Monthly Archives: July 2015

Why Every Christian Should be Tempted by “Radical Lutheranism”

The point is that only the Gospel is the ground of our motivation for fulfilling the 10 commandments, which are eternal.

Radical Lutheran brothers not getting it: The point is that only the Gospel is the ground of our motivation for fulfilling the 10 commandments, which are eternal.

(Or at least some aspects of “Radical Lutheranism”)

There is evidence that even Martin Luther was concerned about appearing too strict. No believer in Christ ever wants to be – or to be labeled – a legalist or Pharisee. They do not want to be seen as persons who live by and from law. They want to be – and be known as – people of grace.

This is especially true of Radical Lutherans.

“Radical Lutheranism” was a term coined by the conservative ELCA Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde in part to exacerbate – over and against American evangelicalism – the Lutheran emphasis on the doctrine of justification, which insists that we are saved by grace alone, by faith alone, for the sake of Christ alone.

The doctrine of justification, as understood by Luther, is an exceptionally good thing. It means that all may not only have peace with God on their deathbed but in life. It is something that the Christian lives by and from. After all, those who know themselves to be great sinners – even if everyone else thinks they are basically flawless saints – are those who are eager to show mercy….

This is why we should be tempted – because the desire to proclaim the forgiveness of God in Christ to all persons without exception – and to do so more and more – is to be at the heart of the Christian life. This is the valuable truth that Radical Lutheranism strives to bring to our attention. You don’t have to be a “Bad Boy” Christian to see that.[i]

But with that said, the difficulties with Radical Lutheran teaching can not be ignored. And not just because Forde failed mightily when it came to getting the atonement right, but because of other issues as well (which I think one certainly can connect with the atonement issues – see here and here).

Recently, I read a short article in the magazine put out by Valparaiso University (which is a Lutheran university heavily under the influence of men like Forde), the Cresset, called “Lutherans and the Law” by Nicholas Hopman.  The article was shared with me by a friend after Pastor Hopman was willing to engage with me on some substantive debate in another post I had written regarding Radical Lutheran issues: “A Plea to Reformation Christians: Don’t Let Your “Simul” Become the One Ring to Rule Them All”

Based on my online interactions with Pastor Hopman, I was not surprised to find his article very insightful, well-written and rhetorically persuasive (and there is certainly much in it that I appreciate and agree with).

(also brief, which is more than I can say about this one)

In a nutshell, he argues that since Lutherans are eager to emphasize grace, they will inevitably be associated with antinomianism (meaning “against the law”).  Therefore, in order to avoid the implications of antinomianism, they often find themselves retreating back into legalism.

Lutherans, he argues, should view themselves as free from the 10 commandments. What?  Well, as is clear from the command regarding the Sabbath, these were given to the Jews and not the Gentiles – and yet Christians continue to keep them because nature teaches us that they are something that human beings continue to need in their lives (even for something like the Sabbath, “nature tells us that people need rest from work and that they need to hear from their creator”, as even the Lutheran Book of Concord indicates, p. 376).[ii]

In other words, we who have been incorporated into God’s people should now live in accordance with these commandments because they were created to comport with human nature, not because God has commanded us to do them.

And I can't compel re-tweets of stuff I think is pretty good.

Getting kids to go to corporate worship as they were created to do… And I can’t compel re-tweets of stuff I think is pretty good!

The distinction is subtle but important. On the one hand, this does seem to make a lot of sense. It provides a ready answer for the “why?” question parents never stop hearing from their children: “…because God created us to be this way… these are like the “operating instructions” for human life”. Hence, this “eternal will” of God, as the Lutheran Formula of Concord (part of the Book of Concord) calls it, makes perfect sense.

But is that all that Pastor Hopman is saying? It would seem not. Even if he notes that we must in some sense remain “Law people” because if we do not, we will do damage to our bodies!  In saying this he invokes the importance of good order and the Golden Rule, which he then equates with the human convention of traffic lights and laws (something for which, I note, there may well be an alternative, or divergent, solution).

Do you see what happens here? The emphasis is no longer on how God freely made His creation to function a certain way, but there now seems to be more freedom regarding how to think about God’s law – creation becomes “nature”, and more opportunity for autonomy is introduced. In short, the impression is given – at least by phrases and illustrations like these – that that the law is perhaps not so eternal after all. Even if this is not what neither Hopman nor Forde intend to say. [iii] Further, it does not help when he goes on to say: “[our] freedom includes freedom from the law”, and, citing Vitor Westhelle[iv], adds, “This freedom allows us to engage in a dialogue with the law.”

Again, as he implied earlier, Pastor Hopman is keen to emphasize that none of the 10 commandments were directly given to Gentiles (even if their articulation is ultimately for their benefit in some way – I note that Luther himself argued that God had to “re-publish” the natural law through the Jews because Adam and Eve’s descendents had basically lost it through suppression of the truth). Putting the best construction on his article, it seems he would likely say that when Paul calls the commandments the fulfillment of the law of love in Romans 13 – and urges Christian adherence to these commandments throughout his N.T. Epistles, particularly that same book of Romans – the Apostle nevertheless does not believe that these commands are something that God gives the Christians and expects them to do, but perhaps is only inviting them, in love, to do (recognizing that they are given for their good, with a blessed life in mind).

Definitely loving the dialogue thing.

Definitely loving the dialogue thing.

Again, it does seem like a conversation, or “dialogue”, with God’s law is just the way that many self-professed Christians in our day and age would like to look at it.[v] Better to have a dialogue partner than a Divine Patriarch. But does this mean that the conscientious Christian should insist that God does not, in any sense, “invite” us to run the way of His commandments? I think the Radical Lutheran would be right here to say that asserting He does not, in fact, invite us, would be wrong. Here is where they are likely hearing many saying “shall we sin then that grace may abound” and eagerly responding with Paul’s “God forbid! May it never be!”

That said, with the Radical Lutheran the impression is often given that any exhortation, guidance, or direction delivered to the Christian after they have believed Christ’s word of forgiving grace (for all their sins) means that we are “being put back under the law”. What this means, they seem to be saying, is that Christ is no longer the Romans 10:4 fulfillment (better, they say, “end”!) of the law, but the Christian is now living by the law, captive to legalism! (something that our old Adam is no doubt eager to do – along with living as he pleases, of course)

This is incorrect (more on why below).  That said, I indeed sympathize and identify with them!  Who does not, after all, get inspired when reading Martin Luther’s introductory comments to the book of Romans?[vi] These Radical Lutherans point us to something good here: they are eager for the Christian life to be a life of spontaneous love!  A life of love where one – because of the love of God in Christ they have experienced – because of the peace with God that they know – more or less naturally does real good for their neighbor’s sake!

So I also have profound sympathies with persons who want to de-emphasize the 10 commandments and things that sound like them. After all, did not Jesus say that the Golden Rule summed up the Law and the prophets, and that the 10 could be reduced to the greatest two? Did He not highlight love of God and neighbor?

He most certainly did! At the same time though, the 10 commandments are able to be summed up by the two greatest commandments precisely because they describe, in part, what real love looks like. This is why we not only say that the Christian is the one who lives in love, but lives in the law (as the Lutheran Formula of Concord states) – because the law shows us love (and yes, Jesus is the One who most perfectly embodied the 10 commandments).

This - and so much more - fulfilled in Christ, to Whom it pointed. (William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854).

This – and so much more – fulfilled in Christ, to Whom it pointed. (William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854).

Further, in Hopman’s article he not only wrongly bases his entire system on Luther’s understanding of the third commandment and its provisional nature, but also a faulty understanding of the relationship of the ceremonial law to the moral law. In spite of what God directly revealed in Acts 10 (namely, that He had ceremonial practices that He was rescinding) and which was dealt with by the church in Acts 15[vii], Hopman simply asserts that “Paul knew well that circumcision was a matter of the law” and makes no distinctions regarding it’s provisional nature vis a vis the moral law. [viii] That said, it is Paul himself who, throughout the New Testament, makes a distinction between what has been called the “ceremonial law” (Eph. 2:14-15, Acts 10:9-16, Col. 2:16-17) and the “moral law” (Rom. 13:8-10, James 2:8, Rom. 2:15, Matt. 5:17-19). While the whole of the law has been fulfilled on our behalf in Christ (Rom. 10:4) – that it may now be fulfilled in the Christian’s own body (Rom. 8:4) – it is only the “shadows” that Paul talks about that have been abolished (see Eph. 2:14-15).

In other words, God rescinds some of the ceremonial practices – things like feasts, sacrifices, offerings, laws of cleanliness and purification – that he himself had instituted in order to set His people apart from the other nations. In the times of the Old Testament, Gentiles were certainly invited to find hope in Israel’s God (think of the books of Ruth and Jonah) and yet these ceremonies also tended to divide Jew and Gentile (even as they, arguably, also made it possible for the prophesied Christ to come from a distinct and identifiable people not rich in earthly power). Bringing all of these ceremonies to fulfillment in Himself, these are the “dividing wall” Christ came to abolish.

Hopman closes his article in the following way:

“The gospel is not only the end of laws that do not apply to Christians. Faith is also the end of all natural and moral law or whatever terms one would use to describe laws that apply to us. Those who live by faith have been born again of water and the Spirit and live a new life beyond the Law and its condemnation. The Law no longer applies in any way in faith itself. Faith is Jesus Christ himself living in us. As he is now risen from the dead, the Law no longer has any rights over him. And so it shall be for us one day. We do not have a dialogue with the gospel (Westhelle), but instead it flows over us in a life-giving flood. Until the day of the resurrection, we live by faith, but we also live in the body and need the Law to discipline us.

I do not doubt that a Lutheran could believe this and be completely orthodox. It sounds good to me!  The problem, however, is what is not said – and the door is left open for doubt regarding the eternal nature of God’s law – not to mention confident activism to abolish God’s Law as revealed in the Scriptures.

Surely, everyone who calls themselves a Radical Lutheran should be able to see these problems. And surely, there may be some who would be eager to distance themselves from Hopman’s arguments. That said, I hope you at least agree with me that all of this should invite much reflection on our parts (and there is a lot more food for thought in the footnotes).

C.F.W. Walther - succumbing to legalism?

C.F.W. Walther – succumbing to legalism?

Many Radical Lutherans will especially be eager to distance themselves from the teachings of Nadia Bolz-Weber when it comes to how she treats God’s Law (which means of course, that they will be considered legalists by her as well as many less theologically liberal than her). Nevertheless, they also want to distance themselves from their more conservative brethren (perhaps people who think the Synodical Conference was, for the most part, a really good thing). They do not see these brothers as working to voluntarily lay aside, in love, their freedom for the sake of external and internal unity in God’s church. They only can see coercion and legalism here.

Well, if it is legalism to not only encourage but urge brothers and sisters to limit their Christian freedom for the sake of other brothers who are highly conscientious of showing proper respect, and doing things in an orderly fashion, and have an unmistakable gravitas about their piety – all because we can’t really effectively reach persons and show mercy unless such concerns are left behind – then, “yes”, I suppose I am a legalist and Pharisee.

So, at this point do I think I should then insist to my Radical Lutheran brothers: “Then have the courage to say so!” (as St. Louis LC-MS professor Ed Schroeder did back in 1972)

Not really.  I can think of three reasons off the top of my head, seeking the “best construction” (I pray it is not extreme naivete on my part!):

  • Because you also believe that Christ can save legalists – and, by the grace of God – you do not despise me but pray for my salvation as well
  • Because I also am not eager – nor do I want to be hasty – to tell you that I think you severely endanger your soul when you take little or no time to listen to and adjust to the real, genuine, and pious concerns of brother Christians
  • Because you will admit you don’t like it when those more liberal than you say the same thing about the respect and order issues that you think are worth everyone’s concern

Always eager to create more chasms in Christ’s church, I think that these are all things that Satan does not want us to think and meditate about. At the same time, when we are determined to not lose sight of these things, I think he is eager to get us to think that they are the only things that matter – and that it is not important to really try and listen to one another, love one another, and pray for one another – so that we might be as united in our own eyes – and a watching world’s – as we already are in His, through the blood of His Son (Eph. 5:26 – justification)

Even as He still looks to refine us (Eph. 5:27 – sanctification) for His Name’s sake. That Christ and His reconciliation might be known without hindrance to all (II Cor. 5).




[i] The linked post dealt with “Bad Boy Lutheran pastors” in particular. Connection to Radical Lutheranism? Not all Radical Lutherans are Bad Boy Lutherans, but all Bad Boy Lutherans are Radical Lutherans. Read the post for more.

[ii] “We ask questions like, “does this law apply to me/us?” If it does not apply to us, we are free to ignore it, just as Christians do not ascribe any special holiness to Friday night and Saturday. However, we are careful to look for natural and moral laws that apply at all times and places until kingdom come.”

[iii] “Often life is best served by applying the Law leniently. Often Law needs to be applied in different ways at different times and places. This does not mean that the Law ever ceases to function or that its essential content ever changes (Forde 1995).”

[iv] Westhelle, Vitor. Luther on the Authority of Scripture. Lutheran Quarterly 19(2005): 373–391.

[v] The idea is that as our understanding of God’s world grows, we also mature in our moral outlook, leaving less constricting ways behind. Again, I don’t believe that Pastor Hopman has anything like this in mind, but certainly there are many who do. When he says “we are careful to look for natural and moral laws that apply at all times and places until kingdom come” and

“To say that Lutherans should obey the natural law is not to say that they should follow the natural law tradition coming out of Aristotle and today publicized by journals like First Things. The best way for Lutherans to think of natural law is in its simplest sense, as devoid of philosophical baggage as possible. Here the Lutheran theologian becomes an observer of the world. For example, Luther, who hated Aristotle, simply noticed that human beings need rest and said so commenting on the Third Commandment.”

…there are certainly persons eager and ready to drive the truck through the crack in the door. The Reformers approach to Aristotle overall was certainly more nuanced than this.


“Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith. Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error and say, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is one reason that when they hear the gospel they fall-to and make for themselves, by their own powers, an idea in their hearts which says, “I believe.” This they hold for true faith. But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, and so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are any good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence on God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God to work faith in you; else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.” (found here)

As regards our sanctification, desiring and pursuing to be more spontaneously obedient is what we get to do (even if we know it does not feel like it’s a get to).

But that doesn’t sound spontaneous!  Well, spontaneous good works are certainly the ideal – where we believe the Gospel and “naturally” do good more or less unconsciously  Talking more about this with pastor friends, I think that there are a few aspects to this question. First of all, there is, as my pastor told me, the “spontaneous action of the New Man which nonetheless is hampered/limited/restricted imperceptibly  by the Old Adam.” Here, as an analogy, one might think of the “ballet dancer or musician who is always pursuing perfection but is limited by his or her own physical abilities. Yes they truly want to play/move flawlessly and must do so spontaneously to come close to any type of success–and years of proper practice certainly help!–, and yet they will always be limited by their body/mind, etc. ***often without their own awareness of that limitation*** (stars mine).” Again, what this means is that “the New Man can actually do good works, and does good works which nonetheless are always hampered both perceptibly (Rom. 7!) and imperceptibly by the Old Adam.”

So there is that way of looking at it. And then there is also the matter of what is going on inside of the Christian, also dealt with by Scripture.  And here the partim is how we must look at the Christian man (using language like Luther does, for example, about being 1/2 sinful and 1/2 holy….).  This can help us understand why we are so often not spontaneously obedient – joyfully running in the paths of the Lord’s commandments – like we, according to our inner man, long to be. Ideally, we don’t even need the law to describe for us what our new life in Christ looks like, or to jog our memory, or even to inspire us! While Luther talks about spontaneity in the passages from the 4th Antinomian Disputation theses, it is in the other Disputations where Luther responds to student’s challenges where he talks about the “Thomas Christian” (see Pastor Sonntag’s paper on third of the law in those same Disputations – of which he is the translator) where there is a fight going – which will result in the purging of sin and the doing of good – which is certainly not spontaneous in the way that we might be thinking. Rather, what is often spontaneous is simply the desire and will to fight – in the power afforded by the Gospel that gives us peace in justification – so that good, and not evil, can be done: so Christians obey willingly without coercion, *due to their putting their old man in its place – by their new man* (not Christ, but the new nature that wills – “not my will…” – to cooperate with Christ’s Spirit) who is eager to do so, and *spontaneously does so more or less consciously*.

In my conversation with Pastor Hopman, he argued on the basis of these same Antinomian Disputations (Thesis 35-38 of the 4th set of theses) above:

“Luther confesses that faith actually does them “without the law.” After Luther says this he concludes “In sum: The law is neither useful (utilis) nor necessary (necessaria) for justification or for any good works…” “Any” (ulla) is an exclusive word. It can’t simply be dealt with by referring to other disputations, which allegedly somehow contradict it.”

Here is how I responded:

I am not disagreeing that faith does them without the law as the motivation.  What Luther means is that the law is not necessary for *justification*, primarily, and that it is not necessary or useful for sanctification, insofar as it is considered apart from the Gospel which is ultimately the only thing, ground, that can motivate us.  That is absolutely right.  Pastorally, it is only a confusion of Law or Gospel if a) the person being addressed believes they are justified by their works (here, first use of the law and teaching needs to be done) ; or b) exhortations to do the law are not grounded in “the mercies of God” (Rom. 12 ff.) ; or c) you are insensitive to the fact that you are putting burdens on people: for example, overestimating what certain persons are able to do when it comes to those things they really should do (here I am thinking about being patient when working with someone who is trying to overcome bad habits, not excusing their sins, but trying to overcome them, albeit not with the more immediate success all would like to see) or unbendingly expecting them to do things that they may do, but are not required by the law to do.

[vii] Lutherans are not Roman Catholics. When the well-known Reformed Pastor Jason Stellman converted to Roman Catholicism years ago, he said that the decision in the Acts 15 council showed an “authoritative and binding pronouncement that was bound in heaven even as it was on earth”. In Stellman’s argument the impression is given that if one would not submit to this they would certainly have been in danger of excluding one’s self (or perhaps automatically excluded one’s self?) from the Church and Christ. I wrote at the time: “In sum, I think it is tragic when concessions which were made to preserve unity in the body of Christ (like what happened in Acts 15) become reduced to arguments for the sovereignty of just one part of the body – to whom all other parts must submit or face uncertainty as regards their salvation in Christ.” (see here:

[viii] More context:

“Finally, disagreements about matters involving the Law are not necessarily merely legal controversies. They can reveal differences in the Gospel and faith. Here the great biblical example is the controversy surrounding circumcision in Galatia. Paul knew well that circumcision was a matter of the law (Galatians 2:16, 21, 3:2, 10–13, etc.), but when the super apostles told the Galatians they must be circumcised Paul did not merely engage in a dispute about the extent to which Christians must obey the law. Instead he discerned that something greater was at stake and accused the super apostles of preaching a false gospel (Galatians 1:6–9). Furthermore, he made circumcision the occasion for eternal judgment, telling the Galatians that if they allowed themselves to be circumcised Christ would no longer be of any benefit to them (Galatians 5:2).”

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Posted by on July 29, 2015 in Uncategorized


Why Young Earth Creationism is Too Liberal

faith, reason, and earth history[Science can become], as someone has put it, ‘an organized way of going wrong with confidence.” – Leonard Brand (p. 32)

First of all, no apologies for the “click-bait” title. I will admit that part of me wanted to make that title a question – as I have big ideas to share and want to get everyone (me included) thinking and talking and questioning (again, questioning me as well! – I don’t doubt I have a lot to learn) – but I do, at least currently, think I’m right!

So, I’m glad you are here. And yes… I realize that not even the first self-proclaimed fundamentalists believed in young earth creationism. Let me now try to gradually unpack what I am really getting at in this post.

I have been taking a look at the updated textbook (2009) of young earth creationist scientist, Leonard Brand: Faith, Reason, & Earth History: A Paradigm of Earth and Biological Origins by Intelligent Design.

Asking the question, “Can creationists be effective scientists?” Brand answers in the affirmative and makes his case in some 450 pages or so of distilled wisdom. I have an undergraduate degree in the sciences (biology and chemistry) and try to keep up a bit with secular scientific literature – at least the popularized accounts. It seems to me that there is a real depth to Brand’s writing that one usually does not see in science textbooks. I suspect a lot of that has to do with how careful Brand must be – seeing as how opponents and possibly even fellow Christians would be quite eager to label him and those like him as “not real scientists”.[i]

The issue I have as I read this book is that I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the definition of what counts as science in the modern world is far too narrow.

And I am not talking about, for example, Brand’s case that the creation is far younger than we typically think. I am talking about how our understanding of the scientific method in particular is too narrow (crazy talk? I think I am, however, very open to persuasion here – please help me to see where I may be wrong).

Brand, summing up Gould (1984): “the catastrophists of Lyell’s day were the more unbiased scientists…”

Brand, summing up Gould (1984): “the catastrophists of Lyell’s day were the more unbiased scientists…”

On the one hand, when Brand simply says “science is at its best when studying the characteristics of objects and processes that can be observed and quantified” (p. 37)


“Science cannot do experiments to test the supernatural. This concept is clear enough and also accepted by interventionists [this is his definition of scientists who believe in a global flood and that God reveals Himself to human beings – see viii], but science has [mistakenly] gone a step further and has decided to accept only theories which do not imply or require ay supernatural activity at any time in history (Johnson 1991).” (p. 73 – all bold are mine in this and following quotes)


“We cannot directly test whether God involved Himself in earth history. But if He did involve Himself in ways described in the Bible (creation and worldwide geological catastrophe), these events should have left some evidence in the natural world (for example, limited evidence for evolutionary intermediates and pervasive evidence for very rapid geological action). The possible existence of such evidence can be investigated scientifically.” (p. 76)

…this all sounds pretty good and sensible to me. On the other hand, he also says things like the following:

“If we hold a book in the air and drop it, the law of gravity dictates that it will fall to the floor. We can try it a million times and the same thing always happens. However, since we are mobile, reasoning beings, we can choose to stick out a hand and catch the book before it falls to the floor. We have interjected an outside force into the system and changed the course of events, but we have not broken any laws. An intelligent God could choose to interject an outside force into earth’s balanced geological systems and change the course of events to bring on a catastrophe without breaking any laws of the universe.” (p. 78)

On the one hand, this sounds fine to me, but then there is something that gives me pause (what I bolded there). Note that Brand seems keen to emphasize that God will *never* break (or suspend?) any of the universe’s laws. In short, he strongly implies that God always functions through the laws of nature that He has established, as is evident when he says, for example, that it is not defensible to think that “if God is involved in some process, that process does not function through nature’s laws.” Shortly thereafter, he also says “There is much about the universe that we do not know. So we are unreasonable to assert that God cannot work outside of the natural laws we know, because they are only a small part of the laws of the universe.” (p. 79).

Does it seem likely that Brand is separating God’s creation (“nature”) from His activity in creation too much? After all, in Brand’s telling, it seems that these are impersonal laws of nature that God created – which He of course personally uses to accomplish His will.

Is that really a good way of thinking about these things?

He also says things like this:

“The portion of the universal laws that we understand are called natural law. The things that God does which we do not understand are called supernatural… [We will someday see that things like miracles] are part of the law-bound whole that God understands and uses to accomplish His purposes. God may use some of those laws only during the process of creation. He can make use of all those laws, but we never will have the power to utilize some of them even if we do eventually understand them. That is the primary difference between natural law and what we call supernatural.” (p. 78)

Another view - an aberration in modern science?

Another view – an aberration in modern science?

Again, we see that Brand is keen to never deny “the reality of the laws of nature”, which I get the impression all of creation can be reduced to. He further explains that, historically, the idea of the “God-of-the-gaps” is that believers in God who did science had “a tendency to explain things that did not seem possible through operation of natural laws (the “gaps” in our explanations) as requiring the direct result of God’s power”. He says that the faulty logic in the old “god-of-the-gaps” concept implies that if we can understand how something works, God does not have any part in it.” (p. 79) This is all well and good.

Or is it? Even though this seems to make some sense to me, I wonder about the implications here. First, note that for Brand, if a human being can muster the power to utilize a natural law – and hence, work more effectively with God’s “inventions” (p. 79) – we are no longer, by definition, dealing with the “supernatural” (at least insofar as we are talking about this matter as scientists?). Second, while Brand wisely writes that “naturalism is a powerful biasing influence in science in steering scientific thinking, and in many cases deciding what conclusions are to be reached” (p. 80), he also assumes [without any qualifications] that both “scientists with a naturalistic orientation and interventionists who are research-oriented” are searching for the truth (what is the scientific method really for?: finding truth? success? both? depends? should considerations like this play a part?) Finally, he says that “living things and physical phenomena are like machines in the sense that they are mechanisms that can be studied and understood” (p. 83, italics mine), for example, is “an assumption that is crucial for science” (p. 84).

Let’s focus on that last point a bit. Brand says it follows from this mechanistic assumption that “on a day-to-day basis, natural processes are not dependent on the capricious whims of the spirits or the operation of magic” (p. 84), and here we can all surely agree. That said, Christians, for example, know that God is actually nothing like this (of course Brand agrees, even if non-believers might see little difference between all the “gods” and this God). Rather, we know that the Apostle Paul argued, quoting a pagan poet, that “in Him we live and move and have our being”, and also asserted that everything was “held together by His powerful word”. My question: Dare we insist that this does not mean He is intimately involved in the movements of all things at all moments? Brand does say he believes that “God constantly uphold the laws of nature” (p. 86), but I wonder if even that is saying too little here, and is, in fact, beside the point.

"If he is to create or preserve it, however, he must be present and must make and preserve his creation both in its innermost and outermost aspects."

“If he is to create or preserve it, however, he must be present and must make and preserve his creation both in its innermost and outermost aspects…nothing can be more truly present and within all creatures than God himself with his power” (from AE 37:57-58)

Why do I say this? Let me begin answering that question with a little bit from Michael Hanby, who recently wrote a thoughtful essay for First Things called “The Civic Project of American Christianity”. In this essay, he talked about how Christians need to think more critically about the origins and implications of political liberalism (for the connection between political liberalism and theological liberalism – almost never realized – see this post highlighting Gary Dorrien’s work). In his essay, he said, for example:

“…insofar as a mechanistic understanding of nature and a pragmatic conception of truth are the correlates of the abstract individual and the liberal notion of freedom as power, even a ­Newtonian understanding of nature, reason, and freedom will eventually destroy the foundations for the rationality of natural law, as reason is reduced to the calculation of forces and law becomes an ­extrinsic imposition

To speak of freedom as something more than immunity from coercion, to speak of nature as something other than so many accidental aggregations of malleable matter at our disposal, to speak of truth as something other than pragmatic function, is to place oneself outside the rule of public reason and to risk becoming a stranger to the public square….

Robert Boyle in whose mechanical philosophy of science, “legitimate scientific explanation” of any quality requires “a describable mechanism that demonstrates just how the quality is produced” (Eaton 2005: 19).  The proto-Lewontin – and Christian – Boyle: …………….

Robert Boyle, the proto-Lewontin?  in his mechanical philosophy of science, “legitimate scientific explanation” of any quality requires “a describable mechanism that demonstrates just how the quality is produced” (Eaton 2005: 19).

Again, as I complained above, with Brand’s view it seems to me we are abstracting God’s creation from His activity too much – leaving us with what I think, biblically, should never be an option: serious contemplation of “impersonal laws of nature”.[ii]

Now I understand that again I am sounding audacious, as I am apt to do. After all, Christians and other theists might insist that a mechanistic universe implies a Mechanic (Newton: “the world is a machine and a perfect one, with God its creator being ‘the most perfect mechanic of all.’”) – so this kind of thinking is not necessarily bad!

My counterargument is that in conceding the assumption / knowledge of a mechanistic universe, it becomes more difficult to unambiguously assert, with the Christian apologist Nancy Pearcey, that “because a human is a someone, not a something[iii], the source of life must be also a Someone, not the forces of nature.” After all, if everything is a mechanism and hence should be considered a machine when it comes to scientific study, why would we not seriously consider – if we are open to hearing other views – that it may well be true that the human being is not exempt from this calculation? At least when it is not our ox being gored?

Still think it is no big deal? Well, I simply ask this: do we treat machines differently than we do human beings… persons? (even if, it seems to me, some would find this question specious)

I want to be careful in how I say the following now. Could it be that saying, as Brand does, that the universe is a mechanism – and that therefore, it follows mechanistic laws – is actually spiritually dangerous? That it likely means eventually asserting it is a machine, and that this likely will have significant implications for how we come to think about God and neighbor?[iv]

And the two shall become one…

And the two shall become one…

And here is where the complaints of many of the “Romantics” vs. the men of the Enlightenment start to really resonate with me. About 250 years ago, George Hamann echoed Vico in saying that “…human beings experience a regularity in the world around them, which they then improperly abstract into a concept of ‘natural law’ that excludes from serious discourse, the mystical, and the religious”. Johann Goethe went even further, essentially arguing that “the Renaissance ideal of classical languages, classical literature, and classical arts would be replaced by classical mechanics, which have no place for meaning, ethics, or Bildung [that is, the “tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation”– Wikipedia]. In science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being.” (view as summarized by Martin Noland).[v] And recently, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Romantic author Curtis White’s take-down of scientific materialism (The Science Delusion, 2014) – where he endeavors to show time and again where pure naturalism and its machine are both illogical and socially harmful.[vi] These men contended – I suspect rightly – that modern science was becoming the one ring to rule them all largely because of the questions and concerns I have been raising.

Picture of Ockham: “For Ockham, all talk of nature acting unconsciously for an end is pure metaphor… causal explanations of a mechanist sort alone are possible…. [he] opens the way to the purely empirical approach of Baconian science” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, p. 74)

For Ockham, all talk of nature acting unconsciously for an end is pure metaphor… causal explanations of a mechanist sort alone are possible…. [he] opens the way to the purely empirical approach of Baconian science” (Holmes, Fact, Value, and God, p. 74)

So all of this relates, I think, to what C.S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man. I also suspect I summed up my deepest concerns about Enlightenment thinking (and I have many concerns with Idealist/Historicist/”Romantic” counter-programs as well) in a past post, saying:

“In short, in the dominant Enlightenment mode of thought, the importance of character and trust in the “knowledge equation” are severely minimized, or, some cases, removed altogether.  In this case, what we get is an anemic conception of knowledge where things like natural laws, physical evidence, accurate observation, mathematics, logic, and human reason become all that remain.  Insofar as these things go hand in hand with the presence of humanity, in this mode of thinking they are basically extracted from human being, from character, from trust.”

So, again: does God rule the world through unbendable and mechanical laws of nature He has established? Perhaps laws He and we could actually articulate, enumerate – even capturing their essence mathematically, etc?

I must question here!

If it has not been clear enough why I think this way from what I have written above, consider also the following:

First, is there not an alternative way of approaching these matters that both retains the value of science and makes the particularly theistic/Christian assumptions regarding order in the universe more explicit? Why should we not assert the idea that the “laws of nature” are really just soft and hard regularities that God is constantly upholding and that we can depend on because God is love – and hence orders things for us to discover, use, and have confidence in?[vii]

Second, take into account this information from a WSJ review of Rebecca Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex (which I reviewed here):

“It is no accident that Socrates propounds what has come to be called the “Euthyphro argument” on the way to his trial. The pompous Euthyphro confidently tells Socrates that the holy is to be defined as “what the gods love.” Socrates points out that this gets things backward: The gods love the holy because it is already holy, not because they regard it so. In other words, things are not good because a supposed God approves of them; rather, God approves of what is good in itself, quite independently of his will. This Socratic argument undermines the entire idea that theology can provide a basis for morality and opens up a quite secular way of thinking about the nature of virtue. As Ms. Goldstein remarks, this was a seminal moment in the history of moral philosophy and indeed in the development of human civilization; it showed the power of pure rational thought.”

Note that Plato’s Socrates makes God subject to the [moral] laws of nature, opening “up a quite secular way of thinking about the nature of virtue” (however logically inconsistent this may ultimately be- see here and here). Brand does not make God subject to the [physical] laws of nature – He only says that God always works through the laws He has established. That said, one should be able to discern without too much trouble how the insight and value that Christianity has brought to these matters epistemologically is now readily “hi-jackable”.

In being sympathetic with arguments like those of Socrates, did Christians go badly wrong[viii], philosophizing in such a way (“voluntarism” and the like) that the church was removed further and further from what should have been a simple message? Namely that: while we cannot say that God’s creation and its laws necessarily had to be the exact way that they are, we can – and need to say – that these things are all in line with its Creator? For example, in order to defend God in a scientific age, it seems to me that one simply need not – and in fact should not – insist that God created (or especially needed to create) “the best of all possible worlds”. Could one not posit, for example, an immature and yet pure “very good” – which, had man responded well, could have become a mature and pure “very good” (ultimately becoming better… even more desirable)?

And Mr. Kant, "knowledge" of his "laws" was anything but.

And Mr. Kant, “knowledge” of his “laws” was anything but.

So, in order to be a good scientist is it really necessary to hold all of these ideas that Brand talks about above?

Or could my concerns – which would require shift the way that we think and speak about such matters (for one, dropping the “nature is a mechanism” talk)[ix] – be incorporated into a science which remains robust and successful? I am hard-pressed to think of a reason that it could not. After all, the “soft” and “hard” regularities that we observe in the world that God holds together in a very ordered way have the potential to be unambiguously labeled and quantified by all persons, trans-culturally and even trans-historically. For example, when we count specifically identifiable things this is not to say that there might be other ways of “capturing” or “harnessing” these particular realities (philosophically speaking, I think we can say that in each case, “number” is an actual thing that can potentially be counted by human beings and may or may not be depending on their purposes). Further, the fact that the “laws of nature” have often been shown to be only incomplete representations of reality – think of Newton vis a vis Einstein – shows us that there might always be more to these “laws” that may be identified at this or that moment and that we think should be said.

In short, I am saying this: I do not think we should be so hasty in our metaphysics here, being tempted to think that we can accurately label God as a scientist, mathematician or engineer. I will admit that I tend to think that He is more the Artist who does not need to quantify and measure – and that only some of us are the scientists, mathematicians, or engineers who decide to do this to some of his own work for our own purposes. I do not mean to denigrate scientists by saying this but rather to elevate God.

Contra Bacon, we do not make creation our slave and "put it on the rack". Its also not our machine. We love it and pray its groaning may end.

Contra Bacon, we do not make creation our slave and “put it on the rack”. Its also not our machine. We love it and pray its groaning may end.

As alluded to by Hanby above, in our world today, “knowledge” – however one chooses to define it – is strictly related to what it does for us – or, more accurately, what we do with it in our “knowledge practices”. As Mr. Francis (not Roger!) Bacon insisted “knowledge is power” – and now, it appears, it is only power (in short, all “knowledge” essentially deals with bodies in motion, and is purely heuristic).[x]

And so, what should be our response to this? To insist, for example, that modern science could have only arisen in a Christian context, given that Christians believe that our orderly God has given us epistemological equipment that accurately comports with the cosmos and its laws of nature? As should be clear from my argument, I think that cedes far too much to the Enlightenment program and those of it’s forerunners.

Instead of this, I propose something more like the following summation:

When it comes to man’s modern scientific program (yes, certainly empowered by Christian beliefs!) no one can deny the importance – and appropriateness – of examining particular scientific matters and theories in terms of “utility” – these things really do, thanks be to God, “work”! That said, why should one ever insist that what we call the “laws of nature” – much less all of the theories built on them – are “true”? Why – as if we knew the inner workings of the mind of God and His creation (Vico) – should they ever be associated with what we call knowledge in any sense?

Why not rather assume that these “laws” are the truly conventional and contingent things – transitory maps and “useful fictions” – and that things like belief in God, human relationships, and moral truth are true and certain knowledge (not the other way around)?

“…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.”

And where do I go from here theologically? Here: what we are to know and in fact already know in part should start with essential Christian doctrine.  My argument builds on truths like those exemplified in Psalm 22:

“…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.”

And this: “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (II Tim. 1:12, see John 17:3 as well).

…but ignore that last bit for now, and focus with me on my argument vs. our understanding of the scientific method. Am I off my rocker? If you think so, try to help me out and show me where I am wrong – but if you do, please try to address my actual arguments.





[i] Of the first edition, fellow young earth creationist Kurt Wise wrote: “Faith, Reason, and Earth History makes a substantial contribution to creationist literature. It is the most philosophically sophisticated book on the subject and a must read for anyone interested in creationism and the origins controversy.”

[ii] Of course, one does not need to insist, with Jonathan Edwards, that God re-creates the entire universe during every moment, in order to challenge Brand’s notion that we can have real knowledge about something called “nature’s laws” in part because of this assumption about the mechanistic nature of nature.

[iii] Actually, I think we do need to say that a human being is a something as well – just not a mechanism. Here we find that the emphasis of some philosophers – mostly classical – on things like essence and substance are of use to us. See also Gumbrecht’s Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey.

[iv] As I argued in the past:

considering the creation – and especially ourselves – as machines is spiritually dangerous because it opens us up to the temptation to think the same about all persons, including the Creator Himself!   Then, we treat Him accordingly – that is, attempting to manipulate Him as we would any other machine.  In sum, such thinking only gives fuel to our desire to justify ourselves over and against Him.

it is not only incorrect to say that the cosmos is a machine, but it is even dangerous to say that it is like a machine – and it is best to avoid such talk… Please note that I am not saying that all persons who currently see the cosmos as a machine think as I have outlined above, for some still identify the cosmos with the creation and see God as very much involved in it.  Further, I am not saying that the errors of those who really do see nature as wholly organic, free and divine are less theologically serious.

I am simply asserting that it is normal for the practice of methodological naturalism to lead persons in this mechanical direction and for it to affect our deepest beliefs.  And I think to say this is not much different from saying lex orendi lex credenda (the Law of prayer is the law of belief).  As one finds some success in the world using naturalistic techniques one may begin to think, somewhat logically, that they ought to have a very good reason for not letting their methodological naturalism become pure philosophical naturalism. Just what is that good reason?  After all, they think, there is no doubt that I am understanding much about nature and learning ever better how to manipulate it. It works because it is true and its true because it works!”

[v] Noland, Martin R. 1996. Harnack’s Historicism: the Genesis, Development, and Institutionalization of Historicism and its Expression in the Thought of Adolf Von Harnack. Thesis (Ph. D.)–Union Theological Seminary, 1996. Consider also this quotation from Michael Polanyi: “The argument of doubt put forward by Locke in favor of tolerance says that we should admit all religions since it is impossible to demonstrate which one is true. This implies that we must not impose beliefs that are not demonstrable. Let us apply this doctrine to ethical principles. It follows that, unless ethical principles can be demonstrated with certainty, we should refrain from imposing them and should tolerate their total denial. But, of course, ethical principles cannot, in a strict sense, be demonstrated: you cannot prove the obligation to tell the truth, to uphold justice and mercy. It would follow therefore that a system of mendacity, lawlessness, and cruelty is to be accepted as the alternative to ethical principles and on equal terms. But a society in which unscrupulous propaganda, violence, and terror prevail offers no scope for tolerance. Here the inconsistency of liberalism based on philosophical doubt becomes apparent: freedom of thought is destroyed by the extension of doubt to the field of traditional ideals, which includes the basis for freedom of thought.” (From: —Michael Polanyi, “The Eclipse of Thought,” in Meaning, by Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975], pp. 9-10).

[vi] Of course, there is much wrong with White’s alternative! I plan on doing a full review of the book in the future, but here is a preview of the kinds of things I will say: “The problem… is that White is a hopeless Romantic. Literally. Like the Idealists and Romantics before him, all eager to overcome the fallen world (their own definition of the fall: in the chains of society), White embraces notions of moral evolution (pre-Darwin) and takes pride in being aware of life’s irony: that man lives by fictions and that the artists and poets realize this. They thereby seek to be true not in the stories (not histories!) they tell, but in their varied efforts to gently enlighten us to and allign us with the [playful] activity that is of the World Spirit: such is the good and True and Good and Beautiful. Forget antiquated notions about the Faith once delivered to the saints – life, they assert as if they know it, is not about this or any other “Certain Knowledge” of humanity. This is the Faith and Conviction for which they will so courageously – and meritoriously – fight.”

[vii] Previously, I had written: “[Regarding how to understand science]….I think all of this can be better understood with a simple analogy: Parents arrange things in a consistent fashion so that a child can be captivated, play, create and experiment on the one hand, and they arrange things and *act* in a consistent fashion so that the child feels security, stability, and confidence, on the other hand.  Arranging things in a consistent fashion – more or less so – depending on what we are talking about, and acting in a consistent steadfast fashion is a part of love.  Creating beauty and order for another is a fruit of love. In other words, order is born of love, not love of order – or from a love of order!  As the linguist Roy Harris perceptively notes, communicative behavior cannot arise from non-communicative behavior.  There must be an infrastructure in place from the beginning. This matter does not center around the fact that truth is a social construct instead of some cold and impersonal factual correspondence, or something like that – but that how we conceive of and describe reality can’t not be done personally, or socially.  And such should not surprise, because Reality is personal, is social (rooted as it is in the Reality of the Triune God).  And this in turn brings us back to Romans 1.  It is not that there is nothing to the idea that order=God, but rather that order can’t not be recognized as a fruit of love.  Perhaps one’s proof of God does not begin by saying “Someone must have made this”, but rather by the love that one does know.

Now none of this means that we can’t observe [and harness, as are able] the hard and soft regularities that God has put in place for us.  It just means being humble about working with these things, understanding that He has His own purposes for arranging the world as He sees fit, and we have our own purposes…” (from here)

[viii] Abelard contended that while intentions could be either good or bad, particular actions could not. Then, Duns Scotus was the first to argue that “As Old Testament moral practice was preparatory, our present moral understanding may also be provisional, and for this reason God’s actual commands to us may differ from the Decalogue” (Holmes, 71). Ockham argued that if the world was not contingent, this would necessarily make God subject to the universal forms (see here, particularly under “universals”) that were posited (the Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor says that nominalism was adopted to safeguard God’s power: so that He would not be limited by overly strict conceptions of nature, particularly human nature. This new focus on “voluntarism” and “nominalism” seems to re-capitulate the Stoic’s reasons for shunning theories of forms while upholding some kind of creator God [though one with the cosmos] and His divine power). Again, of course, one who is more “Neoplatonic” (or, perhaps, simply Christian?) in their view of God and the world, for example, need not insist that a) there is only one possible way of structuring the world, b) that God could not freely choose to create universal forms (and some and not other potential others) that were in accordance with his nature.

[ix] As long as we do not think that nature (the creation!) is a mechanism. I am not saying that this is necessarily wrong or one is wrong to strongly believe that the creation is in fact a mechanism. I am simply saying that we really can’t have certain knowledge that the universe is a mechanism – but that it should not matter for the scientist.

[x] “ establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe…depends wholly on the arts and sciences… For we cannot command nature except by obeying her… Truth, therefore, and utility are here perfectly identical.” – Francis Bacon (might that not help explain the confusion this N.Y. Times editorial pinpoints?)


Posted by on July 23, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Diagnosing Christian Bad Boy Syndrome

...but more passionate for the lost than thou.

…but more passionate for the “real sinners” than thou.

Actually, I am dealing with Lutheran bad boys in particular here, but perhaps some of what I talk about may be more broadly applicable.

(and for those inclined to diagnose me, I have never been nor ever will be a “charismatic figure” and/or “bad boy”, though, I confess that according to my flesh I have, pathetically and sinfully, imagined myself capable of being one – and imagined the “benefits” I might accrue thereby. “Ah, sounds like ‘sour grapes”‘ some may think.. : ) )

In the past, I have argued that we all think some persons are better than others and that we all try to guide the conscience of others – regardless of whether or not we are aware of this. This post, in part, expands on those statements more.

Another general truth claim now: It’s good to be concerned about being right (as in arguing for this vs. that), doing right, and even making the world right.

In short, all relatively healthy folks are concerned to be right, do right, and influence people to do the same. It is good to have a finely developed sense of what righteousness and wisdom entails, and to broadly work for this in our earthly lives.

This, contrary to the beliefs of some, is not being “self-righteous” or “holier than thou” – this is part of what it means to be a human being. Further, if it is true, as Paul Tripp says, that “self-righteousness is being more aware and irritated by the sins of others than you are conscious of and grieved by your own” (I’d say this is a symptom of self-righteousness) this is a statement that, in general, we should probably only use to diagnose ourselves.

So what are some ways to actually be self-righteous? (here is Luther with some help*)  Well, for example:

  1. thinking that you are justified by God – that you may stand before Him and be accounted as righteous – for trying to be right, do right, and influencing people to do the same…
  2. not being willing to admit before God and man that you do and should try to be right, do right, and influence people to do the same (you, unlike those other people, do not seek to “guide the consciences of others”)
  3. lying to yourself that you should not try to be right, do right, and influence people to do the same (in which case you are, because you feel righteous, not willing to confess your lie to God)

Certainly, for all of us our sin – the depths of our abject selfishness, wickedness, rebellion, and self-deception! – goes deep. Very deep. And it makes sense that some of us, in part because of what has occurred in our life and how we have responded, have a much deeper grasp of just how sinful we are. This is a good thing. It produces humility in us, and makes us eager for correction.

But, is it possible that there is actually a Satanic mimic of this “sin awareness”?  It seems to me – and God correct me if I am wrong (for we are always to put the best construction on all things) – that some Lutherans in particular are saying “…because I’m a bigger sinner than you – a real sinner – I ‘get’ grace while you – so obviously focused on ‘legal minutiae’ – clearly do not!”

And here, as Pastor Mark Suburg has pointed out, it is a short step to take that “the idea that [one’s] profligate sins of the past are part of a narrative that magnifies the grace and forgiveness of Christ”** – and to basically build one’s theology around this. He calls this the “Lutheran bad boy syndrome” – rather sophisticated bad boys though they may be…

This recently prompted me to personally write one of these pastors, and I said at one point:

“[…] recently tweeted: “The teacher should not try to astound the young with the gravity of his past sins; it will often have the opposite effect than was intended.” …many wise pastors I know over the years have made the same point – for example, some persons might get the idea that they have not really experienced true Christianity unless they have really lived life with this kind of passionate pursuit – sinful or otherwise…. “

Here is more Surburg, taking this back to the theology… to the Apostle Paul’s “therefore”:

“The danger is that when repeated again and again, the perspective on sin itself begins to shift. Sin becomes something that shows how great the forgiveness of Christ is, rather than something against which Christians are called to struggle.  When paired with an understanding of the Christian life that is centered on Roman 7:14-25a it easily leads to an assumption that Christians will fail.  Yet this in itself ceases to be a real problem because our failure in sin simply magnifies the grace and forgiveness of Christ, and this is what really matters.

However, Paul does not assume that Christians will fail.  Instead while acknowledging the reality of failure in the Christian life, his discussion moves beyond Romans chapter 7 to say:  “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:12-15 ESV).  Paul does not assume perfectionism.  But he does believe that Christians are called to struggle against sin, and he believes that because of the work of the Spirit this struggle can and does succeed.  The apostle extols the forgiveness found in Christ, even as he urges Christians to live as what Christ’ s Spirit has made them to be.

I don’t think that the “Bad Boy Lutherans” Pastor Surburg is talking about think that the Christian will not struggle. But I do think they are at least tempted to believe that neither they – nor anyone else – will succeed in any meaningful way.

Even as they also, seemingly unawares, often give the impression they think they are the ones who are mature.

They are not like, for example, legalistic, cowardly and insipid pastors stuck in the rut of seeking security!  At the very least, these deserve to be ignored, not engaged with seriously, not sympathized with, etc.  No, the more radical Lutherans are the true holy ones who will boldly embrace the mission of the church!  It is they who are the brave and righteous heroes – not only willing to embrace but seek out the multitude of sinners… addicts, ex-cons, prostitutes, the LGBT community, etc…  They are unlike the legalistic Pharisee-type concerned only with their own security and the minutiae of the law… simply unwilling to really “get dirty with” and speak the radical gospel to “real” sinners.

In other words, one gets the distinct impression that with them, there is no longer any “we” in the church’s community of sinners. Bearing with one another in love has evaporated… The legalistic ones (the petite bourgeois?) – overly concerned about non-essential things like liturgical matters and Paul’s biblical “therefore” (“third use” matters– “Paul couldn’t control how the Spirit used the law. That didn’t stop him from exhorting/admonishing Christians to live in a godly way” [Surburg]) for example – can readily be left behind as true Lutheranism progresses.***

(And if I have been too harsh here or am just creating straw-men, I hope someone will love me enough to try and set me straight. Please help me to see where I am wrong)

Assuming I have put my finger on something real here, how can this happen – this kind of disdain for followers of Christ who, though very imperfect, truly do desire to share Him and His grace with others?  What kind of teachings in particular could, at the very least, give aid and comfort to this kind of attitude?

I have a theory: a false understanding of the doctrine of predestination. In their view, anything which deviates from their predestinarian view focuses too much on the believer, who is no longer being seen as totally passive – as he should be. That explains why it is so easy for some to insist on saying things like “As St. Paul teaches, by grace the Spirit produces fruits. God’s Spirit produces God-pleasing works in and through us. The Holy Spirit alone.”

In sum, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him” merely becomes “I believe I cannot believe”. And when one cannot believe, one can hardly be expected to succeed in much of anything else. Whatever happens in life and however we are carried along – this is God’s will (this, it seems to me, is an issue that John Updike may have had)****

It is right to talk about the “radical Gospel” – where Christ alone, grace alone and faith alone are the battle cry!  We are to be people completely focused on grace…always!  Christ does save us completely!  That said, the believer recognizes that Christ made him believe, and that from that point they have a continual choice to believe what God’s word says.

Finally, just because these Bad Boy Lutherans seem to deny:

  • that God’s law can guide the Christian (they might say it guides the old Adam to his death)
  • progressive sanctification
  • synergism in sanctification
  • that the Christian is partly sinner and partly righteous*****
  • that marriage is a pre-fall institution (while not denying God meant for us to be some kind of monogamous one flesh unions from the beginning)
  • that all Lutheranism post-Luther has actually understood Martin Luther

…none of that means that they cannot be Christians (I’ve even re-tweeted some of those Bad Boys – because I appreciate the sweetness of the Gospel they have conveyed).

That said….


Strictly speaking, we are saved by Christ… with every “spirit and life” word that proceeds from His mouth. It is this theology that saves us, not our own faulty understandings of his words. That said, when the lies of the devil get a foothold, that true theology is always in danger of being completely shunned – and perhaps replaced not with atheism per se, but a “different Jesus” (2 Cor. 11).

This is ultimately why these matters are so important. Radical grace without the true Jesus is just another of Satan’s subtle lies.


Note: I had originally included a picture in this post which has now been removed. A conscientious pastor suggested to me that I remove it and so I have. UPDATE: Picture back in. Explained to pastor it was from a Bad Boy’s tweet, and he says:  “Well… I guess if they want to own it, what can I say? :)” UPDATE 2: “Engage ideas and arguments, not individuals…”  Sigh. I don’t think its inappropriate, nor do others I respect, but maybe he is a better man… It’s gone. Done with this.

Also, I have now edited the post above for typos and clarity in some parts. Content is the same.


*Discussing 1 Corinthians 1:31, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord”, Luther says:

Our heart must have this attitude and think: Oh Lord, if we were to reason together concerning my life and actions, I would not be able to stand, even if I were John the Baptist. For everything is not yet your gift, present, and mercy, but my life. But I boast in my goodness, and in being your servant, because you constantly give me gifts and because, as you promised to Abraham, you would be merciful to me through your Christ. If I am not good for myself, he is good for me. If I am not holy, he is holy. If I am not God’s servant, he is. If I am not without worry and fear, he is free of all worries and without fear, so that I thus soar out of myself into him and boast that I am good in and through Christ. Accordingly, he wishes us to boast that we are good and holy, but not by ourselves. For by ourselves, we must boast like desperate rogues.” (Vol. VI, Wittenberg edition, on the canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79))

Discussing 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers also a multitude of sin”, Luther wrote words that made me pause before publishing this post:

“According to conceitedness, we always want to be the only ones who are beautiful; we do not see what is good in the neighbor, but put it out of our eyes. Wherever we see a little speck of dirt, we magnify it and make it so large that we cannot see anything that is good, even if it had the eyes of a falcon and the face of an angel. This is just as if I saw someone dressed in a golden robe that had somewhere a seam of white thread and then opened my eyes wide, as if the robe had become worthless thereby, while I saw myself as exquisitely dressed in my coarse jacket with a golden patch. Accordingly, we do not see the vices we are full of, while we cannot see anything that is good in other people. Now, where this natural vice rears its head among the true Christians, judging begins, so that I soon despise and condemn the other the moment he stumbles a little or is weak, and he treats me accordingly in return, measuring me with the same measure, and also seeks and reproves only the worst he can find in me. In this case, love is utterly suppressed. All that remains is that they bite and devour each other, until they have fully consumed one another and cease to be Christians.” (Vol. IV, Wittenberg ed., on Matthew 7)

I want to explicitly say that I see much that is good in the words of many Lutherans who might be glad to wear the label “Bad Boy Lutheran”. But that does not justify me, and there is much in my attitudes towards fellow Christians that is wrong.

**Luther did say: “We need the examples concerning the weakness of the saints, and they yield great comfort, more than the examples of the great excellent strength and other virtues the saints had. Accordingly, I cannot be improved much by the fact that David killed Goliath, bears, and lions. For in such chivalrous deeds of his I cannot follow him because they surpass all my powers and thoughts. For by such great deeds the saints are praised on account of their power and strength which they had as brave heroes. However, when we are presented with examples of the weakness, sins, terrors, and temptations the saints had; when I, for instance, read the lamenting and sighing, the terrors and cries of David, then I am lifted up exceedingly and am given great comfort. For when I see how they did not perish and die in their cries and terrors, but how they comforted and lifted themselves up by means of the promises, then I conclude that I too should not despair. (Luther, vol. XI, Wittenberg ed., on Genesis 28).”

If the Christian life was only about applying comfort to sinners terrified by God’s law (justification), this is all that we would need. But we need the saints holy examples as well to teach and encourage us in our lives of sanctification.

***In like fashion, as a friend of mine notes “during the Reformation, Andreas Carlstadt also complained about the bourgeois existence of the professor with the cushy academic job in Wittenberg – protected by his prince from all the “real” struggles of the day faced by the true, radical followers of Jesus…”

****As Pastor Holger Sonntag said to me: “…we’re not saved by our repenting (as such), but by our turning to Christ. Still, we need to repent — and by God’s grace, we will do so. Also, we’re not saved by our faith (as such), but by our faith in Christ. Still, we need to believe — and by God’s grace, we will do so.”

*****Sonntag again, in a discussion regarding the simul in Luther’s writings: ” it seems to me the “simul” can refer to totus — totus when we look at a person as a whole under God’s judgment of either law (totus peccator) or gospel (totus iustus by imputation of Christ’s righteousness etc.) — or it can mean partim — partim (or here: “two parts”) when we look at the Christian as both old Adam and new man locked in mortal combat (Rom. 7; Gal. 5: flesh vs. spirit). In other words the totus – totus takes the “outside” perspective; the partim-partim takes us inside the Christian.”

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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Ad Fontes” Benedict Option!: From the World to the Word

Rod Dreher is one of my favorite columnists. I consider his blog at the American Conservative to be essential reading. Over the past couple of years he has been talking about something he calls the Benedict Option. He contends that Christians in America who take their faith seriously are basically going to have to take this option in one form or another.  In this recently released talk, he sums up in some detail what he is advocating in under 20 minutes (answering questions and objections he has heard as well). I recommend watching it: when I send out an introductory message to my students taking the basic Christianity class I teach a few times a year, I will now be including a link to this video and encouraging them to watch it.

Here is a link to one of the earliest posts I remember where Dreher really started articulating his idea.  A clip from that article:

“If I were a social or religious conservative who had money to donate, I would not give it to political causes. I would use it for strengthening our institutions as places of effective cultural resistance to the times we’re in, and the times that we’re entering. Make them function like the Benedictine monasteries of Western Europe did during the Dark Ages: as institutions and communities that bear and pass on our moral and spiritual vision in a time and place that does not share it, so that one day, far into the future, it will be there for rediscovery, and the rebuilding of society out of the ruins.”

At the time, all of this put me in mind of a longer piece I wrote about eight years ago called “A child at peace in the presence of his father: a Lutheran monasticism?”  I will admit that to talk about Lutheran monasticism sounds like an oxymoron, but as I re-read it now, it is clear that the “light monasticism” that I was talking about here is basically analogous to what Dreher calls the Benedict Option.

Here are some clips from that piece, starting with the origins of monasticism:

“…if monasticism was not necessarily an un-Christian attempt to earn God’s favor, than what was it?  Was it simply an all-out retreat from the world, as it is often characterized?  This seems unlikely, seeing as how the writings and practices of the monks both indicate that they were still concerned to be “in the world” while not being “of” it.  Gregory of Nanzianzus in his works endeavored to show that “the monastic profession is characterized by steadfastness in a way of life rather than by physical withdrawal”[1]  The idea seems to have been that by embracing the monastic life, persons could be most fully equipped to fulfill a priestly, prophetic and royal ministry for the “life of the world.”  (Some persons have even argued that it was not the “mainstream” institutional church but rather the monastics that created the Church’s impetus for missions and evangelism).  “If you want to exercise the priesthood of your soul, do not let the fire depart from your soul”, Origin had said, and for some, this meant something akin to the monastic life was needed. (see here)”

"come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the LORD. Don't touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you." -- 2. Cor 6:17

“…come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the LORD. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you.” — 2. Cor 6:17

My cultural analysis leading me to think such a thing may be necessary:

Bouncing between what seems to be the extreme of attaining material wealth and comfort (often smuggled in to definitions of “quality of life”) for all, and the other extreme of a spiritual liberty (spiritual power and comfort) that degrades the physical (particularly, the human body) men these days religiously strive for a “progress”, often operating in intellectual isolation from any possible consideration of any true progress that may be due to the Christian message (popularized in books like Alvin Schmidt’s “How Christianity Changed the World” or Vishal Mangalwadi’s “Truth and Transformation”).  They do not seek to be found in a renewed creation in Christ, where they may more fully grow into a realization of what it means to be creatures made in God’s image.  Instead, bolstered in part by the liberation the world has experienced because of the Christian Gospel, they fight against the ancient pagan notions of an unchanging natural order and fate in their own way.  The worldly wiser among them do not reject notions of realism, for there is indeed “the world as it is”, even as there is also “the world as it should be”.  Still, whether they atheistically embrace the material, seeing it as the only reality, or whether they seek liberation from the material in a more spiritual sense, they both see the need or imperative, now driven more so by new medicines and technologies, to liberate humanity from what it previously meant to be human. They will not “destroy the old man” in God’s way, through the Law and Gospel found in Christ, but rather via their own means, and to their own ends…

Further: all of this takes place as relationships are becoming increasingly atomized, self-focused.  The Darwinian life that seems to be required of our persons in the ever-more demanding meritocracy which is our world lends itself to all manner of difficulties, leading to temptations to sin….

But the “private sector” (free market) is not the only one which has become increasingly oppressive.  The same can be said for the public realm, the realm of those who govern.  After all, families and churches, working hard where God has placed them, making a difference in “Good Samaritan” moments – especially remembering in Christ’s name the poor among them – being supported in their good deeds by a government set up to encourage such work, are not enough….

"You can't stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair."

“You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

The attitude of these new “monastics”:

“We are too weak, feeble, and corrupt to resist the many temptations of this present age.  The secular realm as it is currently imagined and hence constructed is becoming less and less Christian in its affections, and hence, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian faith to be communicated in words and deeds.  The tempting enticements, multiplied a thousand times, and available from the privacy of our own homes at the click of a mouse, are too great.  The churches themselves are focusing on Jesus Christ and the Scriptures which speak of Him less and less, and their worldliness increases daily.  Temptation abounds as sin for a season has become sin for all seasons.  Even if I flee the sins which so clearly destroy life, in my escape it seems in the popular consciousness I only find pagan solutions that while attempting to control the gross outbreaks of wickedness (family problems and otherwise), are wicked themselves in their idolatry.  The world constantly teaches things which are at odds with what is true about God, about us, about the creation.  I know there are those who tell me that there are good answers to these false assertions, but the lies sometimes sound persuasive, I feel my faith being choked out, and just trying to provide food and housing, I can’t afford an internet connection where I can get to Issues ETC.*  : ) …

The world may call me lazy, unpatriotic, a poor world citizen, or even an atheist(!), but this is the truth – I am in need of more food.  The Church may even call me selfish, but may I be “selfish” like a baby receiving nourishment at its mother’s breast.  May I be like the trusting child who simply feels the need for more love. I need more growth in grace.  I am in desperate need of these things, which I find so little mention of in the world!  And why should I be surprised at such need?  I need more, for I have missed not only the world’s mark (Paul: “as I try to please them in every way…”) but God’s – and I alone am the Chief of sinners.  Like Isaiah, my own lips are unclean and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Such would be the humility of the new monastics:  “We are not strong, but we are weak.  In Christ alone and in the shelter He provides are we strong.  Only by being humbled to the point where we once again are set upon dwelling with, and remaining with the little babe could we even hope of fight the battle whose victory He has secured for His people”:

His camp is pitche`d in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, hay-stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

(Robert Southwell, This Little Boy So Few Days Old)

Now, some might argue that all of this is a bit ingenuous.  After all, is this not actually implicitly saying that *we*, the ones who are choosing to separate ourselves, are the ones who are spiritually strong in the Lord?…

Gerard_van_Honthorst_001Here is how I end:

….The new monastics, especially, would be permitted to, in a very real sense, rest in their redemption in Christ.  They would retreat from both storms external and internal into the shelter of His house.  Like a baby as in a mother’s arms.  Like the child playing at peace in the presence of his father.  All striving for perfection, doing excellent work with the explicit goal of to promote Christ, sharing His Name upon “re-entrance” into the world, the “secular realm”, would necessarily spring from this truth.  And since people, generally, do not know what their real needs are, perhaps this will shake them up enough to start catching a glimpse of just what it is they are lacking – forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus Christ, the exact representation of God the Father.


*Thanks mom and dad (who are paying for our internet while they are overseas so they can chat with us on Skype)

Images: LGBTQ White House (White House Twitter feed), Gerard Van Honthorst painting (Wikipedia), Dreher (Rod Dreher’s Twitter account)




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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


Is “You May Not Use Your Conscience to Guide My Behavior” a Christian Way of Speaking?

A popularized summation of Martin Luther's Antinomian Theses, also from Lutheran Press

A popularized summation of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses, from Lutheran Press

“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” — I Timothy 1:5

Recently, I read the following quotation from a conservative Lutheran pastor: “You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior.”

Needless to say, I found the quote rather jarring. It reminded me of a statement from another like-minded Lutheran pastor (though this one a [relatively] conservative one in the ELCA). This man had explained to me that he had taught his young children to cover their ears and scream whenever they heard a pastor try to tell them what they should be doing after hearing the message that Jesus had put away their sins.

In other words he had, using this memorable language, taught his children to reject what Christians in the Reformation tradition call “the third use of the law” (note that, for example, there are certainly differences as to how Calvinists, vis a vis Lutherans, would view this use of the law).

(to quickly review: the first use of the law acts as curb on the sin of general society, the second use reveals our sin like a mirror [we use mirrors to help us see our flaws], and the third use of the law helps guide the Christian in his behavior)

All of this reminded me of the book cover pictured above, which certainly caught my interest when I saw it. This excellent book, put out by Lutheran Press (full disclosure: my pastor is its co-founder) is a popularized version of Martin Luther’s “antinomian theses” (antinomian means “against the law [of God]”)

Needless to say, I find these kinds of statements to puzzling and intellectually incoherent in all kinds of ways, for example:

-in the first statement I quoted above, does this not all depend on whether the conscience is aligned with God’s word? For example, if it is not, one should not even use it to guide one’s own behavior.

-the first statement appeared right around the time of the recent “gay marriage” decision by SCOTUS. In this case, perhaps it is simply saying “keep the government out of our, that is Christian’s, consciences!” Still, insofar as the government is upholding the law of God, should we not want them in our consciences? (I wrote more on this topic in a post titled, “Please Mr. CTCR – [do your part to] get the Word of God into our consciences”)

-if the statement is only saying that non-government officials should not try to force another human being (who is not our child, for example) to behave in a certain way – unlikely as this may be – the point is taken. And for the church, it is good and right to practice “forbearance” and to eschew all physical force.

-in the case of the pastor’s guidance (irony noted!) for his children, would not one also need to cover one’s ears during readings of Romans 12 ff., for example, where Paul attempts to urge Christians how to live as Christians “by the mercies of God”?

those who reject the third use of the law nevertheless often claim that the law does indirectly guide Christians and all persons through the first and second uses.

if Christians have children – particularly young children – they certainly try to guide them in their behavior, and at times may seek to do so (as they get older) by reminding them that they are Christians and called to reflect Christ.

Antinomianism made appealing for our age.

Antinomianism made appealing for our age.

So where did this kind of thinking come from?  In truth, this is what was taught by “Lutheranism’s brightest lights” in the 1970’s and 80’s as the Lutheran ethic. It is also the argument used by someone like ELCA professor Timothy Wengert to justify homosexual activity among Christians. His position, in sum, is the following: if a Christian’s conscience does not condemn him or her for what he or she is doing, we also cannot do so, for that would then be violating their conscience (for my critical review of Wengert’s recent book, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, see here)

These days, such thinking is often said to be critical to the church’s mission as well. For example, I her book, Pastrix: the Cranky and Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber writes:

“…I continually need the stranger, the foreigner, the “other” to show me water in the desert. I need to hear, “here is water in the desert, so what is to keep me, the eunuch, from being baptized?” Or me the queer or me the intersex or me the illiterate or me the neurotic or me the overeducated or me the founder of Focus on the Family.

Until I face the difficulty of that question and come up, as Philip did, with no good answer…. Until then, I can only look at the seemingly limited space under the tent and think either that it’s my job to change people so they fit or it’s my job to extend the roof so that they fit. Either way, it’s misguided because it’s not my tent. It’s God’s tent.” … (p. 94)

It is very clear to me that one may appreciate Bolz-Weber’s desire to be hospitable without embracing what amounts to her purported refusal to judge others by guiding their consciences (again, see my review of Wengert’s book)

So is the first statement about conscience (leading off this article) always totally wrong?  Well, no.  First of all, when there is a definite conflict, we must always obey God rather than men. Second, as I noted in a footnote in my own post about the deeper meaning of the SCOTUS decision, a principle like this might have some relevance when we talk about “adiaphora”, that is “disputable” and “indifferent” matters. Such things are found and described, for example, in Romans 14 and 15. That said, we should note that even hard feelings emerging over indifferent matters – often because love does not bridle freedom for the sake of the neighbor – can lead persons further apart! (think of what happens in divorce, or in the church, “schism”)

The deeper meaning, however, is that the law of God is the law of God whether or not our conscience functions according to it. In like fashion, the gospel of God is the gospel of God whether or not one’s conscience is soothed (correctly) by it. Preaching itself involves setting the conscience of the Christian “straight” concerning both law and gospel, and this is presumably the work of the Holy Spirit! (see John 16, for example)

Martin Luther: "This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer..."

Martin Luther: “This, then, is the thunderbolt of God by which He strikes in a heap [hurls to the ground] both manifest sinners and false saints [hypocrites], and suffers no one to be in the right [declares no one righteous], but drives them all together to terror and despair. This is the hammer…”

As my pastor put it to me:

“Thus when the Christian, his conscience properly functioning according to the law and gospel, that is “with the mind of Christ,” judges a fellow Christian, or consoles a fellow Christian, it is not merely a function of his conscience as some sort of individualistic expression of what is perceived to be Christian piety. It is in fact the Holy Spirit using the “rock smashing” Word of God to crumble into pieces, then refine, then forge, then shape the conscience of the fellow Christian so it once again functions as it should.

It is, in other words, not the case of a (perhaps erring) Christian conscience trying to control the behavior of another Christian. It is the case of the Word of God being proclaimed to a fellow Christian and the Holy Spirit taking it from there…

None of this is to say that doing this kind of work – “in step with God’s Spirit” – is easy. As Luther noted, it’s the most difficult and important work there is!  When I think about the consequences of mis-diagnosing someone and wrongly applying law and gospel I am reminded of the Eastern Orthodox prayer: “God… do not let them perish through me, a sinner….” (note that this was/is the critical matter of the Reformation).

But we must – and will – act. After all, truth be told, there is no such thing as an independent Christian or independent Christian church.

And, as I noted in my SCOTUS post,

“…the problem… is that all of us will inevitably use our conscience to not only determine how we should act, but how we should help others to act as well. Every human being has a certain range of acceptable behavior that they will accept and those who say otherwise are deluding themselves. We all have something to say, in one form or another, about how we think others should live.”

In other words, Christians – simply by virtue of being human beings! – cannot avoid this. Therefore, it is only sensible that they urge one another to live in accordance with the word of God. How can we who have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ – giving us peace with God – do otherwise?

This involves using the law of God in all three of its traditional Reformation uses. As Pastor Mark Surburg recently tweeted: “Paul couldn’t control how the Spirit used the law. That didn’t stop him from exhorting/admonishing Christians to live in a godly way.”


(For more on the third use of the law and its relation to “the simul”, see my post: “A Plea to Reformation Christians: Don’t Let Your “Simul” Become the One Ring to Rule Them All”)


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Posted by on July 7, 2015 in Uncategorized


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