Monthly Archives: December 2015

This New Year’s, Consider Becoming Perfect in Jesus Christ

What does this mean?: “[He] grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”.

What does this mean?: “[He] grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”.

“Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22).

Actually, this post should be titled “How Could Jesus Christ, Being Sinless Man, Increase in Favor with God?”, but we do get to New Year’s resolutions at the end….

In Luke 2:52, it says “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (NIV). The ESV, however, has “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

The word translated either “grew” or “increased” respectively here comes from the Greek προέκοπτεν (transliterated “proekopten”), which Strong’s concordance says means “I advance, make progress”, “originally of the pioneer cutting his way through brushwood”.

It is interesting to look at the other ways the word is used in the New Testament. In 2 Timothy 3:13, for example, it reads “…while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived”. “Will go on” might be better translated “advance”, “proceed”, or even “grow”.

Looking at these passages it seems to me that one is proceeding, advancing, or growing towards something meant to be understood as concrete – one might even say some kind of “real, identifiable target” (note also that this word is identified with prophetic foretelling, or announcing something planned before it occurs – see Acts 3:18). For example, in Romans 13:12, we read “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” “Far gone” is rendered as “nearly over” in other translations. Interestingly, in I Timothy 5:21, a form of this word (noun) is connected with the concept of prejudgment, prejudice, partiality, or preference.: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging…” (ESV). Here, the idea is to not have predetermined “designs” (or goals), we might say, regarding someone, or something.

Going along with this idea of goals, ends, or purposes (the specific Greek word for this being τέλος, or “telos”), I was also was also curious to look more closely at the Greek word for complete, or perfect, where this idea is much more explicit. For example, Hebrews 5:8-9a reads:

“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”

Here, the Greek word is τελειωθεὶς (teleiōtheis), which comes from the original Greek word τελειόω (teleioó). It can be variously defined as “(a) as a course, a race, or the like: I complete, finish (b) as of time or prediction: I accomplish, (c) I make perfect; pass: I am perfected.” This passage is particularly challenging to us because it does not talk about Jesus completing a goal, but reaching a goal for His person – becoming complete, or perfect. Looking at the other ways this word is used in the New Testament, it is perhaps a little bit more understandable when we think about it in relation to our own completion or perfection as Christians – something that we discern must be related to our being sanctified, or made holy (i.e., set apart for God’s service and cause) and glorified in Christ.[i]

growthLooking at these passages though, I was also led to wonder, “is there a word also typically used for growth that tends to be more organic in its connotations”? Here, we can talk about the word αὐξάνω (auxanó). The growth of plants is described with this word as seen, for example, in Matthew 6:28; Mark 4:8, Luke 12:27 (“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”). Peter talks about the Christians “growth in grace (II Peter 3:18) and in Ephesians 4:15, Paul says, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” Peter further talks about “growing up into salvation”[ii] with the help of “pure spiritual milk” (I Peter 2:1-3).

Further, both Luke 1:80 and 2:40 talk about John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ growth, respectively, in this, it seems, more organic way:

“And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”

“And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”[iii]

Finally then, we come back to the beginning of this post: there is the challenge that God’s grace, or favor, is said to increase with Jesus. How can this be? It seems clear that somehow, God’s favor with Jesus increased. That does not mean that He was not pleased with Him as a baby, but I think it does mean that as Jesus became a man – taking on the spiritual and moral responsibility that comes with that[iv], reaching this goal – His Father really did, in some sense, become more pleased.

So how can we get a handle on what is going on here? How should we think about the significance for this passage in our own lives?

First, regarding Jesus’ growth, an illustration from my pastor: We can be pleased with the sapling that we plant in our back yard. But as it grows it provides both shade and fruit. And thus we become more pleased with it. It was no less “sinless” as a sapling, being exactly what it should be. It was, however, not “perfected”, i.e. not in a position to bear fruit and give shade…

Second, in thinking about this passage’s significance for our own growth, I, as a Christian father, look at it this way: In Scripture, children are commended for their faith and trust, not their love and obedience. Regarding my children, I want to see the little sinners as made perfect forever, covered as they are in the blood of Christ: I do not want to look at them and see a lack or deficiency, for their sin or otherwise (even though Christ came to “complete” the Scripture [John 19:28], there was no “deficiency” in it!), even if I would be a fool if I did not see mature manhood as the goal.[v] The justification God has for them in Christ should be the basis and foundation of my love for them, and not even the maturity of their new man created in Christ (little ones are only able to do so much, as they are far from mature manhood). That said, as they increase in wisdom and stature as they mature, am I well-pleased? Do they grow in my favor? Yes – this is the way it is meant to be, with our telos! Strange as this may sound, we are becoming perfected in the One who became perfect!

And as we think about our own growth in grace, i.e. Christian sanctification, in relation to this, I suggest these are things I think are important to keep in mind:

  • The law cannot inspire the obedience it demands – but the Gospel can inspire us to say “Amen!” when we hear the beauty that is God’s law/will![vi]
  • If the Western church is indeed “weak in sanctification”, it is because it is looking to Christ less, not more; for less, not for more.
  • We should not focus on our ability to [weakly] cooperate in sanctification. We should just recognize it, affirm it, and look to Christ for all good things.
  • There is a “positional” sanctification (us in Christ – this goes with justification) and a “deepening” and progressive sanctification (Christ in us).
  • And finally, if you doubt your sanctification, look to Christ whom you are in: for us, He “became perfect” on earth, according to His human nature.[vii]

In general then, in humanity, the mature or aged character is better than childish character (not the child-like faith Christ commends)! To say the very least, it is better to progress from ignorance to wisdom, as this is fitting for one who increases in age.

ontheincarnationAnd here is the great mystery: Could this be true for Christ’s human nature as well, meaning that as He grew it no longer needed to only have wisdom and stature shared with it by the divine nature?[viii]

Indeed! And so, to re-vamp Athanasius, from his 4th century work, On the Incarnation: God became a son of man – and learned obedience, grew in favor with God, and became perfect (complete) – that we might become a son of God.

That means that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness, life and salvation from sin, death, and the devil! Yes, even for you – for whom good resolutions to be and do better fail time and again. Go forth in His pardon and power again!



Image credit: growth (


[i] “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us…By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” — I John 4:16,17

“…whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him.” — I John 2:5

“I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one.” — John 17:23 (see Col. 3:14 also)

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” — I John 4:12

‘…having been made perfect, [Jesus] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” — Hebrews 5:9

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” — Hebrews 10:14

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” — Philippians 3:12

“You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” — Hebrews 12:23

“…set your hope fully [perfectly/completely] on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” — I Peter 1:13

[ii] The Lutheran is eager to talk about distinguishing justification from salvation per se here. Our sanctification and corresponding glorification are surely a part of our salvation but the original reasons for the Lutheran distinction between justification and sanctification was basically to assure true Christians that they were true Christians! More specifically, this means comforting sinners who are genuinely terrified due to their sins before God that God is gracious to them in Jesus Christ, giving them peace with Him.

[iii] This is also the word used where John the Baptist talks about Jesus increasing while he must decrease….

[iv] What could this mean – perhaps even for young Jesus that the law was intuitive in that He recognized wisdom when it was explicitly taught to Him or shown Him and not otherwise?

[v] We were made for Paradise and ought to realize that and train ourselves to think like that, being innocent of evil. Luther tells us that in the garden the tree of life preserved man’s “powers and perfect health at all times” and that they would have often refreshed themselves from the tree of life and praised God and lauded him…..” Here, we can see that, for Luther, the Tree of Life was not some kind of reward the Christian would eventually obtain through something like a “covenant of works”, but was rather something given to sustain them in fear, love, and trust from the beginning, as they matured from being able to sin to not being able to sin.

[vi] A man who differs with me regarding the third use of the law characterized my position as: “[The idea is that we are going to progress in sanctification….] And it is the third use of the law which is going to aid in this somehow”, and I would affirm this is accurate.  I would also contend this is wholly unremarkable. It seems to me that even non-Christians often become aware of what is good – and even develop a taste for what is good! – by participating in things they perhaps did not want to partake in, or had mixed feeling about partaking in. Besides being exposed to other good things in this process (good things are often coupled with other good things) participation in certain activities and circumstances themselves can assist in changing attitudes – we often see this when persons have children, for example. This kind of growing “civil righteousness” would not avail before God of course, and for the Christian the righteousness they grow into more and more by faith in Christ comes because they are saved (i.e. they have peace with God), not in order to be saved (this post from Pastor Mark Surburg, summing up part of the message of C.F.W. Walther’s classic book “The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel”, is excellent food for thought here).

[vii] What is the nature of the character in the Christian who has begun to have a new will that delights in God’s law?  A related question: What are the qualities of this incipient or inchoate righteousness (as the Formula of Concord calls it – see this post for more) in the Christian?

Does the will of the Christian, insofar as he is a new man (for our “old Adam” remains with us until death, otherwise, we would not experience such wages), learn and grow? Can this new man in the Christian grow more mature and stronger? Might this explain the seeming confusion we see here with the sixth article in the Formula of Concord, in the Lutheran Confessions (the article on the third use of the law – see this post)?  As trust in God increases, should we say that this is what happens – that the sanctified life we have in Christ somehow increases in humble strength and power? (never understood to happen according to the world’s definition of “strength”, nor independently of the Triune God, but in proper dependence on Him!).

[viii] And this, of course, does not mean that Jesus Christ, in His divine and human nature, should ever be understood as existing and acting independently of His Father and the Holy Spirit.


Leave a comment

Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Uncategorized


When Christians Say “Idolatry”, It Is – or Should Be – Because of Love: Another Appeal to Miroslav Volf

Yes, she knew... that a sword would pierce through her own soul... (see Luke 2:34b-35)

Yes, she knew… that a sword would pierce through her own soul… (see Luke 2:34b-35)

This is a follow-up post to the first one that I did a the Just and Sinner blog.

I think the title of this post is something that will, in the future, be ever less understood by my idolatrous friends. We live in times when all claims to know Truth (with a capital T) are increasingly thought to be based on the will to power, not to mention hatred of the other.[i]

This is particularly true if these are religious truth claims and you are making them in the academy – and the more elite, the more true this is. Everyone in such an environment knows that there is nothing felt and thought to be less respectable than asserting truth in matters of religious doctrine – particularly if it is Christian.

Clearly Miroslav Volf, being a leader in this most unhelpful of environments, is – contrary to the confessing Christian heritage he has inherited – under great pressure to conform, and to “be transformed by the renewing of your [Enlightenment] mind”. Successive recent tweets tell the story:

Wheaton didn’t suspend Hawkins for disagreeing with the Christian faith, but for disagreeing with an opinion about the God of another faith (here).

Tragic: Pushing against Islam, orthodox Xians are coming to affirm that the Jews, who deny Trinity and Incarnation, worship a different God (here).

I still cannot believe my eyes: many conservative evangelicals truly think that Jews believe in another god, and therefore in a false god (here).

Merry Christmas Wheaton and conservative Christians everywhere! That baby in the manger isn’t quite the deal you’re making it out to be. Don’t give the world the impression he is essential or anything as offensive as that.

Of course, outside of Volf’s bubble, there is nothing shocking about Christians saying that those who do not worship but reject Jesus Christ are practicing idolatry. Even those who intend to worship the God of Abraham.

I have already mentioned that John 8 is all important to this discussion. Further, in John chapter 14, in a non-polemical context, Jesus clearly tells his disciples that He is the way, truth, and life – and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. In Acts 4:12 we read of Jesus Christ that “there is Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

In 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 the Apostle Paul tells us about idolatry:

“we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.  For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.”

Later, in chapter 10, Paul goes on to say that: “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.”

But how widely should such language about idolatry be applied? Only to the non-Abrahamic religions? Speaking on the Church’s creeds, Martin Luther spoke with the entire Christian church of his day, saying:

“These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and distinguish us Christians from all other people on earth. All who are outside the Christian church, whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites, even though they believe in and worship only the one, true God, [better: may believe in ; may call on – see here] nevertheless do not know what his attitude is toward them. They cannot be confident of his love and blessing. Therefore they remain in eternal wrath and damnation, for they do not have the Lord Christ, and, besides, they are not illuminated and blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” large catechism, 3rd article of the creed.[ii]

(there are some who will not listen to Luther here for what they think are very good reasons, in which case I offer them this).

Luther: Jesus Christ alone.

Luther: Jesus Christ alone.

And here I assert again that even many arch-conservative heresy hunters like myself (I jest – though I suspect many will see my position as just this), are not incapable of nuance when it comes to understanding this issue or explaining it in ways that are most helpful to most any human being, wherever they may be at in life. This is something that you learn one-on-one in loving conversations with individuals you are determined to treat with love, kindness, gentleness, and respect.[iii]

Why? Because they are a human being, loved and treasured – created in the image of God![iv] That means Jesus Christ died for them and their sins.

So what, specifically, is an idol anyways? I think a good practical definition is this: an idol is anything that is not good or strong enough to save us from death, our sin, and the demonic (this is true whether you call God “Yahweh”, “Allah” or “Jesus” (note Paul talks about people worshipping “another Jesus” in 2 Cor. 11). And, as Luther said, whatever we trust in with all our heart for our good is our God. Here is it important to note that even the most devout of Christian believers are, to some extent, still idolaters. Continually fighting with our “old man” (see Rom. 7), even Christians have only begun to fear, love and trust in God through Jesus Christ.

Christians cannot help but lift up Christ as the world’s only hope and salvation! The character Elaine in this old Seinfeld episode understood the importance of this issue. If you are a Christian and you loved me, you would tell me about Jesus. How about that? If you really cared, you would proselytize.


(the real key part of the video comes in the last 45 seconds: if you cared about me, you would try to save me)

Indeed, to share the message that God has come in the flesh and died for us can’t not be the desire of the Christian’s heart… Love incarnate has come for all!

So I leave you with this:

Nails and spears shall pierce Him through
The cross He bore for me, for you
So hail, hail the Word made flesh
The babe, the Son of Mary




[i] Nevermind that each and every human being is fully convinced they know quite a bit and that there are some claims that can’t be true or good.

[ii] Luther’s concern for all men’s salvation can be seen quite clearly here. It is also on his mind when in his Smalcald Articles, documents to which confessional Lutherans subscribe, he says that while the Roman Catholics confess the Trinity, they don’t believe it because they officially condemn evangelical trust in the Second Person of the Trinity as their one and only Savior.

[iii] More: I think as we get the blessing of talking with each Jew or Muslim in our life we need to keep in mind the need to learn about where they are at, listen carefully for misunderstandings they might have about what they think the biblical Jesus is, discern what they need to hear (or not hear just yet), etc. Again, here one thinks about what Luther said about Cornelius from Acts 10.

[iv] That means that we are all capable of talking about and knowing truth trans-culturally and trans-historically – such is the “game” the “human community of practice” “plays”.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Uncategorized



Wheaton Professor’s Suspension Is Not About Anti-Muslim Bigotry: a Response to Miroslav Volf and Others

“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” – Luke 2:34b-35

“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” – Luke 2:34b-35

Do Muslims and Christians, as Pope Francis re-asserted last week, worship the same God? After the recent suspension of Wheaton college professor Larycia Alaine Hawkins, for her explanation[i] of why she is wearing a hijab during Advent to show solidarity with Islam, this topic is on many people’s minds.

As we confessional Lutherans like to say, there arise moments in the church’s life where giving a clear confession is essential. This is called being in “status confessionis”.

This, I submit, is one of those times. Is, as Christianity Today editor Timothy George put it years ago, the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?

Rod Dreher, writing at the American Conservative blog, is not sure about this. Though he supports Wheaton, respecting it for holding the line regarding its convictions, he writes:

To be honest, I’ve never thought at all about whether Muslims pray to the same God as Christians. The Catholic Church teaches that they do, and that was my belief when I was a Catholic, though I never gave it a minute’s thought. I don’t know what I believe now, to be honest. We know that Muslims do not pray to the Holy Trinity — but this is also true of Jews. Don’t Christians (most Christians) believe that Jews pray to the one true God, even if they have an imperfect understanding of His nature? If this is true for Jews, why not also for Muslims, who clearly adhere to an Abrahamic religion? This is why my tendency is to assume that Muslims do pray to the one true God, even though they have a radically impaired view of Him.

…I mean, I assume, in charity, that people who intend their prayers to be to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are praying to the true God, whatever they lack in theological understanding. But again, I’ve not given this much thought.

Timothy George's wise 2002 treatment of the subject.

Timothy George’s wise 2002 treatment of the subject.

Men like James K.A. Smith, Peter Enns, and Miroslav Volf have all surely given this a lot more thought than Rod Dreher, and all of them, pointing to “unknown God” in Acts 17, essentially imply that Hawkin’s comments are “wise and necessary” on “Christian grounds.” (Enns) [ii]

In her defense, Hawkins cited a 2011 Christianity Today interview with Volf, where he said:

“all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God. But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same. The description of God is partly different.”[iii] (italics mine)

In his new Washington Post editorial titled “Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology”, Volf asks:

Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?”

I’ll let the folks at Wheaton handle that question about this purported double-standard, but here is my own question for Dr. Wolf and anyone else resonating with his views:

“If, in John 8, Jesus tells us that the sons of Abraham and Isaac do not believe in the true God, how might this apply to the sons Abraham and Ishmael?”

Go read John chapter 8 right now and tell me what you think. None of this means that there is not valuable nuance to be introduced in this discussion (see what Martin Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles, a part of the 1580 Lutheran Book of Concord here), but times such as this do demand a clear answer. And I submit that for all the questions left unanswered by John 8, we are also left with many answers – even if they are very uncomfortable answers.

Mr. Volf should heartily apologize for saying that Wheaton’s stance is about “enmity toward Muslims”. Further, this has absolutely nothing to do with the current politics concerning ISIS. The administration is taking the stand that they do not because they hate Muslims but because they love Jesus Christ, who loves all persons, and died for their sins.

Is the eldery British man in this video showing enmity towards Muslims? Or is he actually loving them? I might say “that’s not my style of evangelism”, but I certainly cannot accuse him of hate!

As he ends “Jesus suffered and died on the cross that you might have eternal life”.

I am pretty sure that Allah, on the other hand, would never do that. In short, I think this is all very simple:

“Thank God Jesus is God!”




[i] From Christianity Today: “In a statement released late Wednesday night, the college said that Hawkins was free to wear a headscarf as an act of care and compassion towards Muslims.”

[ii] I suggest the most significant part of Acts 17 is the end of the chapter, where Paul essentially tells the audience that they are without excuse if they do not listen to Jesus Christ, whom God has raised from the dead to prove Him to be Judge on the Last Day. He can use the “unknown God” to his advantage precisely because there is nothing that can be positively said about this unknown God. This is not the case regarding Allah, or even Jewish conceptions of God that reject Jesus Christ. Francis Beckwith’s answer is therefore unhelpful as well. On patheos’ evangelical channel, Scot McKnight is more helpful than Roger Olsen.

[iii] Christianity Today also notes: “Volf made a similar argument while speaking at Wheaton in 2011.

He told students that God, as understood by Christians, and Allah, as understood by Muslims, are very similar but not identical.

“My statement is that there is sufficiently similarity between Muslim and Christian conceptions of God, so that we can say that they worship the same and similarly understood God,” he told students, “which provides the basis for very significant common values.”

Citing Volf’s speech, Grant noted in his defense of Hawkins that “Wheaton does not endorse every speaker who comes to campus, but one could excuse a professor who borrows a phrase spoken from a theologian Wheaton brought to campus to speak on how Christians should interact with Muslims.”



Leave a comment

Posted by on December 18, 2015 in Uncategorized



Our Good Human Nature is Not Lacking or Deficient in Anything

A student of mine (non-Christian – and one who has given me permission to share what he writes) says:

“Romans 3-6 definitely speaks on our sin, and nature as man. More importantly this section speaks on god’s grace, and the separation we have as living beings. That may seem confusing so I will clarify. If god loves us and shows that through this grace, there’s obviously a very close connection we have with god. The separation comes in our existence and our nature. We are not all knowing or capable of the feats god has, so that’s where the disconnect comes in and requires grace. That was the entire point of Jesus coming to Earth, to take on the burden of sin, and in some ways a burden of grace.”

My response:

[Student’s name] – biblically, the separation comes not because of our existence and our nature, but because of our sin, begun with Adam and Eve’s fall. It is true that as creatures we were made to always need God, but that does not mean we should have considered ourselves “deficient” in any way. In many faiths – and even in some quarters of Chrisitianity – there is a belief that nature itself (not nature infected by sin) is lacking and needs to be completed by grace. In practice this means salvation looks like “I do my best and God does the rest” – i.e. makes up for the difference. Not the Christian message, which is full-boar rescue from a desperate situation, i.e. spiritual deadness.

Can fallen man do anything that is good when “only God is good” as Jesus said?  Externally to be sure!  But can some actions by some fallen men perhaps be more “pure” than others?  Are some more righteous because of their particular natures and/or the habits they have developed?  Well – here is the key question that must be asked here: “Why do we want to know this?” For practical reasons?  For reasons related to building our systematic theologies?” More specifically, do we want to take credit for the good that we do so that God will notice us and give us what we deserve – even though, on the other hand, we know that we deserve nothing from Him?!  Why is it not enough to simply say that God, in Christ slain from the foundation of the world, is the source of all goodness and fallen man, lost in Adam’s capitulation to Satan, is the one responsible for all evil?  According to his fallen nature, man will reject all God desires to give (see I Cor. 2), and even if God were to do a perfectly good work in fallen man, man, when made conscious of this fact, would take credit for it – or at the very least, take credit for actively choosing by their own free will to not reject God’s work in them!  It is, after all, our fallen nature to consider ourselves “good persons” who are really not fully in need of a Savior.

But the glory must remain Gods.

Therefore, why not, when it comes to the defining matter being able to stand justified before Him, simply confess that all is by grace and say “what do we have that we have not received”?  That He gets all the glory for our regeneration and we get all the blame for our degeneration… (our lack of faith, fear and love of God).

This is what Lutheran theology does – and when I read the Bible again and again I don’t read anything that causes me to think twice.

In Adam all fell and are lost and in Christ all are made alive. All is gift. What do we have that we have not received?


Leave a comment

Posted by on December 9, 2015 in Uncategorized


Does “Non-Denominational” Now Mean “Hermeneutical Democracy”?

Did Martin Luther start a “Hermeneutical Democracy”?

Did Martin Luther start a “Hermeneutical Democracy”?

First of all, what is a “hermeneutical democracy”? The popular blogger Rod Dreher recently talked about an article by Abilene Christian University professor Richard Beck. In the article, Beck points out the complexity that lies behind the word “Protestant”, and urges Protestants to own the fact that they “have never agreed on what the Bible says.” Rod Dreher goes on to say:

Beck goes on to make what I think is a solid point: that what Protestant churches and organizations are really doing in these [contemporary] debates [about same-sex marriage] are trying to find out if its membership wants to change, and if so, how much change will it accept. The truth is, says Beck, is that Protestantism is a “hermeneutical democracy,” in which the individual consciences of believers determine what is true and what is false. This, he says, is the “genius of the tradition,” and having to do all this “relational work” is a key part of what it means to be Protestant. The Bible doesn’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and for Protestants, that means that everybody gets a vote.

In other words, Beck is making the case that saying something like we “have a biblical view of sexuality”, for example, is not enough. And this kind of “hermeneutical democracy”- like thinking would seem, on the face of it, to track well with what Stephen Fowl, in his 2008 book “Engaging Scripture”, says: “…theological convictions, ecclesial practices, and communal and social concerns should shape and be shaped by biblical interpretation” and “Biblical interpretation will be the occasion of a complex interaction between the biblical text and the varieties of theological, moral, material, political, and ecclesial concerns that are part of the contexts in which they find themselves.” (p. 60) (I addressed the problems with this kind of statement the fourth footnote in my previous post).

Not only this, but all of this put me in mind of the complexity of another term associated with Protestants: “non-denominational”. In the online theology classes I teach on basic Christianity, I always bring up this term.

What does this mean? I would say that at its best, “non-denominational” is used in order to avoid denominational labels (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc) – all with the good intention of drawing interested persons into environments where Jesus Christ and the Scriptures of what we might call “historic, biblical Christianity” are at the center. It has had some real appeal with some, because there really are things that many who bear the name of Christ have historically agreed on: e.g., that the Bible is God’s word, that the church’s Creeds are basically correct (even if it is not recited in worship), etc.

All this said, in practice the word “non-denominational” has, at least until recently, tended to track not just with some pan-Protestant ethos, but particularly with an American evangelical form of theology that embraces not infant baptism, but believer’s baptism. How many “non-denominational” churches do you know of that are actually willing to baptize infants (and if any do, they certainly do not embrace the idea of baptismal regeneration)?

But what does the term “non-denominational” signify today? I always ask my students this, and it seems they increasingly have no idea. Among those who are willing to take a stab at giving a definition, many give the impression that “non-denominational” no longer means something like “evangelical”, but rather “whatever I think Christianity means”. In short, any group or individual wanting to be identified in some way with the group called “Christianity” – even those who do not assume the Bible is God’s word – can be “non-denominational”.

And for some in this “hermeneutical democracy” called “Christianity”, a key assumption is that the meaning of the Bible is all really rather unclear – and that those “on the right side of history” will end up winning the day by interpreting it as they see fit and necessary (again, see my last post mentioned above). Not so much because this will be decided by some vote, but because, as Beck says, “what you are searching for is a hermeneutical consensus, the degree to which your community can tolerate certain hermeneutical choices.”

How to respond to all of this?

First of all, as I have said in the past, “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.” Those who are able to carefully explore the Bible can indeed begin to grasp and understand what it is all about.

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

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

Second, it should be pretty obvious to all of us that tradition is not a nothing either. In Martin Chemnitz’s great work critiquing the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, what he wrote clearly indicates the Lutherans believed in “Holy Tradition.” (something the 1580 Lutheran Confessions, the Book of Concord, clearly attest to as well)  A paper my pastor wrote some years ago nicely breaks down the issue:

“The concept of a contemporaneous existence of the Word of God in a corrupted verbal form, and a pure written form, spawned Chemnitz’s explanation of traditiones in the second locus, De traditionibus. Here he lists the first of eight different types of traditiones as…

  1. Scripture itself, i.e. the things that Christ and the Apostles preached orally and were later written down. Then follows:
  2. the faithful transmission of the Scriptures;
  3. the oral tradition of the Apostles (which by its very nature must agree with the contents of the New Testament canon);
  4. the proper interpretation of the Scriptures received from the Apostles and “Apostolic men”;
  5. dogmas that are not set forth in so many words in Scripture but are clearly apparent from a sampling of texts;
  6. the consensus of true and pure antiquity;
  7. rites and customs that are edifying and believed to be Apostolic, but cannot be proved from Scripture.

Chemnitz rejects only the eighth kind of tradition: traditions pertaining to faith and morals that cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture; but which the Council of Trent commanded to be accepted and venerated with the same reverence and devotion as the Scripture.

The important element of this last of the traitiones appears not to be the fact that such traditions of faith and morals not provable from Scripture actually existed, but that their status of equality with Scripture was foisted upon the church by the Council of Trent.” (italics mine) [i]

Now, this does not mean that confessional Lutherans do not need to do any “relational work” Beck says that Protestants must do. It just means that our overall context is – or should be! – much larger than the useful shorthand “Scripture alone” can capture. Again, the existence of things like Creeds and Confessions speak to this reality. Useful shorthand should not become unthinking slogans.

Not a bad way of putting it. Even if some things aren't "up for a vote".

Not a bad way of putting it. Even if some things – critically – aren’t “up for a vote”. Jesus Christ is, after all, the same yesterday, now, and forever.

And speaking of such slogans, Beck says “Own your Protestantism… The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn’t the Bible, it’s the individual conscience.” But the problem is this: the idea of a “hemeneutical democracy” is clearly not only a Protestant issue – the progressive wing of the Roman Catholic Church has shown us that in spades in recent months. This kind of thing happens in quarters of Dreher’s own Eastern Orthodox Church as well (see here).

Is the issue really Martin Luther’s purported emphasis on the “individual conscience” – and the related problem “private interpretation”? Or, ultimately, is the issue whether or not the Bible is clear and understandable in its core message? The Ancient church said that it was clear. The Lutheran Confessions and those who adhere to them also assume “yes”. I tend to think that most everyone else – Protestant or not – will fudge on this critical issue in one way or another (see here for more)




[i] P. Strawn, Cyril of Alexandria as a Source for Martin Chemnitz, in Die Patristik in der Bibelexegese des 16. Jahrhunderts, Wolfenbu”ttleler Forschungen, Bd. 85, Hrsg. v. David C. Steinmetz, Wiesbaden 1999, p. 213-14. See more excellent stuff from Strawn here. If you would like to read more of Strawn’s material, I used some of it in a debate with R.C. apologist Dave Armstrong in this series of posts (three parts – here is the last round). Of this debate, Armstrong said to me: “I think you have argued your case well. I commend you, and you have earned my respect, without question (including very much so, your cordiality)…”

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 8, 2015 in Uncategorized


Tags: ,