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Monthly Archives: May 2014

As for me and my house, this is not the essence of Lutheranism

Dale M. Coulter has a short and interesting article at the First Thoughts blog entitled: “The Problem of Constructive Protestantism”.

A good one from Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

A good one from Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

In a follow-up post he titles “The Essence of Protestantism?”, Lutheran blogger Gene Veith notes that “For Niebuhr, the essence of Protestantism is the unmediated relationship between the individual and God’s Word.  The issue then becomes how Protestantism can create or even support institutions.”

He goes on to quote a good chunk of Coulter’s piece. The bold is mine:

“For Niebuhr, Protestantism was always a revitalizing movement grounded in the kingdom of God as “the apprehension of God’s primacy, immediacy, and nearness.” It presupposed the divine initiative in the life of every person without the need for mediation. Justification was the Word’s direct address to the soul in which, as Luther put it, “the Word infused its qualities.” Hence the freedom of a Christian was grounded upon the free initiative of God. On this basis, Protestants could question all institutional forms of mediation as falling short of the living Word of God who called such institutions to account, whether they were ecclesiastical or political. They could stand on scripture alone as the Word’s final address to fallen human beings.

Having announced the freedom of the Christian in the immediacy of the kingdom of God, Protestantism emancipated persons from all forms of institutional authority. It went further, however, and placed prophetic criticism in their hands by declaring them all priests who received directly from the living Word. While Niebuhr differentiated this prophetic mode of Protestantism from medieval mysticism, it was in fact the mystics’ conception of an unmediated union with God taken as a doctrinal presupposition. This is the importance of the connection between the early Luther and the Rhineland mystics like Johann Tauler, or between Luther, Calvin, and Bernard of Clairvaux. It could also be viewed in the Radical Reformers insistence on the new birth as a powerful baptism in the Spirit.

The Protestant principle, as Niebuhr conceived it, “was not self-organizing but threatened anarchy in every sphere of life.” Having proclaimed the sole authority of the Word of God to rule the Church and the world, the immediate question was, “how so?”—a question Protestants have been debating ever since. This was another way of declaring the problem of a constructive principle within Protestantism. Niebuhr saw facing this problem as returning to the early Christian attempt to formulate a way to live in a world both under the sovereign rule of God and corrupted and in rebellion against God.

This is very interesting stuff. I recently came across a quotation from Bruce McCormack, a Presbyterian theologian who focuses on modern theology (particularly Karl Bath), that would seem to fit with the Niebuhr quote like hand in glove:

“The Reformers’ forensic understanding of justification … the idea of an immediate divine imputation [of righteousness] renders superfluous the entire Catholic system of the priestly mediation of grace by the Church.” — (Bruce McCormack, What’s at Stake in the Current Debates over Justification, from Husbands and Treier’s “Justification”, pg 82.)

So I wonder: is this the essence of the Reformed faith? Does the idea of the sovereignty of God go hand in hand with this focus on the individual vis a vis the institution of the Church (think of marriage as an institution, or as some Orthodox say: “not an organization with mystery but a mystery with organization”)?

If so, I can see how some might think the same thing about even serious Lutheranism. After all, didn’t Coulter quote Luther saying much the same thing as McCormack? I would argue that confessional Lutheranism is worlds away from this. It is not focused on the personal relationship with God even as it is keen to point out a) the difficult and sacrificial role of the prophetic individual (think Girard a bit here) in the institution of the church, and b) that theology is for proclamation, and hence the preaching of this word to individual sinners must be taken into account.

Lutherans must insist that the Christian faith cannot be based on the individual and his relationship with God. If it were, then in effect there could be no other person who could in real confidence tell you, in your time of despair, that Christ really does forgive and save even you. In other words, they are not only saying to you that “good works are not necessary for salvation” (listen to this podcast by Jordan Cooper on Mark Jone’s book about antinomianism) but that the appropriation of Christian faith does not ultimately depend on you, the naked individual before God.  

Rather, it is given. Therefore, we even have pastors – irreplaceable in the church’s structure – who as God’s officially appointed representatives can bring true comfort to even the most authority-minded person:

“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins.  As a called and ordained servant of the Word,  I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“To even the most authority-minded persons” – yes, that would be Martin Luther, as I argued in my series “The Coming Vindication of Martin Luther”. Luther realized that this kind of thing needed to happen in institutional of Christ’s church, where the means of grace were to be delivered in all of their richness: the regular preaching of the Word and the administration of baptism and the Supper (see here if you are Reformed) – really and truly for forgiveness, life and salvation.

Coulter writes of these “Protestants”:

“Christians must give their answers in each historical moment by faith alone, an act that occurs amidst the tension between life in the invisible communion of the saints and the fact that no visible institution embodies that communion fully. It is to live, most of all, before the Word whose free initiative brings freedom.”

I cannot speak for those in the Reformed camp. As for my house, audacious as it sounds, the church of confessional Lutheranism has always claimed to be a true visible church. I like to put it this way: we don’t need to insist that every other communion out there is not this, but that we only know this one to be fully so. 

FIN

Image credit: www.philipvickersfithian.com

 

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Posted by on May 31, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

How to see a ghost or how to play with fire?

click here for more on this book

click here for more on this book

A comment to Rod Dreher regarding his post “How to see a ghost”:

Rod,

…[You said:]

“I should make it perfectly clear that I don’t subscribe to the pagan, animistic metaphysic Ross describes, but that it’s interesting to me to observe how much this overall outlook tracks with Orthodox Christianity and its belief in panentheism, which teaches that God is immanent in all creation. I have had trouble articulating to my Western Christian friends why Orthodoxy is so different from their way of experiencing life in Christ, but believe it or not, this focus on intuition is so consonant with what I’ve experienced.”

First of all, I appreciate what you say here.  There is a lot to it I think, and it is worthy of very serious reflection by more Western (evidently post-Dante!) Christians.

That said, I am a bit concerned with other aspects of your post here.  It seems that you could just as easily have titled “How to play with fire”.  Now I do not deny that there might really be ghosts (I always think about how the disciples thought Jesus was one walking on the water)- and again, I understand the wider point about our capacity for receptivity of the spiritual you are making – but I am also concerned about promoting an interest in these things that is more or less uncritical.

Do you remember how C.S. Lewis talked about the two opposite errors regarding demons: 1) don’t take them seriously ; and 2) unhealthy interest in them.

Now – is there a connection between ghosts and demons?  At the very least, I think this is likely true in many cases.  The Scriptures do say that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light – why not friendly and familiar spirits?  I do think that he is happy whenever he can pull us away from a focus on Christ as the center and meaning and hope in all things.

I’ve been listening to a series of interviews by the author of a book called “I am not afraid”.  The author is a traditional Lutheran pastor who has studied the crazy growth of the Lutheran church – traditionally liturgical! – in Madagascar (5 million serious Lutherans there).  He speaks of how the people there often feel that they are in bondage to the spirits of their ancestors, and must work to appease them and get their help.  When the Gospel comes about Christ’s deliverance from sin, death and the devil, many come to see their “ancestors” as imposter demons who simply kept them in spiritual (as well as economical) bondage.

Worth considering.  Here is a link to those interviews: http://issuesetc.org/guest/robert-bennett/

Blessings to you Rod.

+Nathan

UPDATE: I don’t think most Orthodox theologians would characterize E.O. belief as panentheism

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Put not your trust in men? Overcoming the Cretan’s paradox in Christ

Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: "All Cretans are liars." -- Wikipedia

Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: “All Cretans are liars.” — Wikipedia

“[It is] better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man” (Psalm 118:8) indeed.  And remember “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Psalm 146:3).  And did the Psalmist also not admit “I said in my alarm, ‘All mankind are liars.'” (116:11)?

Yes, i
t’s not just the Cretans who have a problem!  “Let God be true and every man a liar!” (Romans 3)

Yes.  But. 

In a post the other day, I spoke about how it is unavoidable that we must trust men (this is also a theme I have talked about frequently, particularly here, here, here and here)

Specifically, I said this:

*unavoidably*, we really do trust the men *who urge us not to trust in men* (for example, Exodus 15:31 says, “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant”), but to stay with the divinely revealed faith once delivered to all the saints – which means perpetually fleeing back to the Scriptures to test all things, particularly those things that seem wrong or unfamiliar (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11)!

In other words, talking about “trusting God and not men” is, once again, “useful shorthand”.  Again, in truth, more nuance is possible – and necessary – for many Christians.

Years ago, I had this thought as well (original post):

…because “ecclesiology is Christology” (Kurt Marquart) those in the Church have faith in God through the Church (if not directly, then indirectly).  For cradle Lutherans, faithful saints gave them the life-creating Promise from their childhood.  And yet, in “Cretan’s paradox” fashion, as we grow, we ultimately become more and more aware that “all men are liars” (those passing on the Promise to us may have even emphasized this point to us: that they, as lying sinners, must depend on Christ!), but that God’s grace still breaks through in the midst of all of this.  Christ is in our midst!  In fact, He comes precisely because of this work of Satan: namely, the problem of original sin that infects us all!  So indeed, here we have a great paradox: as we grow in our faith, we become more certain regarding the Promise itself – the Promise Himself – than the love and integrity of any man – and of anything else in the whole creation.     

holding-handsAnd yet, we as Christians also may trust in men more than any other man. (even as there is much distrust among Christians – so much so that we may insist it is necessarily true that unity assumed is unity denied). This is what I will explore in-depth in the rest of this post.

According to Lutheran historian Martin Noland*, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – whose “organic inner unity” and “organic powers” (Herder) idea of “development” would compete with the one of Darwin’s which confined itself to ‘mechanics’ as a mode of explanation – contended that that “scientific theories create the reality which they describe” and that “truth” is “already decided when the scientific community determines which experiences are normative” (pp. 170-180, italics mine). Noland notes that when it comes to the ultimate issue of authority, the influential argument of Ernst Troeltsch must actually be reduced to ad hominem argumentation, where the competent scholars that he lists are the ones to trust (p. 85).

My argument would be that we all are ultimately reduced to trust, as we must at all times choose between competing wise men / scholars who appear to know their topic well and, from our less educated perspective, seem to be highly competent. In other words, we may want to say about all this that it is not really about persons, but this is actually unavoidable. And this necessity goes for the educated among us as well as the uneducated. The idea of the historicist that we need to focus on the “cultural whole” is indeed worthy of serious reflection (for example: are points of Christian doctrine better taught in story form, and not just particular “Bible stories” but the whole narrative of creation, redemption and consummation? ), but we still must ask which account – which worldview and corresponding method of world-inquiry – and which person in whom we hear and see these things – we must trust.

Kant, who may today be considered a conservative Enlightenment figure, is well known for defining the Enlightenment in the following way:

[Enlightenment is] “ the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use one’s own reason!’” (Immanuel Kant, 1784).

As I said about this quote a few years ago:

If I question my spiritual inheritance in Christ – and even turn away – it is not because I used my own understanding apart from other influences.  It is because I choose to turn away from one Person and to trust another.  If I don’t realize that this is happening I only reveal that I shun adulthood, embrace childishness, and dwell in darkness.

It is important to learn to “think for one’s self”.  At the same time, if “[man’s infancy] is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another”, we never become adults who can become like little children.” (see full context here ; also see part II here)

“…you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.   On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

“…you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”

Let me try to explain more fully what I insisted on there. It seems to me that what some persons – mostly on the Enlightenment’s left – have always noticed is that in spite of “ad hominem” concerns, answers to life’s questions often must come down to arguments from personal authorities – even if they will never simply come out and say this (hence the importance of the “science” of “higher criticism” – this is really a facade). For them, one must trust in the right men – who, incidently it seems, may be said to know the “mind of God” (as we see first expressed by men like Humboldt and Hegel, implicitly and explicitly respectively – it seems to me that the “Muses” have seized men like these with their Christ-denying “insights”!).

Now one might counter by saying that of course people are a part of the equation here – and specific authoritative persons in particular – but that these people generally don’t point to themselves (and their own education and character) as the reason to trust what they say. This is true not only because we know it is considered bad form (do note how the Apostle Paul argues though), but also because when they attempt to assert or persuade by giving reasons they indeed point to things outside themselves, and not just any things but specific evidence they are willing to recognize as relevant in this or that way that is embedded in and explained by authoritative narratives (even though in this process they must certainly use their own senses, well-informed opinions, inferences, and guesswork, things the 19th historicist Humboldt emphasized).

And yet, some may feel that these stories – even if there is nothing which speaks against them – may not be able to be verified by a preponderance of evidence that points to a specific account being true beyond a shadow of a doubt – or even a reasonable one. But is each man supposed to make this determination himself – perhaps by forming his own “science of history” and trying to overturn all the important rocks himself – or must there always necessarily be some level of a personal element – i.e. trust – involved? So what again is the key element, even as all of the factors are undoubtedly important?  Logically, the “argument from authority” cannot be avoided.   Therefore, we insist that the key element is the One True God – the divine Persons of the Trinity and their authority – even as in general the Godhead chooses to work in harmony with human beings and their authority, based not only on their competence but their actual character.  This is a character that can be dependable in spite of its imperfections and can be discerned by men – albeit imperfectly. Not only this, but this character will always clearly deny that man is the measure of all things and will rather affirm that the world and all that is in it ought to be governed on the basis of trust – and in fact necessarily is (whether to merely survive or thrive – that is, be like the plant in Psalm 2 that grows by the river – as they say)!   This can’t be denied! One might even say that this trust derives from the Trinity itself, as the Godhead holds all things together by the power of its word, whereby man might live and move and have his being in God in the world.

Martin Luther would not have liked me saying this, but when I am tempted to doubt my faith, it is not only his words – words he always tried to speak in line with God’s Word – but his very person that gives me comfort – in spite of the fact that I have only “known him” through his writings. And I believe that is by God’s design.

My main concern about trying to fit Christianity with modern thought-forms is that we can see how actual historical events passed on by persons whom we trust will always take a back seat – and it seems to me, become altogether irrelevant.   And this is why we needy sheep need – no matter how great our education in languages, philosophy and the sciences – to depend on the Holy Spirit Jesus speaks of, who has given us Scriptures for our security (Luke 2) and comfort (see Rom. 15) and also interprets them with, in, and for us. The Spirit’s character is flawless, even as ours is perpetually flawed, confused, and at odds with one another. Luther rightly wanted to trust in both God and the Roman Catholic Church who was to speak for him. And he believed that God would provide for His people through a church that would be willingly corrected – until he simply could no longer believe this. Simply put, Luther’s skepticism was earned, and did not come willingly.** Of course, the same cannot be said for all the “Protestants” who have come after him (see Noland’s comments about the necessity of skepticism and criticism as regards post-apostolic traditions on p. 251, also see his comments on pp. 314-316). For some of them, skepticism has been raised in prominence to a methodological principle. But, as Luther reminded Erasmus, the Holy Spirit it no skeptic, but rather is an Authoritative Person who can bring us the reliable knowledge we need.

Indeed. Again, to say that we are to trust in no man but God does not mean that we are not required to trust in God through His faithful servants. It is not only that we have no choice to do this – especially in these last days – but rather that one aspect of Christians is that they are those who can trust one another better than most, for they ultimately know that their Lord has their back and guides history in His Providence. Now it is indeed the case that God may convert any man through the word alone in spite of the spiritual knowledge and character of the one who preaches. This however, does not mean that having a sanctified clergy and church is unimportant or not to be the regular means of the means of grace.   It is one thing to come to faith and another to keep it when doubt comes, as it certainly will – men of the greatest knowledge, sensitivity, and integrity have always been needed in the church.  

Some might think that I am trying to “naturalize” what is “supernatural”. Do not get me wrong: I think that it can be very helpful for us in the Lutheran church to indeed talk about faith as a “supernatural” thing. That however, is because many Christians understand this term to mean something that comes from above, not because it is something understood to be at odds with things as they must ordinarily (i.e. “natural” in this sense) transpire in our lives. In other words, in talking about faith in the way we do – that is being a gift from God that we cannot achieve by our own powers – we do not thereby abandon what we know about the trust that exists in normal, everyday life.   Christian faith is not opposed to this, but goes hand in hand with this! It is not merely analogous to the ordinary trust we experience among human beings, but rather cannot be separated from this. Therefore, for example, when we talk about the faith the Holy Spirit creates through the content of the Scriptures, we speak about how that happens through the very normal reception of those words, which we simply assume – trust! – that we are able to understand (what some have called, in a move that seems overly rationalistic to me, the “historical-grammatical” method – see here for more about how God uses our regular reading to create and nurture faith – “Scripture interpreting scripture” only makes sense in this context). Likewise, when we talk about being receptive to the message of the Gospel that we received, this generally happens through the normal human event of one person trusting another, where there is no good reason for skepticism, as it simply has not been earned.

Back to the quote from above from one of the brightest Enlightenment lights. Kant was brilliant. Kant was foolish.   These statements are both true, and they apply to the Enlightenment – a highly intellectual species of Christian heresy – more than any one person.   Noland points out that Troeltsch, like most all Western intellectuals, adopted a form of the fact/value split (formally put forth by David Hume in the late 18th c.), where naturalism (rationalism and empiricism come along here) views the world through the lens of “regularity” and “quantity” and historicism (romanticism comes along here) views the world on the basis of “quality” and “subjective experience” (p. 46) Noland himself says that the historicist Dilthey’s “method of historical knowledge is proper and objective, but only if there actually are organic powers that unite cultures and epochs through an inner genetic principle and direct a culture’s growth” (italics his, p. 220, 221). Of course for some Christians they would probably say that it is faith in Christ – as it was for Harnack – that makes this knowledge proper. It is probably a null issue, seeing as how such an “inner genetic principle” could never be proven by scientific means, but I still wonder about the concession Noland makes here – and I wonder this because of the way it seems to concede the role of modern critical history (is the only good historian the one who is the constant critic and skeptic, or is there something to be said about studying the past out of love simply without necessarily needing to have a critical attitude?) and its roll over human trust – whether that be in oral tradition, family histories and local histories.*** Do we as Christians not think – more than anyone else – that some people – people we know to be great examples of learning, holiness, and discernment – have yet to earn our distrust – even as we know them to be sinners? (where perhaps their self-awareness of this fact only helps us to trust them as we trust God?)

Indeed we do. Life is about trust, history is about trust, and in Christ, the Cretan’s paradox is overcome.  

More on what this means in coming posts where I will talk about how we should go about proclaiming the world-saving – and world-shaping – deeds of Jesus Christ for the salvation of all.

FIN

* Over last Christmas break, I tacked the PhD. Dissertation of the respected confessional Lutheran apologist and historian Dr. Martin Noland, Harnack’s historicism: the genesis, development, and institutionalization of historicism and its expression in the thought of Adolf Von Harnack (1996). Noland had suggested persons read a number of works, including this dissertation, so as to help them have more historical context for understanding one of Concordia seminary professor Jeffrey Kloha’s recent papers. The dissertation is available through ProQuest dissertations and so can be readily obtained from most academic library databases. Right away I was hooked and intrigued with Dr. Noland’s ambitious work, because he seemed to “fill in” many of the gaps that have existed in my own knowledge of intriguing topics such as these(see my own rather ambitious series “What Athens needs from Jerusalem”).

** For Luther, it would seem that the book of James (and some others) “earned his distrust”.  That said, I think that we really do need to take into consideration the context in which Luther was operating, where his theological opponents were really misusing those books.  Later Lutherans were able to see these as also being Christ-centered and Spirit-inspired.  In any case, Lutherans like Martin Chemnitz were right to highlight the reality of “Antilegomena” in the church – and to insist that these books should not be able to help determine doctrine without the help of other books (at the very least out of sensitivity towards believers who while holding orthodox beliefs were nevertheless unable to fully embrace such books as being Scriptural). 

*** At one point Noland also writes that “Harnack demonstrated his awareness of the difference between historical evidence and religious experience” (around pp. 250-260). I am not comfortable talking about this as being something that persons can be aware of because that seems to imply to me that these things, while they are clearly able to be distinguished, do not belong together and in fact go hand in hand.   It seems to me that for Adolf Von Harnak and his house, they will uphold their community’s experience of the historical man Jesus Christ, who they certainly feel exemplifies the pinnacle of morality and goodness and is the greatest and most compelling religious figure whoever lived! As for me and my house, we will continue to assert that the Word of God – and those who put forth its account of history – which goes hand in hand with its particular teachings – demands our unwavering trust. All men listen to teachers who shape and form them, and the doctrine is always in the drama, or history, whether we are speaking of the true narrative or one of the myriad false narratives.

Versus Harnack – whose whole theological framework seems to me to resemble some kind of an elite Hindu approach [with a focus on philosophy and the oneness the gods share rather than popular piety focused on polytheism and rituals] – I do not deny that the “personality” of Jesus Christ will often have a role in a person’s personal conversion, but I cannot simply see Jesus as a great religious figure – the greatest and apex of religious figures – of whom the actual history is not clear and not able to be trusted in (again, Harnack does not really provide a defense of Christian faith as the truth, but rather a defense of the influence of the man Jesus and its ongoing significance for good. I believe that the Scriptures are indeed a reliable history, even as they might not be majority history that most everyone readily accepted without difficulty (and that may have much corroborating physical evidence), but rather a “minority report”, or what is today being called a “microhistory”. More on that in the near future

Images:

Wikipedia: Epimenides ; holding hands: http://www.speareducation.com/spear-review/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/holding-hands.jpg ; nursing:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/55628191@N04/6511657459/

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Lutheran convert from Orthodoxy Christopher Jones on scripture and tradition

“I am always encouraging you to pay attention not only to what is said here in church, but also, when you are at home, to continue constantly in the practice of reading the divine Scriptures. . . For it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved who does not constantly have the benefit of spiritual reading.” (from here ; see also here)

“I am always encouraging you to pay attention not only to what is said here in church, but also, when you are at home, to continue constantly in the practice of reading the divine Scriptures. . . For it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved who does not constantly have the benefit of spiritual reading.” (from here ; see also here)

I have been a bit disappointed that my recent post responding to Father Freeman’s piece did not provoke any discussion here or there.*  I really would like to hear what some informed and intelligent Christian people think about what I wrote, but perhaps there are a good number of folks who do not think much of it.

Moving on, here is something else that might be of interest to some in the confessional Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox worlds:  comments made by Christopher Jones on the fine Lutheran blog Pastoral Meanderings, in response to Pastor Peter’s post about “The Sources of Sola Scriptura”.  Christopher Jones is a convert from Eastern Orthodoxy to confessional Lutheranism:

“The Lutheran insistence on the supreme authority of Scripture does not mean that the other witnesses to the Church’s Tradition are of no authority whatsoever, nor does it mean that it is necessary, desirable, or even possible to read and understand the Holy Scriptures apart from those other witnesses to the Tradition, or outside the context of the ongoing liturgical life of the Church. The Lutheran understanding of the authority of Scripture is that, within the context of the ongoing life of the Church, and among all of the various witnesses to the Church’s Tradition, the Holy Scriptures are of supreme authority.….

As to the [tendency of Catholics and Orthodox to minimize the authority of Scripture that is witnessed to by the Fathers], I yield to no man in my insistence that the Holy Tradition of the Apostolic Church is the reliable means by which we receive saving truth. But that very Tradition itself witnesses to the centrality of Holy Scriptures among the various witnesses to the Tradition. The testimony of the Fathers to the supreme authority of Scripture (so often cited by Lutherans) is authentic and cannot be gainsaid. The Fathers’ testimony to the authority of Tradition cannot be pitted against their testimony to the authority of Scripture. Instead their testimony to the authority of Tradition must be understood as defining the context within which Scripture is supreme — but within which Scripture must be read.

When I was Orthodox, Dr Golitzin (now Bishop Alexander of Toledo) taught us that the Holy Scriptures are “the pre-eminent and normative witness to the Apostolic Tradition.” I have no qualms about affirming that statement as a Lutheran. And I fear that some of my Catholic and Orthodox friends tend to minimize the word “normative” in that quotation.”

I would argue with Christopher about one of his points a bit – we had a brief discussion here (in the comments) about the word “possible” in the first paragraph above. I would be welcome to that conversation continuing if Mr. Jones has the time.

That said, I want to point out where Christopher and myself are in firm agreement.  Yes, sometimes confessional Lutherans might seem to talk as if faithful tradition does not matter (the useful shorthand of “Scripture alone” for example).  But who are the clergy – the “office of the ministry” – if not the captains of the faithful “traditioners”?  Faithful persons have always been necessary – to record the Scriptures, to faithfully pass them down, and to explain as we are able – as we have been given to do – the mysteries of the faith.  

But one might object: Is it not most certainly true that God has warned us against trust in man?  And is it also not most certainly true that He never exhorts us to trust in another fallen human being?

Yes – it is indeed.  And yet, as I recently noted in the comments section of another blog:

*unavoidably*, we really do trust the men *who urge us not to trust in men* (for example, Exodus 15:31 says, “And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant”), but to stay with the divinely revealed faith once delivered to all the saints – which means perpetually fleeing back to the Scriptures to test all things, particularly those things that seem wrong or unfamiliar (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11)!

So, in Luther and others like him, we really do hear the Shepherd’s voice.  I urge you to give him your ear.

In other Lutheran/Eastern Orthodox news… people can check out the fine podcast by Lutheran pastor Jordan Cooper (convert from Calvinism), where he intelligently discusses and critiques former Lutheran pastor John Genig’s First Things article about his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy.

FIN

*UPDATE: On Father Freeman’s blog he wrote to me: “I posted a reply to your article but it seems to have not appeared.”

“The Lutheran insistence on the supreme authority of Scripture does not mean that the other witnesses to the Church’s Tradition are of no authority whatsoever, nor does it mean that it is necessary, desirable, or even possible to read and understand the Holy Scriptures apart from those other witnesses to the Tradition, or outside the context of the ongoing liturgical life of the Church. The Lutheran understanding of the authority of Scripture is that, within the context of the ongoing life of the Church, and among all of the various witnesses to the Church’s Tradition, the Holy Scriptures are of supreme authority…..As to the second point, I yield to no man in my insistence that the Holy Tradition of the Apostolic Church is the reliable means by which we receive saving truth. But that very Tradition itself witnesses to the centrality of Holy Scriptures among the various witnesses to the Tradition. The testimony of the Fathers to the supreme authority of Scripture (so often cited by Lutherans) is authentic and cannot be gainsaid. The Fathers’ testimony to the authority of Tradition cannot be pitted against their testimony to the authority of Scripture. Instead their testimony to the authority of Tradition must be understood as defining the context within which Scripture is supreme — but within which Scripture must be read.When I was Orthodox, Dr Golitzin (now Bishop Alexander of Toledo) taught us that the Holy Scriptures are “the pre-eminent and normative witness to the Apostolic Tradition.” I have no qualms about affirming that statement as a Lutheran. And I fear that some of my Catholic and Orthodox friends tend to minimize the word “normative” in that quotation.” – See more at: http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-sources-of-sola-scriptura.html#sthash.ZBw6YR3E.dpuf
“The Lutheran insistence on the supreme authority of Scripture does not mean that the other witnesses to the Church’s Tradition are of no authority whatsoever, nor does it mean that it is necessary, desirable, or even possible to read and understand the Holy Scriptures apart from those other witnesses to the Tradition, or outside the context of the ongoing liturgical life of the Church. The Lutheran understanding of the authority of Scripture is that, within the context of the ongoing life of the Church, and among all of the various witnesses to the Church’s Tradition, the Holy Scriptures are of supreme authority…..As to the second point, I yield to no man in my insistence that the Holy Tradition of the Apostolic Church is the reliable means by which we receive saving truth. But that very Tradition itself witnesses to the centrality of Holy Scriptures among the various witnesses to the Tradition. The testimony of the Fathers to the supreme authority of Scripture (so often cited by Lutherans) is authentic and cannot be gainsaid. The Fathers’ testimony to the authority of Tradition cannot be pitted against their testimony to the authority of Scripture. Instead their testimony to the authority of Tradition must be understood as defining the context within which Scripture is supreme — but within which Scripture must be read.When I was Orthodox, Dr Golitzin (now Bishop Alexander of Toledo) taught us that the Holy Scriptures are “the pre-eminent and normative witness to the Apostolic Tradition.” I have no qualms about affirming that statement as a Lutheran. And I fear that some of my Catholic and Orthodox friends tend to minimize the word “normative” in that quotation.” – See more at: http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-sources-of-sola-scriptura.html#sthash.ZBw6YR3E.dpuf
“The Lutheran insistence on the supreme authority of Scripture does not mean that the other witnesses to the Church’s Tradition are of no authority whatsoever, nor does it mean that it is necessary, desirable, or even possible to read and understand the Holy Scriptures apart from those other witnesses to the Tradition, or outside the context of the ongoing liturgical life of the Church. The Lutheran understanding of the authority of Scripture is that, within the context of the ongoing life of the Church, and among all of the various witnesses to the Church’s Tradition, the Holy Scriptures are of supreme authority…..As to the second point, I yield to no man in my insistence that the Holy Tradition of the Apostolic Church is the reliable means by which we receive saving truth. But that very Tradition itself witnesses to the centrality of Holy Scriptures among the various witnesses to the Tradition. The testimony of the Fathers to the supreme authority of Scripture (so often cited by Lutherans) is authentic and cannot be gainsaid. The Fathers’ testimony to the authority of Tradition cannot be pitted against their testimony to the authority of Scripture. Instead their testimony to the authority of Tradition must be understood as defining the context within which Scripture is supreme — but within which Scripture must be read.When I was Orthodox, Dr Golitzin (now Bishop Alexander of Toledo) taught us that the Holy Scriptures are “the pre-eminent and normative witness to the Apostolic Tradition.” I have no qualms about affirming that statement as a Lutheran. And I fear that some of my Catholic and Orthodox friends tend to minimize the word “normative” in that quotation.” – See more at: http://pastoralmeanderings.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-sources-of-sola-scriptura.html#sthash.ZBw6YR3E.dpuf
 
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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Is the trouble with reading Scripture really that almost everybody thinks they can do it?: another response to Father Stephen Freeman

donottollelege

It seems to me that one of the great battles of the church in the years to come will be over whether the literal sense of Scripture is to be respected. After all, is it not often downplayed, minimized, and even subtlely undermined – even if this is done unintentionally?  See, for example, this post regarding Stanley Hauerwas’ intentionally provocative idea that we need to keep the Scriptures from the rabble.

Once again, the Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Stephen Freeman has put up a post that is full of food for thought regarding the Scriptures: “Making Known the Mystery”.  And once again, I am responding here (see the first response here): the title of this post comes from the opening statement of Freeman’s most recent one.  I think much that he has written there is excellent and worthy of deep reflection, even as I must balk when he insists, for example, that “all literalisms seek to rid Scripture of its mystery”, and “[such readings do] not transform or transfigure anyone or anything”.

Of course he also says “This is not to deny that the Scriptures have a value on the literal level”, but I for one, struggle to understand what kind of value he thinks they have. After all, he immediately goes on to say “the hiddenness of the gospel is precisely that – hidden beneath the literal level”. Some questions that arise in my mind, for example, are these:

  • “Cannot the Holy Spirit use words to reveal what is hidden on one level while there is mystery that remains”?

and

  • “Must we insist that the Ethiopian eunuch, for example, would necessarily have been completely lost even if he had had the New Testament?”

I do not deny that there is much power behind Freeman’s critique of the role of the Western individual – perhaps especially the American individual – who he says being “unaided, unbridled, and unsubmitted, is the ultimate authority” (see his powerful follow-up post, “Again – The Sin of Democracy”, here)

And yet, as I have pointed out before, Freeman’s critique may “hit” some Protestants – even in their formal theologies – but confessional Lutherans, for one, really do not universally desire to be called “Protestants”. Again, as I noted at the end of my response to the Hauerwas comment, Lutherans such as Martin Chemnitz spoke of eight kinds of tradition that should be accepted. In truth, “Sola Scriptura”, just like “Scripture interprets Scripture”, is simply useful shorthand for matters that ultimately are more nuanced and really cannot be fully captured with those soundbytes.

Martin Luther certainly would have agreed that much of what was in the Scriptures – the “deeper meaning” Freeman quotes Andrew Louth talking about* – was hidden only to those with eyes to see. When he insisted that he saw “Christ on every page” of the Bible, he was obviously not insisting that any rank pagan could just pick up the book and see the same!

It seems to me that even persons claiming the Lutheran mantle have been taking steps that chip away at the importance of the literal meaning of the Scriptures and its corresponding clarity, or “perspicuity”. For example, the 19th century Lutheran theologian Johann Von Hofmann (see here for more on him) essentially believed that persons without faith could not begin to understand God or faith. Really, how could such a person ever “do theology” rightly at all?  How could they be a Christian theologian?  Now, on the one hand of course there must be some truth here, but on the other hand we must be careful to go too far. For example, Matthew Becker says of Hofmann’s views that “all understanding and interpretation of the Christian faith is possible only on the ground of Christ’s living relationship with the individual, which forms the object of such faith”.**

We can’t go there.

It is true that historically Lutherans have believed that what would make such theology insufficient would not be a lack of knowledge about God (this knowledge, actually, may indeed be quite accurate), but not knowing God – knowledge of Him. On the other hand, Lutherans did not say that unbelieving persons could not begin to have an accurate knowledge of what God was like or His work in history. On the contrary, the idea is that many persons did in fact have this knowledge, even as they raged against the testimony of the Holy Spirit, that is the public testimony found in the Scriptures.    

The Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchton, writing in 1555, speaks of

“the frightful delusion of those who are scorners and hardened persecutors of the gospel, who continue in the Cain-like poisoned bitterness and rancor of their hate and rage against the truth. Neither sermons nor admonitions, supplications nor entreaties help; and although they are overwhelmed in their hearts and consciences by the public attestation of the Holy Spirit in Holy Scriptures and miracles, they do not cease justifying their godless doctrine and life” (Loci Communes, 1555, 1982 ed., p. 236)

Here is what the Lutherans confessed in the 1530 Augsburg Confession, which speaks to these matters in chapter XX:

23] Men are also admonished that here the term “faith” does not signify merely the knowledge of the history, such as is in the ungodly and in the devil, but signifies a faith which believes, not merely the history, but also the effect of the history—namely, this article: the forgiveness of sins, to wit, that we have grace, righteousness, and forgiveness of sins through Christ.

24] Now he that knows that he has a Father gracious to him through Christ, truly knows God; he knows also that God cares for him, and calls upon God; in a word, he is not 25] without God, as the heathen. For devils and the ungodly are not able to believe this article: the forgiveness of sins. Hence, they hate God as an enemy, call not upon Him, 26] and expect no good from Him. Augustine also admonishes his readers concerning the word “faith,” and teaches that the term “faith” is accepted in the Scriptures not for knowledge such as is in the ungodly but for confidence which consoles and encourages the terrified mind.”

In other words, the Nicene Creed, for example, may be believed to be true, doctrinally, historically, etc – but the key question here is whether or not you believe it is *for you*.  Not in the sense that your believing makes it real – you have no influence over that! – but *in the sense* that we are talking about Christ’s forgiveness, life and salvation *for you*!

But here we come back to Father Freeman, and another question for him: is it only rationalistic literalists who think about such matters in this fashion? Or is my post really touching on something important for Christian life?

FIN

Tolle lege image: http://www.augustinianslimerick.com

*In the comments section of this post, Father Freeman says this: “I tended to shy away from the word “allegory” for many years, preferring the word “iconic.” That might still be a better choice because of baggage associated with allegory. My taking up the word came as a result of reading Fr. Andrew Louth’s treatment.”

**Hofmann as Ich-theologe? The Object of Theology in Johann von Hofmann’s Werke, Matthew Becker, Concordia Journal, July 2003, p. 265.

Update: this post was slightly altered for the purpose of clarification.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

The contagion of Rationalism: new under the sun, circa 1650

René Descartes

René Descartes

Luc Ferry, philosopher of the University of Paris, summarizes Descartes’s importance:

[Descartes] offers three new ideas, which make their appearance for the first time in the history of thought. These three ideas were destined for a remarkable posterity and they are of fundamental importance to modern philosophy.

First: each time Descartes stages a new drama of doubt, it is not merely an intellectual game; it aims to arrive at a new definition of truth… Thus a state of subjective consciousness – certainty – becomes nothing less than the new criterion of truth…

Second: even more decisively, in political and historical terms, was the idea of the tabular rasa – the absolute rejection of all preconceptions and all inherited beliefs deriving from tradition…

…[Descartes] declared that all past beliefs, all ideas inherited from family or state, or indoctrinated from infancy onwards by ‘authorities’ (masters, priests) must be cast into doubt, and examined in complete freedom by the individual subject. He alone is capable of deciding between true and false…

Third, an idea whose unprecedented revolutionary power in the age of Descartes is hard for us now to imagine: whereby we must reject all ‘arguments from authority.’ The expression ‘arguments from authority’ means all beliefs with a claim to absolute truth imposed externally by institutions endowed with powers that we have no right to dispute: family, schoolmasters, priest and so on…

The idea that one must accept an opinion because it is maintained by external authority, of whatever kind, became so repugnant to the Modern Spirit as to define Modernity

(end quote ; italics from Martin Noland)

FIN

Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: a Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011), 129-32 ; quoted in Noland, Martin, “Why am I a Lutheran?”, in Propter Christum: Christ at the Center, pp. 240-241.

 

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

There is nothing better than boasting Christians

If God also fills his heart with joy (see Acts 14:17), what ultimately distinguishes us from Richard? (found via a Creative Commons Search in Flickr images for “joyful boasting”)

If God also fills his heart with joy (see Acts 14:17), what ultimately distinguishes us from Richard? (found via a Creative Commons Search in Flickr images for “joyful boasting”)

Properly understood.

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches,  but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23, 24)

And what does that look like more than anything else?:

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).

In case this isn’t clear yet:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

Going along with this, to the Corinthians Paul said:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (I Corinthians 2:2)

As well as…

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

And here I point to Ephesians 3:14-21, which is one of my favorite Bible passages:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

If that does not fill one’s heart with true and lasting joy – leading to joyful boasting that cannot stop – what will?

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel. (Eph. 6:19)

Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (Col. 4:5)

“Whenever I open my mouth”.  “The most of every opportunity”.  As that other great Apostle says,

If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.(I Peter 4:11)

Yes – pray for more boasting and boastful Christians.

FIN

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/3987330279/

For one of my favorite Todd Wilken articles, connected with this topic, see here (“The Gospel in the Background”)

 

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

 
 
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