Monthly Archives: June 2014

The first “Protestants”: “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith”

One of the greatest defenses of the catholicity of the Lutheran reformation.

One of the greatest defenses of the catholicity of the Lutheran reformation.  To see a debate I had on the theme of the book with a Roman Catholic apologist, go here.

About a week ago, Matthew Block, the editor of the Canadian Lutheran (published by the more confessional Lutheran Church or Canada), had a very nice piece that was published at the First Thing’s “First Thoughts” blog titled “Are Lutherans Catholic?: Looking for a Protestant Future? Try the Protestant Past.” (for more on what Matthew Block is responding to, read the first two paragraphs of this piece I did)

Here is a sizeable excerpt from the end of the piece, which I recommend reading in full:

…To be catholic, then, is to be heirs of the apostolic faith. It is to be rooted firmly in the Apostle’s teaching as recorded for us in Scripture, the unchanging Word of God. But while this Word is unchanging, it does not follow that it is static. The history of the Church in the world is the history of Christians meditating upon Scripture. We must look to this history as our own guide in understanding Scripture. To be sure, the Church’s tradition of interpretation has erred from time to time—we find, for example, that the Fathers and Councils sometimes disagree with one another—but it is dangerous to discount those interpretations of Scripture which have been held unanimously from the very beginning of the Church.

This tradition of meditation, of course, cannot invent new dogma—it is “not a source of dogma qua dogma,” as Hearth R. Curtis explains well in a 2005 Lutheran Forum article entitled “The Relation between the Biblical and Catholic Principles.” But it is nevertheless, “the source of apostolic interpretation which norms our interpretation of the apostolic Scriptures.” In other words, Scripture is the sole source of dogma for the Church, but the Church’s tradition of meditation “establishes how that source is to be interpreted.” It is in this sense that the three ecumenical creeds are understood to be authoritative: not because they invented new doctrine (they didn’t), but because they carefully codified truths already present in the Scriptures.

In this way the Church’s tradition of meditation guides us into a proper understanding of Scripture. No Christian denomination, therefore, can reject interpretations of Scripture universally acknowledged by the early Church without impairing its commitment to being the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. For the Church’s tradition of meditation, as a faithful interpretation of the Scriptures, itself becomes a standard to which subsequent interpretations can be measured. And yes, this catholic interpretation extends to doctrines now considered denominational distinctives (for example, the doctrine of the Real Presence). Denominations which reject such catholic teaching therefore, in essence, reject part of what it means to be catholic.

On the other hand, that church body which accepts the Scriptures as the sole source of authority in the Church and further acknowledges the tradition of the Church as a norming interpretive principle in understanding the Scriptures may rightly call itself catholic. It is in this sense then, finally, that Lutherans confess themselves to be heirs of the catholic tradition. “The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith,” Melanchthon declares in the Augsburg Confession. “There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”

Centuries later, Herman Sasse could assert the same: “It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages,” he writes. “The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged.”

So are confessional Lutherans catholic? Yes. And we always will be, so long as we hold fast to the traditions of the Apostles, written in the Scriptures and faithfully passed down to us by the Church. Consequently, I cannot help thinking that those seeking out a “Protestant Future” should in fact be looking to the Protestant Past. Looking for a church which faithfully receives the catholic tradition while clearly proclaiming the authority of Scripture? Looking for a church which is both sacramental and devoted to salvation by grace through faith alone? Looking, in other words, for an Evangelical Catholic Church? It already exists. It’s called Lutheranism. (bold mine)

20th century Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse: "A church without patristics turns into a sect."

20th century Lutheran theologian Herman Sasse: “A church without patristics turns into a sect.”

I must admit that I was a bit surprised that First Thoughts, run largely by adherents of Roman Catholicism, would be willing to publish such a piece. I commend them for doing so!

For those interested in looking into these matters more closely, Block also links in the article to another excellent (and a bit more polemic vs. Rome) piece that he published at the A Christian Thing blog called Too Damn Catholic. In a footnote there, we read this:

The early Lutherans, while asserting the primacy of Scripture, never suggested that we may approach Scripture in a vacuum, apart from the witness of the Church throughout history. Indeed, as John R. Stephenson writes, the “authors of the Formula of Concord sharply forbid any unbridled exegesis of the inspired text;” Christians are bound by the ancient Church’s witness. For more on this, see Stephenson’s article “Some Thoughts on Why and How Creeds and Confessions Exercise Authority over Lutheran Christendom” (originally delivered at LCC/LCMS/ACNA dialogues, recently published in Lutheran Theological Review 25 (2013):60-73 here). (bold mine)

Again, highly recommended stuff – even more so because Mr. Block directs us to one of my old professors, the wonderful and highly illuminating Dr. John R. Stephenson, who I recently heard described as the ideal confessional Lutheran (he is a very charming and holy man!).  Matthew Block’s work here is great food for thought – and I think perhaps a superb vehicle for inviting persons into a deeper consideration of what the confessional Lutheran Church has to offer.


Note: Why “Protestant” in quotes in the title?  See one of my own pieces defending Lutheranism, “As for me and my house, this is not the essence of Lutheranism”.  For another piece I did that is similar to Block’s see my A church within a church?

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Posted by on June 29, 2014 in Uncategorized


What hath Pope Francis in common with Joel Osteen? United in epistemology?

What could these men possibly have in common?

What could these men possibly have in common?


Chris Rosebrough, host of the show Fighting for the Faith, is making senseListen to him on Issues ETC as he talks about Joel Osteen’s recent meeting with Pope Francis:

Is this just two sides of the same coin – just one side for the sophisticated elite and the other side for the un-nuanced rabble?

What, if anything, is wrong with what Rosebrough says?  I agree with his overall critique, even as I would nuance things just a tad.


Image credit:

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Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Uncategorized


The growing influence of Erlangen theology and Gerhard Forde

Gerhard Forde

Gerhard Forde

What is “Erlangen theology”?  My studies at Lutheran seminaries in England and Canada occasioned only a passing acquaintance with names such as Elert and Alhaus, conveniently labeled as “Erlangian” for the students. And yet, in spite of the paucity of references to the school in my own seminary experiences, Erlangen evidently still speaks to many in the church body that I am a part of, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS). It seems many of our theologians remain intrigued with, and curious about, the work adherents of the school produce.

Many conservative Lutheran theologians clearly remain in dialog with this school, not least through the influence of theologians such as Gerhard Forde, James Nestingen, and Stephen Paulson. It seems safe to say that the Erlangen school is the representative “conservative school” in Germany, and therefore it is not overly surprising that some of the works of Oswald Bayer, the current living iteration of the school, are now a staple at both LC-MS seminaries in the United States.

Of course, despite affinities that confessional Lutheran bodies in America might have with Erlangen theology, there are certainly differences in these theologies.  That said, a cursory look at brief expositions of Erlangen theology also gives evidence that real differences are perhaps a bit difficult to pin down.  Judging from the Lutheran Cyclopedia article though, largely reproduced and expanded on in Wikipedia (under “neo-Lutheranism”) one does get the impression that LC-MS types, for example, are static confessionalists / repristinationists who are opposed to “new learning”.  What does this mean?

Years ago, my own pastor described Erlangen theology in the following fashion:

the theologian in academia has two challenges: 1) To teach that which he should; 2) To be taken as intellectually viable. Since the enlightenment, the latter has trumped the former. The Erlangen school is appealing, for while rejecting divine inspiration, it accepts Scripture as a type of God’s Word;while rejecting the knowability of history, it accepts the events described within Scripture as a witness of the church to normative events; while rejecting a quia subscription to the confessions, it accepts the confessional nature of the church;while rejecting a standard hermeneutic of biblical interpretation, it accepts the idea that the church should be the one to interpret Scripture…In short, what Erlangen theologians attempt to do is to maintain some sort of Lutheran theology, based on what the modern intellectual community takes to be fact, or reality.

I am not aware of who in the confessional Lutheran world is an authority on these matters – certainly not myself (though as a Lutheran, I have no trouble speaking authoritatively!). Pastor Jordan Cooper however, seems to be fast becoming an authority on the theology of the late Gerhard Forde, who certainly has some affinities with the school.  And his most recent podcast on some of the issues with Forde’s theology shows that he has done a great deal of reading not only of Forde, but Paulson, Bayer, and modern theology in general.  I think all of this makes for a critique of Forde that is really quite insightful and powerful, in addition to being relatively easy to understand as well.

If you have not had a chance to listen to it, yet, I encourage you to do so.


Here is another post I did on Erlangen theologian Oswald Bayer.

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Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


Exciting news – going to


I have been invited by Pastor Jordan Cooper to regularly contribute over at his newly launched website

If you are not familiar with Jordan Cooper, he is a convert to Lutheranism from Calvinism.  From the site:

Pastor Jordan Cooper began his formal study of theology as an undergraduate at Geneva College. Coming as he did from a Reformed church background, Jordan was acutely aware of the many issues confronting Protestants — indeed all Christians — in this “post-modern” era of American Christianity. After a process of intense study and inquiry, he found sufficient and compelling answers for the greatest of these quandaries in the historic Lutheran Church.*

Thank you Pastor Cooper for the invite.  I am very excited to be a part of the good work he does.

As are others…

Trent Demarest, author of the Lutheran blog pseudepigrapha, is also now getting very involved at  He is also blogging there, as well as doing his own podcast and helping Pastor Cooper with some publishing projects (you can support their work by going to the site and contributing to their Kickstarter campaign).  I became aware of Trent when I found myself commenting with him on a blog post by the Reformed writer, D.G. Hart: “Now Lutherans are Tightening my Jaws”.  I took note.

On Trent, from the site:

“Although he had been a lifelong Lutheran, Trent was frustrated by certain presentations of contemporary Lutheran theology, and he appreciated Jordan’s more historic and catholic perspective. On occasion he would email Jordan questions or comments, sometimes roping the latter into ridiculously picayune theological debates with complete strangers.”

I can relate to this.  This is one reason I appreciate the almost-Eastern-Orthodox-convert Lutheran pastor William Weedon as much as I do (now hear this).  This is also why I jump off of presentations like Pastor Fisk’s “I’m a Lifelong Lutheran but…” and go to town.  It is also why I thank God I ended up becoming a member of a congregation where the pastor, Paul Strawn, had a very real interest in the early church and the confessional Lutheran church’s historical continuity with it.

So… I will continue posting here as well for now.  Also, I would be remiss to point out at this point that some of my Reformation-related posts have been going up at Reformation500, where you can find some very high quality stuff related to the continuing importance of Reformation Christianity in general.  Here, I extend my thanks again to John Bugay – though this time publicly – for inviting me to participate there, in spite of the fact that I regularly do challenge Reformed and Calvinist theology in my posting.

Thanks to everyone who reads here.  I hope to see you over at as well.


*Some things I hope to talk about a bit more next week….  Pastor Cooper has a couple excellent podcasts up now: one that critiques, I think very effectively, Gerhard Forde, and another that better explain the topic of theosis (i.e. the mystical union, or what some have called “Christification”) as confessional Lutherans have historically understood the term.

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Posted by on June 20, 2014 in Uncategorized


Sharks and hell

Yes, I will admit hard to imagine in a pre-fall, "very good", state.

Yes, I will admit hard to imagine in a pre-fall, “very good”, state.


“Dad, why did God make sharks so that they eat other animals?”

So my four year old asked me this question out of the blue two nights ago – well, right after asking me if sharks, crocodiles and sea monsters were real.

What would you say?



I said:

Some people just think that this shows God has a hard edge – sure He is loving, but still… in some ways, He is very hard”.

Others say that animals eat other animals because of the curse, and I think they are right.

When Adam and Eve sinned, the creation fell with them. God had given Adam and Eve great power and when they disobeyed Him and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they threw the whole creation into chaos.* They started getting old, and would die. Things started to decay and disintegrate. Animals started to eat one another…

A few weeks ago on a blog, a man known as the GeoChristian linked me to his blog post about animal death before the fall.

Being firmly unconvinced by his post, here is how I replied to him:

Much better... (see here)

Ahh…. Much better… (see here)

I guess I, sensitive guy that I am, am just fundamentally incapable of interpreting God’s evaluation of “very good” in a way that permits carnivorous activity. God said the world, not the garden, was “very good”. You say: “A related passage is Romans 8:20-22, which states that the whole creation groans. Just like in Genesis 3, the passage does not state the nature of that groaning, and it doesn’t necessarily include death” and it is pretty much impossible for me to think that groaning and death do not go hand in hand. Looking at it briefly, Psalm 124:1 “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God” is not glorifying God because of predation per se, but is glorifying God because all creation seeks their sustenance from him. I Tim 4:4 is simply saying that “everything created by God is good”, which is certainly true – but he does not create that which infects his good creation by the curse of original sin. As for teeth indicating predation, we know that doesn’t work. Kevin, I’m guessing I won’t convince you and you won’t convince me. I don’t consider myself a hard core YEC – I just like to listen widely to the various views.”

In short, I find the idea that God built suffering, death and decay into the original creation – as if this is “very good” – even more disturbing than the idea of eternal punishment. Why?  Death, decay and destruction are not very good and I see no reason, biblically or otherwise, to think they are (am I simply irrationally sensitive, being repulsed and wanting to turn away, for example, from carnivorous assaults as I do?).  On the other hand, it is clear that eternal punishment is not the way it is supposed to be – nor is it supposed to be for men, but for angels.

That’s where I think the accent needs to go. You see, I think God hates eternal punishment more than I do.

Of course, I still believe in it because I think the words of Jesus – kind Jesus – point to this reality. Others these days are calling this into question left and right** – it is certainly something that needs to be addressed and dealt with more.


* So get what this kid – 4.5 years old – asks me last night….  As I laid down with him in bed to tuck him in, he peppered me with theological questions and commentary for what must have been a good thirty minutes or so. I don’t recall the exact words that he used, but at one point I am pretty sure that he basically asked me whether or not the curse was enacted by a direct act of God in response to Adam and Eve’s unbelief or whether it came about by a release of some kind of power from the tree itself, as its true use had been violated. I told him I wasn’t sure, as I said to myself “Why had I never thought about it that way?”

This kind of thing happens more often than one might think (post from 3 years ago on kids asking very hard theological questions)… I feel blessed to know that I have a son who is proud about how he believes in God and wants to share that with me.

** The very gifted and popular Eastern Orthodox blogger Al Kimel has been doing a lot of stuff arguing against the traditional view of hell, and linking to others doing the same, for instance:

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Posted by on June 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


In need of a mic: a key to avoiding “ugly religious incidents”?

Go here to watch:

Go here to watch the “Brave German Woman”, Heidi Mund.  Found here.


Warning: statements of epistemological certainty – dealing with the topic of religion of all things! – are made below. If you do not think that religious statements can convey simple truth and be counted as knowledge, you are likely to be offended and/or exasperated by the content of this post.

How can society avoid ugly religious incidents – or at least minimize their occurrences? I think some intelligent things can be said here.

Recently, Jonathan Last, author of the excellent book What to Expect When no One’s Expecting, reported:

Dana Milbank says that a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation turned “ugly” yesterday when a Muslim student named Saba Ahmed from American University tried to defend the honor of Islam:

“We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she said. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”

Even if the number of 8 million-plus Muslims in America is probably very high – the point Mr. Last contends against – a bigger point needs to be made:

You to Cardinal Dolan?: “You love God, "Arch-conservative" [?] Cardinal Dolan explaining everything in the kindest way?: “You love God, we love God and he is the same God”

“Arch-conservative” [?] Cardinal Dolan explaining everything in the kindest way?: “You love God, we love God and he is the same God” (see here for more)

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther talked about putting “the best construction on everything” – “explaining everything in the kindest way”.  Here, we want to be accurate and honest but also not jump to hasty conclusions – particularly those that confirm our prejudices and biases.*  Romans 12:18 gives us some good advice as welll: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

So – in these discussions plenty of respect (and even affection), nuance, highly intelligent questioning, a willingness to listen, etc. are all needed – and broad brushes should never be applied. No doubt – we don’t no one wants things to get ugly – that is, politically volatile. 

This reviewer: "The myth has been destroyed".

This reviewer: “The myth has been destroyed”.

That said, contra some of the new atheists and other Enlightenment folk it is fallacious to say that religion is the main cause of war. On the other hand, no one should want religious strife of any kind to arise, for religion certainly has and can exacerbate tensions in the conflicts that exist among persons – particularly war – which throughout human history has been a common occurrence.

All this said, there are two more important things we must say here:

a) religions need to be able to say that they think that they are right and others are wrong – and be able to give reasons for that, if they have them,


b) religions should not have to worship together in order to prove that they cannot only respect but “get on with” the adherents of another religion.

This is why some of Pope Francis’ most recent actions – praying in the Vatican gardens with a Muslim & Jewish delegation on Pentecost – are so disheartening (see here** ; no, I am not saying I don’t want peace here – if you are thinking that)

Why?  What is so bad about what he is doing?  What could this possibly encourage?  Well, this incident for one:


As I wrote at the time…..

… There is no doubt that it is easy to criticize the tactless and insensitive actions of some of the members of the Society of St. Pius X(see “A Profanation Protesting Profanation“ at the First Thoughts blog).  Here, [Pope Francis’] words in paragraph 94 [of his encyclical] perhaps should come to mind: “It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity”.  That said, what about more traditional believers who are far less radical? Really, what prevents the Catholic church from having joint worship services with rabbis, for example, as much as possible?  Why not do so if they will simply refrain from condemning out loud the message of Christ?   Why would a refusal to join in worship with them not also be intolerant and divisive – even “aggressive”?

So, what is the answer to this dilemma? It seems to me that Pope Francis laid it out in so many words when he said:

“a facile syn­cretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters…What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says ‘yes’ to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with oth­ers. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.” (paragraph 151, talked about more in this post)

These words do sound pretty reasonable to me.  However, one would think that this does not mean that joint worship is in view here – where one assumes that we are worshipping the same God! Joint worship services and even joint public prayers (um, or private, when the impression is given that the same God is being addressed) are simply a place where the Christian cannot go.

Which is why what this woman – who interrupted a Muslim’s prayer in a cathedral some months ago – says about the deception that is taking place is, in fact, correct.  I invite you to listen to this six minute piece which interviews her

No, I do not think that what this women did is something that any of us should get in the habit of doing.  That said, when we do not talk constructively about matters of truth in public – being willing to not only “dialogue” but debate respectfully and civilly*** – it seems that people perhaps feel driven to these kinds of “prophetic actions”.****  Many people, whether they are badly or well informed, are at least well aware of the fact that there are important differences between theses religions – and that should be common knowledge.

As the interview shows, this is hardly some wild-eyed and crazy person. She is a normal, devout Christian woman, who, I imagine, has caused at least a few hearts to question their assumptions.  She has earned the respect of many, and not without reason (here is one particularly thoughtful piece).  She puts the rest of us to shame who are not willing to be faithful – both vigorously and winsomely – in in far less trying circumstances.

It is easy for me to criticize this woman. This was not a joint worship service, I say, but a concert meant to promote good will between Christians and Muslims. But am I really looking for excuses to avoid confronting the obvious? – that is, that those organizing these events likely have absolutely no desire to mention differences over what is true – much less to allow full-throated Christian proclamation!  As such, it seems that one faith is gradually “hi-jacked” by the other, the more vigorous and assertive. 

These are the kinds of questions the devout are going to wrestle with – and why I submit that it is important that there are outlets for healthy public debate – even in publicly funded arenas like public universities.  Debates such as these between intelligent persons of good will – who are both irenic and bold – must not be squelched but rather encouraged.  Pastors who might be particularly capable of doing these things should try and get involved.


NOTE: some sentences in the above post have been slightly revised upon original publication for clarification.

*I submit that considering Luther’s words against Rome and its leaders, we should not jump to the conclusion that Luther was being hypocritical, but, explaining his actions in the kindest way, speak about how strongly he must have thought that the evidence was against Rome and the Pope.

**From the piece I linked to: “Sunday’s prayer event was organised in minute detail and comprised Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers.”

***Where I work at Concordia University – “where Christ is honored and all are welcome” – this is often done in religion classes (where we have very many non-Christian students) – and quite effectively, it seems to me (not so much that we are seeing many conversions, but that persons begin to understand the differences, why they are important, and that we can still be civil and kind to one another even as we disagree about these particularly critical matters of what is true about salvation).

****Incidently, in case you missed it, something similar happened in the American Congress just a few months ago – see here for the initial news report and here for a report on the stenographer who interrupted the session.


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Posted by on June 18, 2014 in Uncategorized


Worship wars conversations: no power dressing, speaking, or singing?

worshipandpraiseiiNote: Today’s post has nothing to do with yesterday’s post: Regular warship time. 

Music in church is on my mind again this morning because it is one of the things that we are discussing in class this week.  Here is, I think, one of my best short posts on the subject:

And then there is the following, which I am quite proud of, and which appeared on this blog a couple years ago in five parts (all five parts are below, bold has been added):

Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part IV

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

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

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

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

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

Part V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surety and certainty that lasts a lifetime!

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


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Posted by on June 17, 2014 in Uncategorized