Monthly Archives: October 2012

The coming vindication of Martin Luther – summary and conclusion (part V of V)

Saint Martin Luther?

Preface (from earlier today), Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I

Note: As noted in the preface to this series, I will be doing these posts every other day in opposite order, starting with part V, and working back to part I (please note that the links in this post to parts I-IV will only work when all parts have been posted).

Ideally, the Church should not only be a vehicle for faith but an object of faith, as Richard John Neuhaus once put it (from here).   This is easy for children of course (see 1 below).  In other words, we should be able to have confidence in the Church and what it teaches at all times.  History, however, has shown us that what ought to be is not always what is (see 2 and 3 below)  The Lutheran Reformation is all at once an event to be celebrated and a tragic necessity (see 4 below)

Again, we begin at the end.

In part IV we saw how three persons – or perhaps just one – with the truth can and must stand up against all others.  Putting aside the matter of whether or not Martin Luther was correct in his teaching of confession and absolution (see 5 below, as well as 6 and 7 below), the Eastern Orthodox historian and theologian Olivier Clement does seem to be surprisingly close to Luther regarding the matter of how authority should work in the church (i.e. the “consensus principle of church authority” noted in part III).   While Luther’s colleague Melanchton wrote in the Tractate (a part of the Lutheran confessional documents) that even if the pope was pope by divine rite (vs. Romans 13-style human rite) he would still need to be opposed if he contradicted the doctrine of justification (see 8 and 9 below), Luther always seemed far less likely to use these kinds of “even-if-we-concede” kinds of arguments.  That said, had Luther had a chance to be exposed to reasoning like Olivier Clement’s in his book “You are Peter”, I think he may have recognized a reasonable churchman that he could potentially do some business with (assuming Clement, evaluating Luther’s view of confession and absolution, was of the same mind towards Luther)!

In Part III, we learned how early on, Luther acknowledged as authoritative the decisions clearly established by both pope and council in the canons of the church – while also countering those who in their ignorance of canon law would uphold the pope even when he contradicted Scripture.  He used the argument of the canon lawyer Panormitanu (Nikolaus de Tudeschis, d. 1445), stating that the judgment of an individual Christian in matters of faith, when based on Scripture, takes precedence over all other church authorities (again, see 8 and 9 below, and also 4 below)

Luther statue at Concordia Saint Paul (MN), where I work

In Part II, we saw that Luther’s internal struggle with confession was very much related to papal authority.  In the 15th century “Gerson had argued that it was not a mortal sin to disobey the laws of the church unless the disobedience was deliberate.  When Luther applied this argument to the practice of confession, it meant that he and other Christians were not under pressure to confess every sin” (Hendrix).   Luther contended that the priests were badly mistaken if they thought they absolved only those Christians whose genuine contrition could be proved.  On the contrary, faith in Christ through the word of the priest brings forgiveness to whoever trusts in that word (again see 5 below, as well as 6 and 7 below).

In part I we learned that “few have questioned… that Luther recognized the necessity of a visible human hierarchy, established by divine right, to guarantee the stability and permanence of the church.” (Hendrix, p. 13)  Also, Luther “said that he came to his struggle with the pope quite innocently”, noting that twenty years before he realized that the papacy was the Antichrist he never would have entertained such a notion (p. 6)  As he said: “Although much of what they said seemed absurd to me and completely alien to Christ, yet for more than a decade I curbed my thoughts with the advice of Solomon: ‘Do not rely on your own insight’ [Prov. 3:5].” (p. 3)

Although I cannot locate a specific quotation, at one point I had heard that Pope Benedict encouraged his fellow Roman Catholics to read the early Luther, when Luther was still genuinely catholic (update: Thanks James Swan!)  The problem with this, of course, is that the core theological convictions of the “early Luther” were part and parcel of his later protest.  One cannot readily separate Luther the responsible RC theologian from Luther the Church reformer, for the theology drove the reform.

Now of course, I do not want to discourage such developments, but speaking honestly, it is very difficult for me to understand how Roman Catholic theologians who are familiar with Luther think that his early pre-Reformation works will end up helping their cause!  It seems to me that the crises of indulgences became particularly clear for Luther precisely because of the theologian he had become, and he was absolutely determined to “refute the opinions of the ‘new’ scholastic doctors concerning the efficacy of indulgences” (Hendrix, p. 35)  And from this starting point, it was only a matter of time before Luther was able to identify and articulate ever more clearly how the related issues of sacramental penance  and absolution (see 10, 11 and 12 below) had been wrongly taught by the Roman hierarchy (as he found that the problem went deep, i.e. Aristotle vs. Bible – see 13 and 14 below [also see this post dispelling myths about the Lutheran view of “Sola Scriptura”]).  One link in the chain led to another which led to another – until Luther was able to see clearly the very heart of the matter: that is, the essence of the Gospel itself.   The controversy regarding indulgences had brought him there.

It may seem as if I am eager to focus on the negative – the things that we do not hold in common (by the way, Lutherans are very different from the Reformed to! – see 15).  May it never be!  Rather, I contend that, in general, our orientation should be to furiously emphasize our commonalities and to furiously emphasize our honest differences, because the truth not spoken – or rarely spoken – in love is not the fullness of love at all.  Even some in the unbelieving world know as much!  Do you, like me, think of the pagans’ words recorded by Tertullian: “See how they love one another!”?  I say yes!   Let us aim to love one another in truth as we patiently work through the tragic reality that there must be differences among us – to reveal who has God’s approval!

I close with words from Pope Benedict, speaking of Luther’s “Christ-centered spirituality”:  “’This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man,’ explains Pope Benedict. According to Luther, Christ is the interpretative center of the Bible, notes Benedict, which presupposes ‘that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.’” (from here ; note also the high praise Luther has received from other Roman Catholics – see 16 below)

Amen to that.  I hope you will join me for parts I-IV.


Previous posts dealing with the topic of the Lutheran Reformation vis-a-vis Rome:

  1. Re: Reformation Day: kids don’t celebrate divorce
  2. Unchildlike Reformation Eve
  3. A child of the Reformation
  4. Reformation history: what would you have done?
  5. Forgiveness free and true: the crux of the Reformation, the essence of the Christian life
  6. Joan of Arc faith vs. infant faith (part 1 of 2)
  7. Joan of Arc faith vs. infant faith (part 2 of 2)
  8. Babies in Church (part VIII): judge your mother, o child (the tragic necessity of the Reformation)
  9. Round 3 with RC apologist Dave Armstrong: A few good Pharisees
  10. The Roman penitential system and the emergence of Reformation doctrine (part I of II)
  11. The Roman penitential system and the emergence of Reformation doctrine (part II of I
  12. The Roman penitential system and the emergence of Reformation doctrine – extra 1
  13. Knowledge first and foremost: baby King David vs. adult St. Thomas
  14. Update on my humble contributions to honest ecumenical dialogue
  15. RC convert Jason Stellman’s perception of Lutheranism
  16. Martin Luther, Roman Catholic prophet

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Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


The coming vindication of Martin Luther – preface

Part V, Part IV, Part III, Part II, Part I

The serious Lutheran is confident that Martin Luther and those who follow in his train will, for the most part, be vindicated by God on the last day.

But will he be vindicated by the Church?  I think it is indeed likely that in the future more reflective persons who claim Christ will also embrace Martin Luther’s core biblical insights, and in this short series I am going to make that argument as best I can, based on what I take to be the key facts of how Luther’s conflict with Rome played out in history.  All of this has to do with truth increasingly coming to light.

This series will consist of five parts, posted in reverse order (one every other day hopefully starting on Reformation day, later today).  Part V will provide a summary of the case, as well as a collection of links which make further arguments regarding the tragic necessity of the Lutheran Reformation.   In part IV, I will draw parallels with other great heroes of the faith who stood against error encroaching in the Church: Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor.  In part III, I will show how Luther, against his will, was eventually left with nothing but the Scriptures to cling to.  In part II, I will talk about the earliest things in his life that appear to have laid the groundwork for the break with Rome.  Finally, in part I, I will point out that Luther was a “loyal son of the Pope” – up until the point where he could no longer see a way to be so.

A few points:

Again, I will post part V, the conclusion, first.  I will then work back to part I.

Second, the key sources that I use in my argument will be the Lutheran historian Scott Hendrix’s “Luther and the Papacy” (Heiko Oberman: “a vivid and comprehensive historical account…. a sensitive and forceful book”), as well as Eastern Orthodox historian Olivier Clement’s “You Are Peter: An Orthodox Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy” (perhaps to his horror, I confess).

Third, this series is not primarily directed to Roman Catholics – or even cheerleading Lutherans – but  to all of Christendom.  It is fascinating that even many Lutheran and Reformed theologians think that on the doctrine of justification by faith they have no differences, but this is hardly the case (see here  and here).  This author contends that these differences exist not so much because Luther is hard to understand, but rather because justification as envisioned by Luther cannot be understood apart from its practical application, particularly in acts of confession and absolution – i.e. attempting to “freeze”  it in tidy dogmatic formulas, while sometimes helpful, can also give a wrong impression.

I hope you will join me to explore some of the historical circumstances surrounding Luther’s interactions with the Roman Catholic magisterium in the days leading up to his excommunication.   I think that Luther is a figure that deserves a second look – and more, if necessary.  As Hendrix notes, Luther was motivated to advocate for the people’s right to hear the Word of God – and he always contended that the papacy, along with all the pastors in the Church, should “nurture the people by communicating the word of God to them” – (xi, xii).

Yesterday’s post: Unchildlike Reformation Eve

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Second image from


Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


Unchildlike Reformation Eve

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I [God] will not forget you.–Isaiah 49:15

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.–Psalm 131:2

…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.–Mark 10

“…in Mirror of a Christian Man[, on the ‘eve of the Reformation’,] a German priest named Dietrich Kolde lamented: ‘There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy.  The first troubles my spirit, because I have to die.  The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when.  The third troubles me above all.  I do not know where I will go.’”*

It would appear that Kolde would identify strongly with the first three stanzas of Thomas of Ce­la­no’s haunting 13th Cen­tu­ry hymn “Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning” (bold are mine for emphasis)

Day of wrath, O day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heaven and earth in ashes burning.
Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth
When from Heav’n the Judge descendeth
On Whose sentence all dependeth!

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth.
Death is struck and nature quaking;
All creation is awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.

Lo, the book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded;
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge His seat attaineth
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Law.  Judgment.  What we must do but have not.

Lutherans would contend that Martin Luther’s teachings simply emphasized the second half of this hymn, and cut through the popular theology of the day that was actually contradicting it.  In short, Luther made it possible for many in the church to have confidence once again in God’s mercy – and not their own deeds, empowered by the substance of “infused grace”:

What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding
When the just are mercy needing?
King of majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us.

Think, good Jesus, my salvation
Caused Thy wondrous incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation!
Faint and weary Thou hast sought me,
On the cross of suffering bought me;
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?

Righteous Judge, for sin’s pollution
Grant Thy gift of absolution
Ere that day of retribution!
Guilty, now I pour my moaning,
All my shame with anguish owning:
Spare, O God, Thy suppliant groaning!

From that sinful woman shriven,
From the dying thief forgiven,
Thou to me a hope hast given.
Worthless are my prayers and sighing;
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying.

With Thy favored sheep, oh, place me!
Nor among the goats abase me,
But to Thy right hand upraise me.
While the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me, with Thy saints surrounded.

Low I kneel with heart submission,
See, like ashes, my contrition;
Help me in my last condition!
Day of sorrow, day of weeping,
When, in dust no longer sleeping,
Man awakes in Thy dread keeping!

Gospel.  Absolution.  What God does for real sinners who know their sin.

The response to Luther?

Dominican inquisitor of Cologne, Jacob Hochstraten speaking in 1526, sums up the “traditional Catholic teaching” on salvation, taking aim at Luther’s concept of “the joyous exchange, in which the holy Christ unites himself to the sinful creature and thus eradicates our sin by making it his own and replacing it in us with his own righteousness”:

“What else do those who boast of such a base spectacle do than make the soul… a prostitute and an adulteress, who knowingly and wittingly connives to deceive her husband [Christ] and, daily committing fornication upon fornication and adultery upon adultery, makes the most chaste of men a pimp?  As if Christ does not take the trouble… to choose…. a pure and honorable lover!  As if Christ requires from her only belief and trust and has no interest in her righteousness and her other virtues!  As if a certain mingling of righteousness with iniquity and of Christ with Belial were possible!”**

Meanwhile, Luther (laying aside Mr. Aristotle): “sinners are ‘attractive’ because they are loved; they are not loved because they are ‘attractive'” (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 [post 95 theses])

So this is not a righteousness that we achieve, but that we receive, for it is a reprieve.

Therefore, its not even that God makes us worthy of His love.  Loving unworthy sinners by declaring us righteous upfront, He begins to make us worthy with His love.

Which means:

Christians are saved for good works, not saved by good works.

The Christian makes the works – the works don’t make the Christian.

The Christian reflects, not effects, their salvation.

The Christian inherits, not merits, eternal life.

The good tree produces good fruit, not vice-versa. (Luke 6:43)

The Christians is good because He belongs to God, not in order to belong to God.

We indeed may indeed be, as the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards said, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  But the greater word for those who fear God is this: We are sinners in the hands of a nursing God.***

And all the children say: “Amen!”

*Denis Janz, Three Reformation Catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran (New York: Mellen, 1982), 127, quoted in Kolb and Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, p. 35

**Kolb and Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, p. 47


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Posted by on October 30, 2012 in Uncategorized


Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing? (part V of V)

Part V

Part I,

Part II,

Part III,

Part IV

Still , let us go on – so that we can see where all of this goes logically.  Let me concede for the sake of argument that this may indeed be true – that God does share His life-giving Word with us via the “language” – the “emotional language” of music.  The point is simply this – we can’t have certainty about any of this!  We are back with Luther and the “monster of uncertainty”.  After all, we know for a fact that music, being a gift that God gives all of His human creatures, can be used to powerfully affect anyone – Christian or not – emotionally.  How are we to distinguish a simple human experience from music from a distinctly Christian experience, where one can be confident that they are really experiencing a secure relationship with the Lord?  If we feel we are close to God during a powerful worship chorus how do we know that it is really God, and not just the musicians, atmosphere, etc., which is affecting us?  Of course, not everyone will ask these kinds of questions, but there are many people who can’t help but ask these kinds of questions!

And perhaps more persons than you think will ask these questions.  What if your world comes crashing down and then you start asking these kinds of questions?  Am I really connected with God?  Does He really love me?  Does He really forgive me?  Is this really Him that I feel?  In times like that, do we really want our answer to that question to depend on whether or not we get the “feeling” when musicians in Church try to “lead us into the Presence of God”?  Even if we ourselves feel secure in our faith – because perhaps we come into that “worship experience” already seriously grounded in God’s Word – what about our family and friends?  After all, do we not believe that their spiritual growth is predicated on their knowledge – heart knowledge if you prefer – of the Word of God? (incidently, just the other day I heard from a very theologically astute layman that the only theology classes that he had had were the great hymns… I had thought he must have gone to seminary)

Doesn’t the question ultimately come down to what God has promised?  When, where, and how He has given us certainty that He meets and comes to us?  This is the main point, right?  We can have absolute certainty about the Word of God!  For example, when the pastor baptizes, gives the Lord’s Supper, or pronounces absolution, because of the promises that we can find in the Scriptures, we can have certainty that we are “experiencing” God and His presence – even if we don’t really feel like that is the case.  The Gospel is even for people who strongly sense that they don’t – and never will – love Jesus and His people quite like they should.

The Lutheran blogger Scott Diekmann quotes Pastor Jon Sollberger shared his experiences while in a church praise band (from here, at the 31 minute mark).  Its powerful, and is a story I have heard from many others as well:

“This was a couple lifetimes ago, and I was very much involved in the church where I grew up – that church was all about the show and how it made you feel. And so I was a guitarist and I got into that, and we really did the whole thing where we got everyone going via the music, the beat, the feeling, the great progression of the music. That’s how we equated successful worship. And then I took my act out on the road, I traveled all across the country, I did recordings of this so-called Christian contemporary music, I lived it, I performed it, I produced it, I recorded it, and spent a good decade doing this until I actually found out that I was burnt out on it. …It’s a very successful thing outwardly speaking. I mean, all we had to do was show up, plug in, and play, and we had an instant reaction and enthusiasm from all the people, young and old, both, and it was really something. But then you start to – it becomes normal to us, all the music and the generational feeling that it creates – and we started evaluating our worship experience on how the people were reacting to what we played. I mean we could get ‘em up there with some fast paced high energy music, we could get them to be very very mellow and contemplative with some slower, more heartfelt type of music, and when we didn’t get those reactions we didn’t feel that the Holy Spirit was at work because obviously the people weren’t reacting – there was no “success.” After a while you kind of just get burnt out on this sort of thing and that’s when I kind of quit the whole church thing for quite a while and my wife dragged me, kicking and screaming, into a Lutheran church, and I really saw that there was a difference there. I thought it was a cult. I thought it was spare, Spartan. I didn’t think there was any spiritual energy there. I thought it was way too formal, and I could not wait to get back for the next service. And I didn’t know why obviously, but it was because the Gospel had been not only preached, but presented within a context and in such a manner that nothing else got in the way, not my feelings, not how I was doing, not how well dressed the people up front were or anything like that, or how impressive they were to me, but simply the Gospel – that I was a sinner who had been saved by the grace and merit of Jesus only.”

Diekmann sums this up: “This is a powerful quote, because it contrasts the often un-evangelical emotional roller coaster ride that you’re treated to at many “contemporary” church services with a doctrinally sound proclamation of the Gospel, in which the Word does its work.”

It is instructive to see what the Apostle Peter, who really could have assurance that he had felt the positive effects of God’s presence at the Mount of Transfiguration – a “mountaintop worship experience” if there ever was one – had to say his hearers about the sure and certain experience of hearing God’s very words:

…. we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.   And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…”  (2 Peter 1)

Surety and certainty that lasts a lifetime!

Especially for those who remain unconvinced, there is one other matter I must also bring up: we are all to be concerned not to offend those we consider the weaker brother – for the one who feels constrained, or limited in one area or another (perhaps you think this is me – that in spite of my evident concern that God’s people be healthy and vigorous in their emotions towards Him, my concerns are nevertheless overkill, overly scrupulous, or perhaps too intellectual).  Further, in a healthy marriage, both partners will limit their freedoms out of love for the other.  When one fails to do this, the marriage will inevitably weaken, face strain, and be in danger of breaking apart.   I think that this is where we are : some believe that there is an advantage here in using this kind of music that must trump the love and public harmony of the church.

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Posted by on October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized



Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing? (part IV of V)

Part IV

Part I,

Part II,

Part III

Again, there are some who are not even willing to consider that perhaps some contemporary Christian music really is appropriate.  The argument here is simply that those who consider particular songs overly emotional are often wrong about this – simply because they are not comfortable expressing their emotions in that way when they should be.  Yes, they may be the bride of our husband, Christ, who woos His people, but even the idea of singing “Jesus is our husband love ballads” (note: not my boyfriend songs, or ditties) is anathema to them.  God is to be loved – but simply not in a way that is too personal, emotional or “passionate”.

Now, let us take things one step further and ask the inevitable question, and this is where things get more challenging for the proponent of much contemporary Christian music.  If the above is true, might the music itself be able to carry God’s message to us – communicate it to us? (some more liturgical folks actually claim this for Bach, for example – they say that the music itself “preaches the Gospel”!).  Might there be music that, coming from Christians, is actually “Christian” music – even without the words?   (perhaps then, even a non-Christian could pick up and play this music which is distinctively Christian?).  Not long ago, I had the pleasure of teaching an African American woman who came from a charismatic background, and in spite of her clear biblical knowledge, she once told our class that the best worship experiences she had had – those times when she felt the closest to God – were ones that were “wordless” – when only the music was playing. 

Given that we will consider the times we feel closest to God as the source of our strength and security, the practical effect of this view would be that the spoken word (and given the song, this spoken word will be more or less – perhaps much less – in conformity with the Word of God) that the music normally would accompany takes a back seat as the music itself that supposedly “preaches” – comforting, nurturing, encouraging – takes center stage.

Now, all of us might get a bit nervous here when we think about this.  And yet, given what we have talked about above, does not all of this make good sense?  After all, in our lives, so much communication that occurs is non-verbal.  Do we limit the idea of what the Word means – do we take this passage from John too literally?  If we insist only that literal words can communicate God’s message to us – that only they are the Word of God – are we perhaps limiting God’s power and what He desires to do?

So what does this mean?  What if this is true about music being just another way that God shares communicates with us – shares His “Word” with us?  Well here is a preview of where I am going: the problem with this is the “What if?” question itself.  As theologians – especially pastors – we do not operate in this realm, nor should we want to.

Final part coming tomorrow

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Posted by on October 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing? (part III of V)

Part III

Part I,

Part II

First, a reminder: At this point in the series, I am trying to put forth the most compelling argument that I can think of for the use of emotionally powerful music in worship, which is most often associated with “contemporary Christian music” (kind of a “best construction +” kind of thing).

I said before that we did not need power dressing, preaching, or music.  I said that we don’t need to “add power” to these things because they are already plenty interesting as they are – something little children get but adults forget.  But now: what if all the things that happen when a simple black Gospel choir sings, for example, actually has nothing to do with adding power, but is simply about receiving all that God has to give us and would have us use?

All of this is a theological argument of course.  We know that in the beginning was the Word – the Logos – and yet, this is not simply synonymous with rationality, logic, and the life of the mind, but contains so much more.

Let me explain, starting with more simple things.  First of all, I think we can all agree that the real thing that has the power to transform human hearts is the Word of God.  That said, when God gives us the word for us to speak, He gives us not only the message but also the power to say it rightly (i.e. “gentleness and respect”, the “truth spoken in love”, etc – in other words, with the corresponding attitudes and emotions that properly go with these words).

In other words, God means to fill and move us by His Spirit to do this.  And this of course means that this is not about “adding” anything on our own – like “our passion” for example – but simply receiving all the passion that He means to create in us when we not only hear words from Him but speak words to Him and words of Him to others.   This means that we can “quench” the Spirit’s activity here via our sin – which means that in our sanctification we fail to grasp hold of all God means for us to have.

Now that this has been established, let us add music to the mix.  Here, something similar would occur: God provides some persons – musicians – to accompany His words that are spoken, and the music – like the speaker’s emotions – should be fitting and appropriate to those words.  We can be sure that such was the case when Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon break out into song in the Gospel of Luke (the first musical!), for example.

This statement would seem to be uncontroversial on the face of it, but we can all see where this is going: now we further propose that persons rejecting much (not all) of the more “contemporary” Christian music are rejecting that which God really does mean to give them for their proper use.  In other words, while they are rejecting the music because they consider it too emotional and affective, the reality is that here to, the Spirit is being quenched.  They do not want to consider that God’s words might be “properly enhanced” by emotional music that goes with what, in fact are, very emotional words, and should be recognized as such.

In other words, the Christian says “what do we have that we have not received” while simultaneously recognizing that we do not receive much of what we should due to our sin.  We not only do not ask for things, as James says we should, but we even reject gifts from God he gives to us apart from our asking!

Part IV coming on Sunday

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Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Uncategorized


Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing? (part II of V)

Part II

Part I is here.

Before I jump into my main argument, there are some preliminary issues that I think should be addressed.

Recently, Issues ETC host Pastor Todd Wilken, in discussing the practices of megachurches, said that those who tell people that they are experiencing God in those places – as opposed to experiencing the results of human efforts and manipulation – are charlatans, and that what they are saying here is evil (10/5/12, listener email and comment line)

I think these words are too strong.  After all, more traditional folks would likely not say this regarding those who think that we should use the best art possible in our stained glass windows, sing hymns set to the songs of the best secular composers, preach messages utilizing the best rhetorical techniques, and think that some measure of pageantry and smells and bells are wholly appropriate for worshipping and revering the Lord.  I know that one can argue that those who do these things want to glorify God first and foremost, but does such a person also not think that God will “move” others by using the works and efforts of these human creators?  Do we not experience God and the eternal life that is in His Son through the actions and activities of others?

I will admit that it seems that what happens in the megachurch is more crass, and given over to every excess (and issues involving money can be more clearly linked as well). Nevertheless, how would we, for instance,  somewhat objectively distinguish the efforts to “move” persons that happens in a megachurch vs. a cathedral?  Do we deny that there is any effort on the part of those constructing the cathedral that the “cathedral experience” is something they have in mind at all?  In any case, the argument that I will put forth here does not deal with the megachurch practices per se, but rather, the more “emotional” music of the “folk” variety.

In other words, it seems to me that there is indeed some difference between a black Gospel choir or Gospel songs of the Appalachian bluegrass variety, for instance  – where persons are singing their hearts out to God in a very emotional way – and the megachurch praise band where proper ambiance (perhaps smoke machines and lighting, excessive amplification, a focus on the singers and the excessive “jumbo-troning” that often accompanies this…) and well-played, highly repetitive music all come into the mix (knowing that hymns sung by large traditional congregations can be very moving, I don’t bring up congregation size here).

Why do I go this route?  Well, where the worship of one seems more like the way Paul describes the simple and inner beauty of a godly woman, for example, the other certainly seems more adorned (complex), or, if you are a high culture afficianado, contrived (bread and circuses come to mind).  Nevetheless – and this is an extremely important neverthess – the roots of most all the music played in the megachurch are largely from more Baptist and charismatic (Pentecostal) contexts.  The real argument here, I suggest, is over what kind of music is appropriate and how God would use music.  After all, not every large congregation that utilizes rather emotional contemporary Christian music (surprisingly, many large Roman Catholic parishes do this – I’ve been to one that did so quite impressively) is given to the excesses found in some of the larger megachurches.

So, this is all preliminary to my argument, which will I will now begin.

Part III coming tomorrow

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Posted by on October 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing? (part I of V)

Part I

Also see this post, as this series leaps off from this foundation.

As I was recently preparing for a class, I was reading through portions of the Zondervan Handbook of the Bible (1999 – 3rd ed.).  Commenting on Elijah’s simple dress noted in 2 Kings 1:8, it notes “The prophet’s clothing was rough and basic.  He had no need of “power dressing” to impress his audience.  The message was sufficient” (p. 293)

I had not heard that term before, but I like the picture this non-Lutheran handbook painted there.

And this gets me thinking:  likewise with preaching or the music we play!  With preaching, why should we not, like Paul, fast from eloquence, rhetoric and the felt need to plead, to convince, to impress (PowerPoint and video clips?  Really?)?  With music, why would we not let the words of our simple poetry (which of course makes reading and learning the words of the hymns easier) call the shots – and shun all attempts to produce “the feeling” through just the right musicians, choice of songs, lighting, and of course, the repetition of praise choruses, etc.?

In other words, it is like Gideon’s army being cut to 300 men, lest we forget “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech 4:6)!

We should never think of the proclamation of God’s Word – or prayer to God – in terms of a  “performance” that will be dramatic enough to impact, to move, or to overwhelm the “audience” – whether by us, the Spirit, or both of us.  Whether “new measures” (a la Charles Finney of the 19th century up to today) or old (did you know that the Lutheran orthodox theologians – the non-pietists! – used to argue for “moving” opera music in church?), we shall not be “moved” by these!

Does this mean we don’t “perform” at all?  Well, it all comes down to what we mean by perform.  We should only do this in the sense of simply executing that which we have been given to do – corum Deo (before, in the presence of, God).

It seems to me that really young children just enjoy wearing simple clothes (OK, this is true for boys, of which I have five… and granted, dinosaurs on the clothes are appreciated), listening to simple stories (Bible stories and such, especially about that Jesus guy), and singing simple songs (yes, they do like hymns).  We don’t need to “add power” to these things – these things are already plenty interesting as they are, right?

But alas, yet again, this is something kids get but adults forget.  What we see all around us in the Church is evidence of this fact.



Yes, let me nevertheless play devil’s advocate… for the sake of argument, try to present things from a different perspective.  Not only this, let me try to present what I see to be the best alternative argument in the strongest and most compelling way possible.

This means that you will need to read this post to the very end, because I’m going to sound like a serious contemporary Christian music advocate for a while.  Hang in there.

Part II coming tomorrow

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Posted by on October 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


What is truth? Let me tell you.

Today, I was interviewed at chapel on campus here (Concordia St. Paul) by chaplain Richard Carter.  Here is a rough outline of how that went:

How much better to get wisdom than gold!
    To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. — Proverbs 16:16

Well, first of all, you work in the library Nathan – what got you on that particular career path?

Libraries have always fascinated and interested me.  All that knowledge in one place!  Perhaps they seemed a bit more impressive and important In the days before the internet, when in order to get wide distribution you needed a publisher.  To this day though, if you want to simply check out a known item – or if you are just starting to get serious about exploring or researching a topic – libraries are usually the best place to go (save having your own personal expert to consult!)  In any case, I’ve always been interested in all kinds of subjects and the “organization of knowledge”, so libraries were a natural fit for me.  It did take me a while to realize that the gifts God had given me went perfectly with libraries, which I can’t tout enough.

Earlier this year, I asked you, as a person who is a librarian and a Christian, to talk about anything you wanted to to the pre-sem students, and you decided to talk about “faith seeking truth”… Why did you choose that topic?

 It is such a fascinating topic.  A few weeks ago, I was reading something about the upcoming election, and a commentator said something totally simple but really profound.  He said: we want our politicians to be honest but we don’t want to know the truth.   I think that is very right, but it’s certaintly paradoxical. The topic has always fascinated me – when I was younger, I fashioned myself a bit of a fearless truth seeker.  I was convinced that the Christian faith my parents passed on to me was true, and there would be answers and evidence for every question I might think to ask about my faith.  I still believe that is true, although I think those answers are not always as simple as I might like.

Talk a bit about the role you see truth playing in the Christian life

These things go hand and hand and are inseparable.  A dictionary definition of truth is something like “being in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false”.  And here, it makes sense that we would immediately connect this definition with persons who are “true”, or honest, genuine, and reliable.  Of course, Jesus Himself calls Himself the way, the truth and the life.  When we are born into this sinful world, we are rescued by this Truth and nurtured with the truth, and are called to be the people of truth.  We never stop needing to hear the truth from the Truth (capitol T), and learning to understand the truth more and more.  Also, our seeking the truth does not end with seeking God Himself or his own words to us.  As the 2nd century church father Justin Martyr said, “All truth is God’s truth”.

Say a bit more about that.

Well, Jesus told us to love God with all our heart soul, strength and mind.  And Paul said: “… brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…’ We see in the Old Testament how characters like Moses, Solomon, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego  are commended for their knowledge of wisdom of the world and its literature – what we might call secular knowledge.  One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in the New Testament book of Acts when the governor of Judea says to Paul, after he defends the resurrection: “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” (Festus, in Acts 26:24).  Of course, at that point, Paul gets very concrete about the truth he is speaking of and talks about how the resurrection of Jesus is not some esoteric knowledge but something accessible to the governor: he tells him these things were not “done in a corner” – “these things are true and reasonable.”  The resurrection really happened, and this gentlemen, Festus, can check it out….

You talked in your presentation about reasons why all people seek the truth.  Could you talk about that a bit more?

There were four points I made there.  First, truth is something we just want to know… (why do we care whether the earth goes around the sun or vice-versa – often we are just curious about the cosmos and want to know… ).  Second, truth is valuable in a practical sense….(here, we think about how important it is to have accurate military, financial, or medical information, for example).  Third, it is simply good to seek the truth even if the truth is not always good (persons are constantly trying to organize and define and state what is true – and even ultimately True (with a big T))  Finally, althoughPope John Paul II said “life in fact can never be grounded upon doubt, uncertainty or deceit” the book of Romans says that we suppress it, or hold it down, as well

You made a connection here with evangelism – what was that again?

Sometimes it just doesn’t seem “natural” to being up matters of God and Christ in a conversation.  But when we start to see more and more connections between all the things in the world – realizing that all truth is God’s truth, and that all subjects not only touch one another but the One in whom is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” – I submit that the opportunities to do this will all of a sudden become more prevalent.  Paul saw in the writings of the pagan poets something that was good and valuable, and in studying their writings, his love for the people who valued them no doubt grew.  Later on, he was able to use them as a connection point to Christ.  We don’t have to all be scholars like Paul, but we can explore truths that are important to the persons God has thrown into our contexts.

Any other advice here?

Yes, first, we have nothing to fear from a robust conversation with the world (they, alternatively….). All real truth and knowledge are of Divine origin.  Second, take people’s viewpoints seriously.  There are 3 fantastic questions Christian apologist Greg Koukl talks about that you can keep prominent in your conversations with others at all times: “What do you mean by that?”, “What are your reasons for coming to that conclusion?”, and “Have you considered….[alternative viewpoint]”.  This way you show them you care for them by taking the time to truly understand their views.

Some might say that this approach might not work today.  After all, in recent years many have suggested that there is no truth, or that something might just be true for them….

Well, I think it makes sense to talk about knowledge that is pretty objective (i.e. the world out there that we all share whether we like to or not!) and knowledge that is more subjective (here, our own perspectives and backgrounds come in).  In recent years, many academics have definitely focused a lot on the subjective part of knowledge (“postmodernism”).  Still, again, I think all of us are constantly trying to organize and define and state what is true – whether formally or informally.  The point here is that even persons who want to say that the only thing that is true is that there is no truth things ultimately find themselves saying that we can have enough real knowledge about the cosmos we live in to believe that some ways of living are preferable and more responsible than other ways of living.  They can’t avoid this.

Any closing thoughts?

Spend some time with Martin Luther.  Go to the library and check out lots of stuff by and about him.  The man was a great theologian who loved God and was a genius ahead of his time.  Even today, he stands toe to toe with the best thinkers the world has to offer.

Image from: 

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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


MacGyver, the dog, the bone, the reflection, and the Christian life

My pastor once spoke of “MacGyver” Christianity: Everything you need you already have (see I Corinthians 1 and 3:21-22).

This is the message we need to keep hearing again and again, from our earliest days of faith.

I was reminded of this recently, as read an excerpt from a book by the recently retired Concordia St. Paul (where I work) prof. Thomas Trapp:

“There is a fable about a little dog that found a bone and picked it up with its mouth to take it back home.  While crossing a little bridge, it happened to glance over the edge.  Seeing a bone in the water – the reflection of the one in its own mouth – it tried to snap that one up so as to have two and lost the one it had.  That is how sin works.  To sin is to try and control or to attempt to get what is promised and has been given already.  The motivation to love comes from being reminded of what God was providing already.  Forget the Giver and one has to provide for oneself!  Then everyone else becomes an enemy.  God told Israel that He would help them.  But those who tried to make their own way through life independently would see everything come apart.” (Scripture and Life, 1997, page 20)

Things come apart.  But in Christ, all is held together.  And of course, we don’t find our Lord as the dog found the bone, but He comes to us again and again – even placing Himself into our mouths.  And again – with Him, everything we need, we already have –  in “embryonic form” or otherwise.

Images found at Wikipedia: MacGyver article and


Posted by on October 5, 2012 in Uncategorized