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