Monthly Archives: September 2013

If all theology is Christology, how wide the divide? A reflection on Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy (part I of IV)

Cyril of Alexandria: Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, or both?

Cyril of Alexandria: Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, or both?

Please note: these posts are a bit longer and contain high-octane theological reflection meant to spur on constructive dialogue with Eastern Orthodox Christians.  If you can make it through post I of IV, I think there is a good chance you can make it through all of them.  If you are Lutheran, please note that in these posts – for the sake of making conversation – I am trying to “speak Eastern Orthodox” to some degree while being faithful to Lutheran theology.

Lately in the blogosphere, I have noted some conversations that might be of some real interest to both Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran Christians.  Al KImel, an Eastern Orthodox convert, has just finished a series trying to introduce the importance of Martin Luther to Eastern Orthodox Christians.  On the other hand, in response to calls to commune infants from some Lutherans, other Lutherans have been re-visiting what the 16th c. reformers had to say about the topic (see here).

There are no doubt very real differences.  That said, it still make sense to me that Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox (EO) Christians might try and explore more deeply what they have in common.  From what I understand, most high level Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic dialogue consists not so much in efforts to understand the Scriptures and the early Church Fathers, but rather efforts to harmonize Thomas Aquinas and Gregaory Palamas, as well as the notions of essence/energies and nature/grace.  Any Eastern Orthodox thinkers who are willing to explore a different approach are invited to listen in to what I have to say here (reading this short series I did on the work of John Kleinig might be the best first step).  After all, it seems to me that Rome is quite unwilling to re-consider many of the errors that have set or set them at odds with the rest of Christendom (purgatory, indulgences, works of supererogation, masses for the dead, forced divorce of married clergy, communion only in one kind, etc.)…  Further, from my perspective, it seems that tying the infallibility of the Church to one office presents the greatest of problems.

I’ve tried doing a bit of dialogue already.  I bought my [I know theologically suspect] Orthodox Study Bible way back in 2001, and have been paying some attention to Eastern Christianity ever since.  Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with several EO gentlemen on a well-known EO blog.  It was a very helpful and educational conversation for me, and I was surprised at how many things we seemed to agree on.  Not too long ago, I revisited that conversation and did some reflecting on it, and this short series of posts are a result of that reflection.  Most of the quotations I share below explaining EO perspectives are from the various gentlemen who participated in that conversation, who I am assuming know of what they speak.

When it comes to finding out where the Church is, Lutherans insist that this is done by recognizing where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered.  On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox are more likely to locate the Church in its hierarchical organization (although I have heard Orthodoxy is not an “organization with mystery” but “mystery with organization”) – finding it by locating the Apostolic Ministry specifically as regards its historic “Apostolic Succession”.  It seems to me that the impulse to do just this is fully Christian in many ways – good, right and salutary.  As I have written elsewhere: “ Ideally, the Church should not only be a vehicle for faith but an object of faith, as Richard John Neuhaus once put it”, even if the EO view  simplifies the picture too much (see the two-part series here for more explanation).  In any case, I think so long as our Eastern Orthodox brothers would not insist that one must believe the office of bishop is distinct from that of pastor by divine rite, this impulse, again, is wholly commendable. 

Lutheran theologian David Scaer: "All theology is Christology".

Lutheran theologian David Scaer: “All theology is Christology”.

So what is the core reason I think that we might actually have more in common than we have hitherto supposed?  The answer lies in Christology.  This is something, through Cyril of Alexandria, I have been informed we share.  Especially if “all theology is Christology”, as one of our theologians has said, it seems to me that this demands a closer look..

In addition to concerns about the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin, Lutherans are often critical of the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation, which we see as minimizing the central importance of the sinner’s justification before God – the certainty given in the promise of forgiveness, life and salvation even for those who know themselves to be the enemies of God (see Romans 4:5 and 5:6)!  Using a text from the book of Revelation, we like to point out that the Lamb of God was “slain from the foundation of the world”.  The Eastern Orthodox, on the other hand, want to stress the centrality of the incarnation, and, we aver, take their eyes of the cross of Christ.

At the same time, it does us well to remember that Lutherans were not inattentive to the argument of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who claimed that what was not assumed, was not redeemed”.  In other words, Christ needed to take on a human nature to the fullest degree, otherwise we could not have been saved.  And because the human nature that Christ took on was sinless, in the Formula of Concord it is argued that while our humanity is fallen, strictly speaking, we must say that it is still good – the good creation of God.  Talk about man’s “essence being sin” is loose talk, even if given our abject blindness to man’s current spiritual state it is appropriate hyperbolic speech (as I recently pointed out here, man perpetually underestimates the depth and seriousness of original sin – and his sins to boot.  That a ‘Great Divorce’ on God’s part would actually be justice does not even seem to occur for many modern persons claiming Christ”)  I also note that for the Eastern Orthodox, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ go hand in hand with his incarnation, and if “penal substitution” should not be understood exactly as Anselm understood it, there certainly is language in the early church fathers that speaks of some kind of atonement for sin being accomplished at the cross (not to mention in the Gospels, Epistles, and book of Isaiah!)

Further, as regards the unity that we share in Christology, I am quite certain that both steadfast Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox would balk at the Roman Catholic insistence that we can’t say that human beings are children or sons of God by nature because that would be pantheism.*  In other words, we  both have difficulties with the way Rome wields the categories of “nature” and “grace”, thinking that they separate these ideas in ways that create many theological difficulties.**  (for example, as I pointed out in my previous series, the category “nature” would not be synonymous with “creation” for the reason that talking about things according to “nature” seems to imply an autonomy of the particulars in the cosmos that is not implied with the term “creation” – likewise “grace” cannot simply be equated with either  “supernatural” or “new creation”). 

So, what does this mean?  As I understand the Eastern Orthodox conception of man in his original state, though his goal was to be unable to sin – to reach the likeness of Christ by actualizing his “participation in God’s incorruptibility” – he was at his creation only able not to sin*** but failed in this task.  The background here, according to the Orthodox, is that man only had a “gnomic will” which meant that he was capable of misusing his natural powers (at the same time, this fact does not mean that Adam in his original state would not have been in a “state of grace”), and this gnomic will was only to be a temporary condition.  To say all of this in a slightly different way, mankind never reached their goal of a “stable participation in God” from their original state of an “unstable participation in God”, where they could “misuse their natural will and alienate themselves from grace”.  With the fall, all persons were infected with the curse of physical death, and were “alienated from the Image of God that was the blueprint for their human nature”.  That said, they also insist that man continues to have a free will after the fall – his image or “logoi of creation” remains, as does man’s own “energies or essence”.  And yet, in spite of the fact, some Eastern Orthodox Christians seem simultaneously willing to use language like this: “[since our mind has been darkened, man is now] captive to corruption, darkness (ignorance) and death” and “sin is the normal and inescapable condition [of man]”.

Now all of this language seems to make some real sense to me and be acceptable… but am I reading the words the same way that an Eastern Orthodox Christian might read them – or, ever hopeful,  attributing a Lutheran meaning to these words?  And why do the EO insist that even if Adam and Eve had not sinned the incarnation needed to happen?

There are questions I will be addressing more in future posts in this series.

Part II


* I think I have also heard Lutherans say that we can’t call human beings children of God, but from our tradition, it would be because this is reserved for believers, not fallen man in general.  Interestingly, the Scriptures go so far as to say we are all not just sons of God, but gods ourselves.  But it does not shy away from calling all men sons of God either, as Paul points out to the Athenians in Acts 17:27-29.

**Regarding man’s relationship with God before the fall, I know that St. Athanasius said that we were naturally mortal (not naturally eternal – only God is self-existing!) due to our being brought from nonexistence into existence, but I would ask persons to consider the following: it seems to me that Adam and Eve had “eternal life” at that time even as there was still more of that eternal life to be had – i.e. the goal of not being able to sin – i.e. “becoming like God by grace”, i.e. “incorruptibility”.  It seems clear that this is “human nature” as God intends it and planned it to be according to his Image – being created innocent and being with God Adam was not subject to death!  The implications of this however seem to be that we cannot say physical death is “natural” to man in any sense – unless we want to define life and humanity apart from God!  But is that not what sin is all about – isn’t acting on a definition of this sort the reason we have physical death (little “d”) and spiritual death (big “D”) as well?  In other words, in the beginning, Adam and Eve were attendant on God at their creation, and for them not to be would be “unnatural” – rather, they made themselves unnatural.  Again, [physical] death is not “natural”, or normal – God did not create us for this reason.  This is why, had Adam and Eve constantly looked to the Word, which was the way God intended for events to transpire, i.e. it was to be the “normal or regular course of things” (in other words, it was “natural” in this sense, not in a nature/grace-dichotomy sort of way), they would have not died.

*** Other questions that will eventually arise here: was Christ in the temptation able to sin?  Did He limit His divine powers to make this possible?  Can we insist otherwise?  Can we insist that Satan’s being kept “far from us” is not a contributing factor as to why we will not be able to sin in the next life?

Cyril pic:

Scaer pic:


Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Another reason there no Lutheran Baptists? (or RCs, or EOs, or Evangelicals, Methodists, etc.?) – the place of “free will” (part VI of VI)

What do you have that you did not receive?

What do you have that you did not receive?

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

I started this series with a quote from one of my students.  I will also end the series in the same way (I have permission from both students to use their quotes).  Here I will simply post a student’s statement where he/she puts forth a view of salvation at odds with the biblical witness and what I hope was my gentle correction.  The exchange illustrates many of the topics that we have discussed in this series.


I tend to be a pretty black and white thinker, so to me this is somewhat simple at first glance.  If people here in the West don’t want God’s grace because they think it is enough that they are “good people,” that is our fault.  It is the fault of those spreading the gospel and not making it clear that it takes more than good works to get to heaven.  For those who have been given much and still resisted it, well too bad.  They had the option to choose Him over and over and over, and they chose not to, so it is their loss.  That being said, I think that if at the end if they are on their death bed and ask, with a “sincere heart,” for Jesus to be their savior, He would rescue them from eternity in hell.  I just remember Jesus is love sick for all of us, and if there is a chance that we would choose Him, I don’t feel He would deny that, just like the man on the cross next to Him whom He told he would seen in heaven.

My response:


This is indeed quite logical, and I do very appreciate your highlighting the gracious heart of God!

On the other hand, logic can get us into trouble when it causes us to miss parts of Scripture.  It is tempting to build a theological system so that I can understand how everything works.  The thing is, we could argue this way:  Jesus is good.  Choosing Jesus is a good thing.  Therefore, the person who decides to exercise his free will and choose Jesus made a good choice.  Therefore, they are a good person.  They are saved because they are a good person.

The problem is that the Bible says that Jesus came for sinners – that is “not good persons”.  People who don’t deserve His goodness!  In Ephesians 2:3 it says that before God changed us we were *by nature* children of wrath!  In John 1, 3, and 6 it is crystal clear that persons are spiritually born “from above” and “not by the will of man”.  In Romans 5 it says that God justifies the ungodly – and He does this for the person who “does not work”.  In other words, it is something that He does to them.

Part of the solution of course would be to say that a person decides to follow Jesus continually during their life because Jesus already chose them and gave them faith in Him so they would choose Him.  But why do we not want to say this?  Is it because we want to see something good in us?  Because we don’t want to give Him full credit?  Maybe it is because we want to believe that He will give everyone a chance – even though it says that without Him we are spiritually dead like Lazarus?

The Bible does say He desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  At the same time, we know it doesn’t happen that all are saved.  It’s tempting to want to explain all this logically, but we can’t.   There is a lot that is happening here: the reality of God’s election of saints before the world begins, Satan stealing seeds out of person’s hearts, even people who are Christians resisting His Spirit….

In short, perhaps we can only say this [with confidence]: if we are saved, God gets all the glory.  If we are damned, we can only blame ourselves….”

It is the power of God’s promise that raises us from the dead – who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  And just what is the content of this Promise-message that does such marvelous things?  I think the seventeenth century Lutheran theologian Johannes Quenstedt, commenting on 1 John 3:16, said it particularly well:

This is the love of God; rather than banish men eternally from heaven He removed Himself from heaven, clothed Himself with flesh, became the Creature of a creature, enclosed Himself in the womb of the virgin, was wrapped in rags, laid in hay and housed in a barn.  Nor does His love stop here; but after a life spent in poverty and adversities this love drives Christ to the ground on Olivet, binds Him in chains, delivers Him to jailers, cuts Him with the lash, crowns Him with thorns, fastens Him with nails to the Cross, and gives Him to drink the cup of bitterness. And finally this love compels Him to die, to die for adversaries and enemies (Rom. 5:6).  Continuously and in these sundry ways Christ, who thirsts so greatly for our salvation, declares His love and mercy toward the human race. [i]

This message is no mere proposition, fixed in “dead books”, but is the living voice of God that comes to us – and which we hear in all of its glorious materiality.[ii]  Of this humble mercy which paradoxically brings forth powerful victory, Luther, who always emphasized the importance of the oral proclamation of the Word of God, says:

…when David overcame the great Goliath, there came upon the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6].  Thus this Gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounding forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil.  Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God.  For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith.[iii]


[i] Quoted from the book by Preus, Robert. Doctrine is Life: Essays on Justification and the Lutheran Confessions, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.  p. 44

[ii] Bayer, 48. He also says here: “This voice is not a passing breath that perhaps is the occasion of an inward recollection of something which has supposedly been there and which one can therefore recognize”, and quotes Luther saying: “The gospel signifies nothing else than a sermon or report concerning the grace and mercy of God… it is…an oral sermon and a living Word, a voice that resounds throughout the world and is proclaimed publicly, so that one hears it everywhere.” (WA 12:259, 8-13; cf. 275, 9-12; LW 30:3)

[iii] LW 35: 358, partially[?] quoted in Bayer, 49.

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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


Another reason there no Lutheran Baptists? (or RCs, or EOs, or Evangelicals, Methodists, etc.?) – the place of “free will” (part V of VI)

What salvation looks like

What salvation looks like

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

I asked, in so many words, yesterday:  “does the fact that God causes even fallen persons to will vs. some false beliefs and actions mean that we should make room for the concept of some kind of “preparatory grace” in the way that we speak about God to one another?”

No, it does not.

One reason for this is because we must realize there is a kind of theology that seems to want to talk primarily in terms about man’s virtues and nature apart from Christ – and to build theological systems accordingly.

For example, some Protestants have been able to find a quote from the well-known Roman Catholic apologist James Akin where he seems to be willing to speak about man’s salvation not only apart from faith in Christ, but apart from any belief in a Creator whatsoever:

“It’s also possible for a person to die in God’s friendship even if the person didn’t consciously know God during life. Someone could, through no fault of their own, be unaware of God or not have ever been given sufficient evidence that they concluded God is true, through no fault of their own, and if they otherwise cooperated with his grace, then God won’t hold their ignorance of him against them. So, it’s possible for an atheist to be saved, it’s still through Jesus Christ and through God’s grace, but they can still die not knowing God and still be on their way to heaven as long as they otherwise cooperated with his grace.”

As one commenting on this comment said: “This is justification by works alone, without faith, and contrary to Scripture.”  As Todd Wilken points out, an excellent case can be made that this is 49 year old RC teaching (Wilken asserts that it is, and can anyone blame him?)

But is this not to side with the fall, and to let philosophy trump theology? 

Luther certainly thought so.  Early on, he identified the problem that, I submit, leads to the possibility of Christians saying things like Akin said.  Ronald Frost gives us an idea of what has happened here:

“Luther’s challenge was more profound than many of his peers realized at first. The two systems were at complete odds with each other. In Augustine’s model of the human will, the affective component is primary, so that the love of God is the motivating feature of salvation-God draws the elect to himself apart from any initiative on their part towards God. This was a thoroughly unilateral model of salvation. In the Aristotle/Aquinas model, by contrast, the will is self-moved. That is, the will works most effectively apart from any influence of the affection. In adopting this model, Aquinas assumed that the self-moved will is a necessary feature of salvation which, in turn, led him to adopt a cooperative doctrine of salvation – a doctrine that Luther rejected. This was the “hinge” of Luther’s reformation activism.” Frost, R N. 1997. “Aristotle’s Ethics : The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?.” Trinity Journal 18, no. 2: 223-241. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 23, 2013).  See here as well.*

But now we come back to our question once again.  Can fallen man do anything that is good when “only God is good” as Jesus said?  Again, externally to be sure!  But can some actions by some fallen men perhaps be more “pure” than others?  Are some more righteous because of their particular natures and/or the habits they have developed?  Well – here is the key question that must be asked here: “Why do we want to know this?” For practical reasons?  For reasons related to building our systematic theologies?  More specifically, do we want to take credit for the good that we do so that God will notice us and give us what we deserve – even though, on the other hand, we know that we deserve nothing from Him?!  Why is it not enough to simply say that God, in Christ slain from the foundation of the world, is the source of all goodness and fallen man, lost in Adam’s capitulation to Satan, is the one responsible for all evil?  According to his fallen nature, man will reject all God desires to give (see I Cor. 2), and even if God were to do a perfectly good work in fallen man, man, when made conscious of this fact, would take credit for it – or at the very least, take credit for actively choosing by their own free will to not reject God’s work in them!  It is, after all, our fallen nature to consider ourselves “good persons” who are really not fully in need of a Savior. (I made similar arguments not long ago at the First Thoughts blog, in a post titled “Non-Lutherans Reading Luther: What Makes ‘Good Works’ Good?”)

But the glory must remain Gods.

Therefore, why not, when it comes to the defining matter being able to stand justified before Him, simply confess that all is by grace and say “what do we have that we have not received”?  That He gets all the glory for our regeneration and we get all the blame for our degeneration… (our lack of faith, fear and love of God).  This is what Lutheran theology does.

Here are some final words from Luther on the matter of being, doing, and the human will, from his well-known Galatians commentary:

[The scholastics] want to prescribe a work before the good will, although in philosophy it is necessary for the person to be justified morally before the work. Thus the tree is prior to the fruit, both in essence and in nature. They themselves admit this and teach that in nature being precedes working and that in ethics a good will is required before the work; Only in theology do they reverse this and put a work ahead of right reason…. In theology… “doing” necessarily requires faith itself as a precondition. This is how you must answer all the passages of Scripture about works, in which our opponents stress the words “working” and “doing”: These are theological terms, not natural or moral ones. If they are natural or moral, they are taken according to their usage. But if they are theological, they include right reason and a good will, which is incomprehensible to human reason, blinded as it is at this point; and another reason must come into being, which is the reason of faith. Therefore “doing” is always understood in theology as doing with faith, so that doing with faith is another sphere and a new realm, so to speak, one that is different from moral doing. When we theologians speak about “doing,” therefore, it is necessary that we speak about doing with faith, because in theology we have no right reason and good will except faith.” (AE 26:261-263)

So is “obeying [one’s] conscience” enough?  It depends.  Pope Francis recently said to listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference between good and evil.” (see here)  Obviously, if your conscience is telling you to listen and assent to things that are false that is not good.  However, if in hearing Christian proclamation one finds oneself not only listening to the message of Christ, but believing Him by the power of the Holy Spirit – His words of conviction (of being a sinner in the stead of Adam) and pardon through His work (crushed for our iniquities, risen for our justification) – that is not only a “good thing” relatively speaking, but again, the Good Thing that “sets loose” all the other good things.

In the final post of this series, I will show how I dealt with a particularly good question regarding this topic from one of my students.


*(UPDATED): In his Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: Quill, 1991), Norman F. Cantor discusses at length Etienne Gilson’s attempts to bring Augustine and Aquinas together:

“Throughout his life Gilson agonized over the question of whether or not Thomism represents a break with the thought of St. Augustine. He shilly-shallied back and forth on this issue. Indeed, he said various things about it at different times. Whether Thomism is an intellectual revolution against Augustinianism or a reinterpretation of Augustinian doctrine in a new Aristotelian intellectual ambience and language remains one of the persistent conundrums of medieval studies. It is my view that Thomism was an almost clean break with Augustinianism and that Gilson leans much too far in trying to picture a continuity between these two great medieval intellectual and religious systems. This is still a particularly difficult issue for Catholic scholars to deal with because Rome wants continuity, not rupture, within the development of Catholic theology. Regarding medieval thought as conditioned by conflict between the Augustinians and the Thomists gives legitimacy to intellectual dissent within the Catholic Church today. That is the Roman conviction. Therefore, for all this vanguard liberalism as a Catholic thinker in his day, Gilson in respect as a Romanist-leaning conservative who did not appreciate the full extent of the intellectual upheaveal of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.” p. 332-33.

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Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Uncategorized


Another reason there no Lutheran Baptists? (or RCs, or EOs, or Evangelicals, Methodists, etc.?) – the place of “free will” (part IV of VI)

What the freeing of the will looks like

What the freeing of the will looks like

Part I

Part II

Part III

Let us again examine the issue of the will of the unredeemed person as regards doing good actions.  This of course, typically involves a discussion of the concept of “prevenient grace”.

Some time ago, Pastor Matt Richards had an excellent article on this topic at the confessional Lutheran blog, the Brothers of John the Steadfast.  According to him, prevenient grace “teaches that an unconverted person is incapable of choosing salvation due to being dead in sins, which is until the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel comes to awaken them and enable them to make a choice to accept or reject salvation.”  The key element here is that the will is put into a position where it, regarding a person’s initial conversion to Christ, is able to vote “yes” or “no”.  In other words, man’s natural will is empowered, and having been elevated to a somewhat “neutral” state, is able to embrace Christ in faith.  As he says, this teaching has a wide range of appeal which makes it “dominate conversion theology in North American Evangelicalism”.  He notes its presence in Methodism, Pietism, Puritanism, Arminianism and Roman Catholicism.

Pastor Richards discusses how prevenient grace “tries to protect the doctrine of free will and yet not deny the doctrine of original sin.”  Not only this, but “it avoids the pitfalls and heresy of Pelagianism while also avoiding Calvinism’s doctrine of double predestination.”*  In his article, he briefly describes four problems with prevenient grace and concludes as follows:

“In conclusion, the theology of prevenient grace seems to be very convenient in that it avoids Pelagianism and Double Predestination.  However, its pitfalls of infused righteousness, the location of salvation, how one understands repentance & faith, and the difference between informative words & performative words are certainly worth noting.”

For more detail on these rather technical-sounding definitions,  I recommend reading the entire short article, as Pastor Richards does an excellent job unpacking these concepts in a very helpful and simple way.

Now, all of this said, I note that it is perhaps too easy for Lutherans in particular to dismiss this issue altogether.   What about the unbeliever not choosing his own salvation, but simply choosing good actions.  Everyone knows, for example, that when disasters strike it is not only Christians who find themselves feeling compassion, and led to lend a hand.  Can more be said here?

In his fight vs. Pelagius, we see in Augustine discussion of what philosophers call “first and second order desires”.  First order desires are things that we desire.  Second order desires are desires about other desires: this often means desires deployed to counter other desires (as there is a conflict here – perhaps we recognize that our first order desires are wrong or harmful).  Augustine said that second order desires (like the desire to stop smoking ; or the desire to be chaste [..but not yet!]) could not be attributed to our free will, but to God (evidently, there is some question of whether or not he meant some or all second order desires).  It seems to me that if we decide to actively fight against any wrong desire or do anything good in life – or simply want to do these things – these desires are from God.  And of course, we always keep in mind that when it comes to being made right with God we cannot even desire to want God’s salvation apart from Him.

This would be God actively working in His creation.  Now, sometimes, theologians have talked here about what man might do by nature alone or what man might do by grace, when it is provided for him.  And yet, the idea of “nature” would not necessarily be synonymous with creation here for the reason that talking about things according to “nature”, as above, can imply an autonomy of the particulars in the cosmos that is not implied with the word “creation” (which at a bare minimum always implies the notion of a Creator – and for a Christian a perpetually active Creator – who is a personal being).  It is possible, therefore, to see “Nature” as the creation that fallen man interprets and makes for himself apart from fear, love and trust in the Creator.  (see this series on anthropology for more)  Again, when we say that fallen man thinks about nature this way, we are not saying that he is not free to do what he wants.  Rather we are saying that thinking in this fashion – along with all the other wrong things he does – is precisely what he wants to do!  In other words, to will things in the opposite direction of what God wills – both at the unconscious and conscious level – both as regards his actions and his beliefs.  So if we have impulses, desires, and the motive to will vs these things – that is from God and not from us.  It is evidence that He has overcome at least some resistance in us. 

But does this mean that we should talk about this kind of action on God’s part as being a kind of “preparatory grace” en route to salvation?   That will be the topic of the next post in this series.


*It seems to me that the concept of prevenient grace might also be applied to forms of semi-Pelagianism, which is where fallen man wants to choose God and salvation but is not able to do so unless helped by Him.

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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Uncategorized


The enigma of Pope Francis?

Trying to be chameleon-like?

Change is coming…  while trying to be chameleon-like?

Is Pope Francis 2013 like candidate Barak Obama in 2008?  A Rorscharch test of sorts?  I think that the difference is that while most all social conservatives in the media recognized candidate Obama as a social liberal, socially liberals in the media (that is most of the media) largely seem unable to recognize Pope Francis as a social conservative.  Rather, with some rare exceptions, they are convincing themselves – and trying to convince everyone else – that he desires to gradually eliminate certain moral teachings of the church.*

Now I read the whole America interview, and I could understand why the Pope had been interpreted as he has been.  The comments of a pastor at Paul McCain’s blog sum things up pretty well I think: “Much of the time his public comments leave me wondering whether he is actually naive, as he says, or just very shrewd.”  When I commented there shortly thereafter (not published yet), I asked: “is Francis playing the media or are they playing him or are they, perhaps, both trying to do so?”

Now, after further reflection, I don’t think that he is trying to be a chameleon, but is just being who he is – and, perhaps naively, is simply leaving other’s interpretation of who he is in God’s hands.  As the Catholic apologist James Akin says,

“In his way, he is fighting the stereotypes and narratives that the secular media wants to impose on the Church…. Pope Francis seems determined to fight the stereotypes and media narratives by starving them of oxygen and returning the central focus to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and to the love and mercy of God.”**

"The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow." -- from his America interview

“The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.” — from his America interview

That seems exactly right to me, for that is what any Christian, in his heart of hearts,  want to do. And though none of us can be absolutely sure, we who believe in Christ can be convinced  – for good reasons – that we are dealing with other men and women in whom the Spirit of God dwells.

Now of course, as a serious Lutheran, I have some great difficulties with things that Pope Francis has said.  As I said last week, I think that his letter to the Italian atheist was more unhelpful than not.  Since he is a Roman Catholic I do not think that many of the doctrines he holds to are helpful to Christians, but rather can harm faith.  That said, I think in spite of his inconsistencies, the man has a connection to the living Christ and Triune God.

But I must say that even among the some of the more reputable commentators, it is amazing to see the divide:

The headline of William Saletan’s Slate post originally said that Pope Francis “is a Flaming Liberal”.  Here is one part of his very interesting piece:

At this point, Spadaro brings up the problem of people who are gay or remarried. He asks, “What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases?” Far from ducking the topic, Francis plunges into it. “During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge,” Francis recalls. “By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

Francis’s reference to the catechism seems intended to reassure traditionalists that he’s not overthrowing the church’s teaching against gay sex. But in the next breath, he calls this the church’s “opinion.” You can question the translation, but if Francis had said something more like “truth,” surely the translation would reflect it. If this linguistic shift from judgment to opinion isn’t creeping subjectivism, it’s certainly creeping tolerance.

Again, I am convinced that this is wrong even as I see in the Pope’s words – especially the ones that Saletan quotes here – some phrases that persons of a more liberal moral persuasion would want to cling to.

I think some of the best insight comes from George Weigel, who says:

Those who have found the new pope’s criticism of a “self-referential Church” puzzling, and those who will find something shockingly new in his critical comments, in his recent interview, about a Church reduced “to a nest protecting our mediocrity,” haven’t been paying sufficient attention. Six years ago, when the Catholic bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean met at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida to consider the future, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio, was one of the principal intellectual architects of the bishops’ call to put evangelization at the center of Catholic life, and to put Jesus Christ at the center of evangelization. The Latin American Church, long used to being “kept,” once by legal establishment and then by cultural tradition, had to rediscover missionary zeal by rediscovering the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the Latin American bishops, led by Bergoglio, made in their final report a dramatic proposal that amounted to a stinging challenge to decades, if not centuries, of ecclesiastical complacency:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . .

A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

The 21st-century proclamation of Christ must take place in a deeply wounded and not infrequently hostile world. In another revealing personal note, Francis spoke of his fondness for Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, one of the most striking religious paintings of the 20th century. Chagall’s Jesus is unmistakably Jewish, the traditional blue and white tallis or prayer-shawl replacing the loincloth on the Crucified One. But Chagall’s Christ is also a very contemporary figure, for around the Cross swirl the death-dealing political madnesses and hatreds of the 20th century. And so the pope’s regard for Chagall’s work is of a piece with his description of the Catholic Church of the 21st century as a kind of field hospital on a battlefield strewn with the human wreckage caused by false ideas of the human person and false claims of what makes for happiness.

If you read his interview with America, you know, as Pastor McCain pointed out, that Pope Francis is quite the serious thinker.  That said, it also seems to me that there is a child-like simplicity here – a desire to cut through the noise and present Christ and His grace to all – that many just aren’t getting….

Perhaps Kathryn Jean Lopez says it best:

“Whatever your politics, be careful what you read into this. He’s talking to you. He’s talking to me. He’s reminding himself. The news isn’t that he isn’t “a right-winger,” as he tells us. It’s that he’s a pastor. He’s a priest, not a politician.”



* See “Go home New York Times, You’re Drunk”, –  the N.Y. Times changed its headlines for its piece on the interview no less than three times – going from inflammatory”, to “a more moderate one”, to “a crazy, go-for-broke moonbat insane headline.”

**More from Akin: “In our day, any time a pope says something on these subjects it is easy for the media to paint the Church as a stodgy, outdated institution that is merely anti-abortion, anti-homosexual or anti-contraception.

But, while the Church upholds the Christian vision on each of these topics, they are not its core message. Jesus Christ is — and Pope Francis seems determined to fight the stereotypes and media narratives by starving them of oxygen and returning the central focus to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and to the love and mercy of God.

Once this central message has been seen and appreciated by individuals, so that they are drawn to God and to Christ, the other issues can be discussed in due time….

Pope Francis’ strategy of focusing on the Church’s central message of salvation in Christ, while not devoting the expected amount of attention to “culture war” issues — like abortion, homosexuality and contraception — is a risky one.

It is not an approach that was employed by his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but times and circumstances change, and it is his judgment that a back-to-basics.”

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Posted by on September 22, 2013 in Uncategorized


Another reason there no Lutheran Baptists? (or RCs, or EOs, or Evangelicals, Methodists, etc.?) – the place of “free will” (part III of VI)

This is what the mystery of the one flesh union looks like.

What the mystery of the one flesh union looks like.

Part I

Part II

God is determined to have His way with His bride.  Correspondingly, this means that believers, as they grow in faith and love, will actively pursue Him and His will more and more.  But when it comes to discussing this kind of conscious activity in the believer, we must not get here too quickly, for there is something even more foundational to discuss – namely that God’s performative – not just informative! – word is always working in His people, and not only when we are conscious of making active responses to it (see I Thes. 2:13: “the Word of God… is at work in you believers“).  In other words, His beloved baptized children may indeed find themselves “caught up” in doing that which is good – that is, realizing only after the fact what it is we have been doing because of His grace and power.  It is like Luther says in his introduction to Romans:

This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace.”

When we recognize things proceeding this way in us, it is sometimes a very welcome surprise.  We rejoice that it happens, for it is also true that sometimes we are only aware of the mixed motivations that war within us (the old man vs the new man – see this post for more) as we go about living our lives in Him.

In any case, in order for there to even be a possibility of being “carried away” in this fashion, we must certainly have the One Good thing that can “set loose” all the other goods – in other words, trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Again, as detailed in the previous posts this is something that God works in us wholesale – as our will finds itself under the sway of His love.  Like the happy and cooing baby who cuddles up to his mother’s breast.  Or perhaps even like – brace yourself – the woman caught up in a torrid romance with the lover, it “just happens” (unless it doesn’t – there are times people reject God’s advances, for reasons we cannot fully understand).  Really and truly, the whole idea of “falling” under the sway of love, either as children or adults (“falling in love”) is impossible to avoid. 

To build off that second idea, God is perhaps like the Romantic Hero who is not tamed, but rather tames us…  Naturally, we are not attracted to Him, but actually find, as He points out what is wrong with us, that we want to kill Him.  But as we see Him and hear His words, His Holy Spirit reveals to us that He possesses what we lack and need (John 16:8-11).  And here, the scales fall from our eyes as we see He is indeed the One for us – the One who loves par excellence, treasuring us more – giving us more – than any fellow human being ever could.  Though He moves quickly in the relationship, he has no intention of simply “using us” for His own purposes – this Lover of our soul enjoys us, commits to us fully, and never leaves us “high and dry”.  Here, there is no dichotomy between romance and marriage, for God fully commits.  This means that all of our other earthly desires for this kind of love are simply an echo of this relationship of love God had planned with His people from the very beginning!  Further, in, with, and through the one flesh union that God creates, He is looking to spread His “seed” and create good fruit…  Even the lust and untamed perversity of fallen men is a distorted echo of something that is in reality good and beautiful (for more, see this post).

But wait a minute, we might say… what about the parables of the “treasure in the field” or “counting the cost”?   It is true – on the other side of this banquet of grace, the parables of Jesus also call us to recognize that this love interest is going to cost us everything.  The church cannot fail to see that being the bride of the King means “losing our earthly lives” – relatively speaking, we must see that they are, in a very real sense, “dead to us”.  When He leads us to the treasure in the field, we see that the things on this earth really are – and must continue to be left behind – “buried” in the ground like the treasure was.  After He finds us and brings us into the banquet this is the cost that Jesus demands we recognize and actively participate in.  In his small catechism, Luther said: “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness…” (see more on this here, from the most excellent Lutheran blog Pastoral Meanderings).  This can mean nothing but a radical change – as He exchanges His righteousness for our sins, we also see that our world has been exchanged for His world.

We are in but not of the world – all our earthly loves must now be seen in the context of our relationship with Him.  It is only when faith in Christ is supreme that we can see all our earthly loves and commitments in a new light, loving those around us not with a “worldly” love, but with the beginnings of a proper kind of love – a love that flows from our hearts in which our Savior is residing.

Again, we who trust in Him fall under the sway of His love.  This is what all “decision theology” must admit.  That we even want to believe in Him – put our trust in Him – is evidence that He has been for and not against us, and is fighting with us on the plain with His good gifts and Spirit, as a “A Mighty Fortress” states! 


Part IV coming after the weekend

Image: “Like an apple tree… is my lover”, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1851-1860, accessed at, Fall 2012

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


Another reason there no Lutheran Baptists? (or RCs, or EOs, or Evangelicals, Methodists, etc.?) – the place of “free will” (part II of VI)

What repentance looks like.  See Luke 15:1-10.

What repentance looks like. See Luke 15:4-7, particularly v. 7.

Part I

For St. Augustine, the fall of man took place even before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and destroyed the ability of their wills to fear, love, and trust in God – so that they might continue to freely choose Him.  According to him, persons can have a good free will, given to them by God – meaning a redeemed one that will choose God – or an evil free will, for which they themselves are blameworthy.  Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul says that the free will Augustine speaks of is simply the ability to make “voluntary decisions free from external constraint or coercion”.  It is a “self-activity” in that it is an action caused by the self and not actions caused by external forces, and in this sense is active and not passive.  In other words, the moral behavior of an individual can be said to be free – and hence they are responsible for their actions (note that a person can choose to perform some good actions even apart from faith in God and a desire to choose and love Him – more on this later).

In Augustine, when it comes to man’s initial conversion to God, fallen man is powerless to restore himself to spiritual life.  Man’s will is useless here, because he cannot be restored by a “free determination of his own will”.  He does not want to do this as he is an evil tree and not a good one.  That said, when persons do move from darkness to light no one is brought into the kingdom of God by some kind of violent coercion, protesting as they are dragged in – grace comes and “unbinds” man’s will.  In other words, man is given the gift of faith wholesale in such a way that he finds Christ to be pleasing to Him and voluntarily receives His embrace – and only then embraces Him (here is where  Lutherans make a distinction I believe Augustine did not make – receiving the embrace would be passive faith, which we would associate with justification, and then embracing him in a growing active faith and love we would associate with sanctification).  Man is “swept off his feet” or wooed by God – “taken away” by the good and powerful words of love, life, and light that He speaks.  Here, men are “willing” to be nothing but given to – the greatest examples of this being infants who do not reject any of God’s gifts in spite of their own fallen nature (hence the title of this blog – if this confuses you, please see this post on infant baptism and faith).

What this means is that just as Adam and Eve fall before choosing to eat the fruit, man is given Christ and faith even before consciously choosing Him.  When conscious choices are able to be made, in the case of the adult, the redeemed person continually “chooses Christ” precisely because Christ has chosen Him and dwells with Him.  The faith that chooses Christ already possesses Christ.  Ezekiel 11:19 comes to mind: “I will take from them their heart of stone, and I will give them a heart of flesh”.  In what some have dared to call the greatest Romance Story of all time, God “has his way with us” – as it should be – and defeats the darkness within and without that holds human hearts captive.

For now, let’s briefly look at other questions that might come up when these matters are discussedWhat about God’s working in non-Christians that they might do good in the world?  After all, it is true that even non-Christians might consciously choose to do things that are good – even if it is for all the wrong reasons!  After all, who will not seriously consider choosing what is “good” when doing so seems to make sense to them?  Or when they see the advantages in doing so for their own sake and those they desire to be found with?  For even among thieves there is honor!  Therefore, this kind of activity apart from fear, love and trust in God would not be His “having his way with us” in the fullest sense at all – however good and helpful a person’s external actions – or perhaps even motivations (relatively speaking) – may be.  While God certainly prefers externally good behavior for the sake of His children who benefit by receiving such actions, the person doing such actions, though propelled by God’s work in them to a certain degree (see following posts for more) has ultimately neither begun to understand nor do God’s will.

That said, there is potential for God to really have His way with human beings when it comes to those who not only do good but who are good in, with, and through His Son.  We will look at this more in the next part.

Part III


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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in Uncategorized


Another reason there no Lutheran Baptists? (or RCs, or EOs, or Evangelicals, Methodists, etc.?) – the place of “free will” (part I of VI)

What "coming home" looks like.

What “coming home” looks like.

In a recent series I addressed the issue of why there are no “Lutheran Baptists”, while there are, presumably, “Calvinist Baptists”.  There, I zeroed on the Christology that underlies every non-Lutheran Protestant group.  In this series, we focus on the issue of “free will”, a topic I introduced in a post yesterday.   I also think this might offer some a good explanation of why other Christian groups – sadly – seem to see confessional Lutheranism as absolutely antithetical to their traditions (many have observed that confessional Lutheranism seems to “straddle the middle” in wider traditional Christendom, with its emphasis on both the sacraments and the importance of Biblical preaching, for example).

When serious Lutherans talk about spiritual conversion – individuals being brought from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light – we focus on how it is God who converts – granting us repentance towards God and faith in His Son Jesus Christ through His Word and Sacraments (it this talk about the Sacraments is confusing to you, please see my series about why there are no Lutheran Baptists).  We also talk about the issue of the individual “choosing God” via free will – but only in the context of growing in the grace of God after a person has been converted, regenerated, justified.  In other words, the issue of “free will” –  here defined as the ability of an individual to exercise freedom in matters of faith towards the one true God – is something that can only be sensibly discussed within the context of sanctification.

If that sounds intriguing to you, this series might be for you.  Other posts that I have done on this topic are

here (“That’s how easy it is to receive salvation”),

here (“When did you decide that I was your father?”),

here (“Our conversion is the miracle of creative love”)

and here (If you want salvation you already have salvation!).

And here we go today.

Years ago I ended up teaching a high school religion class at a Lutheran high school in formerly communist Slovakia – and this without any formal theological training.  As I taught about faith, one student asked me “isn’t faith totally a gift from God”?, and I wasn’t sure what to say.  I had resisted abandoning my Lutheranism during my Campus Crusade for Christ-saturated college years, but that did not stop me from eventually replying: “maybe the ability to have faith is the gift God gives us”.

I thought that was good enough – attributing the first move to God.  But I was wrong.  Really wrong. 

Now I know that Lutherans are firmly against even this kind of “decision theology” (where an unbeliever makes a decision to follow Jesus, with or without God making the first move) – even more so than a Calvinist theologian might be.  And yet, as many of us like to say, remembering that we are baptized into Christ, we who are already believers in Christ should decide to follow Him every day of our lives.  We continually look to hear His word so that we might receive His Spirit!  Though on our journey we walk in danger all the way and in the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil, for He is constantly fighting for us to give us forgiveness, life and salvation – through His perfect life (righteousness) and innocent death (blood) – until our final breath. 

Now when people talk about the matter of free will in the Christian life, they generally are talking about the matter of an unbeliever becoming a believer, moving from darkness to light.  Many in the Christian world see this as a conscious act of the will that the unbeliever, perhaps aided by the Holy Spirit, makes of his own free power.  My first point would simply be that for many who come to Christ in their adult years, it is in fact not like this.  Several examples could be given, but perhaps the most prominent among them is C.S. Lewis (I also think of Marvin Olasky, the editor of the Christian news periodical, World magazine), who could not recall any exact moment in which he came to believe on the Lord Jesus – even if there was surely a time when he had crossed the threshold.  In short, it was God’s mysterious work, and not his.

Many have similar experiences.  I now teach an online introductory class to the Bible and during a recent course, I stated at one point that there were many places in the Gospel of John where the author makes it clear how we become children of God by His will and not our own.

One of my former students replied to that statement in the following way:

I can see this, of course it is all His will. He wants us to accept Him and puts that in our hearts but it is always Him making these things happen. I have a personal account to this, I had no intentions of being Christian, I never wanted to have children, figured I’d be a professional traveling the world. Well, at 19 I had a baby and named him Elijah, which brought about conversations about the prophet (which I had no idea about) and I found myself in Bible studies with people in my neighborhood. It was at that point in my life I accepted Jesus [my note: she cannot say exactly when this happened], but without really knowing how or why, but I did, He did it. That was the beginning for me, and I have since struggled (until about 3-5 years ago) with really realizing my Christianity and being comfortable with it. Regardless, I see how He has worked in my life ever since that point, well actually before, but so much more since that time. My baby Elijah, my gift, brought even greater gifts in my life! (quote used with permission)

In a course I am currently teaching (an introductory course to the Bible), one of my better students, clearly enjoying the class, noted that not too many years ago, he, as an adult,  “found [himself] believing the word, finding hope and trusting in Jesus.

Part II

Part III


Posted by on September 18, 2013 in Uncategorized


Aidan Kimel on free will

Header of Father Aidan Kimel's blog

Header of Father Aidan Kimel’s blog

I have mentioned Aidan Kimel before.  After hosting the popular theological blog “Pontifications”, several years ago, this Anglican-turned Roman Catholic-turned Eastern Orthodox blogger has a knack for writing well-researched, thoughtful and interesting (quite popularized) posts.  Also of interest to me is the fact that he is familiar with several Lutheran authors and often, in theological discussions, makes points Lutherans would be eager to make (and he even invited me via email to contribute to some of his recent posts on justification, telling me that the conversation there would benefit from a Lutheran voice).  For example, in a recent post called “Faithing in the faith of Christ” from his “Ruminating Romans” series, Kimel not only said the following….

trust in the faithfulness of Christ is more than a human deed. God’s saving work in the death and resurrection of Jesus precedes the human act of faith, and it is the actual event of gospel proclamation that makes possible and generates the response of faith”

…but also quoted a theologian named J. Louis Martyn, who, in his exposition of the book of Galatians, goes even a step further:

“Those who believe in Christ are not puppets,” Martyn elaborates, “moved about and made to speak by others. But, just as these persons are not puppet believers, so they are not believers as a result of an act of their own autonomous wills, as though the gospel were an event in which two alternatives were placed before an autonomous decider, and faith were one of two decisions the human being could make autonomously. … Thus when Paul speaks about placing one’s trust in Christ, he is pointing to a deed that reflects not the freedom of the will, but rather God’s freeing of the will. In Christ, the Son of God whose faith is engagingly enacted in his death, God invaded the human orb and commenced a battle for the liberation of the human will itself. And in the case of believers, that apocalyptic invasion is the mysterious genesis of faith in Christ” ([Anchor Bible – Galatians], p. 276)

Finally, eager to show that “trust in the faithfulness of Christ is trust in the God who is active in the gospel”, Kimel says

“the gospel is itself an invasive event, not merely the offering of a new option. It is in the gospel-event that Christ’s faith elicits our faith. Thus, Paul can even include faith in the list of the fruit that is borne by the Spirit of Christ (5:22), suggesting that the act of trust does not have its origin in the human being. On the contrary, as we have noted, that act springs from the proclamation of the risen Lord. It is incited by the preached message (Gal 3:2; Rom 10:17). It is empowered by the Spirit. (pp. 276-277)

Just as salvation is not an existential possibility for us—we do not save ourselves; we do not heal ourselves; we do not liberate ourselves from Satan and the powers of the world; we do not raise ourselves from death—so faith itself is existentially impossible for a humanity enslaved by the powers of sin and death. Trust, too, is a grace of the apocalyptic invasion. If we think that we have believed in Christ by our own power and autonomous decision, then perhaps we have attended one too many revivalist tent meetings. We are not righteoused by our faith in Christ; we are righteoused by the faith of Christ.”

Martyn’s exegesis of Galatians opens up fresh possibilities for theological reflection on the Incarnation. I am reminded of St Gregory of Nazianzen’s famous saying “For that which he has not assumed he has not healed.” Surely this assumption must include the diseased human will, which is healed, purified, liberated, and sanctified through our Lord’s obedience unto death. In the Incarnation, the eternal Son not only comes to us as God in love and grace; but he also representatively offers to the Father, as our great high priest, in our human nature, the perfect life of obedience and faith that we were unable to offer. As St Athanasius wrote, Christ became our Mediator that “he might minister the things of God to us and ours to God.” The Son and Messiah thus fulfills in himself the covenantal vocation of Israel and of all created being, and by the Spirit we are granted participation in his freedom and faithfulness.”

A caveat here – what allows Kimel to take this approach, I think, is because of the way he has framed the conversation.  Note these words in the post as well, which follow his mention of Romans 3:21-22 and Galatians 2:15-16:

What I do know, or at least suspect, is that if pistis Christou is properly rendered as either “the faith of Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ,” then our understanding of St Paul and his teaching on justification will be dramatically affected….

J. Louis Martyn has also adopted the subjective genitive rendering of the pistis Christou: a person is not rectified by observance of the commandments of Torah but by “the faith of Christ Jesus.” Christ himself, in his faithfulness to the Father and obedience unto death, is the source of our rectification. Paul places before us two alternatives—rectification through human activity and rectification through the act of God in his Son. Paul also speaks of the faith of the believer, but as Martyn notes, he places it in a “decidedly secondary place” (p. 252). Our faith rests upon the faith of Christ. Jew and Gentile alike stand before God with empty hands….

In response to his opponents, Paul does not pose two different human possibilities—either obedience to Torah or faith in Christ; rather, he poses an antinomy between human act and divine act, between human doing and the atoning work of the Messiah… The latter has the power to rectify, to make things right; the former does not. Understanding this antinomy of the new creation “is crucial,” Martyn writes, “to an understanding not only of Galatians but also of the whole of Paul’s theology. God has set things right without laying down a prior condition of any sort. God’s rectifying act, that is to say, is no more God’s response to human faith in Christ than it is God’s response to human observance of the Law. God’s rectification is not God’s response at all. It is the first move; it is God’s initiative, carried out by him in Christ’s faithful death” (p. 271).

I am not sure what Martyn means by antinomy of the new creation, but I suspect that it posits a quite radical discontinuity between the old and new testaments.  Lutherans of course, would not see it quite that way, talking about how faith in Christ has been critical from first to last (Romans 1:17) – even as with Christ’s Advent much that was more mysterious has now been unveiled with His taking on human flesh.

No doubt, I’ve posted a lot of the post, but there is still more – again, you can see the whole thing here.  Even as I have expressed some real concern regarding some of the directions Aidan Kimel has gone on his blog (see the second to last paragraph of this post for more), I do think that what he is saying here is promising – and I wonder if what he is saying is resonating with his readers, many who I think would be Eastern Orthodox.  It is with this promising post in mind that I am going to launch into a six-part series on free will, in which I try to unpack the Lutheran perspective on the issue.  I hope you will join me for that tomorrow.



Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Uncategorized


What Athens needs from Jerusalem: the theology of facts vs the theology of rhetoric writ large (part III of III)

The sign of Jonah, given to you.  Matthew 12:38-42

The sign of Jonah, given to you. Matthew 12:38-42

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” I Cor. 1:23

Part I

Part II

According to Webster’s dictionary, sophistry is “a reason or argument that sounds correct but is actually false”, or “subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation”.

For the sophist, the cultural currents that they desire to follow determine their rhetoric – and anything that might be said to have an essence, substance or nature must be malleable.  The only questions here are “how far can we go?” and “how fast should we try to go?”  The true philosopher, alternatively, seeks for truth, and with this the unchanging things.  And yet we must say it again: philosophy apart from the Christian faith falls so very short.  The reason again is that it fails to take into account the actual importance of knowledge about the past being handed down to all human beings for the purpose of saying anything of lasting meaning or value.  It is Christians alone – with their pointing out God’s mighty works testifying to Himself throughout history, particularly in the resurrection of Christ – who practice and utterly depend on the theology of facts.  Among world religions, Christianity lives and dies by history (see I Cor 15). 

Ancient stories of a great flood are found worldwide, and as the Encylcopedia Britannica notes, “Oral history is still important in all parts of the world, and successful transmission of stories over many generations suggests that people without writing can have a sophisticated historical sense.” Noah's Ark (1846), Edward Hicks

Ancient stories of a great flood are found worldwide, and as the Encylcopedia Britannica notes, “Oral history is still important in all parts of the world, and successful transmission of stories over many generations suggests that people without writing can have a sophisticated historical sense.”  “The Deluge”, Gustave Dore

In short, without a story of man’s past as a primary consideration, even essence-loving philosophers (“conservatives” relatively speaking, for they and those before them were not conservative in altering or finally abandoning the Biblical account) simply practice another type of theological rhetoric.  But why insist on lumping the philosophers together with theologians?  It is because it is not only everyman, but serious philosophers as well, who inevitably end up making claims – false or insufficient claims – about the transcendent and divine.  No human being can avoid being a religious creature, even as they also suppress the truth about religion they do know to varying degrees.

The modern scientific mindset, which supplanted classical philosophy in influence and authority, and of which Christians are not exempt*, is always tempted to think along these “scientific” lines: “all I need to know in order to know what can and should be known I should be able to gather from observations and experiences in the present”.

C.S. Lewis took on Hume's "scientific" assumptions in "Miracles".

C.S. Lewis took on Hume’s “scientific” assumptions in “Miracles”.

And even those who fight against the humanities-steamrolling modern scientific enterprise may fall prey to a similar – though more refined (i.e. more cultured – amenable to the best of Renaissance humanism and having an appreciation of the liberal arts) – “all I need to know…I should be able to gather…in the present” mentality when it comes to the matter of real knowledge of the past.  Often, they are “postmodern” in their outlook, for postmodernism is really just a logical outgrowth of their tendency to see any knowledge of significance as deriving from this overarching methodology – and other scientific principles like it – aloneTrapped without a cosmic past handed down from their fellow human travelers, all they seem to be left with is the particles “out there”, the tyranny of individual interpretation, and the knowledge that their scientific methodologies alone can provide.   

Johann Georg Hamann as summed up by his Wikipedia article: faith in God is the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy.

Johann Georg Hamann’s view of philosophy, according to his Wikipedia article: faith in God is the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy.

For example, we see this in spades in the argument of Louis Mink about the discipline of history, quoted by the Oxford linguist and philosopher, Roy Harris, in his book The Linguistics of History:

Narrative form in history, as in fiction, is an artifice, the product of individual imagination.  Yet at the same time it is accepted as claiming truth – that is, representing a real ensemble of interrelationships in past actuality.  Nor can we say that narrative form is like a hypothesis in science, which is the product of individual imagination but once suggested leads to research that can confirm or disconfirm it.  The crucial difference is that the narrative combination of relations is simply not subject to confirmation or disconfirmation, as any one of them taken separately might be.  So we have a second dilemma about historical narrative: as historical it claims to represent, through its form, part of the real complexity of the past, but as a narrative it is a product of imaginative construction, which cannot defend its claim to truth by an accepted procedure of argument or authentication.  (Mink, Historical Understanding, Cornell U. Press, 1987, 199)

Here, the desire to know what has happened leading up to today becomes, for all practical purposes, irrelevant to the big questions of life.  One can and should certainly insist that Mink goes too far **, but insofar as he shows that history is not able to be “tested in the lab” of modern science quite like other phenomena, his point is of course valid.  “Beyond a reasonable doubt” – the standard used in courts of law – is still not subject to experimentation and observation in the present like balls of different mass falling at the same speed.  Still, does that mean such knowledge is nothing – anything but knowledge?  Is the only knowledge of the past that we should know – more, that we are accountable for – that which can be proven to us according to our satisfaction – according to our very own reasonable standard?  If we assert this to be true on what basis do we do so?  How do we know this is true?  We are indeed assuming that man – and ourselves personally – is the measure of all things.

Oxford linguist Roy Harris' philosophical critique.

Oxford linguist Roy Harris’ philosophical critique.

All this said, here ancient, or classical, philosophy in particular is of little help to us as well, for as Roy Harris points out in his work, it seems that there are cogent reasons for doubt to be introduced about this or that account of the past – or the very possibility of history for that matter.  I note, with Harris’ critique from Rationality and the Literate Mind and After Epistemology in hand, that even if the Greek philosophers had seen history as being very significant to their philosophy (and again, they did not), other philosophers could have raised all kinds of interesting challenges pertaining to how the idea of “essence”, or nature, worked with human language, particularly words (something Hindu and Buddhist-inspired Indian philosophers probably could have told them) – and pointed out how this was a challenge for passing on any account of the past.  For example, the philosophy-savvy linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, writing in 1836, said the following:

“Only in the individual does language receive its ultimate determinacy.  Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbor does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language.  Thus all understanding is always at the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence (Humboldt, On Language, Cambridge U. Press, 1988 [1836], 63)”***

Logically, this seems to be a valid point and may be why philosophers like Aristotle have today largely fallen out of favor.  But it is Christians who know that both trust that accurate messages from the past have been reliably handed down – and trust in the capacity of language to do this – are not only possible, but absolutely necessary.  And many non-Christians – even some who are familiar with philosophical objections like these but take them with a grain of salt – know that this is true as well (this incidently, is why I think the Darwinian account will fail – because it is an overly ambitious reconstruction of the past**** done without any accounts handed down from any beings living at the time).  So, overall, this quote fails to stick as well, as it is “another classic example of the rare exception becoming a rule that throws everything into doubt”, as my pastor commented to me. 

So how can all this be summed up?  Here is my attempt:  all modern science – and even philosophy – without corresponding “accounts from the past” is a kind of “theology of rhetoric”.  There is a “conservative theology of rhetoric” (increasingly rare) that clings to essences (that go beyond physical particles) without giving a primary place to accounts of the past (essences without history), and a “liberal theology of rhetoric”, that takes off with philosophers like Hegel (history without essences).  Here, if anything, the word “essence” comes to be associated with things like class, race, gender, religion and even sexual desire.

Essentially, a mess.

Essentially, a mess.

Not to say that those who practice the Christian religion cannot be said to be new creatures – having new essences/natures (still, we are those who do speak for good reason about the two natures in Christ or the two natures of a Christian)!  Still, this is an identity that is not worldly, but spiritually humble.  It is like Perpetua, the early 3rd c. martyr, said:

“Father, said I, Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?  And he said, I see it.  And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?  And he answered, No.  So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.”

"So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian."

“So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.”

What more needs to be said?  Well, without tradition – without a sharing of the world’s most important events from the real past that are carried forth into the real present – through the clear words of faithful witnesses – we cannot be saved.  One might hope for more, but we are told that this is how God works, how the Holy Spirit works (John 16:8-11)  – we have no hope for a general “world spirit”, at odds with the written Word of God, that comes forth immediately from the Triune God.

Further, we in the Christian church cannot even synthesize this true history with someone like Plato, whose philosophy can easily serve to undercut all communication about the concrete material world we must live in – particularly written communication (i.e. “history” in the strictest sense of that word) – only to find refuge in the unchanging Forms above.  For we assume that it is possible that not only God, but human beings as well, are capable of successfully communicating all-important truths and facts through time using both spoken and written words (not to undermine or minimize the importance of other forms of human communication).  We would be rightfully angry if we had an important message to pass on to the future and, after “putting it in writing” for the purposes of safeguarding it, others following us gave up on trying their best to understand what we meant to say – especially if we had chosen our words very carefully, considering how matters of cultural and historical context could possibly affect their interpretation.

Did the Pope really say....  "God forgives those who obey their conscience" (see here)

Papa, are we by nature children of wrath who must call upon Jesus to be saved?

While context is certainly important, the content is always the issue.  While there is much that genuinely might confuse us, we also know that there is much that we can begin to understand.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the external clarity of the Scriptures can be made internally clear to us by faith (see here for some help)

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

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

Perhaps the biggest problem here, as Vilmar alludes to, is that many modern theologians do not want words and ideas – theirs’ and others’ – to be clear – at least in some circumstances?  “Did God really say?”  “Did I really say?”

As we saw in the previous post, Karl Barth once called Vilmar an “obscurantist”, which means, among other things: “A style in art and literature characterized by deliberate vagueness or obliqueness.”  I will just say this: Barth is really the one I have trouble understanding, not Vilmar. 


Empty tomb: ; Flood pic: Wikipedia ; Hamann pic: Wikipedia ; Perpetua pic: Wikipedia ; Pope Francis: Wikipedia ; Twain pic:

*: From an Amazon book review (here): “’[Great Chrstian minds believed] that in discerning quantifiable laws of nature they were seeing into the mind of the one true (Christian) God. These great Enlightenment figures seldom doubted that the Bible, Christian doctrine, meticulous philological and historical studies, and scientific method, all would surely and harmoniously converge in one grand vision of The Truth. Catholic persecution of their contemporary Galileo seemed a sham and a waste of time; when in 1705 Edmond Halley claimed a comet (observed by Kepler in 1607) as the same one to have been observed roughly every 76 years for two millenia and correctly predicted its return for 1758, epistemology seemed like a done deal.”

** My pastor responded to me about this quote: “A simple restatement of Lessing’s Ditch. Of course, it is only partially true. A narrative of the building of a cathedral, for example, can indeed be verified by the still-existing cathedral itself, or by other narratives, or by other buildings of the same period which still exist, etc. so forth and so on. Think here also of the founding of a nation. If the nation still exists today, its very existence proves that it came into existence in some way at some time in the past. To discover how, narratives are compared to narratives which are also compared to existing structures and archeological discoveries. And here it also must be noted that the “data” of a narrative (dates, times, places, personages) is not in and of itself an artifice. It could be argued that such data may be used in such a way, but not necessarily so.

In short, Lessing’s Ditch is a theory which on first reading seems right, but on further reflection, is not necessarily so. It certainly is appealing to those who despise history to begin with and need only one good excuse to forgo its study…”

*** quote from Oxford linguist Roy Harris’, the Linguistics of History.  Elsewhere, he says, “Do we know what we are talking about?”, a question of linguistic epistemology, is the fundamental question of philosophy (47) (this, he says, is what Plato saw and tried to answer with his doctrine of the forms, 48).  Undoubtedly related to this are his questions like the following, which are especially important for the historian: “How do I know that my words actually mean what I think I am saying?”, “How can I be sure that my words mean what someone else takes them to mean?”, and “How do I know that my words state what is really the case?” (8).  It seems clear to me that Harris deserves credit here for making questions such as these explicit – it really would be good and salutary for more historians (and others) to reflect here!  But at the same time, for Harris, these questions are asked not with the intention of offering modern historians a minor course correction, but rather to help throw the supposedly venerable institution of which they are a part of into doubt.  In other words, these questions are meant to assist as show-stoppers en route to paving the way for Harris’ own intellectual program, i.e. integrational linguistics.

**** We cannot repeat the origin of the universe or the species in a lab.  In other areas of science, there is much that is replicable, or repeatable, and this creates confidence.  But when it comes to scientists as regards history, how much can we, or they, trust their judgment?  Who do we trust when it comes down to determining what has happened from the beginning of space and time (and what it means)?

It is not only creationists who make points like this:

“Science needs objective criteria to rank the value of predictions and observations without the appeals to authority inherent in peer review or “scientific consensus.” Observations that are experimentally repeatable should rank higher than historical observations whose repeatability is limited by increasing entropy. Specific predictions regarding future events should rank higher than expectations of future discoveries of pre-existing evidence. Thus, the science of natural law is inherently more objective than scientific descriptions of natural history.

What is the benefit of pretending that science provides the same high levels of certainty in historical theories of origins (species, universe, solar system) as the more objectively and repeatably testable quantum electrodynamics and classical mechanics (within their well-established areas of applicability)?”


Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Uncategorized