stance which requires courage, the refusal of the easy comforts of conformity to authority, of the consolations of an enchanted world, of the surrender to the promptings of the senses” (pp. 559, 560) … That is a story, not neutral data, and Taylor has been contesting such self-congratulatory stories all along. (pp 559, 560; in 99, Smith)

Read that above quote one more time.  Note that this is not just a post-Darwin thing. This has been going on for a long time – note the 3rd century debates between Origen and the pagan critic of Christianity Celsus.

I think we can sum things up in the following way: at root, what is deemed immature by the highest of men is not belief in God per se, nor that the world is designed, nor that there is true right and wrong, etc., but rather that God – particularly that nasty and psychologically abusive O.T. God – would dare judge us elite men – we who exercise such scientific, effective, and responsible control over his universe… (yes, and as regards exercising “responsible control” that even goes for the-longing-for-re-enchantment Romantics who want to put the brake on the worrisome reductionistic tendencies they see… but not too much!)

Daniel Dennet: “Hardly anybody today believes in—or would want to believe in—the wrathful, Old Testament Jehovah, for instance. A God who commands our love is a nasty piece of work by today’s perspectives.”

Daniel Dennet: “Hardly anybody today believes in—or would want to believe in—the wrathful, Old Testament Jehovah, for instance. A God who commands our love is a nasty piece of work by today’s perspectives.”

The nerve!

Of course, this is what is the Scriptures would tell us is going on…

“… the prophets who prophesy to you, [fill] you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.” (Jer. 23:16)

“…although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:21, 25)

“God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false…” (II Thes. 2:11)

…but that is not the story that any elite wants to hear! They have to make up something else and so they do (and really believe it with all their heart!):

’growing up’ to ‘face reality’ are [real] stories of courage – the courage to face the fact that the universe is without transcendent meaning, without eternal purpose, without supernatural significance. So the convert to unbelief [from the biblical view] has ‘grown up’ because she can handle the truth that our disenchanted world is a cold, hard place.” (77, Smith)

Ah, the pure motives are saved… and so they are saved…! And so man is justified!  But not so fast. Taylor adds the following, raising the spectre of the Greek philosopher Epicurus:

“’At the same time, there can be something exhilarating in this loss of purpose and teleology, because if nothing matters, and we have the courage to face this, then we have a kind of Epicurean invulnerability. While such a universe might have nothing to offer us by way of comfort, it’s also true that ‘in such a universe, nothing is demanded of us’ (p. 367) Now the loss of purpose is also a liberation: “we decide what goals to pursue.” God is dead; viva la revolution. (in Smith, p. 77, 78)*

This is the “reasonable man” every sophisticated modern westerner thinks they are. And as I noted in a recent post….

“it seems to me that all of this is pointing in a certain direction which is this: when it comes to Reason’s march in the battle of ideas, those ideas that are true will work and those that work will be true. While it may take time to play out in history, the Reasonable persons know that the best will rise to the top – leaving those who refuse to be enlightened and progress in the dustbin of history. For those who have inherited Christianity’s moral capital, they now think they can be most “Christian” by leaving Christianity behind.”

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate "physical pain and mental disturbance" (particularly the fear of the gods and death), resulting in personal happiness.

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate “physical pain and mental disturbance” (particularly the fear of the gods and death), resulting in personal happiness.

Getting more specific about what is going on here in more intellectual terms: their novel view is based purely on what is today called the “coherence theory of truth”, that is the idea that that view is closest to the truth which best takes into account all of the facts. Note the “practical” (pragmatic?) view here: it “works” the best (one can see here how the idea of “useful fiction” can become the one ring to rule them all). The coherence theory of truth certainly sounds like wisdom on the face of it. But here is an important key: as regards this secular worldview of which we are speaking, it is also supremely important that it “work” well as regards how one wants to, or thinks they should live – in fact, as Taylor argues, this is the primary consideration (sex is involved here, but at root is a rebellion against the God who judges*), even though this is almost never recognized or explicitly stated.**

And, this is where the idea of the “correspondence theory of truth” must inevitably come back into the picture: the prevailing “coherent” modern/secular picture or view is only imagined to be “coherent” because of what is suppresses – it does not take into account all of the facts that should (note “should” is a word of morality) be recognized to be important… (for example, see this from Hans Fiene) In other words, “coherence” in this sense really means “what’s true and what is false is in part a function of what our standards of truth and falsity are.” And one might add the following, which certainly need not be conscious: “if we see fit to ignore this or that…so be it.” Nevermind the fact that, in the long run, society as a whole is not going to be able to live the way they do, essentially ignoring what they think is all the “apparent” design – and corresponding purpose – in the natural world. (thanks Mr. Kant, for lulling us all to sleep in thinking that it was OK to think that this purpose in nature could not be considered knowledge but “practical reason” that we could only have strong convictions about…)

In short, the “social imaginary”, as Charles Taylor calls it – the water that even we Christians to some degree swim in, feel, and might come to reflect on (depending on how we raised by our families and churches) – is aptly called the “social illusionary”.***

So consider this a call to repentance – to the church of God (non-church folks are welcome to – Christ’s blood does avail for all).  For our own complicity in the modern social imaginary due to our own lack of confidence in His word as that which is reliable, true, life-altering…which lasts forever.  We need a renewed appreciation for the wisdom of God’s word – and the folly of man.




*“Taylor thinks ‘there is no escaping some version of…. fullness,’ our debates are really about ‘what fullness consists in’ (p. 600). He suggests that what’s really at issue here is the telos of human life, ‘the ends of life’ (p. 602). In other words, the debate about ‘real fullness’ is a debate about how to understand our ‘ethical predicament’: What counts as ‘fulfillment’ (playing on ‘fullness’)?…. It is here that Taylor’s argument seems to take a decidedly ‘apologetic’ turn….[can “closed” takes on the immanent frame really offer satisfying accounts?]….” (pp. 104-105, Smith)

**And now, it is not so much about secular morality as it was envisioned during the early Enlightenment, but rather the authenticity of our moral choices…. In the 1992 Planned Parenhood vs. Casey decision of the Supreme Court these amazing words were uttered: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

***At the very least we can say this: in short, we should all be asking to what extent the sense of morality that we feel convictions about (often based on our personal experiences with others and our evaluations of the shorter or longer term consequences of our actions) drives or at least influences our consideration and evaluation of various kinds of evidence and their significance (correspondence theory of truth considerations) as well as various kinds of worldviews and their significance (coherence theory of truth considerations).

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Posted by on May 12, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Render Unto Caesar”….Our Knowledge?: What “New Knowledge” Requires that Religion Must Be Changed?

“Render unto Caesar…” our knowledge?!

“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them.”

— St. Augustine

“There is in everyone a quest for truth and also a rebellion against its demands, and a doubting of the truth when it is discovered….there are many partial truths.  Jesus is the truth, the whole truth.”

— Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs


Just last week, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made news by talking about how religious views, when it comes to the matter of abortion, need to be changed. Further, laws opposed to people’s religious beliefs would “have to be backed up with resources and political will.” (for more, here is a matter of fact take and here is a more feisty and entertaining take). And as it takes a village to raise the children that actually are “wanted”, I’m guessing she’d be on board with this kind of advocacy as well.

In one of the online classes that I teach, I think a student of mine hinted at the reasons for Mrs. Clinton’s confidence:

“One of the biggest areas of struggle [between faith and politics is that] I see is that many governments are moving forward and developing and growing, examining their rules and regulations and adjusting them to reflect what they know today instead of relying on rules based on information from over 2,000 years ago. Religions and churches have not been as quick to develop and reexamine their stance on social issues that affect everyone. So this “living in two different times” means discord.” (italics mine, quoted with permission)

I’d say Mrs. Clinton and my student are simply reflecting the Zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) that prevails today among the vast majority of our elites. I work as a university librarian, and one of the more interesting things I have come across recently in my profession is the new Information Literacy Framework”, constructed with college and university libraries in mind.  It features six key points, one of which dovetails with our discussion here: “Authority is Constructed and Contextual”.

Is this a helpful way of introducing and discussing authority?

Explained more fully in terms of sources and resources of information, the Framework goes on to say:

“Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.” (bold italics mine)

There is more explanation provided, and I bold and italicize the parts that are most important for the focus of our inquiry:

“Experts understand that authority is a type of influence recognized or exerted within a community. Experts view authority with an attitude of informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought. Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations. An understanding of this concept enables novice learners to critically examine all evidence—be it a short blog post or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding—and to ask relevant questions about origins, context, and suitability for the current information need. Thus, novice learners come to respect the expertise that authority represents while remaining skeptical of the systems that have elevated that authority and the information created by it. Experts know how to seek authoritative voices but also recognize that unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on need. Novice learners may need to rely on basic indicators of authority, such as type of publication or author credentials, where experts recognize schools of thought or discipline-specific paradigms.”

Of course, looking at this more full explanation, there are some things here that Christians can agree with along with these “experts” the Framework speaks of (even as much of this explanation is vague and creates more questions than it answers). For example, of course there are always contextual elements to questions of authority (but more discussion is needed here).  I also really appreciate the point that “unlikely voices can be authoritative, depending on the need”. In addition, I think that the “Framers” of this Framework and all of us could agree that authority is, at least in part, “power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience”, as one definition states.

That said, what is missing here in the Framework, is just that: the important idea that the concept of knowledge – and along with this truth – are basic components to any understanding of authority. As John Somerville has noted, “Even Nietzsche and Foucalt, who sought to reduce the human to power and desire, couldn’t help pressing the truth of their views.” (The Decline of the Secular University [Oxford U. Press, 2006], 37)

And of course, when it comes to these matters of knowledge and truth, Christians have always insisted, on the basis of the Scriptures, not only that “[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” (Rom. 1), but that “all authority is established by God” (see Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-17). Further, this means that we should, as far as we are able to do so, obey and respect human authorities.  Whatever “constructed” might mean, it would clearly seem to undermine this important truth.

That one might continue to believe such a thing in this day and age might seem remarkable to many – I didn’t even qualify, saying “for the Christian, this is true…”! – but it does us well to exercise critical thinking about the advice of this new Information Literacy Framework as well (that even non-believers can track with).

Here are just a few questions to get started:

  • Just what might be involved in the process of “determin[ing] the validity of the information created by different authorities”?
  • And, more importantly, how can we even start to do that if – rightly acknowledging that we all have biases – our “worldviews” and “privilege” inevitably blind all of us (or is it only some of us?)?
  • After all, if this is the case, how, exactly, could the “novice learner[‘s]” seeking out evidence be helpful?
  • Primarily so they can ask “relevant questions” that might undermine unjust power structures? (that is all the Framework seems to allow for)

Again, what is the problem here? As I said above, I submit that it comes down to the question of what knowledge is – and what truth is. The Framework mentions neither of these in this section (“true” and “truth” are not in the whole Framework*), much less gives definitions. Of course, these are questions that have given heady philosophers headaches for thousands of years. That said, can we at least still agree that it does not all come down to power – i.e. that our words are not primarily “power tools” we use to manipulate our environment or others, but are something far more deeply significant?  Further can we agree that not all facts and concepts are hopelessly in dispute – due to their being “impregnated by culturally constricting conceptual schemata” born of rivalry and power?** And can we agree that it is not necessarily true that religious persons necessarily make “uncivil conflict resolution strategies” necessary? even if the idea seems to be growing in popularity?

Or is this now unreasonable?  I steadfastly maintain that there are ways for intelligent persons of good will to discover “common ground” in these areas, even if many valuable resources that might assist here are no longer known to many of us. Unfortunately, the Framework itself does not provide any sort of framework (that is intellectual argument for) for recognizing common ground that might potentially be realized due to assumptions that most all human beings might share. Rightly or wrongly, the careful reader is left with the impression that everything really must come down to using information to exercise power, and importantly – everything comes down to who holds the power.  In sum, “knowledge”, whatever it is, is strictly related to what it does for us – or, more accurately, what we do with it in our “knowledge practices”. As Mr. Francis Bacon insisted “Knowledge is power” – and now, it appears, it is only power (in short, all “knowledge” essentially deals with bodies in motion, and is purely heuristic).***

Ergo (therefore), “what works” is true and what is true is what “works”, and the rightful fury many of those who support the Framework undoubtedly felt – and rightly felt – over Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s desire to remove the following words from the UW-Madison mission statement:

  • “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus….
  • serve and stimulate society…
  • Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” (see here)
Yeats: “The center cannot hold.”  But in Christ…

Yeats: “The center cannot hold.” But in Christ…

…ring hollow. Very hollow. Do you see what I am talking about?

I would submit that persons like Mrs. Clinton, my student, and those who composed the new Information Literacy Framework go back to the drawing board – and try to exercise more critical thinking in the matter.  I am not just trying to be condescending (I know it sounds like this) by saying this but think that there is serious philosophical reflection that needs to occur here.  With all of us being children of the modern scientific and technological mindset – with method and technique being everything – this is the water in which we swim… even as we might subconsciously and/or consciously be looking for ways to “re-enchantment”… trying to escape what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame”!  For instance, I think that very few of us ultimately want to adopt the view of philosophical naturalism (at least insofar as this intellectual foundation convinces us, as I believe it inevitably does, of the need of some kind of “social Darwinism”, right-wing [might – physical, social, financial, or “rational” – makes right] or left-wing [fighting all forms of social privilege and hierarchy makes right]), which can, in truth, be reduced to “believing that we have believed things only so that the beliefs are spread” (as the point of beliefs is only to be useful to survival, the passing on of genes, etc. – for this is the core Truth).  For if we do this, “we have”, as Stephen R.L. Clark says, “already stopped believing” (see here). And with this traditional notions of truth leave the building. In any case, all of these folks have my assurance that I will, thankful for my undeserved educational blessings (“privilege”, indeed), continue to exercise “informed skepticism and an openness to new perspectives, additional voices, and changes in schools of thought” (particularly toward their viewpoints!).

…just like I once did with my Christian faith – which I am thankful to God that I ended up keeping (especially in these days, where Yeat’s “Center [that does not] hold” seems to be accelerating with each passing day), having found nothing to earn my distrust… As I like to say, thank God it is Jesus who is God!

…and before you write me off as unreasonable for saying this, note that, for example, David Hume essentially argued that practically every belief we have about the universe comes from the eyewitness testimony of others and yet excluded, a priori, taking seriously what the Creator purportedly considers proof, through His servants Luke and Paul (see Acts 17, particularly v. 30 and 31). How is that reasonable? How is that not a faith of its own?

In sum, I give thanks to God for this historical knowledge – and am not aware of any “new knowledge” that requires me to change my belief that I am, really and truly, Jesus’ little lamb – and that my Shepherd is Lord of Heaven and Earth. As Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica has put it “What I know is what I have yet to be shown is false”.   


[Note: when I initially posted this article, I had misinterpreted part of the Framework and had implied something about it that was not true. I have fixed that mistake, which does not affect my core argument. I also adjusted a sentence, added a sentence above, and added the 1st footnote below]

*I note that in the “Knowledge Practices” part of the “Frame” about authority, it does says persons “developing their own authoritative voices” should “recognize the responsibilities this entails, including seeking accuracy and reliability.” The question however, is “why”? Is it simply about consequences, i.e. one should do this not to discredit one’s self and those one associates with? Or is it because it is important to be true and to seek truth and the truth? Given the whole context of the Framework, I do not get the impression that the latter option is what is meant. It’s difficult to imagine that “knowledge is constructed” could have a meaning that is compatible with traditional notions of truth when gender, the identity of the unborn, marriage, and parenthood for example are now all commonly seen as “constructions” – that is, “social constructions” historically imposed by an intolerant Western majority.

** Even if it is true that “power operates through knowledge production”, “knowledge production is…historically situated and embedded in power relations” and it’s production “never occurs outside power relations” (Seale) – whatever might be meant here by knowledge – is there not more to what knowledge is… to what it entails?

*** “ establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe…depends wholly on the arts and sciences… For we cannot command nature except by obeying her… Truth, therefore, and utility are here perfectly identical.” – Francis Bacon (might that not help explain the confusion this N.Y. Times editorial pinpoints?) the way, here is my own attempt to introduce persons into this difficult question about the nature of authority. It is a video I produced at Concordia St. Paul for the library here called “How do I decide which sources are good to cite?”



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Posted by on May 4, 2015 in Uncategorized


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.





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


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