Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Child of the Reformation

Short Reformation post from 2009:

In my admittedly small mind there is really only one question about the validity of the Reformation of the Western Church:

Are God’s commands, threats, and punishments – His Hammer which shatters – to be proclaimed so that persons may see themselves as sinners – sinners who should then be given the confidence of faith – i.e. be actively persuaded via the Promise (Christ) that they have God’s forgiveness for all their sins (and hence, life and salvation) – even as they tremble?

Is this to continually occur in the life of the Christian, until death comes, or not? Is this pattern of “Law and Gospel” to be that which the heralds of God’s Word bring – or not? This, in my mind, is *the* question for the Church posed by the Reformation – and everything else flows from this.


See also this older post The Coming Vindication of Martin Luther, and note the links to the many other Reformation-related posts at the bottom of the page.

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Posted by on October 31, 2015 in Uncategorized


Where did Halloween – “All Saint’s Eve” – Come From?

In some parts of the world Christians go to graveyards to pray and place flowers and candles on their loved one’s graves on All Hallow’s Eve. This picture depicts the holy day (holiday) in Sweden.

In some parts of the world Christians go to graveyards to pray and place flowers and candles on their loved one’s graves on All Hallow’s Eve. This picture depicts the holy day (holiday) in Sweden.

What does Halloween mean? It is “Hallowe’en”, which mean’s “All Hallows’ Eve”, or “All Saint’s Eve”. Analogous to Christmas Eve, it is the beginning of All Saints’ Day and starts at sundown on October 31st.

The old English “hallowed” means holy, sanctified, “set apart” (as for service).  Martin Luther’s 95 theses were meant for all Christians, or all “holy ones” – “saints”. He posted them in 1517 on “All Hallow’s Eve”, or “All Saint’s Eve”, at the All Saints’ Church (the University of Wittenberg campus church) in Wittenberg, Germany

Martin Luther’s core message?: All Saints are saved by grace, through faith, revealed by God’s Word in Christ. Thesis 11 of his 95 theses read:Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has part in all the blessings of Christ and the Church; and this is granted him by God, even without letters of pardon” [i.e. “indulgences”]

So where did the day originally come from? In the first 300 years of the church, so many were martyred for their faith that throughout the church days were set aside to remember all Saints.

Saint Polycarp, choosing Christ over Caesar: "Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

Saint Polycarp, choosing Christ over Caesar: “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The earliest reference to a day being dedicated to the commemoration of All the Martyrs and All Saints of the Christian Church comes from the 2nd century. The document is titled The Martyrdom of Polycarp.

 “…whenever we can gather together in joy and happiness, the Lord will allow us to commemorate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already engaged in the struggle and as a training and preparation for those who are about to do so.”

Well-known early saints (from the 4th and 5th century) Ephraim the Syrian, Basil of Caesarea, and St. John Chrysostom also all speak of a common day set aside to remember and honor all the saints in the church.

But didn’t Hallowe’en absorb and adopt the Celtic new year festival, Samhain, as the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions says?

Ghosts were believed to be a visitation of the dead to this world to remind relatives of the need for prayers and other religious works to be offered for them

Reform needed: In medieval times, “Ghosts were believed to be a visitation of the dead to this world to remind relatives of the need for prayers and other religious works to be offered for them” (see here for more ; also note this and this)

In Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, 2003) scholar Nicholas Rogers states:

“[By 800], in England and Germany, this [festival remembering the saints] took place on [November 1]. In Ireland, it was commemorated on 20th April, a chronology that contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain.” (from this BBC article)

Christian scholar Joseph Abrahamson has written a more in-depth exploration of the origins of Halloween here. For practical advice about how to celebrate Halloween also see his post here. His second post features these concluding remarks:

It should not be surprising that Satan and the World have gone to such extremes to defile Halloween with anything that would distract Christians and the unbelievers from Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia and Solus Christus…. Reclaiming Halloween means knowing where it comes from, why the day was established, and the historical significance it holds for the Christian Church. Satan and the world are always willing to undermine and steal anything that is of value to the confession of the truth of Scripture. Let us not fall prey to the lies.

A very happy “All Saint’s Eve” and day to all this week.  And, Reformation Day as well….  Semper reformanda! (Latin for “the church is always to be reformed”)



Images: Wikipedia

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Posted by on October 27, 2015 in Uncategorized


Contemporary Worship Re-Visited Again: Spending My FiveTwo Capital

If someone says this sums up their thoughts on thoughts on contemporary worship, should you take that as an attack on you?

If someone says this sums up their thoughts on thoughts on contemporary worship, should you take that as an attack on you?

The worship wars rage on. In the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS), the latest iteration of this conflict seems to have become centered on the presence of the group known as FiveTwo. FiveTwo is a group in the LC-MS that identifies itself with the missional movement* – and music and more bare-bones liturgies are a big part of this.

Simply put, nothing can rile up Confessional Lutherans on the internet like FiveTwo. After all, doesn’t being holy especially mean loving one’s brothers and sisters in Christ the most of all, and to value that which has been passed on from generation to generation?

I’ve tried to step pretty softly in this war, for some good reasons. My posts trying to start a fruitful discussion with “FiveTwo” can be found here, and I even wrote a post on the Just and Sinner blog that FiveTwo founder himself, Bill Woolsey, told me he appreciated (it was titled: “The Plea of a Stubborn “Confessional” Lutheran: Yes, My “Missional” Friend, Please DO Condemn My Lack of Love for the Lost”).

As can be found in that article: my main concern with the “form” or “style” of contemporary worship is that the Gospel-enveloping “culturally savvy tortillas” that persons produce, in the hope that this or that “target [market]” will pick them up, often actually work to mitigate the simple and humble forms of the Gospel (see 2.2 and 2.3 here). Along with that of course, is the concern for proper reverence.

Martin Luther did what when he spilled the cup?!

Martin Luther did what when he spilled the cup?!

That’s what I want to focus on right now.  I understand that we might have different ideas of what constitutes reverence, but just how far can the definition of that be stretched?  I will be honest: it is bits like the following from Pastor Will Weedon that make me think I don’t get reverence at all… Do you have two minutes?  If so, please listen to this clip, titled, “What our actions confess about the Lord’s Supper”. It is pretty mind-blowing stuff.

I must respect that. I must be humbled by it. I am – this is most certainly true. How rich the Father’s love for us that He has had His Son visit us in this most intimate of ways!  It is unbelievable. As Luther said, it is the Gospel. Period. Full stop. This is the show.

That said, I recently read from a missional pastor (whom I have had many pleasant discussions with in the past) the following:

Contemporary worship is here to stay in the LCMS. 30% — 40% — whatever — of the congregations are not going to stop CoWo.

Especially when the arguments are so weak…. I know that many of you have been to bad CoWo services. I have sympathy with that. I’m sorry about that. But, at the core, guys like me see CoWo the exact same way as I see liturgical worship. A wonderful blessing from God.

Some of you don’t. And you push against it. I’m good with that. You want to do what is best for the synod, the church, God, etc. So do I.

But: we have the Koin to handle this. And that is what I am hopeful for and looking forward to.

“The Koin” is the Koininea Project, which is supposed to be an effort for the various factions (two main “sides” really) to get together and honestly discuss their differences in route to finding agreement.

....and the Confessions decidedly do address these issues.

….and the Confessions decidedly do address these issues.

Let me be totally up-front with everyone, as I recently was on Facebook: here is the attitude I have, and would have going into any meetings like this if the issue of contemporary worship was on the docket:

I will maintain that the Confessions are abundantly clear [on the issue of proper worship] and it is absurd to state otherwise. The Luther quote is just a bonus [context: see here]. In a marriage, if one partner starts to do something out of the blue – after being together for several years – that the other partner finds offensive and childish, is that good for the marriage? Obviously not.. Good order in this sense is a fruit of love which restrains its freedom for the sake of the neighbor. And if the innovator feels that the other partner’s feeling limited in this way (think CoWo is irreverent, childish, or worse) is immature, then they ought to be more patient with them, bear with them as one they consider the weaker brother, etc. While there is sin and pride all around, I humbly submit proponents of CoWo especially need to give this some serious thought and reflection.

This goes deep for me.  Years ago, may wife and basically left a congregation that was doing contemporary worship for the sake of the kid(s). Here is an excerpt from the letter, which I know did not move my pastor and will probably move few, if any, others now.  But it is what I said then and continue to agree with now:

“…Speaking for myself here, I used to ask regarding worship, “Why shouldn’t the Holy of Holies become the Friendly of Friendlies?” (Ft. Wayne theologian David Scaer’s phrase).  Was not Jesus kind to all?

This is the answer that has gradually formed in my mind over the last several years due to my reading of God’s Word, listening to many Bible teachers and commentators, and my own reflection:  Jesus, though ever-kind, only shows His “friendliness” to those who take Him seriously (fear of God)—to His own, or to those looking to become His own (if one will argue against this, at the very least could we not agree that [seriousness is at issue] when it comes to the Divine Service, to Eucharistic worship?—see Hebrews 12:22-29 for example).  On the other hand, to those who do not take Him seriously—His enemies—He simply dies for them in all seriousness, with a heart of true love, which is an unpretentious, no-nonsense love, and is pure unsentimental unwavering kindness.  This he does whispering “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.  There is nothing that could ever possibly be construed as “cheesy” or “gimmicky” with Jesus.  In short, “the Passion of the Christ” [Note: the movie had recently been released] is our theology, or we have no true theology.  It alone is to be the centerpiece of our worship.  And in all honesty, it’s the only way that the books of Leviticus and Revelation even start to make sense to me.

What of the lost?  Well, certainly we are to be about the same business of Jesus, who came to seek and to save them.  The Divine Worship, however, is serious business, and is meant for the people of God—though all seekers and even rank unbelievers may come into the presence of this wrathful and yet kind lamb—if they dare. This is the kind of worship—more—the kind of Catechesis, in which [my wife] and I desire to raise our children.

I don’t really sense much of this approach [here]…. **

To sum this all up, I might put it this way: Yes, his perfect love drives out fear. But if Jesus’ causing you to fall at His feet as though dead would seem “unkind”, check your “worship style”.

Also note this, from a few months ago (click on the image for more):




Note: post updated for clarity.

* For more on this idea of “missional” vis a vis “confessional” see this post, discussing the differences of Lutheran pastor Jonathan Fisk and the Reformed Baptist David Platt.

** The rest of the letter is here. I add: and perhaps they will “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” as they hear the one who not only prophesies such that he “strengthen[s], encourag[es] and comforts”, but also such that unbelievers are “convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare.”–I Cor. 14 – in an essay found here, a pastor suggests that “Here, then, is displayed the concepts of cultural sensitivity, relevancy, and love, especially for unbe­lievers and new Christians”… really?

*** One man who says he grew out of contemporary worship has some stronger words: “Having come out of the charismatic extremist end of warfare worship, I can only say….it is childish, pagan at its core, subjectively driven, manipulative by nature, simple songs with no ‘there’ there”.  Many others can say the same, even if they might put it less bluntly.

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Posted by on October 24, 2015 in Uncategorized



“Why precisely would anybody want the truth value of a theological statement to depend upon how the actual world is?” indeed

A comment I made on the blog of the atheist, Jerry Coyne (this post):

Myron shared this quote:

“[B]elieving in God is more than accepting the proposition that God exists. Still, it is at least that much. One can’t sensibly believe in God and thank Him for the mountains without believing that there is such a person to be thanked, and that He is in some way responsible for the mountains. Nor can one trust in God and commit oneself to Him without believing that He exists: ‘He who would come to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him’ (Heb. 11:6).”

(Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. 1974. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977. p. 2)

I commented:


That quote from Plantiga is interesting. But what I find most interesting about it is how little it affirms. That an Intelligent Mind, i.e. a “Logos” of some sort, exists? It seems to me that Rebecca Goldstein is basically going in that direction now as well (Plato at the Googleplex), even if this Logos is impersonal for her (and personal for Plantiga).

I find it interesting that even more conservative religious persons do seem to be affirming less and less every day – looking to perhaps keep the kernal of what they believe while getting rid of so much more. For instance, I recently saw this re-posted on FB by an up and coming conservative theologian:

“Consider the proposition, “the sun is on average 93,000,000 away from the earth.” Notice that the truth of the statement does not depend upon the one asserting it. Now consider the proposition, “God loves Molly deeply even though she is young, very sick, and dying a horrible death.” Notice that the truth now seems to depend upon the one declaring it so. Or do you not see the problem? Some fact of the matter falsifies the first, but not the second. Failure to specify what would count against the truth of the latter statement has traditionally been used to declare it meaningless. The idea is that a statement consistent with any way the world might be really makes no assertion, and a statement making no assertion is meaningless.

But “the square root of two is irrational” also seems to be consistent with anyway the world might go. But surely it is not meaningless!

So is God loving Molly despite her condition more like the square root of two being irrational or more like the sun being 93,000,000 miles from earth? If the former, is this a bad thing for meaning and truth?

Mathematical propositions have truth values that neither depend upon the ones who entertain them nor are logically dependent from how the world is. Such statements are true in all possible worlds. So why precisely would anybody want the truth value of a theological statement to depend upon how the actual world is?

(The deepest questions in theology often return to Lessing’s “broad ugly ditch.”)”

See what I am saying? One might think that a good, conservative and theological answer to this last question (“So why precisely…”) would simply be this:

“…because theological statements often can’t be separated from God’s work in history and because he has given us statements about Himself that can’t be separated from the past.” (I.e. that the theological statements don’t really depend on how the actual world is but depend on God simply choosing to tell us what He desires to tell us in accordance with the way the world was and is).

But the person who posted this on FB is basically saying that theology statements should just be like those solid math statements – and should be untethered from actual historical fact and occurrences…. This is a God akin to Plato’s then, not the Christian God. There is much in common here with Spinoza’s god (who Goldstein seems to like as well).

Again, I would submit that that’s a pretty flimsy argument for a purportedly conservative Christian theologian. One would think that there would be a more robust defense of other truth claims (incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, miracles and prophecies in history pointing to Christ, etc) – other than basically saying that the real world doesn’t matter.

So I am saying that Illing may not be that far off… even some conservative theologians of the religion which almost certainly has the greatest reason for saying their beliefs are true and related to what has really happened on earth seem to backtrack.

[Sean Illing, in the Salon article Coyne criticizes,] simply seems to be saying that the existential questions really are more prominent here and important here than we usually give credit for. I think that is right. Beliefs certainly drive behavior, but sometimes behavior has a big impact on what we believe as well – and as long as what they believe seems to go along with what they want to do – and seems plausible enough to them and the ones they know who they care to please – perhaps that is enough for some persons.


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Posted by on October 23, 2015 in Uncategorized


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“Anger, an Appreciation”, by Peter J. Scaer

From his Facebook page (posted with permission):

Anger, an Appreciation: Anger is best served in small doses, a dark cloud of thunder and lightning, soon to pass over, to be replaced with blue skies and sunshine. Anger is a potent force, so often for evil, given our own dark natures. And yet, as I think back at my own life, I’m glad for some anger, for some outbursts. I think of my 7th grade teacher, a fine man, a man of passion, a lot of fun much of the time. And yet, if a guest appeared at a school assembly, and we did not show our guest the kind of respect he deserved, Mr. Ackmann would unleash a little load of fury, letting us know that our behavior was unacceptable, that he expected more from us. And he was right, and I am thankful. Fathers play this role for us, as was captured in the title of a short lived 70’s sitcom, “Wait Til Your Father Gets Home.” So also, in our nation’s history, some few have cried out in anger over the injustice of slavery, and to good effect. Others in anger over sex trafficking and rape have demanded justice. Our Lord himself is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and of him we do well to be imitators. Injustice call for a little anger, anger at sin, anger at oppression, always tempered by the fact that the sin of the world is the sin that is in our own hearts. And yet, while our own anger is sullied by sin, we do well to call oppressors to task, to speak the truth to power. If our blood does not boil just a bit at rape of the helpless, at the killing of the unborn, my guess is that is not a sign of serenity, but of apathy. We dare not judge the world, because in doing so we judge ourselves, so the thinking goes. And yet, with ourselves, and with the world, we can be angry and merciful, passionate and compassionate, cry out for justice, and plead to God for grace. Ultimately, there can be no categorical difference between divine and human anger, especially as we have been created in his image, and He has become one of us, even as we are called ourselves to have the mind of Christ. Anger is a fire that must be tempered, lest it be consuming, replaced with senseless rage. It is the fire of youth that must be directed to good purpose. Fanned by the flames of sinful jealousy and pride, it becomes deadly, and must be extinguished. We are a people at peace, a people of the atonement. But we are not the Dalai Lama, and our joy is not that of the constant smile. And so, we cry out for justice, rebuke those who destroy and lead the sheep astray, even as we pray mercy upon them, even as we pray mercy upon ourselves.


Posted by on October 22, 2015 in Uncategorized



Why Karl Barth Should Have Just Read Johann Gerhard

“God has communicated his entire self to you. Communicate also your entire self to your neighbor”.

“God has communicated his entire self to you. Communicate also your entire self to your neighbor”. – Johann Gerhard.

The following is a summary, from my pastor (Paul Strawn), of the article in German “’Das Word sie sollen lassen stahn…’ Die Auseinandersetzung Johann Gerhards und der lutherischen Orthodoxie mit Hermann Rahtmann und deren abendmahlstheologische und christologische Implikate.”, from Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 95 (1998), 338-365.

This is translated as: “’The Word they still shall let remain…’ The Debate of John Gerhard and Lutheran Orthodoxy with Hermann Rahtmann and Its Implications for the Theology of the Lord’s Supper and Christology.”

From Strawn (please note, the title of this post, as well as the choice of pictures accompanying this post – along with their captions – are fully my doing):

In this article, appearing almost twenty years ago, Johann Anselm Steiger, professor of church history and the history of dogma at Hamburg University, compellingly promotes a reconsideration of the doctrine of the Word of God as formulated by the theologians of the early period of Lutheran orthodoxy.

Locating its definitive formulation in Johann Gehard’s “Von der Natur, Krafft vndt Wirckung des geoffenbarten vndt geschriebenen Wortes Gottes” [“Concerning the Nature, Power and Effect of the Revealed and Written Word of God”] from 1628, Steiger notes how the theology found there was forged in a long and far-reaching debate centered around the city of Danzig commonly known as the Rahtmann Controvery.

Hermann Rahtmann was a Lutheran pastor who, in seeking to defend the orthodoxy and usefulness of the writings of Johann Arndt, came to promote the idea that the Bible had no power in and of itself to convert, but it was only useful and helpful to those who had already been directly enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Thus the question was raised again, which had been raised years before by Casper Schwenckfeld, and that is: What is the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Bible? To preaching? Could the Bible, could the conveyance of the Word of God in written and oral form be said to have any power in and of itself?

[note: Strawn also has addressed Schwenckfeld – and his very interesting conflict with the Lutheran polemicist Matthias Flacius – see here]

Rahtmann’s rejection of the idea was a result of observing that not all who read or heard the Word of God repented of their sins, believed the gospel, or were comforted by it. Since that is so, Rahtmann reasoned, it just must be that the Word of God as it found in creation is nothing out the ordinary. It merely contains signs pointing to the greater things signified.

"God’s Word is like bread, intrinsically possessing nutritious power that does not depend on whether it is eaten or not." - Abraham Calov

“God’s Word is like bread, intrinsically possessing nutritious power that does not depend on whether it is eaten or not.” – Abraham Calov

Gerhard responded to this assertion by noting the similarities of the relationship of the written and spoken Word of God to the Spirit of God and that of (1) the divine and human natures of Christ, (2) the presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the altar, and even (3) the relationship of the human soul to the body. As Christ died on the cross for all mankind, but many reject what was won for them there, as Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper, but not all benefit from that presence, as the soul of man exists within his body, but cannot be seen, so the Holy Spirit is present in and united with the Word of God as it is found in the Bible, and as it is proclaimed. Thus whether in use or not, the written Word of God must be said to have power, power which nonetheless is effective only when it is properly deployed.

As it is, however, it is a word that does what it says, and says what it does. The preaching of the Word was just as much an audible sacrament as the sacraments were the visible Word. Even then, the Sacraments were “Word events” occurring through the preaching of either the Trinitarian invocation or the Words of institution.

Yes, distinctions had to be made between (1) the Word which Christ brought with Him “from the womb of the Father,” (2) the Word engraved in the hearts of the apostles and prophets by the Holy Spirit, (3) the Word transcribed by biblical Scribes and included in the Scriptures, and (4) the Word that is read today in the Bible, heard in sermons, and believed. In other words the Word of God is both Trinitarian—flowing from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as well as incarnate: Appearing in time and space. Here the Lutheran Gerhard, so Steiger, predates Karl Barth’s similar (revolutionary!) Trinitarian presentation of the outgoing of the Word of God—a fact never acknowledged by Barth.

Karl Barth, decidedly behind the times.

Karl Barth, decidedly behind the times.

But did identifying a fourfold outflowing of the Word of God from its Trinitarian source mean that the individual manifestations of that Word should be separated from each other and examined? Gerhard’s answer was no. If such were to occur, such a theology would be created that would never allow man to be certain of his salvation.[1] And ultimately, such a pastoral concern, and another similar to it, drove Gerhard and the other Lutherans at the time to come to a greater understanding of the Bible’s relationship to the Holy Spirit. For if not just the Word of God, but the Bible, as Word of God, did not possess power in and of itself apart from its use, what good would it be for Christians to turn to it and read it in time of need? (bold mine)


Further reading: Re: the views of the early Lutherans and the interpretation of Scripture see here ; for the influence of Kant in particular on modern theology, including Barth, see here.


[1] “Wollte man sie voneinander trennen, würde dies >>eine wunderseltzame Theologiam geben/ bey welcher man nimmermehr zur Gewiẞheit kommen köndte.<<“ P. 362, n. 96.

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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Uncategorized


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“Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part III of III)

"God’s Word is like bread, intrinsically possessing nutritious power that does not depend on whether it is eaten or not." - Abraham Calov

“God’s Word is like bread, intrinsically possessing nutritious power that does not depend on whether it is eaten or not.” – Abraham Calov

Here are part I and part II if you missed those….

d) presenting an alternative model that takes the best of what Smith has to offer into account

1. Is there not a human community of practice?: Throughout his book, Smith’s case seems to carry a real moral weight because he is fighting so that we humbly acknowledge our creaturehood, contingency, dependency, and sociality. He even argues that a view like the one he puts forth may be necessary in order to, for example, help the church defend its Scriptures vs. charges of irrelevance and benightedness (it is the secular world, not Christians, who scorn dependence!).[i] In the process, Smith talks much about our reliance on, and the importance of, “communities of practice” – an idea that came into its own around 1991.

I think that, overall, one can acknowledge what is good and helpful with Smith’s view, while in the end taking a radically different approach – an approach that even seems to me necessary.

What I mean is that there is knowledge that is not “fully relativist” in the Rortyan (or Wittgenstein-ian or Brandon-ian) sense precisely because we are finite, dependent, contingent and social – because we are one with the “human community of practice”. None of us can separate himself from other members of the community, all who depend on God for spirit and life – for moment-by-moment sustenance – in every sense of the word (for all, “He holds everything together with His powerful word” and we all should “live by every word that comes from his mouth”).[ii]

Not only this, but one feature of this human community of practice is that much of what it does – the “game” it plays – is trans-cultural and trans-historical. After all, it seems clear that many of the things in the created world – making their presence known with their more or less intractable ways – have themselves been structuring the attention of human beings (see, for example, Crawford’s “The World Outside Your Head: On Becoming an Individual [me: “Gasp!”] in an Age of Distraction) since humanity’s first breath. Rorty says that “hermeneutics is the refusal of epistemology, resisting the temptation to ‘ground’ knowledge or truth or justification in something extra-social or extra-linguistic” (93, see fn 16 also). Further, he claims that even our realisms (and attendant claims of correspondence) are dependent upon communities of practice (107). And yet, even if this were in some sense conceded, surely more can and should be said about the significance of – and consistency of – the “antics of things”… presences which impose and impress themselves upon the human community of practice.[iii]

In fact, one need not speak of “representations” in our minds here – but rather simply recognize that it at times makes good sense to insist that “nothing lies between us and the world we know” (p. 25).[iv] (an example: Matthew Crawford says, “the world is known to us because we live an act in it, and accumulate experience… we think through the body”, pp. 50-51, The World Outside Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction). In short, while rightly acknowledging the critical and primary role of social reality, does one not need to be careful about being overly anthropocentric (or worse: ethnocentric: is it helpful to insist that epistemology really only comes down to “the ethnography of a particular people”, 85) in one’s reflection here?[v] Another point: for Brandon and Smith, “we” only makes sense relative to a particular community. That said, vis a vis other animals, we recognize other human beings – those we can relate to and communicate meaning with (giving and receiving reasons) – precisely because we are humanity – the human community (we can talk to other human beings and we can sensibly talk about humanity, the thing).

Smith on Robert Brandon: “For Brandon, just by speaking I already functionally take up an ethical stance: ‘Asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment’ (AR, 63).” (135, Smith)

Smith on Robert Brandon: “For Brandon, just by speaking I already functionally take up an ethical stance: ‘Asserting a sentence is implicitly undertaking a commitment’ (AR, 63).” (135, Smith)

It seems clear to me (and perhaps here something does lie between me and the world I know!) that this is not only a default assumption of those holding to the biblical narrative – who, let us emphasize, note a specific wider Heavenly community of practice going beyond human beings (which incidently, also gets the contingent ball rolling: as the late Oxford linguistics professor Roy Harris reminds us, communicative behavior cannot arise from non-communicative behavior) – but seems to be of many others as well. Furthermore, I submit that there is also no evidence from both historical and archaeological sources that should cause us to think otherwise (and, in all honesty, “natural history”, being without human explanation from the time, can only tell us so much). [footnote to Robert Brandon picture: [vi]]

Certainly there are very distinct communities of many kinds who utilize concepts unknown to the wider human community. Sometimes this may be because the “fuzzy concepts” that all humans depend on in practice all the time have been made more explicit, in this or that circumstance, by particular human communities (when they are able to be made more explicit!: see 54-56)[vii], but this is not all. Smith’s account suffers, in fact, because it does not reflect on the wider implications of his, I think healthy, de-Platonizing tendencies: the concepts of thunder and lightning (131), for example, could be understood (post fall!) by the trans-cultural and trans-historical community of practice while “Swatches” (148), of course, could not. In like fashion, while scientific communities, for example, may deal with highly abstract and extrapolated concepts relevant in complicated contexts (where the reality of the concepts and the wisdom of one’s commitment to them may often be readily doubted, see 93, fn 16), this kind of scientific hypothesizing can certainly be distinguished from more regular experiential knowledge – for example, the knowledge that it is raining or fire is burning.[viii]

The point I am making, of course, is that these distinct communities – with their unique concepts – lie within the larger human community of practice. Even conceding that someone like Rorty is worth taking seriously when he insists that “all our differences can [not] be resolved by finding some game-transcendent ‘common ground’ or extra-social ‘foundation’ or game-above-all-games ‘neutral language’ that would reduce all differences to agreement” (Smith, 93, italics mine), this does not preclude the significant amount of agreements we do find through common ground, and which should in fact be emphasized (while not denying the core importance of narrative in talking about the deeper meaning of the things whose presence commonly affects us).

In other words, one can accept the numerous nuances that Smith introduces that show the naivetes and overreaches of modern forms of realism without giving the impression that we should think first of communities of practice as separate human groups without real common ground.

In short, just because “all sorts of deluded people are ‘realists’” (89, see 22, fn 15), the “right community of practice” (where one can “find truth”) (93, italics mine) need not be set against assertions about “the way things are” (89) – as if these can only be “magical” (see 89, 97). For Smith, anyone making such an assertion is acting god-like. We can respond by insisting that if anyone is able to make a true assertion “on her own”, this is not something that happened apart from dependence on a community of practice (contra Rorty’s argument on p. 99). Nor is it likely that such a person – such an Elijah – is really all alone. Martin Luther, for one, found devout believers, though a minority community, who resonated with the truth he spoke and found common cause with him in the dual blessing and tragedy of the Reformation. Luther certainly desired to sing in harmony with the wider Catholic Church, but ultimately his conscience was “captive to the word of God” outside of himself.

I can indeed happily conclude this section with the following words of Smith:

“we creatures are called to depend rightly—relate rightly—to the One who is Absolute but graciously condescends to our finitude in the incarnation. In Jesus—the Absolute becomes dependent, Necessity inhabiting contingency—we learn how to be dependent. And as contingent rational creatures, we are called into rightly ordered communities of discursive practice” (180)

…but as I’ve noted above, there is much more to be said here. Smith’s helpful exposition of these pragmatists should indeed provoke us to think – but to really seek to think anew with the mind of the God-man Christ – whose views, to say the least, could never be suspected for a minute of being influenced by atheism and naturalism.

The "Heavenly Community of Practice" has clearly spoken: "And as we catalogue loci communes, clear passage after clear passage on the same topic, in our minds, we overwhelm this hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt with the sheer clarity of God’s word." - Christian Preus

Has the “Heavenly Community of Practice” not, in fact, spoken with startling clarity?: “And as we catalogue loci communes, clear passage after clear passage on the same topic, in our minds, we overwhelm this hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt with the sheer clarity of God’s word.” – Christian Preus

2. Are not God’s bare words recorded in Scripture teaching, “doctrine”, “theology”?: And just as the antics of things and the human community of practice will not let us just get away with saying anything, the same can be said of the biblical texts.[ix] In this last section, I will start with a longer exposition of Smith’s views concerning doctrine in the Christian church.

Professor Smith makes it clear that there is, in his view, development of doctrine. On p. 164, unpacking the “postliberal” views of George Lindbeck (from his 1984 book, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age), he says that doctrines:

“are not primarily claims about God or the world; instead, they are rules that govern how we can speak about God and God’s relationship to the world on the ‘first-order’ level of prayer and proclamation. Church doctrine is a ‘guide to the fundamental interconnections within a religion’ (ND, 81). In other words, doctrines are about the inferential relationship between confessional claims and not the referential relation between our claims and the world. ‘Doctrines regulate truth claims by excluding some claims and permitting others’ (ND, 19), but they don’t manufacture the criteria for such regulation. Instead, they make explicit the norms already implicit in the biblical narrative and, in turn, Christian practice.[x]

…A grammar makes explicit the rules of discourse that were previously implicit in our linguistic ‘doings.’ So to theology and doctrine make explicit the commitments implicit in – and entailed by – our proclamation, praise, and prayer.”

And here we can see how Smith is clearly eager to put forth views largely in line with what has been called the “coherence theory of truth” (see 158, fn 16) – not the “correspondence theory of truth”. And, in line with the pragmatists he examines throughout the book, he places a priority on doing over thinking, and practice over theory (and as he has noted elsewhere, human beings are primarily lovers, not thinkers, and cultural practices, like church liturgies for example, are basically “pedagogies of desire”)[xi]. I think, in one sense, this is good, right, and salutary. As the early church said, Lex orandi, lex credenda (Wikipedia: “Latin loosely translated as ‘the law of praying [is] the law of believing’”).

At this point though, Smith puts forth Lindbeck’s “cognitive-linguistic model” of doctrine (see p. 160) over and against what Lindbeck calls the “cognitive-propositional model” of doctrine (the “experiential-expressive” approach is also decried), where “church doctrines function as informative propositions of truth claims about objective realities” (ND, 16). Smith notes that Lindbeck sees the cognitive-propositional model as a largely premodern approach, in fact being “the approach of traditional orthodoxies…” (see here for example). The problem is that this model has now come to be tethered to what are in fact the Enlightenment-derived referentialist, representationalist, modern realist approaches Smith and his gaggle of pragmatists criticize (see 154-158, particularly 158).

But this begs the question, and relates to my last section: just because the “cognitive-propositional model” is now, in practice, widely tethered to a representationalist epistemology, does this mean that steps cannot be taken to de-tether it? And that it is simply irrelevant in modern society and should not be salvaged? Perhaps with some creative imagination and relevant arguments, it could be re-introduced (again, see, for example, the work of the philosopher Matthew Crawford and the work of literary scholar Hans Gumbrecht, for example)?

Moving on to even weightier matters, one can see from the quote above that the practice of listening to the Word of God (for Smith: “biblical narrative”) is presumed, but I think it is important to ask a deeper question here. For example, read the following passage carefully and think about what might be its implications:

“While doctrine is ‘regulative’ rather than assertive, such an account of doctrine doesn’t preclude assertions; it just locates assertion in the lived communal confession of religious practice. Assertion is something we do; doctrines regulates our assertions by ‘conceptualizing’ them – articulating the norms implicit in them and thereby allowing us to assess those claims in the ‘space of reasons.’ So doctrines articulate the inferential logic that makes our confessions coherent. Doctrine is about our claims, not what/Who are claims are about. But such a regulative understanding of doctrine still makes room for – indeed assumes – that those ‘lived’ claims, the assertions we make in praise and prayers, are about something. These are our material commitments, Brandon would say, and doctrine is the ‘second-order’ attempt to harmonize them as a coherent whole for which we can take epistemic responsibility.” (167)

"Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written & formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature." - Luther (photo: Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck - Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany)

“Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and formed in letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God enveloped in the human nature.” (see here) – Luther (photo: Dr. Luther debates Dr. Eck – Martin Luther Memorial in Eisleben, Germany)

And here I think: “What about the Material Commitment Incarnate, and His words from which we live? In fact: “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”? What about His “lived” claims, which we say “Amen” to? Are not such bare words “teaching”, “doctrine”, “theology” as well?[xii] If not, why not? Again, note that above I conceded the priority of practice over “theory”, doing over thinking…. That said, is not sitting at the feet of Christ like Mary and listening to words that even a child can understand (but an adult can never get to the bottom of) a practice?[xiii]

And so, for me, this begs the further question: “While Brian McClaren certainly does not share Smith’s ‘catholicizing tendencies’, what, in the end, distinguishes their views of the Word of God?” I struggle to see how anything does. While on the one hand we can talk about our knowledge being “partial, imperfect, and held from a limited point of view” should we not be more ready to talk about how it can also be sure, certain, and true – even if mystery remains and our knowledge has not been brought to its completion?

Smith rightly affirms the significance of language for life in this world: “Language is bound up with our investment in cultural projects; it is part and parcel of our culture making” (53). And yet, more often than not, his account, in line with the relativists he speaks of, is merely about how language helps us “cope” with the world – language is largely reduced to a functional tool for navigation. Likewise, knowledge and truth claims are “commodities”, the “currency” of “distinctly social practices” (85, italics his).

The Apostle Paul: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” (I Cor. 13). Impartial knowledge is not necessarily uncertain knowledge: mystery simply remains…..

The Apostle Paul: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” (I Cor. 13). Impartial knowledge is not necessarily uncertain knowledge: mystery simply remains…..

Are not language, knowledge and truth much more than all this though? Are they not one of God’s supreme gifts of love, meant to help us communicate to one another the love of God in Christ – and to make the historical actions of God gloriously concrete, specific, and explicit in our proclamation, praise, and prayer? I think so, because all language – and even verbal and written language – is not really well-described as a tool, but more as an expression of one’s deepest, shared, humanity. As art. As love. Even as poetry and song. God gives it to us that we may not only understand one another and cope together, but to enjoy, celebrate, and share Him and the wonderful creation He has made together. “[Gloriously] social because [gloriously] dependent” (99), as Smith says.

All created reality is contingent and dependent. I have no trouble with that – I only have trouble with Smith’s sweeping efforts to minimize or even abolish “the approach of traditional orthodoxies…”– instead of using his creative mind to defend it – even if efforts to introduce nuance in light of new threats may be necessary.



Update: I added some words above for the purposes of clarification and for the sake of smoother transitioning.

Images: Christian Preus:


[i] “Embracing contingency does not entail embracing ‘liberalism’: in fact, to the contrary, it is when we deny our contingency that we are thereby licensed to deny our dependence and hence assume the position where we are arbitrators of truth. We then spur our dependence on tradition and assume a stance of ‘objective’ knowledge whereby we can dismiss aspects of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as benighted and unenlightened. In short, it is the denial of dependence that undergirds a progressive agenda. The picture of knowledge bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment is a forthright denial of our dependence, and it yields a God-like picture of human reason. It is ‘objectivity’ that is ‘liberal’.” (35)

[ii] In other words, Christian Smith’s argument that relativism fails “because there would be no way to step outside a community to check wither our categories ‘match’ an external reality” (summed up by Smith, 31) is not the argument vs. Smith I am using.

[iii] In this post, I touched on how saying all of this – that the “antics of things” are in many cases, for our purposes in this life/world, permanent – is not necessarily opposed to contingency. Here is a relevant clip: “In being sympathetic with arguments like those of Socrates [(“The gods love the holy because it is already holy, not because they regard it so”)], did Christians go badly wrong, 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)?”

[iv] Let’s say that all knowledge is not only socially mediated, but a social production, as Smith says – a social “accomplishment”. Rorty says we should not want to “be merely passive mirrors [who] fail to appreciate that knowledge is a human, social accomplishment” (p. 84, see also 24, footnote 22). Questions that follow:

First, is there room in this view to experience things – at least certain things! – as those entities which impact us… impress themselves upon us via their presence, often discerned to be purposeful? (see, e.g., Gumbrecht’s The Production of Presence). Second, if we define accomplishment as “something that has been achieved successfully”, do we cheapen the work done by God to “impose” and “impress” the things around us to us, either through the creation itself or special revelation? Third, if we do see knowledge, like civilization, as an accomplishment, certainly there is some knowledge that is easier to attain to than other knowledge (i.e., learning what a family dog is, does and means vs. learning about the dog’s genealogical heritage or internal workings, for example). Fourth, what about the work of God’s grace which leads to faith in Him (note that faith is *knowledge*, assent, and trust) which, by definition, is not something that we but He achieves – and even, as regards the act of justification, achieves apart from our active efforts?

[v] This is not about “locat[ing] some ‘privileged representations’ that function as the ground or ‘foundation” for knowing” (82). What I am claiming here is that this is naturally something we assume is true. Aristotle held to a similar view – he was not a foundationalist in the modern sense of the word (see here).

[vi] More deep thoughts on ethics from the philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford, talking about some ethical matters in a distinctly American context:

“According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention.

My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate.”

Read more at:

[vii] “Wittgenstein asks us to stop expecting our practice to conform to some Platonic idea and invites us instead to attend to what we actually do, how our language works. When we do so, we will find that we are more than able to manage without precise, crisp definitions. In fact, we need fuzzy concepts and depend on them in practice all the time. ‘Consider for example the proceedings that we all “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games and so on. What is common to them all?’ (66) And he immediately pushes back on our tendency to philosophical superstition – our tendency to impose Platonic expectations on our everyday experience….” (54)

[viii] More on “general knowledge” vs. “scientific knowledge” from an unpublished paper of mine on the Oxford integrationist linguist Roy Harris’s book After Epistemology:

“…is there possibly some bigger reason behind Karl Popper’s distinguishing between general and scientific knowledge, other than a desperate attempt to save himself from “his own epistemological muddle” (AE, p. 128)? Again, is this, perhaps, fundamentally about more than “linguistic connexions”? Regarding Harris’ view of Popper, is it likely that Popper would have agreed with his position being construed as metaphysical, i.e. “as soon as truth is idealized as some distant goal, a reified abstraction, located in a sempiternal vaccuum…”? (AE, p. 129) If not, I really wonder about how he might have countered Harris’ critique, and how Harris would have responded in turn. What if Popper had not equated truth with that which is “objective and absolute” (Horgan, 1996, p. 37), but had endeavored to speak in what are perhaps more measured tones (?) about “objective reality” (perhaps like the “objective truth” Harris speaks of, see AE, p. 147?)? Would this then be permissible? Was not Popper, the kind of scientifically-minded person who had a flawed, but nevertheless more humble view (relatively speaking), of what scientists were capable of, i.e. a friend of those in the humanities? If such is the case, perhaps integrationists could see him as more of an ally of sorts, despite his evidently confused view of language (or perhaps careless explanation of his views) and knowledge (i.e. abstracted from persons!)? Getting back to the “epistemological muddle” claim Harris makes, from my reading of the Popper book quoted in After Epistemology, it seems to me highly unlikely that Popper would have considered the fact that “it is raining” (Popper, 1982, p. 110) to be the kind of hypothetical or propositional knowledge (i.e. theories and “matters of the intellect”, see Popper, 1982, p. 22) that he says we can never know we are talking about (Popper, 1982, p. 27) – but rather something more akin to “knowledge in the ordinary sense”, i.e. regular experiential knowledge – a general awareness or familiarity of a fact or situation (like fire burning) – and something that we could certainly talk about with confidence (vs. Harris, in AE, p. 129). When one considers that the fact that “it is raining” is not any kind of problem to be solved by a theory (see Popper, 1982, pp. 182, 183) it seems clear to me at least that Popper was here simply concerned to draw a distinction between this regular experiential knowledge and the kind of hypothetical or scientific ideas that deal with problem solving and are necessarily built on more difficult interpretations of the world (i.e. dealing with increased levels of context, abstraction, extrapolation, etc.). Further, it seems that he, like Integrationists, emphasized the importance of practical knowledge in one’s local and temporal circumstances, i.e. pointing out that it is proper and necessary to start with the “truth” in your own backyard before trying to solve the world’s problems with ever more comprehensive (i.e. all-encompassing and all-explaining) scientific theories.”

Later in the review:

“….when Harris dismisses Hume’s defenders who speak of the “logical’ connexions between different items”, insisting that “in practice the connexions are linguistic” (AE, p. 46), this reader is greatly puzzled: are there not “natural” or “biological” connections as well? For instance, strictly speaking, even if it is true that smoke does not “mean” fire (AE, p. 123), is there not a kind of natural connection here – even if any particular person does not make this interpretation? And it seems to me that many a “common man”, for example, might point out that the connection between “male”, “female” and “offspring” seems to be a bit more than linguistic as well! After all, one does not require formal syllogisms – but only personal experience perhaps bolstered by historical knowledge – to determine that all children have a mother and a father.”

[ix] As I noted here: “while we should not think that a sincere agnostic, truly seeking to understand the Bible as a complete work, would come up with the Nicene Creed, what Mark Twain said about the Scriptures is certainly relevant here: ‘It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.’ Certainly, as we all know, there are some interpretations that certain words, whatever their context may be, will simply eliminate from the get go.”

[x] He continues: “By making things explicit, Brandon emphasizes, we (i.e., the relevant community of practice) can begin to discern inconsistencies, seek to harmonize our commitments, and, in some cases, renew and redirect our practice accordingly. Christian doctrine can be understood to play the same role: to make explicit the commitments implied in our proclamation, prayer, and praise (all of which themselves ‘live off of’ the narrative world of Scripture that is the self-communication of the Triune God). Thus doctrine articulates the norms implicit in our practice. Doctrines function as the rules of the Christian language-game.” (pp. 164-165)

[xi] As a reviewer notes, “This book therefore also needs to be seen as providing a philosophical framework for Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, expressed in his books, Desiring the Kingdom (2009), and Imagining the Kingdom (2013) (cf.152, n3).”

[xii] There are other prominent theologians – particularly Eastern Orthodox theologians on the internet – who have touted Lindbeck-ian ideas vs. the traditional way of understanding doctrine. I have written posts challenging these views here, here, here, here, and here, for example.

[xiii] From a review of Smith’s book: “Jesus obviously considered knowing-that important because he spent much of his time teaching, and he also warned against false doctrines. A careful study of Paul’s epistles reveals constant attention to doctrine. Indeed, in most of Paul’s epistles an exposition of theological content precedes practical application. A biblical approach, I believe, requires a balance between doctrine and practice.”


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Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


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“Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part II of III)

whosafraidofrelativism2…jumping right in from my previous post (and here is the intro from the Just and Sinner blog)

c) highlighting some things I do not think are helpful or raise questions

1. Does sinful man in some sense know God and right and wrong?: Two of the main influences shaping the modern West were the decline of the Roman Catholic church and philosopher Rene Descartes’s radical skepticism which called all authoritative tradition into question. With Descartes, evidence comes to reside primarily in the mind of the rational individual – who decides what counts and what is convincing – as opposed to being something that is “inherent on the side of the world”.[i]

Theology followed suit. And so, in the 20th and 21st century, James K.A. Smith, like Karl Barth and pretty much everyone associated with or somewhat friendly to liberal theology (even the “conservative” Radical Orthodoxy movement) has intractable problems with the first two chapters of Romans. The Apostle Paul teaches, in line with everything that we know about very young children by the way (see here, for example), that sinful man in some sense knows God by the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-21) – and also knows what is right and wrong (Rom. 1:32, 2:14-15) – but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (see here and here and here for more in depth reflections on this). This does not mean human beings, on their own, are capable of achieving the knowledge that is eternal life – and with that proper fear, love, and trust in the Triune God (see 110) – but it does mean that they are culpable for their sin. Despite the fact that Romans explicitly says God has made this clear to humankind, in Smith’s account any real knowledge is denied and any real culpability of man is either downplayed or goes unmentioned (for his comments about natural law, see 112 fn 49, 170, 173 fn 28).

Important here is that while the Bible certainly talks about the blindness of sin that affects all men, it also indicates that things can get much worse: we really can flatter ourselves too much to detect or hate our sin, call good “evil” and evil “good”, and even have the nerve to assert that there is no God.

That said, I don’t think that these realities necessarily should necessarily mean “turning up the heat” on the unbeliever on our part. In fact, I greatly appreciate Smith’s sensitive way of introducing folks to God’s law as well as his “soft apologetics” approach (see Proverbs 25:15, for example). In this sense, what he is doing is a lot like what Blaise Pascal did.


That said, if “harder” approaches – something I think should be in the church’s toolkit because they actually often help support the “soft” approach (see John 16:8 and Acts 17:30-31, for example) – are “out of bounds”, thought to be rarely if ever appropriate, chances are the rest of this review will not be appreciated.

2. Real second thoughts about Christians adopting pragmatism – and its consequences?: One might think that the fact that most every American – among the common man and the elites – is basically a pragmatist might be a good reason for resisting or questioning it. Also because of the fact that most intellectual pragmatists (and I think that many perhaps do not realize how the label really does fit them) – whether they be more on the “left” or “right” – cannot affirm anything which consists of a stable essence immune to change or turning – other than things like the laws of nature or basic physical particles, that is. And so with pragmatism, even the most socially conservative of secularists cannot affirm, in the end, any rationale higher than the “human dignity of autonomous choice” (see, for example, the comments made about George Will here).

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.” (more here)

Over the past 200 years what we can call the historicist worldview, set loose by the arch anti-Cartesian Vico, has set the tempo for the intellectual world (see the work of Hans Gumbrecht in this regard – this talk is a good place to start; also Martin Noland’s 1996 PhD dissertation [see here for a summary], Harnack’s historicism: the genesis, development, and institutionalization of historicism and its expression in the thought of Adolf Von Harnack). Both Hegel and Darwin fit their own influential worldviews into historicism, and with that, “there is no phenomenon in time that can resist change.”[ii] In fact, I would argue that any theologian who wants to be academically respectable today – even in many Christian circles – needs to bend towards either or both of these narratives to one degree or another.[iii]

In his book, Smith argues that Richard Rorty is a man who is clearly concerned about moral standards (without claiming they are “objective”) and that we cannot insist his pragmatism / relativism must intellectually lead to atheism (21-23; see 98 also). On the other hand, one of Smith’s reviewers says that we need to insist on the ideal of an Absolute Truth – towards which we are all striving – to effectively counter the acidic effects of relativism. To this effect, he even quotes one of the founders of pragmatism, William James (“the founder” would be “America’s Aristotle”, Charles Sanders Peirce), who said “we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” in “[t]he ‘absolutely’ true”. This is the “ideal vanishing point” that “no further experience will ever alter” (Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI, 1907).

But what ultimately happens to truth in the pragmatist view? I submit that man will tend to think that – unless checked by other strongly held convictions – what is true and what “works” – or what we convince ourselves works in the more or less “long term”! – become synonymous. And yet, it seems that there is an assumption that philosophical realism can, must, and will (if it is enacted, taught) stem this relativist tide (for example, one might think a modern philosophy like reliabilism could do the trick).

The problem with this however – not noted by Smith or any of his reviewers – is that there certainly exists forms of philosophical and moral realism – where our “beliefs… ‘correspond[]’ to an ‘objective’ reality” (see 22) where everything, under the surface, is nevertheless in flux. These philosophers, seemingly without exception, believe that the essence of human beings, for example, is gradually changing and able to be changed (by us now to) – and with this, the morality of human beings is changing as well (see here and here for more). Rebecca Goldstein’s work “Plato at the Googleplex”, where she upholds “objective” reality and morality (it’s all objective but its changing), is a good example of this. For her and those like her, this does not mean that there is no “Absolute Truth” – only that what is really absolute can be reduced to things like the most basic particles, nature’s laws, and perhaps, simply, impersonal mathematics. Here, the “Good, True, and Beautiful” are subsumed in “the Best”, which, when it really comes down to brass tacks, is all about “how to”/”know how” for the Elites who can grasp it… “get it” (see here for more). For these “new men”, ever evolving, it seems that effective technocratic power – perhaps even with a spiritual aspect (why not at this point, after the nasty theisms are so weak and discredited they can’t possibly recover?) – is all that is left.

Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon said that

“ 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.

If Bacon was limiting the applicability of this pragmatic approach – where all knowledge is reduced by technique – by the use of the word “here” in this sentence, I suggest that others – being written against in this N.Y. Times editorial – have let the “here” drop out, and that this in fact can fully explain and make “sensible” their view. Perhaps the “fact-value split[ter]” David Hume would not have been proud, but he should have hardly been surprised.

Tomorrow, in part III [update: here it is]: presenting an alternative model that takes the best of what Smith has to offer into account




[i] The Shulman Lectures, “All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present”

[ii] ibid.

[iii] As my pastor has noted of Erlangen theology, which is basically the conservative form of Lutheran theology in Germany:

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

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Posted by on October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized


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“Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” – and Professor James K.A. Smith? (part I of III)

whosafraidofrelativism(if you are unfamiliar with Professor James K.A. Smith and the quality of his work, please see the post I have on the Just and Sinner blog introducing this series)

I firmly reject the views of those who reduce all knowledge to notions of social privilege, control and power (is this view not amazing?!  See more here).

For these folks, other persons besides “security, comfort, and autonomy” (31) -seekers (others like themselves of course!) must be trusted to be benevolent with knowledge, which is just another way of saying “effectively exercising power”.

On the contrary, my view of knowledge, more in line with those of the classical philosophers (which I argue is more in line with that of the biblical authors)[i] is quite different. For example, I believe it is indeed a valid assumption to think that all human beings, throughout their history, have shared a lot of “common ground” as it has been called – and hence a lot of “common sense”. This I attribute to the Providence of God, lovingly crafting an orderly creation (I’ve written more about this here in particular).

For example, when Paul says, in I Corinthians 15….

“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead…”

Or when Christ says, in Mathew chapter 24, that,

“For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be”.

Or when He says, in Mark chapter 10, that,

“….from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate….”

…it seems clear to me these are words[ii] that most any human being who has ever lived could readily understand (taking into consideration the need for translation, and noting that some philosophers have, for example, asserted that “nature” is eternal – they nevertheless could still understand what Jesus is getting at). And also, perhaps – depending on the Spirit’s work – be convicted that they are true (see John 16 – and note we are not told that such conviction necessarily entails saving faith). Again, to emphasize: not just Christians can begin to understand these things!

Simple enough, right? I think so! We can all really go home now, without getting into deep philosophical questions and quandaries….

But what happens if someone – particularly a Christian – calls this into question? Or, what if they do not directly call this into question, but establish a kind of thinking about knowledge and language that seems to indirectly call this into question? To say the least, if this happens, does this not mean that there may need to be some re-thinking about all of this: and perhaps some new ideas and new arguments?

These questions have been prompted in me due to my reading of James K.A. Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood”, a book I have been thinking about for a good long while.

This 2014 book has been reviewed in publications ranging from the Christian Century (very positive, almost breathless, review) to The Evangelical Quarterly (quite negative review). Those wanting to check out the available online reviews can do so here, here, here, and here (most positive to most negative – the CC review is not available for free online).[iii] This review will kind of split the middle….

In this series of posts, I will

a) sum up as best I can the core message of the book ;

b) highlight some aspects of the book I think are particularly helpful ; (all this in part I)

c) highlight some things I do not think are helpful or raise questions ; (part II)

d) present an alternative model that takes the best of what Smith has to offer into account (part III)

So, let’s start by…

a) summing up as best I can the core message of the book

“relativism…who in their right mind would sign up to defend such a monster? Well, I’d like to give it a shot…” (16)

“relativism…who in their right mind would sign up to defend such a monster? Well, I’d like to give it a shot…” (16)

Is truth really “what our peers will let us get away with saying”, as Richard Rorty once quipped? James K.A. Smith dares to think that Christians have a lot to learn from this feared arch-relativist and “whipping boy” of Christian apologists. Noting his own gadfly proclivities (see 11-17), Smith dives in, specifically focusing on the form of relativism known as pragmatism (36). “Social constructivism”, which he describes as the “scholarly rendition of relativism” (20), goes hand-in-hand with this.

Smith argues that “Christians should be ‘relativists,’ of a sort” (12), and at the very least, is convincing in his argument that there really are important aspects to what Rorty says (chap. 2). He also deftly unpacks Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea that the meaning of our language, verbal or otherwise, tacit or explicit, has to do with the way it is used in particular “forms of life” – and in particular situational contexts where particular goals are in mind…. “meaning is use” (chap. 3). Also, he explains in depth Robert Brandon’s argument that reasoning, logic and justification are primarily social practices, which are the real context for accountability (chap. 4, pp 130, 145).

In sum, Smith is looking to steal these philosopher’s good ideas insofar as they can help Christians better realize their creaturehood and the community, sociality, contingency, dependence, and finitude that comes along with that. Challenging those of us who sympathize with [evidently all] versions of the correspondence theory of truth, Smith states:

“…what counts as “correspondence” is, at root, a social production. Social context is not a necessary evil that “taints” our ability to represent the world; rather, we are embedded in social practices that are the matrix from which all of our knowledge emerges… practices of “justification” are going to be relative to that “society,” that community of practice. To wish it otherwise is to wish away our finitude. (p. 85, italics his)[iv]

As the Christian Century reviewer put it, those Christians who see things otherwise necessarily “hold on to representational notions of truth by which one’s interior impressions precisely mirror external reality” (and hold this view, with their “all-seeing impregnability”, to preserve power and privilege). Smith himself agrees with Rorty (and evidently Charles Taylor, see 24, 25) that many Christians are trapped in their referentialist (“’naming’ theory of the word-world relation”)… representationalist, (“inside/outside picture of mind and representation”, where “something ‘inside’ our minds… hook[s] onto things ‘outside’ our minds”)… realist (“correspondence theory of truth”) frames of mind (24, 88). “Realism”, as he puts it, is not the only way to affirm something as true (25). In understanding what Smith is getting at I think this statement about Brandon’s explication of “objectivity” is particularly helpful:

“Brandon’s project is to secure an account of objectivity without lapsing back into the representationalism that is assumed behind realist, “correspondence” accounts of objectivity. His goal is to explain how propositional contents can be “objective in the sense of swinging free” of the attitudes of the linguistic practitioners deploy them in assertions” ([Articulating Reasons, 2000], 188, emphasis added). A claim will be “objective” in this sense if it is not idiosyncratically tethered to subjective impressions; that is, an “objective” claim is one that can be shared because it doesn’t depend on the attitudes of specific linguistic practitioners. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t depend on other factors and conditions [me: here is where Smith would say relativism is essential – things and everything always depend on a context]. To say that an “objective” claim swings free of the attitudes of linguistic practitioners is not the same as saying it is free of all conditions or independent of the communities of discursive practice. Brandon has belabored the point that all claims are always and only made within the ‘space of reasons’ that is forged in a linguistic community. Thus he’s after ‘objectivity of a particular sort’ (190)” (p. 147 in Smith)

Indeed he is, and that is likely to scare the heck out of many of us. “It’s not that knowledge is either social or ‘objective’; rather, objectivity is a social accomplishment” (93) – it does not lift us out of our “contingency, creaturehood, and community” (149; see 97 also).[v] Further, while “objectivity” is certainly related to truth (see 147 and 148 for more), truth in this narrow sense of the word is ultimately “warranted assertability” or that which is “good for us to believe” (84, italics mine).[vi] As one reviewer helpfully put it, “truth is not an argument but key patrol of meaning and significance”.

“Why is Smith messing with this stuff?”, we might think. Here he might say, “now don’t be too hasty here”… reminding us that both Rorty and Brandon affirm “that we all inhabit a shared world that pushes back on us – a shared environment with which we ‘cope.’” (see 95-97, 100) We are not only accountable to a “community of fellow knowers”, but must “grapple with the ‘antics’ of things”. In other words, Smith says constraint does not necessarily equal correspondence (28). He also smartly points out how we tend to reduce knowledge to “know-that”, but that “know-how is not un-true”, but “true differently” (96, italics his). And so, Smith argues, perhaps Rorty shows us a “realism without correspondence” – something “to which Christians should be committed” (88, 89; see 97 also).

As a reviewer of Smith’s book puts it: “Suggesting that relativism does not mean that ‘nothing matters,’ but simply that ‘everything depends’ on some context, Smith claims that Christianity is fundamentally about such dependence – on God and the community of faith.” (J. A. Simmons, Furman University, Choice Reviews Online, italics mine).

Smith summing up Hauerwas: ”...everything depends – not just our life and breath, but also truth and knowledge, even our epistemology and metaphysics.” (35)

Smith summing up Hauerwas: ”…everything depends – not just our life and breath, but also truth and knowledge, even our epistemology and metaphysics.” (35)

It is hard to imagine any Christian arguing that such dependence is indeed [updated: NOT!] an element of Christianity (though it is fundamentally about God’s love for His creation)[vii] – or that our claims to knowledge and truth are “relative” in the sense that they are “related to something or Someone, relative to, say, a context or a community” (179). This is why Smith provocatively says:

“’Is Christianity true?’… ‘It depends.’ It depends on the One in whom all things hold together.” (31)

And this, ultimately, is why Smith says that we can affirm with Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandon that “what is true depends on what we human beings say or think” (29). To say that truth is relative is not equal to saying truth is arbitrary (30).

In short, for Smith the word “relativism” need not signify “arbitrary or subjective or governed by fleeting whims” – i.e. “nothing matters”, but rather “everything depends”. For “as creatures, we are contingent, dependent and relative (i.e., in relation—to the Creator, but also to other creatures)” (179-180).

b) helpful stuff

In spite of the amount of criticism in this review which will follow – indicated by the way I led off part I – I really did find the book to be helpful and worth reading, as I think Smith brings up several good points that are worth reflecting on deeply (it is also a great summary of these interesting and influential thinkers). Although Smith did not talk about it directly in the book, it is clear from his discussion of Lindbeck’s “cognitive-propositional model” of doctrine (see part III) that there is a very popular and distinctly modern (i.e. from the Enlightenment) form of “correspondence” and “realism”. It makes sense to question what might be undesirable about this, and how reliance on such an inside/outside view tends to undermine the key element of social practice as it relates to knowledge. Going along with this, I think Smith has a point about the wisdom of trumpeting the notion of “Absolute Truth” vs relativism: “the alternative to anything-goes-ism is not some absolute standpoint” (see 16, 30, 115, 180). While I think it is a good idea to say that Jesus is the Absolute Truth, full stop, I wonder whether the phrase is really as useful as people think it is for other apologetic purposes. I tend to think that the salient point to be made can be accomplished by emphasizing how “we share a world out there” and rhetorically asking questions like “Are there no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?”

What’s going to happen in part II and III?

Always good to keep in mind....

Always good to keep in mind….

I recently heard a conservative Lutheran theologian talk about how all our knowledge exists inside of rational traditions with their own linguistic rules and ideas for understanding reality – and how this is also true of theology.  Not only this, I also heard another say that we do our best to interpret Scripture – both prayerfully and thoughtfully – but that we could be wrong on most matters because we could be missing something important!

From all the listening and reading of Smith I have done, I get the impression that he would be on the same page as both these men. “How can anyone with an ecumenical bone in their body think any differently?”, one might ask. In which case, is all this, in spite of the irony, somehow “most certainly true” as we Lutherans like to say?

Stay tuned… (update: part II and part III)



Update: A sentence above originally read: “It is hard to imagine any Christian arguing that such dependence is indeed   an element of Christianity (though it is fundamentally about God’s love for His creation)”  Big typo. “Indeed” was taken out and “not” was added.


[i] Early Greek philosophers, arguably looking to subtlely undermine more mythological views of life valued by many of their Greek contemporaries, argued that that there were natures, or forms, that could be observed (or realized by signs) in the cosmos and were ultimately not only universal but eternal, vs. the idea that the cosmos – which all agreed any gods would be subject to – was basically chaotic, unpredictable and subject to change. Christians do not, of courses, believe that the things we experience in this material world are “eternal” but rather permanent and consistent in this life.

[ii] Take death and marriage for example. When it comes to the meaning of these words for human beings, there is much that can be agree on (at least until the present hour!). Just because the Christian might talk about how death and marriage both have great spiritual meaning – spiritual death and Christ and the church respectively – as well does not mean that there is no significant common ground that can otherwise be found in these things.

[iii] One of the more positive reviewers has high hopes for Smith’s approach: “…even more important, it is the need to re-orientate our thinking to move away from a conservative-liberal divide, toward a more reconcilatory “post-liberal” or “post-conservative” alignment.”

[iv] Smith writes elsewhere: “The only social constructionism that will be able to evade [Christian] Smith’s critique will be a pragmatist version that emerges from Wittgenstein’s more radical critique of representationalism (or referentialism). These are roughly synonymous ways of describing knowledge as a relation of ideas (‘representations’) in my mind that ‘correspond’ to reality ‘outside’ my mind.” (p. 24)

[v] My own approach to the issue of objectivity: “”objective reality” at the very least means that we, being personal subjects, can “subjectively” agree that there are certain aspects of reality (i.e. things, regularities, etc.) – considered both locally and more broadly, considered both inside and outside our bodies, considered both more particularly and more generally – that neither one of us should try to – and in fact many times cannot – alter by our interpretation and imaginative response to it[.] And if this is the case, is not what we debate – based on both the various kinds of evidence that “find us” and that we seek to find – simply where the lines are on our imperfect “maps” of reality (to use what I think is a good metaphor) – scrupulously created as “objectively” as we feel we can manage (and not done so apart from the wider question of “narrative”!) – should be drawn and why?”

[vi] Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928-2010) was a proponent of fideism, which grounds faith “on evidence that faith itself provides”. For Smith, his way of looking at things is a step up from fideism (see 149).

[vii] I submit this kind of partial truth is precisely what made Schliermacher’s program – where Christianity and religion as a whole were reduced to the feeling of absolute dependence – so seductive in the early 19th c.

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Posted by on October 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


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How Did Christians 500 Years Ago “Do Church”?

16th c. altar painting in St. Mary's Church in Wittenberg, Germany (by Cranach). The panels show the four primary ways which Christ’s word of forgiveness comes to us (Holy Baptism, Lord's Supper, Office of the Keys, and Preaching).

16th c. altar painting in St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany (by Cranach). The panels show the four primary ways Christ’s word of forgiveness comes to us: Holy Baptism, Lord’s Supper, Office of the Keys, and Preaching.

In just a couple of years, the 500-year anniversary of Martin Luther’s putting forth the 95 theses – which launched what is called the Reformation – will be upon us.

As we Lutherans like to say, if Luther’s actions – and those who adhered to his teaching – were rebellious in any sense, it was a peculiar kind of rebellion. These were, as Jaroslav Pelikan put it, “obedient rebels”. Their reformation was, according to 19th c. Lutheran theologian Charles Porterfield Krauth, a “Conservative Reformation”.[i]

As evidence for this claim, we can look at how these early “Protestants” (see here for why I have that in quotes) “did church”. What is particularly interesting is their conviction that it was necessary to preserve all that was good from the church’s history. The Lutherans, in particular, wanted to keep those things that highlighted the Gospel in its narrow sense – the message of Christ crucified for our forgiveness, life and salvation from sin, death, and the devil (see I Cor. 15).

Several of the 16th c. Protestant Reformers largely retained the liturgical forms and words used in the church’s traditional worship service – even as several with more radical tendencies “purged” the churches of images. Here, as a Lutheran, I am keen to emphasize that the services of the Lutheran reformers not only basically looked and sounded the same as those of the Roman Catholic Church, but also that they did not see themselves as innovators in any sense of the word – “re-imagining church” in this or that way.[ii]

In fact, over and against their Roman Catholic opponents, the claim of these “first evangelicals” was that their teachings truly were “holy, catholic and apostolic”: “the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith”, they said.[iii] If this is indeed true, it would be very “conservative Reformation” indeed!

Using quotes from the 1580 Lutheran Book of Concord (which confessional Lutherans subscribe to) and other sources, let’s quickly look at six aspects of their worship: Preaching, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Confession and Absolution, Liturgy and ceremonies, the Church Year, and Church Discipline.



For Protestants, preaching has always been a primary component of the church’s life together. Two of the main contributors to the Lutheran “Book of Concord,” Martin Chemnitz and Jacob Andreae gave a clear explanation of what sermons should be all about “in our Lutheran congregations”:

“Preachers should be diligent not to preach in generalities, but always to arrange the material according to these parts: sin; God’s wrath and punishment of sin; contrition, remorse, anxiety of the conscience, etc.; the resolve to abandon and avoid sin; the person of Christ; His office and merit; God’s grace; the forgiveness of sin; faith; the good fruits of faith, such as the good resolve to do better, good works, patience in suffering, etc. This is done so that in the sermons, the teaching may always have its application or accommodation to use, as the doctrine should be used in the best way.”

Incidentally, this kind concern for doctrine’s application/use is what encourages Pastor Cooper to ask the kinds of penetrating questions that he does about the pastoral implications of John Piper’s theology of justification. And as for debates among Lutherans themselves, it is true that Confessional Lutherans today are debating about just what sermons should look like[iv], but, not insignificantly, all of them do agree that “the Gospel [that is, the message of Christ crucified for our continual forgiveness, life, and salvation] should predominate!” The church is where Christ’s little lambs gather to hear the good voice of their shepherd. Generally speaking, if you are going away from sermons feeling guilty and uncertain as your status as a Christian, you are missing what God intends preaching to be.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:

Philip Melanchton pictured as baptizing.

Philip Melanchton pictured as baptizing.

Regarding baptism, Lutherans have always upheld with the ancient church that baptism – water combined with God’s word of promise – regenerates and brings men and women into Christ’s church. This is true even for the youngest among us (see Pastor Cooper’s very helpful short Bible study on baptism and his three-part response to James White).

Further, also unlike most other Protestants, Lutherans have also vigorously upheld the importance of the Lord’s Supper as a means of God’s grace whereby He visits His people in love and forgiveness (see this helpful short Bible study on the Lord’s Supper from Pastor Cooper). In this sacrament, God’s gracious presence in His true body and blood gives us not only the assurance of His forgiveness, but His forgiveness in fact.

As the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchton put it in the Book of Concord[v], “we defend the doctrine received in the entire Church, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered with those things which are seen, bread and wine. And we speak of the presence of the living Christ [living body]; for we know that death hath no more dominion over Him.” (for more on the early church and the Lord’s Supper see here).

Luther, in his disguise as "Junker Jorge", is being handed the cup.

Luther, in his disguise as “Junker Jorge” at the Last Supper: he is being handed the cup.

And as he put it later on, in language that might shock many of us today[vi], “We do not abolish the Mass, but religiously keep and defend it. Masses are celebrated among us every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals. The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved.”

Confession and Absolution:

“It is taught among us that private absolution should be retained in the churches and not be allowed to fall into disuse” says Melanchton.[vii] In Confessional Lutheran churches today one will find not only this comforting practice retained, but also find a corporate confession and absolution at the beginning of the service.

In spite of very clear passages found in Matthew 16, 18, and John 20 which deal with just this issue, some Christians are simply scandalized by confession and absolution for all kinds of reasons (for example, “how can a pastor forgive sins?!”), but as I wrote in a previous post:

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

Rather, it is given [see this post from Pastor Cooper on the “covenant of works” (updated from original post)]. Therefore, we even have pastors – irreplaceable in the church’s structure – who as God’s officially appointed representatives can bring true comfort to even the most authority-minded person:

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

Liturgy and Ceremonies:

Right after talking about how the Mass and Sacrament are retained in the Lutheran Churches, Melanchton went on to write: “And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other such things”.[ix] In his book, Heaven on Earth, Arthur Just says that it is not ritual that is dead; rather, it is we who are dead (insofar as we are sinners, this is evidence of the original sin, which remains in us). What is in mind here is the primacy of the life-giving word of God (the lessons), “at work in you believers” (I Thes. 2:13), and the universal church’s response to that word (the prayers).

Further, from the book of Revelation, one can see that even the multi-cultural worship in heaven includes many liturgical features, which all participate in together. And regarding the broad matter of church ritual, Pastor Holger Sonntag helpfully writes:

“After the end of the comprehensive ceremonial law of the OT, Christians are free to add humanly devised ceremonies (“adiaphora”)[x] to the ceremonies of the gospel Christ has established already [i.e. baptism and the Lord’s Supper, administered by a pastor]. Lest these ceremonies contradict the ceremonies of the gospel itself, they must conform to the gospel in both content and form. This means, they need to proclaim the gospel and be humble and simple in nature. By doing so, they agree with the Christian faith (doctrine) and further faith in Christ as the highest worship. By doing so, they also agree with the simplicity of worship in paradise before man’s fall into sin.” (see here for more)

The Church Year:

Recently, the popular Calvinist professor James K.A. Smith, speaking to a more charismatic church body, said:

“Historically, the church had its own calendar. It actually adopted a way of keeping time that signaled that the people of God, in a way, inhabit the world differently.” Smith further noted that practices like Advent, Epiphany, Lent, etc. are actually able to help form us as Christians in largely unconscious ways (something he notes is also true of the many “secular liturgies” that we participate in – the mall, the academy, sports).

A picture of Bugenhagen (Luther's pastor and confessor) administering the "office of the keys". The impenitent man's hands are bound with a cord.

A picture of Bugenhagen (Luther’s pastor and confessor) administering the “office of the keys”. The impenitent man’s hands are bound with a cord.

Versus pastors who would just “do their own thing” every week, the church year is meant to expose Christians to the “whole counsel of God” every year, even as the message of “Christ crucified” is the overriding theme. As Lutheran pastor Dr. Arthur Just says, exposing the heart of the matter: “The Church year exists for the sole reason of centering the Church’s life in the life of Christ and proclaiming that the historic reality that ‘Jesus died’ is now the sacramental reality that ‘Jesus died for you.’”

Church Discipline:

Churches in America often seem to be in competition with one another today, and therefore administering church discipline often seems an impossible task (as there is always a church eager to receive a new member). An added difficulty is the very real possibility of unjust discipline or excommunication, perhaps administered by persons of questionable authority. As Martin Luther himself was excommunicated from the church and declared a heretic, the Lutheran churches of the Reformation certainly shared this second concern.

That said, in the Lutheran Confessional writings, Martin Luther wrote that proper excommunication “excludes those who are manifest and impenitent sinners from the sacrament and other fellowship of the church until they mend their ways and avoid sin.” (SA III, ix)  For the Lutherans, the goal of excommunication was like that of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians, chapter 5: that such impenitent sinners be “absolve[d]… if they are converted and ask for absolution.”[xi] Presupposed, of course, is a loving heart that longs for reconciliation with the lost coin, lost sheep, and lost son (Luke 15).

When it comes to granting mercy and grace, the church imitates her Lord.  As Hebrews 4:15 says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin…” (emphasis mine). In practice, this means that the church should humbly (see Gal. 6:1) call sin “sin”, make it easy for the guilty to confess, and keep appropriate consequences[xii] while speaking well of those brothers and sisters in Christ who repent.



Image credit: complete altarpiece:


[i] For a particularly good take on the Reformation, see Pastor Jay Webber’s article, “Reformations Before the Reformation”, here.

[ii] From John Bugay here:

“Dr. Donald Fortson related the following metaphor for understanding the different groups within the Reformation, which I thought was very helpful.

We all have a “top dresser drawer” into which we throw everything that there’s no other place for. Over time, it just gets full of all different kinds of things.

In church history, “tradition” kind of filled up the way that drawer does. And there were four different ways that the Reformers dealt with that drawer.

The Lutherans went through the drawer, looking for things that weren’t Biblical. Lutheranism took out the things that weren’t biblical, but they left everything else in there.

The Reformed took the drawer and dumped everything out on the bed. Then they went through all that stuff, checked it over carefully, and put back the things that were Biblical.

The Anglicans opened the drawer and took out one thing, called “the Pope,” and put back in one other thing, called “the Archbishop of Canterbury.” (He acknowledged that this was probably the least analogous part of the metaphor, given the 39 articles and all.)

The Anabaptists took out the whole drawer, dumped everything in the trash, and lit the trash can on fire.”

[iii] Phillip Melanchthon, in the Augsburg Confession.

Lutherans meant for that Augsburg Confession to be a confession of the universal (“catholic” with a small “c”) church. Unfortunately, it was not to be the case: it was disputed by Rome (and other new Protestants) and more confessional documents followed.

[iv] This smart post from Trent Demerest does a nice job of laying out the debate in a thorough and light-hearted way.

[v] Apology to the Augsburg Confession, X, “of the Holy Supper”.

[vi] In Apology, Article XXIV, “The Mass”. In a later Confessional document called the Smalcald Articles (written by Luther), the Roman Catholic interpretation of the word mass was directly countered. For example, “since the Mass is nothing else and can be nothing else (as the Canon and all books declare), than a work of men (even of wicked scoundrels), by which one attempts to reconcile himself and others to God, and to obtain and merit the remission of sins and grace (for thus the Mass is observed when it is observed at the very best; otherwise what purpose would it serve?), for this very reason it must and should [certainly] be condemned and rejected. For this directly conflicts with the chief article, which says that it is not a wicked or a godly hireling of the Mass with his own work, but the Lamb of God and the Son of God, that taketh away our sins.” (italics mine)

[vii] In the Augsburg Confession, XI

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

[ix] I recently read an article from Pastor Jordan McKinely in which he said the following: “Dr. Naomichi Masaki of the [LCMS’s] Fort Wayne seminary asked the question in one of my classes, ‘Whose liturgy is it?’ If it’s about preference, it’s yours and mine to do as we see fit. If it’s the church’s liturgy as it has developed from the time of the Apostles (Acts 2:42)–and even from the time of the Old Testament prophets (Psalmody, anyone?), we really should show greater restraint in changing what is done. After all, don’t we say in the creed, ‘I believe in one, holy, Christian [catholic] and apostolic church?’ The liturgy is the possession of the whole church. Who am I to exercise my preference in the matter? Yes, it has room to shrink, grow, or change, but it shouldn’t be based on preference. I suppose I don’t get much of a voice because I’m white and married to a German (being of Scottish heritage doesn’t gain me any points, does it?), it’s going to sound like I’m advocating an emotionless, Germanic traditionalism. You don’t have to listen to me, but you should listen to Dr. Masaki, who isn’t German, nor is he emotionless.” (see here)

[x] Here are some more thoughts about the matter of “adiaphora”, from the current LC-MS President Matthew Harrison: “….we note an unpublished study conducted in the early 1990s by Pr. Brian Saunders, formerly of Holy Cross Lutheran in Ft. Wayne. Pr. Saunders surveyed some 300 who regularly attended a “contemporary worship” service at Holy Cross (with rock band, testimonies, “liturgical” dance, etc…). One question asked: If you were to move to another community where there was a church which did not confess the true bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament, nor baptize babies, but did worship in the way you do now; and there was an LC-MS congregation which used the liturgy/hymnal, which church would you join? 74% said they would opt out of Lutheranism. It has been said that historical-critical theology is merely a way for unbelievers to find haven in the church. I would suggest that much of “contemporary worship” is simply a way for the weak to be robbed of Lutheranism, yet remain within the Lutheran church.” (Matthew Harrison, “Martin Chemnitz and FC X,” in Mysteria Dei: Essays in Honor Kurt Marquart, ed., Paul McCain and John Stephenson (Fort Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1999), 98-99, n. 31., quoted here).

[xi] See Ap XXVIII. 13-14 ; also see Treatise [the Tractate on the Power and Primacy of the Pope], 74. Regarding re-conversion, the Lutheran confessions say: “But when the baptized have acted against their conscience, allowed sin to rule in them, and thus have grieved and lost the Holy Ghost in them, they need not be rebaptized, but must be converted again, as has been sufficiently said before.” (In the Formula of Concord, Article II, under “Free Will, or Human Powers” [see paragraph 69]) Also see my post: Judging Jesus stye?: the real reasons for discipline in the church.

[xii] For example.



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Posted by on October 8, 2015 in Uncategorized


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